Monthly Archives: March 2015

DRYH Hack – Don’t Turn Your Back

(Yes, we have since used the name elsewhere,  but I don’t have it in me to search and replace the whole doc, so you get the classic name.  Suggestions for new names are welcome in comments. Also, I forgot – an explanation of why this is now getting posted.)

BondiconA game of action, espionage, and the prices to be paid for both.

Consider, for a moment, the similarities between a superspy movie and any other action blockbuster. Both have supremely competent protagonists doing an array of awesome things, facing down enemies ranging from the frightening to the ludicrous. There’s gunfire, explosions and no small amount of sexiness. On the surface, they seem vary similar indeed.

The difference is small on the surface, but reveals much – the superspy must not exist in a vacuum. He carries the burdens that brought him where he is and the ties tot he world which might be the only thing holding him up (or might be the garrote around his throat.) He understands that his actions don’t exist in a moral vacuum, and in a job which demands he trust no-one, he must trust that the bad things he’s doing are for the right reason. He has a moral core which he must ignore for the sake of the job, but which he must never abandon, lest he become the enemy he faces every day.

Compared to those pressures, gunfights with terrorists and ticking time bombs are just another day at the office.

Quick Conversion

DRYH concepts map to DTYB concepts as follows: The GM is referred to as Control, which is also a shorthand for the agency the agent works for.

Discipline is now Experience

Madness is now Support

Exhaustion is still Exhaustion

Despair is now Menace

Hope is now Assets and works a little differently

Pain is now Opposition

It’s worth noting that DTYB is designed with a single player in mind – there are rules for handling multiple agents, but the focus is on a single character, which is why there are no rules for talents – the need to distinguish between awesome agents is not as pronounced.

Creating Your Agent

The core rating of an agent is his level of Experience, measured in a number of white dice. An inexperienced, rookie agent might have only one die, while an experienced field agent might have two. Agents with three dice are the supreme badasses of the sort common on the big screen. It’s generally expected that players will have 3 experience dice.


Who is Control?

Control goes by any number of names, but it is ultimately the organization that the agent (or agents) report to. Control provides the agents with direction, in the form of missions. An important part of any Agent’s story is who he works for.

The Mission

At the outset of any mission, Control (Which is to say, the GM through Control) establishes two things. The THREAT and the OBJECTIVE. The THREAT is the larger problem that must be addressed over the course of the game. In movie terms, this is the danger established early on. Usually something important has been taken (from a formula to a gadget to a nuclear sub) and it must not be used (or lost, distributed or sold on the black market.) There are variations on this formula, and the GM is encouraged to explore them freely, but when in doubt? Something important and dangerous has been stolen, easy as that.

The Objective is simpler, as there will be many Objectives over the course of a game. The ultimate objective is, of course, to address the threat, but it’s never quite that simple. Basically, when a objective is accomplished, the situation changes (because new information is now available or an obstacle has been removed) inviting a new objective. After enough objectives have been accomplished, the threat should ultimately be addresses.

Opposition Pool

Control has a fixed opposition budget which they can use over the course of the game, and the level that budget is at controls how many opposition dice Control can roll in the given conflict. This pool will get higher as the game continues, and some events may be triggered based on this.

BY default, the Opposition pool begins as equal to the Agent’s experience pool. In games with more than one agent, it’s based off the largest experience pool, +1 per additional agent.

Designing objectives

The easiest way to design the objectives of a mission is to start at the end and work backwards. For example, if the super-widget is being auctioned on a private island, then it’s easy to work a backwards. Set up a objective, then ask, “How do they get there?” Foe example

  • Infiltrate the island and capture the widget
  • Get to the island
  • Find the island

Ok, at this point, we hit upon the first real snag – the objective leading to this is not obvious, and that’s where it becomes necessary to start adding detail. We haven’t thought much about the villain yet, and this now gives us a reason to do so. If he’s an evil super agent, how would we find out the location of his lair? Find someone invited to the auction and steal their invitation? Interrogate one of his minions? Maybe he has some exotic habit and shipments can be backtracked?

Any of these are valid answers, and the important thing is to pick one and run with it. Let’s say you go the auction rate.

  • Steal an Invitation
  • Find who to steal an invitation from
  • Find out that there’s going to be an auction
  • Investigate an expert on super-widgets

Now we have a throughline for the mission. Agent gets sent to investigate Doctor Smee, an expert on super widgets to find out if he’s involved. Maybe he isn’t, but he’s targeted for kidnapping by goons looking to buy the super widget. Dealing with those goons (or rescuing Smee) reveals that it’s for sale, and their employer has an invite. Clearly, that will require stealing the invitation, probably at a high-end casino, then using that information to procede to recover the widget.

Agent vs. Control Objectives

The very first objective will be provided to the agent by Control, but after that, it’s quite possible that the agent will take the initiative in pursuit of another objective. In this case, the player can lay out the next objective and (if necessary) how it helps lead to addressing the threat. This is part of the framing process, and players have a lot of leeway here, including introducing new elements into the game, but they’re not allowed to skip steps. If a player tries to simply jump to endgame (by killing the bad guy, perhaps), then that’s a fine opportunity for a twist or dead end.

If the agent lacks clear direction, or can’t find a good objective to pursue, that’s when it’s a good time to step in as control and put forward a new objective. This usually takes the form as orders. One handy trick for players – if you want to flag that you’re not sure where to go next, “get in touch with Control” is a great objective.

Twists and Dead Ends

The fact that there’s one throughline does not mean that’s how things will absolutely turn out. Instead, that merely serves as a polestar – providing something to navigate back towards through play.

And this is good, because it’s almost certain that things will go off in unexpected direction once play begins. Embrace this when it happens, and just keep an eye on the objectives – if they don’t feed back to the threat in some way then you might need to step in as Control.

