Unearthed Experts

New Unearthed Arcana playtest document, see previously.

Characters who have levels in a Class are exceptional; most of the inhabitants of the multiverse aren’t members of a Class.

Hooray, 0-level NPCs are back. With no rules yet (how many HP?). This is good, in some ways, that a 1st-Level "hero" is useful for something, the town Blacksmith isn't necessarily a 15th-Level Expert who will stomp you into the ground. It's also awful, in that it leads right back to murderhoboing, squads of low- to mid-Level PCs literally being able to murder & loot hundreds of townsfolk before anyone can stop them.

There's a better balance somewhere above this. I tend to assume anywhere from 10-25% of a population are Level 1, and 10-25% of that number are higher. In tougher game areas, I make everyone at least 1st-Level, and up to 5th-Level in deadly areas; you simply don't live in northern Hyperborea if you can't wrassle a bear for breakfast.

WHAT’S AHEAD IN THE ONE D&D PLAYTEST?
Forty-eight Subclasses, including the Subclasses in this article

HOLY SHITBALLS. I'm a fan of simplifying down to 3 classes in my OD&D-based game (kind of 4), and no classes in my skill-based RPG (well, kind of 2, Magicians and Dilettantes). I didn't object to having a few more in Swords & Wizardry (equivalent to OD&D + supplements/Dragon magazine), but this is excessive. And they're in weird groupings:

Class Group OD&D Classes 5.5E Classes
Expert/Rogue Thief, Assassin, Bard Bard, Ranger, Rogue
Mage Magic-User, Illusionist Sorcerer, Warlock, Wizard
Priest Cleric, Druid, Monk Cleric, Druid, Paladin
Warrior Fighter, Paladin, Ranger Barbarian, Fighter, Monk

A little history. In OD&D, the classic 3 classes were Fighter, Magic-User, Cleric.

  • Thieves were in Greyhawk (Supplement I), in some ways the first super-class, every "race" could be a Thief with unlimited Level! (which often didn't make sense, why is a woodsy Elf a better Thief than Fighter/Magic-User?!), ton of weird skills. But they were well-balanced by being weak, glass cannons in combat.
  • Paladins were in Greyhawk (Supplement I), as a special bonus for Lawful Fighters, not even a separate class at this time.
  • Monks were in Blackmoor (Supplement II) as a subclass of Cleric, even tho they're much more like Thieves being weak, non-magical, skill-based, and having most Thief skills! Everyone cheated to make a Monk at some point. My character Liu Shao (named after a one-season assassin Chinese emperor) had a lot of bad-guy monk adventures, got poisoned by a shitty player (I got some revenge later, but not enough).
  • Assassins were in Blackmoor (Supplement II) (long before religious nuts scared TSR into wussing out) as a Thief subclass, but their low Thief skills made them ineffective at their job. Everyone loves Assassins even if the class sucks, mostly due to Jhereg and Shadow of the Torturer.
  • Druids were in Eldritch Wizardry (Supplement III) as a subclass of Cleric. Despite a giant pile of powers, very few people played them, they were awkward to unusable in dungeons.
  • Rangers were in The Strategic Review (TSR) V1N2, as a subclass of Fighter; grossly overpowered, with an extra hit die (!), a very few spells from Cleric & Magic-User (WEIRD!) at 8th-Level, skills everyone needs outdoors, but then useless in a dungeon. Favored enemy initially was "Giant Class (Kobolds - Giants)", which is a bizarre range. Incredibly weirdly required to be Lawful like Paladins, when Neutral is the obvious alignment for Elf-friends. It's Strider from Tolkien, you know my distaste for that guy, Ranger should never have been added and the correct version is just a Fighter with a background of Hunter.
  • Illusionists were in TSR V1N4, as a subclass of Magic-User, great spell list with no real problems. My first character in 1978, Grecal the Grey Wizard, class-changed from Magic-User to Illusionist eventually (had a high DEX to start with).
  • Bards were in TSR V2N1, as an adaptation of the Celtic bards of history with limited skills: Charm & Lore at Level x 10%, Thief skills equal to 1/2 Level, M-U spells at about 1/2 M-U table (1 Fireball at 10th-Level), and some special magic instruments. A very solid, slow-developing class, that fit well with the classic classes. That wouldn't last long.
  • Barbarians were in Dragon #63 (1982), a subclass of Fighter based explicitly on Conan, so entirely about toughness, survival, and anti-magic, and actively destroy any magic they find, won't work with Magic-Users. They were basically unusable in a normal party, but fun as solo or with a sidekick Cleric, Thief, or normal Fighter, literally as seen in Robert E. Howard's stories.

Rangers got toned down and up again in every edition, Illusionists were left alone until they got forgotten, Bards were mutilated badly by AD&D 1E, reverted sorta in 2E, turned into generic musician jack'O'trades in 3E and on, there's a reason everyone hates spoony Bards if all they know is 3E and 5E. Barbarians were turned into generic fighters with berserking in later editions, so you can have them with a normal party, totally discarding the only thing that made them fun.

When creating a party of adventurers, one way to form a well-rounded group is to include at least one member of each Class Group. That said, mix and match Classes to your heart’s content!

So in 5.5E there's 4 groups, 3 classes per group, 4 subclasses per class = 48 subclasses. Which lets you drill down a bit easier than just picking from 48 options, but it's still insane, they could trivially stop at the classes and have a 4x better game.

The 3 "Expert" classes are in this packet, and only one subclass for each.

In all classes, skills are listed as specific choices "or any X skills from this list". Spells are "you have these spells, or choose…", and a long list of exactly what spells are prepared at each Level, unless you change them. Equipment is a pre-chosen package, "or spend X GP". I like packages and pregens for pick-up games, so that's fine, but I don't like that it presents the package first, the actual range of options later.

  • Rogue: HP are d8, median for 5E, fine. Weapons are limited to "Simple Weapons, Martial Weapons that have the Finesse Property"; in OD&D Thieves had no weapon restrictions, but AD&D 2E has a similarly limited list. Armor is restricted to light, and looking at the glossary, that now just gives disadvantage on STR & DEX rolls, and can't cast spells, so a Thief in plate might be viable for stand-up fights.

