Thursday, September 21, 2023


AI Art by @nightcafestudio

Yeah, forgive me; I have been playing GURPS the last few days.

It is a good game to contrast with 5E since the skill system in GURPS is so deep it defines the game. The 5E skills are sorely lacking and are reductive in gameplay and roleplaying. We never had passive checks in the old days; the referee kept a note of the character's secret check values behind the screen and did secret checks. If something was spotted, it was said.

But 5E feels like a combat game first. Even the sci-fi games feel combat-oriented. The powers of Esper Genesis and other games focus a lot on combat, and it feels the same as Starfinder - combat wargame first, roleplaying game second. GURPS and sci-fi do some fantastic things; you don't need to focus on combat to have a successful character.

5E, in comparison, assumes this 'default dungeon' mentality, with every character having the assumed dungeon skills, and most of the powers and abilities being combat-focused. Skilled characters tend to be radar sets to negate things like finding traps and hidden objects, sort of ending up as the 'party tax' for 'who is going to be the passive perception character?'

Passive skills minimize skills, and it makes them so, 'why even have skills?' I like the rule: roll if something terrible happens, if you fail, and there is a chance of failure. With a passive skill, there is no failure, only a number on each side; if X, then Y, read the text. No chance of the person looking to roll a 1 or a 20, and no surprises. Without surprises, the game gets boring.

I wish there was a class and levelless 5E, where you just bought what you wanted as you leveled up. GURPS does this incredibly well, and you don't have to pick a class and be tied to it, or jump around multiclassing. If your bard wants to be a cleric, buy the powers and go.

Another thing GURPS does is morph to fit the character's power level very nicely. You don't need to continuously raise combat challenges through the game if all you do is light combat and focus more on social and exploration. If you can defend yourself, you are all set.

I am still on the Cheapy 5E project, enjoying Level Up Advanced 5E, and am still interested in this project to 'democratize' 5E and make it more of a 'green game' with much less waste. The number of books the Wizards company wants you to buy is sad and consumerist to the point of exploitation, and it borders on forcing players to become hoarders. GURPS gets much more done in much less space, gives you infinite options in the base books, and does not need a library of filler and fluff to give you fantastic depth and options.

5E is better with the base books and ignoring the mess of many additions made over the years.

And I agree, GURPS isn't for everyone. But I am not apologizing for playing it or going overboard explaining why. 5E could learn a lot from a classic game like this. Point-buy character creation in a 5E without levels or classes would be incredible.

I also don't see any value in the 2024 books. 5E is in the wild in many great versions, some free, some not. The game should belong to a community, and the secret sauce (subclasses plus other restricted content), should be free and open for everyone to use. 5E is not as free as it should be, and huge parts are held back to sell books.

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

So Many Options!

AI Art by @nightcafestudio

It is possible to play 5E and never give Wizards of the Coast a dime.

I see many people walking away from Pathfinder 2, and the remaster got announced too quickly after a new player surge. While the desire to walk away from 5E is there, the commitment to buying another set of core books is not. I am in that place myself. The original Pathfinder 2 design was solid, those have the fantasy tropes that were sold to me, and I am not purchasing new books.

I have a complete collection of PF2 books, and those will be what I use. The game is complete to me, and the line is done. Many players feel like me; they feel a little letdown and are looking for options other than PF2. So we have players returning to 5E, or quitting altogether, which is understandable since it feels like saying, "I am walking away from a market 100 times larger than any competitor."

But there are alternatives for 5E that are like 5E. There is a world of 5E clones that are incredible experiences, rebuilt from the ground up, and emulate 5E and many other genres and flavors of gaming.

Tales of the Valiant is an excellent game with incredible support from people at Kobold Press. This is due out early next year, and the beta is ongoing. This will be a complete 5E replacement, and there already is a fantastic amount of content over on the Kobold store, more magic, monsters, adventures, and plenty of other things to collect and play with. The basic 5E books are not required, so you can just have this book, play a version of 5E that is well supported and gaining attention, and have a great time without changing rules systems (too much).

One of the best parts about all of the games on this list is the excellent Kobold Press support works with every other game here, so the choice is just preference and not one based on a new system. You can't say that with a new system like Pathfinder 2 or Warhammer Fantasy. If you never wanted to give Wizards money for new monsters, spells, or adventures (and have a great campaign setting with Midgard), then any 5E game will work with what they sell in their store.

