Thursday, January 5, 2023

RPGs as Art: On Sincerity in Art

"Don't do fashionable science." — Max Delbrück

A mantra for 2023.

Wandering around the lonely corners of the internet in this foul year of our Lord two-thousand twenty-three, there's a repeated piece of advice that feels intensely counter-intuitive to me. Whenever someone is thinking about writing something for publication — often on one of the OneBookShelf community content sites like DM's Guild, Storyteller's Vault, or Statosphere — the most common piece of feedback I see is to write something that the author thinks will be popular. Or I see people soliciting their slice of the community for ideas, putting up a poll or open thread about what sort of thing the community wants to see next.

It doesn't surprise me that lots of those projects never materialize.

I can't speak for anyone else, but I can say that I am way more likely to finish something if I'm passionate about it, and I'm more likely to be passionate about it if it was more-or-less my idea. My idea is a relative concept — it might be a collaboration or even someone else's skeleton that I sketched out — but the key is that it's something that lit my brain on fire and I had to put it somewhere. If I produce it for public consumption, I'd rather produce a weird piece of art beloved by ten people (and perhaps hated by a hundred more) than a milquetoast piece of art that is passively enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of people and then abandoned when the media cycle changes.

(In fact, the most melancholy version of the crowdsourced art trend is seeing someone abandon a passion project because they arbitrarily decided no one was interested in it. I still dream about the guy who was thinking about doing a Statosphere supplement about archery. Archery hasn't appeared in my modern horror games, but if someone is passionate about it, I want to see what they do with it.)

On the consumption side of things, the RPG products I enjoy and get the most use out of are things I never knew I wanted in the first place. Of the Unknown Armies offerings on Statosphere, everyone talks about big, ambitious products like American Dreams or GOAD or RITE, but I've gotten the most direct use out of Three Miles of Bad Road. (I'm not even running a car-centric campaign!) I haven't had a chance to slot The Sun King's Palace into a fantasy campaign yet, but I'm definitely going to do so. I keep returning to it, tasting it in my dreams. I certainly didn't ask for a d100 horror sci-fi game, but Mothership continues to beckon me. (And there's a sentence or two in the beginning of A Pound of Flesh that features some of the best game advice I've ever read.)

All this to say: everyone has a story in them that only they can tell, in a medium of their choosing. Even if it's a lousy story, clumsily told, it will resonate with someone. Make your weird, idiosyncratic art and you will find like-minded people to play with you. Don't try to make the art you think people want to see, and don't try to make art because the topic is trendy. If you find yourself rushing to make something so you can release it while it's still topical, you've already lost.

So when you're staring down the gun barrel of your next RPG project and you don't quite know what to do, don't turn to focus-testing to tell you what to do. Brainstorm, try stuff, put your weird art out into the world. Consider this your permission to get real fuckin' weird with it.

(And astute observers will note that this applies to all art, not just role-playing games. I've watched a lot of mediocre film and television over the past month, things that were clearly focus-tested to death or tried to have Important Things To Say™ rather than honest things to say. Tell a story only you can tell.)

The Obligatory Addendum

Since the above screed largely talks about the individual (-ish) process of making art, let's talk about the uniquely collaborative activity of role-playing games themselves. (As I say repeatedly, RPGs are what happen at the table, and the rest is but smoke.) Even though the above post addresses the individual artist, it also applies to the group as a whole. If you're a Game Master, don't ignore your group's good ideas because they don't jibe with The Very Important Story You Have To Tell™. If you're a fellow player, don't ignore your other players' ideas because they don't fit your conception of this collaborative exercise.

The RPG table is going to be weird, messy, and collaborative. Your job is to enable that collaboration and have fun. (Please don't forget that games are supposed to be fun.) Everyone's favorite moments in a role-playing game are invariably when everything is chaotic and in total freefall. Lean into that, otherwise you could be writing a novel.

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

The Obligatory Dungeon23 Post

In case you haven't heard the good word, there's a community project this year. (Already in progress!)

Sean McCoy posted about this on Twitter and his Substack, but the gist is that you make a megadungeon by writing one dungeon room per day. At the end of the year, you'll have a twelve-level megadungeon with 365 rooms.

I've seen a lot of folks doing a bunch of pre-planning for this project, but as Sean himself says in another post, keep it simple. Divine your megadungeon via random tables and free association. (And in my personal experience, front-loading too much of the work makes it seem unattainable.) This is a brainstorming exercise more than anything else, so get ready to get weird with it.

Personally, I'm excited to see what develops. Hopefully everybody takes this opportunity to figure out how a megadungeon is put together and what they like to see in dungeons.

I don't plan on writing about my own #dungeon23 project too much on the ol' hobby blog, but I plan on keeping up with it. My dungeon is tentatively called The Crucible, although I don't know what it will become with the fullness of time. For starters, I don't think "The Crucible" is what the locals call it; they don't know that the nearby cave systems are actually connected into a megadungeon complex. (In fact, I'm not even sure anyone — including the inhabitants — has ever discovered the main entrance!)

In the meantime, here are a handful of additional community discussions around dungeon23:

Ben L.'s dungeon23 tag on the Mazirian's Garden blog

Better Legends' #dungeon23 tag on Tumblr

Zedeck Siew's #dungeon23 tag on Tumblr

Thursday, December 22, 2022

How to Keep Players Returning for a Thousand Hours

As noted elsewhere, I've run a lot of long campaigns. (I don't currently have an ongoing game that has lasted less than three years. My longest campaigns lasted eleven and eight years, respectively; one of my current ongoing games has continued for six-and-a-half years.)