That said, there is nothing that demands that the path from objective to threat be a straightforward one. Usually, the outcome of successfully achieving an objective is fairly predictable – if the agent gets X, he’ll be able to do Y – but sometimes the unexpected happens. It’s entirely possible for the result to be unexpected (a twist) or to offer no further course of action (a dead end).

Twists and dead ends are powerful tools to allow control to pace and direct play, and there are some subtleties in their application. Dead Ends should be used sparingly, in large part because they break the chain of action. Either the agents will need to get a new objective from Control or they’ll need to revisit a previous choice, and if that choice is too far back, it can feel like a lot of time has been wasted. On the other hand, the spy game is not always fair, and a dead end can result from the agent losing a scene without feeling unfair. So here’s the rule of thumb – limit your use of dead ends to the ones which really piss off players. If you’re going to frustrate them without also making them angry enough to take action, then it’s hardly worth it.

Twists will be more common – after all, they’re expected in the genre. A twist occurs when an objective is not what it originally seemed – the information you got points somewhere else, the shipment you intercepted is actually drugs or the like – it should still suggest a new objective, but not the one expected. A twist can steer things towards the throughline, or away from it, and they’re a useful tool for Control to nudge the game with while not demanding a specific course of action.

Running the Game

The objective should provide the basis for framing scenes. It’s possible that there may be only a single scene for a given objective, or it might take several scenes – this is mostly a difference in taste and detail. Since the agent is presumed to be pretty capable, there’s no need for every obstacle and problem to result in the dice being rolled – in fact, dice are less of a measure of how hard a task is so much as how interesting it is. Interesting, in this case, means control can clearly see the many directions this scene might go, depending on the dice.

That is to say, the agent may casually get past the locked door and laser grid, but the dice might come out when there’s a single guard to get past because Control has some cool ideas for how this might go.

When the dice come out, the baseline roll will be between the Agent’s Experience pool and Control’s Opposition pool. Player’s can supplement their roll with Support or Exhaustion.

Support dice take the form of resources provided to the Agent, and mechanically works like Madness dice. This might be a cool gadget, a team of forensic accountants or anything else the agent might be abel to request. There’s no need to justify this, though the player is free to narrate a brief flashback of them preparing this support. A player may add from 0 to 6 support dice to any roll, making support very powerful – however, it’s also a blunt instrument in a job that usually requires a scalpel. Every gadget, every supporting agent, is a risk of revealing exactly who the agent is an who he’s working for. Worse, it inclines the agent to depend on others rather than himself.

When Support dominates, one experience die is replaced with a support die.

Exhaustion is more moral than physical, and represents the hard choices and sacrifices an agent has forged into an armor of indifference. By default, an agent starts with an exhaustion equal to their experience -1. Exhaustion dice may be added to any roll, but when it dominates, the Exhaustion pool grows by one.


Hope and Despair are well and good in dreams, but int he grey world of agents, it’s all about Menace Assets. The coins used for Hope and Despair are replaced with a forth die color (blue or yellow are best) which are kept in separate Agent(asset) and Control(menace) bowls.


When control spends a menace die, it moves into the Asset bowl. Control never actually rolls menace dice directly. By spending a Menace Die, Control can do one of the following:

  • Increase the Opposition Pool by one die size
  • Add a 6 to any pool in play
  • Remove a 6 from any pool in play
  • Introduce a Henchman with a value of 2. The Henchman increases the Opposition Pool by it’s value in any scene he’s in. Control may only have one Henchman at a time.


Assets are people – hirelings, assistants, romantic interests and so on. Players may remove an asset die from the bowl by giving it a name and a description (and usually, a role relative to the threat, such as the villain’s girlfriend or a scientist working on the problem). When an asset is created, write the name down on a piece of paper, and record its value (1). Additional asset dice taken from the pool can either create new assets or increase the value of an asset already in play.

Asset dice equal to the asset’s value can be added to any roll, but doing so explicitly says that the asset is involved in the scene. This means that the asset dice can potentially dominate, but it also means the asset is at risk. Only one asset may be added to any given roll.


Assets may also be sacrificed for beneficial effect. This is declared between scenes, by the agent handing an asset to Control. The Agent may no longer use that asset, and Control has now been given free reign to narrate what terrible thing happens to the asset (which might be death) that inspires the Agent. In return, the Agent may do one of the following:

  • Reduce Exhaustion by 1
  • Reduce Exhaustion by 0
  • Turn a resource die back into an experience die

Control is encouraged to make sure the fate of any high-value assets are handled off-screen because Control has the option of introducing a sacrificed asset as a henchman. If so, the henchman’s pool is equal to the asset’s former value.


First and foremost, winning the roll determines whether or not the agent proceeds towards achieving the objective. If the agent fails, then Control may complicate the current situation or otherwise make things worse. Failure will never be enough to stop the agent, but it might shut off a particular line of inquiry.

The trick, is, of course domination:

Experience Dominates: Reduce Exhaustion by 1, or kill a henchman involved in the scene.

Opposition Dominates: Control adds a die to his asset pool OR kills an asset in the scene.

Support Dominates: One Experience dice is replaced with a support die.

Exhaustion Dominates: Exhaustion increments by one.

Asset Dominates: Asset increases in value by one step.


The game is going to end when one pool dominates, or when the Threat is averted. Averting the threat is a function of play, and is a successful outcome, but the unsuccessful outcomes are mechanically dictated.

In the case of a failed outcome, It is entirely possible to pick up play and continue with a new agent stepping into the gap, but if the table agrees, then it might be worth just talking through the impact of failure, and how that shapes the world for future play.

Come In

When an agent’s experience dice are all replaced with support dice the agent’s cover is blown burns out at the end of the current objective (meaning you can burn out and succeed). He needs to be called back into the home office. A long period of retraining is going to follow, and when the agent returns to play, his experience pool will be one smaller. If that would reduce his pool to zero, the agent is permanently retired, either literally or figuratively.

