Saturday, 26 December 2015

Two Simple Rules for GMs

I've learned:

1. Don't plan sessions around a particular player or PC being there.
2. Don't cancel because a player can't make it.

Just stick to those two rules and you'll be fine.

Monday, 14 December 2015

The 5e "Adventuring Day"

Because this comes up a lot...

Page 84 DMG: "Assuming typical adventuring conditions and average luck, most adventuring parties can handle about six to eight medium or hard encounters in a day. If the adventure has more easy encounters, the adventurers can get through more. If it has more deadly encounters they can handle fewer."

It does not say anything about official game balance requiring 6-8 encounters in a day.

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Sunday, 6 December 2015

Dragonmeet 2015

I had a great time at Dragonmeet yesterday - it definitely helps to be accompanying a highly social 8 year old who's not afraid to ask to get into every game going (by my count he managed 6* games in 5 hours!). I finally bought 'Vornheim' - which I'd been after for a couple years - from James Raggi, and met the legendary Jonny Nexus, getting him to sign the copy of 'Game Night' he sold me. I was too shy to talk with Joe 'Lone Wolf' Dever, but my friend Jelly did. :)

*Bill played Zombicide, a WW1 aerial dogfight game (without me), Terminator: Genisys minis battle game, a Wild West finger-flick game (without me), and two Steve Jackson dice games, the entirely random Chupacabra and Brains(?), a you-are-the zombie game with a light skill element. The latter two left me wanting to play OGRE, the game on the SJG guy's T-shirt. :D

I think the highlight of the convention was getting to play Terminator: Genisys miniatures battle game with Bill, refereed by one of the designers. The first really good modern/future minis skirmish game I've played, it uses different dice for task resolution vs unchanging difficulty numbers representing skill, weapon damage & armour. It's a great approach which made for a really tense and exciting game as my Human Resistance fighters under Kyle Reese desperately tried to hold off Bill's Skynet Terminator Endoskeletons. At one point we looked sure to be overrun - you really get that movie-style sinking feeling as your massed volley of plasma rifle fire has zero effect on the advancing Machines - only my anti-tank systems had much effect. Once some of the Terminators got into melee with my guys they were shredding us right and left, and I managed to blow away one of my own guys in the crossfire. :) But then the tide turned as some lucky strikes shocked the Terminators and we were able to run in and coup-de-gras them ("Hasta La Vista Baby" move) before they could recover. I was still taking losses but as the number of Terminators dwindled, our greater numbers began to tell, and by the end Kyle and the three surviving members of his squad stood victorious over the smoking battlefield.

I manged to get a half price copy of the game from the Games Workshop stall  stall with the Games Workshop banner (£35 instead of £70!) and we took it home, played another quick skirmish before bedtime. :) Thanks to River Horse games for a great product!

Downsides of the Convention - I could not find a proper listed timetable of speakers anywhere (not on the website, nor the programme, nor posted anywhere), and didn't get to hear any. Likewise, if there were any drop-in RPG sessions I could not find them, or a way to sign up on the day. I get to play RPGs a fair bit already so that was not a huge loss, but the lack of publicity re Speaker schedule was more of an issue.

Still, I had a fantastic day for my £10 on the door, and it's a great new & very accessible venue - definitely going again next year!

Fun in 4e D&D

While I have ripped Wyatt on ENW for his "guards at the gate aren't Fun... long treks through dwarven fortresses isn't Fun... skip to the Fun" - it actually makes some sense within the tight focus of the 4e system. The 4e DMG knows what it wants to do and is mostly pretty good about doing it - whereas the 4e PHB is pretty terrible at introducing players to the game (HotFL/HotFK much better, if anyone had bought them). DMG would still have benefitted from more clarity in explaining the kind of game it was, but the biggest issue was in presenting it as nominally another edition of D&D when its focus was so different from earlier editions.

I'm currently running both BECM Classic D&D and 4e D&D (and 5e D&D!) and they serve very different masters, they achieve 'Fun' most effectively through very different techniques. As you say, 4e works with hard scene framing, what I called Pemertonian on ENW, as it was Pemerton who helped me understand how 4e worked and why my attempt to run prodecural sandbox in 4e (conversion of Vault of Larin Karr) did not work well.

The 4e DMG hints at this difference, but IMO does not do enough to effectively distinguish 4e from its predecessors, given that most DMs will be carrying in baggage from 1e-3e. The DMG2 helped a lot, still without going all the way.

Instead of "X is Not Fun", the 4e DMG should have said "4e is intended for Y, not for X".

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Nostalgia and the OSR

Is the OSR nostalgia? If it's nostalgia, it seems to be mostly nostalgia for an era of gaming - the mid to late 70s - that most of the participants never themselves experienced.

I think the very early OSR or proto-OSR (Dragonsfoot, C&C, OSRIC) was based around 1e AD&D modules and module-based play (mostly competition modules), the era that began with Against the Giants and ended in the late 1980s. I think that nostalgia and simple continuity of play plays a big role there - a typical Dragonsfooter in 2002 probably was just playing the same way they had been doing in 1986.

But the more recent West Marches, Grognardia and post-Grognardia OSR seems much more about the sandbox hexcrawling and the megadungeon, styles already falling out of favour in the late 1970s and only ever experienced by a relatively small number of gamers at the time. If it's nostalgia, it's nostalgia for a mythic past, rarely nostalgia for our own remembered past.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Sandboxing is easier than Plotting.

I find the joy of sandboxing is that my players create the adventures with me, by deciding where to go & what to do.  Of course there needs to be some pre-created content to give them a grounding for action, but it's a lot easier to create material in response to player decisions than to create a plotted adventure from nothing. Eg currently my PCs addressed the Altanian clan moot and decided to aid them vs Neo-Nerath by embarking on a lengthy overland quest to reach the Gate Castle of the Black Sun and close the Gate that is the source of Neo-Nerath's vast Necromantic powers. They also decided on their route, from several possible. All I then have to do is detail the quest site (pretty easy when I have Dyson's Delves I & II, I soon found useable maps). Much of the overland journey is created through encounter tables with encounters rolled during play (last session a CR 17 dragon turtle attacked their ship!), in conjunction with the pre-existing set-piece locale notes.

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Sunday, 15 November 2015

Exploration and "skip to the fun"

[QUOTE=Quickleaf;6757524]I can't help but feel like sitting in on some old school style play would do you good. I'm stunned that any DM would claim "exploration = nothing to do" or "exploration is the boring stuff between encounters."[/QUOTE]

This is what James Wyatt says in the 4e DMG in his 'skip to the fun' advice.
The 5e DMG by contrast classes exploration as one of the three pillars of play.

Exploration can of course be boring - IMO combat can be boring too. Even social interation
can be boring - endless low stakes in-character negotiation with shopkeepers to buy
supplies, say. It comes down to GMing techniques such as using appropriate time-scaling for the environment. If a maze or similar area is truly empty and looks dull, even though it's fully mapped out
I'll typically say "ok, an hour later you have negotiated your way through the maze..."  - just as I'd skip buying supplies or a day of uneventful travel. There are loads of poorly written adventures where exploration is a chore; the Dungeon Crawl Classics are often quite bad that way. OTOH exploration of
well-detailed, interesting environments can evoke that elusive Sense of Wonder and be
one of the best parts of the game, and early TSR modules like In Search of the Unknown
and (orange-cover) Palace of the Silver Princess often had fascinating environments to explore.
Some modern writers create great dungeons to explore, eg Dyson Logos with his wonderful maps can key a map in a couple of pages that creates something very interesting. Others create dull series of rooms that a computer could generate. If your adventure is like the latter, then 'skip to the fun' may be good advice.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Where to get sandbox adventures

Modules I've used recently for sandboxing:

My Classic D&D Campaign
Pretty well everything from, notably Monkey Isle, plus tons of other great adventures.
X1 Isle of Dread
B7 Horror on the Hill (much tougher than X1!)
DCC The Secret of Smugglers' Cove

My 5e campaign
Dyson's Delves I (just bought II) - the fully developed adventure sites are great, highly recommend
Caverns of Thracia - used the 3.5 version
Liberation of the Demon Slayer - a weird one
Halls of Tizun Thane & The Lichway from Best of White Dwarf Scenarios I, both by Albie Fiore.

If you want tons of great free modules for sandboxing go to for Dyson Logos and for the Basic Fantasy ones. For print go to for Dyson's Delves, go to amazon(!) for incredibly cheap at-cost printings of the Basic Fantasy works.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Classic D&D group magic items

The main 6th level Classic PCs in my group have the following items, with Bramble & Roseanne's +1 platemail armour only because they were gifted it by Duke Stefan two sessions ago as reward for a successful mission - I wanted to get their ACs up.  :)
They have mostly played TSR Basic D&D and BFRPG retro-clone adventures, which have similar amounts of magic; we are currently playing C&C adventure The Secret of Smugglers' Cove, a 3e conversion which has rather more I think. We've played weekly since March, roughly 8 months & something like 30-32 sessions. The first three PCs have been played up from 1st level; Roseanne joined more recently. I use death at -10, everyone has been 'mostly dead' at times, but no fatalities yet - though Raise Dead is available.

Bramble Hairyheals, Halfling-6: +1 platemail, +1 short bow, +1 short sword, 6 +1 arrows, 3 healing potions.