ToV feels like the best "drop-in replacement" for 5E out there, and you can stay with a familiar set of rules without having to learn a new game. Also, participation in the beta is exciting; you get to help shape this game as it develops. I love having choice and diversity in our rules, so I support this game.

Level Up: Advanced 5E is another excellent version of 5E that gets overlooked, but its mix of 5E, 4E, and the OSR deserves praise and attention. This game supports all three pillars of classic play: combat, exploration, and social - and the rules and character options build upon that base. Martial characters are unforgettable here. The overland game is fantastic. Environments affect both combat and travel. Exploits are fixed, and the game feels solid and well-thought-out. EN World is doing a great job with this game, and I have heard rumors of a beginner's box coming soon. All your current 5E adventures work with this seamlessly, and it sticks closer to 5E than even ToV (keeping the inspiration mechanic but tying it to destiny). You don't need to open a book from Wizards to play this or own one.

This is my current home system of 5E, and I like it so much. I will choose between this and ToV when that comes out, but I am having a lot of fun with this system and do not touch my Wizards' 5E core books when I play. The blend of 4E and OSR concepts here makes this a must-play game. I love the depth the characters have, with many unique abilities gained during character creation that makes everyone feel useful in many situations - and more than just combat. Characters are also "strongly tied" to the map and setting, so if you start out as a town guard, you could get plots, missions, and adventure hooks from your home organization. The destiny system is also a must-see, and it is actually a character arc that grants you a huge reward when it is completed.

All this, can you still drop in your 5E favorites and stay in a familiar system? Yes. Do you get the familiar dragonborn, drow, and eladrin origins? Yes. This game stays under many people's radar, but it is worth checking out if you are a 4E or OSR fan, and this feels like the true "What if 5E developed as a mix of 3.5E, the OSR, and 4E?" All while sticking to complete 5E rules compatibility.

This is my drop-in replacement for 4E, and it lets me play in the DIY world of Nerrath without feeling things have changed too much. Plus, you get that collision of fae, shadow, and elemental magic that gives 4E that extraordinary "war of the universal powers" feeling. Dragons and demons are ever in battle. The 4E game had a fun universe, and A5E is perfect for replicating that.

Want a game that plays like 5E but gives you the Warhammer Fantasy experience and feeling? This is another game that goes under the radar of a lot of 5E gamers, but it is worth checking out. This is a grim and gritty version of 5E that pulls back the power level a little (keeping the level 13-20 threats as epic challenges), giving you much freedom when leveling up and choosing powers. You can even "invent powers" if you like, making the progression for each character unique.

The only thing which may turn a few off is the renamed spells, but I see those as the flavor and worth learning. They give a conversion chart in the game, so you can still use the old names. The dark magic system is fantastic and gives me a Dungeon Crawl Classics feeling (without the wild OP effects). Healing is drastically pulled back, and lethality is about the same (but less forgiving).

The game is also more human-centric and less planar than other versions of 5E, and that may be what you are looking for. This is still a game I love and look forward to playing. My collection of 5E books will come right along when I do.

The game also uses escape and chase rules as encounter balance and has that survival feeling. I like this game; it is still on my play shelf, and again, you can pull in all the 5E material you have without worry. You also do not need an official 5E book to play; the above book is all you need.

Oh, and there is always Shadowdark. What do I need to say about this? This is a fantastic throwback game with less 5E and more on its own. The 5E playing style is there, but Shadowdark does its own thing and sits farther from compatibility than the previous games. When I want a compatible game where I do not have to think about conversions or compatibility, I lean more toward ToV or A5E, or even LFG if I want that lower power level and grittiness. Shadowdark is a fantastic game, but it plays in its own sandbox more than it plays nicely with currently existing books and adventures.

If I have a class, subclass, background, monster, spell, adventure, or magic item I want to use from another book, that is my measure of compatibility. Shadowdark is in its own niche as a 5E OSR-style game that captures that feeling of playing an OSR game. Low Fantasy Gaming feels like gritty OSR but feels and stays closer to 5E and compatibility.

Still, Shadowdark is impressive and shows us "how it should be done" in so many ways to replicate the OSR-style experience in 5E. This is another one I am looking forward to getting my hands on.