Burn Out

When exhaustion reaches 6 dice, the agent burns out at the end of the current objective (meaning you can burn out and succeed). If the agent manages to reduce exhaustion before the objective is reached, then he can carry on. A burned out agent simply can’t go on – the price is too high.

When an agent with one or two experience dice burns out, the agent will either retire, or come to terms with things. A retired agent is out of play (except perhaps as an asset in later games) but one who comes to terms with things returns to play in a later game with his experience pool one larger.

An agent with three experience who burns out goes rogue, and is removed from play. He may well be a villain or Henchman in future games.



The Thaw: Session 2

WeaverWe had one new player, so we opened up with another round of chargen. We now have Weaver, a CG urchin turned thief whose background got delightfully complicated by the spread. Initially, he had run with a gang which has become a church (or cult) to “The Storyteller” with his one remaining childhood friend as the high priestess. He left the imperial capital because while he believes in the Storyteller, things were getting weird.

But then the Past card came up The Bear (really, the dancing bear) and it evolved from that the Queen (the emperor’s daughter) had been taken by his stories and made something of a pet of him. This had many upsides, but also was full of problems as he blamed the imperials for the loss of many of his childhood friends. He also stole a book of unknown provenance during the wyvern attack.

And that’s when we flipped the present, and it came up The Twin, inverted. We described a few possible interpretations, and opted for something literal – while Weaver was uncomfortable with his growing prominence in the cult and the court, someone else saw it as an opportunity, and the final problems that drove him from the city were engineered by a changeling, who has since taken his place.

And when the future came up  The Empty Throne (curiously, also Arasthel’s future) it became pretty clear that Weaver’s role in this changeling plot is far from over.

We then pulled together some backgrounds. It turns out Weaver was the guy who recognized Hazlam, and who was persuaded to keep it to himself by Hazlam and Israfil. It also turned out that Weaver had a hand in the activation of Tuesday – the stolen book is actually full of warforged lore, and Sul Taeres’s ‘accidental’ activation of Tuesday was quite intentional on their part (albeit with a limited understanding). Taeres and Weaver have absolutely fallen together as partners in crime, and I’m pretty happy with that.

All of which lead to session start. We had 8 players, and while it’s more manageable than 10, it was still enough that it created some problems. Not enough to tank the game, but definitely enough to muddle some things.

Since everyone was up to speed on rules, we had a little bit more opportunity to build out the setting, so things began in the Smokey Yak with Lefty telling a story of how the ice came to be. The Yak is the tavern that grew up next to the smokehouse, since it was one of the central locations in town, and Lefty got his name when something (the story changes) took off his right hand in one bite. It is a running joke among trappers that when they gut a creature, they’re looking for Lefty’s ring.

The story went that when the armies of darkness rose up, the Gods could not stop them, and the Titans were deaf to the pleas of mortals. But when those armies grew bold enough to challenge the heavens, that was enough to interest Dogan the Devourer, who relished the battle and laid waste to the enemy, but also to the world. So great was the devastation of this that two of the kinder hearted Titans intervene. Fafnir the great ate up the enemies challenging Dogan, and Tetra froze the world, sending Dogan to sleep beneath the ice. And to this day, at the very center of the ice, he sleeps, and woe be on us all if the thaw ever reaches him.

But, of course, that’s just a story. Tuesday noticed the proprietor was looking concerned about something, and checking outside regularly. Uncertain how to address this, she grabbed some other characters to go talk with her. It turned out that her cousin should have been here already with the yak herd. A trivial concern in most places, but Placeholder is incredibly dependent on the herds for its food supply (since it is at a remove from any substantial agriculture). They players agrred to investigate.

Sadly, this was complicated somewhat by Glemmer, Taere’s and Weaver putting on a show inside, a purse getting stolen, and a very large, angry man pursuing Weaver out the window and onto Hazlam’s sled. Hazlam & Weaver took off as Naoto attempted to get the man to stand down and got kicked for her trouble. She took it poorly, drew steel and violence ensued.

Now, this was education on a few axes. First. I dropped the ball as GM in making it clear what was happening where. We had a lot of characters in different places, and I hadn’t made it clear enough what was going on where.

Second, the dice were unkind. The guy got initiative, got two attacks off, hit on the first, critted on the second and dropped Naoto in one round. That was, frankly, not a super satisfying outcome. Now in fairness, I had intentionally statted the guy as tough because I figured he might become a recurring NPC, and if he was tough now, then surpassing him later would be satisfying. I had not, however, expected things to be quite that lopsided. Put a pin in that, it comes up later.

The NPC ended up getting a name (Gaston) and stormed off to find Weaver, so he didn’t notice the group stealing his wagon to go catch up in the other direction.

The group met up, headed out along the trail and found a dead yak and clear sign of an attack (distance was about one long rest, so Naoto recovered in the wagon). Clearly the attack was made by some burrowing creature, and the herd had been lead off the road towards rocky terrain. Also, there were signs that someone had been watching the fight. The group followed and were within sight of the rocky outcropping where the herd and herder had sought refuge when they were attacked by the young Remorhaz.

Now, again, this was educational. The worm is a CR 5 encounter, and it’s mostly made nasty by its ambient damage (7 points when you hit it[1]) and the fact that it shrugs off cold and fire damage. It also had a lot of Hit Points, but an only OK armor class. Balanced against this, the party was operating short handed, since some took off in pursuit of the observer, who was watching from a hilltop abut a quarter mile off.

For all this, the deciding factor ended up being luck – the worm could not roll for crap, and landed only one hit in the entirety of the fight, though despite that, the party was pretty roughed up by the ongoing damage. The observer got away (he had plenty of time to do so), though he left a little bit of evidence (tobacco ash) and the party took a short rest with the herd before deciding to lead it back to town, expecting to rest along the way.

