Wednesday, July 26, 2017

GURPS Hekinoe 2.0: An Itinerary and Outline


One of the problems I constantly struggle with is the desire to return to Hekinoe, not just the same universe like I'm doing with my Seasonal Arc campaign, but the planet itself. I want to go back there. There are still stories there that need to be told and there are new ways to punish players like Lance and Eric. The only way I'll ever be able to really return to Hekinoe is to finish converting it. In the past, this has been an exhausting process that leaves me scoured out inside with no desire to game. But it's something I want to do. It's something I need to do. It's the only way I'm going to be able to return to Hekinoe to run games or write in. So that's what this post is about. An itinerary and outline of sorts. What I need to do, how I want to organize it and so on. It's not going to be super in depth, it's just going to be a way of organizing and focusing my thoughts. 

Recently I had a brief period where I was going back and forth about Pathfinder Hekinoe vs. GURPS Hekinoe. I had considered, briefly, using Pathfinder. Pathfinder is a more palatable system for players, and it's meaty enough that I think I could make Hekinoe work well in it. I also know it well enough that I can competently and confidently hack it the fuck apart and make it work precisely the way I want it too. However, GURPS is a stronger system overall and doesn't really need to be hacked apart to make work in the first place. I will admit that it can be taxing to navigate all the rules. But, I have a pretty good group of players in mind for the future and I think they can handle it.

So let's get started with my things to do list. The first step is to establish what system I really want to use, and as we've just mentioned, it's GURPS. I am infused with the glory and adrenaline of progress. Woo. 

The next step is to re-map Hekinoe and The Known World. With the changes of Hekinoe 2.0 that I mentioned several weeks ago, I'm going to need new maps for the world to kind of spread out the existing cultures a little and cut out the dead weight (I'm looking at you Plains of Dust). Since we're remapping already and spreading the currently existing contents of the world out a little bit, we can also probably dip our toes into creating a map of the globe as well as putting down continents and such that exist inside my head but have never been placed on a map. Once we figure out where everything is and establish which cultures know where what is, we'll need to alter the main timeline of the world to reflect the various changes that have taken place. We'll also likely need to come up with one or two new continent names as well. 

The next and final step of this very short things to do list, is complete the campaign book. That said, I'd like to also establish a kind of progression guide and chapter list and that sort of thing to kind of focus myself and establish what I'm doing and in what order and that sort of thing. Bouncing around from thing to thing hasn't really worked for me in the past and has left a few dozen out of order documents in my Google Drive folders that I would have to struggle to arrange in a good order. So I want a chapter outline and that sort of thing for this attempt at a campaign book.

So we need to organize ourselves and our chapters to get things situated. For chapter one, I'd like to have an introduction. Who I am and what my experiences have been over the past 20 years or so of gaming. What sorts of games I like to run and that sort of thing. I'd also like to lay down what my expectations are of my players and that sort of thing. Overall I'd like it to be a hey, here is who I am and how I game chapter. Something to give my players insight into how I do things and why I do things certain ways. This seems kind of silly to me, as most of the people I game with have gamed with me since I started, but I've never really laid down why I do things certain ways before. So maybe it'll have value. Who knows. If the chapter ends up being lame, I'll just yank it out. 

After the first introduction chapter, I kinda don't know what to do next. Should I jump right into lore or rules or what, you know? I think I'd like to lead with lore and background material for the most part. So I think I'm going to have chapter two be a fairly large chapter about the races, nations, and continents of The Known World, which is the area of Hekinoe 2.0 that encompasses all our pre-existing material like Kusseth, The Fallen Empire of Man, Serethnem, etc, etc, etc. They'll all be broken up into a few different continents and stuff as I've previously said, but the name will still be used for all the things familiar to us from previous versions of Hekinoe. This chapter will start off with the timeline of Hekinoe and then I'll break it up by continent. This chapter will also be the chapter that includes the racial and cultural templates for the purposes of building characters and that sort of thing. 

I'd like chapter 3 to be about the various organizations and people of The Known World. Groups like The Organization and people like Savage Doc Managan and Laram of Volungshemle. Basically a chapter designed like those old 2nd Edition AD&D Forgotten Realms books Heroes' Lore Book and Villains' Lorebook. I'm not sure if I'll end up including stats and that sort of thing. Part of me wants to, but part of me wants to keep things nebulous and undefined. We'll see. 

I'd like the next chapter, chapter 4, to be about the technology of The Known World. Primarily this is just going to be equipment lists and stats, but I'd also like to talk a little bit about steam technology and electricity and that sort of think. Maybe. Maybe it'll just be gear. Lots and lots of gear. Maybe also some gear specific rules and such. We'll see.

The next chapter will be about sorcery and to a lesser extent, psionics. This chapter is going to go over the lore and history of sorcery and psionics and that sort of thing. The majority of it will be rules material though, as the rules that govern sorcery and psionics and what they can and cannot do will require extensive documentation. Which will be totally fun and exciting to write down for like the fiftieth time. 

The next chapter should be the final chapter involving lore and background material. Chapter six will be about the flora and faun of The Known World. It'll be the Monster Manual chapter. Which should be entertaining to craft. Here is where you'll find all the night fowl and dragon and great ursine stats and stuff. This chapter will definitely include stats, because that's where all the fun is in a Bestiary style chapter of a campaign book. 

The next chapter will be about character creation and advancement. Character creation is pretty straightforward in GURPS, just buy shit, but I want to outline a few aspects and talk about points levels and that sort of thing. The rules for advancement are also pretty straightforward, but I'd like to discuss them in a little detail with my players, rather than rely on them just reading them in the GURPS rulebooks. I want to lay out precisely how advancement is achieved and what some of my opinions and rulings on the topic are going to be. 

I want the next section to a general kind of rules focused chapter. GURPS has a host of optional rules and cinematic rules and that sort of thing. I'd like to talk about some of my rulings on those and kind of lay out which ones I like and which ones I don't. I'd also like this to be the chapter where I talk about generalized rules and mechanics stuff that I've changed from base GURPS. There shouldn't be too much stuff of that nature, as GURPS is pretty solid in my opinion, but what little there is should be clearly documented for players. I'd also like for this chapter to be where I put all the Hekinoe specific skills and techniques, as well as documentation on which advantages and disadvantages are allowed or verboten in which situations. 

So this is what we're looking at:

Things To Do
  1. Figure out game system. GURPS. Duh. 
  2. Re-map and rename stuff for Hekinoe 2.0 changes.
  3. Adjust the timeline of Hekinoe.
  4. Complete the fucking campaign book. 

Campaign Book Outline

  1. Introduction to me and how I game and why I game and what I expect of myself and my players. 
  2. Continents, nations, and races of The Known World. Racial and cultural templates go here, towards the end of the appropriate section. 
  3. Organizations and people. Not sure how long this chapter will be or how long it will take. I only have a vague idea about the majority of the cults and secret societies and such of The Known World. 
  4. Technology of The Known World. Gear and equipment and stuff. 
  5. Psionics and Sorcery. Background information and rules information about sorcery and psionics. 
  6. Flora and Fauna of The Known World. Monster Manual/Bestiary chapter. 
  7. Character Creation and Advancement. Creating characters and making them better, faster, stronger. Etc. 
  8. Rules, as well as other bullshit. 

