Author Archives: Rob Donoghue

Watching the 7th Sea

7sIf you don’t know by now, you should – the kickstarter for the 2nd edition of 7th Sea has launched, and it has already succeeded beyond all reasonable measures, coming up on half a million dollars as a write this.

I am going to be throwing some hardballs here, so let me start with something important – I have backed the hell out of that kickstarter, and I cannot wait to get my grabby hands on the new stuff. I have devoured the quickstart. I still have several feet of first edition material on my shelf. I love this game.

But it also, historically, has made me crazy.

7th Sea was a deeply flawed gem, and it is through that lens that I am viewing my own hopes and wishes with this new version. Looking at some of the big ones:

Fiction vs. Mechanics

The text of 7th sea emphasized that characters were swashbuckling heroes, but the mechanics more or less demanded that they be chumps. Part of this came from a point buy system that made essential gateways very expensive, so there just weren’t many points to go around. Part of it came from a landscape populated with NPCs who made it clear that the PCs were chumps and these were the people things were really about. There were other snags (roll & keep is a harsh mistress) but those two really hurt.

It’s hard to judge this one from the kickstarter. The mechanics seem looser and more friendly to competence, but I’ve been burned before. I am hopeful, but leery.

WTF Pirates

7th Sea’s setting was a pseudo-europe^f1, isolated from the rest of anything by ancient magic. This had lots of weird knock on effects (like removing Africa, which had all sorts of implications) but it also resulted in a really weird map. See, if you imagine just Faux-Europe, you’ve removed the Mediterranean as well as all ship traffic across the Atlantic. And when you remove those things, the immediate (very logical) question is “Where the hell are the pirates doing their thing?”

Yet despite that, pirates were a critically important part of the setting, so they got shoehorned in really hard. This was awkward enough, but it ended up encroaching on one of the other big themes of the setting (exploring ancient mysteries) by making that largely the domain of pirates because they had nothing else to do.

For 2nd edition, it looks like the map has improved somewhat. What’s more, based on the stuff they’ve show, I would wager that this moves the clock forward to support the (supremely dull) metaplot event that took down the bubble around Europe. If so, that is a big step towards being less dumb.


Oh god, the Metaplot.

7th Sea may have been one of the most 90’s games of all time. In theory, there shouldn’t have been a metaplot. The timeline was frozen at a specific year, and all supplements (until the very end) were considered simultaneous. In theory, this meant a blanks slate. In practice, it was so much sleight of hand, since it just meant the actual nature of the setting was revealed over many, many supplements.

DEEP SPOILERS FOLLOW – One of the secrets of the setting was the nature of magic. It turned out that three of the types of Sorcery available to players were actually secretly gifts from the dark powers which, as they were used, were opening the way to the Bad Things. This was revealed in a supplement, and it pretty aggressively flipped the bird to anyone who thought they were playing a cool, heroic sorcerer.

Similarly, the “Secret Masters of Everything” were revealed towards the very end. The setting was littered with this crap. And it was super annoying because it was usually at the expense of “less exciting” things like heroism, swashbuckling and intrigue – the stuff a lot of people were on board for in the first place,

I have no evidence which way the 2nd edition will jump on this, but I mostly just hope the fact that this kind of thing has become less popular means it will be quietly set aside.


Fact of life: the setting was more or less Europe for Dummies, arguably Europe for dumb americans. As such, it was composed entirely of (analogs for) England, Spain, France, Germany, Italy, Russian, and someplace with Vikings and Protestants. This is dumb, but a certain amount of it is necessary dumbness. Keeping things simple kept them accessible, and that’s critically important, so I forgive the broad strokes.

Where it falls down is in the area of uneven interest. Because these were such broad strokes, you could always dig down into them to find real stuff, like faith, trade, oppression and other toothy stuff. Things like this can be great game fodder if and only if someone cares enough to see what’s exciting about it. A lot of people don’t care if commerce in Theah is nonsensical, but the people who do care, care a LOT, and they are not thrown a bone.