Naturally, they got attacked while camped. I tuned the encounter a bit more this time, with one CR4 Shadow Demon and 3 CR2 Ice Gargoyles (regular gargoyles, but vulnerable to fire). While not super dangerous toe to toe, the demon wound have the advantage of surprise, and the Gargoyles were not intended as a threat to the players, but rather, to the herd.

I’m actually pretty happy with how this fight went. The demon one shotted Tuesday (a surprise to me – turned out she’d been conservative with her recovery dice during the short rest) and there was a brief stealth duel with Weaver until the thing was revealed enough for Israfil to go full Paladin on its ass, backed up by the party clerics. A lot of radiant damage makes for a very dead Shadow Demon.

The rest of the party dealt with the gargoyles,and a Gust of Wind kept them from damaging the Yaks as much as they intended, buying time for fire and ass kicking to do their job. The fight definitely got pretty straightforward once the party could bring their strengths to bear. I could certainly have made it harder, but I think it felt about right.

They got back to town with the herd, and Gaston was bought off with the meat from the one yak the gargoyles had killed and by being given credit towards the Remorhaz kill (the head went up by the gates). We still had some time so there was some investigation that followed. The town, it seemed, had been having a lot of supply problems. Nothing too overt, but enough that everything was running low, and the yak herd going missing would have potentially been quite disruptive. No headway on who the mysterious smoker was, but it did put Lucius Tanner (owner of the town’s largest trading post) on their radar as the likely source of the tobacco. He’s also a potential suspect as someone who benefits from scarcity. The problem is that Lucius is making money hand over fist, and disruption might hurt that.

Out heroes’ acclaim for besting the Remorhaz also got them attention from the Aide to the Marjan ambassador, who needed someone to drive some claim jumpers off his recently acquired claim. At first, the group thought he was a potential mark, but then after spotting his bodyguard, wondered if he was a honeypot. After Sul Taeres agreed to help, Arasthel stpped in and insisted they needed some time. The diplomat seemed put off, and pointed out that they had been discussing this for several hours already, and if they were adamant (they were) he woudl seek elsewhere.

So the the diplomat hired Gaston and his crew, and set off. The party was still curious, and investigation seemed to suggest that if the diplomat was not on the level, then at least his con was much deeper than just ripping off a few adventurers (the Marjans had bought out numerous contiguous claims since the accord was signed, greatly overpaying in almost all cases). The set out (for a number of sometimes conflicting reasons) only to encounter a badly injured Gaston and crew on the road coming back. They’d been ambushed by undead halflings. A negotiation was made with the Marjan diplomat, and the job of clearing out these apparent claim jumpers is now theirs again.

Ok, numerous takeaways from this one

  • It is difficult to write about the DMG and prep for a game simultaneously. Sorry about that, but I will be back on it.
  • This game finally named and loosely identified the other dominant human empire, loosely based on the Persians with some Ottoman flavor. That they are Marjans is something of a personal joke.
  • We tried a new rule that we’ll be testing for a while which i call the “heroic death rule”. Any time you would go down because you’re at 0 HP, you can opt to stay on your feet, but you immediately mark off one failed death save. You can act on your turn, and if you’re still standing at the end, mark off another failed death save. The net result is that you always have the option to go full Boromir and fight to the death. More critically, it introduces choice to the most boring part of play.
  • The new rule has some knock on effects. We’ve tweaked the stabilization cantrips (they now heal 1d4, but only for a target at 0 hp) and there are certain abuses that could theoretically come up that we want to head off. There are also some situations (like when Tuesday got backstabbed) where it’s not 100% appropriate. For the time being, it’s a work in progress.
  • I also need to come up with a rule for failed death saves turning into injuries, but that’s phase 2.
  • What it does, however, is mitigate one of my big concerns with combat so far. I’m still working on balancing for a bigger group, but one thing I run into a lot is monsters whose basic hits pretty much promise to one shot most of my part. That’s dangerous and all, but not exactly fun – one and done really drives home the swinginess of things.
  • Beyond the heroic death rule, I am also going to try to address this more in encounter design. One big takeaway is that I’m going to be a lot more free in pulling from the ranks of CR1 and 2 stuff to build the foundation for an encounter. I’m also going to turn my eye towards things with more (and more interesting) attacks than things with big damaging whammies.
  • That “more interesting” is something I really want to ruminate on. A lot of what made 4e fights fun (and they were super fun for me) was that there was a lot of non-damage stuff going on. Similarly, a lot of the best practices of Dungeon World were all about doing things over and above raw damage. I don’t know where all of 5e’s hooks are for that, but my hunch is that the secret is getting a lot more robust with advantage and disadvantage.

  1. Reading the monster ability, one could conclude that the 7 points is done every time a hit lands, but I opted for a kinder interpretation that limited it to once per action because the lack of a save or any other potential mitigation is crazy nasty otherwise, especially considering how many hit points the thing had.  ↩

DMG – Product and Introduction


For folks playing at home, this kicks off my dive into the 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide, similar to previous dives into the Player’s Handbook and Monster Manual. I originally was going to pass on this one because I felt I would be starting to late, but some nice folks persuaded me that the book is fairly evergreen, so the window is much wider than I may have thought.

The Dungeon Master’s guide is, physically, about what you would expect from the series so far. The weirdness with the flame on the binding seems to have been a function of the third party book, so nothing stands out as a problem, and it’s got that nice mix of gloss and matte that makes all these books a joy to pick up.

I’m a little torn on the cover. On one hand, it’s another book without a dragon on the cover, but I don’t actually mind that. My first DMG was the 1e printing with the Elmore (I think) (edit: Nope, it was Jeff Easely. I’m a bad nerd, and thanks to @newbiedm for the correction) painting of the cowled figure opening the door. That one’s iconic for me, so I admit it’s on my mind as I look at this.