It doesn't really look like much, if I'm being completely honest. But it's something. It's an idea of how to proceed and what I need to do. It's not some vaguely defined unwritten idea that I should do something or complete something or poke and prod at something. Ideally it will help me focus and organize my thoughts and get me making progress on the changes to Hekinoe 2.0 and converting Hekinoe to GURPS and writing it all down somewhere in a way that people will eventually read and hopefully understand. 

We'll see.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Tips On World Building

So this post, like several of the recent ones, is a request from some of the people I currently game with. It’s about world building and some of the tips I have about it based on some of my successes and mistakes from the past. This post is pretty much just about my process when I created Hekinoe, as that’s the only campaign world I have made that I feel is fully fleshed out. How I world build is not better or more correct than any other GMs. Its only benefit is that it works for me. Your mileage will almost certainly vary. 

So before I ever put fingers to keyboards or pen to paper or whatever you want to call it the first thing I did was ask myself why. Why not Faerun? It’s too big, I don’t know it well enough, and it’s not mine. Why not Planescape? Because I could never do it justice and Tony is the only one that would really get it. Why not Ravenloft? Horror is too hard to do in DnD in my opinion, and it’s not mine so I don’t know it well enough. Why not Dark Sun? Because I could never do it justice and because I love it too much to let my players burn it down. Etc, etc, etc. Do you get my drift? I needed to establish why a published setting or world or whatever you want to call it wouldn’t work for me. Ultimately it boiled down to me wanting something that was mine, that I could create from scratch, that was built to my specifications, that didn’t have a shit ton of contradictory published material about it. I wanted something that was mine. Not Ed Greenwood’s or Gary Gygax’s or Dave Arneson’s or Weis & Hickman’s. I wanted to make a world that was well and truly mine. Something that belonged to me that I knew deep down in my bones.

The next thing I had to figure out after I decided that I wanted to make my own campaign world was what was unique about it? This doesn’t mean your world absolutely has to have something completely unique and new and never before seen in it. Hekinoe isn’t particularly unique as a whole, but it has some somewhat interesting and maybe a little uncommon aspects of it. I think. Really most of it is just variations on what might be called  regular DnD/fantasy worlds. This step is more about putting your touch on a fantasy world, finding a way to make it yours with a signature element you like. For Hekinoe it was some of the weird races where most of them existed due to external influences on native races, and the fucked up magic which isn’t unique, but the particular implementation and reasons behind it are kind of unique in my opinion.  

Similarly to how the campaign was unique, I next wanted to figure out how it was different from regular DnD worlds. Hekinoe has arcane magic and psionics, but no divine magic or gods, so it also has no divine classes. This also makes it a world where believers in a religious philosophy or faith or whatever can’t automatically back up their faith by a cantrip or spell. So it’s a world of skepticism where cults and faiths are ostracized and have no value to communities. I also wanted to have a world where technology wasn’t on permanent pause because I kind of detest that in long running fantasy settings like Forgotten Realms, so I added early firearms and steam power and that sort of thing to Hekinoe. This is also a good point to start thinking about house rules and that sort of thing. If your campaign setting is different from regular DnD in some way, are the mechanics and rules and such the same as you can find in the regular rules? With magic operating differently in Hekinoe, I needed to implement mechanics in Pathfinder to represent that. 

Another good thing to consider at this stage is how do you want your campaign world to be the same as other fantasy worlds? Making everything strange and different and unique is ok, I’ve read plenty of novels with completely alien races and environments that you don’t find in typical DnD or fantasy and they’re fine. Some are amazing. But sometimes players like familiar things. Does your campaign have humans? Elves? Is magic a thing? Are there gods? Etc, etc. Tropes and stereotypical fantasy elements exist for a reason, and that reason is because they work. People respond to them. Doing things similar to existing worlds is fine. It also allows you to use typical fantasy elements as inspiration for your own world. Doing “normal” fantasy/DnD things with your world has just as much value and is just as valid as doing things in a unique or different way. All that matters is what your tastes are, and to a lesser extent, what your players’ tastes are. As a GM, it is your world, but it’s also important to consider your audience. You might love your world and all its trash bullshit, but if nobody else does, you’re going to be very very lonely. Or you’re going to be very very butthurt because nobody you play with gives a shit about any of your bullshit.

Another important aspect of campaign worlds is maps and art and images and that sort of thing. This game is primarily words. Almost entirely words really. I’ve been lucky in my life by knowing several artists and that has led to some cool imagery existing for my campaign world. At the basic level, you should at least have maps. These don’t need to be comprehensive and you don’t need to shell out a hundred bucks for a mapping program (like me). Just sketch something down on graph or hex paper or something. Give yourself and your players a frame of reference for where everything physically is in relation to everything else in your world. This also helps for when you want to place cool things in the world for players to find and interact with. You don’t necessarily need to document them on the map, especially if they’re not well known. But having a map gives you an idea of where the empty spaces are in your campaign world. It wouldn’t make sense for an ancient undiscovered ruin of a sorcerer king to be next to a bustling metropolis (unless there is a specific background reason for why it exists there and has not been discovered), so having a map that shows you where all the bustling metropolises are can help with placing this ancient ruin in a place that makes sense within the context of the world and its trade routes and highways and such. Another way imagery and art can help is to make the world more real to your players. In my Hekinoe campaign book I have flags for all the major nations (thanks Jeremy), as well as descriptions of the meaning behind them, just like you’ll find in a high school social studies book for all the states. Nobody has ever really commented on them to say that it is a nice touch, but I feel like they make the world more visible so to speak, and the descriptions behind the symbols makes the world more internally consistent. It shows that thought has been put into the world and the why and how of nations. Like I said, you don’t need to map out every single place or have artwork for every single race and NPC, but if you can find or craft or bug your friends to create images of the major races and that sort of thing it makes it easier for players to envision everything. One of the things I ran into in my Orcunraytrel Arc campaign was players not really having a good picture of races. Which is partly my fault, but mostly theirs. Eric for instance thought that Sereth looked like the iconic grey alien race we see in film, whereas Lance just thought of them as desert elves with guns. It’s a fact, words are sometimes not enough to get players to see things the “right” way, and images and art and that sort of thing can help with that. . 

One thing to be careful about with world building is playing favorites and hyperfocusing on one cool thing you love about your world. It’s perfectly fine to be super geeked about certain elements of your campaign world. But make sure you devote the proper amount of time and energy to the things you’re not super geeked about. If you look at The Known World, Kusseth, and the Nel in Hekinoe, you’ll see thousands upon thousands of words and descriptions and such about them. When you look at the nations of Orcunraytrel and nations of The Known World like The New Empire you can see that there’s barely anything more than a rough draft of information. If you look at my attempts to convert Hekinoe to GURPS you’ll see zillions of words and posts on the blog about getting sorcery, psionics, and Gifts to be precisely what I want them to be. So much so that they’re always the stopping point in my conversion attempts. It’s ok to be geeked about things, but don’t let everything else suffer for it or let yourself get burnt out by focusing on one topic till it exhausts your creativity. World building and GMing can and should be fun for you, so pace yourself and vary what you’re doing so you don’t get bored and burnt out.