Claudia Morrigan, Thief-6: +1 leather, +2 dagger, +1 dagger, 3 healing potions, +2 ring of protection, continual light sapphire.

Alexandra Vorloi, Fighter-6: +1 sword, +2 ring of protection, +1 trident, 1 healing potion, 1 levitation potion.

Roseanne, Cleric-6: +1 platemail, +2 two-handed 'rune maul' warhammer (d8+2), 10 +1 sling bullets, 5 healing potions, scrolls: 2 cure light wounds, 1 bless, 1 raise dead.

I would not call them magic poor (eg I've been generous with healing potions), but the Classic assumption that +3 gear is more the kind of thing you start seeing around Name level differs quite a lot from my memories of AD&D play, I recall in my old AD&D games you'd be seeing +3 and +4 gear at level 6, generated by the 1e DMG treasure tables and often appearing in published 1e adventures.

Compared to AD&D, my Classic PCs average 1 hit point less per level, but I gave max hp at level 1 so that evens out. The Fighter types have slightly worse chances to hit, but most enemy ACs aren't great anyway. They don't get to attack 3 times per 2 rounds from level 7. No STR 18/00, but they typically have STR 16 for +2 attack & damage, better than AD&D STR 17 (+1/+1). Saves seem similar.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

How I Sandbox

I call my multiple-choice campaigns "sandboxy" rather than "sandbox". I have one like this currently, an episodic Classic D&D Karameikos campaign.
My 'actual sandbox' Wilderlands campaign does not have 'adventures'; it does have 'sites' - locations such as dungeons where adventure is particularly likely. But the PCs aren't required to investigate all or any of these. It's also notable for the ability of the PCs to go anywhere & do anything adventurous and it will run smoothly, there's never an adventure of the week that the PCs must do - not even a choice of two or three. Sandboxy games are choice matrices; genuine sandbox games are completely open. Both are distinct from linear games like the Pathfinder AP I just finished, but they're quite distinct I think.

There was an old White Dwarf article that discussed "Scenario Design" vs "Environment Design". Sandboxing involves "Environment Design" - you create an environment for PCs to explore, not scenarios for them to play. This is why my Karameikos game is not a true sandbox - the PCs are presented with adventures & adventure options each week. Whereas in my Wilderlands sandbox there is the environment, in which exist such locations such as the Halls of Tizun Thane and the Caverns of Thracia, but the campaign is not 'adventure driven' - NPC quest givers don't, as a rule, come over to the PCs and ask them to do X. Rather the PCs roam the world encountering interesting stuff, and there are dynamic NPCs doing likewise. A lot of my sandbox effort goes into detailing tons of motivated NPCs whose behaviour interacts with the PCs and with each other. The world is a web of interaction; more detailed in the immediate campaign area, but thanks to the Wilderlands of High Fantasy Box I can look anywhere in the world, see who's there, and have an idea what they're up to.

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Sunday, 25 October 2015

Checking morale


The 2d6-roll-over-morale  (Classic D&D) system is what I use in every edition of D&D. I occasionally make more than 2 checks though - fighting to the death should be rare IMO, though it does happen. Checking before combat begins is a good idea - unless monsters appear to have an overwhelming advantage, it makes very good sense to check if they're willing to initiate combat. I rarely check morale on first monster death, unless it's an opponent who expects to win without losses - predator pack animals or brigands, maybe. I usually check if the monsters are taking significant casualties without inflicting any, or if the ratio of losses is going badly against them. I usually check twice per battle, occasionally three times. If the enemy are not really 'fight to the death' types they may auto-flee if the battle is clearly lost and they're not defending something important.

Generally opponents should be reluctant to initiate combat vs a well-armed and aware enemy, but once committed the longer the battle goes on the *less* likely they are to flee, unless clearly overmatched - and they may not realise they're overmatched. Eg in the police station massacre in The Terminator, the police kept attacking the T-101 because they thought he was just a human who could be felled by one shot. If they'd known he was an armoured cyborg I'd have had them rolling lots of Morale checks.  Likewise with monsters vs PCs.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Adjusting Monster HP in 4e D&D

I halve Elite and Solo hp and this works very well. I used to halve Standard monster hp but I found some died too fast, giants especially should not be so squishy. So for Standard monsters I reduce hp as follows:

Low (eg Artillery) 4/Level+4+CON
Medium (eg Soldier, Skirmisher) 5/Level+5+CON
High (Brute) 6/Level+6+CON

This can be done to listed stats as follows, deduct:
Low: 2/Level+2
Medium: 3/Level+3
High: 4/Level+4

This matches closely to PC hit points and I find it works best.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

5e D&D - Scaling Challenges for More Players...

I don't actually 'build' encounters myself, but this is how it works...

The DMG says a lot about this. Check the paragraph on Party Size, DMG pg 82. If a party has 6+ PCs then you multiply monster XP by 0.5 to set the budget. If you want a Medium challenge for 8 level 6 PCs then your budget is 600x8=4800 xp; with single monster's XPV multiplied by 0.5, ie you need a monster worth at least 9600 XP. Per DMG page 275 you need a single CR 13 monster (XPV 10,000) to provide a Medium challenge to the group.

Note that a Medium challenge is one that the group is expected to do 6-8 of between long rests, not something that will feel like a big fight. A Hard challenge for eight level 6 PCs has a budget of 900x8=7200 xp, single monster x0.5 so need 14400 xp. Per DMG page 275 you need a single CR 16 monster!

Monday, 19 October 2015

Monster CR in 5e

A lot of monsters are much lower CR than previously - eg I was surprised Manticores are only CR 3 now - which works ok if you run it like 4e with PCs normally fighting groups of monsters. Also, higher level monsters are much more fightable than in 3e; they may get lucky and kill PCs, but they are definitely beatable. Conversely, bounded accuracy means hordes of low level monsters are much more dangerous than in 3e.

Overall I like the change - the paucity of monsters above CR 10 was initially surprising, but the intent seems to be that high level PCs fight lots of mid-CR monsters, hordes of low-CR monsters, or the occasional high-CR solo monster.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Finished an Adventure Path! Paizo's Curse of the Crimson Throne.!-Curse-of-the-Crimson-Throne

Yesterday my Sunday group successfully completed Curse of the Crimson Throne after 34 sessions, levels 2-14, and almost 2 years of real time. The game blog is here -
Completing the AP feels rather like scaling Mount Everest - satisfying, but partly because of the sheer effort involved. Compared to running a 'normal' campaign, this felt vastly more arduous, reading all the books, trying to understand the intent of the series and the individual authors, working out what could be changed or avoided, what was the necessary backbone of each volume and of the AP as a whole. The backbone of a volume was sometimes hidden - eg in Book 5, the steps the PCs actually needed to take to complete the steps towards gaining the sword Serithtiel was buried deep in the text. In the case of Book 4 and its endless fetch-quests the whole thing proved unnecessary and I ended up not using most of it, making it a wasted purchase - but no way to know that in advance.

One conclusion I took away was that 3e/PF and its progression rate seems extremely unsuited to linear play with the scope of this sort of AP.

1. From the player end, PCs level up too fast and increase in power too fast, easily exceeding the credible scope - by the end of the campaign the godlike 14th level PCs felt like they should have been invading the Abyss, not merely saving a city. This would have been even more pronounced with the level 1-16 scope of the AP as originally written.

2. From the GM end, 3e/PF stat monster and NPC stat blocks go from reasonable at levels 1-5 to nightmarish levels 11+. Just reading stat blocks, looking up spells and powers, trying to grok authors' intent re battle tactics, took much more time than I normally need to prep a session, and this is just one part of running an AP.

The advantage of the AP was that it gave a satisfying, close-ended campaign experience, like completing a well made video game. I do plan to run APs again in the future, though next time I'll have a clearer idea what I'm getting into. I don't think I'll use 3e/Pathfinder again though. 5e D&D looks well suited to most Paizo APs, with 4e D&D also a possibility given plenty of editing to remove 'trash fights' - run as-is 4e would be much too slow. I'll need to be prepared for the extreme effort involved though; compared to running a more open or sandbox game, successful prepping and GMing of an AP takes far more work - which feels like the opposite of the common stereotype. Partly this is the time spent reading the text, partly it is the need to ensure it doesn't feel constricting and railroady.

Progression Rates

Obvious caveat here is that 4E is built on a level 1-30 scale rather than a 1-20 scale, but even so it's quite clear that once you hit level 5, 4E actually ends up with a much slower level progression than any previous Wizards of the Coast edition of D&D.

With 3e xp has no platonic value, 1 xp means more the higher level you get.
My experience is that 3e & Pathfinder progression rate is quite similar to 5e after the first couple levels, but the power increase per level is much more so it feels much faster. My Pathfinder campaign started at level 2 and wrapped up yesterday at level 14 after 34 tabletop sessions; 12 level-ups so 2.8 sessions/level, but in the single digit levels it was generally 2 sessions/level. Similar to 5e, BUT 3e/PF PCs double in power every 2 levels, they start feeling like demigods around level 11. 5e PCs feel much much more grounded, I'd say they double in power more like every 4 levels (faster 1-5) so it doesn't feel nearly so weird.