Sneak Attack (for all Rogues) is mechanically simple to get: You need either advantage (which if you're not an idiot, you always have), or an ally adjacent, and gives +1d6 per 2 Levels(!).

The experience table gives you a specific class feature at each Level, tho many of them are "Feat", "Expertise", etc. where you pick from the lists. The Thief subclass gives you mostly the classic Thief features, the one weird part is you have to CHOOSE between Fast Hands (pickpocket) or Second-Story Work (climb walls).

  • Bard: HP are d8. Bardic Inspiration lets you magically rap, scratch, or twerk someone within 60' to boost a die or heal someone. This is beyond nonsense. Bard magic is now OP, 2 Fears at 5th-Level, double a classic Magic-User table, who knows what the actual Wizard will look like. They're limited at first to Divination, Enchantment, Illusion, Transmutation schools; but at 11th Level can take "Magical Secrets" and unlock all schools, or Divine or Primal, which is even wackier, and I would expect a "Learn one other school" Feat will be along pretty quick, so you can get Evocation and Fireballs.

At 2nd-Level and up, Bards get healing spells, only 1 use per day, but still utterly disconnected from the historical figures. Bards get no real special features, nothing to do with music or lore or prophecy here. I doubt anyone in WotC has ever read of Taliesin.

I Taliesin, chief of bards,
With a sapient Druid’s words,
Will set kind Elphin free
From haughty tyrant’s bonds.
—Mabinogion

The subclass given here is College of Lore, which at least puts a little knowledge-based skill in them, a whole proficiency bonus to a few generic skills woo. Mostly a combat-based "Cutting Words", tho, basically Sarcastro's power from The Tick. WTF does that have to do with a loremaster?

  • Ranger: HP are d10, but just one per Level. Favored Enemy is now just a free Hunter's Mark spell, usable on anyone, you don't hate Orcs or whatever else, as in Tolkien & Gygax's genocidal games. Spells start at 1st-Level, but are much slower than Bard, giving 2 Conjure Barrages at 9th-Level (they use the Primal spell list now). Some of the special abilities aren't bad, movement speed, extra attacks, temporary HP. Their 18th-Level power increases Hunter's Mark to d10 instead of d6, which is pathetic by itself, but possibly with Barrage it's a good upgrade?

Hunter subclass is OK, just extra damage and Barrage spells. Very boring and phoned-in. How about traps? Or some special tracking? An ambush bonus? Preparing extra meat from hunted game? Nope, dullness. Ranger will continue to be the most ignored class in 5.5E.

  • Feats: I'm going to ignore most of these for now. Feats were a bad idea in 2.5E, 3E, and 5E, and I'm sure they continue to be broken in 5.5E, let's just move on.

Epic Feats are new, all the class super-powers got moved down to 18th-Level, and you get an Epic Feat at 20th-Level. First, WTF kind of game is getting past 10th-Level anyway? In OD&D, my view was that you reach Lord at 9th-Level, maybe a bit higher as 10th- to 12th-Level, and that's about it. I'd rate Elric as an 8th-Level Fighter/12th-Level Magic-User (ignoring that as an Elf he's limited to 4/8), and Conan as a 10th-Level Barbarian at his heroic peak, prior to becoming fat old King Conan. B/X ended at 14th-Level, BECMI extended that to 36th and then Immortals, but that was extremely broken past 12th-Level, especially for non-Humans, AD&D simply didn't work above 10th-Level, and Gygax claimed nobody was above that in his games, except some NPCs/retired PCs. 3E routinely did push Levels higher, but then Epic 6 scaled that back down to a fun game at 1st- to 6th-Levels.

So anyway, if you are playing superheroes in Forgettable Realms or whatever, and aren't cunning enough to go play Exalted which is much more suited to this. These are very boring, and most suck:

  • Epic Boon of Combat Prowess: Auto-hit melee 1x/round. Pretty good, but high-Level characters always hit anyway.
  • Epic Boon of Dimensional Travel: Dimension Door 1x/round. Tactically interesting, especially for a mage or archer keeping range. 100% of magic foes should have Dimensional Anchor to stop this nonsense.
  • Epic Boon of Energy Resistance: Ignore one element type. Pretty obnoxious if you can do Fire when going to Hell, etc.
  • Epic Boon of Fortitude: +40 HP. That's only half a max-level Fireball, so meh.
  • Epic Boon of Irresistible Offense: Ignore target's resistance. Might be broken, you could fistfight a Tarrasque.
  • Epic Boon of Luck: Free Bardic Inspiration shit.
  • Epic Boon of Night Spirit: Invisibility 1x/action. You can literally cloak, sneak attack, cloak, sneak attack.
  • Epic Boon of Peerless Aim: Auto-hit missiles 1x/round. Pretty good, but high-Level characters always hit anyway.
  • Epic Boon of Recovery: Heal 1/2 HP, 1x/long rest. Don't you have, like, potions and Clerics and shit?
  • Epic Boon of Skill Proficiency: Bonus to all skills. "Whoah, I know BASKET WEAVING!" Lamest of the lame.
  • Epic Boon of Speed: +30' move, which is like a single Ranger bonus but less than a potion of Haste.
  • Epic Boon of Undetectability: Shitty version of Invisibility.
  • Epic Boon of Unfettered: Can ungrapple as a bonus action. Given how OP and Level-breaking grappling is, this might be a good idea.

  • Spell Lists: Now with some School of Magic changes, woo.

  • Rules Glossary, which totally replaces the previous document's:

  • Ability Checks no longer say "automatic win/lose" for DC 5 or 30. "The default DC for a check is 15, and it is rarely worth calling for an Ability Check if the DC is as low as 5, unless the potential failure is narratively interesting." They've removed crit on 20, fumble on 1, except in combat.

  • Now rolling a 1 on any "d20 Test" gives "Heroic Inspiration", and you can also get one whenever the DM says so. I don't mind Luck/Benny/Fate points, especially in heroic genres where you can "succeed forward" — jumping from a plane onto a moving train and punching a Nazi is cool so you can pay some resource to succeed at that. But Inspiration in 5E is pretty limited, and you can only have 1 point of it, and getting it by fumbling is weird.

This is definitely some kind of improvement over the origins booklet, and walking back the most controversial mechanical changes, but the classes are so heavy, make completely meaningless non-lore-based distinctions, and just make the game worse the more are added.