Bearing that in mind, one of the most common complaints I see on the internet is about Game Masters attempting to wrangle players and force them to enjoy the GM's nonsense. To answer those complaints, here's a short list of advice, in many ways a coda and distillation of the advice I gave at the bottom of this post. Enjoy!

  1. Don't cancel. If the players have to cancel, that's one thing. But in my experience, if the GM habitually cancels, everyone assumes the game isn't a priority and their attention wanes. Stay home if you're sick or there's an emergency, but otherwise, do your best to make the game a priority and your players will do the same.
    • If you have to cancel, give as much notice if you can. Otherwise, even if you're feeling unprepared, this might be a great opportunity for a breather session.
    • If you can establish a regular schedule, that's even better. Don't break it unless you absolutely must.
  2. Listen to the players and make their choices matter. Table-top role-playing games have two big selling features: players can try anything they want (as long as they're willing to live with the consequences), and it's the only activity in this cyberpunk hellscape where a participant is guaranteed an actual living human's individual attention (as a reward rather than a punishment). So give it to them: let them try whatever they want and live with the consequences as long as you telegraph the consequences in advance.
    • You don't have to tell them exactly what will happen, but "if you fail this jump you'll fall" and "you don't know what will happen if you mix those potions together" are good starts.
    • Also, let consequences echo throughout the campaign. Players love it when a dangling plot thread from a year ago makes its triumphant return.
    • You can do this even if the characters aren't "important." The cashier at the corner store notices that you haven't been around in a couple of weeks; that establishes the character's place in the world and suggests that someone cares about what they're doing.
  3. Establish real stakes. A series of 300 scripted fights might be fun as a tabletop combat sport, but it makes for a boring longform campaign. Dig into why the characters are doing what they do, and play antagonists as intelligent characters in their own right. Everybody wants something, and has stuff they're willing to do to get it. What does that mean for the NPCs? What does that mean for the PCs? Even if the players are no-backstory dungeoneering chumps engaging in 1974-style fantasy adventuring to get gold to gain XP to build a domain, that's a plot detail that should probably come up before Level 9, right?
    • On a smaller scale, not every encounter with hostile forces should lead to combat, and those that do should feature creative use of equipment, terrain, traps, tactics, and even more ephemeral things like positioning and time limits. A fight even against weaker opponents is more interesting if they have hostages, while C1: The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan increases the difficulty by giving the players a time limit while delving the dungeon.
    • Even if events become world-shaking, always bring the game back to the player characters' scale. They're not saving the world, They're saving the people in it. They probably even know and like some of them!
That's basically it. You should show your players all the courtesy you want a friend to show you, and they'll keep coming back to find out what happens next.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Don't Punish the Players

A couple of months ago, The Alexandrian made a post about OneD&D in which he took issue with "bounded accuracy," the idea in 5e and some older D&D and OSR variants that the character's statistics for attacking, skills, and the like are going to remain within a narrow range throughout a character's development. (Contrast with a game like 3e, where a character's statistics can theoretically scale infinitely such that lower-level threats do not meaningfully concern higher-level characters.)

Among his other points, Justin Alexander argues that bounded accuracy is a myth, that certain abilities in the game break it by making characters too good at certain activities. I'll let him explain:

"The more fundamental problem is mechanical: There are a handful of class abilities which trivially — but hilariously! — break bounded accuracy.

"The rogue, of course, makes an easy example here. Expertise doubles proficiency bonuses, changing a range of +2 to +6 into a range of +4 to +12. Combined with ability score modifiers, this almost immediately turns most reasonable DCs within the system’s bounded accuracy into an automatic success for the rogue, and it gets worse from there.

"Reliable Talent then comes in for mop-up, making the rogue’s minimum die roll 10. The rogue is now auto-succeeding on every proficient check, and in their chosen Expertise any DC that could challenge them is probably impossible for every other PC.

"Of course, those are exactly the DCs these hilariously broken abilities pressure the DM to assign. Partly because they want to challenge the PCs. Partly because it just makes sense that these PCs should be able to achieve things the PCs without the hilariously broken abilities can’t do."

This, in turn, reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend years ago, in which he was talking about running D&D and worrying about the fighter's armor class and hit points. He posited that one has to ensure the monsters are tough enough to routinely hit said character's high armor class so that they deduct hit points, otherwise the players are not properly engaging with the rules system.

But I don't think those approaches are the right way of looking at things. It's perfectly acceptable — and likely even good — for player characters to be good at certain things. If the rogue can pick almost any lock with a single action, or if the fighter routinely doesn't have to worry about being significantly challenged in melees, that's fine. As a Game Master, if you seek to "challenge" your players (whatever that means to you), making the numbers scale infinitely is the laziest way to do it.

You can only begin to challenge the players when you establish real stakes for success and failure. My oft-mentioned high-level D&D game could defeat any fair challenge I throw at them (and quite a few unfair ones!), but they could still be challenged with stakes: retrieve an item, save the prisoners, delve the dungeon on a time limit. Your rogue can pick any lock and disarm any trap, but can she disarm the traps and pick the locks before the room fills with water? The fighter can stand tall against any challenger, but what about a distant wizard lobbing fireballs and mind control sorcery? Your diplomat can talk his way out of any situation, but can he stall the unfriendly cultists long enough for your allies to arrive before the cult starts executing hostages?

What if one of the hostages is a beloved and trusted hireling?