The 5.1 SRD is a more challenging recommendation for playing 5E - it is free but lacks a lot of subclass choices to give you enough options to play. You can play, but it will be with just the basics, and a lot of stuff will be missing. This is how hackers and system creators can clear the table, start, and add anything you need.

These are the big four, plus the SRD option for hackers. There are more options than this, the 5B game, Five Torches Deep, Into the Unknown, and many other small projects. The first two, Tales of the Valiant and Level Up Advanced 5E, are my go-to games for dumping the 5E core books entirely - and they bring a lot of new stuff to the table.

You don't need to go back to Wizards to play 5E, not at all.

We have plenty of well-supported options with many innovations in design and presentation. We have options that make the game old-school or even more like Warhammer. We have small-press versions of the game that emulate B/X.

If you want to play Wizards' 5E, great! I am not throwing shade or telling people what they should like. But if you feel burned by them and want accountability, you don't have to give them a dime and still enjoy the system. Pathfinder and other games are great but may not be for you. If you don't want to pay more for books you might not use and want to go back to what is familiar, there are many great options worth supporting and communities to get involved with.

Wednesday, August 2, 2023

The Four Roleplay Funnels

 I have been playing SRD 5E, and the game seems to have four funnels for all roleplaying:

  • Deception (CHR)
  • Insight (WIS)
  • Intimidation (CHR)
  • Persuasion (CHR)

You could make an argument for Investigation (INT), History (INT), and Perception (WIS) to be added to this, but the big four are the four primary funnels for all 5E roleplaying. Three of these are CHR skills, so high CHR characters "own" most of the RP at the table.

In the OSR, you have CHR, but there are no skills covering roleplaying. Want to Intimidate someone? No CHR is needed; roleplay it. If a roll is needed, use whatever score comes closest to the threat, CHR for subtle, STR (or DEX) for physical, and INT even for mental. For the most part, you roleplay and do not roll anything; the quality of your play acting and situation is enough for the referee to determine the outcome.

In 5E, you must learn to "argue the point" with the referee to use a score other than CHR for most of these. I will allow STR for Intimidation for a forceful threat, or even DEX if an arrow is nocked and aimed. I do not like the default for every social skill being CHR. I can persuade with INT and WIS using clever arguments and appealing to natural instincts much easier than relying on the raw force of personality.

If anything, in 5E, please try to break out of "default ability scores" for skills, as the game dies a little inside when you do this, and you give up trying to find clever ways of using your attributes.

Other games have a wide variety of roleplay skills, and some even have dozens - which leads to an even narrower "how you can roleplay" limitation on characters. They are great to have and let you specialize, but sorting through a dozen interaction skills during roleplaying puts less focus on the character sheet than on the roleplay. 

Do I need negotiation, haggling, barter, dealing, and trading to be separate skills? Some games' skill lists are collections of synonyms where slight differences in meaning matter, which drives me crazy. No game needs 500+ skills!

With 5E, I am "funneling" all interactions into those four skills. It feels wrong like the character sheet is guiding me and overruling roleplay. It also excludes the unskilled and lower CHR characters from most of the attempts unless the party is split and they are forced to make non-optimal checks.

Part of me wants to abolish CHR as an ability score and let the players play. A Conan-style fighter should have fun roleplaying, persuading, intimidating, and reading body language as any other character. Otherwise, you get into situations where the high CHR characters have all the fun in social situations, and other characters are limited to combat or support roles.

Level Up: Advanced 5E does a little better than base 5E in social skills since their backgrounds and other aspects of character creation give you specific roleplay bonuses that make the RP game a little more interesting. They are adding depth there in the RP game that 5E sorely needs to break up those "funnels" with situation-specific modifiers.

Do they go far enough? I don't know; I would find myself handing out proficiency die bonuses characters can earn through play (and not tied to advancement); if a character gets skilled in "wine tasting" after going through a wine-festival-focused adventure, I would just hand that out, a +d4 to checks involving wines, tasting, and judging quality.

No, you don't need to wait until you can add that to your character "by the book" - we, as a group, and I, as a referee, can just award that. Part of the problem with stricter rules (like Pathfinder 2e) is these one-off bonuses are much harder to give out without affecting balance (unless they are strictly RP-focused, but still, you will be breaking something somewhere).