Unearthed Like a Graverobber

A few more thoughts on Unearthed Arcana

WotC is doing "physical/digital bundles" for the Dragonlance stuff. Are they finally doing PDFs like every other game company?! Fuck no, it's a "D&D Beyond" gulag access code. Can't use your ebook without gigabit Internet access. That's how they get you. "One D&D" will just update your ebooks to the official standard forever. Print and ownership are dead.

Excuse me while I go hug this little GOZR book and PDF instead. I'll review GOZR soon, it's cool.

Humans:
Size: Medium (about 4–7 feet tall) or Small
(about 2–4 feet tall), chosen when you select
this Race

Dwarfs with Dwarfism? NO. Big Halflings or Gnomes? NO. Humans range from 2-7' tall, no change in stats (but then, Gnomes are as strong as Humans now). Warwick Davis approves, I'm sure.

Also, Orcs are now 6-7' tall. Back in the day, they were smaller than Humans, just heavier. Steroid abuse.

ROLLING A 20
A player character also gains Inspiration when rolling the 20, thanks to the remarkable success.
CRITICAL HITS
Weapons and Unarmed Strikes* have a special feature for player characters: Critical Hits.

Reddit's going crazy over this, but it doesn't say other attacks don't get crits, just these do. And every NPC is a player character to the DM. Ain't no problem if my favorite Goblin Chuck gets a crit and guts your Ardling Paladin open, screaming for his momma on the dungeon floor. Gotta teach the punks respect.

The DM determines whether a d20 Test is warranted in any given circumstance. To be warranted, a d20 Test must have a target number no less than 5 and no greater than 30.

Yes, this avoids the "5% chance to jump over the Moon" problem, but a hard rule prevents awesome bonus characters from doing great things, too. Very badly written/thought out rule.

UNARMED STRIKE
… On a hit, your Unarmed Strike causes one of the following effects of your choice:
Shove. You either push the target 5 feet away or knock the target Prone. This shove is possible only if the target is no more than one Size larger than you.

Great! You can just push an Ogre down, it has no resistance, it loses its action, buddies curb-stomp it while it gets up. Grapple is nearly as good, you can just move the target around anywhere. Every edition's unarmed rules are dumber than the last.

Nth Edition D&D

Was Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast bought by Microsoft? They're calling the next edition of D&D, 5.5 in any reasonable terms, "One D&D", just like Xbox One (third of that line).

To some extent I don't care, I don't do 5E, it's 1000 pages of rules to do what retro games do in 64 or less. But I keep up with the news!

I will note, I tried to sign in with Apple, and it failed on their end, untested crap code. So I signed in with Twitch, which makes no sense at all. That they can't manage their own sign-in and need oauth, eh, fine, but at least test every one!

"Unearthed Arcana" (the shittiest AD&D book, revived for 5E!), "by Jeremy Crawford, with Christopher Perkins and Ray Winninger". Well, Ray's a bright point, at least. But I'm guessing there won't be anything like Underground in this pablum.

Right now there's Character Origins up.

Superhero monster races, but now nothing mentions that your culture is mostly chaotic or evil. Human, Dwarf, Elf, Gnomes, Hobbits alflings, as usual. Dark Elves are only called Drow, and nothing mentioned of the ALL ARE EVIL except for unspoken reasons these jerks "shun":

Drow. Known for their white hair and dusky- gray skin tones, drow typically dwell in the Underdark. Noteworthy exceptions include DRIZZLE DOO-WAH-DIDDY and JAR-JAR BINKS [ed.], two drow adventurers of the Forgettable[ed.] Realms who shun their subterranean homeland.

I often forget just how Disney-level singing-and-dancing treacly sweet official TSR/WotC/FR stuff is, the "Halflings" are all happy farm workers, not the grubby, thieving, murderous, sawed-off, shoeless scum of Mary Gentle's Grunts or JD's Finieous Fingers. Oh, under "many worlds":

For every sequestered halfling shire tucked away in some unspoiled corner of the world, there’s a halfling crime syndicate like the Boromar Clan on the world of Eberron or a territorial [ed: cannibalistic] mob of halflings like those found on the world of Athas.

Ardling (animal-headed god-spawn):

An ardling gains a measure of magical power from their celestial legacy, as well as the ability to manifest spectral wings. An ardling’s moral and ethical outlook is self-determined, however, not fixed by ancestry.

Fucking Dragonborn. I hated DragonNewts in RuneQuest, clearly Stafford just powergaming and almost jerking off into the page over his immortal lizard-babies, and they're just the worst PCs or NPCs in any game that's picked them up since. Why don't people steal Ducks from RuneQuest?! Ducks are awesome, hilarious and petty and venal little shits, and not OP fan-wank. Anyway, I get distracted. Fuck Dragonborn (except scalies, quit fucking Dragonborn).

Orcs. As previously mentioned. Heroical but not nice background somewhat implied, which is about as strong as WotC can be anymore:

Young orcs are often told about their ancestors’ ancient conflicts with elves in forests, dwarves under mountains, and invaders from evil planes of existence. Inspired by those tales, young orcs often wonder when Gruumsh will call on them to match the heroic deeds of their ancestors, and if they will prove worthy of the One-Eyed God’s grace.

Tieflings. Like the Ardlings:

This connection to the Lower Planes is, for better or worse, the tiefling’s fiendish legacy, which comes with the promise of power yet has no effect on the tiefling’s moral outlook.

While I don't like the monsters-only-party tone of this stuff, I have nothing against Ardling & Tiefling characters for high/stoner fantasy games, they're OP but they fit. We all liked Thundercats. The wussing out of Orcs & Drow is, sigh, sadly necessary, to quit giving shelter to actual fucking racists.

I just adamantly oppose making a monster race like Dragon-spawn into PCs. That's a KOS (Kill On Sight) monster, as in Dragonlance. OH! They're doing Dragonlance (Railroad Choo-Choo!) as next year's campaign setting. Awk…ward. Run a few Draconians ("DRAGONMEN" as DL1-Dragons of Despair called them) up against the party, see how they feel about hanging out with a scaly traitor. And KENDER! Oh, here's a nuclear hand grenade character to throw into parties of unsuspecting 5E noobs. Suddenly the railroad becomes more of a trainwreck, and I'm keen to watch it explode.

