Sunday, January 31, 2021

Forth Into the Fray: On Flavors of D&D and a Strange Hybrid 4e D&D / Into the Odd Hack

Is anything in life more fickle than a GM's heart? My last post brought up the Free Kriegsspiel Revolution and my growing appreciation for truly freeform gaming. Well, this post may seem a bit contrarian to that one, I suppose; but they're not meant in opposition, but as different sides of a diverse set of interests. Here's the lowdown: I'm tinkering with a hack for Into the Odd that adds a very, very light template of character specializations borrowed from 4e D&D (!). Yeah, I'm guessing you didn't expect to see that combo anytime soon. Please allow me to explain. 


I recently became aware of and read a now years-old discussion (from 2012) by "Armchair Gamer" of the historical flavors of D&D. It's quite an interesting and thought-provoking read, and it sparked some follow-up discussions in various places; if you've never seen this, I'd really recommend reading and chewing on it for a few minutes. The point I want to highlight here is how it helped me with a sudden "Aha!" moment. The current OSR world, to the extent that I see its contours accurately, mostly advocates and focuses on two flavors of play-and-setting: what that linked essay would call "Knaves-and-Kobolds" (gritty escapades of desperate, cynical lowlifes delving for their desperately, cynically needed coppers) and also "Galactic Dragons and Godwars" (which, by my read, sums up what OSR aficionados often mean when they advertise a 'gonzo' setting or adventure). After these two, there's also a fair bit of what that post called "Dungeoncrawling & Demons," labelling this as "the default flavor" of 2e D&D. 

Personally, I've never really appreciated the gonzo thing all that much. I can get behind the Knaves and Kobolds thing now and then, to be sure - but if I'm honest ... my heart's not really in it, at least not long-term. This essay helped me realize that what I'd usually rather be doing covers some other ground that isn't always as popular, but has been, and can be seen as just a different orientation for play. 

I'm thinking specifically about two styles/flavors mentioned: "Paladins & Princesses," to some extent, and then a flavor that Armchair Gamer first called "Warlords & Warlocks" but later revised, re-naming it "Misfits and Mayhem," with the comment that "P&P tends to have somewhat more 'respectable' heroes and a more defensive * conservative streak. M&M characters tend to be a little more chaotic and not as integrated into society." Elsewhere, the consensus emerged that "M&M" was sort of the not-so-shiny, slightly more ambiguous, distant cousin of "P&P." 

Every so often on an OSR forum, somebody will lament the lack of "some good vanilla fantasy products" in OSR-land. I increasingly suspect that what this often represents is "we'd like to see some flavors other than "Knaves and Kobolds" or "gonzo". At any rate, mulling over this 9-year-old conversation has helped me think about what I'm really trying to aim at in my own games - which has encouraged me to really push hard at what I want and not necessarily go with the flow. 



I've spilled much digital ink on this blog about the wonders of Into the Odd. Mmm-mmm, good! It really is such a great little system, in so many ways. That being said, when I've run it for campaign-length play before, I've realized that there are some bits of it I'd like to tweak. No problem. But it's also a game that really is framed to support both gonzo and rough-and tumble "Knaves and Kobolds"-style play. It's not a great framework as written for heroic fantasy. So here I find myself mulling over how I'd like to see a bit more heroic fantasy, and the the idea hits me...

Could you take some ideas from 4th edition D&D - the big, combat-showcasing edition - and use them to spice up Into the Odd as a more heroic fantasy game? 

Well, um, except I'd never actually played 4e, so, um...

Headed for a trainwreck, no doubt. But I started digging and scratching and researching and have learned a lot in the last week about 4e! And now have a much clearer understanding of why some people hate it so much, and why some people really, really love it. To be honest, I'm not 100% sure yet what I think of it all; it does sound like a very interesting skirmish wargame system coupled with an almost freeform out-of-combat rpg system. 

Meanwhile, the basic idea I've been noodling with hasn't died. In fact, it's already led to a short and positive playtest with two players online. The stuff below is just an appetizer, of course, but I do think I'm likely to finish this hack. My group is almost ready to resume our Iron Age Alternate-Mystara Isle of Dread campaign, and we might be using some version of these rules when we do so. Hmmm. 