4e PCs double in power about every 4 levels, much like 5e PCs. XP awards look similar - it's designed around 10 standard awards to level - but the fights are much much slower than in 5e and this keeps the actual speed of progression down. My 4e campaign started at level 1 and is level 25 after 92 sessions, 24 level ups so 3.8 sessions/level. It was 2-3 sessions at low level and has been very consistently averaging 4 sessions/level for most of the campaign.

My experience is that in practice 3e/PF levels fastest and has the fastest power progression, 5e next, and 4e is the slowest.

I'm also running a Classic D&D campaign, PCs currently around level 6. It seems to be around 3-5 sessions to level (the recommended rate in the Rules Cyclopedia as I recall), and actual PC power increases more slowly than 3e/PF but similar to 5e and 4e, maybe a bit faster.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Best published D&D setting?


Good D&D settings for me tend to be ones that are easily approachable, have lots of easy to use material, and fit the core/standard rules. Of ones that are available (so not Gary Gygax's Yggsburgh) I think Mystara via the Gazetteers (on rpgnow - start with GAZ1 Karameikos), Forgotten Realms (start in the Western Heartlands/Sword Coast) and Golarion (start in Varisia, newbie town Sandpoint is detailed in Rise of the Runelords and briefly in Pathfinder Beginner Box) are all good ones.
If you want something that feels modern, has pretty artwork, a fantastic world book (Inner Sea World Guide) and you want to spend loads of money on slim 64 page volumes, Golarion is great.  :)
For sheer playability I'd tend to put Mystara & its 8-mile hex maps on top, especially for open-world sandboxing with dropped in modular adventures.
Forgotten Realms is great if you don't have a setting Nazi in your group or are happy to insist that yours is a non-canon campaign. The 1e Grey Box is probably the best intro if you're happy to tweak the NPC stats; that goes for Mystara too - both settings suffer a bit from excessive levels on NPCs, something Golarion, Eberron & Greyhawk generally avoid.
I'm currently running campaigns in all three of these settings, plus a fourth in the Wilderlands of High Fantasy using the 3e box set (available on rpgnow). I'd say Wilderlands was my favourite open-world setting, but getting its bottom-up orientation to work right is a bit more challenging than the three above; you need to do a bit of work to tie threads together and create a world-in-motion, in particular you need to develop the NPCs yourself, whereas Mystara Realms & Golarion come with plenty of detailed NPCs. Wilderlands is great though for doing your own thing, a published setting that really feels 'yours' rather than a corporate product.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Giving 5e a more 1e feel

They did do a good job IMO in making 5e D&D 'driftable' to play like a lot of other editions. The default setting is sort of "2.5e", but I was shocked looking at the 5e forum on EN World to see them treating it like 3e, with lots of talk of 'builds', 'optimisation' et al - nothing like the way I use it. That said, here are some of the things I do to go for a more 1e or Classic (pre-Non Weapon Proficiencies & Skills) type feel:

1. Skills - already vestigial in 5e, I don't really use them, I just add Profiency to whatever ability checks a character should be proficient in by reason of his Class.

2. Multiclassing - this is the bit of 5e that seems most 3e-like. Fortunately it's listed as an optional rule. Disallowed.

3. Saving throws - 5e has this weird thing where most saves never improve, in fact they get harder to make as DCs go up with level. I give every PC Proficiency in all saves, this gives more of a pre-3e feel. I found this doesn't work for monsters though, 5e casters are already much more limited than in other editions and they need to be able to have spells work most of the time or they will seem very weak.

4. Feats - for my Dragonsfoot game I didn't allow them at chargen. I'm a bit torn on this one, but a lot of 5e feats resemble stuff like the Mentzer Classic D&D 'Fighter Smash' attack - stuff that I think is ok at higher level. Again Feats are labelled as Optional and for some groups it may be safer to disallow them if you don't want a whiff of 3e style minmaxing.

5. Death Saves and "heal from zero" - a 4e-ism which is ok-ish in that game, terrible (IMO) in 5e. I don't use them, instead I use negative hit points and when a PC goes deep into negative they'll have trouble getting back up again.

Campaign Length

My 4e D&D campaign is designed to last the 5.5 years (early 2011 to late 2016) it takes to get from level 1 to level 30 at around 4 sessions to level and playing 3 hours fortnightly, currently at
level 25 after 92 sessions and would expect something like 110-115 sessions total.

I've run a bunch of ca 30 session, ca 2-year campaigns in the 2000s. My current Pathfinder
campaign is most like that, next Sunday should be the last session, session 34, having
run January 2014 to end September 2015, 1 3/4 years.

My Classic D&D Karameikos campaign is a weekly sandbox running since start of April 2015, PCs currently around 5th level mostly, not sure when it will end, basically should run indefinitely while I have
players, the way BECM is I could run it to 36th level no problem.

My 5e D&D online Wilderlands sandbox started in March 2015, building on prior campaigns (1e, LL, 4e etc) back to ca
2009, currently weekly. 35 sessions and PCs ca level 7-8 currently. Judging by past experience this will run until there's a TPK; if no TPK I'm happy to run it indefinitely and it looks to have a lot of legs. In the 5e rules PCs cap at 20th
level and get GM-mandated Boons after that, which looks very manageable - I'd probably
say "you can have this Boon or can choose a Feat in lieu", per the sidebar in the 5e DMG.

Is speed of levelling an issue in 5e sandbox? Not really - it seems slow enough in my two sandbox games (5e is super-fast at low level, slows down a lot from 5th/6th, should speed up from 11th. The Pathfinder group have often levelled up in 1-2 sessions though, that felt too fast to me. I guess my
5e group should reach 20th long before the Classic group reach 36th, but in both cases
it's going to take a long time, maybe some time in 2017 for the 5e group. If the 5e player characters avoid TPK, reach max level, and
want to retire, that would be fine - but I want to give them a chance to shape the world
for future campaigns.

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Sunday, 20 September 2015

If 5e PCs can't buy magic items, what do they do with all their money?

The answer is "whatever they want" - and if they come up with interesting stuff to do it's good to award them XP - one reason individual XP works well in 5e, though group awards are also fine. Castles, ships, armies - armies are actually useful in 5e! - henchmen/retainers... a 15th level 5e Fighter may well want a pet NPC Mage and NPC Priest on his payroll, along with a garrison of men-at-arms for his castle. And the stats from the back of the 5e MM work fine for this.

I think it's ok in 5e to let PCs occasionally use their vast wealth to search out or commission magic items, but the GM can/should make them arbitrarily expensive, just as the GM should decide what price an NPC will offer for those Boots of Flying; make it an in-game event, not book-keeping.

The trick is to get away from the purely character-focused approach of 3e-4e. You no longer need money for your 'build'; money is a means of interacting with and shaping the world around you.

How well does 5e D&D do 'old school'?


Answer: pretty good, but it's missing some systems like monster morale checks & morale, or the old D&D approaches to evasion, getting lost & such. My own 5e campaign is a pretty old school sandboxy thing and pretty well all the published material I use is either original old school (Caverns of Thracia, Wilderlands) or OSR (Dyson's Delve, O5R Liberation of the Demon Slayer). I've had an easy time filling in the gaps; eg I already use B/X style Morale rules in all my games anyway.

The 5e PCs IMC aren't fragile/disposable, but then old-D&D PCs really aren't either after 1st level. It's really 3e where high level Fighter types routinely drop like flies. The spell/magic rules in 5e really limit casters, in ways that are different from old school D&D but the effect is similar, warriors & wizards need to work together, no 3e/PF god-casters and their non-caster mook/grog buddies.

Power progression is different from any prior version of D&D; enemy numbers matter hugely, and a squad of soldiers is a bigger threat than a manticore - I really like this but it feels a bit more like non-D&D RPGs than any version of D&D. It definitely gives that "heroic not superheroic" feel - which I guess resembles low level D&D, but 7th level old school D&D PCs can generally wade through hordes of foes more easily than my 5e group can.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Giving 5e D&D a 1e AD&D feel.

They did do a good job IMO in making 5e D&D 'driftable' to play like a lot of other editions. The default setting is sort of "2.5e", but I was shocked looking at the 5e forum on EN World to see them treating it like 3e, with lots of talk of 'builds', 'optimisation' et al - nothing like the way I use it. That said, here are some of the things I do to go for a more 1e or Classic (pre-Non Weapon Proficiencies & Skills) type feel:

1. Skills - already vestigial in 5e, I don't really use them, I just add Profiency to whatever ability checks a character should be proficient in by reason of his Class.

2. Multiclassing - this is the bit of 5e that seems most 3e-like. Fortunately it's listed as an optional rule. Disallowed.

3. Saving throws - 5e has this weird thing where most saves never improve, in fact they get harder to make as DCs go up with level. I give every PC Proficiency in all saves, this gives more of a pre-3e feel. I found this doesn't work for monsters though, 5e casters are already much more limited than in other editions and they need to be able to have spells work most of the time or they will seem very weak.

4. Feats - for my Dragonsfoot game I didn't allow them at chargen. I'm a bit torn on this one, but a lot of 5e feats resemble stuff like the Mentzer Classic D&D 'Fighter Smash' attack - stuff that I think is ok at higher level. Again Feats are labelled as Optional and for some groups it may be safer to disallow them if you don't want a whiff of 3e style minmaxing.

World in Motion - How Much Work?

I don't see much point simulating NPC behaviour that can't possibly come to the notice of the players. If I'm doing events on the other continent I will only care about absolutely massive stuff, and then only if it might affect the PCs. The closer I get to the PCs the more detail I'll go into. But I don't much like the idea of a clockwork world.