None of the "races" (which term they should abandon for "Species" as I do, or "Kindred" as Ken St. Andre does) have any stat mods, but most do give advantage on saves for 1-3 stats, which is like a +8 stat mod (giving a +4 bonus, equal to advantage) mechanically, so it's far far worse. Total fail on toning down the species superiority complex.

Backgrounds are careers, and give ability score bonuses, proficiency bonus to some skills & tools, feats, and equipment. They're like a whole second class. There's a weak version of these in the 5E rules, but much more powerful here. Who cares if you're a Human or an Orc, when Gladiator or Laborer makes you a tank; I will say at least they mostly paired one useful stat with a dump stat (WIS or CHA), but several add to two primary stats, and have a synergistic feat. Laborer's trivial, right? No, it gives +2 CON, +1 STR, Feat Tough (+2 HP per Level), for a total of at least +3 HP per Level. Cultist gives +2 INT, +1 CHA, Magical Initiate (+1 Arcane 1st level spell/day). Backgrounds just went from optional cute story thing, to more meta than race.

Feats are pretty standard, but several are extremely easy to abuse and get too much power from, at least on an OSR-scale. Against other 5E stuff, it's probably nerfed a bit, but getting a free Feat from background is the problem.

Spells are now merged into just 3 lists, Arcane (magic-users, spoony bards, etc), Divine (useless clerics & racist paladins), and Primal (hey nonny nonny dancin' skyclad in the woods rangers & druids). That's actually a good change, back to the simplicity of OSR. Of course, what's even simpler is deleting Clerics and having one spell list, but WotC's not ready for that yet. "Two D&D" in 2030, perhaps.

Dungeoning & Dragoning and My New Rules, No Clerics Allowed

So I have, uh, three tabletop RPGs in development right now. One's a little corporate sabotage game, inspired by Severance, Brazil, Paranoia… One of my mini horror games with poor long-term survivability, but neat premise, should be fun.

Second is my sword & planet RPG, still needs a lot of work for space & time & dimension mechanics; it works great for fantasy swordfighting but that's not the whole point. I considered using variant Traveller/Cepheus Engine for this, but the tone is not "grizzled vets play Elite", so I'm off in my own direction here.

Third is yet another in a long series of D&D house rules that become their own OGL game, and that's what I'm on about today. In replacement for my overly-variant and overly-3.x-mechanics Stone Halls & Serpent Men, or handwritten Olde House Rules. Name to be decided later.

I've been reading a lot of the very oldest games & magazines, and really getting in the space of "what does this game need instead of what Gary published?"

  • New rules, basically OGL, spells & monsters are mostly stock from Swords & Wizardry White Box SRD, but some have partial to total rewrites. A handful of entirely new monsters, or takes on mythical/literary monsters. All new encounter table! I'm only using d20, d6 dice, and things you can do with those.
  • Stats change Wisdom to Willpower (WIL). Stat bonuses are B/X-ish, -3 to +3, which works with a d20-based mechanic. Saves & skill rolls are all based on stats.
  • HP start a little higher, Classed types get their CON score as base, but only d6 +/- 1 HD per Level. Somewhat like Arduin Grimoire. With limited healing, you need a bit more buffer between alive/dead. If you hit 0, you make death saves at penalty and probably die soon, but it's possible to be knocked out & captured like John Carter et al. do in every book.
  • Species are Human, Dwarf, Wood Elf, Beastfolk. As previously noted in The Thing About Orcs, I don't do kill-on-sight intelligent beings. You can have wars against hostile tribes, but the Badger Beastfolk who runs the bakery is not at war with you. High Elves are, as usual for me, The Big Bad (as well as Serpent Men, because I'm a Kull fanboy). No "dark elves", "half-demon goth chick", "dragon scalyfucker", "hobbit", etc. species. As I noted in Orcs, Humans-only doesn't work well without cultural markers that are harder to explain.
  • Classes are Fighter, Thief, Magician, and Spellsword (mediocre warriors with mediocre magic). No multi-class, no Clerics. Not doing anything fancy with career paths. Other than a few more experience options, and "Orgies, Inc" style pay-for-EP, it's a normal experience system! Who knew I could do that?! Should be interesting at least for this game.
  • Magic has a number of hard limits, which will make you invest in traditional fantasy accoutrements like flying mounts and magic potions instead of being superheroes with pointy hats. It is Vancian, in the sense that I've actually read Jack Vance so it works like that. Minimized spell/item creation rules, but there is some support for stuck-in-a-tower research campaigns.
  • Adventuring rules are simplified quite a bit, down to what I actually do in play; the more complex mechanics in SHSM rarely got used, the simple stuff does.
  • I may just pull the Inspirational Media (aka "Appendix N") chapter from SHSM and post it as a page. That media list is what I mean by "pulp fantasy".
  • Currently it's about 32 pages, not too densely packed, might be a bit more if I include more setting detail; certainly not above 48 pages, which seems a fine oldest-school size. Not bothering with art except the cover? I don't think so. Literature doesn't need interior art, use your imagination.

No Clerics Allowed

The lack of Clerics is contentious, but Delta's DND and Binder Full of Notes share my arguments.

I don't see heroic Clerics in any of the pulp swords & sorcery I like. There's Priest-Magicians in Moorcock's Elric stories or Thieves World, and they're the baddies. New campaign world is more like Fritz Leiber's Nehwon, where at best the few priests seen are charlatans, at worst cultists. The only historical place they come from is Archbishop Turpin from La Chanson de Roland; even Le Morte d'Arthur has only knights who praise their god, not magic Clerics. The only fantasy Cleric I can think of that I like is Duncan from Deryni Rising, and he's a secretly-apostate priest who uses black magic to save his people from Christian Human genocide!

They don't appear in Chainmail (Heroes & Wizards), or Dave Arneson's games (Adventures in Fantasy has skill-based fighters, who develop faerry[sic] magic skills later). The only reason they were ever in the game was Gary had an annoying vampire PC, and rather than do anything OOC (unaware that Rousseau had published The Social Contract in 1762), he made a grudge class for someone else.

