Everything old is new again

( Note: This is it, the last of the gaming blog transfer posts. Probably originally written sometime between 2013 and 2014 — B)

It’s been a crazy year: two new jobs, a lay off, a move and a wedding to plan. Despite all this, I’ve been thinking a lot about gaming, I just haven’t been doing any. That’s a shame and, with the publication of 5th edition, it is officially time to stop pontificating and start doing. My initial plan is to read through the new PHB one chapter at a time, summarizing my interpretation of the rules here for my new campaign. That’s 11 chapters of fresh, just off the presses, DnD.


If anyone is reading this, I’ll see you for Chapter 1 tomorrow!

Chapter 1: Step-by-Step Characters

This chapters serves as both an extension of the introduction, for those totally new to role playing games and DnD, and a basic breakdown of character build options. There isn’t much here that’s new for me. In general, I like brief summaries like this. I also like that they give you an example to work with. Let’s take a more detailed look, shall we?

1. Choose a Race
I prefer to put attribute rolls first. I like the ability summary, but I don’t actually like the races / bonuses that 5th edition lays out. This is easy to change and I’ll get more into it next chapter.

2. Choose a Class
Fine in theory. I’ll probably be restricting some classes and paths. I also plan on introducing some custom paths. Again, the idea of picking a class before rolling attributes rubs my old school sensibilities the wrong way, unless – of course, you plan on using the point-buy method. It’s a little strange that WOC didn’t include a brief Class overview here, the way they did a Race overview, but it isn’t that big a deal.

I do like the new proficiency system – simple, easy to use, doesn’t clutter up the character sheet with meaningless data, doesn’t overly specialize different classes. In short, you have one proficiency bonus that increases as you level. Anything you’re proficient in gets the bonus. You get better as you level. Ta-da!

3. Roll Attributes
Finally! Pretty standard 4D6 drop lowest, which isn’t TECHNICALLY old school, but pretty much everyone used by the time AD&D came along. It makes sense. 3D6 gives an average distribution. Adventurers are, by definition, not average. Average people don’t kill dragons. They stay home and plow. Point buy doesn’t really bother me. If someone has a specific character in mind I’d probably let them use the point buy method rather than roll.

4. Describe Your Character
Aside from description, alignment and special abilities, 5E introduces some personality mechanics that might rub a few people the wrong way: Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws. There are also Backgrounds which give a few bonuses and serve to further flesh out a character. I have some thoughts on these, but since they are detailed in a later chapter, we’ll speak about this more later. At this point, I consider these optional add-ons. A new player doesn’t need to worry about them. He or she can always pick this stuff out later, as the character matures through play.

5. Choose Equipment
Blah blah blah… we all know the drill here. There are a few minor tweaks from previous editions, but it’s DnD.

6. Come Together
A brief chat on teamwork, parties, and levelling. More of the usual here.

So what’s missing? Sex. For all the hullabaloo online lately about gender roles in DnD, the game itself doesn’t even mention it! This strikes me as hilarious. Admittedly DnD has generally maintained a fairly gender neutral rule-set. Being a reactionary curmudgeon I think this is stupid. Men and women are different. I like reflecting this with some actual, meaningful, numbers. Off the top of my head I’m thinking human females should get -2 to Strength and +2 to Charisma. Men are substantially larger and stronger than women, and anyone who thinks women aren’t vastly superior when it comes to social awareness and manipulation are… well.. probably teenage and twenty-something boys. I know that this can be a hot-button item for some people. It might ruffle fewer feathers to phrase this in terms of bonuses only, ie: Men get +2 Strength, Women +2 Charisma . I don’t have a problem with the odd magical hermaphrodite, if a player felt very strongly about it.

Just as a reality check, I decided to skip ahead and look up the actual results of my proposed gender based attribute mods. As is, average for a human male would be 10s across the board. Human females would average a Strength of 8, and a Charisma of 12. (just enough to give them a -1 and +1 modifier respectively). Maximum attributes would likewise be affected with human females topping out at a Strength of 16 and a Charisma of 20. Over on page 176, carrying capacity is given as strength X 15 lbs. Max lift is twice carrying capacity, or strength x 30 lbs. This means that a male with an average strength has a dead-lift maximum of 300 lbs, and the average female (using my proposed mods) one of 240 lbs! That’s actually quite good. Most modern people don’t come close to lifting twice their bodyweight, let alone staggering around under the load. Admittedly, we tend to be pretty out of shape. I can imagine a predominantly agricultural society coming close to these figures. Using the “everyone is above average” (blech) mods, human males would average a deadlift of 360 lbs and females 300 lbs. This strikes me as far too high for the average person.

Anyway, as the great Mr. T once said “Enough jibber-jabber!” More retro-musings on 5E tomorrow!

Chapter 2: Races

Okay, here’s the list: Dwarves, Elves, Halflings, Half-Elves, Humans, Half-Orcs, Tieflings, Dragonborn, and Gnomes.