Last night in my sandbox, the travel-weary PCs approached the village of Bratanis. There was a long building friction there between the Lady Aeschela and her lieutenant, the Weaponmaster Ruggio. I rolled a d6 to see if Ruggio had finally overthrown Aeschela and made himself Lord, 1-3 'yes'. I rolled a 3, and events proceeded from there. I didn't see any need to make the Schrodinger determination prior to the PCs getting there.

Other things may be on a timetable in-world, eg it's known that as the rainy season ends in M3 (it's early M2 now) an undead army of Neo-Nerath will be coming over the mountains to Hara. That will presumably happen unless the PCs or something else big stops it.

In general, stuff immediately around the PCs I'm looking at daily/weekly on a small scale, further away monthly & on a larger scale (eg Hara & the undead army), further still yearly and larger still (what are the Red Reavers of Grimalon up to) and even decadal (how are the Invincible Overlord and Green Emperor doing). This gives reasonable economy of effort - if my game's not set in the CSIO I may only be thinking about the CSIO every year or so of real-time. Most of it can be updated if/when the PCs go there, and yes a lot of it can be used frozen-time, NPC X is the way they are in the book whenever the PCs first meet X. My Karameikos game is 20 years in (1020 AC from 1000 AC start), major NPCs get aged 20 years (and some die of old age) but some I'll just change their backstory to be 20 years younger.

I used to be the sort of GM who generated vast reams of material for its own sake, and eventually found that this was hurting the actual game at the table. Every detail I pre-determine takes away an opportunity to make it differently - and sometimes different would be better, but I can't know what would be best for the game. I don't have infinite inspiration; if fix too much too soon I am destroying possibilities. My current Ghinarian Hills setting is working brilliantly, but only because I detailed one or two locations at a time, over months, as inspiration came to me - and am still doing so. If I had tried to detail everything up front rather than incrementally it would be a much much weaker setting.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

4e, 5e & Exploration

4e is completely different from other D&Ds, but not totally inflexible.

Encounters per day - in 4e this can be any number up to the healing surge depletion limit. A single moderate difficulty fight is viable if the players don't know it's the only fight. In fact it's ok for the number of fights per day to be random. The main reason to limit # encounters is the massive time sink; 8 moderate-difficulty fights in a day could be 16 hours of play, for me that's probably 4-6 sessions, 2-3 months of fortnightly play! The published WotC adventures are written like that and work very poorly.

Encounter difficulty - in 4e this can be anything from a massive 'Spike' battle that tests PCs to the limit (from which they may need to flee, and possible PC deaths) to a moderate battle maybe EL 1 under Party Level.
But that is still really a fairly limited range, say EL-1 to EL+7 at higher level, with EL+7 about 4 times the difficulty of EL-1.
What 4e can't do well is the really trivial fight, it will take ages, be dull, and not attrite any resources.

The kind of videogame-based "fake megadungeon" approach Angry DM is taking, with mini-bosses at the end of each 'day' sequence, looks like an appropriate approach for 4e. But in 4e there is really no meaningful Exploration element, the game doesn't support that at all, and IME is even best done without a map - just telling the PCs "you trek through the megadungeon, until... (Encounter X)" is what works best in that system. 5e is completely different and IME (GM'd 34 sessions of online Wilderlands 5e sandboxing) the design supports old-school exploratory play. I use mostly OSR material (and Caverns of Thracia) in my 5e game, and it works a charm. I found using Dyson's Delve dungeon maps a complete waste in 4e, but in 5e they work a treat.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Don't convert

Converting PCs from one rules system to another, eg 4e to 5e - I've done mid-campaign conversions before and they have never worked well, even 3e to C&C. Converting always damages the campaign and it tends to fade away pretty fast. As GM I've learned to stick with the current system to the conclusion of the campaign. If I want to use a new system I've learned to start a new campaign with new PCs.
So my advice to GMs would be to stick with your current system, conclude the campaign at a good stopping point, and then start a new one with new PCs & new rules, which can be set in the same world.

Read more:

Monday, 31 August 2015

Awarding XP in 5e D&D

I find that 5e D&D definitely seems to work best overall with a pre-3e approach to encounters - let the players with the 9th level PCs determine if they want to face the Balor and don't worry too much about what threat level it's supposed to be. XP - by-the-book generally works; it can be cut down if ridiculously excessive. BTB a Balor is worth 22,000 xp. Deadly for a 9th level party is 2400 each. You could halve the Balor xp award to bring it more into line with actual threat level (making it more like CR 14). Or you could just use the pg 82 chart and say 'this was a deadly encounter for my level 9 group, 2400 xp each'. Personally for my online 5e game though I'd probably just give full xp; maybe I wouldn't give much or any non-combat xp that session, and it'd soon
even up.
I generally find the main issue with 5e is to give reasonable xp for sessions
where the PCs are doing important stuff but there is no or trivial combat. Something like an easy encounter's worth per hour of play or medium encounter award per achievement (eg looting a treasure hoard) works well.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Running 4e - "Pemertonian Scene Framing"...

Just been looking back over this classic thread I started on ENW a couple years back -

I found 4e works best with what Ron Edwards called the "Driving with Bangs" approach, or open-resolution scene framing. I found it worked poorly with sandboxing, it is not designed for the world-simulation approach at all. It is also not a good fit for linear railroading because combats take so long, people get easily bored and exhausted (see pretty much every WoTC 4e adventure!). Ideally every 4e combat should be meaningful to the players.

Essentially, 4e works best as a Dramatist game where there is a good deal of player/GM cooperation in campaign direction, but not as a status quo sandbox world-sim, rather as an exercise in dramatic story creation. The 4e DMG2 advice by Robin Laws is good and worth reading, though could perhaps have made this clearer.

4e combat is best done with an eye to both drama and combat-as-sport Gamism; it's the only edition where I'd actually recommend using the encounter-building rules. I don't have a big stack of encounters ready to go - for a session I'll prep 1-3 encounter groups, and some possible encounter areas (ie I'll pack some Paizo & WoTC battlemaps, and maybe think a bit about the terrain) but the actual combat encounter(s) will normally arise in play as a response to player action.

Tools - I use battlemats, minis. I use the old offline monster builder pre-game to help stat up my monsters. I don't bring many books to the game, I'd rather bring more minis.

I generally edit all the monster stats, esp now my PCs are 25th level. I'll cheat a bit, eg I made a super-Balor Solo just by doubling all the stats of the MV elite Balor. Worked very well - killed a PC! :P

One major thing I do is halve all Elite & Solo monster hp, give Minions a Damage Threshold (Level+2, bloodied at half) and give Standard monsters PC-level hp, eg 5xLevel+5+CON for most, 6 for Brutes, 4 for the fragile ones. Even with that the fights easily take 2-3 hours, partly because they are rarely under Party Level+4 these days.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Which version of D&D best matched tone and rule?

From rpgnet

Quote Originally Posted by RadioMindFlyer
2e's disconnect between tone (heroic fantasy to high fantasy) and rules (sword & sorcery, via 1e and OD&D)[/URL]. Of course, this does not make 2e a bad game (if I start a non-5e game I am going to use 2e in a heartbeat) but it is something to work around. I would argue no version had a bigger divide than 2e, but what I am asking in this thread is what versions really captured the tone of the implied setting, via their rules.

Mentzer Classic D&D has this issue a bit too, the tone implied by the Larry Elmore high fantasy art doesn't mesh that well with the essentially OD&D sword & sorcery ruleset. Obviously Dragonlance for 1e AD&D has this issue in spades.

3e has a big problem focused around the kind of Greyhawk default setting described in the DMG, with medieval nation states fielding armies of 1st level warriors, which would be impossible given the 3e power demographics - one man can easily destroy an army. 3e fits a setting where superpowered individuals rule the wasteland, as in Way of the Exploding Fist or parts of the Wilderlands.

4e D&D's rules match the setting & tone closely, it's written as a "(super) heroes battle Evil" game throughout, not a 'dungeon looters' game. I would think this was the best integrated game in terms of mechanics & tone, though at the cost of a narrower ruleset than other editions - you can do high fantasy in 1e though it's not a great fit, you can't really do S&S hex-crawling in 4e at all successfully IME, and I gave it a good shot.

From what I've seen so far, the shallower power curve of 5e seems to make it fit traditional fantasy tropes better than other editions. 4e does Medieval Marvel Superheroes very well (NOT a criticism!), eg I just watched the new Fantastic Four movie and a lot of that would work very well in 4e. At Heroic Tier it does Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings well, too - for me it's very good at Hollywood Action Fantasy. 5e does not have this strong focus but seems to be good at emulating various tones from older editions of D&D. I'm using 5e specifically for a Swords & Sorcery Pulp sort of campaign (sub-Conan, sub-Lankhmar, more Thongor, Raven, Deathstalker) - PCs are 'adventurers' not 'heroes', but unlike in pre-4e they are good at not dying and getting out of scrapes, like pulp heroes.

So, I think:
4e has the best (narrow) match between rules & tone.
5e rules seem the most adaptable to a variety of tones.

Quote Originally Posted by Daztur  
For 3ed, what sort of tone were they trying for in the first place? Seems like the edition with the least distinct tone.

