Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Playtest Post-Mortem: Marsupialmancer's Initiative

I'm not a flake, you're a flake. Nuh uh, shut up.

Yesterday, on the evening of Memorial Day, I roped a few friends into Roll20 to do some live-fire testing of my homebrewed initiative rules (you can download them on the sidebar, or get them directly here). Note that this linked version includes changes made by virtue of this playtest, broken down below.

We focused primarily on Counting Initiative, which I was the most fond of, but feared the complexities it would introduce. Three combats of varying difficulty, player count, and monster count helped me give the system a shake down that was much better than my internal playtesting.

The playtest characters were all third level, and consisted of players from all levels of experience with 5th Edition and RPGs in general. At least one had never played 5th Edition before last night, but had plenty of experience with 1st and 2nd Edition as well as some other fantasy RPGs. Several were extremely experienced and I could rely on to break the system over their knee.

For clarity, the pregenerated characters I gave them were a human (variant) champion fighter, a mountain dwarf berserker barbarian, a half-elf lore bard, a human (variant) thief rogue, and a halfling (lightfoot, but reflavored as kender) hunter ranger.

The results were very promising.

As a quick TL;DR, Counting Initiative is designed to give players a little more tactical fidelity if they don't have to or want to take every conceivable action available to them. When rolling initiative, you roll a single d6 and add no modifiers (Dex-focused characters already get a whole lot, so while this does devalue Dex, I didn't think it was too awful). Operating under the six second round paradigm, the system assumes that a bonus action, a regular action, and a move counted for six ticks making up a round. Thus, if you took all three of those, your initiative count advanced by six.

However, if you didn't want to move, for example, you only took the Attack action while standing toe to toe with a monster. Thus, you only move up three ticks in the count. You can go again when the count reaches your current count plus three.

There's a handy-dandy chart. Since most DMs I know do their own turn tracking, this didn't cause players to do any more mathing than they usually did unless they wanted to optimize their actions.

Example: Aspira the Aspirant rolls for initiative and gets a 3. The DM rolls for the monsters, who get a 5. Aspira is first in the combat, and acts on count 3. She moves to close the distance (2), and uses the Attack action (3). Her count moves to 8, and when 8 happens, she goes again. 
On count 5, the monsters act. Under Counting Initiative, all monster turns take six ticks regardless of what they do, to save DM headache. At the end of their turn, the monsters' next action is on count 11.
On count 8, Aspira goes again. She uses the Attack action to fell her current opponent (3), moves to the next in line (2), and uses Second Wind as a bonus action to heal some damage suffered from the monsters' attacks (1). Thus, her count advances to 14.

I was really worried this would introduce a lot of complications to the battles, but it ended up playing out very elegantly. The players correctly cited some intended effects; turreting or standing and swinging made you go more often, while movement and using extra actions slowed you down. Dual wielding weapons, by virtue of requiring a bonus action, helped provide some more incentive to wielding a two-handed weapon (less chances to crit, can suffer from whiffs a lot harder -- I know about Great Weapon Mastery, so give me a bit to get to that).

Readiness -- that is, the act of being able to use bonus actions and reactions -- ended up playing out quite smoothly as well, so players couldn't just spam 1 count bonus actions every tick of the combat. That is, you had to take any action before reactions and bonus actions were "ready" again -- even movement wasn't enough.

That said, it wasn't all wine and roses. The system has some bumps that need to be ironed out.

Firstly, ranged characters that were amply protected and did not need to move could be murderous turrets. Acting every three ticks can set up situations where you go twice before the monsters go again. When paired with feats like Sharpshooter and certain class abilities, archers could become extremely deadly. Melee didn't feel quite as scary here because they already tend to be at the most risk, being up in the face of monsters trying to claw their faces off.

Regarding Great Weapon Master fighters, my impetus for not rating them as high on the per-tick deadliness scale as a comparable Sharpshooter archer is due to needing to move to close to new targets. The archer can turret if not given pressure to relocate, whereas the frothing barbarian needs to wade through a sea of blood and steel to get to the next victim of the hewing greataxe.