I have had plenty of Game Masters in the past who seem to like to punish players for their choices: they invalidate your character abilities, steal your resources, threaten every ally you have, and turn every victory into ash in your mouth. And while that sort of game can be fun with appropriate buy-in — Black Sun DeathcrawlCall of Cthulhu, Delta Green, and Ten Candles all come to mind as fun games when you learn to embrace the catharsis inherent in nihilism — that often turns a fun, engaging game into a grimy slog. (Incidentally, that's usually about the time when I lose interest. Always winning is just as much a bland and uninteresting railroad as always losing.)

Don't punish your players for smart choices they made, and don't make a hard game harder for everyone. If a character is good at something, you know you're only going to target that thing with luck or by making the game unfair. Instead, challenge something else. Employ distractions, challenge multiple abilities simultaneously, play foes as intelligent and reactive forces who adapt to changing circumstances.

Establish real stakes, then build on what you've established. Character stats don't make mistakes, but players certainly do when the clock starts ticking.

You might be able to support yourself and maybe even your allies, but can you accomplish your goals?

Can you save everyone?

Thursday, November 10, 2022

What Happens When I Eat the Corpse Cake?

In the Sorrowfell Plains, the locals often call confessors or counselors, "sin-eaters." As with many terms, the origin is obscure to the average pseudo-medieval peasant, but scholars recognize that the villages of the western Sorrowfell Plains still maintain traditional funerary rites*, including leaving an offering upon the decedent's body which is then consumed by the mourners.

While this is often a celebratory practice, hoping that one will gain some of the positive qualities of the deceased, there is another aspect to the ritual. Those families who worry that their loved one's sins will cause them to rise as undead, or who have heard the heretical claims that the dead (called "petitioners") spend their afterlives in the Astral Reaches, will often feed this bread to a priest or other confessor, hoping that such a person will be able to take their loved one's sin and purify it. Other families or villages, cleaving more to the scapegoat model of morality (or lacking a local priest), may instead pay a poor person or a traveler to eat it in the hopes that they will go elsewhere and take the sin with them.

(Astute observers will also note that this trend is repeated across many such times and places. Interested parties are directed to examine sin-eating as practiced in historical Europe over the past few centuries.)

This sounds like the perfect excuse to put a funeral on your "What's happening in this random village?" chart, and have the locals try to sell the funerary bread to the adventurers passing through town in the hopes that they will take the sin with them. Locals are unlikely to offer much for this service: the traditional pay in Wales was six pence, and while I expect pseudo-medieval peasants and their ilk to not offer more than a gold piece for such an act, nobles might be willing to offer outrageous sums to travelers willing to eat the funerary bread.

If your system of choice offers XP-for-gold, it's up to you whether you grant XP for the gold given. I probably would, given that there's risk involved and since the money is likely to be low: a concerned and desperate noble will ensure your room-and-board for the night and might be willing to pay up to 100gp. It is unlikely that they would pay more unless they are certain the decedent's sins are truly grave, but what are the odds of someone doing something that horrible in private? Unless the characters are foreign and so are completely ignorant of the decedent's reputation...

So what's the harm? A free meal and ten gold pieces for your trouble? Why would you say no?

What Happens When I Eat the Corpse Cake?

Each player who partakes rolls 1d20. (The GM may prefer to roll, since a lot of these changes aren't immediately obvious.) Being under the effects of a spell like protection from evil completely prevents the following effects, which is why clerics are often preferred as sin-eaters.

1d20 Effect
No effect.
Roll a save vs. spell (BECMI) or a DC 13 Charisma save (5e). If you fail, your alignment inverts: Lawful becomes Chaotic (or vice versa) and Good becomes Evil (or vice versa). Neutral stays the same.
Roll a save vs. spell (BECMI) or a DC 13 Charisma save (5e). If you fail, your alignment changes to Evil, although the Law vs. Chaos axis remains the same. (If you're playing something like BECMI with only Law vs. Chaos, your alignment changes to Chaotic instead.)
You now detect as Evil/Chaotic/fiendish/bad for the purposes of spells and effects such as detect evil.
If there's a Bad Place™ to go when you die, you're headed there. Resurrection spells and other such effects don't work on you unless your party figures out how to get your soul out of cosmic impound first. (Revivify-style magic still works as long as the soul hasn't departed the body yet.) An appropriate purification ritual or quest can also free you from Hell, but since this corruption has no outward sign, you might not know until it's too late.
A small fiend — an imp, a quasit, or even just a regular animal with some weird demonic traits — starts following you around, serving you as a familiar. It hates you and wants to tempt you into evil acts, both to increase the net evil in the world and to condemn your soul when you die.
The decedent's sin pools in your head, giving voice to the worst, most self-destructive parts of you. (If this sounds similar to Shadowguiding from Wraith: The Oblivion, you know exactly how to play this.) Your bad side can consult with you telepathically and offer you advantage on any roll (roll two dice and take the better result), although it is under no obligation to do so and you are under no obligation to take the advantage. Once per day, it can attempt to possess you, controlling your actions for one hour: make a save vs. spell or DC 13 Charisma save to resist. The difficulty of the test is modified by the number of times you accepted advantage that day. (So if you accepted help twice, you're at a -2 to resist possession.) Smart evil sides do not volunteer this fact and do not attempt possession often. Your evil side can potentially be exorcised by appropriate spells (such as dispel evil), abilities, quests, and the like. It will attempt to pressure you into performing its own agenda, which may be your worst impulses and secret desires, the original decedent's worst impulses, or a mix of the two.
Corruption takes root in the flesh. Roll a save vs. paralyzation or a DC 15 Constitution saving throw or gain a mutation from the GM's favorite mutation table. (I personally recommend The Metamorphica, Realm of Chaos, or Tome of Corruption.)
No obvious change, but at midnight, a powerful fiend comes to tempt you. It can offer you anything the GM considers appropriate. It ultimately wants to purchase your soul, but might be willing to settle for less if it thinks it can goad you into corrupting someone or making future purchases later.
I don't know what qualifies for a +1 on this chart — maybe you ate all the funerary cakes by yourself, or the decedent was a really wicked dude, or you made a real ass of yourself at the funerary meal and someone surreptitiously cursed you — but if you somehow roll this, you die at dinner. A fiendish creature (again, maybe a fiend on the GM's demonic list of choice, or a weird mutant animal) bursts forth from you like the xenomorph to start terrorizing the countryside. (Or maybe you turn into a Deadite or something. Any option is fine, so long as it births a new monster from your flesh.) To add insult to injury, your soul is probably consigned to whatever bad corner of the afterlife exists in this world, and your flesh is so corrupted you can't be resurrected.

