Saturday, May 30, 2020

Five Torches Deep: Homesteads Review

At the end of my long series reviewing Five Torches Deep, I joked that I should review their Homesteads supplement.  I skimmed it over lunch a bit ago and by the end a review seemed unavoidable.

Homesteads has some nice ideas but there is at least one gaping hole in its implementation.  Like a "did they really just spend a sixth of the product doing setup for a subsystem and then leave all the actual mechanics as an exercise to the reader?" gaping hole.

Homesteads is twelve (12) pages including the cover and the table of contents, so ten pages of content for your $4.  I was startled by the short pagecount for the price.  I thought 5TD's core's 36 pages of content for $10 was steep, and this is an even higher price per page.  We get half a page of intent and overview, a page and a half on farms and crops, two pages on upgradeable town structures, a page on improvements to farms and town, a page with a table for adventure hook generation, two pages of carousing table, one page for another rubik's cube generator, and a final page with how to customize this material.

Unlike 5TD core, no playtesters are listed in the credits.

The first two pages, I was pretty much on board.  5TD as written seems like it is in need of a gold sink, and giving people XP for spending it on town stuff is reasonable (ACKS gives XP for spending on castles, as another example).  Their numbers for medieval farm productivity were in the realm of the reasonable.  I was surprised to find an incomplete sentence under the heading "The Homestead" - I think the text in this product is not as well edited as 5TD core's text was.

Page 2 gives us the abstraction of plots, approximately 5 acre areas of land sufficient to be worked by, and to support, a person.  It suggests that in order to support more people, you can buy upgrades like oxen and plows and such.

Page 3 talks about crops.  It is suggested that crop types should have different viability based on terrain of plots.  Crops have a numeric measure of quality, which it is suggested should be impacted by a couple of factors.  And there's a table of possible semi-magic effects that crops could have, like giving you a bonus to certain rolls for a day or healing a couple HP.

And then we hit page 4, which abruptly switches to town buildings.  This was where I went "hold up".  They don't provide anything concrete in the farm rules.  There's no mechanic for determining quality of a given crop.  All these factors like seed quality and crop rotation and terrain type that they want you to take into account never get turned into numbers.  Spoiler: the farm improvements on page 6, like plows and irrigation, don't have any concrete effects or concrete prices either.  Neither do any of the building or town improvements.

At first I thought my pdf reader had glitched out and failed to render a page, but this is consistent with the table of contents.

There aren't even tables for generating crop types, which seems like it would've been a reasonable thing to have.  Two d6 tables per terrain type, one with some plant names and the other with some effects that make sense for that terrain type (swamp plants more likely to give you bonus to saves vs poison and disease, mountain plants more likely to give you bonus to climbing).  Is that too much to ask?  Instead every DM is left to fend entirely for himself in inventing fantasy plants.

As an exercise, I wrote a draft of what I would've expected to see.  Not necessarily those particular details, but that level of effort.

I think I've learned something about myself here - one of the things that I value at a visceral level in an RPG supplement is adding new subsystems or refining existing subsystems.  Subsystems that lazy DMs can use to generate emergent behavior, and subsystems that give players informed choices with consequences, subsystems that they can play with.  There is a subsystem-shaped hole (fertile ground, if you will) in the middle of Homesteads, and it bugs me a lot.

On to town structures.  Each structure has a tier, 1 to 5.  Upgrading them costs money and takes time and makes them give you better stuff.  I rather like the art for the buildings.  There are lots of little details like the guy passed out drunk on the patio in front of the tavern, and the layout on the forge looks pretty reasonable.

It's really weird that they keep referring to Goods in bold caps like they do Supply.  Goods are mentioned in the introduction as "tools and services" but this is never expanded upon.

Smithies can repair damaged arms and armor and craft mundane equipment (though not martial weapons or heavy armor without upgrades).  When upgraded, output improves and they can specialize into producing certain kinds of things (allowing eg martial weapons and armor) and masterwork items.  Notably, smithies produce items much faster than most characters can.  A specialized smithy can produce an item in two days, which is equivalent to never failing a check under 5TD's crafting rules.  So it seems that NPCs are playing by different rules than PCs.

Lodges let you butcher monster corpses into Supply, and can hunt for Supply if you don't bring them anything.  It's weird though, because the total weekly output of the lodge is the same either way, but the text says that Supply from monsters can be used for crafting and spell components, while Supply from hunting and foraging is "mixed food and components".  I don't know what to make of this.  Is Supply a unified abstraction, or are you supposed to track different kinds of Supply points?  But if they're not different kinds of Supply, then why would you ever bother hauling monster corpses back to town if the total yield is the same either way?

I guess the crop mechanics already sort of break the unified abstraction of Supply - if a farm is expected to produce a certain surplus Supply of a certain kind of crop, then Supply must have types.  Maybe that's why they didn't actually develop the crop production mechanics to their natural conclusion?

The lodge also has a mechanic for going out in the woods and finding mundane plants and animals for you.  Maybe you're supposed to use it to find seeds for native crops?  I thought it was funny that their example was a banana slug.  I don't know why you'd pick that.

Taverns improve your natural healing rate and generate rumors.  The healing rate scales up exponentially, so a tier 5 tavern lets you heal 16 HP per night, which is a lot in a system where a max-level dwarf fighter only has about 51 HP in expectation.  Upgraded taverns attract potential retainers and let you heal ability score damage at a rate of 1 point per week.  Aha, a clarification around recovery of ability score damage from maiming!

The market's main function of attracting merchants who sell useful stuff seems kind of useless in the absence of a table of prices.  It is interesting in that this suggests that you should be able to buy equipment, but "weapons" are an example of "specialized or exotic" equipment that requires a specialized vendor who takes up a market stall and may or may not be in town on any given week, and you can only have one of those per tier.  PCs can also invest in markets, yielding a 5% return per tier every 1d6 weeks thereafter.  There aren't any limits on this mechanic, although I don't think you can get your principal back.  Exploiting the power of compound interest is left as an exercise for the reader.

The fifth building isn't a building with mechanics, just a bunch of suggestions filed under the name "Oddity".

Page 6 is the no-op improvements that I mentioned in my complaint about farming.

Page 7 is a table of farm-related adventure hooks, a table of town-related hooks, and two tables for determining relationship between NPCs and reason for it.  I like that a rival adventuring party raiding the town is on the town hooks table.  This is a marked improvement over 5TD Core's random encounter table.  "One structure's expert has a week of incredulous productivity" was very funny though.  The NPC feelings tables can generate some results that don't make much sense, and if you used them heavily the ensuing network would probably lead to very inconsistent characterizations.  But hey, people are complicated.

Pages 8-9 are a d% carousing table.  Spend 1000 gp for a roll.  1-40 are bad things (up to including "you seriously injured yourself, roll in the maiming table", "you fell into a coma", "you lost all your treasure", and "1d6 random structures burn down", which could be up to 90kgp in lost upgrades), 41-60 are mostly minor except for waking up enslaved, 61-100 are good things (up to and including "acquire an artifact", "gain a class feature", and "all structures improve one tier").  I think my favorite is "Access a hidden part of the dungeon."  ...  while carousing.  What's the intent here?  You wake up hungover in a hidden part of the dungeon?  Or you accessed it and returned and now you know the route, but a whole bunch of gameplay got skipped?  So this is a very high-entropy table and not necessarily a very associated table.  The negative consequences cannot be mitigated and are severe enough that I would not expect my past players to use it (certainly not regularly), because they were risk-averse.

I thought it was cute that the carousing art included a cat with nursing kittens.


So I started looking at the carousing art more and then I realized that there was no meat, not even a bone for the dog.

Hey human you got anything worth eating?

I dunno, I figure if you drop a thousand GP a head carousing, you probably get a whole hog each and have something to spare for this poor pup.

Root vegetables: the repast of heroes.
You'd think that if your job is killing monsters, you wouldn't have any qualms about eating them.

Page 10, we get another rubik's cube generator for the layout of towns and the areas around town.  Describing anything in rural medieval fantasy as "suburban" seems odd to me, and it also seems odd that you could end up with two "dense urban cores" distant from each other, but whatever.  The art for the town and region maps is quite nice.