Something to establish early on in the world building process is how much do players and average folks know about the world. It’s also important to establish how much of the world exists currently. These are important because they give you a frame of reference for exactly how much you absolutely have to create before play. Like I said in the previous paragraph, it’s important to avoid burning yourself out. Pace yourself. What absolutely needs to be known? In Hekinoe, the players need to know the government style of Kusseth, because Kusseth is one of the major nations of the land. But do they need to know the name and life story of every lord and official in every ward and district and every single street warden in the city? Probably not. Leaving gaps in your game world can be a useful and important tool for GMs as well. The gaps let you slot things in as needed, so you can do things like add in continents when you need them for the plot or a new campaign, like I did with the Orcunraytrel Arc. Orcunraytrel technically existed prior to the Orcunraytrel Arc, but mostly as a vague suggestion of ideas. I only fleshed it out when I needed it. These gaps in the campaign world can also give the players opportunities. In the Orcunraytrel Arc I left the surface area of Morkend mostly empty because the Mork lived deep down in subterranean cities. I also left it empty because it was a wide open area that the players could expand New Haven’s influence into as they progressed through the campaign. They ended up going in another direction and expanded their own personal influence into the area as the rulers of their own nation. Which wouldn’t really have been possible if the surface area of Morkend was full of cities and races that had been living there for centuries like the other surface nations of Orcunraytrel. Having thorough documentation for your campaign world is important, even if it’s just private GM information, but it is just as important for there to be gaps in the campaign world where you can slot in new things as needed or the players can work to create something to add to your campaign world. 

Another two kind of linked things to establish early on in your world building is how static your world is and how much influence players and their characters can have on it. Some published campaign settings never change (except during edition changes). Or they change on a smaller scale, like with King Obould Many-Arrows forging an empire of orcs in The Spine of the World in Forgotten Realms. Mostly it’s just some threat that is handily defeated by popular characters, then everything returns to normal (except during edition changes). Do you want your world to be constantly shifting and changing as borders move and tensions between nations rise? Do you want allies and coalitions to be forged between nations and then those nations seek to bring down another? Do you want Big Bad Evil Folks to rise and fall like chumps and never have a real impact on the world? Do you want technological advances to occur or be on pause in the Iron Age? Are new advances in magic made where new types of spells and artifacts begin changing the world for better or worse or has everything that can be discovered about magic been discovered? Is there a secret library hidden in undiscovered ruins that will bring information to light that will change everything cultures know and understand about their land and how their world came to be?

Once you figure out how mutable your world is, you can get to the important part. How much influence your players and their characters can have on it. Are they just defeating the Big Bad Evil Person of the week to keep the status quo? Or can they be the Big Bad Evil/Good/Chaotic Murderhobo Folks that change the world? Can their actions bring down nations and reshape borders? Can they kill whoever they want? One of my ideals as a GM is that my players can do whatever they want to my world. But their actions will always have consequences, for good or ill. They can found nations, but if they act like jackasses to other nations and heads of state, they get wars and embargoes. If they are respectful and true of heart to the allies they have, those allies will go to the fucking mattresses and sacrifice life and limb for them. If they rescue ancient supernatural beings from eternal torment, those ancient supernatural beings will grant boons to them. If they fail to perform a task for those admittedly mentally unstable supernatural beings, those supernatural beings will be super butthurt and irrational about it. The players can do what they want in Hekinoe, I might not like it, and it might destroy my world, but I’ll let them do it. This doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed to succeed and it doesn’t mean what they want to do will be easy because they’re extra special snowflake player characters, but it means I’ll build scenarios and plots to let them give it a shot and give them a reasonable chance to succeed. Assuming success if even possible, because even though they’re player characters, some things are impossible, natural 20s be damned.

One thing to consider relatively early on is time. How old is your campaign world? How old are its major civilizations? In the span of about 5000 years, humans of Earth have moved from the Bronze Age to planes and spaceships and nuclear weapons and reactors and so on. What is the technology level of your campaign world’s major civilizations? If it is wildly divergent in terms of overall age and technology level from that of Earth, why? Is it due to marauding creatures, natural disasters, scarcity of certain key resources? This also ties into how static and unchanging your world is as well. If your intent is to pause your world on the Medieval Age or the Iron Age for the past zillion years, it’s good to have an idea of why it is paused in this fashion. Another thing somewhat related to time is considering how you want to write your info for the campaign world. With Hekinoe I created the present of the campaign world, and then worked backwards in time slotting in events and disasters and explanations for why things were the way they are. You may have a cool idea for an ancient empire of sorcerer kings or empires of psionic dinosaurs that waged wars against their magic using arachnid overlords and want to work forward from that idea to the present day of your campaign world. 

I think I’m winding down here, so I’m going to close on what I feel is one of the most important things about world building: consistency. The internal logic of your campaign world needs to be consistent. Things need to work and be a certain way for certain reasons. If magic is fucked up and causes mutations and explosions, you need to know why it is that way. This can be as simple as “because that’s the way it is/I think it’s cool” or you can be like me and have several hundred words of secret background info that explains why it is that no character of the campaign world can ever know or even begin to understand. If there are situations in your campaign world where magic isn’t fucked up and doesn’t cause persistent magic and enchantments and spells to explode (like in Hekinoe with the Fallen that are animated by the necromantic sorcery of The Bleak Tyrant or the Fell Humans and their sorcerous blood and mutations) that’s ok, but you need to know why in this situation it works fine and not all the others. If you have a single race that diverged into two separate cultures and subraces (like the Sereth and Vyanth of Hekinoe and the Goebleen and Mountain Goebleen of Orcunraytrel), why did that happen? How are they different culturally and in terms of racial abilities? Why are they different culturally? If they aren’t culturally different, why did they diverge? You need to know why things are the way they are. The Known  World has a shit ton of races, but only like three or four of them are native to the continent. Each of the others has specific reasons for being there and being the way they are. If your world has psionics and arcane magic, how are they different? What is their source? If they have different power sources, are they capable of the same things? If so, why? If not, why? A lot of the why and how of all the background info of Hekinoe didn’t exist right when I started writing it, but I generally had vague ideas about it. The fucked up sorcery of Hekinoe initially started out as being there because I wanted it there and wanted it to be that way, but as the campaign world became more concrete in my head and I began tying other ideas and stories from my head to the world, it developed into having lengthy background logic for why it was the way it is and how and why it could be altered and manipulated. You don’t need to know every single aspect of why things are the why they are on day one, but just jot down general ideas about it. Or leave a blank and fill in the why later when you come up with it. 

Like I said at the beginning, these are just some things I think about when world building. They work for me. The main thing is to find something you like and go from there. Just string cool things and things you think your players will like together until you have something resembling a robust campaign world. Have fun doing it, because if you don’t, what’s the fucking point?

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Getting Players to Go Where You Want

So you've created a robust campaign world with lots of things to do and see. You've filled the world with plot hooks and cool environments and regions with neat and interesting features and plotlines for the players to involve themselves in. Maybe it's a classic sandbox, maybe it's just a world where you want the players to explore a little to find a plothook that interests them. How do you get them to go where all the cool shit is?

This can be a difficult problem, or an easy one. If you don’t mind railroading your players and they don’t mind being railroaded, you’ve got no problem. Just send them to the places you want them to go. If you’re dealing with a group that wants to control their own destiny and go where they wish, it can be more problematic. The easiest way to get players to go where you want is to give them a quest that takes them to the thing you want them to see, or at least near it.