You know what? I don’t like any of them! Not a bit. Even the Humans are annoying. First off, they get +1 to all attributes. This just strikes me as lame. Shouldn’t humans be the standard by which other variations are measured? Second, while all other racial variants get slightly different bonuses and abilities, the various human cultures are purely descriptive. None of the races have any attribute penalties, which is just more of this “everyone is above average” crap that I find really annoying.

Frankly, I’m sick of the bog-standard fantasy races, and the non-standard ones aren’t very interesting to me either. The player’s handbook does suggest that anything other than the “big 4” (Human, Dwarf, Elf, and Halfling) are optional and not found in every world. This makes my job easier, because they’re out. As far as the big 4 go, I understand that people expect these sorts of things. They want a graceful magical race, a tough bad-ass race, a nimble-clever race and a… well… normal race… I guess. How much of this is just particular kinds of characters, or normal class / culture stuff masquerading as different species? Not only did Tolkien do it better, it’s been 80 years since the world was first introduced to these races. They are officially old hat.

Personally, I prefer to take a page from Runequest and offer players different “cultures”, instead of different “races”. Non-human species exist but they’re rare and weird, making far better NPCs than PCs. This also makes a clearer division between the world of “men” and the world of “not men”. So far I’m thinking of three different cultures that make up the initial area of my campaign world: the Reyaryn, the Estandi and the Daraku.

The Estandi are the majority ethnicity of the various city states and kingdoms that make up “the world of men” (at least so far as the PCs are aware of). As far as the Estandi are concerned, both of the other human ethnicities are “barbarians”.

The Reyaryn generally fit the Viking / Norse / Celtic archetype. Berserkers, Druids, and Rangers would all fit in just fine here. I imagine that the Reyaryn are made up of various tribes, some of which are vassals of the Estandi, some are allies, and some are hostile. The relationship I’m picturing is that of late Roman empire and the Germanic tribes, if you haven’t already figured that out. I’ll probably give them a bonus to Strength and Con and a penalty to maybe Intelligence or Charisma. Some native survival skills are probably in order.

The Daraku are better known as the “river folk”. They’re short and slight of build, perhaps a little on the “dusky” side. They have a reputation as great traders and tinkerers. They don’t maintain standing armies or even countries, but travel in semi-nomadic fashion all over the world. Penalties to Strength. Advantages to Dexterity and Intelligence make sense here.

Hmm… this is interesting. I find myself thinking about culture and race differently for 5th edition than I do for 0 edition OSR games. I performed a similar re-skin during my Lamentations of the Flame Princess game last year and the different races felt more alien to me; more like human variants separated by divergent evolution than simply different ethnicities. The whole game was far more “Tales of the Dying Earth” than “Stormbringer/Runequest/BRP”. I might introduce some of them in my 5e game but, for right now, I’ll keep them as unknowns or NPCS. I’ll probably restrict classes by culture, at least partially, and write some custom backgrounds for each. I’d also like to add some variations to each major ethnic group. Estandi probably recognize three or four variations within their ranks. “Barbarians” (from the Estandi POV) might have fewer available at this time, if for no other reason than the fact that they are minorities within Estandi culture.

(All of this raises an important question, “Why play 5e at all instead of one of these other games? Honestly, I’m not sure I have a great answer for this other than player buy in and brand recognition. )

Chapter 3: Classes

Classes and backgrounds… here goes:

Barbarian: Hell yes. Yes to the berserker path. I’m not sure about the whole “totem warrior” thing. I’m thinking no.

Bard: No. I’m willing to consider that spells might be cast via intonation, and rituals might require musical components, but the whole “music as magic” thing annoys me. Magic is magic. Music, while nice, isn’t sorcery.

Cleric: Yes, but the Reyaryn might not have them.

Druid: Yes, especially for the Reyaryn.

Fighter: Obviously yes. I’m not crazy about the Eldrich knight path. I think it makes magic too easy. If you want a Fighter-Wizard you have to go out and make the whole multi-class thing happen. This could take years of training and adventuring, just like becoming a Wizard takes years of training.

Monk: Noooope. I played with the idea of the Daraku having an elite group of bodyguards / assassins that would follow the “Way of the Open Hand” and the “Way of Shadow” respectively, but I think this changes the flavor of the game too much. Regular assassins and fighters can do this job just fine.

Paladin: I think not. Paladins introduce too strong a moral dichotomy into the game, and I prefer the moral ambiguity of Sword and Sorcery to the clear pseudo-religious lines of High Fantasy. Frankly, I don’t think I want to use alignment, and without that clear metaphysical distinction the paladin just sort of falls apart.

Ranger: Yep.

Rogue: Of course. Probably no on the arcane trickster for the same reasons as the eldrich knight.

Sorcerer: Absolutely. I have some custom paths in mind here.