This extends beyond issues and into nations. It was easy to go for dumb stereotypes (Vikings! Russian barbarians!) and the quality of the nations varied greatly depending on how interested the writer seemed in actually playing in them.^f2

This one worries me the most. I’m kind of delighted that they’ve added another nation to proxy for a little more of Eastern Europe, but I don’t yet know if it’ll be awesome or if it will be a gimmick. For obvious reasons, this gets even more worrisome when you consider that they might expand to cover Africa and America. Dumb shorthand is not super helpful in that space. But on the other hand, there are some smart people helping out with this project, and they will hopefully curb it.




There are other worries, but those are my big ones, and I am really hopeful that the game manages to escape this particular pain.



^f1: Ok, yes there are also proxies for China and a mash up of Islamic empires, but they are forcibly off to the side.

^f2: This is why Vodacce is probably the most playable nation as written. But there’s a weird anomaly around Avalon (elizabeth + arthurian myth + Fae incursion + random scotsmen) where there was obviously a lot of passionate interest in the material, but the result was a mess to actual play. Avalon was a place you left to go adventuring.

The Impact of Magic

potion-ballOk, given the pre-eminence of magic in D&D, it is very interesting to see the ways that this shapes the play experience. The most critical may not be th most obvious – timing. Action in D&D is set up in such a way that the default unit (a round) is the amount of time it takes to cast a spell.

That may seem counterintuitive at first. A round is a unit of time, after all. But stop and consider the many discussions of “what is a round” and how it is made abundantly clear that one round does not equate to one attack, but rather to a back and forth of blows, with a net effect measured by the attack. There is no such confusion regarding spellcasting. One round == One spell. ^f1

If you bear that in mind, a lot of the thinking in the 4e design makes a lot of sense. One of its clear drivers was to give every character something cool to do. They did not call all these things spells, but structurally, that’s what they were. Everyone gets to do a cool thing on their action!

It is hard to fault that sentiment, it genuinely is. I would go so far as to say that it was one of the parts of 4e that genuinely worked very well, so far as it went. Of course, it invited other problems with the list of potential actions spinning out of control (especially in conjunction with the way items were handled), but the core sentiment was solid.

And this is where 4e came up to the edge of something fascinating. By abstracting spells out into general actions, spells became the cool things your character can do. And specific things your character could do, rather than some open-ended loosey goosey thing. There were very loose limitations that meant you had cool thing you did all the time, cool things you sometimes whipped out, and the occasional big whammy. But taken as a whole, they were a picture of what your character could do.

By itself, that’s pretty awesome (something that the 4e-based Gamma World illustrated) but it broke down when it ran into the other pillar of D&D spells – resource management.

See, we sometimes talk about D&D as a resource management game, and we envision detailed inventory sheets, tracking the number of torches burned and feet of rope consumed. And while there may be some of that, what we’re really talking about is managing spells (and expendable magic items). This basic fact lies at the root of problems like the “5 minute workday” where adventurers rest up, take on the first encounter, burn through their best renewable resources (that is, best spells)” then rest up for another 8 hours and repeat.^f2

4e almost escaped that pattern, for good or ill. Setting aside daily abilities, you could adventure for a very long time, because each encounter (or scene, depending on how you looked at it) offering the opportunity to largely reset. With that in mind, it would not be hard to imagine that you could get by without constantly having daily abilities ready. Unfortunately, D&D also offered a highly tuned balancing system that emphasized building challenging fights, and things were tuned tightly enough that the daily’s made a pretty big difference. That (combined with potions) was enough to bring back the hoarding of resources. And on some level, that’s what the audience wants.

My big lesson from this is to view resource management as a preference, not something essential to our games. If it’s a requirement, then it’s a shackle, but if it’s something that might make for some cool, we have a lot more flexibility.

^f1:Ok, yes, there’s a qualifier for stuff like quickened spells and the like, but I don’t think any of that undercuts the premise. Arguably , it strengthens it, because it explicitly calls out that we don’t have such a think as a quickened stab. But it is a large part of why D&D does not really use any rules that would make daggers dangerous (as a shorthand for combat rules other crunchy fight games have tried).

^f2: Yes, obviously there are a lot of good solutions to this problem that don’t require much mechanical tweaking, but it’s a problem that comes up often enough to be a real thing.

