Last time I linked to a few videos by DungeonCraft’s “Professor Dungeon Master”. Lest anyone think I’m an unqualified fan, I don’t always agree with him.
I bought PDM’s “Deathbringer RPG” for $4, which works out to $1 per page. The first page is an introduction and an explanation on how to fold the next two pages, printed back-to-back, into a tri-fold pamphlet. The last page is a larger version of the character sheet included in the pamphlet.
The preface describes the game as follows:
Deathbringer is a streamlined, grimdark version of the world’s most popular tabletop roleplaying game. It is not a game so much as a “kit” – a toolbox of hacks to create a fast-paced, grittier game.
These rules can be used by themselves or imported into any 5E game or OSR retro-clone. Feel free to pick and choose which rules you use.
Despite this description, the rules feel like a summary of rules for a bigger game. (Maybe because they are, one available from PDM’s Patreon.) As someone who cannibalizes game mechanics for fun, the game is so small and minimalist that it’s hard to find something to cannibalize beyond the Deathbringer Dice mechanic – a pool of expendable dice one can add to any roll – and maybe the sheer minimalism of its version of TWMPTTRPG(tm).
On the other hand, one big hole in my reckoning is that it lacks spells for its one spellcasting class, the Grimscribe. The rules state:
No spell slots. Roll to cast, DC 10. On a roll of Natural 1 gain 1 Corruption and roll on the Miscast Table. Gains spells by finding scrolls, spell books, or by having a friendly higher-level magic user teach them to you. You are a living grimoire, must tattoo all spells on your skin.
(So presumably one can also kill and carefully skin another Grimscribe.)
Where are these spells? A small paragraph says,
Import an[y] monsters and spells you like from 5e/OSR games.
So you have to look in another source, convert statistics a bit, and then
plant them (somehow) in the Grimscribe’s path. It also assumes high-level
magic users and written spells survived the Burning Times.1
So I’m not sure what I really got for my $4. A summary of a game? Simplified d20 mechanics to which I’ll have to convert other sources? I’d like to think I could simply run a game of Deathbringer using my knowledge of d20 mechanics, but I fear there are other holes I won’t see until I try to run a one-shot.
Despite these complaints, my brain started churning out a setting for “Deathbringer”. Stupid brain.2
Normally I don’t like grimdark. If I want to contemplate a boot stomping on a human face forever, I’ll read the news.
PDM, however, defined his techniques for grimdark as a less, well, ceaselessly grim genre. That said, it may still be a little too dark for me.
He has 10 points, but I’ll summarize them in four features.
One aspect of PDM’s idea of grimdark is that player characters should start with fewer resources – bonuses, hit points, gear, etc. – and acquire each of these slowly. This makes players aware of their characters' vulnerability wherein an unlucky roll can kill the character … and in PDM’s games there’s no death saves or resurrection.
For example, he advocates for the “pure hitpoints” rule of 5e Hardcore Mode3. That is, first level characters roll for their hitpoints rather than take the maximum, and never add Constitution bonuses to their hit points at any level. (This applies to monsters too.) The idea is that battles are over with more quickly, one way or the other, and that characters can’t barrel into a situation and simply tank damage.
Modern roleplayers may be aghast at losing their characters, and honestly I think this is a bad rule for 5th Edition given how much time making up a character takes (at least by hand). OSR characters are far easier to “roll up” – literally, it’s mostly random dice rolls – and may be a better fit for this style of play. Maybe that’s the point.
Mostly Human Antagonists
PDM also advocates using human or demi-human opponents far more often. Human NPCs can be sympathetic, and morally gray, and sometimes tragic even as they do horrible, destructive things. Dealing with a human adversary may mean deciding which is the lesser of two evils, e.g. murder or surrender to corrupt authorities.
As I’ve said before, I hate the “Always Chaotic Evil” trope with a fiery passion. I’m all for ditching orcs, goblins, hobgoblins, bugbears, and so forth because the existence of entire species of intelligent beings whom it is always right and legal to kill reminds me of the worst atrocities of human history, and I don’t need that in my fantasy. (Goblin Slayer notwithstanding.) I even think the “devolved humans” used in sword and sorcery is a cop-out.
That said, I have two concerns:
How do I convert the plethora of modules that do use orcs, goblins, etc.?
Isn’t this maybe a little too dark? Sure, when a pirate tries to gut you it’s no time to ponder the redeemability of mankind. And maybe this style will discourage murderhobos and encourage negotiation. (Although I doubt it.) But in the end our protagonists are killing other human beings, and the authorities might not accept a plea of self-defense if it keeps happening.
That said, not all antagonists need to be human. PDM advocates introducing monsters judiciously: only one type per session or adventure, and avoiding known and clichéd monsters. This does give that low fantasy, low magic, swords & sorcery feel I like. My only concern here is that I’ve yet to find a HOWTO on creating D&D or D&D-like monsters. I’m sure they’re out there, or maybe even in the unread parts of my hard disk, but as of this writing the idea of customizing or inventing monsters for every adventure seems daunting.