Since the system already assumes that cantrips are 3 tick actions, and other spells are 4 tick actions, it felt logical to change it so melee attacks are 3 tick actions and ranged attacks are 4 tick actions. There's a bit of necessary aiming involved, so narratively it at least made some sense.

Second, monsters were too slow. Waiting 6 ticks to go again exacerbated some of the doubling, but I didn't want non-Legendary monsters to involve piles of disparate turn tracking when there were more than a couple monsters on the board. Thus, after a bit of throwing spaghetti at the wall, I think the comfortable magic number is 5. This would also be modified by certain creatures who are traditionally associated with being extremely quick (like some small fey, or kobolds) act every 4 ticks.

Third, small movements felt too punishing. The dreaded specter of the five foot step (or shifting, for 4th Edition alumni) reared its ugly head. Rather than provide a sliding scale of movement cost, it's probably simplest to have movement of only five feet cost 1 tick, while anything greater (including standing up from prone) to cost 2.

This also might lead to a slight buff of the Athlete feat, where by virtue of rules-as-written it would decrease the cost of standing up from prone to a 1 tick action (Athlete, among other things, allowing you to stand up from prone using only 5 feet of movement rather than half).

The playtest also did not adequately test spell durations and start/end of next turn effects. I would want round two of testing, with the above changes, to involve a bit of that for more rigorous review.

All in all, this was a huge success as far as the playtesting went. I am eager to see what comes next.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Moving stuff over to GM Binder

I've been made aware that Homebrewery is no longer supported and my stuff could disappear any day. Thus, I've moved everything over to GM Binder, the tool created to carry the torch in Homebrewery's wake.

Old links in archived entries will probably still point to Homebrewery until such time as it kicks the bucket. I will NOT be going through to update those because the sidebar has all the up to date links. If you note formatting issues, let me know! Keep in mind GM Binder, like Homebrewery, works best in Chrome.

If all else fails, you should be able to grab a PDF of it from the link provided.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Tools, Crafting, and Research Rules

I emerge from the tomb of ages to supply you with a thing made for my homebrew setting games, but which might have use in your own material.

(I'm not dead, just blasted with a million things to do. Urban Arcana and the adventure module are still in progress.)

Enjoy it here, constructive critique is welcome. I'm certain I retread some ideas explored elsewhere.

As it relates to some potentially-unclear things:

  • I use an injury track system in my homebrew, which is what the tonics that cooking produces are meant to help with.
  • The "based on product" values for the potions and magic oils use a chart I have in my DM guide for the setting, but can generally be spitballed as 1/4 the cost of the potion/oil on the open market.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Urban Arcana: Tools of the Trade

This one'll be short, it's been a hectic week in the game dev mines.

The section on modern tools is somewhat harder to design than I expected. We have a lot of crap that we mess with from day to day, and picking and choosing what qualifies as an actual tool proficiency is difficult at best. Still, I think I was able to narrow it down to a few categories to start, with leave to shrink and grow as needed.

Still, there's a huge gulf of knowledge between a layperson and a true master with a given tool, so I felt the length and breadth of modern tool knowledge should also have associated augmentation. As always, first drafts, feedback is welcome, et cetera, ad nauseum.

Cars, vans, and small trucks are included under this category. Alternately, you can be proficient in driving motorcycles and other similar equipment. Most people can drive a car with minimal training, so this proficiency includes practiced handling, diagnosing simple issues, and performing minor maintenance such as changing the oil or testing the battery. 
The real marvel of the modern world, computers control almost every aspect of our daily lives. Though anybody can use basic functions of a computer, actual proficiency includes diagnosing issues, installing or replacing hardware, basic coding, and realizing that the median state of an Internet browser is not a sliver of window beneath a dozen malware toolbars. 
Heavy/Construction Equipment
While a layperson might not know the difference between a backhoe and a bulldozer, a person with this proficiency can correctly spot and operate most common construction equipment. You are also trained in the operation and handling of large hauling equipment, from semi trucks to heavy machine transports. This proficiency is separate from automobiles due to the vast difference in handling requirements, as well as the specialized training that goes into operating the mechanisms associated with the vehicle. 
Small Aircraft
With this proficiency, you are capable of piloting simple small aircraft such as a prop plane or a weather chopper, as well as perform minor maintenance. You also understand the assocaited flight jargon and can communicate with air traffic control to help direct aircraft. 
Small Naval Craft
This proficiency includes everything from marsh boats and speed boats to small sailing ships. You can articulate nautical charts and perform basic navigation, as well as help guide other vessels into or out of harbor. You do not require this proficiency to use basic water craft, such as jet skis or the like.