The Importance of Spells

burning-bookI was riffing a bit on Twitter, and realized I had some stuff about spells I had to unpack.  This will probably take two posts, so  I want to open with the premise – spells are the most important part of D&D.

This is a rough assertion to make because D&D is so big and complicated that any assertion about one thing being the most important is certain to invite skepticism. And I’m cool with that – I don’t expect to persuade anyone who feels differently, but I do hope that I can help unpack a little bit of how I’m thinking about spells to help make some future thoughts make some more sense.

So let’s start with the basics – have you ever made your own D&D clone? I certainly have. It seems like a pretty simple task because at it’s heart, D&D is not that complicated in any of its many guises. It is well elaborated to cover a deep bench of edge cases, but the underlying rules have never been hard to wrap your head around.[1] That has meant that it has always seemed that they are easy to improve, which has lead to a vast universe of house rules and edition progression.

But an interesting thing happens when you start mucking around. Adding skills, tweaking classes, modifying combat – all of those things flow rather smoothly. But at some point you run up against the spell list (really any time from AD&D forward), and the rules change. The problem is that the spells are conceptually straightforward – they have levels and effects and they’re quite tidy. But the sheer volume of them is daunting. To discard the existing spell list in favor of something else seems insanely wasteful, especially since it’s so easy to just modify it – change some levels, add or subtract spells. The D&D spells are that load bearing wall that you can’t tear down, so you just work around it.

And that’s just as well, because if you rip them out, replacing them is hard. Almost every other fantasy game out there that has tried ends up burning a lot of page count for something largely forgettable. There have been exceptions[2] but they are greatly outnumbered by the number of games with “Energy Bolt” and “Persuade” spells that look strangely familiar.

Note, many of these games with boring spells have fascinating magic. Games like Rifts or (choose your favorite) offer pictures of magic that are exciting and compelling. Great, grabby stuff. To this day, the Ley Line Walker from Rifts is one of my favorite magical concepts. But these excellent wrappers were largely let down by the turd of a spell list they contained.

And that leads to real culmination of this – the D&D spell list is what makes D&D feel like D&D. Some of this is all about mechanics and familiar names, but there’s more to it than that. D&D has only the setting implied by its rules. Some of that setting is shaped by things like classes and equipment lists, but nothing defines the setting like the spells.

Not because of the bits of lore among them – Bigby just doesn’t matter that much – but because every single spell is a declaration that in this setting, this thing is possible. It is a thing that happens. That’s bold. And with the sheer volume of information in the spell list, it’s also very broad.

And that’s actually pretty great, because the spell is wonderfully well designed. Long before anyone had ever heard of “moves”, spells were discrete units of fiction and mechanics that established tone and could be strongly re-used. What’s more, they were built with the RPG equivalent of a handle, that allowed them to be easily slotted into various places.

Consider that a spell had an effect, but it also had a wrapper, and the wrapper contained information like who could cast it, when and how. Spell memorization is wrapper. Spell swapping is wrapper. Components are wrapper. And this is critical because the wrapper could be fiddled with infinitely without messing up the effect. The result is that spells could be used as a language of effects. Want to model an interesting trap? it explodes like a fireball. Want to give a monster cool powers? Voila, spell like abilities!

This is pretty damn robust, especially when the spells are cool. And as a result, it seems only natural that spells have become more and more central to what D&D is. It might have started as a fighting game with some magic, but there is a really strong case to be made that it has become something closer to a magic game with some fighting.

And that’s absolutely not a bad thing. But it is an interesting thing, and it’s had some implications. Implications that I’ll dig into in the next post.

  1. It could be argued that earlier editions seem more complicated because the rules were not necessarily well unified, and as a result the edge cases required a bit more work to keep track of, as they were often one-offs, but even with that, we’re not far past the complexity of explaining en passant.  ↩
  2. Rolemaster is my go to example for this, but it accomplished this by virtue of producing a staggeringly HUGE amount of text to provide its vision of magic. Most other successes have either done a similar amount of work, or have done so by pursuing entirely different approaches to magic (such as Ars Magica).  ↩

The Power of Rectangles

newrectanglesOk, I made some very simple lunchtime changes over at the DM’s Guild to the Grey Tyrant and the Pathwarden:

  1. Unified the look of the covers and text
  2. Updated the names so they include a “brand” (5by3 Games, because why not?)
  3. Made some tweaks, including adding some designers notes and addressing a problem with the Pathwarden’s damage output.