The choice of a Lich makes sense, especially if you’re not going to use a dragon. As with the Beholder on the cover of the Monster Manual, it’s another iconic, scary creature. And this one definitely looks lich-y. But for all that, the cover leaves me a little flat – the color is such a uniform wash of purple tha nothing stands out. I have to actively remind myself that there’s a second figure on the cover. None of that is great. I suppose the thinking was to give it a strong sense of color (to differentiate it from the red of the PHB and the – blue, I guess? – of the DMG. There might be some branding genius to it that I don’t get, but ultimately its much more blah than it could be.

Thankfully, the interior has no such problems. Like the other books, it’s well laid out and awash with art. It’s roughly similar to the Players Handbook in this regard, but there is (appropriately) less of an emphasis on characters and more on items and maps. The maps, in particular, warm my heart. They are many and varied, including an entire appendix of just random maps (I assume people have already posted adventures that use them) though my favorite is the town on page 115. It’s hard to see something like that an not want to use it in a game.

The art is full of great classic nods to things like Baba Yaga’s Hut and The Tomb of Horrors, and ranges from epic full page splashes to elemental vistas to an utterly adorable rendition of the great modern parch. My sense from the PHB that WOTC was really investing in a different artistic feel had been reinforced by the MM and it feels fully cemented here. The only complaint I could raise is that it lacks the diversity that was so much the signature of the PHB. It is not terrible in this regard – there is definitely some diversity, and the comparative lack of character images means that there’s no way it could possibly compare to the PHB. But at the same time, the PHB set the bar high enough that it’s noteworthy that the DMG passes under it (if only by a bit).

Credits page includes a nice genealogy of the DMG in its attribution, which is pleasant to see. It also includes a bit of a humorous disclaimer[1] which I’m confident will rub some readers the wrong way. I actually am not sure how to take it – it’s a joke, of course, but is it a flag that we’re going be getting a conversational, jocular kind of DMG, or is it just a one off?


When the first line is “It’s good to be the Dungeon Master!”, that seems to argue for “jocular”. There’s an interesting point in the first paragraph that explicitly note that this book assumes rules familiarity. That’s an interesting message, but one that’s consistent with how 5e seems to have been split up. As has been the trend, more anymore of the essential rules of the game exist in the PHB, but that makes the decision of what to keep in the DMG all the more interesting.

I have to admit that I am poring over every word in this introduction in an attempt to capture the underlying message. “What is the GM’s role?” is one of those questions that can spawn any number of arguments, and the position that D&D takes on this carries massive weight. It is the primary example, and even the smallest shift from the past is noteworthy.

The best summary for the expected role of the DM can be found in the three subheaders of this section. They are, in order. Master of the World, Master of the Adventure and Master of Rules. That’s a curious order, and it is hard not to wonder if it reflects relative importance. If so, there are two interesting things going on here.

The first is that mentioning rules last sends a number of interesting messages, not the least of which is that the rules are not the be-all-end-all of play. That is not exactly revolutionary, but it is controversial on more than one axis. That the book describes the GM as a “mediator between the rules and the players” is also kind of interesting as it supports the idea that the GM’s job is different than that of the players, but does not necessarily suggest a power dynamic. That kind of nicely walks a line that is classically rife with trouble.

The second, and more interesting to me, is that worlds are given pre-eminence (in both position and wordcount) over adventures. Now, in terms of difficulty, this seems backwards – running adventures is tricky business, and it takes work – but I think it reflects a different priority, one that I respect a lot. For me, the master of the world subsection speaks to is one of the most fun elements of GMing. Crafting a setting (alone or with feedback) populating it, thinking long and hard about it, then offering a window into it through play is an intensely satisfying experience (at least for me). I have to give big props to the book for focusing on why it’s fun to GM before getting into why it’s work.

The introduction ends with a single page on knowing your players which is surprisingly well crafted. Most critically, it does not talk about types or players, but rather, about thinks your players may enjoy doing[2]. On one level, this is a fine distinction – one could have talks about “actors” rather than “acting”, but by couching these things in actions, you get much closer to the reality that your players are more complicated than any type, and that they can probably have fun in a lot of different ways.

Even better, these action are also accompanied by straightforward, actionable advice. For example:

Engage Players who like exploration by…

  • dropping clues that hint at things yet to come
  • letting them find things when they take the time to explore
  • providing rich descriptions of exciting environments and using interesting maps and props
  • giving monsters secrets to uncover or cultural details to learn.

Those are not Principles from Apocalypse World, but you would be forgiven for seeing a family resemblance. Now, there’s a whole philosophical discussion to be had about what it means to include these things as guidelines rather than “rules”, and I’ll happily leave that to those more invested in the distinction. I’m a big fan of guidelines, especially when well articulated, and as a single page of advice goes, this is pretty good.

All in all, it’s a promising start, and for the people who need them, the red flags have already been raised, as is only fair.  I very much look forward to getting into the meat of it.

Because the universe has a sense of humor, at the same time I decided to pick this up, Bruce Baugh (of Adventure!, Wraith and about a bazillion awesome thing) also started doing his deep dive on the DMG. You should absolutely check it out over on google plus.