In my Orcunraytrel Arc campaign I wanted to show the players and their characters an old Goebleen warren that had been corrupted and twisted by the forces of the Underhel. The Underhel was a place where the natural laws of reality and matter and such were corrupted, so it gives rise to malicious elemental-like creatures the natives called demons, and it also led to weirdly fluctuating light levels and temperatures and an effect that led to solid matter kind of dripping and drooping and kind of running like candle wax. Now I forget why the players were in the mountains nearby at the time, but they were close enough that I could justify them finding it during their scouting and patrolling as they moved through the terrain. I wanted them to see it, but I didn’t want to force them to. So I made them aware of it during scouting, but my NPC Gob the Goebleen was like “Nah, don’t go there. We don’t need to. There’s nothing there. Leave it alone.” Which my players naturally ignored and they investigated it and learned about the fucked up effects of the Underhel. That worked because I let them make the decisions. I even rolled randomly to see if they noticed the entrance in their scouting. Nothing was forced upon them. There was a chance they could discover where it was and then everything else was up to them. It worked.

Sometimes it won’t. I wanted the players to be exposed to some or all of the Immortals of Orcunraytrel, so I had a big detailed random list of where and when they might chance across one or two or seven of them. It don’t really work out. I don’t think the random rolls ever actually had them randomly run across an Immortal. They met several over the course of the campaign, but that was more because of the nature of what they were doing with their tower (the Wanderer), who they were allied with (the Goebleen King), Lance/Eran wanting to worship something bestial and then changing his mind (the Hound), and who they were fighting against (the Forest Lord and the Armiger). The main thing you need to determine is if it is necessary for your players and their characters to experience your cool thing or if it will just be cool for them or for you. I started out wanting them to meet these cool Immortals and learn about them and want to obtain power like they had, but as the plot developed and they made decisions that impacted their future, meeting at least a few Immortals became necessary for the plot to progress.

If you’ve got a cool thing that is also an environment that you want your players to see, you can always make your campaign location based. In The Rebellion Arc, I wanted the players to either see the Necropolis or Meroteth/Hell. These are two very cool cities, structurally speaking. The Necropolis is this massive city of smooth glassy black obsidian buildings and streets inhabited by the Fallen and their ruler The Bleak Tyrant. This city in my mind is beautiful and disturbing. Streets run at weird angles, buildings are weirdly shaped and sized, and no window or door truly conforms to what we might call normal human sized proportions. Meroteth is made of a similar substance, glassy and black, but rough and chipped. The city is basically a stepped pyramid of this substance with buildings and streets dug out of it. When we settled on wanting to do D’alton’s heist and the group ended up lodging in his family’s old mansion in Hell/Meroteth, I was able to show some of the weird architecture of the city to the players and their characters. I was also able to show them the sewer dragons. Hehe.

Those two options work great, except when they don’t. Heh.

If you’re running a campaign where you want the players to choose to go see cool things, you need to make it clear that they can. You as the GM need to make sure your players understand that they control the destinies of their characters. They need to know that they are not chained to whatever you have going on. They need to understand that if they decide a particular quest or plot or place is boring and they hear tales of fabled things that get their pants tight, they can tear off into the wilderness to look for those cool things and you’re going to roll with it. They need to understand that you’re not going to punish them for choosing to do something they think is cool. Mind you, you the GM punishing them for things is different than them being held responsible for the effects of their actions. If their characters are hired to rescue a prince and they decide to go find the first owlbear in The Forest of Totally Not Dire Owlbears on the other side of the continent and the prince is never rescued and dies, his parents are going to be justifiably pissed at the characters and might take reasonable actions against them. Like chase them with knights and assassins all the way to The Forest of Totally Not Dire Owlbears. You having a sequence of scenarios about their journey to the forest evading knights and assassins and potentially getting captured or killed or successfully evading their pursuers, that’s reasonable. You saying that off camera the prince’s parents used their knights to capture the characters and imprison them and curse them with a geas that forces them to rescue the prince is bullshit passive aggressive butthurt railroading. Don’t do that. Don’t be that guy. I’ve been that guy. He doesn’t feel good about himself.

An important part of getting the players and their characters to go see your cool thing is making sure it is actually cool. The first part of this is describing the cool thing in a cool way. You need to make it sound cool, you need to infect the players with your excitement about it via your words. This can be done by having an NPC talk about your cool thing and what they saw and what they did that was awesome when they interacted with it. It can be legends and lore of the campaign world that describe the cool thing. Or it can just be writing an interesting description in your campaign documentation. For instance, you could describe Meroteth/Hell in my Hekinoe campaign world as a big stepped pyramid made out of glassy black stone. Or you could say it is an ancient city founded by the Fell Humans when they were mutated from the Fallen by the sorcerous powers of The Bleak Tyrant and fled The Fallen Empire of Man. When they fled The Fallen Empire of Man, they brought with them an ancient piece of glassy black stone and as it grew over the centuries they carved their capital city out of this ever growing mound of glassy black obsidian that throbs with sorcerous energy. It might not be sufficient to draw players there without other interventions on your part, but it sounds more interesting at least. The second part of this is making sure your cool thing is something that players will think is cool. For instance, I like combat, one of the things I sometimes try to do is to create really cool set pieces for battles and that sort of thing. Then when the players wander around to my combat cool thing I get all excited and bonerific and whatnot. That’s cool and all for me, but if your group doesn’t really think combat is super interesting and enjoyable, it doesn’t matter how cool the battle is, they’re not going to respond to it like you want or be interested in it. If you want players to see your cool things, make sure you’re catering to their tastes and not just your own. It’s ok to throw things you think are cool into your campaign world and to want to expose your players and their characters to them, just make sure you’re not boring the fuck out of them.

Like many things about GMing, getting players to go see what you want them to see involves communication and knowing your players. With my Rebellion Arc and Orcunraytrel Arc groups, I am able to get the players to do things because nine times out of ten, I know what they are going to do when they respond to stimulus and I know what interests the players because I’ve known them forever. This knowledge allows me to manipulate them when I need to to get them to go where I want them to. They can still surprise me, sure, but in general terms, I know what is going to get my players interested. Pay attention to your players and their playstyles, pay attention to the backgrounds and behavior of their characters. Just being observant and paying attention to your players during sessions is generally going to give you everything you need to get them to go see your cool thing. More importantly, knowing your players is going to tell you what types of cool things you can throw into your campaign world that they’ll get a kick out of so they’ll seek them out on their own.

Navere’s background in Curse of Strahd involves nature and wolves, I’ve spoken as him several times about our contempt for the druids service Strahd. This gives Kyle a good hook for manipulating Navere and I to get us to go see things he wants us to see. Bjorn’s background states that Van Richten is his hero, so Kyle can easily use Van Richten and rumors of him to manipulate Bjorn/Kevin. Andrew has a pattern of making dark pacts and deals, so Kyle can basically showcase any supernatural entity he wants in any campaign he runs. If you pay attention to your players, you’ll know how best to get them to go see your cool thing.