To facilitate greater understanding, I've also created a feat to go along with it.

Advanced Training

Prerequisite: One modern tool proficiency 
Effect: You increase your Intelligence score by 1. You choose one modern tool with which you are proficient. You are considered a master with that tool and can operate equipment with a greater learning curve or with restricted access. 
Automobile mastery allows you to either drive extreme performance vehicles or understand advanced mechanics. You will require mechanics' tools to perform standard jobs, or a facility with appropriate lifts to perform advanced repairs and upgrades. 
Computer mastery allows you to perform feats of hacking and hardware modification. You must have access to appropriate programs, platforms, and connections in order to hack into devices. 
Heavy/construction mastery allows you to either coordinate and manage large construction or transportation projects for large organizations, or to understand heavy machine mechanics. You will require appropriate tools and facilities to perform associated repairs. 
Small aircraft mastery allows you to operate advanced aerial vehicles such as passenger planes. Alternately, this mastery can give you the knowledge to operate military aircraft. 
Small naval craft mastery gives you the knowledge required to fashion your own water craft given tools and materials, as well as navigate by primitive means. 

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Initiative Junk

I've spent some time over the last week working on the Birthright adventure module and Urban Arcana, but also cranked out some stuff based on various discussions I've had with people regarding initiative. As many know, it was a hot topic in the D&D fanbase a couple months ago when Mike Mearls put out his Greyhawk Initiative variant. I'm personally not a fan of it, but whatever works at your table is fine.

I've fired a few ideas at the wall here, and there will also be a link up on the Completed Projects sidebar (see its new location on the right side). Neither has been road-tested yet, and both are inspired by other endeavors.  Counting Initiative is based off an idea presented by the 2nd Edition of Hackmaster, which goes into frankly absurd levels of articulation that are not well-suited to a 5E table. Group Initiative is just an update of old D&D rules, and I'm hardly the first person to suggest it.

Really, this packet is something I put together for my groups as an easy reference, but figured they could be useful as a discussion piece. I wanted to run some sessions for testing these at some point. Counting Initiative in particular seems like it could be troublesome in a lot of ways, particularly as it relates to tracking spell durations (something 5E has thus far avoided apart from "concentration" and "start/end of next turn"). Spells with such durations would basically be added to the initiative count under this system and "tick" every time their number comes up.

Group Initiative is the simplest and least intrusive, and probably the way I'd actually suggest groups do things to keep the moment-to-moment activity going. It would suck if you have a group that can't decide what it wants to do on the best of days, though.

Anyway, have fun with it. Constructive feedback is welcome.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

GM Diary: Shadow of the Demon Lord: The Beginning: Colons: Review Edition

Last night tied off the first adventure I ran for my Wednesday night group, which was established to test drive Shadow of the Demon Lord. Our group consisted of four players and one GM (myself), using Roll20 as our medium given the distance between all of us. The adventure took four three hour sessions to complete from start to finish.

The game intrigues me because, well, I kind of like grimdark worlds. In that way, the world of Urth* comes across like the Warhammer Fantasy setting without the heavy doses of self-parody inherent in the latter. You'll find most of the typical fantasy elements with a few tweaks, but it's all fairly familiar to RPG veterans.

*The one part of the setting that merits an immediate grimace.

Character creation is straightforward and takes all of a couple minutes if you know what you're doing, which is good -- it is really, really easy to die as a "level zero" character, which is how everyone starts out. The group ended up being comprised of an extremely hairy goblin who was obsessed with collecting spoons, a dwarf who was more beard than anything else, a clockwork that was approximately centaur-shaped and quite large, and a halfling (not a core race, interestingly enough, compared to the goblin and clockwork) conscript who was turned out of the army with exactly 1 copper piece to his name.