Page 11 has a table for "stuff that happened while you were out adventuring" (though some of the town hooks table entries also seem to fall into that category), and some reskinning advice, most of which is pretty trivial.

And that's it.

So what do you get, really, for your $4?  Two pages of usable mechanical content (the buildings), one page of decent tables (the hooks tables), a couple pages of tables that I don't think would be very useful (the carousing table), the Assembly Required farming bits, and some padding like the no-op improvements.  That's...  kind of ridiculous.  Is this standard for third-party 5e-adjacent products?  About three pages of useful content for $4 in pdf rather than paper, with a 4.5/5 star rating and Gold bestseller status on dtrpg?  I need to get me an artist and get in on this racket.

I think bringing more Stardew Valley into D&D is a promising idea.  I think playing grounded, agrarian "heroes of the wee folk" embedded in a community, with rules to back that up, would be a really interesting alternate direction to take D&D, away from both the superheroism of later editions and the traditional OSR domain game.  I would love to see it executed well (arguably Beyond the Wall is aiming at these themes, but I don't love the coming of age bits).  Five Torches Deep: Homesteads might be a decent beginning in that direction, but I think it doesn't deliver and it's overpriced.

I will not read Duels.
I will not read Duels.
I will not read Duels.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Five Torches Deep Review, Part 6: The Principle Unemphasized, Conclusions

I've spent a long time talking about some of the things that are wrong with 5TD's subsystems (most recently magic).  I wanted to say "all the things wrong with 5TD" but sadly that's not true.

Most of the issues I've talked about so far have been because 5TD went overboard on making life suck for player characters.  But eventually it dawned on me that they missed a central part of the OSR play experience while they were focusing on some of the peripheral mechanical elements.

It's right there in their list of OSR design principles: "Travel and Resources".  When I first read that it struck me as not quite wrong, but not quite right either.  Travel is a thing that happens in OSR games, yeah, and so is resource management.  But that's not the whole story; those are just fragments of a bigger principle.

I'm not sure I've quite nailed it down either in terms that a reader from a 5e rather than an OSR background would get.  The closest thing I have is "player-driven exploration".  Some might say "agency" and that would be more precise but less clear unless you already know what they're talking about.

OSR play is typically site-based rather than plot-based.  You have an unexplored adventure site, like a megadungeon or a 1200 square miles of wilderness mapped on a hex grid.  It's usually big - way too big to be cleared in a couple sessions, maybe too big to be cleared ever.  Players might have some objectives in that area, but generally not much of a fire under their ass; no saving the world, probably no deadline.  They choose where they go, how they get there, and how to interact with the locals on arrival.  They have to explore the area to locate their objectives, get strong enough to take them, and then get them home safely.  All of this happens over the course of many sessions within the same site.  Players gradually build up knowledge of the area, which allows them to better plan their next adventure.

So yes, you have to travel.  And yes, you have to manage resources.  But there's continuity and discovery and non-mechanical progress within a site.  Travel is something you get better at as you discover better routes, and it's very much part of gameplay, not handwaved at all.  Resource management is something that you get better at within a specific site as you discover places to recover resources, or shorter and less dangerous routes that get you to your objectives with more resources to spare (Dark Souls does this well).  Players are faced with lots of strategic choices, and they benefit from paying attention over the course of a campaign and making good plans based on what they've learned.  It is up to them to choose what risks to take, where to explore next, when and where and who to fight, when to flee combat, when to call off the expedition as a whole.  Their fates are very much in their own hands.

5TD's DMing advice touches on considerations of choice and exploration on page 43.  I disagree with some things here - "Making sure choices are meaningful demands complex and dramatic situations" is, I think, simply wrong.  A meaningful choice is one which has foreseeable, significant consequences, and where no option is unambiguously superior (so not a null choice).  Drama has nothing to do with it.  I also think that "[5TD] does insist that the game have a sense of exploration, discovery, and wonder" sells exploration far short.  Only a sense of exploration?  What I'm after is to pose players with problems and choices analogous to those their characters would experience during exploration; in effect to create the experience of exploring.  I think this is a good heuristic for mass combat and domain rules too - are you making players make the same sorts of choices that trouble generals and kings?

But by and large the principles on page 43 have the right idea.  The trouble is that the rest of the book doesn't back any of this up concretely.  Hence, a principle recognized, but unemphasized.

There's no advice on building adventure sites for long-term use, none of the standard tricks like jayquaying (though this might emerge sometimes from their generator system) or restocking or empty rooms or danger gradients / dungeon level or random encounter tables as a means of characterizing a place.  One might reply that most OSR systems don't explain these things either, and that's true - but most OSR systems come with paint-by-numbers rules for building dungeons that tend to achieve these properties without the DM having to understand the theory.  The example dungeon for 5TD's rubik's cube generation method is nine rooms.  This would be small indeed by OSR standards.  It's only one page so one can only expect so much, but it could certainly give newer DMs the wrong idea.  My typical dungeons are closer to 100 rooms, and many OSR dungeons are much larger.  The example adventure they give in the DMing advice has the players choosing which of three points of interest at a site to investigate, not crawling the site with strict time-tracking during exploration, and while it does strongly suggest having multiple factions in each adventure, it also suggests forcing players to choose between them.  That's not how player-driven games work.  If a faction has something that they want, players will naturally align with them out of self-interest.  You don't need to impose a "time-sensitive choice that compels them [players] to go down one (potentially) irreversible path," especially not every session like 5TD's DMing section suggests.

I think we also see this lack of interest in choice and exploration-type gameplay in the mechanics.  The mechanics for exploration and traversal of dungeon environments are lighter than even B/X's.  Trapfinding requires DMs to provide environmental clues about the presence of a trap and suggests forbidding players from rolling dice unless they propose specific things that they're trying, which is well and good.  And there're rules for different amounts of lighting, though their effects are mostly on combat.  But there's not a damn thing about secret doors or stuck doors or listening or smashing locked chests or spiking doors shut or non-combat movement through the dungeon.  There's certainly no mention of the players drawing their own map of the dungeon or the wilderness as they explore it!  While 5TD has overland movement rates modified by terrain and weather, the only other wilderness systems are foraging for Supply, ration consumption, and the same random trouble table as in the dungeon - not even rules for getting lost.  Timekeeping rules are present, but the unit is the hour (both in wilderness and dungeon), and "As a rule of thumb, a GM can count every 3-4 scenes, rooms, or encounters as one hour."  This is very loose.  5TD's equivalent to the random encounter roll is also very loose - rather than being a table of monsters, it has some vague suggestions about escalating danger level at different rates.  Looseness in timekeeping makes it hard for players to make good plans and take informed risks, and it certainly doesn't put them on the horns of dilemma in deciding between spending a turn listening at a door or saving that turn and just going for it.  I could see it sort of working for a node-based dungeon where moving between nodes takes an hour, and dealing with a node takes about an hour.  But that is hardly representative of the way dungeons are typically run.

In effect, non-combat dungeoneering gameplay is largely ad hoc in 5TD, rather than being a systematic game-loop as in OSR games of D&D lineage.

Involved fix: graft B/X's exploration rules, noncombat movement, and timekeeping onto 5TD.  This also addresses issues with encumbrance and resilience penalty gradients.
Involved fix: provide better dungeon-building advice.
Involved fix: provide better DMing advice [1][2]

In closing: I have said all that I aim to say about Five Torches Deep.  I think they chose bad design goals and then implemented them heavy-handedly.  I think they also missed at least one of the defining features of the OSR playstyle in implementation.  I think a much better OSR/5e hybrid is very doable.  I hope someone will make it.  For my part, I think I am not the one to make it, as my familiarity with 5e is too limited.  If someone reading this does take up that cross, I would be happy to review your draft or otherwise consult.

Thank you for reading all of this.  This review is right around 10000 words, or 20 pages in a word processor under default settings.  It's been about a three-week project.  The text-heaviest of 5TD's pages are about 700 words, and there are 36 non-art pages, so this review was conservatively 40% as much text as the product itself, which is a new one on me.