Some design goal notes to myself:

emphasize heroic play/heroic, capable characters - rules well-suited for Paladins & Princesses or Misfits & Mayhem-style campaigns. 

emphasize teamwork and synergy in combat 

infuse simple, clear tactical dynamics into ItO’s chassis. Add elements of resource management and key power roles in combat. 

Give each character a specific niche, but don’t limit other characters - any character can attempt any humanly possible action. Anyone can sneak and backstab; anyone can use any martial weapons or wear any armor. Characters’ ‘niches’ are defined by things they’re extra good at, not because they are the only person who can try something. 

A better way to put this is that if a character could already try something in regular Into the Odd, then they can still try it in Forth, Into the Fray! But now they each have extra empowerment as well.

Limit power and options bloat so as to keep gameplay flowing, and to prevent ‘character sheet syndrome.’ Players still should be encouraged to think creatively about manipulating the battlefield - or even running away or avoiding combat altogether. 

Regularly throw bigger and scarier fights toward the player characters! Have less focus on small wandering-monster encounters; adventures are likelier to incorporate well-organized bands of enemies working together, and fewer but more powerful concentrations of enemies. Opponents should include monsters with very high hit points, and more frequent use of many minions or Detachments of enemies. 

Combine these rules with my Into the Odd mass combat/detachment hack. 

Earlier tonight, I posted some tidbits about my design on the Into the Odd/Bastionland Discord forum. Pasting here too. 

As I mentioned last night, I'm tinkering with what will probably be a silly experiment, but it's showing some interesting results. I'm looking at some very simple ways to port basic ideas from 4th Ed. D&D into a hack of Into the Odd. The reasons: to retain the elegance, flexibility, and overall simplicity of ItO as a base, while supporting play with more of a 'heroic action heroes' flavor than base ItO really promotes; to promote player specialization in a way that promotes teamwork and synergy but does NOT limit PCs (in other words, any PC can still do anything they could have done in vanilla ItO; nobody is losing capabilities, just gaining some simple specializations). There is a fair bit of my normal ItO hack that goes along with this, but I thought I would share a quick peek behind the curtain and under the hood, below:

I had a playtest last night that went quite well, I think. I have tweaked things further, a bit. The basic idea is that you generate an ItO character as usual. You then also choose a CLASS (not too dissimilar from Into the Dungeon, Revived's approach) and also choose a COMBAT ROLE - so your PC's final 'identity/niche' is a hybrid of those two elements (you might be, for example, a Fighter/Defender, or an Archer/Striker).

Into the Odd already has built in quite subtly an action-allowance time economy - we have Short Rests that restore HP and Long Rests of about a week that restore Stat loss. 4e D&D had an At Will/Per Encounter/Per Day economy that sort of maps onto this. My version incorporates this, a bit, but is a much stingier action economy than the 4e version.

Finally, below are just a couple of snapshot glimpses of some sample classes and roles and how they might go together.

3 sample classes:

Fighter: if your melee attack base damage die rolls equal to or under your current level, re-set the damage rolled to the die’s max value (for example: a Level 2 Fighter inflicts 6 damage if they roll a 1 or 2 on a d6). This applies to your base attack die, but not to other dice rolled with it (for example, due to Enhanced damage). 

Archer: if your missile attack base damage die rolls equal to or under your current level, re-set the damage rolled to the die’s max value (for example: a Level 2 Archer inflicts 6 damage if they roll a 1 or 2 on a d6). This applies to your base missile attack die, but not to other dice rolled with it (for example, due to Enhanced damage). 

Burglar: when you make a DEX or WIL Save/Challenge directly related to the particular skillset of a Burglar (for example: climbing, picking locks or pockets, disarming traps, etc.) then treat your relevant Stat as 18 while making that roll.