The group enjoyed a bit of consideration as to their origins during the session zero where creation took place, and then dove into the action. I set their game in a fictional (as far as the setting goes, anyway) city on the edge of the Bone Marsh, in the setting's "default" land, the Northern Reaches. That is to say, in the core rulebook, it is the region that receives the most detailed description, a la Faerun's Sword Coast.

Support your local Roll20 art providers!
The game does a good job of giving groups an incentive to find work. There is a mechanic for living expenses, which are paid between adventures and are shorthand for how well you intend to live. For a group of down-on-their-luck misfits in a city at the ass-end of nowhere, halfway between a thriving but expensive port city and the Crusader States, it was easy to motivate them into taking a job.

After a courier job where they stole back a bottle of swamp-folk medicine from a mischievous buckawn who appropriated it as its own, the players were entangled in a family dilemma. This turned into a strange conspiracy where decadent nobles ended up being involved in as-yet-mysterious operation to distribute an elixir purportedly able to turn humans into wild and barbaric beastmen.

No, not that one.
The players seemed to have fun, and at the conclusion of the adventure they advanced to level one. In SotDL, this is the point where you select your novice career from among four basic options: magician, priest, rogue, warrior. This spread of fantasy archetypes should surprise you only if you've never heard of the fantasy genre before in your life. As mundane as this sounds, later levels let you earn more classes (or "paths" in SotDL vernacular), and the Expert paths in the core book alone number sixteen alone. The Master paths, selected at 7th level, number sixty-four in the same book.

My group fell into the four classic roles as they played, somewhat predictably if you happened to know the players and what they gravitate to (I have, for over a decade in three of the four cases). The clockwork became a warrior, the goblin a rogue, the dwarf a priest, and the halfling a magician.

In this game, conflict resolution is easy and keeps complexity to a bare minimum. SotDL uses a system of boons and banes that act as d6 modifiers to the result of d20 rolls, and boon/bane dice can cancel each other out. Multiple dice of the same kind apply only their highest result, not the total of all results (so your best result is generally going to be 26 before ability modifiers, no matter how many boons you have).

This is about as complicated as it gets, which I don't know is a good thing for groups accustomed to lots of crunch. SotDL is somewhat less crunchy than even D&D 5E, and I was frequently checking back for things I should be having the players do while scenes played out. Even spell resolutions are easy, in contrast to some fairly complex D&D ones. There are professions, but no weapon proficiencies, no armor proficiencies, and no saving throws. Everything pertinent to your character is derived from your three main attributes (Strength, Agility, Intellect), and every challenge roll is an attribute check of some kind using those three stats.

The game runs very smoothly, and most of your complexity comes in figuring out character builds and managing Corruption and Insanity (assuming you do things to accrue them). I worry a little that the relative lack of crunchiness is a turn-off to my more seasoned players, but so far that isn't the case.

If I were to cite a potential complaint, the small number of novice paths makes veterans not want to pursue similar careers even if they end up having different expert/master path plans. There's precious little that differentiates characters early on, so characters of the same path are nearly identical in all respects unless their ancestry is radically different (a goblin warrior would play differently than a Size 2 clockwork warrior, but not appreciably different than a human warrior). Later levels help out, as you get to pick some defining abilities and training within your path(s), but you might be waiting a while depending how long your early adventures take.

It's fortunate that this group went one each into the four novice paths, so this is probably the ideal scenario. All in all, I'm looking forward to seeing where this goes, and playing more sessions of it. It's a fun system, if you don't like rolling dice very much and having a fairly high mortality rate if you do something dumb or make a bad roll.

And, you know. Being corrupted or going insane.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Urban Arcana: Backgrounds

Backgrounds are a feature of 5E that I really enjoy. They're flavorful enough to help create a story for your character, add mechanical benefits in the form of starting equipment and proficiencies, and flexible enough that you can assemble your own background pretty quickly if none of the existing options appeal.

For Urban Arcana, I wanted to make sure existing core 5E backgrounds still had a place, but introduce new ones that were more appropriate to the world with which we are familiar. Naturally, there's going to be some overlap or similarity, but the difference between a fantasy survivalist who contends with a savage wilderness where magical beasts lurk and a modern day survivalist who uses academic know-how to overcome situations is enough to possibly warrant a variant.