In most fantasy RPGs magic might as well be a technology: it’s reliable, always works (if it’s aimed correctly), and has some pseudo-physical energy source like Magic Points or Spell Slots. In DCC RPG, on the other hand, spells are unpredictable: sometimes they fizzle, sometimes they’re wildly successful, and occasionally they weaken or mutate the caster.
PDM advocates for magic to be rare and deadly. In his world, as noted above, modern magic users must either find a spell in a grimoire or learn from a higher level teacher. Also in his world magic items are rare and often (always?) cursed, either intentionally or as a side effect of the magic.
So far I agree. Where I don’t really agree is that in his world magic-users are illegal and hunted by witch hunters. I’m not sure why anyone would play a character class whose very existence carries a death sentence, as opposed to Thieves and Rogues who can at least theoretically use their talents for legal purposes, or at least for non-capital crimes4. If we’re creating fantasy, why not one where at least legally magic isn’t a crime if it’s not used to perpetrate a mundane crime.
Keying off the various dangers of the Middle Ages, PDM’s world remains dangerous even without magic and monsters. Traveling down the road exposes one to bandits, beggars, fanatic witch hunters, and other atrocities. One of his videos described the “medieval” legal system, wherein any strangers, e.g. adventurers, were invariably prime suspects of any crime, because everybody knew everybody and nobody they knew would rob anyone. Plus the death sentence was awfully common.
While knowing how laws and society function in medieval Europe (and Tokugawa Japan and the Arab world and so forth) provides vital information on how pre-industrial, pre-gunpowder, pre-Enlightenment societies worked, we don’t have to let it constrain how our fantasy world works. Maybe we choose the Byzantine Empire as our model, or inject modern ideas of jurisprudence into our imaginary worlds. Just because the middle ages was also sexist and superstitious we don’t have to replicate those aspects. That would really be a drag.
In his final point, PDM wisely advised not to cross lines that players and the DM or GM weren’t comfortable with. While I would make safety tools available to players if I were GM, I would also take it a personal failure if I crossed a line at the table. One line I don’t want to cross is to play a fantasy game in the “Dung Ages” wherein life is filthy, nasty, brutish, and short, perhaps more than the historical Middle Ages. So I’m not above introducing ahistorical elements like an adventurers’ guild or greater equality between the sexes or a higher literacy rate if it makes the fictional world less awkward, frustrating, and needlessly anxiety-inducing. We’re here to have fun, and I at least don’t think replicating the world I’m trying to escape in my fantasies is fun.
All Clerics Are Lawful?
One of Dungeon Craft’s videos I don’t agree with at all is titled “Why All D&D Clerics and Religions Should Be Lawful”.
His argument is essentially that D&D is based on medieval Europe, therefore all religions will resemble those of the medieval era, even if they’re polytheistic.
Perhaps we have different versions of Lawful. The conventional idea of “Lawful” is pro-society and pro-organization; “Chaotic” is anarchistic if not antisocial. I however hark back to Moorcock’s original concept of Law and Chaos as cosmic forces: Law pushes for a “perfect” physical and moral order, while Chaos pushes for ceaseless change, survival of the strongest and/or adaptable, and an ultimately purposeless universe.
With those definitions I can see religions that aren’t strictly Lawful:
Neutral religions would resemble the polytheism of Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians (among many others). There’s a loose and contradictory mythology and a bunch of practices like animal sacrifices and offerings for good fortune. A religious hierarchy may still exist, but only to ensure correct worship. Even a state religion wouldn’t advocate a single morality or ethos, only a social pressure to honor and sacrifice to the gods. The ethos of the host culture would exert a far greater influence.
Chaotic religions often turn evil, but aren’t necessarily so. Think of modern Satanists who are more like atheists who want to shock the squares, or modern witches who believe “an [if] it hurt none, do what thou wilt”. (Greek religions often had chthonic gods and subcults, but I’d classify most of them as Neutral.) “Evil” religions that worship demons and dark gods paradoxically have a high priest – often a sorcerer or warlock – and some minimal organization. Evil or not-so-evil, a Chaotic religion’s Clerics still heal and protect against “evil”, but they’re zealous about freedom and anarchy, not a strict set of laws and a holy book.
The character of medieval religion derives from Abrahamic monotheism, not some essential requirement of “organized” religion. Roman polytheism persisted for centuries, and being Roman was “organized”. Unlike Judaism, for example, it didn’t advocate an inflexible moral code, just a constellation of Roman virtues. It doesn’t fit my definition of Lawful.
PDM does raise an interesting point about schisms within Lawful religions. I’d go even farther to say that all Lawful religions have basically the same precepts but differ in details, and thus regard each other as “infidels” or “heretics”.
In the setting for the Gygax 75 challenge – I’m getting there – I decided there were three or four Lawful religions, depending on how you count:
- The Canonists, who worship pure Law and have a holy Book of Law called the Canon.
- The Mitraists, who worship a god called Mitra whose morality and ethics resemble the Canon somewhat, but also have incidental differences due to having originally been an Eastern god in a polytheistic (now henotheistic) millieu.
- The worship of Sol Invictus in the (Western) Imperial Pantheon, who is a transparent copy of Mitra stripped of un-Imperial myths and beliefs and identified as the literal Sun.