And two sample roles:


Ready Inventory Slots: 5 

At will: 

1. you can Mark one adjacent foe (at a time), at will, as an action combined with a melee attack against them (you do not have to Mark a target in order to attack it). If your Marked target attempts to move away from you or to make an attack that does not target/affect you, you may first interrupt to make a free melee attack against them. If a Marked target successfully moves away from you, if you lose consciousness or otherwise stop engaging a Marked target, or if you mark a different adjacent target, the earlier target is un-Marked. 

2. Also: regardless of actual damage suffered, treat your STR as if it were 18 whenever you make a STR save to stay conscious after receiving critical damage (you still die if you reach 0 STR, of course, but you can take a massive amount of damage before collapsing!). Note that this ability does not apply for critical damage that provokes DEX or WIL Saves. 

Per Encounter/Short Rest: Regain 2d6 HP and 1d6 STR.

Per Long Rest: as you perform an Interrupt melee attack against a Marked target, don’t roll for damage; instead, inflict Critical Damage equal to your current STR.


Ready Inventory Slots: 4 

At will: when your damage is Enhanced, deal +2d6 damage, not +1d6. 

Per Encounter/Short Rest: you may take one extra action this round (for example, you might move three times, move twice and attack or move-attack-move, move once and attack twice, etc.). 

Per Long Rest: add your current DEX or STR to damage you inflict on one attack this round.

Thanks for reading. I have no doubt that some reading this will simply conclude that I clearly don't understand the point of Into the Odd, or of 4e, but I'm having fun with this little experiment for the time being. Happy gaming!

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

A Miscellany: Engaging the FKR, more on DOMAIN Play, and a rather different GREYHAWK

First: my sincere thanks to all who've purchased my newest, recent publication on DTRPG, Hunters & Highwaymen, which I discussed here. I hope it's earning its place on your hard drives and at your tables! In other news, I feel like I have many gaming-related things to comment on these days, and perhaps a miscellaneous post broaching several of them is in order. To wit: 


Well, I've gone and done it. I've become a fan of games run in a Free Kriegsspiel-inspired manner. 

If you haven't a clue what I'm talking about, hang tight for a sec. If you do know but you're sure this isn't for you, then you're right where I was a few months ago (yes, that certainly sounds like a recent convert to a cult). 🙈 When 19th-century military staff officers in Prussia wanted to make professional military wargaming more effective and straightforward, they ('they' being the dapperly-named General Julius von Verdy du Vernois) chucked out most of the rules-bloat ("crunch") in exchange for trust in a veteran referee's judgment-calls. This produced a much faster, more intuitive, and more conversational approach to officers' training. It worked so well that it caught on eventually with military staff in other nations, so that the Free Kriegsspiel approach became part of the wargaming conversation in the English-speaking world in the 20th century...including, eventually, the recreational wargaming world. From there, it was an important part of the DNA of games that led to Weseley's Braunstein, Arneson's Blackmoor, and Gygax's Dungeons & Dragons (Which is a thing. Perhaps you've heard of it). Since the 1970s, however, RPGs have fluctuated back and forth (just as professional military wargaming had done earlier) between 'crunchy' and 'freeform' poles.

Fast forward to 2021. There are still some old grognards and first-generation roleplayers who never stopped playing the Free Kriegsspiel way, and there are a bunch of yunger'uns like me who are just now realizing its great potential (FKR means "Free Kriegsspiel Revolution" - it's a comeback, see?). HERE is one gateway for more information. There's a very robust Discord community hashing through this stuff, too. I'm not going to type out a complete who-what-how thing here, but if this sparks interest, I'm happy to engage the topic in more detail on this blog. 

I've quite caught the bug, going really freeform: no hit points, even. I ran a one-shot over zoom last weekend with characters that looked like this:

You're a paladin. You have good fighting skills, full armor, a sword and shield - and you can choose either the ability to try healing wounds through prayer, or to try turning the undead. Oh, and you have any 3 standard adventuring supplies. 