I don’t really have much more to say on this topic. Communicating with your players and paying attention to them and their characters is key to getting them to check out your cool things. Make sure your cool thing is something your players are going to think is cool. If you are going to force your cool thing on them, make sure there’s a valid reason for it, like it is the center of a plotline. Don’t let yourself get butthurt if they don’t respond to your cool thing the way you want them too. Make sure you’re paying attention to why your cool thing fell flat, that sort of information is going to be useful in the future when you make cool things and put them in your campaign worlds.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Getting Players Invested, Among Other Things

One of the problems we run into as GMs is getting players invested. I think I’ve touched on this idea before, but after talking to some of the folks I game with, I think I’m going to devote an actual full post to some of my thoughts on this.

There are two sides to this. The first are the players that have a hard time getting invested, that have a hard time role-playing and a hard time taking the spotlight or growing to care for their character and the world around them. The other side are the players that are way super cool with role-playing and getting invested and talking. The ones that are too invested, too ready to care and jump into the spotlight and stay there monopolizing it. Both types of player present problems, but only in certain circumstances.  

I’m going to take the second side of this first, because it’s the easiest one to solve. You’ve got a player that always takes the  forefront of the situation. Whether that’s via planning, role-playing, whatever. They’re loud, they’re proud, and they’re always going to take the forefront, because it’s fun for them. In certain groups and while playing certain characters, that’s fine. If the other players have no problem with this player taking the limelight and doing all the talking and stuff, that’s fine. If the player is role-playing a talkative and energetic character that likes to be the center of attention, that’s fine too. But if we’re talking a player that constantly takes the forefront of the group, even in situations where they shouldn’t, like when an NPC is talking to a different character for a specific purpose, or when the player is playing  a character whose background and stats don’t really reflect the type of character that would jump into the forefront, we have have a problem. If the other players in the group want to be in the limelight occasionally, if they want to make decisions and do the talking, if they’re the ones with the talkative center of attention type characters, then we have a problem.

There’s only one real solution, and it is not subtle. Ask them to stop taking over the party. The player may not even be aware of the problem, they could just be doing what comes naturally and might not see it as steamrolling over the other players and their characters. Give them the benefit of the doubt and take them aside and in  private, say “Hey, you’re kind of making everything about you and you’re not giving the other players a chance to interact and make decisions and do things.” It’ll be awkward and awful and you won’t enjoy it, but it’s the only real practical solution. You can try the in game route of NPCs getting irritated with the particular character for their behavior, but that’s passive aggressive and the player will probably interpret it as the NPC disliking their behavior, rather than you the GM saying “Hey, listen, you’re great, I love having you in my game, but you’re steamrolling everyone in the group and making everything about you, can you like dial everything back like maybe ten or twenty percent? Give everyone else the chance to talk as their characters and make decisions as their characters.” Like I said, they might not even realize they’re doing it. They might think they’re taking on the star role because no one else wants to. Talk it out, it’s almost always the best solution.

Let’s change gears here.

Getting players invested and getting them to role-play, can be tricky, but it can be easy sometimes. I have two players, Jason and Eric. They both love to game and they love to take part in the story and take a chance at stepping outside of themselves into another role. They naturally want to know more about the world around them and interact with it. They’re curious and interested and easy to get going. Hell, I’ve set up RP emails where they just go back and forth for thousands of words at a time with no intervention at all from me. Those kinds of players can be taxing at times, but they’re a blessing and a good GM should always appreciate them. Their excitement and investment can often drag more reluctant role-players into the campaign world. It should go without saying, but you should never ignore those sort of self-motivated role-players. Just because they are comfortable role-playing and are already invested in the campaign and your game world doesn’t mean you don’t have to keep an eye on them and make sure they’re staying invested and having fun.

So what do you do when you aren’t blessed with self-motivated players like Jason and Eric?

The first thing you need to do is figure out if the player wants to be more invested. I’ve gamed on and off with a guy since around high school. He’s not part of what I think of as my core group, but he’s someone I’ve often invited to game with me. He doesn’t care to interact with NPCs beyond what is absolutely necessary, he doesn’t care about being invested in stories, and if his character dies, he’ll just roll a new one. He sees the story of the campaign and the particular adventure as important, but only as a framing device for the game. He wants to play the game, but the game and its mechanics are what is important to him. The best way I can describe it is that he acts like he’s playing an action RPG like Diablo. He’s there to play the game, but there are no real decisions he needs to, or wants to make outside of class, race, and what gear he wears. That’s his playstyle. He’s never going to be invested in a particular NPC or story or want to role-play. Any attempts made to make him more invested or to get him to step into the limelight of an adventure or situation would fall flat or just be awkward because it’s not his thing and he doesn’t want it to be his thing. It’s not my job as the GM to make it his thing either. If you have this type of player in your group, your job as the GM is to determine how butthurt you’ll be when he doesn’t marvel at the amazing narratives you craft. If you’re ok with a player like this being in your group and not really getting turgid while he listens to you ramble on telling your stories and plots and talking as NPCs, cool, if you’re not, don’t invite them into the group.

The next thing is figuring out why the players play. This actually goes hand in hand with finding out if the player wants to be more invested. So figure out these two things together. Some people play only because their friends play. Others because they love combat. Others because they constantly fucking seek to derail the campaign completely by making pacts with every fucking incomprehensible supernatural entity beyond the realm of time and space that they can get to return their calls. Some look at DnD like it’s a choose your own adventure book and they couldn’t get enough of those things when they were growing up. They want to be part of a story and interact with that story and determine its course. Others just want to experience the fun of acting and to pretend to be someone else. Others just like combat or doing cool things with characters and stuff. There’s a wide range of player types that I’m not going to define here. Google it. Someone almost certainly has compiled a list of player archetypes.

Now, some reasons players have for being at the table may limit your ability to get them to give a shit. Some may make it impossible, like my player from the previous paragraph. The easiest next step is to find out why they aren’t invested. Do they not like the story? Do they not like the things you make them do? Do they feel like a particular player hogs the limelight? Are they inexperienced with DnD so they feel like they’re out of their depth or are missing all the references when you talk about illithid and cranium rats and dual scimitar wielding drow and the Hand and Eye of Vecna? The simplest way to do this is to ask them what they want out of the game and if something you’re doing is keeping them from really getting into things.

I had a player, Cary, that ragequit during a session. It was a hostage situation and Cary was using his psion Donovan to dialogue some of the fanatics/terrorists into releasing their hostages. Cary’s psion was almost purely a telepath, but he also had extensive skill points put into Bluff and Diplomacy. He was trying to use those skills to resolve a situation, and I stonewalled him. As I had many times during the scenarios of the campaign. I didn’t know it at the time, but Cary felt very frustrated by my DMing because it seemed like all I would let him do was fling energy bolts and blasts at foes when he had designed a character around talking to people to get them to do things. Cary was a role-player, he knew the rules, he was tolerant of my extensive house rules, but I was running a game that punished his character choices because I didn’t understand what kind of character he was playing. When he played a telepath, I assumed that he wanted to blast things with psionics and control minds with psionics. He wanted to actually talk people into doing things. My being unaware of what he wanted out of the game, and not taking the time to ask him what he wanted, and designing scenarios that he felt punished his character choices detracted from his enjoyment of the game and his ability to really get into it.