...  maybe I'll just take a peek at Homesteads.  I did already pay for it...

Friday, May 22, 2020

Five Torches Deep Review, Part 5: Haphazard Magic

Last post, I discussed issues with Five Torches Deep's fatigue, disease, and maiming systems.  Today I will discuss issues with its spellcasting system.

I have played my fair share of casters in systems with unreliable casting.  I had a sorcerer using Dragon Magic back in 3rd edition who risked sucking the party through a hole into the astral plane to get free metamagic.  I had an arcanist in Iron Heroes who failed his roll to make the tank stronger and made him weaker instead.  I had a psyker briefly in Dark Heresy before he combusted.  And in the OSR space I've read, but not played, Dungeon Crawl Classics' system (for which it is well-known), and the ACKS heroic fantasy book's system (which remains obscure).

The main problem with 5TD's spellcasting is that the mishap rate is extraordinarily high.

A 1st-level caster with a +2 casting stat modifier (not unreasonable on 3d6) has a +4 total on checks to cast, and the DC to cast a 1st-level spell is 11, so they need a 7+.  If they fail the roll, then they have to roll on the mishaps table, and they lose access to 1st-level spells until the next time they can safely rest (ie, between adventures).

So they're going to generate a mishap about 30% of the time.  At first level the result on the mishaps table that does 1d6 damage per spell level has a 50% chance of killing (er, maiming) you.  Other results on the mishap table may induce TPK depending on circumstances of casting.  So you're going to want to cast very selectively.

Surely it gets better at high levels?  At 9th level, your caster probably has +3 or +4 in their casting stat and +4 proficiency bonus, call it a total of +8, so now you only suffer mishaps casting 1st-level spells on a 1 or 2, so 10% of the time.  Casting a 5th-level spell, though, your mishap chance remains 30%, because the DC has risen just as fast as your modifiers.

For comparison, under DCC's system, generally a failed roll to cast causes you to lose that one spell until end of adventure, and only on a natural 1 do you lose the spell and generate a mishap.  Mishaps are also described per spell, so a mishap with Fireball might make a big mess but a mishap for Read Languages might be subtler and more playful.  Under ACKS' unreliable casting system, mishaps are only generated on two sequential natural 1s in a row (ie, you roll a natural 1, the spell fails, you roll another d20 to see if you get a mishap, and on a natural 1 you do), but mishaps are generally quite severe (similar to rolls on the maiming table).  In Lamentations of the Flame Princess, magic isn't unreliable but a lot of spells have weird or gross side effects, but never just straight-up failure-to-cast-and-horrible-mishap.

I think it is fair to say that these systems are fairly typical OSR implementations of weird and unreliable magic.  5TD's system blows them away for unreliability.

If I recall my Dark Heresy rightly, casting was rolled on a d% and you got a mishap whenever you got doubles (so 11, 22, 33, 44...).  So you might successfully cast but also get a mishap in addition to the spell effects that you wanted, which was neat.  But that only gives us a mishap rate of 10%, versus 5TD's 30%.

Casting a spell in 5TD is much less reliable than using psychic powers in Warhammer.  Reflect on that for a moment.  Is that what you want in your D&D?

The only system that compares for caster unreliability that I have seen is Iron Heroes, where one of the design goals was to make a fighter-centric game and to make wizards bad.

I think the best archetype ability in the game might be the wizard's ability to reroll mishaps.  The cleric's ability that gives allies advantage on rolls on the maiming table is sort of ridiculous (and here I thought a 1-in-20 chance of death was too low; 1-in-400 is just comical), and the fighter's action economy thing that lets you turn a move action into a standard action for an ally is also strong (strong party comp: one cleric with Reforge and advantage on injury rolls and then a pile of fighters who can turn move actions into standard actions for allies, and who use it on each other to give extra full attacks once you can make multiple attacks with a standard action, every round because the rules don't say how often you can use it).  But those are gravy abilities, while rerolling mishaps means that you can do the main thing that your class is supposed to do and you might not even kill everyone.

It would be one thing if 5TD's spells were wildly good, so you were taking a big risk in hope of a big payoff.  But I don't see that here.  Sleep scales up better in terms of hit-die limit than it does in OSR games so it probably remains viable across the level range, but you have to roll to hit with it now and I don't think the HD limit is high enough that it will ever be a straight-up encounter-win.  Magic Missile scales up a bit faster than usual but again there's a to-hit roll now.  Fireball looks bog standard.  A lot of spells now require Concentration in 5TD that don't normally.  The healing spells look stronger than I'm used to, and there are a few other stand-outs on the divine list, but overall most of these spells don't look as punchy as their OSR equivalents, for the level when they become available.

Back in third edition, we had a rule of thumb that any spell that required an attack roll and also gave that target a saving throw needed to have a really big effect, because it was probably only going to work a quarter of the time.  Phantasmal Killer followed the same logic - save or die as a 4th level spell was OK because it required the target to fail two saves based on different ability scores, which meant in practice that it almost never worked.  The same is true here - any spell in 5TD that requires an attack roll needs to be really punchy, because it's going to fail (and blow up in your face) a third of the time on the roll to cast and then half the time on AC.

Quick / minimal fix: spellcasting only generates mishaps on a natural 1.  Failing to cast a spell causes you to lose that spell until your next safe rest, not all spells of that spell level.

I'm not really sure this is enough to save 5TD's spellcasters.  They also have to deal with spell components, at a rate of two Supply worth of components per spell level.  So even under the default system, an 18-Int wizard can only carry 9 spell levels worth of components.  That sounds like a lot at 1st level, but even if you're pouring your stat increases into Int you're only getting 21 at 9th level which doesn't go very far with 3rd-5th level spells.  And that's starting with 18 Int!  If you're playing an Elf, your 13 Int gets you six levels of spell components, and if you put all your points in Int you'll get nine levels of spells at 9th level.  And may the gods help clerics with low Int, who still need the same amount of supply in spell components.

There is a note about "focuses", orbs and staves which obviate the need for spell components entirely.  But as there are no treasure tables, distributing these is left purely to DM fiat.

Quick fix: make spell components 1 SUP per spell level.  This is a band-aid.

It isn't 100% clear to me whether components are consumed on a failed spellcasting check, but that would be a worthwhile clarification to add.

Anyway, as far as I can tell this spellcasting system is dramatically worse than anything I've seen in the OSR.

Next, last post in this series: the critical thing that 5TD misses about OSR play.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Five Torches Deep Review, Part 4: Resilience, Corruptions, and Maiming

Previously, I discussed my complaints about the supply and equipment systems in Five Torches Deep.  Today, issues with the resilience system, maiming, and corruptions.

Is this even a review anymore?  Maybe I should've titled this project "Fixing Five Torches Deep".

If you've been reading the previous parts of this...  series, several of my issues with Resilience should be predictable.  It sets a cap based on a stat's score, and sometimes you're gonna roll low and it's going to really shorten your adventuring life.  With 3 Con, you can only adventure for 3 hours before you have to start making Resilience rolls (at -4 from your bad Con, so you're going to fail about 2/3 of the time), and when you fail one, you're done.  You're going to be dead before the rest of the party even has to start rolling Resilience.  The penalty-gradient is even more severe than 5TD's Encumbrance's, much steeper than the fatigue rules in either 5e or any of the OSR clones that I'm familiar with.  Typically in B/X-derived games you have 10-minute exploration turns in the dungeon, and you have to rest one turn out of every six (sort of a short rest per hour), and if you don't take it, then you take a -1 penalty to attack and damage.  Skipping multiple rests causes the penalties to stack up, and -1 to damage is actually really significant since most weapons only do d6 damage and there are few modifiers.  But B/X fatigue 1) escalates slowly, and 2) doesn't slow you down, so you can still escape from encounters, whereas 5TD's resilience system goes straight from functional to immobile.