  1. To quote – Disclaimer: Wizards of the Coast does not officially endorse the following tactics, which are guaranteed to maximize your enjoyment as a Dungeon Master. First, always keep a straight face and say OK no matter how ludicrous or doomed the players’ plan of action is. Second, no matter what happens, pretend that you intended all along for everything to unfold the way it did. Third, if you’re not sure what to do next, feign illness, end the session early, and plot your next move. When all else fails, roll a bunch of dice behind your screen, study them for a moment with a look of deep concern mixed with regret, let loose a heavy sign, and announce that Tiamat swoops from the sky and attacks.  ↩
  2. Acting, Exploring, Instigating, Fighting, Optimizing, Problem Solving & Storytelling. Of these, the presence of instigating (being able to impact the world) probably pleases me most as an idea that is prevalent in play but often underrepresented in advice. It also dovetails well with the idea of the DM’s role being tied to the world.    ↩

Diceless Apocalypse

ScoundrelI have occasionally remarked that Powered by the Apocalypse games work best for me when I view them as diceless games that sometimes go to dice. This is, from a certain perspective, absolutely terrible. It posits a strongly empowered GM as the primary driver of fun with system in a back seat, and that is totally not to everyone’s taste. But it’s my jam.

Ok, so bear that in mind while I add a second data point – one common complaint of PBTA games is that they do not offer a mechanical representation of difficulty. If I’m swordfighting a kobold, I make the exact same roll I do do when I’m swordfighting a dragon, with identical probabilities. Now, the reality is a little more complicated than that, and there’s a strong element of bug or feature, but I think it’s fair that it’s an issue to address.

So put a pin in that and let’s move to the third thing – diceless stats. I’m going to use the Amber DRPG as an example here. For the unfamiliar you had a stat like Warfare, which covered fighting and such. You spent points on it, and that’s how good you were – If you had a 45 warfare, then you were better than a 44 and worse than a 46, and all things being equal[1], that would determine the outcome of a fight. Simple as that.

This worked ok, but there were some further complications – in theory the levels that players bought at established the “tiers” of the game. So, if the highest Warfare in the party was a 50, then that was the Apex of warfare for that generation, and the levels other people bought at represented the tiers below him. In practice, this quickly broke down because new characters came in, NPCs had their own stats and so on.

But I liked the idea of tiers. It matched the source material very nicely. If you’ve read the books, Benedict is the apex warrior and in a tier by himself. The next tier down are the best swordsmen in the family (Corwin, Eric, Maybe Bleys). Next tier down are the competent soldiers (Julian, Caine, Gerard, Deirdre) and the next tier down are the scrappers (pretty much the rest of the family). If people from two different tiers came into conflict, then there’s really no question about how it plays out – higher tier wins without some SERIOUS cheating. But within a tier, things are close and uncertain.

So take all three of those points and I think you may see where I’m going. Start with a tiered diceless model, and use it for everything except conflicts within a given tier. For that, go to the dice, PBTA style.[2] And I note, I’m not really proposing the use of moves, just the three tiered resolution mechanism.

For me, it gets that little bit of randomness into diceless play and also removes the entire question of difficulty from the roll – difficulty is what determines if you even roll at all (which is not hugely removed from PBTA itself, but that’s a whole other discussion).

Anyway, I’m filing this away for when I write my big Lords of Gossamer & Shadow hack. 🙂

  1. Which is why a lot of Amber play revolved around pre-conflict positioning to ensure that all things were as unequal as possible.  ↩
  2. I figure a modifier on the roll based on the situation, probably from –3 to +3. You could build a whole subsystem for this, but for the moment, I apply handwavium.  ↩

The Thaw: Treasure Thoughts

locked-chestOne thing I rather glossed over in the session post mortem is the question of treasure. For the kickoff adventure I was profoundly generous and let everyone walk away with one magic item. There were a few reasons to do this, but most of them had to do with magic items being cool and part of what makes D&D feel like D&D.

It was really interesting, because it gave me reason to look at the magic item tables in a much more concrete way than I had previously, and it was informative. I’d had a sense that 5e was a little more conservative with the magic items than previous editions, but I hadn’t realized how conservative. As low level characters, I really should have been handing out only very minor scrolls and potions, and it would actually be a while before they were even in a position to roll on a table that might cough up a +1 weapon. I ended up letting them roll d100 and looking across the first several tables to find the coolest option among them, and despite that, the loot was still mostly potions and scrolls.

The one exception is that our archer happened to roll exactly so to potentially get an arrow of slaying, and that was too perfect a match to pass up. I could have just left it at that – a default arrow of slaying is fun but not crazy – it gets you one 6d10 hit, which would be awesome when it happens, but is not world shaking.

But what’s the fun in that?

So it’s an arrow of dragon slaying. Like, honest to god dragon slaying. She hits a dragon with it, it dies. That is crazy powerful and has the potential of having an outsized impact on play (and also has a nice thematic element, since her character has some Bard the Bowman touchpoints), but none of that worries me because of the flipside of it. For all it’s potency, the idea of an arrow of dragon slaying is going to drive a crapton more play than its actual use. Players will have a reason to use it. NPCs (widely varied, interesting NPCs) have reasons to want it or want to see it used in particular places. It’s an act of apparent generosity which is, in actuality, a gift to myself.

Anyway, I am now going to have to think about magic items over the course of the game a little bit more. I’m ok being more conservative with them, but it increases my inclination to introduce more +0 weapons (weapons which grant no bonus to attack or damage, but which do some other sort of damage) just to deal with damage immunities, which do not seem quite as conservative as magic items. [1]

I also may need to re-examine the Artificer (from the Eberron Rules). Upon initial examination, it’s kind of a rough sell as a wizard specialty, since it’s very hard to argue that the benefits of the magic items they can make offset the loss of the spell slots, especially since the tradition doesn’t give any abilities that don’t use existing resources (unlike other traditions, which are on top of those resources). Maybe it’s a better deal if magic items are much rarer, but I’m suspecting it is not.

There is a reason I don’t normally stress over treasure in most games, but in D&D, it’s half the fun, so I’m willing to go all in on it. It just takes a bit of work.