Rule Zero wins.

I can see how these four roleplay funnels make the game more accessible but are also terribly constraining. This is a fundamental flaw of 5E that is also an accessibility feature.

For social 5E, Level Up Advanced 5E does a lot better than base 5E or even the Tales of the Valiant Alpha (still too early to judge that one) - just because of the background options the game gives me. Overall, the social skill and interaction system could be a lot better for 5E, and I would love to find a game that fixes the funneling problems the game has.

Monday, July 24, 2023

Video: 5E Skills vs. 1d6 OSR Skills

Here's a good video on skill checks in the OSR (1d6 method) versus 5E. It is an interesting comparison and shows how a more straightforward system is easier to use and involves far less math. The 1d6 system is more manageable and gives more benefit to the characters, even as they level. And the 5E skill list is gone and replaced with ability scores.

What strikes me is how many modifiers there are to deal with in 5E, and if you total them all up in the OSR versus 5E, it is a difference between +2 and +12. I guess you feel "you are getting something" for having a high score, but overall, your chances at a DC 20 check are lower.

This highlights the two schools of thought on ability scores. A more generous system that increases modifiers and math while bumping the numbers up where you are trying to beat a 20 or 25 on a d20 roll and doing a ton of addition during the game. Ultimately, the system feels nonsensical, and it makes me miss games like Cypher System, where you set a fixed difficulty number, often rolling a 3-12 or higher on a d20, and never modifying the roll - only trying to bring that target number down in steps of 3 points.

Parts of 5E need serious tearing out and reworking. The game's designers made a huge deal about "bounded accuracy" in this version, yet you are dealing with many modifiers - a different one for each skill. Yes, they are all relatively low, but the total amount of them and all the math just feel like a mistake in design.

Treat every square inch on a character sheet like a critical game design decision. 5E's massive skill list takes up a considerable area, but for what benefit? I could argue that the list is too extensive, with far too many numbers, and it reduces immersion, distracts players, and forces "skill first" thinking instead of problem-solving.

When you homebrew and hack together customer editions of 5E, you are free to give everything a second look, tear things out, and improve how they work. DIY gaming is all about this; this is how we used to do it in the old days.

Some people I knew did not have rulebooks; they played off of rules written down in 3-ring binders, hacked together from two or more games, with many improvements and additions thrown in. This is a lost and magical art; this is how we do things in the spirit of Cheapy 5E.

The base 5.1 SRD is our source-code hacking DNA.

Saturday, July 22, 2023

Skills as a Window to the World

"I grab the doorknob and open the unlocked door."

"Make an Athletics check."

"Failed. And I have the highest skill, too; does anyone else want to try?" 

"Do we spot any other unlocked doors in the room with passive Search?"

One part of 5E that grates on me is this culture of constantly using skill checks to interact with the world. Not to the absurdity of the above example, but you get the point.  A lot of 5E games devolve into this "we are robots" sort of mentality, where instead of paying attention to the environment and doing things in character, the game breaks down into the players guiding their characters through a videogame-like maze and treating their character sheets as "bot AI" and trying to guide their little robots through the adventure.

5E relies way too much on skills, and I get that this varies from table to table, but what I see in published adventures encourages "skill thinking" instead of "critical thinking." When I look at a 5E character sheet, I feel that this is my "Magic Card hand," and this sheet is the only way of interacting with the adventure and world.

Skill use is among the most significant divides between OSR and 5E play styles.

In many OSR games, there are no skills outside of thief abilities; you just "say and do." If there is a chance of failure and the action is essential - the referee may call for an ability score roll, d20, equal, or under. Perception? If a player thinks to look somewhere given in a description, they automatically succeed.

"You search the secret compartment, fail the skill check, and find nothing." 

"We have someone else search the compartment." 

"They make their roll, and they find..."

And seeing a character sheet as a "window to the world" with skills being the "primary access point" is part of 5E's problem. Even in 4E, skills were never this important. The 4E "passive skills" started this slow slide into madness. In this situation, 5E encourages players to be on their phones, casually listening and asking to make dice rolls - or expecting the DM to do the work - instead of paying attention to the dungeon master. In the OSR, if you stop and carefully peer down a hall, and the DM said this, "had a lot of alcoves and pillars on the side," you 100% will see the goblins hiding down there and waiting in ambush.