Part of getting players invested is understanding what they want to do with their characters. After Cary and I had a heart to heart and I apologized for my shit GMing, I started to include instances where Cary could use dialogue to do things in scenarios, just like I would include things for other characters to do with their skills like Stealth and Perception and Disable Device. I don’t think we ever reach a perfect balance, because Cary and I had different views on what you can achieve with dialogue skills (they’re not magic, so all of their effects are weaker than the weakest enchantment/charm spells), but I think we reached an understanding that I was making an effort and he and Donovan became a big component of doing things later in the campaign.

I have another player, Jeremy, one of my oldest friends. Jeremy has gamed with me in almost every campaign, but Jeremy is a gamer that games because his friends are gaming. He has never had an encyclopedic knowledge of the game, which is fine, because that’s the GMs job. He has never really devoted a lot of time to backgrounds or interacting with NPCs. He’s happy to play and laugh and joke around and be there with us, and we want him there and like having him there with us. He’s a good guy.

The Rebellion Arc is the only campaign I’ve ever really gotten Jeremy invested in. It took work and it was worth it. It involved a heist, a friendship, and the American cinema classic Road House starring Patrick Swayze. The campaign started out with the characters in prison. There’s a prison break and the characters managed to escape as well. The players end up heading to a city known as Hell where Jeremy’s character D’alton Braun had originally lived. He had been in the process of pulling of a bank heist when he was caught and sent to the prison they were all in. The group discusses it and figures they can go to Hell and finish out D’alton’s heist and hang out in his rowe’dhaus (::wink::), which is a word that means secret basement in wretchtongue. The players pull off the bank heist successfully and make off with a ridiculous sum of money for first level characters, like 20,000+ gold pieces in value, and the rest of the campaign goes from there.

I forget how it exactly goes, but Jeremy and I were hanging out or talking one day and we came up with the idea for a heist in DnD. We were probably talking about the film Heat or maybe Dane Cook’s jokes about doing a heist and “Where’s the van? Where is the fucking van?” or something of that nature. From that simple bit of joking around we get the second session of The Rebellion Arc, which kicks off the entirety of the rest of the campaign. We establish from that that Jeremy’s character is from Hell, it’s his ancestral home. So Jeremy spends all this time coming up with maps of the Braun family mansion and stuff. Many NPCs we run into over the course of the campaign while bumming around Hell are known to D’alton, people he knows from his childhood and time in the youth gangs running the streets. Like the Van Bur’yen Boys. Which is a Seinfeld reference, which is another thing Jeremy and I enjoy. I think. Jeremy likes Seinfeld, right?

The campaign is about Jeremy/D’alton, even if it isn’t directly so. He’s not the chosen one, but he’s constantly involved in the things that are going on. The players are hiding out in his secret fort, later living in his family mansion. Later they fix an election that gets his childhood sweetheart elected. All these little things are tying the campaign to Jeremy/D’alton, but he’s not being made to be the leader or take on a role he doesn’t want to. He’s invested because there are all these references he enjoys and because all these things are tied to him and his character, but the spotlight isn’t beating down on him and making him sweat, because that’s not something he’d enjoy.

I reinforced this investment by creating a vulnerable character that Jeremy could befriend and help and defend, and later be defended by. Spineplate/Kethranmeer. By creating Spineplate/Kethranmeer and having D’alton help him get hands, I translated the friendship Jeremy and I have into the game. It wasn’t that he and I were friends and were hanging out, it was that we were hanging out in the game. The two characters had each other’s back and that sort of thing. It just kind of reinforced the fact that Jeremy was involved as a player. Even if a scenario wasn’t directly about something related to D’alton or something that interested Jeremy, Kethranmeer was there to speak to D’alton and draw Jeremy more into the role of D’alton.

I was able to get Jeremy invested by giving the group scenarios Jeremy helped me come up with the idea for, by adding a bunch of references he would get and enjoy, by making things tie into his character and forcing him to create additional background material for that character to help flesh out the character and his ties to the world. That’s a good tactic you can use to get players invested, by crafting whole scenarios and campaign arcs based around what they want to do. You have to be careful about it, because it can backfire and you have to make sure you’re not forcing the limelight on someone who doesn’t want it and that you’re not focusing the entirety of the campaign on one player and ignoring the rest.

In the Orcunraytrel Arc Lance expressed a desire to do a few things in the world and since his character Eran was a Sereth I planned on involving a few Sereth specific quests in the campaign due to some plots I had hanging around Orcunraytrel related to the Sereth race. I think Lance and I had different expectations about how these things would be resolved. I assumed he would be more proactive and pursue them and bring them to the party’s attention, and I think he assumed I would handle them in a more traditional way of giving the group quests and directing them to resolve them by making scenarios for them. So when Lance and his character Eran never really pursued those quests and plot hooks, and then he and the group were basically punished for not doing so by events progressing while they weren’t paying attention to them, I think Lance ended up feeling a little alienated and put off, which certainly didn’t help him remain invested in the campaign, his character, and the game world. So putting character/player specific things into play can backfire on you.

Again, make sure your player and you have the same expectations about how things are going to go. You don’t have to sit down with them and say, “I plan to do these specific things to draw you into my campaign world and to get you more invested in the campaign.” That kind of spoils things. Just be subtle about it and speak in generalities. One of the things I do to prepare myself for involving elements of character’s background in a campaign is to create a questionnaire document that I have players answer. Just a bunch of seemingly random, and sometimes actually random, questions about them and their characters and what they want out of the campaign and that sort of thing. If you find that you have players that want to be more involved and invested and occupy the limelight, these sorts of broad questions about characters and their backgrounds can give you some good ideas about how to do that in the story. It also makes the players think about their characters a little bit more than just choosing race and class. Any time a player is thinking about their character, they’re getting a little bit more comfortable with stepping into and thinking like the character and a little bit closer to it, which is going to make them just a little bit more invested in it.

This isn’t really a comprehensive guide to getting players more invested in the campaign and their character and getting them to role-play. I can only speak in generalities and from personal experience, and my experiences are going to be different from those of others and what has worked for me in the past might never work for a different group. I only have one real rule about getting players invested and getting them to role-play, and that is to talk to your players.

If you talk to your players directly and actually communicate, you’re going to be able to figure something out. Some people are never going to get invested or role-play. Some people want to, but they’re just not comfortable with it, so you need to help them by easing them into it and showing them the table is a judgement free zone and no one is going to nut tap them for role-playing the “wrong” way. If your players get along with each other and trust each other not to mock them and they’re genuinely there to enjoy and participate in the story and you’re taking them on adventures they enjoy, the investment in the campaign and the role-playing are going to happen. Eventually. Probably. No guarantees. Sorry. If you’re having them do things they don’t enjoy, if people are uncomfortable, or they’re only there to win the scenario, it’s never going to happen.

So, talk to your players. Find out why they come to the table. Find out if they are invested in the campaign, find out if they want to role-play. If they do, why aren’t they/don’t they now? Is it your fault? Is it there’s? How can you help? Would they be comfortable if they were forced into the limelight?

