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.

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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.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Urban Arcana: Firearm Weapon Properties and Some Spells

Modern firearms don't neatly fit into even the suggested guidelines in the DMG, so I am stretching out a bit into new mechanics in the form of weapon properties. This design had to consider the following points:

  • A property might need to be broad enough to cover similar properties of entire groups of firearms.
  • It also needs to be simple to remember.
  • It also needs to not break the hell out of the game.

That said, there's a lot of reasons firearms supplanted the archer, the knight, and the pike. Their incredible killing potential aside, it's really all about a relatively light amount of physical prowess required to kill a whole lot of dudes way over there. So it's okay that guns are dangerous in 5E Urban Arcana.

Anyway, here's a rough draft of what I've come up with.

An automatic firearm chambers a new round without needing to remove one's finger from the trigger, and can be used to perform two additional attack modes. When you make an attack using an automatic firearm, you can opt to perform a three-round burst. This attack grants you advantage on the attack roll, but consumes three rounds from your ammunition. You cannot perform a three-round burst if you do not have at least three rounds remaining in the firearm's magazine.
You may also attempt to perform a spray with a full magazine. The entire magazine is consumed when you make this attack. In lieu of making attack rolls, you may force a number of creatures in a cone with a range equal to the weapon's medium range to make a Dexterity saving throw or suffer the firearm's damage. The number of creatures you can affect is equal to the number of bullets in the magazine. The DC for this saving throw is 8 + your Dexterity modifier + your proficiency bonus.
 Most weapons are not automatic by default, and this property is typically bestowed upon a weapon by using a weapon modification kit. Automatic firearms are illegal in nearly all civilian environments, and owning one without sufficient clearance is grounds for arrest, confiscation, and/or fines by Earthly law enforcement entities.
Weapons with the loud property cannot be used for their traditional attack without causing a great deal of noise. Whenever you make an attack with a loud weapon that is not benefiting from a silencer or other means of suppressing noise, the sound of the attack can be heard up to 1000 feet away in open ground, or 300 feet away inside a typical building. 
Unlike the more punitive loading quality, you may make as many attacks as the weapon has in its magazine before you must use an action to reload the weapon.

Of course, a trained firearm expert is going to be able to reload a weapon rather quickly. Thus I also include a feat:

Rapid Reload
Prerequisite: None. 
Effect: Your Dexterity score increases by 1. You may replace the magazine on any weapon with the reload quality as a bonus action rather than an action.

Now, there's something to be said for some weapons not being able to load quite as fast as that. Loading up some kinds of shotguns might take you longer than the couple seconds implied in a bonus action (I know I'm inviting myself to be eviscerated by someone saying they can do it faster, but I am willing to eat crow on that), but like I say in the design goal bullet points, I'm trying to be broad and still reasonably accurate here.

Same with the Loud quality. I'm completely spitballing on how far away you can hear a gunshot. If you're in an open desert in the dead of a still night, you can hear gunfire from quite far away.  I leave those ranges open for correction, but incredibly loud firefights do provide some impetus to get close and dirty with your magic sword against the bugbear mafia when there's a god-baby with an apocalyptic scream sleeping in the crib upstairs.

That may or may not have happened in the old d20 Modern game I ran. Just saying.

Other things I may need to consider are ammunition type, since shot is different from slug which is different from sabot... you see where this rabbit hole leads. I need to be careful to remain true to 5E design goals and not turn firearms into an abyss of corner cases and specialty rules.

I've already got a bunch of weapon mod ideas for them and that's going to be bad enough.

As a bonus, I've converted a couple of spells so far from the old rules and introduced one new spell that I used in my old campaign (silver was important for overcoming damage reduction since magic weapons were still incredibly rare and being smuggled in from the magic world).

Burglar's Buddy
2nd-level illusion

Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 120 feet
Components: V, S, M (the cover of a camera lens)
Duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes

You suppress the functions of electronic or mechanical alarm systems and sensors in a 15 foot radius centered on a point within range. The affected systems include, but are not necessarily limited to, motion detectors, pressure sensors, laser grids, and video cameras.

Cameras continue to broadcast the last thing they saw before the spell was cast in the area, but this spell does not create a visual "dead zone" if the camera itself lies outside of the range of the spell.

1st-level transmutation

Casting Time: 1 action
Range: Touch
Components: V, S
Duration: Instantaneous

You touch a device that contains electronic data, such as a computer or flash drive. All data upon that object is immediately and irrevocably erased.

Steel to Silver
1st-level transmutation

Casting Time: 1 action
Range: Touch
Components: S, M (a silver object about the size of a fingernail)
Duration: Concentration, up to 1 hour

You touch a single weapon, 20 arrows, 20 crossbow bolts, or a single magazine of bullets. For the duration of the spell, the weapon takes on a silvery sheen and strikes as though it were crafted of pure silver without sacrificing any of its durability or penetrating power.