Getting rid of Clerics makes Undead terrifying, and I love the Undead but don't love turning the undead. You don't have a living body shield who can just turn Undead all day; a Magician's Protection, Area spell lasts a few turns and only delays your murder or waiting for sunrise. Healing becomes slow (high-Level Magicians can cast 1 healing spell per day) or expensive (potions and scrolls), which encourages you to creatively avoid combat, not wade in and heal later, unless you have superior power. No raise dead, resurrection, or restoration (tho "level drain" has a different meaning in my game).

The super weird part of Clerics in D&D is they're based very heavily on Medieval Catholic priests; they carry crosses (not "holy symbols") in OD&D, they use "blessed holy water", their miracles are all based on Jesus stories, their hierarchy is based on the Medieval Catholic Church (with some weird level titles). But then they do nothing related to the Church! Because they're just Van Helsing minus the science.

The thing that stands out to me most is they have no interaction with Faerie or other gods. Historically and in myth, The Church ordered Christians to mass murder any Pagans who wouldn't convert, and fought endlessly to genocide/unexist the Little People, the Fair Folk, the People Under the Hill, Trolls, whatever you call them; their worship barely survived at all in Iceland, Finland, Norway, they're just "fairy tales" now. The worlds of Law (Christianity) & Chaos (Faerie) are openly at war in Poul Anderson's Three Hearts & Three Lions. Clerics should be all carrying iron staves and fighting against the Fey. They do in Ars Magica. But it's never come up in D&D?

Blackmoor/Eldritch Wizardry/AD&D added Druids (historically, more Sage political leaders than lightning-throwing Poison Ivy/Captain Planet superheroes), who should literally be at bloody war all the time with Christian Clerics, but everyone's copacetic, it's an ecumenical matter. Church and Holly Grove are next door in the tiny village of Hommlett. They have Clay Golems, explicitly based on the Golem of Prague, made by Clerics instead of Jewish Rabbis (again, Sages, not magic Clerics except in some Torah stories). What. I do use Golems, I love "programmed clay/flesh/iron machine goes crazy" stories; but the religious issue is impossible to resolve.

If I cared one whit for religious ceremony and all that, well, you can still have religions without Clerics, as seen in our world. They can be non-Classed, Thieves (most appropriately), or Fighters, or even Magicians if you don't mind the cognitive dissonance. But the only old-timey-religions that have ever been in my games are demon-summoning cultists Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn!, or fascist Templar priests, who are more political than religious.

So, the gameplay is better without Clerics. The world is much better (more like the pulp S&S I want) without Clerics. Even in a historical setting (which I very much do not do), Clerics shouldn't have superpowers.

Why Not 5E?

Because I don't need 1000 pages of corporate rules to tell me how to move down a corridor, check for traps, fight or flight. I really hate the superheroic power level. It's nearly impossible to disentangle the healing rules from it.

Fantasy Inspirations of My Youth

This is a good "why are you like this" challenge:

If I'd been called on to run a D&D campaign at age 10 or 12,
these are the images and plots I would have drawn on to
provide the inspiration for my game. […] What were your earliest
childhood fantasy inspirations? What did your fantasy world
look like back then?
DIY and Dragons

I think these are roughly in order of age of discovery, publication date's often very different. I was… the word schools liked was "precocious", which just means I was years and years ahead of the curriculum designed for morons and they had no idea how to educate me, any more than an ape could educate a mere Human. The Tarzan problem. So I read and watched whatever I liked, and grew up weird. Giving me D&D and then Gamma World was just giving a junkie an endless needle.

  • Godzilla (1954): This is what dragons are like. Any kind of giant, dinosaur, or kaiju is a catastrophe you run from, not a "monster" you fight from horseback, those are just wyverns. I saw basically every monster movie and some sentai on KSTW-11, which only had budget for old movies and reruns.

  • Star Wars (1977), Splinter of the Mind's Eye, by Alan Dean Foster (1978), Empire Strikes Back (1980): High-tech but just fantasy activity; as I learned later, Star Wars is The Hidden Fortress with spaceships, many scenes are shot-for-shot remakes.

    I'm trying to think what I learned from this, and I think it's that every alignment can be cool. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Leia are Chaos, and they're cool, tho if Leia wins she'll establish a tyrannical monarchy again which is no good. Han Solo is Neutral, and he's cooler than cool, and shoots first. Darth Vader is Order, choking out all dissension, and he's THE COOLEST. Luke and Grand Moff Tarkin suck, but you can't have everyone be cool or nobody is.

    Figure out your antagonists' motives, take their affectations and crank them up to 11, and you have an EPIC hero or villain. Pity they never made any more Star Wars movies, I might've liked to see Revenge of the Jedi. I will take no email or comments to the contrary.

  • Bullfinch's Mythology: While now it's "oh that old thing", Bullfinch did a fantastic job of covering Greek/Roman (more Greek, but with Roman names; Roman syncretism mapped names to their gods but their practices were different), Norse, and Arthurian mythos, including a lot of the poetry and literature that referenced them in the 2000 years since. Academic mythology books are too concerned with period beliefs and not how those ideas are used in later works, so they're less gameable. The art in Bullfinch's is also fantastic.

  • Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter of Mars, Tarzan of the Apes, Pellucidar: You know why everyone in fantasy worlds speaks Common? Because the Barsoomians have a common language by way of telepathy; Carter's telepathy's a little stronger than usual, so he can project it, but they all have it. The ruined cities, falling civilization, a hero trying to bring back glories, toppling false religions, it had it all. Tarzan's ruined cities and ancient civilizations hidden in the jungle were awesome, literally set much of my campaign style. Pellucidar was so weird and dream-like, I barely understood it, but a plausible way for dinosaurs, Humans, and evil Mahars to coexist was amazing, too. It's not a coincidence Eric J. Holmes, editor of Dungeons & Dragons Basic set, wrote a Pellucidar novel.

  • National Geographic: I had access to a big stack of old NatGeo from '40s to '70s. In particular, I devoured anything about Ancient Rome, Egypt, Greece, Mayans, & Aztecs. NatGeo of the time was astoundingly West-oriented and racist; I would've loved to know more about China, Japan, Korea, & India, but they were barely touched on. Africa was only ever presented as wilderness or savages, zero mention of modern cities. I have an eternal love of giant detailed maps from this time.