Easy / minimal fix: set Resilience to 10 +/- Con Mod.  This will cluster the party closer together in Resilience scores and cause them to fatigue out closer to the same time.
Easy / minimal fix: exhaustion reduces your speed by 20' instead of setting it to 0'.  This means you slow the party down a lot but they don't have to leave you behind.  Having it reduce speed instead of setting speed makes it interact with encumbrance.  Keeping disadvantage to all checks for being exhausted is alright; it's a lot more justifiable / reasonable than giving disadvantage to all checks for being encumbered.
Easy / minimal fix: allow players taking an hour-long unsafe (ie dungeon) rest a Con check or something to remove exhaustion.  I don't know that you need all three of these but this would be one way to make it less of a one-way door to death, and would help prevent splitting parties when someone gets exhausted.  Leave it so that safe rest always removes exhaustion.  Unsafe rest also doesn't necessarily need to reset your Resilience all the way back to full, maybe it puts you back at half-Resilience on a success.  I dunno, there's space to work out something reasonable here that isn't "you pass out in the dungeon so the party leaves you behind because Nothing Can Be Done."

A couple of other things bother me about Resilience though.  One, my understanding of one of the purposes of making resources capped linearly on ability scores is to make those scores more important.  But Resilience is based on Constitution.  Were people really dump-statting Con in 5e?  I guess that's consistent with what I've been hearing, that fights are slow and people are spongy?  But it doesn't seem like HP are that much higher than 3e (but damage does seem lower).  Were they still doing it in 5TD playtests after hit points were reduced from 5e's baseline?  I guess 5TD only actually reduced the fixed starting HP at first level, and didn't increase damage that much.  I dunno, it just kind of boggles my mind that people might have been dumping Constitution, The Stat That Keeps You Alive, often enough that this seemed necessary.

Maybe reducing HP further would've been a simpler way to achieve the same purpose?

Easy / simple fix: remove Resilience entirely and drop HD by one step for at least fighter, zealot, and mage.  I've never been a big fan of having Thief on d4 HD and they probably need the help.  But as I said before it's silly to worry about dumpstats if you have no control over your stats, so this is probably unnecessary.  But it would be consistent with 5TD's goals of Danger is Real and Weaker PCs, and it would lead to more decisive combats.

The other property of Resilience that bugs me, which I touched on above, is that individual characters fatigue out at different rates.  Besides tending to split the party, this is much more annoying to keep track of than having the whole party fatigue at the same rate.  It's also unclear if Resilience is intended to only be used for PCs or if it should apply to their retainers too, but switching to a system where everyone fatigues simultaneously and independently of Con means that retainers can fatigue too without even having to have Con stats for them.

Involved fix: bring back 10-minute exploration turns from B/X and directly replace Resilience with B/X's fatigue system.  I already wanted exploration turns for Encumbrance anyway, and this gets me "everyone fatigues at the same rate" and "gradually escalating penalties".

Moving on to corruptions.  I wasn't a big fan of Lamentations of the Flame Princess' disease rules and these seem to be a pretty direct port.  Ability score damage is a pain in the butt because you have to recalculate stuff every time it happens.  This is less bad in 5e/5TD/OSR games than it was in 3e where I picked up this aversion, because there are fewer things to recalculate, but it's still a hassle.

I guess I don't really see a good gameplay reason for any disease/poison system more complicated than [easy fix] "you get a save (or Con check).  If you make it you're fine.  If you don't, then you have disadvantage to everything for a certain amount of time because you are sick as a dog.  After that make another save / Con check.  If you fail it you die and if you succeed then you get better."  This still puts players under time pressure but you have to do fewer numerical updates and you waste less time rolling.

A more fundamental issue with porting Corruptions from LotFP's disease rules is that in LotFP, all of your saves get better as you level, regardless of your class, so high-level characters are better able to survive poison and disease than low-level characters.  It kinda makes sense that if being high level lets you survive combat better, it should let you survive other things better too.  In 5TD, unless you are proficient in Con checks or have been spending your scarce ability score points on Con, your odds of surviving a disease are no better at 9th level than they were at 1st level.  You probably won't even survive any longer, because the ability score being damaged hasn't increased much if at all.

(This lack of progression on off-saves is, I think, also part of why in 5e, all of the spells that were traditionally save-or-die either deal damage or are gated on HP - most characters' Con saves don't improve with level, but everybody's HP improves with level.  I think this is fairly clever - it really leans into HP as an abstract resource representing luck and ability to barely avoid things that should kill you, rather than HP as the number of times you can be stabbed in the chest.  But the consistent thing to do with 5e's philosophy of save-or-die and hit points would be to make diseases deal damage over time.  And I don't think this would even be incompatible with OSR philosophy!  Some OSR systems (ACKS) already have starvation and thirst deal small amounts of damage every day and prevent natural healing; there's no reason dysentery shouldn't do the same.  Mummy rot in B/X is already about halfway there)

Mummy rot brings up an interesting issue with Corruptions - if Corruptions are the expected way to implement curses, that may discourage the development of subtler, more creative curses (like "no healing" or "marked for death, disadvantage to rolls on the maiming table" or "haunted by insects, go through rations twice as fast because your food is always full of bugs").  As with 5TD's approach to encumbrance penalties, Corruptions are a big heavy-handed hammer for curses that will stop you dead, as opposed to curses that make adventuring challenging but might be workable long-term.

In any case, I think this disease system will behave differently, have different consequences, in its new 5e-based context, which will make it even nastier than it already was in LotFP.

Finally, maiming.  I run ACKS (well...  ran, and now blog about, ACKS), which among other things (understatement) is known for its Death and Dismemberment table.  5TD's maiming table misses two big points of having a maiming table at all: associating penalties to an in-world narrative cause, and ensuring that characters are afflicted fairly.

First, the outcomes on 5TD's table are about an even split between ability score damage, losing a body part, and needing bed rest, with death on a natural 1 and getting back up with some HP on a 20.  This means that if you lose a body part, you don't take ability score damage, and if you take ability score damage, you don't lose a body part.  The problem here is that (in ACKS, say) losing a body part provides an in-world narrative justification for a penalty, which slightly dulls the negative response from players to being stuck with that penalty.  It's something you can picture - "oh yeah I guess if I'm short an eye a ranged attack penalty makes a lot of sense".  5TD provides very weak in-world description of its ability score losses on the maiming table, which I think would cause them to be resented more - they're purely mechanical penalties and don't provide you with the opportunity to picture your character wearing an eyepatch as a consolation prize.

The second problem with 5TD's maiming table is that if you roll body part loss, it is explicitly the GM's choice which part you lose.  This is awful design which is bound to lead to strife, bad blood, and either accusations of unfairness or to the system being rendered toothless.  If you as a DM choose to take a body part that should logically inflict penalties, and you inflict those penalties ad hoc, you have set a precedent and any future deviation from that precedent is legitimately unfair.  If someone else loses a body part, you have to figure out some penalties that are about as bad for them as for the first guy.  So the safe solution for DMs who don't want to deal with that is to softball it and just inflict cosmetic damage (scars, a few lost teeth, maybe a finger, etc).  This is exactly the sort of contentious thing, which players care a lot about, that warrants a random table of body parts lost and appropriate penalties, and results on that table should be rolled in the open where everyone can see them so that no accusations of unfairness can be made.

I dislike that 5TD is wishy-washy about how long it takes to recover ability score points lost to ability score damage results on the maiming table, while ACKS provides provides clear-cut mechanics for trying to get yourself fixed up (though there will be side effects, so it's a choice rather than a default). I also think that a 5% chance of death seems a little low.  But those are minor complaints.  There are also some nice emergent features of ACKS' maiming system, like encouraging healers to take risks to stabilize people in combat instead of waiting until after combat, but those aren't critical.

What I'd change: roll on ACKS' mortal wounds table with a +4 or so on the d20 with nat 20 getting result from 26+ row.  Fix up results that don't make sense with 5TD mechanics (eg -2 to magical research throws -> -2 to spellcasting checks).  Write the fixups down so that they are applied consistently.

Speaking of spellcasting checks: next post is haphazard magic.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Five Torches Deep Review, Part 3: Supply and Equipment

Previously, I discussed issues with encumbrance and dump-stats in Five Torches Deep.  Today, issues with supply and equipment.

Supply is almost a good idea and I want to love it.  I've been kicking around ways to make dealing with mundane equipment simpler and less book-keeping for some years now and something like Supply crossed my mind, under-specified adventuring equipment that you can make into concrete equipment during the adventure.

