D&D 5e’s art and design is not all bad

I don’t like the presentation of D&D 5e. I particularly don’t like the art. If you’ve read There is an aesthetic that I want and a way I want to feel, this may not surprise you. But I can see its properties support the aims and desires of the creators and their audiences.

The key challenge for 5e is appealling to a very wide audience. It’s going for the broadest possible market share, and has a wide range of player groups who consider it “their game”. It’s not a niche-niche game, at least not compared to LotFP or Vampire or Burning Wheel.

And of course its owners want to get money out of it, or at least to maintain brand value that they can use elsewhere. And the fan base has diverse interests and values

First, some simple good things that are compatible with the aesthetic I’m describing:

  • Diverse ethnic and gender representation
    • (e.g. they represent “human” by a black woman who looks tough and is not sexualised)
  • The organisation of the text, the typography, and the graphic design are all very clear.
  • Their way of describing rules is very precise and consistent. It’s too precise, and too detailed for my liking, but there are advantages to pedantic precision.

Then, some things incompatible with my aesthetic, but that have other benefits:

  • Colourful, attracts the eye
  • Generally controlled and competent — doesn’t ever look very clumsy
  • Consistent with what a lot of people like – cf many video games, comics, and their associated fan art
  • Implies a fairly wide range of possible settings, in both environment and costume
    • (this is common to most generic system, and I find it off-putting — FATE and Hero Quest have the same problem)
  • Inoffensive to the vast majority of people [1]
  • Broadly suitable for children, even in the eyes of fairly censorious parents.
    • (And most adult owners will be happy for their children, of any age, to flick through it. So it can go anywhere in the house)
  • Not upsettingly gory or painful for almost anyone.
    • (Issues around this are killers for a fair few people. And even I, despite my commitment to things with extra tubes, won’t watch e.g. Saw or The Human Centipede.)
  • Possibly the background pattern has some anti-piracy value, making copies harder to print, or at least more expensive [2]


[1] Exception is a certain class of bigot. But I think most of us can live with that.

[2] Though may be a problem for people with limited vision? Though a comment on Stack Exchange suggests probably not.

An rpg prep checklist needs goals and techniques

Conjecture — A good handy guide to GM prep moves needs to have, for each move:

  • A goal, desire, or applicable situation — when should you use this? When is it worthwhile?
  • A name of the move/technique — as a reminder for moves you know well
  • A brief summary/prompt set — so you can do it there and then, from the aforementioned handy guide, if you’re moderately familiar with the technique

For example:

Continue reading “An rpg prep checklist needs goals and techniques”

Some motivations for rpg prep are better than others

As a GM, There are lots of reasons you might want to spend time on prep. I’ve sketched out below what I think are the major ones.

Prep as support for play

  • I.e. your motivation is to prep so that your game is good when you run it

  • This is the healthiest relationship, both psychologically and for the health of any game community who sees you at work. It’s the one that best matches the ostensible goal, so least likely to be distorted by motivations that aren’t obvious.

Prep as pure leisure

Continue reading “Some motivations for rpg prep are better than others”

A statement on Zak Smith

On this site I have previously referenced articles by Zak Smith, and I’ve engaged with him in the comments section. I’ve not done this for a while, in the light of his past behaviour (see Patrick Stuart’s summary of Zak’s online conduct). In the light of his more recent behaviour, I have now gone through the site and deleted all such references and comment threads.

Futher to that — If you support, endorse, defend, or purchase the products of Zak Smith, or indeed if you would piss on him if he was on fire amid the stacks of the British Library, please do not interact with me in a hobby-games context.

An Anki deck for Blades in the Dark

I’ve created an Anki deck for Blades in the Dark. It covers the rules-as-written along with some play advice, a little of the default setting detail, and some common house rules (latter cards should be clearly marked as such — let me know if you find one that isn’t).

At present it doesn’t cover the most basic rules, nor those that are best handled by referring to a checklist as you go. If anyone develops cards for those, however, I’d be happy to incorporate them.

I’ve zipped it up so you can download it. You can also download it from AnkiWeb.

(Those of you who don’t use Anki, but are curious, can see the cards in the “…_cards.txt” file. There are about a hundred of them at present, arranged one per line.)

Some notes on fixing BX D&D

As Patrick Stuart notes, BX D&D is core to the OSR. It has clarity, it has concision, and it is very clearly “D&D”. It has a clear modern presentation in Old School Essentials. Sadly, it has some serious problems. Here are some fixes. Maybe later there will be more.

First, up the amount of gold needed to advance in level is absurd, unless you want advancement to be ponderous. I’ve mostly concerned myself with how to meet that demand, but if you read my articles about it you’ll find links that suggest other solutions. (the comments on those links are often good).

Specifically, look at the intro to Tomb of the Serpent Kings“Treasure amounts are balanced around the idea that 200gp is enough to level a single character”. That’s likely to be my model going forwards.

If you’re not writing adventures for others, I’d suggest you (a) give more than one xp per gp or (b) rescale all the level charts so they give the pace you want.

It’s not clear at all, in OSE or otherwise, how thief skills relate to the (obvious) ability of non-thieves to do those same things. James  V West has about twelve ways to fix that — start reading at http://doomslakers.blogspot.com/2019/01/once-again-with-thieves.html.

Requiring “Read Magic” to use scrolls is excessive. Give Read Magic as an unlimited-use ability to all Magic Users — http://doomslakers.blogspot.com/2020/03/read-that-magic.html.

PbtA and Apocalypse World, Part 1b — Addendum to “Momentum and the Rollercoaster”

Previously, I talked about Baker’s idea of the “rollercoaster” that is Apocalypse World, whereby “real things, the dice and stats and so on, … give momentum to the fictional things”. I found his description pretty opaque [1], but managed to summarise it as “real-world actions are triggered from events in the fiction that are potentially interesting, and those actions make those fictional events more interesting”.

Mark Diaz Truman has since refined that a bit for me. He says Baker is talking about explicitly narrative momentum, a kind of energy in running game whereby a story is moving forwards. That doesn’t have to mean “following a pre-written story” [2]; it just means creating something that the players recognise as a story. As Mark puts it, it manifests as the “sense of making decisions that close doors and open other doors, of moving toward conflicts and decisions instead of just sitting and talking.”

In most games, the work of maintaining this energy lands on the GM, especially outside combat. PbtA rules, by contrast, often create momentum directly. Mark — “the moves themselves generate momentum. Even when you [trigger] a move and “things go smooth” a good move will generate new information and options that will pull you down the path of the story instead of just succeeding or failing on a test.”

In other words, the rules provide opportunities, building blocks, playing pieces, from which the the MC and players can build a story. And they put on pressure, rule out some things, make other seem natural or inevitable. This is often true even on 10+ (or 12+) results — PC successes can still have messy side effects.

As an example, Mark points to the basic move “Escape” from his Urban Shadows:

Continue reading “PbtA and Apocalypse World, Part 1b — Addendum to “Momentum and the Rollercoaster””

An Anki deck for the Zweihander rules

A while back, I created an Anki deck for the Zweihander rules, as part of learning them. Having done that, and played three sessions, I didn’t like Zweihander’s rules at all. So I’ve deleted it from my Anki set.

But, in case it is of use for some of you, I’ve zipped it up so you can download it.

(Those of you who don’t use Anki, but are curious, can see the cards in the “…_cards.txt” file. There are 192 of them, arranged one per line.)

You might find it useful for Zweihander itself, or as an example of how an rpg ruleset can be broken down into Anki cards.