  • ElfQuest (1978): Very pretty, cutesy comics about cuddly little Wood Elves and their Wolf pets… Ha ha no, I lie, they're vicious, backstabbing, eternally horny/drunk little bastards, the Trolls (more like Dwarfs) are venal scumbags, Preservers (Fairies) are insane pests, High Elves are supernatural psychopath villains, and Humans are the dumbest, meanest animals on 2 legs. Here's how to throw all your dumb Tolkien racist shit out and have murderous Keebler Elves.

  • Michael Moorcock: The silver Elric books and bronze Count Brass books, I grabbed as soon as each new one came out, devoured them. Elric's world is full of weird mystical secrets you can grab hold of, bargain with, steal, and use. Horrible monsters and demons are summoned up by fool wizards for lust or revenge, and spread Chaos in the world. Hooray, Chaos! We see in the decayed post-apocalypse of Count Brass that Order is just as poisonous, and can't be recovered from. I didn't encounter Moorcock's weirder stuff like Jerry Cornelius until much later, presumably the local hillbilly bookstores didn't order them.

  • Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan (1946), Gormenghast (1950): Literally my model of the megadungeon. The structure seems to go on forever, up and down, buried into the Earth. Strange structures poke out everywhere, mapping beyond the known halls is impossible. The inhabitants are mad. There's little/no magic or monsters in the books, but they feel like there's magic & monsters everywhere. Don't read past the 2nd book, I didn't as a yout' and much later I didn't like Titus Alone.

  • Katherine Kurtz, Deryni Rising (1970): Low fantasy proto-England with swordfights, witchcraft & ritual magic, treachery. The ongoing fetishization of monarchy and religion, and an "actual miracle", finally soured me on the series, but the early books made it clear these are Human (or Deryni) fabrications. The consistent, low-powered but useful "magic" (or psionics, or mutant powers) are a good way to model magic in games. The Deryni are High Elves who don't suck.

  • Gamma World (1978): The game that defined how I see role-playing games. Harsh, brutal, shockingly beautiful at times, erratic, full of impossible, anachronistic references. It's fun, it's not reality. Unspeakably deadly in most places, but two medieval dipshits having at each other with swords will take half an hour to whittle their HP down to nothing, and then the survivor will take months to heal; so you learn to cheat, to use poisons, artifacts, traps, tame monsters as pets, risk getting more mutations, so you can survive.

  • Robert Asprin & Lynn Abbey, Thieves World (1978): Absolutely should never have been given to an impressionable young Mark. Cruelty, treachery, black magic, and of course thievery in a corrupt hellhole end-of-the-Empire city called Sanctuary. Pretty much all my fantasy cities are a bit of Sanctuary.

    A very similar influence I encountered later was Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser. But I didn't read those until late '80s.

  • Thundarr the Barbarian (1980): The most formative thing possible. Every frame of even the opening title is inspirational. Jack Kirby designed this, and it shows. A mix of Gamma World, magic, Burroughs-type ruins, superhuman heroes.

    "In the year 1994, from outer space comes a runaway planet,
    hurtling between the Earth and the Moon, unleashing cosmic
    destruction! Man's civilization is cast in ruins! 2000 years
    later, Earth is reborn, a strange new world rises from the
    old, a world of savagery, super-science, and sorcery! But one
    man bursts his bonds to fight for justice! With his companions
    Ookla the Mok, and Princess Ariel, he pits his strength, his
    courage, and his fabulous Sun Sword against the forces of evil!"

  • Clash of the Titans (1981): Ray Harryhausen's masterpiece. The monsters are amazing, the gods are meddling jerks but not the center of attention, more amazing monsters, the dumb-ass hero and chick yada yada another amazing monster! The myths I'd read so much about were filmed. Pity that Perseus & Andromeda are so much more wooden than the monsters. The gods do indeed play games with the lives of mortals.

  • Heavy Metal (1981): I'd seen maybe one issue of the magazine at this time, it was definitely not sold to minors. But somehow I got into the movie, and when it came out on tape I got it and rewatched endlessly. The Lock-Nar itself is irrelevant, the framing story is silly. But "Den of Neverwhere", "Taarna", and to some extent "Captain Stern" and "So Beautiful So Dangerous" ("wanna do some nyborg?") are all peak young Mark. "Harry Canyon" (ha) is great but I don't really do urban SF. I've never found any real use for "B-17".

  • Neil Hancock, Greyfax Grimwald (1982): What looks like a cute talking-animals and Dwarf book becomes something much deeper, as it turns into a sort of Buddhist Journey to the West-ish fantasy adventure. Collides fairy-world with real-world and actually made me think about what these worlds are. Not as gonzo as everything else here, probably the only thing with any philosophical merit.

  • Steve Jackson & Ian Livingstone, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (1982): Surreal, dream-like, horrifying imagery, a true Mythic Underworld dungeon, a crazy Warlock, a nigh-invincible Dragon. And then there's the game system, which was a perfect little marvel of design, Skill, Stamina, Luck, 2d6, that's all you need (for fighter/rogues in a dungeon crawl), one of the biggest influences on how I make my own games.

  • The Day After (1983): … 14 years later, there's a scene in The Fifth Element where Leeloo types "WAR" into the encyclopedia, and just breaks down screaming & crying on seeing what Humans do to each other. That was me.

    "WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU ALL?!" I asked, and keep asking, and they had no answers. And this is, like, an unreasonably optimistic scenario of nuclear war, because anyone gets to live long enough to wrap their dead family in plastic bags and worry about cancer, or looters eating fallout-poisoned food. So, growing up I had zero expectation that I'd live to see 2000, let alone another score of years after. Maybe we didn't, and this is a final dream.

If I'd known about Ralph Baksi's Wizards, it would fit right in, but I didn't see that until mid-to-late '80s.

I was already reading H. Beam Piper's books by '82, but I definitely didn't read Space Viking or Empire until late '80s, which are the ones that fit my ethos.

Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith (discovered thru X2 Castle Amber) were late '80s for sure. I know precisely that I read "At the Mountains of Madness" in 1986.

Raaka'tu, Zork, Ultima, Wizardry, and more computer games certainly influenced how I do videogames, but they didn't teach me much world-building.