But this particular implementation of Supply is tied tightly to an ability score with an in-world justification that I really dislike, and it's highly dissociated.

As with Encumbrance, tying the resources you can bring into the dungeon linearly to an ability score means that if you rolled a low stat you're SOL and there's nothing you can do about it.  Only being able to pack 3 Supply is probably slightly less crippling than only being able to carry 3 Load, but you can't go over your limit with Supply in exchange for a penalty.  3 Supply is three fights worth of arrows, or three torches, or 1.5 spell levels worth of spell components, or three fumbles worth of weapon durability.  With a low Supply limit, I'm not sure what class options are really viable besides melee fighter.

Easy fix: set Supply limit to 10 +/- Int modifier, as with Encumbrance.  I think this might hurt mages pretty badly though, since they need to carry a lot of supply for spell components and on the high end you're going from 18 Supply to 14 Supply, so you're losing a second-level spell's worth of components.  So I don't think this is a great fix and think it might have unintended consequences, but it does make low Int less crippling.  I'm not really sure that spell components are necessary to limit casting under 5TD's default paradigm anyway, so maybe you solve this by removing spell components too, but more on that later.

Claiming that the Int limit on supply represents the character's ability to plan and pack really grinds my gears.  I strongly dislike the use of Int to represent general cognitive ability, versus magical talent and maybe education.  I think that this "Int=IQ" line of thinking leads to all kinds of horrible metagaming ("well my/your character wouldn't think of that") and runs counter to player skill and agency as pillars of OSR play.  Players should always be free to make the best decisions that they can given available information, and that includes being free to pack their gear for the trouble that they foresee.  Make low Int characters illiterate, fine.  Forbid them from knowing Church Latin or Draconic, and from taking Book Learnin' skills, fine.  But don't stop their players from making good decisions.

So I think the given justification for Supply springs from a pathology, and that almost all mechanics justified in this way delenda est.

Easy fix: don't relate Supply to Int at all.  The limit on the Supply you can carry is encumbrance and gold that you can spend on it.  I am not confident that this wouldn't have knock-on effects.

Finally, this Supply implementation is very dissociated.  5 Supply weighs 1 Load, or about 5 pounds.  The supply costs of items vary depending on rarity, value, and bulk.  It costs 5 Supply to replenish an antitoxin, not because of bulk but because of value and rarity.  How does that work in-world?  Did you pack a vial of antitoxin in 5 pounds of padding?  Is it a two-liter bottle of antitoxin and you have to chug the whole thing?  Are you brewing the antitoxin and then discarding the spent coffee grounds or solvents or whatever (presumably no, because that would be crafting, which has separate rules)?  Is Supply magical, allowing it to violate conservation of mass?

What happens if you convert a monster with a shatter ability and it gets used on someone carrying Supply that might be antitoxin or might just be torches?

And if crafting is the justification for turning 5 pounds of Supply into a vial of antitoxin (and I think this is defensible from the text on the basis of the Foraging rules - you're certainly not just finding a 2L bottle of antitoxin in the woods), then there's more explaining to do - how long does it take to turn Supply into stuff in game-time?  Why the distinction between crafting a new thing and crafting a thing you already have a copy of ?  I would not generally expect having a copy to yield much insight into how to make more of a thing - buying and drinking a beer imparts no knowledge of making beer (alas!).

Easy fix: haven't got one. A sensible (associative, mass-conserving) Supply implementation sounds like it would take some thought.

There's an ambiguity looming around acquiring new equipment in 5TD.  The only explicitly-stated ways to get equipment are character generation (determined by your class and rolls on the Sundries table) and crafting.  None of the weapons or armor (or misc gear) have gold-piece prices.  The only things in the book with gold-piece prices are Supply and retainers.  Are you stuck with your starting gear forever unless you craft?  Plus whatever you can capture from things that you kill? (not that monsters have gear listed either, just attack damage which might not correspond to any weapon)  Are you really putting parties at the mercy of the random equipment rolls that they made at 1st level indefinitely?  What if nobody rolls a light source?

Torches aren't even on the sundries table (though lanterns are), nor any of the class' starting equipment lists.  Is it just assumed that everyone has torches?  Or do I need to craft torches?

I wouldn't be so worried about this if the crafting system weren't lousy.  Four independent chances of failure per crafting attempt, each of which takes half a day, and failure on any destroys all of the materials (but the price of materials is unspecified anyway).  easy fix: Why is this not a single roll at DC 20 or so that takes a single day on failure or two days on success?  That would be pretty close to mathematically equivalent and would save a lot of wasted time rolling.  I can't tell if this is overcommitment to "DC11 Core Mechanic" or to "toiling".

Maybe the intended way to buy gear is to hire Laborer retainers and have them grind away at the crafting system in the background while you adventure.

Maybe the intended way to get new gear is by either handwaving it, or by using prices from some other book that you were converting monsters from anyway.  Maybe I'm being too hermeneutic about all this - but this is a review of the text and its implications.  I feel like the existence of the crafting system, in such a short and terse book, is evidence against that proposition.  The crafting system gets as much space as two full levels of mage spells (not just spell lists, full spell descriptions), as much space as XP and Leveling Up.  It ought to be important.  But it's not great.

Easy fix: import item prices from other systems, make it explicit that players to buy items in addition to their starting gear, and ditch the crafting system.

Finally, weapon and armor durability.  If I were to compile a list of red flags for bad tabletop systems, having to repair your weapons and armor due to normal wear-and-tear would be on it.  Weapon durability can exist in two kinds of tabletop RPGs.  If bolted on to D&D like it is here, it's an isolated demand for rigor which is badly mismatched with the rest of a combat system that is operating on the level of abstraction of hit points and armor class.  If part of a system where everything is operating at the same level of detail / realism as considering the durability of weapons, where it isn't an isolated demand for rigor, then you end up with things like hit location tables and armor by location and attack-maneuvers with names like Morderhau and Zellringen (although that system is actually more like an isolated demand for rigor in techniques, while still using high-abstraction HP and AC) and every combat takes four hours.  Neither of these states is desirable.

I get why this is here.  The authors said they wanted a Souls-like game and Dark Souls has weapon degradation and repair.  But Dark Souls is a videogame and there is a computer to track that shit for you.  Of all the parts of Dark Souls worth copying, that was the one you picked?  As a DM, am I supposed to track durability for all the weapons and armor used by NPCs, because players operating in an equipment regime where they can't buy things and where crafting takes forever and where equipment degrades will be desperate for any source of equipment they can get?  Is it at all reasonable to assume that (say) orcs keep their weapons in good repair?  I've got enough on my plate already and now you want me to think about the durability of every weapon in the game that is not currently in the hands of a player character?

To which DMs from a certain school might reply, "What no, humanoid monsters and NPCs don't have lootable weapons or armor, just look at their stat blocks, there's nothing listed," to which the cranky OSR DM might reply "That doesn't make any goddamn sense, are they supposed to be doing d12 damage with their bare hands?  If my players make friends with one of them and hire him as a retainer, is he still doing d12 damage with a weapon that never degrades?  What if a PC dies and their player wants to take over the retainer as their new PC?  Does his gear suddenly magically start degrading?  Internal consistency is important! Where do you draw the line and how can you justify its existence other than laziness?  I'm lazy too, but I don't think you need to sacrifice consistency for it."

In conclusion, I will never condone a system where tracking weapon and armor durability is a normal part of combat (not the product of rare Sunder special maneuvers that almost never get used).  If you want to have weapons save-or-break on a fumble, fine.  But don't ask me to track an extra unsigned integer on every item in the world.

Easy fix: on a natural 1 on attack, Dex check or weapon breaks and can no longer be used.  When opponent scores a crit, Dex check or shield breaks and can no longer be used.  If you want, let metal weapons have Advantage on the check, and magic weapons have double-advantage (roll three times and take the best).  These same rules apply to monsters and retainers breaking their weapons.  Having armor go from totally functional to totally broken doesn't make much sense and doing it well is more hassle than it's worth.

