Because of the Gygax 75 Challenge I set myself and a D&D 5e game that’s (hopefully) getting off the ground, I’ve been watching various D&D-related YouTube videos. (Yeah, that’s the reason.) Below I’m going to discuss a few memorable ones.
Dungeon Crawl Classics
This YouTube review of Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG (DCC RPG) is tough but fair. The highlights:
- DCC “is an engine of … danger, triumph, and hilarity”. It’s more D&D than official D&D itself.
- DMs need experience before they tackle DCC.
- “Zocci dice” – d3, d5, d7, etc. – are atmospheric but not statistically different from “orthodox” polyhedral dice.1
- The core book could be split into a Rulebook and a Spellbook, since spells take up at least a page for the highly variable and random effects.
- Magic is unique, dangerous, and darkly funny when it backfires.
- The zero-level funnel filters randomly generated peasants into a few cherished survivors.
- The artwork and rules evoke the older editions of D&D.
- DCC has a huge amount of fan-generated and official settings, adventures, and variant or supplementary rules.
Ultimately DCC shies away from coddling PCs like special snowflakes who can’t be allowed to die. In DCC dungeon-delving is dangerous and potentially fatal. Conversely, rolling up another character is pretty fast, especially when starting at 0th level.
Purely hypothetically, if I ever run the results of my Gygax 75 Challenge I’d probably do it in DCC.2
Speeding Up Combat
The Dungeon Craft YouTube channel has a few videos on streamlining D&D.
About six years ago “Professor Dungeon Master” presented his radical technique for speeding up combat: getting rid of initiative.
- All characters (PCs and NPCs) declare what they’re going to do.
- All to-hit (and damage?) dice are rolled simultaneously. (Which gets a little crazy with multiple NPCs, but never mind.)
- Players and GM sort through the dice to figure out who hit whom (simultaneously) and what damage everyone takes.
In something like Cypher, where only players roll dice, you’d need a PC phase where players roll attacks, an NPC phase where players roll defenses against attacks the NPCs launched, and a damage phase where all hit parties take damage, perhaps some of them dying before the next round.
I’ve tried something like that in my half-baked designs, but it does mean that characters can be wounded or killed by dead men. (Or goblins. Or whatever.) See also “The N x M Problem”, wherein I consider simultaneous attacks. But consider a horde of NPCs. Is it really that easy to determine which die belongs to which NPC based on where they fall? The video shows goblins in nice lines, two gobs deep, but in a general melee how do you match the goblin to the die?
I almost think the Troika! initiative system wasn’t that crazy: draw a card from a deck, and the character corresponding to that card gets an attack (and the target a counterattack3). If you draw the end of round card, reshuffle the deck and start over. The randomness drove my two playtesters crazy, but as stated in the video a melee is literally each person seizing their moment to whale on somebody else, who if in range is free to whale back.
This initiative system also assumes casting a spell takes just as long as swinging a sword. In BRP, RuneQuest, etc. a spell takes at least full combat round to cast, and goes off at the beginning of the next turn. So the usual strategy is to protect the caster(s) until their spell(s) go off. Battle magic4 spells are mostly pre-combat or first-round buffs anyway, and a priest’s or sorcerer’s spells are often big enough effects that having them take a round or more is necessary for balance.
FWIW in GURPS casting a spell may take only a second, and if you know it well enough you can abbreviate your incantation and hand gestures. But that’s not a given.
Now you could rule that Vancian spells are literally hanging in the caster’s mind, a millisecond from completion, waiting to be loosed, and that’s fine. I wonder, though, if the rules as written gave them casting times as a balancing factor. Certainly chanting a long incantation takes longer than the split second required to swing a sword, a fact of which Conan no doubt took advantage.
A related problem is that Initiative simulates both opportunities to strike and the hesitation of an inexperience soldier vs. the decisiveness of a veteran.5 In Original D&D and early editions rolling initiative every round was one solution. Troika! intiative is another. There will be situations in real-life battles where the more accurate swordsman or marksman was simply a fraction of a second too slow. I’m not convinced simultaneous rolls where one side is simply unlucky necessarily covers that case.
A later video revises this opinion to Moldvay / Old School Essentials initiative: every turn one player and the GM roll a d6 and the higher number goes first. This seems like a little more work than the simple “players go first” of Shadow of the Demon Lord, Barbarians of Lemuria (sort of), and other games, and you still get a pileup of DM actions on their turn if they’re running a significant number of NPCs and/or monsters. But it’s a little better than everyone rolling at once and sorting out who hit who.