* According to the scholars, these funerary traditions were adapted from Olman rites into their current form. Contrast with the folk of the Feywalk Woods: the Maiavainrua elves are known to use magical rites to keep their dead around as counselors and honored ancestors, so many of the local villages in and around the wood maintain traditions involving prolonged mourning practices and embalming. Drigbolton, found on the northern edge of the Feywalk Woods near the elven town of En'amanisrahd, is cited as one of the most starling examples of these practices, at least to outsiders.

Developer Commentary: The general idea is that the characters get a free bed, a free meal, and some pocket change with a 40% chance of getting what is hopefully a weird and interesting curse. If you want to make D&D cosmology more present or turn this into more of an enticing gamble, expand this table into a 1d24 chart with eight additional entries for Good, no effect for Neutral, and the entries for 13-20 representing Evil. (Or expand the chart to your heart's content. Maybe true Goodness and true Evil are so rare that it's a d100 chart with only eight entries on one end, eight on the other, and eighty-four nonentries in between.) Also, in case it needs to be said, this assumes the generic, Gygax-style vague Christianity endemic to D&D and its imitators. If your setting or fantasy elfgame of choice has different assumptions, this will likely be tonally dissonant with the rest of your setting. (Unless you decide Hell is real, but only to the residents of this one village, which sounds delightful. "Hell is real, but only in Gawkes Mere," is a fun potential plot hook.)

Thursday, November 3, 2022

Classic-Style Fantasy Elfgames: A Summary

To grossly misappropriate one of my favorite quotes about dungeon-y, dragon-y games, "You play Conan, I play Gandalf. We team up to fight Dracula." In that spirit, I saw this picture on Tumblr which also captures the appropriate vibe:

As always, click the picture for the original artwork

Friday, September 2, 2022

Review: Spelljammer: Adventures in Space (and D&D 5e)

I wasn't going to write this review.

Despite recently running a lot of fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons, I don't have an overwhelming urge to talk about it much here on the ol' hobby blog. I may publish the occasional piece of 5e content here, but the actual rules and the culture around the game has been analyzed to death elsewhere. The scene certainly doesn't need another voice muddying the waters and Wizards of the Coast has no need to benefit from either my praise or scorn, so I keep doing the stuff I like with or without them.

However, two things spurred me to write this review:

  1. I love the Spelljammer setting, as the tags Spelljammer and SPELLS WILL BE JAMMED might suggest.
  2. Most of The Dreaded Discourse™ surrounding the new Spelljammer release has been of even worse quality than usual.

So, this is perhaps less a review than a rebuttal. If you happen upon this review, consider this a message in a bottle: if someone on social media told you how horrible the new Spelljammer box set was and how you need a bunch of third-party content to make it playable, I'm here to more appropriately calibrate your expectations. (In short: the rules are perfectly acceptable, being neither excellent nor terrible, and you don't need anybody's homebrew to "fix" the new rules.)

However, this review will be a bit long, because it is (in my mind) impossible to discuss an official fifth edition D&D release without talking about WotC's design goals in making D&D 5e. (And you can't talk about those design goals without discussing what came before.) As such, this is a partial review of fifth edition itself. These reviews won't be especially in-depth, but they will hopefully be helpful.

If you're only here for a specific section, refer to the table of contents below.

Table of Contents

I. The History of D&D (and Table-Top RPGs)
II. Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition
III. Spelljammer: Adventures in Space

I. The History of D&D (and Table-Top RPGs)

If you remember your history pretty well, you can safely skip down to section II. Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. Conversely, if you really want to delve into the thick of RPG history, authors like James Maliszewski, Ben Riggs, Jon Peterson, and Shannon Appelcline do great work in this sphere. (Although as with so many things in the hobby, their focus is often on Dungeons & Dragons specifically, leaving some of the less-renowned-but-still-influential aspects of the hobby unexamined.)

But the short version is that D&D starts in 1974 as a game exploring site-based and event-based adventures — pulp heroes wandering into the wilderness, facing danger in dungeons, and gathering the treasures therein (typically to fund their own personal projects).

Within a decade, more narrative structure emerges in game scenarios, exemplified by the investigation- and skill-heavy Call of Cthulhu in 1981 and the Hickman revolution starting with 1982's I3: Pharaoh. Money stops becoming a vital resource and starts becoming a supplement: 1989's Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2e does away with XP-for-gold (although it remains as an optional rule), instead focusing primarily on fighting monsters, while 1991's Vampire: The Masquerade completely abstracts character wealth as part of the Backgrounds system and assumes it is not a primary goal.