Next post: Resilience, maiming, and corruption

Friday, May 15, 2020

Five Torches Deep Review, Part 2: Encumbrance and Dumpstats

Continued from part 1, where I ran through the contents of Five Torches Deep and provided an overview of its subsystems.

As I noted there, I do not like Five Torches Deep.

There are two types of failures: failures by excess, and failures by deficiency.  5TD's failures by excess are more glaring so I will talk about them first.

5TD is over-committed to "toiling Souls-like grindhouse" / "travel and resources", to "no dumpstats", and to "magic is haphazard", I believe to its detriment as a game.  I would have less of a problem with these over-commitments if 5TD were unlikely to be mistaken as representative of OSR thought; then it would be merely a system which is disagreeable to me, of which there has never been a shortage, instead of a system which worries me.

Just about every element that 5TD borrows from the OSR, it makes more punitive than I would consider typical for OSR systems.

Mechanics that 5TD adds to 5e that I have significant complaints about:

...  might have to break this up into multiple posts.

Encumbrance: The encumbrance system has two problems.  One is that it is unusually bad for characters with very low Str scores.  The other is that the degradation of capability for being over-encumbered is too steep and overly broad.

A character with 3 Str in 5TD can carry 3 points of Load - a one-handed weapon and leather armor, or fifteen points of Supply, or some combination thereof.  A character with 3 Str cannot generally carry his starting equipment without being encumbered and suffering Disadvantage to all rolls.

I think this is a consequence of an excess of No Dumpstats.  I feel similarly about the other systems that rely on ability score values as limits (Supply and Resilience - lack of Retainers from low Cha seems less crippling).  As far as I'm concerned, the objective of No Dumpstats was achieved as soon as stats were rolled on 3d6 in order, and anything beyond that change is overkill.  If you don't have the means to dump a stat, to make a choice to sacrifice a stat that you don't care about in order to boost another, how can dump-statting be a problem?  Only humans have any capability to dump a stat in 5TD, and even that is very limited - if they're using the swap to move a bad stat to somewhere that hurts them less, they're probably not using it to move a good stat to somewhere that enables a class that they want to play.  It is a much more constrained problem than either point-buy or roll-and-assign.

They also have to roll a bad stat in the first place, and given a bad stat roll, it has to go somewhere.  This is another reason that I think 5TD's changes aimed at No Dumpstats are misguided.  Nobody chose to take a 3 Charisma to get more points to put into other stuff; it's uncompensated.  A low stat is something you get stuck with and have to deal with.  What purpose does making the game more punitive of bad starting luck serve?

Easy but unnecessary fix: remove the ability score swap that humans get.  If you want to play a particular class, or to have relatively safe and predictable stats, play a nonhuman.  Playing a human is a gamble and you never know what you're gonna get.  This removes any possibility of dumping particular stats.

I think that OSR systems generally understand better that if you are going to roll stats in order, game systems should not be too punitive of low stats.  A 3 Con is pretty crippling because of low HP, a 3 Dex is quite bad for low AC and init, but other than that, a 3 in any one stat is usually workable.  And I think that's good.  It's the dual of "cunning over crunch" as applied to high modifiers: you shouldn't trivially win because of high numbers on your character sheet, but you shouldn't trivially lose because of low numbers either.

(It's worth considering OD&D's approach to dumpstats for comparison with 5TD's.  In OD&D, you rolled your stats in order and then picked your class.  Str, Int, and Wis each only gave you bonuses in combat if you were a Fighter, Magic User, or Cleric, respectively (no, really - no Str bonus to hit and damage for Clerics), with little to no penalty to members of other classes for having a low score, while Dex, Con, and Cha gave bonuses and penalties that were intended to matter about equally to characters of all classes.  This meant that you could almost totally ignore / "dump" two of the six stats, depending on your choice of class - in expectation one of Str, Int, and Wis would probably be around 13, one around 10, and the last around 7, so you pick the class that you rolled best for and ignore the other two.  I tend to think this is a decent design, and it certainly doesn't lack for OSR credentials.  Then the Thief was introduced and ruined everything forever by making a class based off a stat that was meant for everyone)

In comparison with 5TD's encumbrance system, no OSR system that I have seen ties encumbrance to Str nearly as strongly as 5TD does.  Old School Essentials (and presumably B/X) and Lamentations of the Flame Princess's encumbrance systems don't factor strength in at all.  ACKS and Swords and Wizardry's encumbrance systems tie it in just a little.  Dungeon Crawl Classics' encumbrance system is "here's a comic making fun of people who carry unreasonable amounts of stuff, don't be that guy".  OSRIC was the one on my hard drive that cared most about Str, where a 3 Str character can carry 35 lbs less than a 10 Str one...  but a 10 Str character can carry 150 lbs, so a 3 Str character can still carry 115 lbs, which is very playable, and about 70% of what the 10 Str character can carry.  A 3 Str 5TD character can carry only 30% of what a 10 Str character can.

(To be fair with credit where credit is due - at least 5TD did what ACKS and LotFP did with encumbrance, where it's tracked in bigger quanta than the pounds that the AD&D-lineage games used)

What I'd change: set encumbrance limit to 10 Load plus or minus Str modifier. This allows low-Str characters to still carry their starting gear generally, while keeping the total amount that a party can carry very close to the same in expectation.  Also pare down starting equipment lists to about 6 Load, except Fighter's which is probably reasonable to leave around 10 Load.

Being encumbered in 5TD is also much worse than being encumbered in OSR systems, where generally it just reduces your speed.  Reduction of speed is really important strategically, because the faster you go the fewer random encounters you have, but you can still win fights if you're slow.  Disadvantage to all checks is both a severe combat penalty and somewhat dissociative - being encumbered makes it exactly as much more difficult to command my retainers, decipher an ancient inscription, or pick a lock as it does to leap over a chasm, dodge a trap, or climb a wall?  Does that seem right to you?

Easy fix: being encumbered applies disadvantage to Str, Dex, and Con-based checks.  It's still a blunt instrument but hey I did say it was an easy fix, not a good fix.

To put disadvantage in perspective: it's about a -3 on a d20 roll in expectation.  Going from 1st to 9th level, your proficiency bonus goes up by 2 points and you might get another +1 or +2 on a check due to stat increases.  So it you compare a 1st level character and an encumbered 9th (max) level character, their numbers on proficient checks are going to be similar.

You can't even count on your casters to save you if the party is fighting encumbered, because they have to roll to cast.

The way in which 5TD imposes the encumbrance penalty also strikes me as odd.  Up to Str score, you're fine.  But if you go a point over, bam, disadvantage to everything, and then the speed penalties scale up gradually after that.  This strikes me as the sort of penalty-gradient which will mostly incentivize players to just carry their Str score in stuff and avoid being encumbered at all.  By comparison most OSR systems don't make "how much should I carry" such an easy choice - encumbrance penalties begin at much lower weights and scale up gradually.  The question is less "should I be encumbered or not?" than "how encumbered should I be?"  Shallower penalty-gradients seem likely to produce more nuanced and thoughtful play than very steep ones like 5TD's.  These sort of difficult choices are especially seen with treasure in OSR games, where you've toppled a lair and taken their stuff and now you have to make hard choices about how much treasure to leave behind to avoid random encounters due to the speed penalty increasing the time it takes to get back to the exit.  It is very much gambling; do you take more treasure and hope to get lucky with the extra encounter rolls that result?  5TD players probably don't have this dilemma to the same degree - any fight with disadvantage to all rolls is something that you badly want to avoid, so if there's any possibility of a random encounter on the way out, you just go up to your Str and maybe dump some Supply points to make room.

Easy fix: instead of imposing disadvantage when encumbered, give a penalty to AC or initiative or something per Load over max, in addition to the 5' reduction in movement speed.  The problem with this solution is that both movement speed and AC/init matter nearly-only in combat, whereas the old disadvantage to all checks penalty makes being encumbered relevant to non-combat tasks in exploration.

Good fix: bring higher-granularity time-tracking to exploration and have encumbrance gradually reduce inter-combat speed, generating the classic OSR tradeoff with random encounters.  This preserves the relevance of encumbrance to non-combat tasks, but limits it tightly to an area that makes sense (movement speed) and also allows it to scale up gradually.  This also relates to one of 5TD's failures by deficiency.