At Higher Levels. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, you may affect one additional weapon as outlined above for each spell level above 1st.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Pre-generated Characters for the Fantastic West

At a local home-convention run by industry coworkers, I occasionally get tapped to run RPGs for convention goers. About four years ago I ran a smash and grab dungeon crawl/card game using a slimmed down D&D and some treasure cards I made. It was called Dwarves: Conquerors of the Infinite Dungeons, and after some missteps with the treasure card mechanics (leading to fierce competition rather than cooperation for the incidental prize at the end) I opted for something a bit more cooperative for following years.

Two years ago, I instead ran Adventures in the Fantastic West, a fantasy western using 5th Edition D&D as the chassis and the gun rules in the DMG. With D&D mysticism and a pile of six-guns, the players had a ton of fun with the slapdash setting I threw together for the game, where a fantasy society expands outwards and runs headlong into a buried empire that the natives tried very hard to put down in their ancient history.

This year I've been called upon to run another game, so I'm going to run Return to the Fantastic West with a new batch of pre-generated characters. It also helps as a test bed for some mechanics I'm working on for Urban Arcana, so it's well-timed. Tonight I quickly whipped up the characters I'm going to let the sign-ups pick from, with an eye towards being fast and loose with the D&D rules and mixing in some altered class mechanics.

These were generally built with fun in mind and not min-maxing, so you'll see some odd choices and spell picks in the interest of ease of use for newcomers to D&D. This isn't the place to excoriate me for not playing to the meta. Power gaming is boring to me.

You'll note a few of the following bits herein:

  • Characters were generated using the standard array and don't utilize feats (they're only 3rd level).
  • The Firearms fighting style is simply the Archery fighting style, renamed
  • The paladin can smite with their shotgun, and their Oath is pseudo-custom.
  • The warlock's pact weapon is the Devil's Right Hand, a hellish revolver.
  • The rogue can always sneak attack with their seventh shot.
  • The ranger is using the Revised Ranger UA
  • The cleric is using the Life domain, but using the setting's "Order of the Golden Caduceus" secret society as a backdrop.
  • I'm loosely basing the Deadtracker's hunting rifle off of the .44 Winchester, but couldn't find a reliable source for how many cartridges it could hold before needing a reload. I guessed five. I'll keep looking for info and ask my Western historian friends when I can.
  • It should also probably be heavy, disallowing the halfling from using it without suffering disadvantage, but I'm letting it slide because it's cool.

Some day I may even flesh this out into an actual setting, but it's got enough issues and tough-to-tackle subjects that I might not try it. The evil undead empire underneath the Fantastic West could very easily be misconstrued for "spooky Indian burial ground" and other such tropes with unfortunate implications, when it isn't intended that way.

Anyway, enjoy the pre-gens.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Urban Arcana: Ballistic Baggage

While working on my Urban Arcana stuff, I've been considering the (re)introduction of the ballistic damage type. The DMG appendices referencing firearms list has them dealing piercing damage, which is fairly appropriate for the abstraction of 5th Edition combat. I can't pretend my layman's knowledge of modern firearms would stand up to professional scrutiny, but fortunately 5E combat doesn't concern itself with the stopping power of a specific gun/ammunition combo.

In d20 Modern, the ballistic damage type was its own thing, separate from the usual bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing physical damage types. There's something to be said for attaching a new damage type so that rider effects can be placed on it, without needing to heap on piles of conditional text.

That's a little vague. Basically, what I'm saying is that I could introduce spells, magic items, and technological gadgets that improve or provide resistance against ballistic damage without needing to say "piercing damage sourced by firearms from categories X, Y, and Z" every time I need the conditional effect. It could also help provide granularity for certain kinds of modern protective gear (such as certain styles of ballistic vests that are good for stopping bullets, but not necessarily knives).

Of course, there's some baggage involved with introducing a new damage type outside of the ones already provided. We've already got piles of them. It may warrant a general guideline with monsters and encounter building to say that if a monster is immune or resistant to non-magical bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage, it's thereby inferred that they are also resistant to non-magical ballistic damage.

My working documents are going to make the assumption that ballistic damage is a thing. My revised firearms tables will also take this into account, though they're still going to be grouped into fairly broad categories. The last thing I need is an internet argument with strangers over just how much better gun X is than gun Y of the same model, because frankly I don't know guns super well and 5E doesn't need that level of granularity.

That said, even the DMG's firearm damage is gonzo. Chances are extremely high -- with very valid justification -- that a 1st level character is going to be taken from full HP to zero with a single shotgun blast, not to mention a high-powered rifle. Encounter design should be handled judiciously for such campaigns, of course.

Anyway, I'm curious what others think. Am I missing something obvious with introducing a new damage type?