A later YouTube video details other techniques for making combat run faster.
- Ask everyone what they want to do at once, with a 90 second time limit, and then move figures, roll dice, etc. based on those decisions.
- Roll To-Hit and Damage dice at the same time.
- Use average damage for monsters (don’t roll).
- Group initiative (PCs vs NPCs).
- Lower hit points of monsters and PCs, so one or two whacks dispatch a low-level monster … and PCs and high-level monsters don’t just whittle away at each other.
A “Statement of Intent” is also a feature of D100-based games like RuneQuest and BRP. Notably, as in PDM’s 90 second time limit, if the player doesn’t decide in a timely fashion his character “dithers” and loses their main action. (They can still react to combat, e.g. to parry a
Rolling dice at the same time and using averages is a simple technique. It’s hard to believe it saves a significant amount of time in D&D 5e where characters can use feats and class abilities to add Bonus Actions and other side effects. But I suppose every few seconds helps.
Lowering hit points reminds me of Scarlet Heroes and Godbound where PCs have 4+(level×(4+ConMod/2)) HP at most, and NPCs take damage in hit dice. Also, notably, in GURPS and D100-related systems most humanoids have between 10 and 20 HP.
D&D as an Open-World Sandbox
According to a close reading of Original D&D and related sources by Ben Milton of Questing Beast Games and the Knave RPG a D&D “campaign” was originally an “open world tabletop MMORPG”. That is, a “campaign” was not a series of story adventures concerning the same group of player characters (more or less). Rather, an arbitrary number of players, each playing one or more characters, played within a single location which included one or more dungeons. All games in this location presumably ran under a single DM or a few cooperating DMs.
Thus, for example, Gygax’s oft-quoted but puzzling statement “You cannot have a meaningful campaign if strict time records are not kept” meant that the DM had to track what group entered which dungeon when. If Party A entered the Warrens of Weirdness, killed most of its monsters, and plundered its loot, then if Party B endered the Warrens at a later date they should find most of the loot gone and most of its monsters slain for the sake of verisimilitude. Thus, as alluded to elsewhere, Gygax adopted the convention that, outside of a session, one day of real time corresponded to one day of campaign time. If Party A entered the Warrens in a Friday night session, the characters of Party A had only a day to nurse their wounds (healing one HP per day6), and the surviving monsters only a day to rebuild, before Party B entered the dungeon in the Saturday night session to find everything wrecked.
Dungeon Craft / “Professor Dungeon Master” (again) expands on this style of play. He gives the following rules for a modern take on the idea:
- You choose where to go. The adventure is in your hands. At the end of the session I will ask where you wish to go/explore next. You must make a decision and stick to it, so I can plan for the next session.
- Players can joins sessions on at-will basis. There is no set party – characters can and should adventure in many different groups.
- Players schedule sessions with each other via Discord or text. The DM will NOT take the initiative; if players want to play, it’s their responsibility to make it happen.
- Players can make as many characters as they want, but characters [sic] can’t transfer gold or items between PCs. All PCs start at 1st level – so have at least one backup character.
- Each session is self contained. Characters venture into the wild and return home each session.
- If characters change the world, other players will see that change if they follow the same path in a later session.
- The Keep is home base and is safe. Characters cannot be killed while in the keep, cannot kill others, and their money can be safely stored in the bank.
- High Level NPCs like the Witch cand advise the player characters, but they will never adventure with them. Nor will NPC adventurers join the party. Henchmen may fight if the situation is desperate and you pay them enough.
- Character vs. character combat is possible BUT is NOT lethal. If a character attacks another player character and reduces them to 0 hp, that character is knocked unconscious, not killed.
My experiment with writing an old-school sandbox might adopt some of these conventions in the as-yet-unnamed walled town that serves as a home base. The necessary setting support appears to be:
A location with lots of points of interest a party might want to explore.
A secure “keep” (or town) where the PCs can store their gold and possessions safely. In my “challenge” setting I added an Adventurers’ Guild which partners with a Merchants’ Guild to keep accounts and lockboxes for each PC.
High-level NPCs that enforce the Town rules and provide other services like trading in magic items, performing high-level spells, defending the Adventurers’ Guild and Merchants’ Guild from would-be thieves, and preventing assassinations.
For point #9 maybe an arena within the Town for formal duels? (Outside the Town anything goes.)