- Dwarf Religion, which differs from all of these and lacks an official priesthood … but does have Lore Masters who act as teachers and enforcers of Dwarf ethics.
Part of this is my own belief that human (and demi-human) morality will eventually converge on similar principles given enough time and rational thought, but I’m also assuming the influence of the Powers of Law who order not only physical laws but moral laws.
Canonists, Mitraists, Solarians(?), and “Good Dwarves” would agree on a number of principles … but disagree on others. Mitraists believe in compromise and diplomacy over violence, while Canonists believe in Holy War, Dwarves will fight anyone over what they think is theirs, and the Empire believes in conquest through superior arms first and foremost. Canonists forbid usury; Solarians and Dwarves see no problem with non-abusive interest rates and Mitraists have a workaround where the lender sees a profit without charging a percentage that increases over time. And so on.
Each religion reflects its starting culture:
- Canonism comes directly from Angels, who have no idea what being a mortal is like. Thus it’s full of ideals hard to practice in the real world, with copious commentaries by mortals who struggle to practice them. It’s a religion with strict hierarchies, sometimes in defiance of the office holder’s actual competence.
- Mitraism comes from a society that has waged war but reveres skill with words, thus commerce and diplomacy are their preferred tools. In such a society one’s word is their bond, and a ruler is only as good as the promises they keep and the benefits they bring.
- The Sol Invictus “cult” is Mitraism shorn of things that would offend Imperials, dressed up as sun worship. Apart from its ethical underpinnings it functions much like any other polytheistic cult.
- Dwarves work hard and sometimes fight for everything they have, so while they never start fights (or so they claim) they always finish them. They also believe in shrewd but honest business dealings, as the acquisition of gold and other forms of wealth looms large in their culture. The leader of a Dwarf clan is invariably not only the richest but also the one who can “smell” new sources of wealth.
Yet they all agree on the value of human (and demi-human) life, the sanctity of one’s person and one’s (necessary) property, generosity to the less fortunate, the importance of truth, and so on.
The History of Clerics
Bob World Builder’s video on the “TRUE History of Clerics in D&D” traces how Clerics began.
Fun facts from the video:
Clerics were based on martial religious orders of the Middle Ages, making Paladins somewhat redundant. (This does bolster PDM’s argument that all Clerics should be Lawful.)
The prototype of Clerics was based on Abraham Van Helsing (detecting evil and turning undead) to counterbalance a vampire player character.
On the other hand, in Original D&D Clerics could start as Lawful, Neutral, or Chaotic, but eventually Neutrals had to choose Law or Chaos.
OD&D and subsequent editions went back and forth whether Clerics needed a god, or could serve an alignment, a force, or even a cause.
The 5th Edition PHB goes back to insisting on Clerics having deities, while the DMG allows Clerics only to serve a “Domain”.
With this history, then, I feel confident of the alignment rules for Clerics I’d put in a D&D or D&D-like campaign:
Clerics primarily belong to a religion, and may or may not specialize in a god depending on the nature of the religion.
Clerics may choose to be Unaligned (Neutral).5 They may also serve the cosmic power that their god aligns with, if any: Law, Chaos, or Balance (Neutral).
Most religions and gods are Unaligned (Neutral). The following religions and gods have alignments:
- Law: Canonism, Mitraism, Dwarven Religion; Sol Invictus
- Balance: Druidism; The Cosmic Balance, various nature gods (TBD)
- Chaos: Elven Religion; various “evil” gods, antigods, and demons (TBD)
That said, I’d be tempted to remove Clerics from the game if I could. D101 Games’s Crypts & Things removes clerics and gives their spells to magic-users as “white magic” (mostly). Their upcoming Beyond Dread Portals likewise drops Clerics from the game.
Agreeing to Disagree
One thing I like about Dungeon Craft is that even if I don’t agree with him I have to ponder why I disagree, and what I would do instead. Other D&D YouTubers dwell on 5e rules, their own house rules, or the history of D&D … interesting, sometimes, but not useful when you’ve been outside the D&D walled garden for most of your life. (And seen the editions come and go for yourself.)
I’m also not keen on his idea of making magic-users a hunted minority. In the G75 setting I’m slowpoking on, arcane magic users are disreputable and feared, but the Empire has a grudging respect for them. Laws against sorcery are no more harsh than laws against armed violence. For example, see the Adventurers’ Guild bylaws. ↩︎
One feature of this setting, or rather era of the G75 setting, is that anyone using magic, even Clerics, are hunted and killed. Witches, an (undefined) type of caster with characteristics of Clerics and Wizards, was the first to go: all the Witch bloodlines were (as far as anyone know) wiped out because Witches didn’t take the threat seriously. ↩︎
Admittedly I haven’t read this yet; I only know PDM’s description. Apparently there’s a sizable contingent that believes the 5e Hardcore Mode’s rule hacks demonstrate the author doesn’t “understand” 5th edition. Again, I don’t know 5e or the product well enough to say. ↩︎
Granted, in certain periods of English history, any theft carried a death sentence. ↩︎
A rule from 4th Edition, which had its moments. ↩︎