For 4ed the tone always made me scratch my head a bit since I can`t remember reading any books that hit the tone that 4ed goes for. Maybe I read the wrong books but the most fun I had with 4ed was with it reskinned kaiju/giant robot battle game. Worked perfectly for that.

I agree about 3e, WoTC said "Back to the Dungeon", and 3e certainly works better in the dungeon than in the city, palace or wilderness, but the DMG had a lot of world-building advice that IMO did not support this well at all. Personally I think 3e, not 2e, was ultimately the biggest failure in matching rules & setting/tone.

4e I think was clearly going for modern (1980s+) cinematic fantasy, not literary fantasy at all, and this shows very clearly in the design focus on cinematic combat - of course it's far slower to fight a 4e combat than to play the equivalent on screen, but I bet it takes more than 2-3 hours to create one of those Hollywood epic battles for the movie theatre, and that's what 4e does.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Wearing armour / weapons in town and game balance

Should PCs be required to remove armour when that makes sense? Can they be attacked while unarmoured?

Old editions of D&D don't really depend on armour for short-term class balance; a pre-3e Fighter or Cleric can still contribute when unarmoured, the Fighter will still outfight the Thief, though they will lack the staying power of armoured fighting since their hp will ablate a lot faster. It's a big problem with 4e since every class is designed to contribute equally in combat with their normal gear; banning heavy armour creates an imbalance where Fighters and Paladins are much weaker and unable to fulfil their Defender role. 5e seems in-between.

For pre-3e I think it's ok to treat it realistic/simulationist and have towns where armour is banned, where pole arms are banned, etc. You can still have ambushes and an unarmoured high level 1e Fighter will still fend off the summoned demon or band of bandits ok.

For 4e it really doesn't seem fair to require an encounter where the Fighter has no armour, and I've never done this. In my 4e game the PCs have been in situations where they need to go unarmoured, eg the Loudwater Summer Ball, but I have never used this as an excuse to attack the PCs. 4e works best with rare combat IME, not random wererats leaping out of the sewers. Ironically this tailored approach actually 'looks' more realistic than the frequent random combat of older editions.

I think 5e can work with either a toned-down version of the pre-3e simulationist approach, where the PCs can occasionally be attacked while unarmoured but keep it rare, or with a 4e tailored approach where the heavy-armoured PCs won't be attacked while unarmoured unless they really go out of their way to get into trouble.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Non-Combat XP

I award XP for monsters as described & discussed here -

In Classic and 5e D&D I also give XP for gold where the sum is 100gp+, but the amounts are usually lower than in standard D&D.
I give XP for exploration in the same frame as for monsters, but per PC. It's based on the amount explored, depth of dungeon etc. Exploring dungeon level 1 might give 100 XP each, reaching and exploring the 3rd dungeon level might give everyone 300 XP each.
I will also give XP generally for non-monetary goal achievement,in 5e I use the standard XP awards chart. In Classic it's typically on the exact same scale as monsters and exploration, but a major goal gives that amount of XP per PC. So a 3rd level goal - eg a quest achievement appropriate to level 3 PCs - gives 300 xp each.

State Monopoly on Violence & D&D

Historically a state monopoly on the use of force was very rare - in Europe you have the Roman Empire, then it's not seen again until the rise of the modern nation-state from the 16th century on. The feudal system for instance certainly does not depend upon a monopoly on the use of force, quite the reverse. Sometimes D&D mixes up modern and feudal elements, eg Gygaxian D&D seemed fond of mass armies of weak mooks. IRL mass armies were a feature of the modern state, they make no sense in most versions of D&D, where small forces of levelled characters are far more powerful. OTOH small forces of well equipped & levelled Fighters backed by Clerics & Wizards (depending on class frequency) makes good sense, at least in non-3e editions. A baron's entourage should essentially resemble a PC party; a king's entourage should resemble a high level PC party.

Adventurer parties can be readily incorporated into a feudal model; they may be 'questing knights' who swear allegiance and receive magical items, wealth etc in return for pledged service, or they may be independent mercenaries who also receive magic & wealth, but on a contract basis. In either case they are simply one power source among many in the feudal structure, not much different from another baron, a bishopric, a town, a guild etc. They don't need to be disarmed or destroyed if they are willing to work within the system.

A 15th century knight in plate armour vs a single unarmoured man with a melee weapon or bow (anything except a firearm) is pretty much just as safe as a D&D mid-level adventurer vs a 0-level schlub. In D&D, rulership will either be by small groups of tough characters, much like real world feudal system, or if mid-level power is rare but there are numbers of high-level supermen you might see a "Way of the Exploding Fist" structure where rulership is by lone super-powered heroes who can take on armies. A powerful leader may bring together numbers of these supermen for particular endeavours, which is rather what The Iliad looks like...

What if a dragon or other monster too powerful for the local ruler appears? It is a problem if you are thinking in terms of modern nation states who claim legitimacy via monopoly on the use of force, but not otherwise IMO. In a feudal system, if the dragon is active then the system will attempt to incorporate the dragon as another power node - send it tribute, grant it a title, etc. A hostile dragon will be destroyed if possible, if not then it will be ignored as far as possible, if neither is possible then other power nodes will ally against it, and offer rewards for its destruction - just as in a typical D&D adventure. The adventurer party who kills the dragon and gets the reward then becomes a recognised power node and part of the system. What if the dragon kills the local ruler? If it takes over it becomes part of the system. If it just kills & destroys without taking over, and cannot be stopped, then it's no different from a plague, earthquake or other natural disaster.

One reason I really like the Wilderlands of High Fantasy setting is that it has a power-node setup which perfectly accommodates powerful PC groups, monsters etc - it looks exactly like what you would expect when there are super-powered entities and no one can claim a force monopoly much further than their own reach. Conversely settings with modern-looking states plus super-powerful individuals break easily; 3e Greyhawk is a good example, as is any setting based on the world-building advice in the 3e DMG combined with characters created using the 3e PHB... Pathfinder/Golarion also has this problem, only slightly alleviated by a different level distribution than in 3e - more mid-level NPCs, very few level 15+ NPCs - and IME requires a lot of suspension of disbelief, where Wilderlands needs none.

D&D was originally written with the assumption the PCs likely would take over. The power curve reflects this. Wilderlands is a good setting written with this assumption. Published settings and campaigns that are not written to accommodate this (Golarion, and, weirdly, Greyhawk!) definitely have problems. Most Golarion-set Adventure Paths would better fit a shallow power curve system like Savage Worlds, not D&D/Pathfinder. Forgotten Realms is mostly closer to Wilderlands than to Golarion, but if a campaign like Princes of the Apocalypse is written with 3e/Paizo-style assumptions of PC passivity then it is going to be a problem. My suggestion is that as PCs rise in power, be sure to have them offerered positions within the existing power structure.

Think about your game's in-world society not as a Hobbesian state monopoly on violence, a pyramid structure with the Sovereign on top, but rather as a network of power nodes, a linked system, with many of those nodes potential independent sources of violence. If you do this then you can understand the place of PC groups much easier - and that place may well be on top of the system! But if the ruled don't accept your rule, you're not a ruler, you're just a monster. And even powerful monsters tend to get ganked eventually.

Uther: "To kill and be king? Is that all?"
Merlin: "Perhaps, not even that..."

Monday, 22 June 2015

The Wellsprings of Creativity

How to come up with ideas for a game? I'm not sure that's the best question. Don't prep plots, prep situations: I think the best advice is to create a sandboxy world that generates material, rather than have to create a fresh 'plot' every week. This will depend a bit on the game and genre - a Call of Cthulu game is likely to lean more to plot than sandbox; a military game is likely to be mission-centric. But even TV shows have leaned more to sandbox approach in recent years, with plot continuity and a big cast of motivated characters who can reliably throw up new events and characters. While fantasy is the traditional home of the sandbox, space opera and super hero genres are equally well suited - you need sketched locations, strongly motivated and active NPCs and factions, and preferably some procedural content generators - encounter tables, event tables - to kickstart your own creativity.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Derived Forms

 Uqbarian wrote: the issue of derived forms often adopting the trappings of their antecedents without recognising their structural functions.

That's definitely a huge issue with D&D. I often feel WoTC is cargo-culting elements from earlier iterations of D&D without understanding the point of them. I find the OSR has sometimes been useful in examining and explaining what is/was the point of hex-based mapping in early D&D. 5e in particular is often in a weird halfway house where it includes elements from various iterations in a mish-mash that doesn't work well together, and those elements only partially developed - 1e random encounter charts plus 3e/4e style challenge-based encounter-building, say, or random treasure table but no treasure-by-monster-type simulation. I find I have to pick & discard elements to get the game I want (a game I really like), whereas Moldvay-Cook Classic or 4e D&D both work as written and only break if you try to use them for something different (eg my initial attempt at a sandbox 4e game).

Friday, 19 June 2015

The Coming of the OSR

From early in the history of RPGs, people wanted "story" in their games. But in the 1990s they ended up with the pre-written story where their PCs no longer mattered at all - either they were replacable cyphers, or in the worst cases they were onlookers while NPCs did the cool stuff. This mode of play is still common today; most Paizo APs are structured as pre-written stories, and most seasons of WotC's Encounters program are literally scene-by-scene stories where the players just roll dice.