The D&D and GW games I ran early on were very formulaic retreads of B1 In Search of the Unknown, B4 Lost City, or GW1 Legion of Gold modules. Later I learned to make more creative worlds, but they're still much the same framework & generated world madness.

I've probably never run a game which wasn't: A) Post-apocalypse, often centuries, millennia later; or B) Just pre-apocalypse, and there's nothing you can do about it but your actions are probably futile. Vast military horrors lurking on the edge of your vision.

I've rarely run anything with legitimate authorities above town headman who aren't dead, completely corrupted, or too distant to care. Instead the adventurers, usually venal thieves and bastards, are the only force strong enough to fight the worse guy "villains". I suppose some Call of Cthulhu, but I usually outfit the group for an expedition into weird lands, or they're trapped in some Old One or Fungi from Yuggoth laboratory or whatever. I had a "king" and court in a Dungeons & Zombies game, but the entire power structure was like 20 knights including our new recruit PCs, and the necromancers and alien gods raising millions of ravenous dead, and the chittering spidery goblins in the dark, had other ideas.

Usually my games start out looking like medieval, ancient, stone age, or sorta spacey fantasy, and you rapidly learn the world was once very different from that. You get into other lands, or old bases full of artifacts from the time before. You go into space, sometimes, and find the colony worlds have their own problems. But you still keep looting tombs/bases and building power, because you live in the world you've been left, not the peaceful one you want.

What I'm Watching: The Big Bad

This has been 6 groups trying to do a D&D 5E "tournament adventure", and then scored for mission success.

The Dungeon Master is Paul Siegel of Paul's Game Blog and the adversary is played by Dan Collins of Delta's D&D and OED Games.

Good Stuff:

  • The Adversary. Having a co-DM play the "Big Bad" is an interesting setup I've seen done a few times in real games, it leaves the Referee free to run the game fairly instead of also running every monster in the world, though of course the adversary's game time is usually limited. And Dan does a great job of chewing scenery (and slimy larvae from his lovin' cup). He doesn't have a lot of troops to control, and I think he's much too passive and defensive with them, but given what he has, he does about as well as you can hope for.

  • The Players. Many of the players put some real character into their pregens, and made good role-playing and tactical choices. They seem like fun groups to game with.

  • Scoring. The rankings are about equal to how much I enjoyed each group's attempt. The Luke Gygax group came in second, I think? And they were my favorite, but otherwise, sure. The last group was so dull, unprepared, and incompetent, and their low score was well-deserved. There's an upcoming episode explaining the scoring, which I'm curious to see.

  • Videoconferencing & Editing. Surprisingly few technical difficulties, mostly switched to the players when they were talking, miniatures when they're being moved. You'd think in 2020 that wouldn't be an issue, but so many of these things are nothing but technical failure.

Bad Stuff:

  • D&D 5E. Not a fan. Just a bloated, thousands-of-pages, over-complicated mess of a game. Somewhere under all that shit, there must be a pony, so many people keep digging. You can see it clearest in this show, when old-school players are confronted with the giant pile of abilities and modifiers they get from all over the place, the spells have weird conditional effects and you're constantly reminding each other of which ones apply. The two-hour game time here would be 15-30 minutes in an old-school system.

    This is especially weird because both these guys are old-school D&D bloggers, Dan's OED rules are pretty good, entirely reasonable interpretations of OD&D. Paul runs a weird hybrid of B/X, D20, and Warhammer FRP for his Ten Dead Rats game; I don't know why he's not just using Zweihänder or some edition of WHFRP, they're much better than his hybrid, but it works. But all of those are much simpler than 5E, and more engaging with the players. They don't have a laundry list of powers to activate, players instead must role-play actions the Referee agrees are reasonable. That's a better test than "oh I picked the Druid so I can turn into an alligator here!"

  • Miniatures. For a visual show, a giant model set and miniatures being moved around is useful, sure. The cavern and altar tower look great. But it's a single room that must've cost hundreds of dollars, and painting minis takes forever, and it limits you in what you can bring out to what figures you have. In any realistic budget, you'd maybe have a styrofoam riser "and this is the stone tower!" Which is why I prefer "theatre of the mind", where you just describe the scenario, everyone closes their eyes and pretends. Or for tactical situations like this, a "battle mat" of butcher paper with drawn lines and chits or cardboard standees to represent the combatants.

    Matt Finch did a series of his Swords & Wizardry rules Swords of Jordoba campaign, and they were fantastic game sessions—how old-school D&D is/should be actually played—frequently interrupted by setting up little mazes of miniatures and a tiny POV webcam. He also did a 5E Heroes of Jordoba campaign which went ludicrously off the rails, about evenly split because Zach's a very unserious player, because 5E's a terrible game, and because the end was running that stupid dinosaur swamp adventure.

  • Easy Mode Dungeon. The entire scenario, played out six times, is a single room, with about 10 opponents, 8 of whom are just identical cultists that Dan calls "Primus", "Secondus", etc. The final party managed to nearly TPK themselves in the river, but otherwise every group has skipped across the river, run up the stairs or side of the tower, killed the boss, game over. Nobody failed, which means it was balanced far too easy; admittedly it's hard to kill 5E player characters. There's no exploration, it's just a toy set on camera.

    The old tournament modules like Gary Gygax's S1 Tomb of Horrors, S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, S4 Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, Lawrence Schick's S2 White Plume Mountain, the A series (various authors) collected as A1-4 Scourge of the Slave Lords, Frank Mentzer's R1-4 tournaments collected as I12 Egg of the Phoenix, and Tracy Hickman & Laura Hickman's B7 Rahasia, are all tough, long, complex dungeon crawls. There's fights, including hard boss fights at the end, but they're more about mapping, puzzles, traps, role-playing, often interacting with the NPCs, making use of found magic.

    White Plume Mountain is maybe the best/fairest tournament of those, and has only two major rooms with the artifacts, each on par complexity wise with the Big Bad's cave, but there's 27 rooms total, and clearing & looting several of them greatly increases your chance of succeeding at the artifact rooms.

    Now, at conventions we did tournament modules in 3-6 hours, or sometimes there'd be two blocks of 3-4 hours. That's a lot more than the 2 hours which is stretching Youtube audience tolerance. But there's some balance in between 1 room and 100 rooms where a short tourney's not just a single fight scene.