By the end of the 1990s, the transition from site-based or event-based adventures into plot-based ones culminates in the ascendance of the metaplot: an overarching story that runs in the background of published game materials, such that collectors can read the books to put together the puzzle and players can interact with big events in the background of the setting. Many of the big games of the era have a metaplot revealed during the line's development (CyberpunkDeadlandsDelta GreenUnknown Armies, and World of Darkness all come to mind), and while D&D as a whole avoids a metaplot, most of its campaign settings have them. (Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Planescape, and Ravenloft certainly all had metaplots.) The metaplot is simultaneously remembered fondly by fans as an interesting serialized story in its own right, while also being reviled as a bloated gimmick to sell books.

When TSR collapses and Wizards of the Coast takes over the game, they put their own stamp on the game by combining the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons line with the BECMI/Rules Cyclopedia era-D&D line into simply Dungeons & Dragons. A few of the popular games at the time followed suit, relaunching in the early 2000s with slick new editions and largely abandoning the metaplot structure in favor of increased accessibility. However, this is an era in which a lot of games design more explicit rulesets (relying less on GM rulings), and also replace the metaplot subscription structure with a emphasis on "character builds" — the game line is now a vehicle by which to build an optimized character. While D&D 3e exemplifies this with its so-called ivory tower design, you see it in lines like Exalted and new World of Darkness.

While game lines become more bloated, desktop publishing and forums like The Forge and allow for the creation and proliferation of smaller, more focused indie RPGs. While some of these games are short-lived, as befits a smaller and more narrow play experience, a lot of them are read by other game designers and introduce more mechanical concepts into the RPG ideaspace.

After an eight-year development cycle, Wizards of the Coast finally takes what it learned and rebrands D&D again into the wildly-polarizing fourth edition. This continues a lot of the game design trends of third edition, taking them to their logical conclusion by further emphasizing combat as the focus of the game. Combat procedures are explicit, repeatable, and largely in the players' hands. (Instead of GMs making rulings on things the players want to try, most of what a character can do is located on the character sheet.) The game's encounter design also lends itself to largely linear adventure paths of straightforward plots broken only by the game's setpiece battles.

While the game still sold well, the backlash online was fairly intense, taking two interesting forms:

  1. The grognard bloggers who stuck with BECMI or AD&D during the third edition era start swapping design notes with the arthaus punk bloggers, forming the OSR largely by accident.
  2. WotC ends their contract with Paizo Publishing, the contractor who published Dragon and Dungeon during the third-edition era. Since they now have a lot of experience writing third-edition content, they make their own third-edition retroclone called Pathfinder.

The backlash and increased competition for dungeon-y, dragon-y adventure game design space results in fourth edition D&D having one of the shortest development cycles of any D&D edition. After only four to six years depending on how you count it, WotC takes these disparate pieces of information — the stuff happening in the storygames sphere, the stuff happening in the OSR sphere, and the fan response to Pathfinder — and returns to the drawing board to release "D&D Next" for the game's fortieth anniversary.

II. Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition

While I read some D&D books and played a single, hazily-recalled game around 2006, fourth edition was my first edition of the game I ran and played beyond one session, starting in 2011. (As noted elsewhereI mostly ran World of Darkness before coming to D&D.) As such, fifth edition is the first version of the game that I have followed largely as it released, instead of piecing it together in hindsight. I don't know if that makes me especially qualified to write what follows, but now you understand my background on the subject.

Forty years of game design brings us to this. During the mid-2010s, I recall someone calling fifth edition, "everyone's second-favorite edition of D&D," and that sounds about right. I recently described most of the fifth edition releases as "a C+ essay." (As with most things in the universe, I often describe it as, "Not as good as the fans say it is, but better than the haters say it is.")

If you play Super Smash Bros., D&D 5e is Mario, excelling in no particular area but robust in all of them. In the immortal words of George Costanza, 5e is "right in that meaty part of the curve: not showing off, not falling behind."

In short: it's good. (But not great.)

A lot of the things that drive its popularity include its prevalence (as it acts as a sort of lingua franca in the RPG hobby), its thriving play culture, its dominance on livestreaming RPG shows, and the fact that it more-or-less does what it advertises. If you want an adventure game that lets you go on adventures about exploring strange locations, interacting with interesting NPCs, fighting monsters, recovering treasure, and becoming more powerful while doing so, it handles all these things.

If you want a flatter power curve; a less number-heavy experience; something that focuses less on resource management; an experience that more consistently reflects a specific genre rather than "whatever breed of fantasy happens at the table tonight;" something that takes place in a more modern setting; an experience that actively dissuades combat; or a setting with no magic or different magic other than the pseudo-Vancian model, you probably want to look elsewhere.

As noted on this blog, I operate in a lot of indie spaces, and they tend to complain about Dungeons & Dragons at length. (So much so that allegedly anti-D&D places are where I sometimes get significant news about official D&D releases.) But those complaints are often incoherent, and clearly represent some personal issue with the game. In my mind, there are only three legitimate complaints about fifth edition D&D, and they're unlikely to change any time soon:

  1. It's corporate art. And like a lot of corporate art, it's designed to be as inoffensive as possible. It's bland and it doesn't really do anything innovative.
  2. The rules are complicated. It's very number-heavy and worries about fine details like positioning and resource management. If you have difficulty tracking a lot of variables, if you have a disability that makes it difficult to keep numbers in your head, or if tedious note-taking doesn't sound like your idea of fun, this might not be the game for you.
  3. The culture overshadows the game at the table. Strictly speaking, this isn't the fault of the rules, but it does lead to a lot of trouble online. D&D is incredibly widespread, and people are overwhelmingly likely to learn the game from a mentor. As such, everyone thinks they know what the rules are, but almost no one actually reads the books cover-to-cover. (And even if you do, the rules are complicated. Nobody can keep all of the rules in their head at once.)
  4. A phantom fourth argument that is partially true is that the game is pretty expensive. That isn't totally true: while there might be marketing pressure and peer pressure to spend money on it, the basic game is technically free. You can download the Basic Rules for free (or use the Basic Rules on D&D Beyond), use an online dice roller, and find enough free content online to run the game for the rest of your life without doing any work. I suspect the thriving community around the game and the free rules are two of the many factors that maintain the game's popularity.