Bingo. That's a full character sheet. Again, this was for a quick one-shot, so you can absolutely develop characters quite a bit more (and I have done recently), but this gets the job done. In combat with a dozen two-foot-tall clay shabti-warriors and a much larger rope-golem inside a tomb, one character (a battle-rager) took a nasty slash across the bicep, another (a humanoid living star) got stabbed in the leg, an enchanter managed to sing to the elements in the tomb's rock-wall persuasively enough that the rock bulged out and entrapped the golem, the critters were defeated, and the paladin juuuust managed to see her allies healed. None of this, again, involved hit points, or a complicated magic system, or such a thing as 'armor class'. It did involve dice rolls, and a real system, but it was a tremendously bare-bones system that had to rely mostly on my own judgment as GM about which situations were more or less favorable to players. 

And it was great. I've been running all my games this way for the past month or so, and am quite enjoying the liberation of the experience. I'm honestly not certain that I would have been much good at this when I was a less-experienced GM. The no-HP thing is my own extreme, however; many FKR GMs still use hit points. To each their own. 

My point? This is a thing. It sounds...bizarre, flakey, gimmicky, and primitively underdeveloped, at first. But it's actually quite potent and liberating. 


Last year, I wrote a series of posts (for example: this one) about streamlined, simpler ways to run Domain-level play - that aspect of gaming in which PCs can command military units, build strongholds, fight wars, and make even more ado about themselves than usual. I messed around with some ideas - some not too shabby ideas, I think - about hacking Into the Odd, Dungeon World/Apocalypse World, etc. 

Over at the Knight at the Opera blog, writer DwizKhalifa recently has run their own series of posts about domain play. I commend them to you. One such post offers an interesting introduction to the world of, believe it or not, Model United Nations and crisis simulation as a game-able paradigm for thinking about domain activities in RPGs. I will be honest: wouldn't have expected that to be a clear fit...but's REALLY a great model for handling domain play! And - well slap me silly - I have to say that it is, to all intents and purposes, a slightly-different expression of the same principles behind (the Mouat style of) Matrix games and also Free Kriegsspiel!

Time loop. Didn't you just finish reading the Free Kriegsspiel section of this post? No, not really, because it turns out that the freeform approach is applicable to darn near every aspect of gaming. This is not actually innovative; I shouldn't be surprised. Gamers were using exactly these kinds of low-crunch, high-judgment techniques at the dawn of our hobby. Last May, reader u/steveg pointed out to me in a comment that some of the rules-light domain techniques I was experimenting with evoked practices used in the Empire of the Petal Throne games, or in the narrative wargaming of Tony Bath's classic Hyboria campaign (which didn't mean much to me last May, but after reading up on, it: WOW). 

So, what's my point here? It's that, uh, yeah, it turns out that really, really freeform management systems for running the domain game have been around since the dawn of RPGs - and, instead of offering a clunky, inelegant, and abstract substitute for a really detailed simulation, they can lead to wonderfully deep and tactical/strategic engagements. My favorite example so far: from Tony Bath's old Hyboria campaign - one player was concerned about a potential rival's construction of a naval fleet, but didn't want to openly provoke hostilities. So he asked Bath whether he could arrange an 'accident' - merchant ships sinking [scuttling!] right at the mouth of the rival's harbor, blocking their port for the near future! Bath agreed, came up with a range of likely results, and then rolled the dice...



I recently diverted some of my ill-gotten gains (thank you, again, dear Hunters & Highwaymen purchasers!) to make a purchase of my own from DriveThru - I picked up .pdf copies of two old TSR setting box sets. One was the original 1e 'gray box' Forgotten Realms set (affiliate link). I had it as a youngster - this is, I will admit, largely just a nostalgia move, but it's quite fun to look through it again (take away the bloated canonical narratives and the endless official Elminster fanboyism, and the original Realms were a pretty cool place to imagine). I also wanted to grab the old Greyhawk boxed set - the one with the charging knights on the box cover - which I also had and pored over in my teenage years. But...I just wasn't sure it was what I was after.

And then I discovered something quite interesting: Greyhawk: From the Ashes. (affiliate link)

This is also a box set (albeit in .pdf). This also features a really sweet 'Darlene' map of the Greyhawk setting. But it's set later, after the 'Greyhawk wars' that did a lot to change the setting. I think I was only ever vaguely aware of this thing; inquiring online, one can encounter a ton of griping about the changes made to the setting (for example, the Scarlet Brotherhood has gone overt and massively expanded their power; some of the 'good guy' kingdoms have fallen or are in serious trouble). 