In 5E? You look up from your phone and expect the DM to tell you that based on the list of passive perception scores, Too much of playing the game is shifted to the DM. Balancing encounters and knowing all the rules and interactions isn't enough; now, you have to "play the game" for the players regarding the lists of passive skills for the entire party. I have seen DMs list the passive skills of every skill - for every character - behind their screen and stare at that as they read the adventure.

The DM plays the game while the players are on their phones.

Passive skills aren't working if you are not saying you are using them. Yes, they exist to take a lot of dice rolling out of the game, but you have to be participating in some way for them to work. If you aren't looking for it, your passive perception shouldn't work either; apply the  -5 passive disadvantage modifier and let it be.

If you say, "I look around the room," okay, passive applies in full. It is doing its job in eliminating a dice roll. If you are not looking or paying attention, the DM should not be acting as your radar warning system.

Thursday, July 20, 2023

The SRD 5.1 is Horribly Written

So I am in the middle of a project to write the game-facing parts of the 5.1 SRD into an easily accessible set of rules. Sort of a concise, simple, core rulebook used to drop classes into and play.

And the SRD is horribly written. This is more verbose and meandering than the AD&D DMG and far less entertaining. It contradicts itself, meanders, presents flowery adventure flourishes, and skips essential rulings.

Rules for taking off a ring but not dropping a held item.

Moving through an enemy is considered hazardous ground, but nothing is said about friendlies being the same. Just "creature" is mentioned.

And for some reason, it gets worse every time the SRD is rewritten for an SRD 5.1-based game. A5E muddles the combat sequence a little when it should be clear.

Many of these games rely on the familiarity of 5E when they should re-teach it.

I feel 5E is consistently played wrong because nobody knows how to play it. Did you know you get ONE bonus action (if you have one), ONE reaction (like an AoO), and one nebulous "Interaction" (like opening a door) per turn? And if you take two Interactions, that costs you your action? This is all in addition to your move and action during the turn, so there are possibly FIVE different things happening on a turn. One is "turned on" by gaining abilities, and the other is a "decide when you take it if the opportunity exists."

If people take multiple bonus actions and reactions during a turn, they play the game wrong.

I bet a good percentage of tables get this wrong, which feeds into the "easy mode" feeling of 5E. Part of this is a lack of supporting the game in PDF, so the knowledge and accessibility of the 5E rules are not that great. You ask most people to read a physical book or log into D&D Beyond - which is too much for most 5E players.

Don't laugh!

The "rules illiteracy" of 5E is far higher than many other games I have played. Finding things is impossible, the SRD is written horribly, and no fast and easy rules reference exists outside of online resources (that copy the SRD, and thus are written horribly). The game is so widely played that everyone feels like they know how to play it right, and most groups don't.

And there are options for "hardcore resting" in the DMG to raise the challenge level, but they aren't in the SRD, so few know about them (and fewer use them since they aren't great). If the DMG clearly laid out "difficulty settings" so a group could say, "We cleared Tomb of Horrors on extreme difficulty," that could be cool. Instead, every optional rule in the DMG feels like it wasn't tested, offered as suggestions, and, again, "You make it up."

Pathfinder 2's popularity comes from clearly written and organized rules.

The sad part about this is 5E has a wonderfully deep and interesting tactical combat game - and it could be even better. But the Wizards' game designers fear clarity and being too soft. They default to "you make it up," which opens the doors for competitors and leads to "version rot," - where layers of leaving rules vague force the designers to "patch by expanding." The game gets the reputation of expansion power-gaming, and new players can't get into the game since the good stuff and even core concepts everyone uses now are in the latest books.

Even in the main rulebooks, the rules seem horribly written, and D&D 5E has this terribly overwritten quality to it where the language is too flowery and hides rules behind the purple prose.

What I wouldn't give for a version of 5E written and organized like Old School Essentials. Then again, if you did that, it would reveal some terrible decisions in the rules and omissions.

It is a sad state of affairs, and if the designers can't get physical books right the first time, perhaps it is a good thing they are doing away with them. At least with electronic books, the cost of fixing your mistakes is more manageable and leads to less version rot. Playtesting a game like this the right way is insanely expensive, given the complexity, and it is problematic since it needs to be done right the first time for a printed book. This is why a culture used to designing "ban them if they are broken" Magic Cards is a poor fit for a game as complex as D&D.