It's funny that the OSR never rebelled against what had been the dominant mode of play in the '90s - indeed 3e in 2000 was itself trying to move away from railroad/illusionist play with its "Back to the Dungeon!" mantra. Instead OSR was specifically a rebellion against the mechanics - "character building" and suchlike - of 3e, and 3e's general tone of 'Player Primacy, GM Subordination' in 3e - but that tone was itself a reaction against railroady '90s play where players felt helpless in the hands of the GM's plot. But the result was that the OSR in delving back into history discovered pre-2e (and especially pre-1983!) modes of play that had long been lost. I find it slightly amusing that the initial Reactionary sites like Dragonsfoot are centred on the module-based play of the '80s, and often don't get along well with OSR purists who are looking for the original pre-module modes of play that were really already dying out when the 1e AD&D DMG was published in 1979.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Plots & Complications

I find it's good to not prep plots, prep situations (I think Justin Alexander has a blog post called that) - and in fact I generally try to make the starting situations simple and easily comprehensible to the players, because they can only act on information they are aware of. A convoluted situation the players cannot understand is worthless to me, a random encounter generator would take less work and produce more fun results.

Starting with simple initial situation, I put events in motion as the PCs enter the milieu. With NPCs having conflicting goals, complications will rapidly emerge. Factions will clash; the players will have opportunities to get involved, or to choose not to get involved. Some conflicts may resolve off-screen; others may directly impinge on the PCs wherever they are.

In my recent campaigns I'm trying hard to avoid "this is the plot/you must do this" linearity, a good tactic is to always keep open the possibility the PCs walk away from the current situation (even if this is unlikely) and consider what will happen if they do, and what is going on elsewhere they may run into.

So, where added complications/complexity do arise, I like it to be organically, eg from the interaction of these particular antagonists either with the PCs, or with other factions. I try to avoid top-down plotting of the "hm, must insert a complication here" kind, that tends to feel artifical and forced. Whereas "Hmm, I wonder what X is doing while this is going on with Y...?" type thinking leads to complications that arise naturally in play.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

City Games

What to create for an RPG city - I generally find it works best for me to have an idea of the flavour of the city, and create a small number of interesting NPCs and locations. I don't try to map it like a dungeon; and generally it's the NPCs that are by far the most important element. I don't generally sandbox it, but an incredibly dangerous city like Khare, Port Blacksand, and maybe the City State of the Invincible Overlord could be sandboxed.

Something I've not done but would like to try would be to have a neighbourhood, small-scale sandbox - again the NPCs would be most important, but geography would become more significant. I think combat would need to be fairly rare even in a really violent city, though, outside of some kind of ruined/combat zone like The Big Rubble for Pavis. I was very disappointed that the 4e Neverwinter Campaign Setting made no effort at sandbox-type keying, but it might be a good place to set my own sandbox. A subsection of the CSIO would also have potential.

Sunday, 31 May 2015

My Classic D&D Monster XP System

I base my XP off the OD&D 100/hd, but then I bring in the 3e idea of +2 levels = x2 XP, ie:

hd XP
0.5 50
(1-1 80)
1 100
(1+1 125)
2 200
3 300
4 400
5 600
6 800
7 1200
8 1600
9 2400
10 3000
+1 +1000

Special abilities typical add +50% or +100% XP, eg an MU19 might garner 12000x2=24000 XP, where a Clr-19 Ftr-19 Thf-19 garners 12000, or 18000 if they have loads of magic items. Big dumb unintelligent critters may earn only 50% as much XP.

This seems to work very well IME, 1600 XP for a hill giant equals 16 orcs and that looks about right.

Preparing a Space Opera Game...

Something I've learned over the years is that no campaign succeeds without adequate preparation, in particular the kind of sandbox setting prep that gives the PCs freedom of action - because linear campaigns, in my experience, fundamentally suck. >:) So over the coming months I plan to expand this post with setting notes and ideas as the mood takes me, until I have something ready to use...

Backgrounds - I'm thinking a Background lets you add your Level to relevant attribute checks. Stars Without Number has the following:

Adventurer - but see below.
Comms Officer
Con Artist
Deck Crew
Security Crew
Transport Specialist

Other Backgrounds not listed would include Asteroid Miner, Bounty Hunter, Command Crew, Pirate, Scavenger Star Knight. It can be anything a player can imagine - IME there is no need to restrict PCs or limit skills. The only thing that matters is that when play starts, everyone is an 'adventurer'.

Gamma World or Mutant Future? Or 5e D&D?
Mutant Future has the charts and tables. It has some legacy issues - without mutations, some MF levels literally are 'dead levels'. 4e D&D Gamma World is great for tabletop & minis, but lacks MF's procedural structures. For online a tweaked version of MF seems a no-brainer, perhaps combined with 5e. For offline either MF+5e+bits of GW, or GW+MF... hmm...

If we use 5e as the base, the following classes are useable in that they are not inherently magical:

Fighter (with Eldritch Knight perhaps for the Jedi types)

Do we need any more? Maybe not. The 5e DMG has high-tech equipment on page 268.

5e DMG has ships on page 119. In any edition of D&D, the basic combat rules ought to work just fine, for the simple reason that D&D's combat system was adapted by Gary Gygax from a naval warfare combat system in the first place! Replace "hp" with "Hull Points"; in Classic D&D these had a 5:1 ratio. 100:1 looks right for a science-fiction game.

Ship initiative: Single-crew ships roll DEX for init as normal. With multi-crew ships the Captain rolls a CHA check to set init.

Ships have the following stats:

Armour Class - How hard the ship is to hit. A factor of maneuverability as well as chaff, screens, and deflective armour. If a ship is evading, typically the Pilot rolls a DEX or INT check and adds (AC-10) to roll to set the enemy's target DC.
Weapons - with range and damage. Military ships typically have fire-linked weapons under the control of the Gunnery Officer, who rolls a DEX or INT check to hit a single target. Against mutiple targets the junior gunnery officers may man individual fire systems. Combat starts at long range (disad on attacks), if both sides are closing it moves to short range in rnd 2.
Tech Level: All rolls (Oppposed Checks, Attacks etc) vs Lower-Tech ships have Advantage. All rolls vs Higher Tech ships have Disadvantage. Simples.
Damage Control: Normally 1 per 20 hull points. As Hit Dice in 5e, but one may be spent every hour. The Chief Engineer must roll a successful WIS check, the DC rolled is the number of Hull Points repaired.
'Damaged': A ship at half hp has lost 1d4x10% of its crew disabled or dead (typically half of each, or roll 2d4x10 for the % of fatalities), and 25% of its systems.
'Disabled': A ship at 0 hp is dead in space, has lost another 1d4x10% of crew disabled or dead, and systems are non-functioning other than emergency life support.
'Destroyed': A ship at negative max hp is completely destroyed, with the death of all crew.

Secondary stats:
Cost - in gold or 'credits'.
Speed - in sf this will be acceleration in Gs.
Crew - standard crew to man ship at full efficiency.
Passengers - standard passenger complement, including marines.
Cargo - in tons, non-living, or crysosleeped.

Ship Base Stats
As per MM NPCs, eg:

Assassin-class Stealth Destroyer AC 15 HP 78 advtg on 1st turn, crits vs surprised foes, sneak attack 1/turn +13 dmg, 2 photon cannon ATT +7 dmg 18/27.

Bandit-class fighter AC 12 HP 11, laser cannon ATT +3 dmg 5/7.

BC-class mothership AC 15 HP 65, 2 photon cannon ATT +5 dmg 6/9, 1 laser ATT +5 dmg 5/7.

Berserker-class assault ship AC 13 HP 67, Reckless Attack - can gain & grant advtg, Heavy Photon Cannon ATT +5 dmg 9/13

Commoner-class light freighter AC 10 HP 4, unarmed or 1 light laser ATT +2 dmg 2/3

Gladiator-class Cruiser AC 16 HP 112, 3 heavy photon cannon ATT +7 dmg 11/16

Guard-class System Defence fighter AC 16 HP 11, laser cannon ATT +3 dmg 4/6

Knight-class Command Frigate AC 18 HP 52, 2 photon cannon ATT +5 dmg 10/15
Command Comms: On a DC 20 CHA check by the Admiral, all allies within short range may add +2 to all attacks & evasion checks on their next turn.

Noble-class yacht AC 15 HP 9, unarmed or laser cannon ATT +3 dmg 5/7

Priest-class hospital ship AC 13 HP 27, normally unarmed

Scout-class scoutship AC 13 HP 16, 2 laser cannon ATT +4 dmg 6/9

Spy-class covert survey ship AC 12 HP 27, 2 light photon cannon ATT +4 dmg 5/7
Sneak attack 1/turn +7 dmg when has advtg or target engaged with ally

Thug-class heavy raider AC 11 HP 32, 2 laser cannon ATT +4 dmg 5/7
Pack Tactics: Advtg vs foes engaged by ally at short range.

Tribal-class fighter AC 12 HP 11, laser cannon ATT +3 dmg 4/6
Pack Tactics: Advtg vs foes engaged by ally at short range.

Veteran-class Frigate AC 17 HP 58, 2 photon cannon ATT +5 dmg 7/10, 1 laser cannon ATT+5 dmg 6/9

Saturday, 30 May 2015

My Classic D&D stat-gen method.