Warlock: I have really mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, the idea of gaining magic through a pact is really cool. On the other hand, I feel like the pact as a formalized class ability just doesn’t make a lot of sense. As it stands, there are two basic types of magic: arcane and divine. Arcane magic is magic that allows the individual to manipulate reality. Divine magic calls upon greater forces to manipulate reality. You see where I’m going with this? What, exactly, is the warlock doing that is distinct from these categories? We have two arcane magic classes: wizards and sorcerers. Wizards learn formulas. Sorcerers have innate abilities. We also have two divine magic classes: clerics and druids. Clerics call upon otherworldly beings who have made themselves available to certain humans. Druids call upon the magical power inherent in the world. The warlock is clearly calling upon a non-human power, but the arrangement is more limited and personal rather than formulaic, yet the level progression of the warlock IS formulaic. At level X the warlock gets Y. This, to my mind, sounds too much like a cleric or a sorcerer. At this point I’m leaning towards no on the warlock front. Players are free to make pacts with otherworldly powers in game, but as a class? I don’t think so.

Interestingly, this leaves me with 8 classes in 4 basic categories:

Warriors: Fighters (victory through training and discipline) and Barbarians (victory through strength and fury)
Priests: Clerics (those who pray to beings that create and maintain the world) and Druids (those who revere the world itself)
Magic-Users: Wizards (magic through formula) and Sorcerers (magic through inherent ability)
Specialists: Rogues (city stuff) and Rangers (country stuff)

I kinda like this arrangement.

Chapter 4: Personality and Background

This chapter starts out with basic character details: name, sex, height and weight. I notice that under sex it specifically says that “non-binary” gender is fine and there are no special game effects for a given gender. The height and weight table also makes no mention of the very obvious fact that men and women (at least on earth) are strongly dimorphous. Anyway, I already commented on this earlier, so I won’t go into any great detail here. I will say, however, that I think this paragraph both says too much and too little. It explicitly creates gender rules while pretending to avoid the issue. I would have said something like this: “The game makes no explicit gender based rules. If you prefer to flesh these out in greater detail in your campaign, this is up to you.” Instead the game makes vague proclamations about the acceptability of “non-binary” genders and then tries to dodge the implications of this with any potentially hurtful details. Honestly, this rubs me the wrong way but since I can do whatever I want in my own game, and I’ve already discussed this, I’ll just move on.

Alignment. This is tricky. I don’t really care for alignment. Early in D&D days this was a simple Law vs. Chaos dichotomy. Law and Chaos were also portrayed as primarily metaphysical categories, not political ones. This was taken pretty much directly from Moorcock and Lovecraft. Later they became about “social order” and “Good and evil” were added as additional descriptors until eventually we go the familiar grid of LG, NG, CG, LN, TN, CN, LE, NE and CE. I never really cared for this division. Even Palladium’s descriptive attribute system made more sense to me. “Good” and “Evil” as absolute categories is a little too “Saturday morning cartoons” for my taste. I’m in my 30s. The world just doesn’t work like that. It also doesn’t really reflect the source material. Tolkien is perhaps the big exception, but he was writing from an explicitly Christian perspective, albeit a traditionalist one. Also, I’m going to repeat something I’ve said earlier “Tolkien did it better!” (henceforth abbreviated as TDIB). Tolkein pulled off a strong, almost biblical, moral dichotomy without (for the most part) coming across as childish and annoying. I don’t think D&D, by and large, has been able to do the same thing. Besides, I’m much more interested in Robert Howard, Fritz Leiber and Jack Vance. So… no alignment.

This does present one small problem, “What about all the alignment based spells?”. Well, I don’t have Paladins so that makes it immediately easier. In a previous game I just subbed in “outsider” for evil and it worked just fine. It’s not about ethics. It’s about nature. The gods create the magical bubble that allows the world to exist. Things that don’t belong in this bubble trigger an alarm, or react badly to “positive” energy. Principally we’re talking about undead and trans-dimensional monstrosities, otherwise all the mechanics stay the same.

Languages. Yeah… no common either. (Damn, I’m picky!) Pretty much everyone speaks the language of the Estandi (Estandan), although local dialects and class divisions might make several sub-groups. Reyaryn tribes might vary a great deal depending on region, but most of them probably speak Estandan and have enough linguistic similarities among their native tongues to puzzle out coherent meaning. The widespread nature of the Daraku means they probably have a fairly unified language. This would make a good lingua franca but their secretive nature means they’re unlikely to teach their language to outsiders.

The meat of this chapter is spent on determining personal characteristics: Traits, Ideals, Bonds and Flaws. Basically every character can define a quirk, or a driving goal, or a connection to a person or thing, or a flaw, and if you role-play this characteristic the DM will give you a free “Inspiration Die”, which is just a fancy way of saying to get a free Advantage to spend on the roll of your choice. I think this is generally a neat idea, although I don’t care for defining all of these things at the time of character creation. I’m going to simply call them optional. If a player has one of these in mind, great. If they don’t, that’s fine too. I don’t like determining them randomly. Personality should emerge organically through play, not a random table.

Backgrounds… I dig this, minus the pre-determined personality characteristics. I’ll probably create my own backgrounds based on my setting notes. This is probably the easiest thing to customize in the game and is just crying out for modification.

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