These are not going to turn into overnight success by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s a lot of value in consistency, so I feel better about them at least.

Can’t Eat Just One

pathwarden coverThe Dungeon Master’s Guild experiment continues!  It turns out that creating 5e hacks is an effective way for me to fidget, so I rolled out another subclass, The Pathwarden, this time for the Ranger.  It’s fun. I like th ecover image a lot (it’s most of why I did it) though I admit the font more or less screams “2003”. This was not any kind of money grab (though I’ll have you know I have earned over 5 whole dollars – big time now!) but rather that it struck me that I wanted to throw in a second fish, and as it turns out, I’m glad I did, since I learned a few more things.

The critical bit is this: because the “publisher” for everything on DM’s Guild is The Dungeon Master’s Guild, there is no systematic way to connect the two pieces I submitted.  If you search for my name, you’ll find them, but that requires that you know to look.

So why is this critical?  As the site grows, there are eventually going to be only two ways to find things – top lists (like hottest titles) and search. That introduces a number of interesting challenges in an of itself, but once someone finds one of your pieces, how are they going to find any others?

The most obvious answer to this is some sort of consistent naming, probably supplemented by consistent branding.  “The Pathfinder” and “The Grey Tyrant” have no connection, but if they become, for example “Fivefold Paths – The Pathfinder” and “Fivefold Paths – The Grey Tyrant”, then we have kludged together a keyword.  This is a bit of a hack, and I expect that in time DM’s Guild will add an extra field to DM’s Guild products to act like publisher does on the other sites, but there’s no telling when such a thing would happen.

Beyond that, “branding” would be best accomplished with a consistent look and feel – using a uniform cover page template for example.  Think of all the faux book covers you’ve seen on PDFs for examples of how this is done (and how it can go wrong).  You want your book to be quickly recognizable from its thumbnail as yours.

Though I note, the image of your book need nto be the actual cover.  I imagine you could do something clever with the cover images without messing with the books. Hmm.

Anyway, the bottom line is this is something I did very badly. My two pieces look like I just tossed them up there, because I did. So I suppose the next step is to fix it.

Now, If I were smart, this is where I would hand the task over to someone with actual skills in this area, someone with a good eye for layout and graphic design.  And the thing is, I absolutely have access to such people, but that feels like it would be cheating, at least for the moment, because part of the intellectual appeal (to me) is to see what I can do with my simple skills and simple tools.

So the upshot is that I need:

  1. A word or name that I can use consistently, but which is not too intrusive in the titles.
  2. A consistent look to the covers. That will require picking:
    1. Some sort of template image
    2. A color scheme that stands out (that is – NOT RED)
  3. To update both entries to reflect this.

So, I guess we’ll see how this goes.


Trying Out The DM’s Guild

GreyTyrantp1After waffling a bit, I broke down and converted the Grey Tyrant (a warlock background I had written) into a PDF, and submitted it to the DM’s Guild, so I could get a hands on sense of the experience. This was last night, so it’s still an ongoing process, but it’s been interesting so far.

I imposed some limitations on myself for this process. Obviously, I have access to a lot of tools for making one of these things, but I want to keep myself working at the “fan” level, so I opted to build it using the Word template provided by WOTC and a consumer level graphics program (Pixelmator, in this case). I already had most of the copy, so that required only a few tweaks, which meant this was largely a pure exercise of “turn this text into a product”.

The word template itself was a little painful. Possibly a lot painful, depending on your experience. I don’t fault the WOTC guys for this – as much as Word is a crappy tool to use for layout, it’s the tool more people will have, so it is only reasonable to support it. And the doc template is not entirely without thought – as one would hope, it’s style based, and that’s great, but it is way overcluttered and its font use is…capricious. I forced myself to use it (as much as I could) for this project, but for any future efforts I would definitely just start from a blank page.