5TD's encumbrance penalty is just... unsubtle, ham-fisted, not fully thought out.  I feel like a lot of 5TD's systems share this characteristic.

Next post: problems in supply and equipment

Friday, May 8, 2020

Five Torches Deep Review, Part 1: Contents

In this post: summary of the contents and subsystems of Five Torches Deep (hereafter 5TD), a 5e/OSR hybrid system.
Next posts: why I'm not a fan, in excruciating detail

The tl;dr of those complaints:

    • Encumbrance and dumpstats:
      • Encumbrance is unreasonably punitive for characters with low Str compared to both 5e and any retroclone I have ever seen
      • Encumbrance's very sharp transition from "unencumbered" to "overencumbered with very degraded combat capability" removes meaningful choices around how much stuff to carry
      • It doesn't make any sense to design systems to punish dumpstats when ability score generation doesn't allow you to dump particular stats 
    • Supply and equipment:
      • Supply is unreasonably punitive for characters with low Int
      • Supply is full of weird dissociative behavior
      • Equipment degradation is never worth the headache in a tabletop RPG
    • Resilience, corruptions, and maiming 
      • Resilience is unreasonably punitive for characters with low Con and will tend to disable and then kill them very quickly
      • Corruptions are lifted pretty much straight from Lamentations of the Flame Princess, but they're much more deadly under 5e's save structure and high-level characters are not substantially more likely to survive them than low-level characters.
      • The maiming table fails to perform the two essential functions of a maiming table: making penalties from near-deaths make sense within the game-world, and providing absolute, impartial fairness around death and penalties
    • Unreliable magic
      • Spellcasters in 5TD suffer (possibly-TPK-inducing) mishaps way more often than spellcasters in any magic system I have ever seen in tabletop gaming, including the Warhammer 40k RPGs
    • Travel vs Exploration
      • 5TD's rules for actually exploring sites in the OSR style, with choices about resource tradeoffs, are nonexistent.  There are lots of resources that suffer attrition, but very few choices about them built into the system itself.
      • There is no formal noncombat exploration game-loop, which is one of the best parts of TSR D&D.
      • 5TD's DMing and dungeon-building advice does not support long-term exploration of single sites in the OSR style.
    • The Homesteads supplement  
      • Feels incomplete; there's a clear place in the middle of the book where there should be a system, but instead it's left to DM fiat.  Little content for money.

    It's cool that this hybrid exists.  I hope it will be the beginning of a genre of hybrids which surpass it.  Given how hard the 5e folks seem to be homebrewing, this seems a more likely outcome than that my fear about 5TD will come to pass.  I fear that it will succeed, and it will come to be seen as representative of the best (or even typical) ideas of the OSR in 5e circles.  I think 5TD does enough things wrong that this could turn a lot of people off from OSR ideas, and a lot of quality gaming might be missed out on.

    5TD Chapter Summaries

    5TD is 48 pages, including the cover, table of contents, and six double-page spreads of artwork at chapter boundaries, so only 36 pages of text.  This is quite compact, even by OSR standards.  The art is...  reasonably-well executed, but it doesn't show any player characters dying horribly, which is surprising.  And having a quarter of the book be art is an awful lot.

    The first two pages after the table of contents are an introduction outlining design goals and core mechanic.  I disagree with some of these design goals, but I think 5TD mostly achieves them.  From the OSR, it cites "Danger is Real", "Cunning Over Crunch", "Magic Is Haphazard", and "Travel & Resources" as guiding principles.  In explaining its differences from 5e, the headings are "Weaker PCs", "Default DC 11", "No Dump Stats", and "New Mechanics", the most important chunk of which is "mechanics that reinforce the tropes of old-school games and the neo-clones that explicitly lean into the tolling [toiling?], souls-esque grindhouse."

    Six pages are allocated to character building, races, classes, and leveling.  Humans roll stats on 3d6 in order and swap any two, non-human races have two stats set to 13 and then roll the rest in order on 2d6+3 and have access to some classes gated by high ability score rolls.  No player race has darkvision, so carrying lighting matters.  XP is earned for GP recovered, and XP to each level increases roughly exponentially (so if you die and have to start over from 0 XP, by the time the rest of the party goes from their current level to the next level, you will end up just one level behind them).  Max character level is 9.  Classes are very simple - each of the Big Four (fighter, thief, wizard, "zealot" / cleric) gets a single page and three archetypes (eg, barbarian is a fighter archetype or subclass).  Starting HP are lower than in 5e, and you get some random rolls on a table for your starting mundane equipment (rope, torches, etc).

    I am on board with almost everything in this chapter.  My one complaint would be that some of the rules text is very compressed, to the point where its intent is not quite clear (eg, Fighter gets an ability "Orders: movement, ally can active action").  My other one complaint is that only assassins can get backstab / sneak attack and it's capped at +2d6.  I also have a few potential concerns/nits around other specific abilities but those are minor.

    Four pages are allocated to equipment, encumbrance, supply, repair, and crafting.  The variety of weapons and armor available is significantly reduced compared to 5e (and frankly many OSR systems).  Weapon damage is mostly increased a bit from 5e, except for two-handed martial weapons (greatsword damage actually goes down by half a point).  There are some weird things going on with some of the weapon and armor mechanics - max possible AC is in light armor with high dex, rather than in heavy armor, and some weapons let you add weird stats to damage (halberd lets you add Int, and crossbow lets you add Wis).  No explanation is given.

    The encumbrance system abstracts weight as points of Load, and you can carry Load up to your Str score.  Going over your Str by even a point of Load carries the pretty serious penalty of disadvantage to all checks and then increasing movement penalties the further over you go, but there are no penalties up to your Str.

    The supply system lets you pack a number of Supply points of abstracted-away misc adventuring gear equal to your Int score, and you can use those points to replenish your consumables, like ammunition, torches, spell components, and rations.

    Weapons and armor degrade with crit fails and critical hits by enemies, and you can spend Supply points to make rolls to repair them.  They have a variant of the Shields Shall By Splintered rule, but...  it only negates one or two points of damage instead of the whole attack, and shields give 2 points of AC instead of 1 like they do in most OSR D&Ds.  So this doesn't seem like it would see play very often (basically only when you expect a blow to kill you if you don't sacrifice your shield).

    The crafting system doesn't specify how much Supply it costs to make stuff, and it takes four consecutive successful rolls, each of which takes half a day, so crafting anything takes about two weeks of work, in expectation.

    Six pages are allocated to gameplay and mechanics.  Combat rules like initiative, types of actions, how to attack, damage, death, maiming, and morale get two pages.  Exploration concerns like timekeeping, traps, light, escaping the dungeon, evasion and pursuit, fatigue, and disease and poison ("corruptions") get the remaining four pages.

    The death and dying rules require an ally to stabilize you, and then you get to roll on the maiming table.  This is a nice middle ground between B/X's "dead at 0 HP" and 5e's "you have like a >50% chance to just get back up with 1HP under your own power".  The maiming table has a small chance of death, a small chance of you're fine, and most of the entries are 1d6 damage to an ability score, loss of a body part, or disadvantage to all rolls until you rest.

    Initiative is deterministic (no rolls), which is very odd.

    Timekeeping during exploration is done in one-hour exploration turns.  This is somewhat loose compared to OSR games where 10-minute turns are the norm, but it saves 5TD from having to talk about combat movement speed vs exploration movement speed.

    The evasion and pursuit rules don't provide much of an advantage to the smaller party (as individual pursuers can chase at their own speed), unlike most OSR evasion and pursuit rules which give small groups a pretty substantial advantage.  These pursuit rules are mostly written from the perspective of PCs chasing things rather than being chased, with PCs being chased as a note at the very end.

    The "roll to return" rules are similar to Justin Alexander's Escaping the Dungeon rules, but very cut down.

    You have to make a roll to retreat from combat.  I'm not really sure why.  It's also odd that this is way back in adventuring rather than with the combat rules.