The most crucial difference, though, is the tools of the trade. A white collar worker is just going to have a different set of talents than an elven aristocrat fresh off the teleport pad from the magical world of your choice. Even if both are members of the wizard class, the latter might have training in courtly dance, poetry, and heraldry, while the former wrote a program to manage their spellbook on their enchanted smartphone.

There's also the question of weapon proficiencies. I wanted to allow the existing backgrounds to help determine what sort of weapon proficiencies, archaic or modern, the character's class gave them. A fighter from a fantasy world knows how to use all kinds of swords, polearms, whips, bows, and axes. A fighter from the modern world might be an enlisted soldier, trained in firearms, combat knives, and situational weapons such as a trench shovel.

Point being, the world in which a character grew up would help determine what it is their class taught them to use. To wit, the backgrounds I present below are all considered "modern backgrounds" and thus modify class proficiencies. Basic 5E backgrounds would instead give the standard "archaic" weapon groups.

Of course, I might end up retooling the weapon and armor proficiencies entirely. We'll see.

I haven't done any of the ideals/bonds/flaws charts for these yet, as those tend to come later and are pure fluff that many experienced players ignore anyway. They'll be in the final product. I'm also taking suggestions for other backgrounds to make; I need to do some crime-focused one to mirror the base criminal background, as well as an academic one that mirrors a sage/scholar.

Blue Collar

The virtues of hard work don't always pay off, but a strong work ethic and a dedication to family and community are the hallmarks of the blue collar worker. Whether it's a factory job, a skilled trade, or even labor, the blood and sweat of blue collar society greases the wheels of modern civilization.

In the modern magical world, most blue collar workers are humans born into that lifestyle, but non-humans also make up a significant percentage of that demographic. Dwarves, orcs, bugbears, and others may find themselves well-suited to such jobs.

Skill Proficiencies: Insight, plus one Charisma skill of your choice (Deception, Intimidation, Performance, Persuasion).

Tool Proficiencies: One set of modern tools of your choice, plus either automobiles or computers.

Modern Proficiencies: You are proficient in the modern version of your class's standard weapon proficiencies.

Equipment: Civilian identification, a set of modern tools with which you are proficient, a multitool, a pre-paid cell phone, a set of common clothes, and a wallet with $100.

Feature: I Know a Guy

One of the strengths of the blue collar community is a strong networking with other trade workers. Even if you don't know how to do a particular thing yourself, you can always reach out to your friendly contacts to find a skilled tradesperson in the field you need within any modern settled area.


The world is full of people who avoided, or for some reason couldn't, devote themselves to a particular trade or career. Maybe you just hated the idea of continued education, having been bored to death in school to begin with. Perhaps circumstances kept you out of the system and unable to succeed, through reasons outside of your control.

It's not that you lack talents -- far from it. You simply don't have a focus, and it is this lack of focus that affords you great flexibility, at the cost of society's brand of success.

Skill Proficiencies: Any two Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma skills of your choice.

Tool Proficiencies or Languages: You are proficient either in any one modern tool set, one modern instrument, or any one modern language.

Modern Proficiencies: You are proficient in the modern version of your class's standard weapon proficiencies.

Equipment: Civilian identification, a pocket knife, a one-way bus ticket, a set of common clothes, and a wallet with $50.

Feature: Flexible Training

Part of the problem with never focusing on a specific skill, but being very quick on the uptake, is that it is easy to forget how to do something once your brain switches gears. After completing a long rest in which you read up on a technical manual, watch a detailed online course, or do some hands-on training with an expert in a field, you can forget one tool proficiency, instrument, or language in which you are proficient and replace it with the relevant tool, instrument, or language of your choice.

Once you use this feature, you cannot do so again until at least 30 days have passed.


You never could stay in one place for long. Maybe someone had it out for you, or you lost everything at the tables in Atlantic City. Perhaps it was due to spending all your time and money on the inside of a bottle.

Well, the world really got more complicated, because now there's magic and really weird folks walking right alongside the rest of us.

Skill Proficiencies: Perception, Survival

Languages: One of your choice from modern languages, as well as "hobo glyphs."

Modern Proficiencies: You are proficient in the modern version of your class's standard weapon proficiencies.