Because I did not want the front page to just be some text (the DM’s Guild has lots of those, and they are not appealing) I needed some sort of art, so it was time to go back to 2002, where the model was “Find an image you’re allowed to use, apply some filters, and BAM, you’ve got art!”. The problem, of course was that due to the nature of the DM’s Guild license, I could nto use any external art. If I owned it, I’d be giving it to the DM’s Guild community. If I did not own it, I did not have the rights to give it to the community. So I was limited to the art that WOTC had offered as DM’s Guild resources, which is entirely maps and monsters.

I admit I spent a little time extracting page-edges from he maps, but then I remembered that Word sucks at edge to edge effects, so I discarded that. That left the cover. In my mind, the ideal cover image is a grey armored figure sitting on a grey throne over a dark abyss. Since I wasn’t going to get that, I went looking for something I could repurpose – maybe an armored giant or something. No dice, so I eventually just took a slice of one of the celestials, turned it black and white, applied some filters and called it a day. It’s far from striking, but it’s functional. Biggest problem is that grey is a terrible color for a cover – it might be thematic, but it looks very dull on the page.

This is, I should add, a total band aid solution. Not super satisfying.

After I had the doc ready and converted to PDF, I hesitated a bit because I knew this was a one way trip, but I was doing this for science, so what the hell. I followed the instructions provided and kind of stumbled along. Biggest point of confusion – uploading a file and setting up a product are entirely unrelated processes. I set up the product completely without ever uploading the file, and when I finished, I had no idea what had happened. Poking around a bit, I then uploaded the file, and it all started working. Clunky and counterintuitive, but functional. I also had to make not to explicitly flip it to public, something that would have been easy to overlook (as I understand, all this is normal SOP for Drivethru uploads). It informed me that there would be some hang time before it went live, but that ended up only a couple minutes. I should note, there was an additional legal agreement as part of upload, a very ominous one. I have gotten conflicting reports whether it’s the bog standard drive thru “you give up all rights because we need to put your stuff on server” agreement or something new. Still sorting that out.

So, now it’s up there. I have apparently made five bucks on it so far (of which I see $2.50) and am the 33rd hottest item! TIME TO RETIRE!!!

More seriously, that’s nice, but I admit I’m viewing this more like I have marked a fish and thrown it into unknown waters so I can track its progress and get a certain amount of sense of the environment. The DM’s Guild is new but rapidly evolving, and I am super curious about the shape of it.

I admit, the whole thing went a lot more painlessly than I expected. Enough so that it’s tempting to toss in a few more fish. Not sure if that’s a real thought, or just a momentary flush of temptation, so I’m going to have to watch that. I definitely wouldn’t want to do it with anything heavy duty, but small stuff that really has no value for me outside of the context of 5e? I could see it.

But it definitely requires making peace with giving up ownership of your work. That can be super hard if you’re a self-publisher, but I expect a lot of people who have worked freelance are wondering what the big deal is. If you think of it as freelancing for WOTC, the gaping maw seems a little bit less onerous (though it makes the whole arrangement seem weirder).

So, so far so good. Will report again after it’s had some time to percolate.

More Thoughts on the Dungeon Master’s Guild

dmsgI’ve had a little bit more time to look into the DM’s Guild, and think about what it means. The big thing it revealed is that there are a lot of issues about ownership of material that I breezed past which probably merit a little bit of unpacking. So a few more thoughts:

  • Right this second, there is not a huge amount of material available. As of last night there was an adventure template, some maps and a lot of art. The Forgotten Realms stuff still seems to be in the pipeline. This is not bad – some rollout time for these things are entirely reasonable, but it means that some of the benefits of going with the guild are currently hypothetical.
  • That does not mean people aren’t using it. There is already fan published material up there, mostly class and ability stuff that you would expect, and the early adopters are almost certainly seeing a bump. Interesting that many are adopting “pay what you want” as their model – curious to see how that shakes out.
  • There is some genuine uncertainty about how the DM’s Guild is going to handle product identity, especially with regards to art and such. At the moment there are no protections (more on that in a bit) against re-use, and that needs to be made clear before publishers start risking their IP.
  • There are some very scary seeming terms and conditions in the signup, but they are largely the same unilateral rights that you grant to any online storefront or website because they need those rights to host and serve your content. This is absolutely not worth getting worked up about.
  • That is not to say there is nothing to worry about. DM’s Guild rules are designed for a community of re-use, and anything that you put up can be re-used by anyone else. There are guidelines to prevent abuse (like someone just republishing your stuff), and hopefully those guidelines will be backed with enforcement, but it’s definitely a bit wibbly wobbly. Where it gets interesting and complicated is if you pull your stuff off the store, and other products are still using it – by the terms of the site, they can keep doing that (because there’s no way for this work, otherwise). This is not necessarily good or bad, but it’s a problem if you’re not aware of it.
  • It is easy for publishers to flinch at these terms, because it gives up a lot of autonomy, but if you are a publisher who worries about such things, then DM’s Guild is probably not for you. It is, however, remarkably well suited to *fan* publication, and I suspect that will be its bread and butter (supplemented by smaller publishers who understand how to play in the sandbox). As a seller, that whole “re-use anything” seems ominous and threatening, but as a fan community, that is a path to vibrant shared creation.
  • If I’m right and it’s really going to be strong fan driven, then it will be an absolute MESS, but it will be a *glorious* mess. And if WOTC does not find a way to give the community voice (direct link to forums or the like) then the community will probably make their own.

Personally, if I were to do things under DM’s Guild (and I might) then I would feel obliged to do “fire and forget” materials – things that I am not going to look to recover, or which are only valuable in the context of D&D 5e. Important qualifier – I’m talking about me as me here – Evil Hat considerations are a whole other matter.

For example, I have a few background write ups – those could very easily be released as DMs Guild products With no real loss because they don’t have any real utility outside of 5e.

On the other hand, I did several Warlock patron writeups that I like a lot, but which contain implicit setting material. If I were to release it through the guild, I would be more or less releasing that into the wild. I’d also probably lay it out with the WOTC provided art only, because until the art rules are sorted out, I don’t even want to use clip art.

That seems like a compelling reason to go OGL, which I could absolutely do, but I can’t shake the feeling that I’d be surrendering a certain amount of audience that way. That is not really a big concern, but this other bit is – maybe it would be *cool* to share those ideas and let other people run with them. Certainly, if I’m not going to do much more with them, that is a safe path. And even if I do want to use them again, I still own them – even if they knock around perpetually within the walled garden of the DM’s Guild, I haven’t given up any rights outside of that (I think).

That community element has a certain amount of appeal, especially since I know I’m not looking to get rich off this. Creating things with the intent of sharing it liberates me from a number of concerns. Of course, I can also just OGL my material too, which shares it, but it maybe introduces a little more friction (at least for people willing to buy into DM’s Guild).

I admit some temptation to release some stuff on DM’s Guild, if only to see how it works out. I’ll probably pull some stuff together and see how I feel once it’s ready.

5e Opens Up

intheboxWOTC just made a very big announcement –  they have released the D&D 5e rules under the OGL and also announced a program that allows fans and small publishers to use WOTC content. This is a HUGE deal for many reasons, and something I’m personally very excited about. It’s also a big, complex ball of an issue, so let me talk through it a bit. Some of this will be familiar material to OGL veterans, but I want to make sure to hit the basics.

Open Gaming

WOTC has released a 5E SRD under the OGL.  Enough acronyms for you?  Let me unpack that in english.

Wizards of the Coast has published a System Reference Document (SRD) containing an abbreviated version of the 5e D&D rules.   That document contains the Open Gaming License, which means that most of the document (with clearly delineated exceptions)  can be used freely as long as the terms of the license are followed. Importantly, this is the same OGL that the 3e D&D material used, along with many other games, including Fate!

So Who Cares?

Well, I do for one!  This means that people will be able to create their own 5e compatible products (so long as their respectful of WOTC’s IP) for their own entertainment or for sale.  The 3e OGL spawned a number of brilliant games, and there’s no reason the 5e one can’t do the same.