  1. In fact, I think that the drow will have the secret of making iceblades, swords of sharpened ice that do cold damage but which melt. Reflects the ice heritage and seems cooler than the “underdark radiation” nonsense.  ↩

The Thaw: Session 1

Ok, on one hand it is great that 5e supports 10 players, but on the other it is not an experience I wish to repeat too often. I am wiped (and I realized in retrospect that I’ve had much less coffee than usual today). But I should at least start the recap while it’s fairly fresh in mind.

We had 3 players who missed the previous chargen, so that was the first thing we knocked out.


HazlaNG Byzant Soldier, Level 2 Fighters

Past: The Survivor, Inverted (Sole survivor of a brutal battle between the empire and a melted shire. To the empire he’s a hero, to the halflings and others, he’s the butcher).

Present: The Owl, inverted (He was given a claim near placeholder as retirement, but it’s still frozen over. The Empire made it clear to him they’d like an agent, but he told them to piss off. Now he lives with his dogs and drinks his pension)

Future: The Carnival (Will he be drawn back into the politics of the empire, or will he be their bane in Placeholder?”

  • Butcher of Kellam Pass
  • This is my damn claim
  • “Retired” “Hero”
  • Agent or Enemy of the Empire


ClaudiusNG Changeling Charlatan, Level 2 Diviner

We decided that changelings operated secretly among the other races, especially humanity, but their numbers were few.

Past: The Carnival (The politics of the Changelings is brutal and messy, and while Claudius wants to trust, he cannot. He has been blackmailed by a contact in Placeholder into altering a map)

Present: The Bear, Inverted (There is a key that he’s looking for, to restore the Changelings, for they once were linked in such a way that they could trust each other. There is a key to finding one of the ancient changelings, who may still yet live beneath the ice)

Future: The Locksmith (Will he empower his people, or reveal them?)

  • Web of Lies
  • Searching for the Key
  • Secret Identity
  • Fate of the Changelings


TuesdayNeutral Warforged Reborn, Level 2 Monk

Warforged are sometimes found in the Ice, and Tuesday was one such example.

The Past: Foreign Trader (She had been found further north and sold as a curiosity, until she found her way to a tavern in Placeholder)

The Present: Avalanche (Something woke her, and it was violent. She did substantial damage before she came to her senses, remembering nothing of her own past. She’s been effectively indentured by the town to pay off the cost of the damage done. This is also where here name came from – she awoke on a Tuesday, and that is a shorthand explanation of events.

The Future: The Sickness (How long can she remain functional? – I’m not super happy with this one)

  • It must be Tuesday
  • What Was I?
  • What does this Button Do?
  • What Keeps Me Ticking?

Then a quick round of connections with plot twist cards.

Hazram & Israfil (The Snitch): Hazram’s identity is something of a secret, but Isafil learned it over his cups. When a traveller threatened to reveal Hazram, Israfil scared him out of town.

Hazram & Arasthel (Sickness): When sickness struck the sled dogs, Arasthel did what she could, but was out of her depth, so it was a great surprise that the crazy drunk guy outside of town proved to be an able doctor to the beasts.

Tuesday & Sul Taeres (Schaddenfreude): It turns out that Seul Taeres was the one who jumostarted Tuesday. He doesn’t feel responsible per se, but he’s curious.

Tuesday & Naoto (Nightmare): Tuesday is the answer to Naoto’s visions. An army of Warforged would be enough to protect the Sunset Shire, certainly!

Claudius & Tuaq (Magic moment): Put a pin in this for the future – Tuaq’s pact blade is absolutely tied to Claudius’s key.

Claudius & Kit (Love Triangle): Kit has a suitor from the empire who still persists at times, much to her annoyance. What she doesn’t know is that the suitor is a changeling, who has been pressing Claudius for information.

Claudius & Glemmer (Embarrassment): Both came to a party disguised as the same person, complicated further by the original arriving. However, they managed to pull it off with some ad hoc teamwork.


And with that we launched into play. With 10 players, it was pretty much necessary to launch into thing in media res. Party was earning three weeks pay for two days work, going to a known ruin and just making sure it was still clear, since the Empire wanted to build a for there. Now, we had 10 level 2 PCs, so I was figuring the fight centerpieces would be CR4ish, but I had to be careful with that – a lot of CR4 stuff could one shot these PCs. So as a warmup, I opened with a peryton attack in a storm on the mountainside. 2 CR2 Peryton’s were not a huge threat, but they were airborne in a storm, and their ability to dive bomb and get away made them disproportionately dangerous.

Fight went ok. Lots of use of advantage and disadvantage, and I think it let everyone shake out their characters a little bit. I let them take a long rest before the centerpiece fight – I had 4 Azer (CR2) who had a Helmed Horror (CR4) in a box. I’d been planning for the Horror to be a follow up fight, but player actions lead to them hitting the panic butting early, and the Horror joining the fight in round 3. The Azers themselves were tough but manageable, and after some initial dice luck (two crits in close succession) things turned around slowly. The Horror was another story entirely – since I described it activating, I had not considered that one of the players might grab his sword before he fully awoke, but that is exactly what Tuesday did (taking advantage of the Diviner’s 20 to do so) and so the Horror was much less dangerous than it should have been, since it kept failing to get the sword back, something the party helped with via illusions, hexes and general misdirection. By the time the thing was ready to just tart punching stuff, they’d finished it off.

Turns out there was a secret chamber the Azer had been sent to open up, and the Horror was going to be the muscle in dealing with it. So, naturally, the party cracked it open and went toe to toe with a Zombie beholder. It was CR5 and had the potential for some big hits (and, in fact, dropped Sul Taeres and reduced Israfil to 1HP) but the party managed to eventually take it down (that zombie resilience ability is kind of nasty).

We wrapped up, got a little bit of treasure and I let everyone advance to level 3. I don’t intend to be that generous with advancement in general, but level 3 is when a lot of classes cement themselves, so I felt good getting to that point.