Not that I expect ANY players, but I might as well go as old-school as possible; the Gygax 75 Challenge deserves Gygax’s Lost Campaign Rules.
Honestly I have no use for D&D Alignment, “Hard Mode Alignment” notwithstanding. However, “Professor Dungeon Master” (yet again) provides a sensible Alignment mechanic.
Skipping over the orthodox explanation of Lawful/Chaotic/Neutral/Good/Evil, his (then) house rules had a sort of morality meter on the bottom. If a character hit the limit of Good they were a living saint and, if a Cleric, able to maximize their healing and other magic. If you hit the limit of Evil, a character became an irredeemably depraved subhuman and wholly controlled by the DM.
Granted, I’ve seen similar mechanics, like the Law/Chaos Allegiance system in Chaosium’s Stormbringer / Elric! or Light/Shadow in Magic World. The Georgian era Gothic RPG Ghastly Affair gives all PCs a Perversity characteristic. A low Perversity means a character is too pure for this ghastly world; as Perversity rises toward 20 the character grows ever closer toward incurable madness and absolute depravity (i.e. becoming an NPC).
Still, a concrete morality meter on a character sheet makes all the nonsense about “this is what my character would do” vs. “not acting your alignment” more concrete and measurable. Killed a defenseless prisoner? Congratulations, you’re one point (of six?) more Evil and on your way to becoming an NPC. Performed a truly selfless act? Congratulations, your Clerical magic got one point better. Pavlovian game design at its finest. (I actually mean that sincerely; if a GM or DM wants to encourage behavior at the table, they should dish out mechanical rewards … and similarly for discouraging behavior – e.g. murderhoboism – and punishments.)
Update on Gygax 75 Challenge
I originally learned about this challenge from Bob World Builder.
The Gygax 75 Challenge is supposed to comprise five steps, each taking about a week:
- The Concept
- The Region
- The Dungeon
- The Town
- The World
Somehow my brain wants to work on items #2, #4, and #5 simultaneously. I’ve got 1067 words on the region and close to 6000 words on #5, some of which apply to the Town (#4). Yet I’m no closer to mapping the Region, Dungeon, Town, or for that matter the World.
Part of the problem is that I’m still not sure how to create maps. (Worldographer? Hex-Kit? Paper plus a picture from my phone?) Then, too, I can’t assemble the components of the Region map in a satisfactory way: there’s the Town of Knight’s Haven, the Bergarus Mountains, the Cetina River which runs from the Mountains through Knight’s Haven, and the initial dungeon located in the Radovol Pit Mine, plus some assorted features like an Imperial Road and surrounding farmlands that supply Knight’s Haven. How to compose all these elements on a map eludes me. Trying to draw a map of Knight’s Haven7, even a rough map on a piece of scratch paper, is also harder than it should be.
Whatever the causes or excuses, it looks likes I’m behind by three weeks, which on the original timeline would have seen me complete the Region, Dungeon, and Town. Instead I’ve got the World almost ready to go, but not the actually essential parts. I guess I’ll finish when I finish.
I’d argue that he’s underestimating the statistics: 16.7% per result on a 1d6 vs. 20% per result on a 1d5, and the difference between rolling on a d20 and rolling on a d16 or a d24 is even greater, but I guess we can agree to disagree about what’s “statistically significant”. ↩︎
Second choice would be Into The Unknown because it uses D&D 5e rules to reconstruct Basic D&D classes and play. Third and following might be some of the other Old School Renaissance/Rebirth/Rules/R-whatever games out there because they’re a little too much like Basic D&D … although Index Card RPG might be worth a look. ↩︎
The opportunity to counterattack – if the target is in range – keeps the randomness from disproportionately affecting the PCs. I probably screwed up in the playtest when I ruled the PCs weren’t in range of the fusiliers. If I ever run it or something like it again I’ll lay out range increments so PCs can close the distance on their turn. ↩︎
In Aces & Eights 2nd edition characters get quicker on the draw the more gunfights they’ve been in. The character sheet literally records how many gunfights the character has been in and decreases the misnamed “Speed” parameter (should be “Delay”) based on that number. ↩︎
If one of a player’s characters wasn’t fully healed by next week, or whenever he was ready to play again, he simply used another of his characters. Characters were easy to make back then, and easy to replace. ↩︎
Essential features include the Citadel where the Earl lives, the Adventurers’ Guild, assorted shops TBD, two temples, and the aforementioned river and road. ↩︎