    The resilience system lets you adventure for 1 hour per point of Con score.  Go beyond that and you have to start making a roll every hour or collapse from exhaustion, with your move speed reduced to zero (0) feet and disadvantage to all rolls.  I'm...  almost wondering if 0' here is a typo, and it should be (say) 10', because you can't rest off exhaustion in an unsafe resting place (like dungeon or hostile wilderness) and healing magic can't remove exhaustion, and your party almost certainly doesn't have the carrying capacity to carry you out (not that weights for characters are provided) so I guess you just get left behind and eventually die.  But then why bother with an exhaustion status, instead of "you die of exhaustion"?

    This is much steeper transition from "functioning normally" to "really messed up" than either 5e's or B/X's exhaustion rules.

    The poison / disease corruptions inflict exhaustion and increasing ability score damage.  They strongly resemble Lamentations of the Flame Princess' disease rules, where after failing the initial save you just keep making saves until it's run its course or you're dead (at 0 in any ability score), rather than the effect ending after a certain quantity of successful saves (as in 3.x, presumably 4e, and to some extent 5e).  The text is rather brief and the one boxed text example ends in the death of the afflicted character so I think that's how they're supposed to work but I'm not 100% sure.

    The magic system, including spell lists, gets four pages.  Spells known are pretty similar to B/X's numbers (so about half of 5e's), but you have to make a roll to cast and if you fail you lose access to spells of that spell level until your next rest in a safe place, and you have to roll on the mishaps table.  Mishaps are fairly severe and could easily swing a combat one way or the other.  There is an option to cast safely but it takes hours.

    Number of permanent magic items you can use / be attuned to is sharply limited to between 1 and 4, depending on your Cha.  An average character can only be attuned to one magic item.

    Spell lists are one page each for divine and arcane, including descriptions of spell effects.  Again, some spell effects are sufficiently brief as to be unclear and rely on prior knowledge of D&D.

    Light cantrip is duration Concentration.  I like this a lot.

    Invisibility moved to 3rd level and duration Concentration.  Odd.

    Silence also moved to 3rd level and duration Concentration.  Odd again.

    Sleep implementation is weird, scales up with level in ways that neither OSR sleep nor 5e sleep do.

    Is the divine Reforge cantrip supposed to totally obviate the need for the weapon and armor repair subsystem?  I guess it only works on mundane items so you can't use it to repair magic gear, but it should make keeping gear in good shape a lot easier for most of the game.

    Turn Undead is a 1st level spell like in LotFP.  Unlike in LotFP, it only affects undead of fewer HD than you have levels, so you can't really punch up with it, but no cap on total HD turned.  Sort of the obverse of sleep's changes, where your total HD slept are more limited but there's no per-creature cap.

    So if I cast fireball (er, furyfire), I have to make an attack modified by Int and proficiency against my targets'...  armor class?  If the party fighter happens to be caught in the blast (surely an honest mistake), his plate helps him avoid a fireball?  Wat?

    Retainers and monsters get six pages.  Retainers get one page, monsters get five.

    Number of retainers you can have is capped by Cha score.  Still, 10 retainers is quite a few.

    Henchmen (leveled retainers who work without pay) aren't available to the average character until 6th level (versus OSR games where they're usually available at like 2nd level and are really handy when you die, because you can just play your henchman and you're already in the dungeon and reasonably-leveled).

    There's an orders subsystem where you can give a mass of retainers orders in combat for some bonuses.

    Renown score is calculated purely from level and ability scores, no influence from actual deeds.

    Reaction rolls exist, but they're on d20 instead of 2d6 and they're not modified by Cha, only renown (and that seems at DM's discretion).

    Four pages on building or converting monsters.  I would not have ordered these pages the way that they were ordered - the page with instructions on how to use the table of monster stats by HD comes last.

    Monsters go up to 18HD.  The "average HP" numbers are not the average you'd get if you actually rolled the stated HD; they err slightly low across most of the HD range.

    Recommendation to halve HP of 5e monsters that are being converted.

    The whole monster building system leaves me sort of ambivalent.  It's very concerned with the tactics of monsters (roles, techniques / special abilities, mixes of roles that you could use for encounters - reminds me of 4e's philosophy of monsters though I haven't read enough 5e to rule out the possibility that that philosophy is still mainstream), not very naturalistic (nothing resembling Number Appearing or % in Lair, for example), nor very concerned about associativity of monster mechanics.  Frankly the only things that feel OSR about this system are that there is no conception of challenge rating and that you don't have to assign ability score values for monsters.

    Guidelines on treasure are very cursory.  Alignment makes a brief appearance but it's basically "supernaturally evil or not supernaturally evil".

    One page of worked-out monster statblocks.  Hobgoblins are 4 HD, much higher than in either 5e or OSR systems.  Monster entries have no XP values, so I think killing monsters gives no XP, only recovering gold and magic items.

    Almost to the end now.  Four pages of DMing stuff.  One page on structuring campaigns and sessions, one on principles for making rulings, one page of random...  plot? generator table, and one page of using a Rubik's cube to help generate dungeons, which gets points for novelty and for the amusement value of watching them studiously avoid saying "Rubik's cube".

    The advice on structuring sessions is...  more narrative than how I do things.  It gives much more truck to narratively-bookending sessions and placing PCs in "dramatic situations" than to letting them explore environments at their own pace, but it does caution against trying to tell a particular story and instead encourages letting PCs make choices between eg factions to ally with.  So it could be worse, especially for DMs coming from environments where "repressed novelist" is prevalent.  And it's not like the old-school source materials didn't have their own share of this problem (the infamous Dragonlance modules spring to mind).

    The principles for making rulings are mostly pretty decent.

    The random connections table is OK, the random descriptors table seems too high-entropy to be very useful.

    Two pages of quick reference, including the only copy of the table for rolling starting mundane equipment.  It doesn't appear in the equipment chapter or the character generation chapter.

    Next post(s): My big structural and philosophical issues with 5TD.  There were some little nitpicks in this post.  Next post's complaints will not be like that.

    Saturday, May 2, 2020

    The Ecstasy of Gold

    ecstasy, noun: an emotional or religious frenzy or trance-like state.

    Once upon a time, I held an ounce of gold in my hand and reflected on it for a couple of minutes, and I heard its song.  This post was prompted by hearing that song again recently (well, that and worrying about inflation).

    I think there's more to the valuation of gold than the economists think.  I think it speaks to people on a primeval level, once you've tasted it.

    It is one thing to have been told that gold is dense, and to know it numerically.  It is another to feel its weight in your hand.  Physics gives an inherent gravitas to it, a seriousness.  It isn't easy-come-easy-go; the effort of picking it up forbids it.  You can't light cigars with it or "make it rain" at the club.  In your hand it has the feeling of a solidly-made tool, of a good hammer or your grandfather's fixed-blade hunting-knife.  It feels durable, permanent, faith-worthy.  But it is a faith which demands works, the bearing of burdens.  It is a faith that demands care, that your purse is kept well-mended and free of holes.  An old-style faith, of the keeping of covenants.

    The color is that of warm sunshine; neither the pale cold sun of winter nor the killing white sun of the desert.  It is a life-giving color, the color of grain ready for harvest, of baked bread, of beer, of calories against the cold, of abundance, and of the weather under which crops are abundant and one relaxes in simple contentment.  To laze in the sun is not an instinct exclusive to man, but shared with the animals (particularly cats, among man's companions).  Gold calls to mind this universal experience.  Gold-worship is sun-worship writ small.

    Can you impart these feelings to your players, through verbal description?  I dunno.  Maybe.  Seems worth trying.  It certainly makes a lot of sense of the willingness to go into dark holes in the ground and fight terrible things to get it.  I do think maybe D&D cheapens the value of gold by making it the standard currency, and one could make silver the standard and have gold replace platinum to boost its impact.

    I could also see a fantasy coinage scheme where you name your coin-types celestially; gold suns, silver moons, copper planets, iron stars.  If you wanted a more supernatural take on it, you could make gold literal fragments of the sun god, which would explain why magic research consumes it in great quantities.  This could also be spun to provide in-world justification for "1 XP per GP".