But to understand why WotC has made the design decisions it made, one must understand that this represents forty years of game design and fifteen years of Wizards of the Coast corporate analysis. Fifth edition is a fundamentally reactionary edition, responding to all that came before and combining aspects from the previous eight or so editions of the game into something that tries to please everyone. The overall trend is one of retaining some of the most popular rules and incorporating bits of design from other games while also simplifying concepts from previous editions: multiple spells are condensed into aspects of a single spell, floating modifiers are condensed into advantage/disadvantage, monster stats are simplified from their third edition counterparts and all relevant information is found reliably in the stat block. (Recall that, during the BECMI and AD&D era, valuable statistical information like special abilities and spells were often hidden in the monster descriptions, usually-but-not-always in the same place.)

Also recall that, while a lot of the design of previous editions has proven quite popular, analysis suggests it maybe wasn't sustainable. Ahead of his recent book, Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons, Ben Riggs made a handful of posts on Twitter and elsewhere about TSR sales figures, and they paint a bleak picture. The classic AD&D 2e box sets are fondly recalled but apparently didn't sell terribly well. Likewise, we know that third edition was popular and is well-regarded by the fans, but that edition had a punishing release schedule with an enormous game line. We don't know much about WotC sales figures, but it seems reasonable to surmise that they developed fourth edition because sales were flagging.

(I would also be remiss if I ignored the fact that fifth edition is also designed around the Adventurers League organized play program and the community content on DM's Guild, which is part of the complex mélange of factors that drives the game's popularity. The game can only be but so outlandish, otherwise it would interfere with the open table policy of the Adventurers League. Likewise, any content that fans really want to see can easily be made by the community and posted on DM's Guild for pay — which per DM's Guild policy, still monetarily benefits Wizards of the Coast. That's pure passive income for them.)

In short, the unified design and staggered release schedule for fifth edition indicate that Wizards of the Coast has learned from its business mistakes. They're not constantly churning out content every month, they're not establishing expansive metaplots, they're not trying to innovate while also risking failure. (The streaming space also provides a constant stream of free advertising for the game without WotC having to put out anything new. At this point, they don't need to churn out new content every month, and it's easier to catch press for the new release when it's a big one every quarter or so.) It's all very safe, focus-tested, and conservatively-designed. Whatever else someone's opinion of D&D 5e, these trends all suggest that this was a very conscientiously-designed edition of the game. (The feedback from the ongoing open playtest of the game no doubt guides some of its development and contributes to the smooth, inoffensive nature of it.)

III. Spelljammer: Adventures in Space

Which brings us to the actual point of this post.

You have a new edition of the game that also tries to be a legacy edition, supported by a continuous open playtest of the rules and a burgeoning fan community. While the original fifth edition release in 2014 focused on the popular Forgotten Realms as the game's implied setting, fans have been clamoring for old content like adventures and campaign settings to be re-released under fifth edition. Wizards of the Coast started releasing legacy content fairly quickly, beginning with an Eberron playtest in 2015 and an official release of an expanded version of I6: Ravenloft (entitled Curse of Strahd) in 2016. Fan requests for additional updates continue across social media, and WotC continues to publish it.

Hearkening back to the Spelljammer: AD&D Adventures in Space box set, Wizards of the Coast releases Spelljammer: Adventures in Space in 2022. As with most of their other products, the production values are decent, the art is lovely, and the organization is as expected. It's a C+ essay — it promises rules for spelljammers, space-themed monsters, and an adventure, and it delivers exactly what it promised.

Interesting tidbits from the new setting include:

  • In contrast to the original 2e setting, there is only one kind of spelljammer helm, and it no longer requires your spell power to use it. (This last fact is even a change from the helm of the scavenger published in 2018's Dungeon of the Mad Mage.) Every spelljammer is roughly as maneuverable as any other, and there is no longer an upper limit to the tonnage of a ship.
    • Spelljammer helms can still only be used by spellcasters, though. You just don't have to turn spell energy into motive force anymore.
  • They don't include all the ships from the old material, but again, it's pretty easy to convert old material to the new system. As it stands, the new set includes a lot of old designs and adds a few new ones.
  • Spelljammers are very accessible in this edition. You can probably get one, helm and all, for about 25,000gp or so. (In 2e, spelljammers were expensive, especially the helms. While a spelljammer is a good place to invest one's loot after many expeditions, it's also fun for players to be able to buy one relatively early in the game.)
  • The phlogiston from 2e is gone, replaced with the Astral Plane. I actually like this change, as it means that even low-level characters might have the resources to voyage into other worlds: journeys are now unlikely to take more than two months' worth of supplies, as the Astral Plane doesn't require rations or air. Of course, the trade-off is that the Astral Plane is way more dangerous than the phlogiston. (Not counting the inherent risk of setting your whole ship on fire in the phlogiston, of course.)
    • Also in keeping with the Astral Plane, there are no space lanes, star systems have a tendency to move like bubbles in a sea, and you automatically orienteer in the direction of something by thinking about it. In short, they've made it easy to get around by leaving those details up to the Game Master — you don't need a map to get from Krynnspace to Realmspace, and the trip is as long or short as the GM decides it is.
  • You can never go wrong with more monsters, and the included Boo's Astral Menagerie has plenty:
    • A lot of Dark Sun monsters appear in this version, such as braxat, b'rohg, gaj, psurlons, and ssurrans. (The thri-kreen also appear as a playable race in the Astral Adventurer's Guide.) A leaked map even indicates that "Doomspace" in the included adventure Light of Xaryxis was originally going to be called "Athasspace." As it stands, Fyreen in Doomspace certainly sounds like a post-post-apocalyptic Athas. WotC also has a habit of teasing future products in current ones, although such references are just as likely to be fanservice. (But they've previously suggested that they'll do Dark Sun... sooner or later. Maybe.)
    • A couple of BECMI-era monsters from Mystara also appear, like the brain collector/neh-thalggu and the feyr.
    • In addition to some classic Spelljammer setting monsters, like arcane/mercane, dohwar, space swine, and zodar, there are also a handful of unique monsters in this edition, like space clowns and vampirates.
  • The included adventure, Light of Xaryxis, is typical Wizards of the Coast fare: a linear plot crystallized around a couple of good ideas. It's looks fun to play and easy to run, but there isn't much in it that makes me excited to run it.
    • Compare and contrast: John Battle's recent offering The Sun King's Palace is a little messier than Light of Xaryxis and looks like it might take a not-insignificant amount of preparation to run without messing up the presentation, but The Sun King's Palace is so much more evocative than Light of Xaryxis that I'm way more excited at the prospect of preparing it and running it.
    • However, in the defense of Light of Xaryxis, I thought the hook was clever: it is a deliberate homage to the Flash Gordon serials of the late 1930s as well as the 1980 movie. It even has genre-appropriate cliffhangers between chapters!

Apart from the proliferation of Dark Sun monsters and the clever design to the included adventure, there aren't any surprises here. What you see is what you get.

However, as noted at the start of this review, the impetus for this review is to clarify some of the criticism online. Most of it is misleading and represents a different product from the one I read. We'll go through a few of the recurring criticisms I have seen:

  1. "They didn't include [insert my favorite spelljammer monster or ship type here]!" This one's easy: if you're an old fan, you probably still have your books, or you bought pdfs from DM's Guild. Adapting old material is easy; Wizards of the Coast even gives you conversion guidelines. Specifically in the case of monsters, D&D 5e doesn't often publish fifteen variations of a single monster anymore. The guidelines in the Dungeon Master's GuideMonster Manual, and Boo's Astral Menagerie are pretty clear: if you want a weird version of a monster, take an existing one and give it different traits. Boo's Astral Menagerie gives guidelines for this process to make wildspace-dwelling versions of normal creatures.
  2. "They didn't include the tables for making solar systems, or the subsystems for determining orbits!" They weren't going to. Remember, a major idea behind 5e is simplification. For determining orbits, they just tell you to calculate the distance between planets mathematically. They assume that you're going to use the included adventure as inspiration for other star systems you make, rather than relying on random tables. If you want the old subsystems, they're still in the 2e books, waiting to be used. (Also, those subsystems were all optional rules anyway.)
  3. "They didn't tell you how to determine how far away you have to get from a planet to reach spelljamming speed!" In keeping with the (comparatively) more narrative focus of fifth edtion, they probably figure that's "however long the GM wants it to take." According to the old box set, on average it takes forty minutes to an hour to escape a planet's gravity well, more if it's windy, so I would use that as a guideline. I usually go with an hour; an hour is enough time for a single random encounter check, so that sounds good to me.
    • If you want a more official ruling on this, the Astral Adventurer's Guide defines the air envelope of a planet extending out to a distance the same as the planet's diameter. That's... actually about right for Earth, but that distance describes the outer edge of the exosphere, which is too thin and too exposed to space to support actual life. Chapter five of the Dungeon Master's Guide describes terrestrial life typically ending above 20,000 which is also reasonably accurate; Earth's troposphere ends at about 40,000 feet, beyond which the atmospheric density is only one-thousandth of its value at sea level. While the gravitational pull at that altitude is about the same as at sea level, "the place where breathable air ends" is probably good enough for RPG games and occult symbolism. Twenty thousand feet is just under four miles, which most spelljammers can reach in a half-hour to an hour.
  4. "The Astral Plane makes travel between systems too easy! Characters can't get lost in the Astral Sea!" I suspect that's part of the point. (But as noted above, the Astral Plane is often scarier than the phlogiston. I don't think there were astral dreadnoughts in the phlogiston...) Once you get to the Astral Plane, the GM decides how long the journey takes and what you encounter along the way, and all of this is in keeping with the procedures for GMing a game these days. If you want to make it more complicated and less certain, then do so.
    • I would also remind anyone who thinks that you can't discover something by accident that the star systems move. You can take a five-month-long return journey to Realmspace only to find that another star system has bobbed into your path along the way. Likewise, since you can only travel to places that you know exist, learning that a specific star system exists so you can fly to it sounds like a pretty good adventure hook to me.
  5. "They left out the rules for ship combat!" This is actually the critique that spurred me to write this review. Whenever I see this complaint, I re-read the "Ship-to-Ship Combat" section in the Astral Adventurer's Guide to make sure I didn't imagine it, and every time the rules are still there. They give guidelines for ship-to-ship combat, but they assume that you will remember the rules for combat, objects, and vehicles from chapters eight and nine of the Player's Handbook, and chapters five and eight of the Dungeon Master's Guide.
    • A much more valid critique is that they ought to have provided a reference reminding you of where to find the relevant rules, or have provided a summary. For example, I had forgotten the rules for object saving throws until I went looking for them. (In D&D 5e, objects automatically fail all Strength and Dexterity saving throws, but succeed on all other saves.) That's why you need to read chapter eight of the Player's Handbook for spelljammer purposes; heaven forbid they would be in the "Object" section of chapter eight of the Dungeon Master's Guide.
    • "Why are the rules for ship combat spread across five chapters in three books?" is an exceedingly valid critique. Does your game need hundreds of rules spread across several rulebooks in 2022? (Into the OddMothership, and World of Dungeons all come to mind as short RPGs that could support years of play, not to mention the hundreds of one-page RPGs floating in the digital aethers.)
    • "You need to get this fan supplement to make the rules playable!" is not a valid critique in this case (and really just sounds like someone's gimmick to sell more DM's Guild content or to bring you to their blog).
    • As always, I would recommend using the procedures as defined in the core books before deciding it doesn't work for your group and adding third-party rules into the mix.
  6. "They didn't use the expanded vehicle rules from Ghosts of Saltmarsh or Baldur's Gate: Descent Into Avernus!" Remember, those are optional rules, and the developers have a lot of ground to cover in this book. (And again, the keyword of this edition is simplification. I suspect that they're moving away from optional vehicle rules because they weren't as popular as people on the internet suggested, or they're trying to streamline things for One D&D in 2024.) The basic vehicle and object rules are in the Dungeon Master's Guide, and they're perfectly serviceable.
    • If you want to use the more detailed vehicle statistics from Ghosts of Saltmarsh or Baldur's Gate: Descent Into Avernus, nothing is stopping you from doing a conversion, although converting sixteen ships to the more complex Ghosts of Saltmarsh system and running spaceship combat in it with multiple ships sounds like a nightmare.
  7. "The adventure sucks!" As noted above, Light of Xaryxis has problems, but they're pretty consistent with the problems of other fifth edition adventures. (Too plot-focused, too linear, stakes are so high as to be totally abstract.) I suspect, however, that most people are reacting to the structure of the adventure, and they completely ignored the part where the authors say that it's a love letter to pulp adventure movie serials of the early 20th century. If you've seen the hokey plots and shocking swerves of a Flash Gordon or Commando Cody serial, you'll understand what the authors were trying to accomplish. (And despite the adventure's flaws, I feel like they succeeded.)