I find that 3d6 roll-in-order gives variable and often weak PCs. Best 3 of 4d6 assign-as-desired gives stronger PCs, but players will always tend to boost & dump the same stats - eg everyone with low CHA. I hit on a method that gives the best of in-order and assign: the player rolls down the line, default putting each stat in its assigned place, but with the option to put the roll into an empty slot.


The player rolls for each stat starting with STR, then INT WIS, CON DEX CHA. Say their first roll is an 8, but they want to be a Fighter. Instead of putting it in STR they can put it in INT. But once assigned each number is locked in and cannot be moved later.

The result is that the character still grows organically through the rolls, but with a lot more flexibility than roll-in-order. The last stat rolled is always purely random.

In practice most players do most rolls purely random, but players who want to play Fighter types wait to get a 13+ to assign to STR.

Here is the current PC group in my Mentzer Classic D&D game. I allowed the Claudia player a full reroll as her first set of stats were so abysmal. Bramble the Halfling is slightly underpowered due to no STR bonus, but I decided to let players add +1 to a stat every 4 levels as in 4e so in one level he can get STR 13 which will give him +1 to hit & damage.

Alexandra Vorloi, Armiger of House Vorloi, Lawful
Fighter-3 AC 18 (plate & shield) speed 4 (20')
Hit Points 18
+1 ashen-shaft Trident ATT +2 dam 1d6+2 (melee), 1d6+1 (thrown), 2d6+2 set.
Sword ATT +1 dam 1d8+1
Thrown Spear ATT +1 dam 1d6
Light Lance (spear) mounted charge or set ATT +1 dam 2d6+1
STR 15 (+1) INT 12 (+0) WIS 12 (+0) DEX 14 (+1) CON 16 (+2) CHA 13 (+1)
Light warhorse (courser)
XP: 6630/8000
1/11/19: Alexander Thadeus of the Church of Karameikos (Cleric-3), newly assigned to the diocese of Rugalov as Cleric of Rugalov Town, pledged allegiance to Alexandra in the battle against Chaos. He seems smitten with her.

Ace Plz (Ruyven Kishida) of the Calarii Elves, Lawful
Elf-2 AC 14 (leather) Speed 6 (30')
Hit Points 12
2-handed Sword ATT +1 dam 1d10+1, Longbow ATT +2 dam 1d6
STR 13 (+1) INT 11 (+0) WIS 15 (+1) DEX 16 (+2) CON 13 (+1) CHA 16 (+2)
Spell Book: Read Magic Charm Person Magic Missile Sleep Light
Spells/Day: 2 1st
Light warhorse (courser)
XP: 6480/8000
26/10/1019: Princess Hope Karameikos seems to like Ace - they share an interest in dragons...

Yakov Dmitrov, Donkey-Headed Black Sheep of House Dmitrov, Neutral
Magic-User 3 AC 11 (unarmoured - Claudia has the +2 ruby ring) Speed 8 (40')
Hit Points 8
STR 8 (-1) INT 11 (+0) WIS 16 (+2) DEX 13 (+1) CON 10 (+0) CHA 15 (+1)
Spell Book: Read Magic Charm Person Magic Missile Sleep Light
Spells/day: 2 1st, 1 2nd
wand of illusion c.7, 3 unknown potions.
Golden Staff ATT -1 dam 1d4-1. Hunting Bow ATT +1 dam 1d4
Light warhorse (courser)
XP: 6480/10000
28/10/19: The old Cleric Aleeva Vloitescu really went off Yakov when he tried to cast 'charm' on her.

Rian, Cleric of the Church of Traldar
Cleric-3, Neutral
AC 14 (leather & shield)
Hit Points 13
ST 14 (+1) IN 9 (+0) WI 11 (+0) DE 14 (+1) CO 13 (+1) CH 15 (+1)
Leather (speed 30'), Shield
Sling ATT +1 dam 1d4
Spear ATT +1 dam 1d6+1
XP 5825/6000
Junior Cleric, in service to Lord Vlad Lutescu of Rugalov Town, sent by him to Rugalov Keep.

PCs Absent - at Rugalov Keep?

Claudia Morrigan, Neutral
Thief-4 AC 17 (leather, +2 ruby ring of protection) Speed 6 (30')
Hit points 10+d4 - NOT ROLLED YET
ST 13 (+1) IN 10 (+0) WI 7 (-1) DE 18 (+3) CO 11 (+0) CH 14 (+1)
+1 attribute bonus
E: Thieves' Tools, Leather armour, +2 ring of protection
2-handed sword ATT +1 dam 1d10+1
Short bow ATT +3 dam 1d6
Light warhorse (courser)
XP 5505/10000

Bramble Hairy-Heals of the Five Shires, Lawful
Halfling-3 AC 15 (chainmail & shield) speed 4 (20')
Hit Points 9+d6+1 - NOT ROLLED YET
+1 Shortsword +2 vs Elves & Fairies, 'the sword of Samwise' ATT +1 dam 1d6+1
Sling +1 dam 1d4
STR 12 (+0) INT 14 (+1) WIS 13 (+1) DEX 11 (+0/+1 init & missile) CON 13 (+1) CHA 12 (+0)
XP: 5655/8000

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Thursday, 21 May 2015

Mentzer D&D - the first Romantic Fantasy RPG?

I've been running my Mentzer Basic/Expert D&D 'Grand Duchy of Karameikos' game for 6 weeks now, aiming to hit all the classic fantasy tropes - knights, dragons, princesses, noble rulers & dastardly villains. I have a mixed-sex group and a 'child friendly' policy since my son (7 3/4) is a player.

I've noticed that in this environment a lot of what are considered modern 'romantic fantasy' tropes seem to naturally arise among the dungeon-bashing, eg there are lots of PC & NPC relationship issues, romance, the two female PCs both have a lot of backstory and motivation re overcoming their family issues and proving themselves in a man's world - and they're cousins, one, the Fighter, being a noble Vorloi in good standing but seeking to avoid a dynastic marriage and become a Knight, the other, The Thief, the illegitimate child of the Baron Vorloi's disowned youngest daughter looking for the man who fathered her and ruined her mother's life.
One of the male PCs, the M-U, likewise has issues with proving himself good enough to his aristocratic Dmitrov family - possibly difficult now that last session a curse in an evil wizard's library has given him the head & tail of an ass.

The setting (GAZ1 Grand Duchy of Karameikos), the simple Classic D&D rules, and the clean Elmore art all seem perfectly suited to this style. There's also modern stuff like same-sex relationship issues, the PC Baron who threatened to 'ban being gay' to stop his daughter running off to sea with a female Elf ship captain - with the twist that far from being True Love, the Elf Captain Anastasia was happy to take a massive bribe to make herself scarce.

So, I guess my thinking is, who needs 'Blue Rose' when you have Mentzer & Elmore?  And the mildly patriarchal, 1980s-family-values type morality of the Grand Duchy of Karameikos setting actually seems to fit far better to most of the genre than does Blue Rose's feminist utopia.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Do your fantasy games have 'Game of Thrones' type content?


Grimdark - it varies hugely by campaign, but I generally can't maintain the level of seriousness necessary for GRRM Grimdark - my default tone tends to levity even when horrible things are happening, as in Fritz Leiber's Swords saga.
Also while Martin is great at depicting realistic consequences for stupid behaviour, I don't generally have my good-guy NPCs behave as stupidly as he does. In particular, even Lawful noble houses have had a lot of experience at not dying, and a lot of selective pressure for not dying, too. So the kind of level of grotesque incompetence displayed by the Starks in the TV show would be vanishingly rare IMCs. I tend to have the Lawful Good guys be just as capable as the Littlefingers & Lannisters - they may not engage in the same kind of behaviours, but they are aware that other people may do so and can thus usually take account of it as a possibility in their own plans.

Sex - a few of my campaigns have about as much sex as the HBO show, most have much less. Usually the sword & sorcery type campaigns have relatively more sex (and certainly more nudity), but my Forgotten Realms game has some sex, in a nod to Ed Greenwood.

Romance is fairly frequent in most of my campaigns. I tend to avoid 'doomed romance' tropes, I definitely avoid the 'girlfriend in the fridge' trope of killing a romantic interest NPC to motivate the PC. That sort of thing is best left to a PC's backstory.

Rape - in my more adult games NPC characters may be implied or (rarely) stated to have been raped. I've never depicted forcible rape 'on screen' in any D&D campaign, which is pretty much the same as the HBO show. I have a hard 'no raping the PCs' (male or female) rule. I will look for ways to make this plausible in-universe. If a player were to insist on putting their PC into a situation where this was a likely outcome I would work with the player out of game to discuss what they wanted and what should happen - basically unless the player has consented, the PC cannot be raped. In lighter-themed settings NPC antagonists generally either have a code against rape (eg chivalry, for human types) or no interest in it (eg for non-humans).

Food -I try to describe the food & drink to help get a feel for the setting, especially if it's significant - eg in one campaign nobles compete to lay on feasts for guests as a sign of prestige.

Gore - generally the swords & sorcery campaigns have more gore, the Palaces & Princesses campaigns don't have viscerally described gore. My described gore levels may be similar to the HBO show in the most adult-oriented games, but usually less.