Equipment: Civilian identification, a pocket knife, a backpack, a first aid kit, a set of threadbare common clothes, and a wallet with $5.

Feature: Invisible to Society

Subconsciously or otherwise, people tend to overlook the downtrodden and the homeless. Prejudice and societal scorn form a cloak around you, one that makes it easy to appear innocuous in large groups of people.

You are skilled in blending into the background of crowds and urban environments. So long as you are not dressed in a manner that draws attention to you, or in a location where a stranger would stand out, you can move from place to place without drawing attention to yourself. Mechanically, this can manifest as disadvantage on ability checks made to notice you in public.

Law Enforcement

In the real world, there's an axiom about how no one wants a cop around until they need one. This remains true in the modern magical world, but a large portion of that has to do with the fact that laws and procedures do not yet account for the arrest and prosecution of dragons and wizards. A few very confused, very twitchy cops with body cameras can turn a bad situation worse when a magical being is involved.

Nevertheless, you have a background in law enforcement. Perhaps you left the force after peeking behind the curtain and seeing what was really going on, or becoming disillusioned with police corruption, endless crime, or low pay (or perhaps all of the above). Alternately, you could still be employed as part of a special, off-the-books task force dedicated to enforcing laws on a very strange populace indeed.

Skill Proficiencies: Athletics, Investigation

Languages: One of your choice from modern languages.

Modern Proficiencies: You are proficient in the modern version of your class's standard weapon proficiencies.

Equipment: Civilian identification, a light pistol with no mods, 24 light pistol bullets, high-powered flashlight, a set of common clothes, and a wallet with $150.

Feature: Friend on the Force

Whether or not you are still part of the agency, you know at least one person with access to files, goods, or information that you can call for a favor. Some possibilities include a court clerk, the precinct's medical examiner, or a police informant. You may contact this individual for help in their particular field, but they will often request a favor from you in return.

Once you use this feature, it is considered bad manners to do so again before 30 days have passed. Asking for help too often may cause the contact to break off ties with you, or get both of you in trouble with their superiors.


Every country in the modern world has a standing military, though the training offered varies wildly based on the defense budget allocated for recruitment and outfitting. You were part of a major military branch, such as the U.S. Marines, the German Heer, or the Israeli Defense Forces, with commensurate training and outlook.

You might have completed officer training or did a tour (or several) as an enlisted recruit. Regardless of what your role in the services was, you are now entering a very different world.

Skill Proficiencies: Athletics, Intimidation

Tool Proficiencies: One set of modern tools of your choice.

Modern Proficiencies: You are proficient in the modern version of your class's standard weapon proficiencies.

Equipment: Military identification, a set of military dress, a set of common clothes, a half-dozen surplus MREs, and a wallet with $100.

Feature: Military Rank

You possessed a rank while in the service and can reach out to others in your unit or who served in the same division as you for favors or shelter. While it is highly unlikely that you can get military grade requisitions as part of this favor, you might be able to use this contact to get your hands on surplus that would be bound for civilian resale anyway.

If world events become dire, it is possible that your military may call you back into service. It is generally a very serious legal offense to ignore this call without sufficient cause.

White Collar

Whether you went to law school and joined a firm as a junior partner, or worked your way into the corporate system through hard work and more than a little brown-nosing, the white collar field is your home now. A cutthroat industry of office politics, crushing bureaucracy, and possibly some long hours looking busy at a desk is probably not how you imagined earning your keep, but it pays the bills.

Skill Proficiencies: Investigation, Persuasion

Tool Proficiencies: Computers

Equipment: Civilian identification, a set of business attire, a set of common clothes, a key to your apartment, and a wallet with $200.

Feature: Part of the System

Being part of the system is a blessing and a curse when you're involved in the modern magical world. Chances are high that you have a primary care physician, a mediocre health plan, a modest place to live, and a savings account. You can sign up for most services and take out credit lines with a little bit of work and a few hours on the phone.

Of course, this also tethers you to a world that doesn't really appreciate one voice in the hundreds of millions of voices. Creditors will pursue you, coworkers will recognize you, and your fingerprints (perhaps even literal ones) are all over government databases. It's hard to break free, but maybe you don't want to -- being able to go to the doctor is a privilege few can afford these days.