I could keep going I think, but I think you get the gist. Just talk to your players.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

House Rules: Initiative Score

So one of the concepts I really like from GURPS is a static initiative score. It is derived from DX and one or two other stats if I remember right. I don’t necessarily dislike 5th Edition (or any edition’s) initiative system of d20 + Dexterity modifier + whatever other random modifiers there are. But I would like something a little more comprehensive and something that doesn’t involve rolling. Initiative has always been a chaotic time in my groups. Whether I’m running games or participating as a player, people just roll and then yell numbers. It is chaotic and confusing and detracts from a DMs ability to set up a fight because he’s trying to assign numbers to voices to characters while doing the same for his NPCs. DnDs system of initiative is also super abstract and doesn’t incorporate real time modifications to your ability to react and stuff. Like you can roll a 20 for initiative, get subjected to a sleep spell, miss four rounds of a fight, and then pop back into the fight at the highest initiative as if your character isn’t just waking up and going “What the fuck happened just now?”

Just as a heads up, I’ve already created the majority of these rules for my Seasonal Arc campaign. This blog post isn’t so much about creating the rules as it is about going over my thought process during the creation of them and refining what I currently have. 

So, let’s work on creating an initiative score. This is a static number that won’t change much from fight to fight. My theory being that attentive characters with an ability to rapidly respond to events will tend to always be attentive and able to rapidly respond to events, while slow unobservant characters will tend to always be slow and unobservant. Unless the former are completely surprised and the latter are doing the surprising. 

So the first thing we need is the base of your initiative score. We need to factor in your physical ability to respond to the events surrounding you as well as your awareness of your surroundings. That’s one thing DnD’s initiative lacks in my opinion. It measures your ability to respond to your surroundings via Dexterity, but doesn’t factor in whether or not you are aware of the events surrounding you. So let’s do something simple. We’ll start with a base of 5. Obviously we’ll add in your character’s Dexterity modifier, because duh. The other ability score modifier I want to add is your Wisdom modifier. This is like when you make Wisdom (Perception) ability checks. It represents your awareness of your surroundings. 

So your base initiative score is as follows 5 + Dexterity modifier + Wisdom modifier. Plus any other relevant modifiers like that one feat Alertness and that Rogue archetype ability that adds your Charisma modifier to initiative checks. 

One thing I should mention before we continue is that I’ve house ruled in some modifications to armor and how that works. It just seemed to make sense to me that if medium and heavy armor affect how much your Dexterity can improve your AC, they should also affect how much your Dexterity affects initiative and Dexterity saving throws. Being unarmored has no effect, wearing light armor limits you to applying a maximum of +4 from Dexterity modifier to initiative, saving throws, and AC. Wearing medium armor limits you to +2 and wearing heavy armor limits you to +0. Don’t wear full plate and try to pull off flippy ninja shit. Hmm, should I limit how much of your Dexterity modifier can carry over to ability checks as well? 

So here is where I get into a bit of an argument with myself. My current iteration of these house rules says being unarmored grants a +1 to initiative, wearing light armor has no benefit or penalty, wearing medium incurs a -1 penalty, and wearing heavy incurs a -2. My logic here is that armor is heavy and would slow your reactions down a bit and that I’ve never moved as fast as I have when I’ve been streaking. However, this portion of the rule kind of goes against 5th Edition’s design goal of not having a bunch of little situational modifiers shitting pluses and minuses all over the place. I think I might simplify it down to say that being unarmored or wearing light armor has no additional penalty to initiative, but wearing medium or heavy armor incurs a -1 penalty to initiative, -2 if the armor in question has a Strength requirement and you do not meet it. That still does the whole modifier thing, but it’s a little simplified. Kind of. Fuck off, it’s my game.

So one thing that bothers me that I mentioned above is that spells and effects that knock you out and restrain you have no effect on your initiative. My current rules have a bunch of penalties to your initiative that depend on how long you’ve been affected and what type of effect it is. Just like above with armor, this flies in the face of 5th Edition’s goal of reducing the modifiers that are all over the place. So here’s my idea for how to reduce that. If you are physically restrained in a way that prevents you from interacting with your surroundings, but are still aware of them (like if you are paralyzed or restrained), you lose your Dexterity modifier to your initiative score. If your senses are impaired, but you are still able to physically interact with your surroundings (like if you are blinded or deafened), you lose your Wisdom modifier to your initiative score. If your senses are impaired and you are physically impaired (like if you are unconscious or something) your initiative becomes last place. The only caveat to this is that if you can get out of these effects by the end of your turn or the end of your next turn if you are afflicted with them on someone else’s turn, they do not change your initiative. 

I like that, it’s a little simplified, but it keeps the core idea that if your senses or physical mobility is impaired, you’ll naturally be impaired in combat.  The final issue I have is the question of whether or not your initiative goes back to normal after these effects end after you’ve been affected by them for a few rounds. Like I said earlier, you shouldn’t just pop up from being unconscious/asleep/dying and be back in first place in the initiative order. I think with being unconscious, you’ve missed too much to hop back into the initiative order. With your senses being impaired and your physical ability being impaired, you’re still aware enough of your surroundings and stuff that you can get back into things quickly enough. That seems reasonable. I think for simplicity’s sake instead of the lines about ending the effect before the end of your next turn not impairing your initiative in the impaired senses and physical impairment sections I’m just going to say that whenever the effect impairing you ends, your Dexterity modifier and Wisdom modifier are restored to your initiative score. 

Alright, let’s talk about a tricky issue: surprise. I’ve gone back and forth with a few ideas about this. The surprisers gain a +5 to initiative score. The surprised have a -5. The surprised lose their Wisdom bonus to their initiative scores. Etc, etc. Most of the options I’ve toyed with fly in the face of 5th Edition’s reduction of situation modifiers. Apparently I can’t escape my let’s have all the situation modifiers of my Pathfinder/3.5 roots. 

This is awkward. I’ve just discovered that they have changed the surprise rules in 5th Edition. In past editions, the surprisers had a surprise round where they could take one action before normal initiative starts. In 5th Edition, if you’re surprised, you can’t move or take an action on your first turn of combat, and you can’t take a reaction until the end of your first turn. This actually works quite well in my opinion. I don’t really feel like it needs any additional modifications from my own house rules. It penalizes those that are surprised in combat enough that I feel like adding anything additional to how surprise and initiative interact might be too much. I could probably make a case for granting an initiative bonus to the surprisers in combat, but that feels kind of unnecessary. I think surprise works as is in terms of how it affects combat and initiative and whatnot. We’ll leave it as is. 

There are a couple more odds and ends, but nothing too noteworthy. When you critically hit in combat, your initiative score gains a +1 and when you critically miss, your initiative gains a -1. Just like normal, when you delay or ready your action, your initiative becomes one higher than the triggering action. If an effect would normally grant you advantage on initiative rolls, you instead gain a +4 and if an effect would normally impose disadvantage on initiative rolls, your initiative score gets a -4.

I think this has been productive. I’ve refined the rules I had already come up with, slightly. I discovered a rule change I was previously unaware of. Good times. 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

House Rules: Death and Dying In the Desert

So one of the things I’ve always been irritated with DnD about is the abstract and completely divorced from reality nature of hit points and dying. In the current edition, you drop unconscious at 0 hit points and then have to make death saves. Which are DC 10 d20 rolls  where you either stabilize or die. Three failed death saves in a day and you die. There are other rules for rolling bad on death saves, being attacked while at 0 hit points, rolling a natural 20, and so on and so forth. But here’s the thing that really bugs me, the thing that has always bugged me. Regardless of what your current hit point total is, how many death saves you’ve failed today, and how many hit dice you have left, you are as fine as you are when you’ve just finished a long rest. You operate at peak efficiency regardless of how numerically rough your health is at a given moment. I understand it, but it aggravates me. There should be a cost to getting into combat repeatedly and throwing yourself into the meat grinder with wild abandon, and there isn’t.