Sexism - gender role differentiation IMCs tends to be less than IRL, but I don't make a Paizo-style fetish of avoiding it. If there are female players I try to keep an ear out for what they want - eg it's very common for players to want an 'overcoming entrenched gender norms' theme for their PCs, usually in the lighter more Palaces & Princesses themed games like my current Karameikos game. If players don't want their PC to face any gender-based obstacle I'll work with that, too. I'm generally more considerate of the feelings of female players here because they tend to bring in more baggage from real life, and for D&D I think players should be able to play a PC of their own sex if they want without being disadvantaged thereby.

Homosexuality - I tend not to use historical medieval attitudes to male homosexuality (and there's no ancient Greek style pederasty - not a trope in GRRM either afaik). My default setting is something like Western Europe ca 1995, or the very early Paizo stuff - no 'gay marriage', but no persecution either. There's a male homosexual NPC couple in my Loudwater Forgotten Realms game, who 'came out' at Lady Moonfire's summer ball, at the same time Lady Moonfire 'came out' by being escorted by her Tiefling girlfriend Tawny Kytra.
In my Karameikos game my son Bill (age 7 3/4) playing his Baron William PC was annoyed that the Baron's daughter Hope, instead of submitting to the usual arranged dynastic marriage, was smitten with the roguish Elf Sea Captain Anastasia and threatening to sail off with her. At one point he threatened to 'ban being gay' in his Barony - which I think would have gone down badly with some of the other (adult) players! - but he was talked out of it, in-game by the Baron's wife. Instead he bribed Anastasia with his Medallion of ESP to go take a hike. Some 'mature themes' but the overall tone was much lighter than GRRM.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

DMing tips

Backup Plans
Always have a back-up plan in case the player you were expecting to hinge a session on doesn't turn up, or the party choose to do something completely different than expected. It can be something simple such as a prepped wandering monster group - anything that will be fun to play and give you time to come up with more stuff. How much alternate prep is needed depends on your improv skills & tools (encounter tables etc), and how much prep the system requires. You never want to be in a situation where you tell the group "If you do that/don't do that I haven't got anything prepped, so no game today."

3e/4e Initiative Tracker
I hand round a lined piece of paper with the init numbers up the left hand side. If the possible range is 1-25, then 1 at the bottom, 25 at the top. The page has a central column, players each write their PC name there by the number of their init count. Ties go to left or right. GM writes his monster inits in last.

Status conditions etc can also be written on the init tracker.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Magical Arcana

It's a common complaint that RPG magic doesn't feel 'magical'. Perhaps surprisingly I found that the way 4e D&D uses the Arcana skill for detection and manipulation of magic goes a long way towards making it feel more mysterious & magical. Instead of cast spell-auto effect, in 4e most magic use outside of combat involves making an Arcana check vs a DC, as the PC pits their own magical powers against the opposing force, trying to eg breach a ward, close a portal, detect & identify the source, etc. This feels a *lot* more like literary/comic-book/cinematic magic than the traditional D&D fire-and-forget system. Of course in combat it's the opposite - big flashy reliable effects.

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I'm aiming to treat magic similarly in the 5e swords & sorcery chatroom game I'm starting up soon.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Campaign Length & System

My 4e Loudwater campaign is an epic with dozens of adventures, started in 2011 and we just played the 81st session - - the 4e PCs are 22nd level but the actual campaign scope feels more like ca 12th level in AD&D. However many of my campaigns recently have been more like 20 sessions, with a limited scope. My Pathfinder Curse of the Crimson Throne campaign will only be 5 full adventures (having skipped the Book 4 railroad) over something like 35 sessions - and it could stand to have been shorter, Paizo stick in a lot of padding to get the level-ups they want. These 20-35 session campaigns typically run around 18 months, with a defined scope.

I think D&D design needs to accommodate both sorts of campaign. I'm in the early stages of planning for my first 5e campaign, and it looks as if the system's XP track, bounded accuracy and lack of magic item reliance should be well suited to lowish-magic exploratory sandboxing (thinking about using it for Caverns of Thracia), or possibly for some of the lower-powered Paizo APs (thinking about using it for converted Skull & Shackles, a piratical AP whose naval theme makes little sense in Pathfinder rules where magic does everything).

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Monday, 9 March 2015

Weapon & Armour Values - relative vs absolute


D&D armour and weapon rules as written bear very little relation to reality - for one thing, a shortsword does as much damage as a longsword when you're getting stabbed. And bronze is not significantly inferior to pre-modern steel, it's just a lot more expensive. I tend to translate D&D armours automatically to fit the setting, eg in my Arcadian 'Ghinorian Hills' campaign the 'plate' armour would be hoplite style armour. I would however leave out weapons that did not fit the setting, eg two-handed swords in ancient Greece, and the 5e longsword seems more like an historical longsword, what earlier D&D called a bastard sword.

Looking at the 5e tables, for a Hellenistic setting I would keep the 1500gp 'plate' as full bronze harness, the excessive cost actually makes more sense here than it would in a high-medieval setting. But I would cut down the weapon table a lot. I think it might be best just to leave out the anachronistic weapons and have PCs with spears and shortswords, but I'd be tempted to raise those king-of-the-battlefield weapons to d8 damage, more to pre-empt player complaints. I might change the names to 'battle spear' and 'sword', say - the standard spear's 60' throw range indicates it's a pretty light weapon compared to the kind of thing a Greek hero would have used. The two-handed 'pike' does 1d10, and would make a good sarissa.

Making a Sandbox

My thoughts:

The introduction: How railroady is too railroady?

a. Starter dungeon - In classic Moldvay/Mentzer D&D the expectation was that the PCs would start at the 
entrance to the starter dungeon, but with a motivation for exploring it. But once they got 
back to town the sandbox would open up.
b. Rumours. Those rumour tables in Judges Guild stuff and old TSR modules were there 
for a reason. Sandbox PCs should never be lacking in rumours of things to investigate. 
This also explains why old school PCs hang out at inns - that's where the rumours are. Be sure to always have at least 2-3 rumours ready for the PCs to investigate, if they choose. Most rumours 
should relate to interesting adventure sites. Some can be time-critical 'missions' but those 
are un-sandboxy; the PCs will always feel they need to rescue that princess before she gets
sacrificed to Orcus. 
c. Overarching mission - sandbox PCs don't have to be footloose wanderers; you can have the PCs start as members of an organisation such as the Texas Rangers or Starfleet, exploring/patrolling/peacekeeping. Arthurian questing knights are ok. But they need a lot of freedom of action in where to go and what to do.

Player vs monster level: This is much less of a problem in 5E than in 4E, but how do you plan appropriately balanced encounters in a sandbox when you don't know when or how players will tackle them? 

"Environment" Design - you create a range of environments suited to a range of PC levels. 
Traditionally this is a megadungeon with stacked threat levels, the deeper you go the 
bigger the challenge and reward. This lets players choose their preferred threat level. 
It can also be done in wilderness sandboxing, with different terrains & areas having 
different threat levels. It should be widely known that the Mountains of Doom are more 
dangerous than the Foothills of Mild Adversity. Again this lets the players choose their own threat level. The Ars Ludi West Marches posts discuss this well. Typically more dangerous areas are further away from starter town, but you can have the Barrow Mounds right on the edge of the Shire, too.

The conclusion: When is a sandbox adventure over? My players are a big fan of free agency, but they are equally big fans of story, including the climax, the denouement, and the eventual

a. Traditionally the sandbox dungeon has the dragon or mad wizard or lich in a chamber at 
the very bottom, defeat the ultimate foe to 'win' the dungeon. Full sandbox campaigns do 
not have endings, they are more like episodic TV serials or picaresques than movies. 
But many stories should emerge in the course of play, and these will have beginnings and 
b. Have lots of dynamic NPCs in your sandbox with their own motivations. Have them plot 
and act independently of the PCs. Some of them will be antagonists. From this antagonism 
great stories will naturally emerge - bottom-up, not top-down. The 2e Villains book is
very good for creating interesting antagonists -

Player paralysis: With no big sign saying "go here, do this" my players are apt to scratch their heads and say, "I dunnow." 

Rumours again - but not too many! Unless the players are actively seeking more rumours, 
three is plenty. That gives choices without overwhelming them. However if they 
absolutely refuse to decide what to do then you may need to have the old man offer 
them gold to do X. This should work unless they're actively Turtling, in which case sandbox
won't work.

Setting material: In no event has a player ever read any material I have ever written for an adventure. So is it a waste of my time? 

You want enough material prepared in advance for the first 2-3 sessions of play. 
You typically want a wilderness map, a starter town, some NPCs, and several adventure 
locales on that map - detailed starter locales and probably some undetailed higher level ones 
to explore later. A good approach is to put several short published site-based adventures on a 
wilderness map of your own creation, with the 1st level ones nearest to the starter town, higher 
level further out. This starter map can be 2-6 miles per hex, at higher level you can switch to a larger scale or add adjacent area maps with more challenging stuff.
For a megadungeon you might sketch the general structure, and a map of 25-30 
rooms on the first 1 or 2 levels for your first session. I realise now that megadungeons should NOT be fully detailed ahead of play!
You need enough prepped that players can make choices in play - unless you do West Marches 
where the players have to make their choices what to do ahead of the session & the GM preps in 
response to that.
But don't create everything up front, create in response to player activity & interest. 
You need eg some gods for Clerics, so eg choose a pantheon or three, but you don't need 
a detailed calendar or historical timeline unless you want it. In fact too much detail can
stifle creativity in play; lightly-sketched histories tend to work best.

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