If they have another season, I may wait until the end and only watch the high-scoring team, or at least put the rest on 2x playback speed.

★★★½☆

Wizards Address the Orc Problem

Nice to see this directly addressed. Obviously I still prefer my solution which was just to replace Orcs with a more sympathetic species, but WotC is a business with tight margins so they'll just do the minimum necessary to not be running a minstrel show.

I've never really used "Drow" except in the GDQ modules (Giants went great, never got a party to finish Drow, let alone Queen of the Demonweb Pits), I preferred the Sidhe from Celtic myth making all "Elves" pretty, alien, and sociopathic (interesting point, there's a subworld of Queen, "Caer Sidi", which inspired me to get into Elves-as-Sidhe!), and later the Gazetteer Shadow Elves created underground Elves with a grudge, but they're not Drow. Having the black-skinned, white-haired Elves be "evil" and relentlessly, cartoonishly cruel torturers, poisoners, perverts, and backstabbers wasn't one of TSR's better takes. And then R.A. Salvatore, the third-worst writer in the world (I've read two of his books, part-way, and they're so bad it's impossible to finish them), made his Mary Sue character Drizzle-doo-wah-Diddy who's the One Good Drow, which became TSR canon. I'd flush the entire archetype, I don't think it's fixable.

The Vistani thing is also pretty hard to fix. They're stereotype "Gypsies". You can pull elements out to make carny folk, maybe, but if you have a tribe of thieves and soothsayers in a caravan it's obvious what you're doing. There's also Romani-based caricatures in Greyhawk, and who knows where else, it was a very popular trope with the '80s-'90s TSR writers, because "a Gypsy tells you your fortune" is a super easy plot hook, if you're unaware/unconcerned about your racism.

Changing ability score modifiers is weird. Now, there's no modifiers in Original D&D, everyone has the same 3d6 scores down the line, and fairly simple species special abilities and some harsh class limits. AD&D 1st Ed added the racist & sexist race vs stat & class tables, and each following edition dug in further. Hm, looking at my AD&D PDF (bought back when Paizo had the rights), I could swear in the original print back in '79 there was a Human column up front there, that's been redacted, where Human females got 3/17 Strength and probably Constitution & Charisma (being used more for leadership in AD&D, and women leaders were Not A Thing to those guys). Was this changed in a later printing? And the Half-Orcs got seriously shafted here.

Note this is the AD&D 1st ed text on Half-Orcs. "Orcs are fecund", "player characters which are of the half-orc race are within the superior 10%". What the fuck, Gary?

I don't really have any use for D&D 5th Ed, it's a cartoony game with 10-100x as many rules as it needs, and they've dug themselves into this hole by pushing out old content which was noted as being problematic 20 years ago, but at least WotC's a little self-aware of the things they're publishing now.

The Thing About Orcs

So, there's this piece on Orcs and racism:

And they have a long blog post about Tolkien's racist origins of Orcs & "Eastern Men":

"The Orcs are definitely stated to be corruptions of the 'human' form seen in Elves and Men. They are (or were) squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes: in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types."
—J.R.R.Tolkien, Letter #210

Which I agree is pretty horrible, I greatly dislike Tolkien the man, and his post-Hobbit work. The post is kind of a waste of time to read beyond that, I eyerolled 180° at the quoting-white-men-about-racism tone, and denial of other people of colors' different experiences (Jason Momoa in particular). Maybe that's just how James talks, all the goddamned time. Someone should set up a medical research fund. Anyway, I'm only in this to read about the Orcs, shit that happens on Earth is not my problem.

My old solution to the Orc problem was to make Orcs tolerated and playable if they lived in civilization, but so culturally different in their nomadic tribes, that you still had something like the classic Human/Orc war trope. That can be problematic when compared to how the US, etc. treated Native Americans and other indigenous populations, but it cut down on the genocides/"we kill all the Orc babies"; players treated Orcs like a hostile tribe of Humans, warred against them until they stopped being annoying, and made peace.

But then why not just use Humans? That's James Raggi's solution, which technically works, but it's not interesting unless you throw an enormous book of "What do the Saxons believe and why are they so awful?" at the players which you don't want to write, and which they won't read. In history it was pretty easy to tell what culture someone was by their artifacts, dress, and speech; but none of those are easily visible in Theatre of the Mind role-playing.

So in everything I've run or written in the last few years, I solved the problem by replacing Orcs with Beastfolk, humanoids with bestial features chosen off a table of local mammals. They behave almost exactly like my previous use of Orcs, and yet because they're not all green-skinned pig-men, and might even be cute & fuzzy, especially the young ones, suddenly reaction is completely different. It either arouses or annoys furries, neither of which is my intention, but that's a small price to pay for how radically it changes the conversation.

I don't usually want "half-breeds", because that directly leads to racial theory bullshit, but in a magical world full of Owlbears it's certainly possible for species to be crossed, and Edgy McEdgertons always want to be a half-breed Goblin/Dark Elf with a tragic backstory or some such, so unless you want to waste half an hour arguing before the game, just say yes and move on.

Old-School D&D

  • How To Get Started Playing Old-School D&D For Free: Fantastic list of resources. Though systems wise, I'd suggest either:
  • My own Stone Halls & Serpent Men: Extremely variant but still recognizably D&D. Definitely not for novice Referees, but I've used it with novice players and they were fine because they don't know better (and the Profession system is more forgiving to novices who might "make mistakes"). When I get Delvers in Darkness done we'll see if that's more novice-friendly.
  • Swords & Wizardry Complete: Updated version of OD&D + Supplements I-III + some early Strategic Review & Dragon Magazine articles. About as close to a "final" OD&D as you can get.
  • White Box FMAG: Just the OD&D white box, very well cleaned up into a standalone game.
  • Blueholme Journeymanne Rules: Slightly variant take on the Holmes Dungeon & Dragons Basic Set. In theory this should be my favorite game ever, because Holmes is what I imprinted on first. In practice, it's almost too accurate, there are some elements like multiple saving throw categories that I find annoying in actual OD&D, and the Blueholme doesn't give you much guidance on acceptable races. Also there's no setting or module as found in the actual Holmes book.