I don't really have much personal investment in a specific point in Greyhawk history, but I do want a reallly fun and really useful product in return for purchase. And - wow, I've gotta say, this thing looks awesome! It's Greyhawk, as I used to know it, only everything has been turned topsy-turvy because of the recent war. It's a grimmer version of the setting, but also a more dynamic setting that looks more open for GM ideas and players who want to make a dent of their own. To be honest, I've only just started dipping into the files that came with the purchase, but I can already say that it is absolutely loaded to the gills with cool ideas for adventure, including a setting sourcebook that could actually launch a bunch of play sessions and not just offer complicated background fluff. My initial hot take is that whereas endless narrative progress eventually made the Forgotten Realms less suited for unique adventurers with their own agency, this product looks even better than what I remember of the Greyhawk set for the 'classic' era. 

Anyway. Who knew? It hurts my NG-CG-aligned heart to see that iconic castle in flames on the cover, but the stuff between the covers is really good. 

That's all for now. Thanks for reading, and happy gaming!

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Now Published! Hunters & Highwaymen: 30 NPCs + Story Hooks for Taverns, Highways, and the Deep, Dark Woods

I'm pleased to announce the publication of a new GM's resource from Gundobad Games: Hunters & Highwaymen: 30 NPCs + Story Hooks for Taverns, Highways, and the Deep, Dark Woods

This product significantly expands the NPCs + story hooks project I've been discussing this winter here on the blog (especially here). Thank you to all who expressed interest in these vignettes! 

You can grab it for a few bucks on, right here (affiliate link). 

But what is it?

HUNTERS & HIGHWAYMEN is a system-agnostic collection of 30 characters (NPCs) you might meet along a lonely highway through a dark forest, or in the warm firelight of a country tavern along just such a road. These motley folk are suitable for any RPG settings that evoke late medieval or early modern European society. Each character encounter will add color and flavor to such a setting – enlivening the places that usually just lead to the adventure sites – but many of these encounters offer adventure story hooks in their own right.

Here's one example (see the DTRPG product preview, or the earlier list of 12 samples on my blog, for many more!):

1.6. SCHOLAR: this roughly 30-year-old natural philosopher has come to this district to find a Dragon Rose, which blooms briefly, only once each century, atop arcane ruins. He has been crisscrossing the region’s roads and woods for several weeks.

On the highway: this agitated young man has just found and harvested a Dragon Rose in full bloom an hour’s hike off the main road. He knows he has only five days of bloom left to get the flower to a Stasis Glass at the Royal Academy – seven days’ journey away. His entire career hangs in the balance! The scholar will accost any competent-looking party, offering to pay them 1,000 gp each if they will help him hijack a fast coach and get him home on time (back home, he is easily good for the money).

At a Tavern: if encountered indoors, the scholar has not yet been so lucky. Weary, obviously bored with tavern society, and low on traveling-funds, the scholar will approach any party of obvious adventurers and offer to sell the location of remote ruins he has found within a day’s journey into the woods.

The product is a 16-page .pdf (full-color cover, front matter, 1-page ad, and 11 pages of gaming content).

Although I initially planned to craft a small micro-setting to go with these entries, I thought hard about it and decided H&H would probably be useful to more people if I kept it generic enough to fit different settings. Nonetheless, the entries do reveal an implied social setting that could frame many sessions of adventurous play. The introduction page in H&H briefly describes that setting; it offers one illustration of the kind of 'late feudal' society I described in my 2019 post on the the logic of feudalism, plus more than a spoonful of a Brothers Grimm-esque creepy fairy tale vibe. If there's actually a clamor of demand, I can certainly flesh out this setting in more detail, but for now, know that these story hooks should fit well in any late medieval or early modern setting for D&D, WFRP, or similar games. 

Please have a look, let me know if you have any questions, and happy gaming!