On a side note, would you like to know the name of a system that abstracts health and wellness and death and dying but has statistical penalties for having low hit points and low reserves of energy and treats combat like it is always a dangerous thing to engage in? Fucking GURPS.

GURPS treats combat like it is deadly and risky and you can get pretty fucked up in any fight because fights are chaotic and deadly and you’re never a giant sack of hit points. You can always die by being stabbed once or twice and a super high HT only serves to make it slightly easier for you to survive being grievously injured. GURPS was designed to make combat difficult and dangerous. DnD has a different design goal. DnD rules are designed to have X amount of encounters each scenario with the assumption that each encounter will consume Y of the party’s resources with only combat encounters that are specifically designed with a certain level of difficulty in mind having the risk of player death. Basically, DnD is weak sauce easy mode. Which has been the case for the past few editions. In 2nd Edition do you know what happened when you hit 0 hit points? You died. No death saves, no you can still be healed and pop back up, etc. You died. You ran out of hit points and you died and the group's Cleric had like six spell slots total. You still operated at peak efficiency whether you were at 1 hit point or 90, but still. Anyway. 

So my goal for The Seasonal Arc has been to portray Hasta as a deadly world of harsh deserts and murderously hungry desert creatures. Part of the way I want to portray that is to make the creatures tougher and nastier, the combats more difficult, and the death and dying rules a little more aggressive. I also want to slightly increase the player’s capabilities to show that the races of this world have evolved to be tougher just like the beasts have. 

The way I’ve decided to show that being at low hit points is bad is by leveraging levels of exhaustion. There are six levels of exhaustion and at level one your ability checks (skills) have disadvantage. The negative effects scale up until level six, which is death. So I’ve instituted a house rule that says when you’re at half your max hit point total, you gain one level of exhaustion. This level of exhaustion is removed when your hit points rise above half your hit points. This makes it risky to remain at low hit points in battle. But it’s not something that will completely cripple a character and mark him for death immediately. 

The other aspect of health and wellness in DnD is death saves. There’s no real mechanic for showing that you’re in rough shape if you’ve failed two death saves. A character with max hit points, max hit dice, and no failed death saves should be in better shape than a character that’s used a bunch of hit dice and and has failed two death saves. This is all abstract, but it should feel like that second character is closer to death, shouldn’t it? I feel like it should. But that’s just me. 

There are two ways I’ve thought of going about this. The first, and this is the one I currently have listed in my house rules for The Seasonal Arc, is to say that every failed death save you have imparts one level of exhaustion. This means that a character at 0 hit points with two failed death saves will have disadvantage on ability checks, their speed reduced by half, and will have disadvantage on saving throws and attack rolls. The second way I’ve thought of doing this is that each failed death save you have reduces your maximum hit point total. So one failed death save reduces your maximum hit points to ¾ normal and two failed death saves reduces your maximum hit points to ½ normal. 

Part of me, the sadistic part I suppose, is screaming to do both. I feel like both is too much though. With access to unlimited healing, the reducing of hit points isn’t that much of a penalty. It just ties up the characters with cure wounds and healing word studs more, which has value I suppose. I think we’ll just stick with the levels of exhaustion for failed death saves. It’s the quickest and easiest and doesn’t bog down combat with a bunch of “how many hit points do I have right now and how many can I have total” questions and math. 

The main point of this post is to figure out what I want to do with hit dice. I have instituted a house rule that says long rests restore all your hit points, but only restore hit dice equal to your Constitution modifier, minimum of 1. But that’s not really a penalty. If characters have access to unlimited healing magic, they won’t really need to spend many hit dice. So the rule is effectively pointless. But hit dice are tied to health and wellness and recovery and stuff. They represent reserves of energy, I think. So I need to represent that in some way. 

The easiest way to do that is to say when your hit dice are low, you gain a level of exhaustion. Just like with hit points. But again, we run into the issue of hit dice aren’t going to be used as much because of unlimited healing magic. We could go the 4th Edition route and say that healing is done by curative magic allowing you to spend hit dice and boosting the effect of spending them. But that’s silly to me and fuck 4th Edition. It does tie in with what we see in a lot of fantasy novels where healing exhausts the person being healed. But that’s not really the way magic works in my universe. 

Another option is to take a note from GURPS where prolonged periods of exertion like combat and stuff drain your hit dice. But this runs into the problem where in a group of characters, the Wizard with a Constitution of 8 has the same amount of energy reserves (hit dice) as a Barbarian with a Constitution of 16. Fourth level characters will all have four hit dice, regardless of hit points and Constitution and whether or not they are a physically tough class or a physically fragile class. I like the idea that hit dice represent a reserve of physical energy. I like the idea that if they run low or out, maybe just out, it would impact your overall physical capabilities. When you’re exhausted, you don’t run or fight as well as you would you’re well rested and full of vitality. 

Hit dice are a restorative mechanic in 5th Edition. They’re useful because the game isn’t designed for characters to have unlimited access to healing from magic. So it’s pretty safe and easy to completely change how you gain them and what they’re used for. 

So let’s do a little spitballing here. They’re not really dice anymore, but let’s keep calling them that because I feel like it. How about each character has hit “dice” equal to the highest number on their hit dice. So Barbarians have 12 hit "dice" and Rogues have 8 and so on. Let’s also say that you increase/decrease your hit “dice” by your Constitution modifier. So the Barbarian with a 16 Constitution has a total of 15 hit “dice” and the Wizard with a 8 Constitution has a total of 5 hit “dice.” Let’s also say that when you run out of hit “dice” you gain a level of exhaustion. Because you are exhausted.  

Ok, hold up, I’m being stupid. 

So we’ve established that, at least in my opinion, hit dice exist as a form of more limited healing for characters to recover from fights because healing is not infinite. They’re not used for anything else as far as I can tell. So in the first place, limiting their recovery and having negative effects for using them is kind of pointless. They’re not something that’s going to be used often enough to really have an impact except in that one irritating instance where the group splits the party in the middle of the desert and can’t safely take a long rest or walk into a clinic in one of the towns or cities. In talking about this all with some other DMs, Lance also made the point that hit dice and the healing they provide are a mechanic designed to help prevent the 15 minute adventuring day where healers would expend all their spells on healing and then everyone would rest and reset all of their abilities after adventuring for an hour or two.

So if hit dice are essentially useless in a campaign setting where the PCs have access to unlimited healing and spell slots, why bog down the game with additional mechanics tied to hit dice and how they affect you when you run low on them? A more sensible solution would be to just remove the hit dice as a mechanic of the game. This also serves to make those extraordinarily rare situations where the players do not have access to unlimited healing more difficult and a little tense because the players and their characters know that they can’t spend an hour resting and restore all their hit points with their hit dice. 

I like it.

This has been productive. I’m glad we were able to do this. Usually I spend so much time adding rules to games and modifying existing rules. It’s kind of a strange experience to be removing a major mechanic like hit dice from the game.