So, if you happened to find this after hearing that the new rules are unplayable, I'm here to tell you that they're perfectly serviceable. They may lack a lot of the flavor that made Spelljammer so beloved in the 2e era, but they're a good starting point. If you're looking for a rehash of the Unhuman Wars; the complicated subsystems for celestial mechanics; the granular ship mechanics; and a setting line comprising over two dozen products spread across box sets, books, Monstrous Compendium binder pages, and magazine articles, you won't find it here. (And Wizards of the Coast didn't take your old books away. Use them!)

However, if you want a stripped-down, back-to-basics version of the setting for fifth edition, you get exactly what you are expecting here and not a jot more. Honestly, if you read what they did with Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft, you shouldn't be surprised here: in that book, they reset the metaplot such that you don't have to follow the old books to use the Domains of Dread in fifth edition, but you can absolutely include stuff from the old books if you like. It may not be innovative game design or provocative art, but it makes good business sense: include something interesting enough to draw in new fans while leaving enough gaps and references to legacy materials to avoid alienating old fans.

Edit (September 3, 2022):

After all that talk of Wizards of the Coast attempting to make their new edition as inoffensive as possible, The Dreaded Discourse™ continues apace. In the fifth edition Spelljammer adaptation, the hadozee were given a backstory wherein they were small, lemur-like creatures who were uplifted by a wizard to be used as workers and slaves before the wizard's apprentices helped liberate them.

If you know anything about Western history in the past five hundred years or so, you probably already see the problem. (A relatively comprehensive account of the scandal appears on this TechRaptor post.) For the record, I thought the backstory was a little weird, especially given how much of The Dreaded Discourse™ revolves around the long arm of the transatlantic slave trade, but I casually assume every big company hires a sensitivity reader these days and so promptly forgot about it.

After this fact was discovered and discussed on Twitter, Wizards of the Coast has issued a statement and errata and has already altered the race's description on D&D Beyond, removing the offending sections and slightly altering the hadozee's gliding ability. (However, some users have taken umbrage with the "Hadozee Resilience" trait, suggesting that it also reflects negative stereotypes against real-world ethnicities. As of yet, WotC has not issued a change for that.)

Edit (September 4, 2022):

Edit (December 12, 2022):

After grousing about how players can't read, it is with a heavy heart that I must admit that I can't read, either.

In my refutation of point #3, "They didn't tell you how to determine how far away you have to get from a planet to reach spelljamming speed!" I made an error. A recent re-read of the Astral Adventurer's Guide reveals, "A spelljamming ship automatically slows to its flying speed (discussed later in this chapter) when it comes within 1 mile of something weighing 1 ton or more, such as another ship, a kindori (see Boo's Astral Menagerie), an asteroid, or a planet."

For some reason, I (like every other loudmouth on the internet, apparently) thought the "1 mile" rule didn't cover planets for some reason.

So by that math, escape velocity is much easier in 5e than it was in the 2e days; rather than an average of 40 minutes, most ships reach spelljamming altitude in 15-20 minutes. (The fastest ships like damselflies and shrikes reach spelljamming speed after a seven-and-a-half minute ascent.)

Remember, kids: reading is fundamental.

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