So, is this a money train?

Weeeeeeeellllll, it probably will be for somebody, but be careful.  If you’ve ever heard the term “d20 glut”, it referenced the tsunami of d20/OGL products that hit the market after the 3e OGL was released. Some folks definitely made a lot of money off it, but it also did a lot of harm. Customers and dealers have grown wary, so it is not going to be worth spamming throwaway products, especially because that is where the most competition will be found.

It *is* an opportunity though, if you are willing to put in the time and do the work. A number of companies that are doing very well today did so by building a solid foundation of quality products during the glut. If you are looking for your 5-10 years to overnight success, this is not  a bad entry point.


So What’s the Catch?

There is a lot of stuff that’s *not* under the OGL.  The SRD is the bare minimum of the 5e rules to provide a framework. For example, for classes, it includes only one subclass. The expectation is that the OGL may be used to add new subclasses, not muck around with existing ones.  it is a reference for design, not to provide you a way to get out off buying a Player’s Handbook.

It also is explicitly not D&D or d20. You can make something under the OGL, but you don’t get to use those terms. You also don’t get to use anything that belongs to WOTC, including certain monsters and their settings, like the Forgotten Realms.  If you’ve used the OGL before, these are familiar limitations, though we’re still combing through the doc for edge cases.

Why Would I Use This?

This is very exciting and valuable if:

  • You want to expand on the 5e mechanics with new classes, races or the like without needing to worry about legal complexities
  • You want to take the 5e engine in new and interesting directions
  • You want to write settings or adventures that are compatible with 5e

But if you want to hew a little closer to D&D, there is another option:

The Dungeon Master’s Guild

dmsgThe Dungeon Master’s Guild is a storefront, but it’s also an idea. Under this model, you may write material that uses any of the 5e rules as well as material explicitly shared by WOTC (check the content guidelines for specifics). Notably, the shared material at the moment encompasses the Forgotten Realms, and there’s every indication that if this is successful, it may expand to include other material (like Eberron, Planescape, Dragonlance or what have you).

Material you write this way is upload to and sold through the DM’s Guild storefront, which is in partnership with Drivethru. Charge whatever you want, and keep 50%. The other 50% is split between Drivethru and WOTC.  That may sound steep, but Drivethru normally takes 30-35%, so an additional 15-20% for WOTC is a pretty good deal considering what you get, especially if the material that WOTC has put up on the site is any indication.

So I can just sell my own D&D Stuff?

Pretty much, yep.  As long as you’re willing to do it there.

This seems like a total win. Why wouldn’t I use this?

Well, it kind of is a big win.  If you want to put up a character class, publish your own adventure, write fiction in the realms (I’m pretty sure you can do that) or otherwise just write the 5e Material you think the market needs, the only real downside is that there will be a lot of competition for eyeballs, but that will be offset by the fact that a lot of traffic will be pulled to the storefront.   It’s also a somewhat self-perpetuating audience. The folks posting are also the folks buying, especially since the barrier to publishing is now exquisitely low. And as far as I can tell (IANAL) the arrangement is super respectful of your intellectual property.

The only reason I can think of not to go this route is if you want to distribute your material somewhere else. There are plenty of reasons why that might be so (promoting your own brand, doing non D&D stuff, or if you’re just releasing stuff for free somewhere.

Now, caveat – I’ll probably be doing OGL because I am already comfortable with it, and I am fearful of the noise level at DM’s Guild. But I have that luxury.

So What Does This All Mean

This is a big deal for a couple of reasons.  The OGL opens a door to a lot of new and interesting game technology, and it’s the part i’m most excited about.  But the DM’s Guild is the really fascinating part of this to me, for a number of reasons.

  • It opens the door for the 5e support material that fans have wanted
  • It creates a central marketplace for these things that is SUPER easy to get into
  • It opens up WOTCs toys to us.  Sharing the Forgotten Realms is a BIG DEAL
  • It creates a model that lets WOTC profit from its success, something that bit them hard with 3e (and which lead to some decisions I disliked in 4e).  Critically, since they make money off everything, they only need the market to be healthy and dynamic, they need not rely on specific “hits” to profit. This is important because WOTC’s health is D&D’s health.
  • If the next glut happens online, that’s less dangerous to the hobby than if it plays out in the Brick and Mortar stores.
  • And if you want. you can ignore it all.