5E could have a great, engaging, tight tactical combat game. It could have supported easy-to-understand difficulty settings the designers tested.

But this isn't the focus of Wizards, and it will hurt their VTT.

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

D & Me?

Listening to streamers who converted from D&D 5E to Pathfinder 2e, I found one thing very telling. Many GMs say that D&D encouraged players to think only for their character - not others. When a turn came up, it was mostly "My character does this," without thinking about the others.

In Pathfinder 2e, they said the same players were thinking about each other and working together.

The two games are NOT the same, nor came you come into Pathfinder with D&D attitudes - or even gamemastering. Those "special one-off favors" that DMs drop for characters in D&D break the game in Pathfinder 2e and destroy the game's finely-tuned balance.

Pathfinder 2e is built around the party as the basic building block.

D&D is built around the character.

You can get away with giving a D&D character a rule-breaking unique item or an extraordinary ability to create balance or adjust a non-optimal build. In Pathfinder 2e, this breaks the game.

This reflects the era D&D was designed in, very influencer-oriented, with self-empowerment over the collective, and a very "me, myself, and I" sort of balance and design. This is the 2010-2020 era of thinking, and you have seen that in that time's culture, entertainment, politics, and online influencers.

We were all encouraged to think about "ourselves first" and "others later."

Extending this design another 10 years with the feelings of a passing era is a fool's folly. I would love to see a tighter-balanced, party-focused, help-each-other version of D&D - but One D&D ain't it. The current design team is operating under the assumption of what made the game famous 5 years ago and not looking forward. They are passing out the gimmes and powers like popcorn. D&D is becoming more "me" and less "us."

The bard in the latest playtest is the perfect example, being able to choose a spell list and eventually get them all. This bard doesn't need anyone. You are pleasing the bard players, but how do the other players at the table feel? Will they like playing with a bard in their party? But buffing their classes will make them happy too, or at least we hope. You can see where this goes.

A city of towers where nobody needs each other.

And I don't see the playtests as much more than marketing. The Wizards design team needs more time to complete the redesign for the anniversary next year, especially if they want to make the game more interdependent and less independent. They would have to release a playtest packet a week before things go final next year. That is, assuming they want to create a party dynamic, sadly lost to late-stage 5E.

The past does not reflect the future.

And even from a progressive perspective, the entire D&D 5E class designs are highly regressive and encourage self-centered and subconsciously selfish behavior. Not the players - but the class designs reward that play style.

The rules? Fine, pretty neutral, and they default to an 'easy mode,' which reflects the time. We need 'easy mode' so the influencers can look good. The game should have an "expert mode" that reduces resting and resources to enhance the party dynamic, just like a Dark Souls or Elden Ring level of challenge. People streaming online must stand up and cheer when they beat a hard-fought and close fight. D&D needs to deliver that experience but doesn't. Pathfinder 2e is doubling down on challenge and teamwork.

The class designs are the secret sauce. This is what encourages behavior. This is what incentivizes teamwork. It is more interesting to watch people work together on a streaming show than to watch a room full of players who don't need each other.

The original SRD 5.1 rules? Less affected by this since the "influencer" direction started in the expansion books like Tasha's. You see that OP builds and options starting here and a push toward that "my character is awesome" trend and away from party synergy. OSR designers were on the 5E design team, and it shows - but I can't say that for the One D&D team.

Advanced 5E leans into the OSR, while modern 5E is more influencer. Tales of the Valiant? I am still determining where the design focus of ToV is, but I am betting from Kobold Press' history it is highly class-focused and leans into combat challenges.

I am not trashing the game; this is a good set of rules, but I am trying to raise awareness of a design flaw based on the assumptions of an era that feels like it is passing away. The direction of the design team is taking is based on looking backward and not forward.

This feels like Detroit ignoring gas mileage and efficiency, instead making bigger cars with more flash, fins, horsepower, and rocket-shaped trunks. Those sold in the past! This is what the audience wants! Look at what sold 10 years ago!

The 2020-2030 era will be different from the previous 10 years.

Why are they designing a game that looks backward?


AI Art by @nightcafestudio Yeah, forgive me; I have been playing GURPS the last few days. It is a good game to contrast with 5E since the sk...