All in all it was fun but fatiguing, and I have a few random thoughts:

  • Having printed out the characters as physical cards was a huge boon, since i just used the stack for initiative (inserting blank index cards into the stack for monsters)
  • I had not missed the d20’s swinginess. Kit has the single highest attack bonus in the group with a +7, and she could not hit the broad side of a barn
  • Diviners seem as fun as I had imagined
  • I need to retune the aspects. Some of them are good, but many are flat, and most of them lack an immediate hook (most have good story hooks).
  • I think my group is playing D&D more than I’m running it, which sounds weird. On some level, I’m running a game that kind of just uses the cards as character sheets, that also happens to have some D&D.
  • Warlocks have many moving parts, but they come together interestingly.
  • Making the most straight up human fighter still makes for a fun character.
  • 10 characters is what I would call technically doable, not optimal.

The Thaw: The initial spread

Character images are not yet confirmed, and are currently wildly uncredited, but here’s a snapshot of how I do my notes for play.



Card nerds will note that they’re index card sized, not playing card sized, and people who’ve played with me before are well aware that I cannot resist doing a spread.

EDIT: Tuaq’s image was wrong, so that’l be updated in the next version.  That said, I want to call out that while it is a little frivolous to do things in this style, it means that I can then do something like THIS, which is pretty actionable.



Podcast: Iterative Design

NarrativeControlSo, a little while back, Luke Crane was on an episode of Narrative Control where he – being Luke – said some controversial things.  Those things touched on Fate and Apocalypse World, so Sean invited me and Vincent Baker on to talk and sort of respond. It was fun. Sean is always awesome, and Vincent is genuinely one of the nicest guys in gaming. The episode has been posted, and you can listen here if you have ever been interested in hearing my sinister laugh (ok, not really).


That said, I’m going to call out something that I let pass during the podcast because it would have been a total sidetrack.  To Vincent’s mind, 2d6 + value vs target is the most obvious dice mechanic, with rolling d6s and counting 50% successes as the second most obvious.  I respect his opinion, and they’re both solid dice mechanics, but I say poppycock. For a couple of reasons.

First, the obviousness of any die mechanic that is not “read the value on the dice” is pretty damn spurious.  Some mechanics may be easier to learn or simpler, but that is horse of a different color.

Second, if there is a natural die language, it is hugely user variable.  To me, there is no die mechanic more obvious than that used by Risus – roll some dice and add them up. More dice are better.  I feel like it’s very nearly perfect.  But for some the idea is utterly repellant.  If you’ve played a lot of other games, Feng Shui’s dice mechanic (d6 – d6) is “weird” but that’s the force of habit.  Hell, it is only time which has made D&D’s polyhedrons “not weird” to a lot of us.

Vincent is a genius. One of the greats. And he should absolutely design to his intuition.  But don’t feel bound to it.

PS – I’m not even going to pretend that Fudge/Fate dice are intuitive.  I could make the case that the actual die roll itself is pretty grokkable, but the ladder is something you learn, for better or for worse.


The Thaw: Session 0.1 – Connections

Once we had characters created, we did a quick round of connections to establish a little bit of backstory between the characters.

First we sketched out a shared adventure. Collapsing ice, emerging Giant spiders, fighting the spiders, exploring the revealed ruin. very loosely sketched, but it now gives something concrete to throw flashbacks at in the future.

Next, I just assigned everyone a number, rolled a die twice, then flipped up a Paizo plot twist card (from the flashbacks set – yes, this is turning into a little bit of an ad for Paizo’s cards). I pretty much just did this until almost everyone had at least two, then did a quick one for the remaining 3 people.


Naoto & Tuak drew “Lost”, so we talked about how they had gotten seperated in the dungeon and got Lost together. Because Tuak is kind of a jerk, we decided that they got to a point where a halfling could get out. Naoto did, but came back for Tuak. Without payment even!

Glimmer & Treewind drew “Life Changer”. The card has the image of a newborn on it, so we went literal, and in the midst of the ice spider attack, they delivered a baby despite having no idea what they were doing. Glemmer managed to fake it, but Treewind got the credit, and the baby’s name was Tree.

Glemmer & Arasthel drew kept secret, so we zeroed in on the Fire sister. Glemmer knows he Cambion she was with, and remarked to the investigating Arasthel that she didn’t seem kidnapped. Arasthel asserted she was charmed, but Glemmer knows she’s lying, and she knows he knows, so they have this little shared secret.

Naoto & Israfil drew Lacunsa(Memory), so we talked about the way they met, and decided that Naoto was the one who had opened the watchtower and released Israfil. They share the secret of the watchtower’s location.

Kit & Arasthel drew “reunion”, so Kit had visited the wood elf kingdoms in her youth, and had learned the basics from Arasthel.

Israfil & Glemmer drew “repressed memory”, which was kind of a weird one, so we decided that Glemmer had found the watchtower as well, but failed to open it (possibly because he’s not particularly pure of heart). However, that added Glemmer to Israfil’s sleeping awareness, so he dreamed of Glemmer’s defeat of the sleeper, though he doesn’t fully recall or understand that.

For the last one, Kit, Tuak & Treewind drew “Regret”, which ended up being a little bit tricky, since Kit is LG, and Tuak and Treewind are N and CN respectively, so moral regret was a little hard to come by. So it turned out they had cost the town something – they were attacked by a Rehemoraz, which would pretty much chew them up and spit them out. They were saved by Marshall Atwood, the hero/lawman of the town, but in doing so, Atwood was horrifically injured and crippled. Kit feels horribly responsible and Tuak and Treewind feel horrible that other people blame them for it.

And that is where we left it. If people had not needed to get home, then I suspect we would have insisted on starting play right then, which is (I think) a good sign.

New Faces

  • Baby Tree
  • Marshal Atwood