There are a few concerns and questions

  • Drivethrucards has revealed the double edged sword of this. When engagement is high, so is difficulty in finding material.  This is going to get noisy, fast (though that in turn introduces opportunities for reviewers and bloggers to find the gems).
  • I’m not 100% clear how this will interact with things like printing, but I trust that will sort out.
  • While the Brick & Mortar stores are going to dodge the glut, they may lose out some in this equation.  If the process works like a filter, with the best stuff making it to print, that might work out well for everyone, but that’s a crapshoot.

It is going to be at least a year before we see how this really shakes out, but I for one am excited, and I intend to dive into the OGL and crank out some material.

What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

tripwireI was thinking about chargen techniques and the ways to push towards bad and hard things in play, and wondered about elaborating on a technique from 7th Sea. In 7S, as part of chargen, the GM could ask a player to describe their character’s death scene. There was absolutely no guarantee that this would be the way the character would die, or that anything related to it would happen, but for all that, it’s an incredibly powerful technique. Not only did it communicate a lot about the player’s intents and interests, it created this shared image that the GM could draw upon for foreshadowing and play elements that were guaranteed to have a certain amount of resonance and tension.

To give a crude example, if your character’s death scene is dueling her step-brother in the family crypt, you have just introduced an NPC that the player is invested in and created an interesting location. You have also guaranteed that when the game takes things to your family crypt, tension is automatically escalated because you have this shared idea. And if your step-brother emerges from the shadows, then it is on.

Placing this in the context of putting pressure on players (in ways they will enjoy), I found myself wondering what would happen if I were to ask during chargen “What are the three worst things that could happen to your character?”.

The answers would certainly be interesting an informative, and could be used to drive play in the manner of the 7th Sea death scene, but there are also risks. For some players (including many of mine), this list would more or less a checklist of the things they want to happen in play. For other players, this might be more of a list of options from which they’d love the GM to pick one (I’m more in that camp). For others still, this list would be the no fly zone, things they really don’t want to see.

Aside: That last group reveals that it’s important to define “worst” as considering any other limits the table has communicated. If a player has already communicated that something like child endangerment is not something they want to see, that should be taken as a given. They should not need to re-state it in in their worst list.

As with a character having an apex skill, this is one of those datapoint that works poorly without context, so there obviously needs to be some additional layer of communication. Perhaps something as simple as asking a follow up question “How many of these do you expect to come up in play?”.

That could work, but I worry about the no-fly list. When people pick zero, they’re giving you useful information about what they don’t want, but not much of you to act on. So what if you flip it around and also ask “What are three cool things that should happen to this character?”

I admit, I like this a bit because I know that when I create a character I really sink my teeth into, part of that process involves imagining their future triumphs. And it might be reasonable to leave it at that, but it’s maybe a bit too open ended and positive here, so I want one more tweak.

Suppose I ask both questions, then after I have two lists of three, I ask how many of them are expected to become true, with a limit on the number.

For example, I would be inclined to say “the two values cannot total more than four (or maybe three)” but that won’t work for every table. If your players are going to grab the bad with both hands, there’s no need to “balance” the equation. It’s truly a taste check. If, on the other hand, there is more of an interest in fairness at your table, you may say the good cannot outweigh the bad (or, if generous, that the good cannot outnumber the bad by more than one).

Either approach is fine, and has a pretty powerful result if you want your game to be strongly driven by players (as I do). But it also has an interesting upshot that is especially useful in advancement-lite games, like those in the Fate family. In getting this information, you have effectively just identified the character’s personal milestones. When one of the items on this list gets hit, that is a great mechanical trigger for almost anything, whether it’s a re-write, skill advancement or anything else.

I can think of a few more tricks to refine this – using cards for inspiration, for example, but I think as a baseline, this is a good enough trick that I need to bust it out for my next chargen.