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.

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