Sunday, August 29, 2021

Building Bhakashal - Setting Background

Today I'm going to go over some aspects of the background of the setting. These aren't necessary to run the setting, but they help to explain some of it's particularities.

Playable Groups

Bhakashal uses “playable groups” where traditional D&D uses “races”.

It took approximately 50 million years for humans to evolve from primates and create civilizations. In our future human civilization itself fell and humanity was reduced to small disconnected pockets that survived the destruction. After human civilization fell, nature swallowed, dissolved and absorbed all traces of human works, then another species eventually evolved and created their own civilization. 

Bhakashal is set on Earth, more than 5 billion years in the future, several thousand years before the sun has expanded far enough to engulf the Earth, while it burns blood red in the sky. 

For perspective, 5 billion years is 100 “blocks” of 50 million years each, that’s approximately 100 opportunities for new species to evolve and build civilizations. Over the 5 billion years between our present day and the time of Bhakashal, this process produced 13 humanoid groups that have evolved from animals to tool using builders, for a total of 13 civilizations that rose and fell, each time leaving a handful of their kind to survive while others evolved and became dominant. The game world of Bhakashal has these 13 playable groups coexisting with no one group “dominant” over the others.

The groups are listed here from the most populous to least worldwide, and listed with the animal form from which they evolved: 

Saan - Lizards 

Togmu - Frogs

Malu - Fish 

Garudin - Birds 

Humans - Primates

Rakasta - Cats 

Urdyll - Plants 

Yalan - Snakes 

Chitin - Insects

Jugyi - Turtles 

Vodnik - Castors 

Kutya - Dogs 

Wythir - Lions

All of these playable groups have traditions, practices, styles of dress, etc. specific to them, and although the Saan are by far the most numerous, conflict based upon playable group is infrequent, at this stage in history, customs and drives are not based on playable group divisions. 

The Gods

The gods in this setting are not the divine beings of the past, they are instead advanced AI who evolved and became fully sentient and grew in power until they were as powerful as “gods”. They gain power from worship, and they exemplify the subconscious and past memories of the people who worship them. For years they ruled the Earth, using it as a playground for their intercine conflicts, but then for unknown reasons left the Earth behind. 

After an absence of millions of years, they have returned to the Earth in its twilight, and have been back for several thousand years. These AI “gods” are highly inscrutable, they act in ways that make no sense to mortals, sometimes beneficently, sometimes with apparent malice, sometimes in bizarre and frightening ways. Scholars debate why they returned, the most popular explanation being that they wanted to watch the planet of their birth be consumed by its sun at its death. The gods walk the Earth, living in remote and difficult to access places. Though they sometimes appear in civilized lands, both for religious ceremonies and for other inscrutable reasons, appearing in their full manifestations, or disguised as regular people, monsters or animals.

As a result of the method of their creation they represent a pastiche of past cultures and civilizations, they are unique yet derivative, made up of collected subconscious ideas but in unique combinations. They are also as a result somewhat fluid and changing, unlike the “gods” of old who were exemplars, the gods of Bhakashal are chimerical, embodying the chimerical nature of their origin. The Gods of Bhakashal appear alternately as women and men, depending on their whim, there are no areas of divine interest that are strictly male or female. They appear sometimes with multiple limbs or heads, and sometimes with animal heads or body parts. 

The gods have no alignment, the very concept is too subtle to hold them, they act in ways that are difficult to understand, but all gods have a number of areas of influence, and most people pray to the appropriate god for day to day needs rather than praying to one god for all things. Each Noble House in the city is associated with a god, and has a temple for that god in the House Ward. Each major god in the Bhakashal pantheon is represented by a temple in the temple ward. 

Demons  in the pantheon, which are AI who did not fully evolve and wreak havoc on the living, appear as animals with human heads. 

They have motives that are beyond human understanding. Note that the gods are beyond mortal thinking and morality, they are fundamentally inscrutable. In addition, as people pray to gods based on their area of interest, not their alignment, gods will not have listed alignments, they are beyond alignment classification . 

The City

Many, many centuries ago an avatar of the god Iallus, god of the moon, fertility and plants, descended to Earth to fight a bat demon named Tolinnakara who had learned the secret of stealing people’s dreams. Tolinnakara found out that Iallus was coming and hid in one of the great swamps of the Southern lands, at the bottom of a river that snaked through the swamp. Tolinnakara hoped that the river and its various denizens would provide protection from Iallus’s gaze.

Iallus took on the aspect of the moon and used its luminous essence to find the demon. The demon and the god fought for days, and Tolinnakara was eventually overwhelmed. However, with a last dying breath the demon put Iallus into a deep sleep, and forced the dreams from Iallus’ body. Bereft of dreams, the god was unable to awaken, and slowly over the centuries an island built up over him. As Iallus is also the god of plants, the island was extremely lush and overgrown, bursting with plants of all kinds and overrun with bright flowers of all shades and colours. 

Iallus will sleep until the sun extinguishes itself.

The three aspects of the god (the moon, fertility and plants) impact the city in three unusual ways due to the presence of Iallus:

1. Moon: inhabitants can have prophetic dreams, odds based on intelligence, charisma and wisdom.

2. Fertility: Animals and monsters are prolific and breed in high numbers, life quite literally overflows in the city of prophecy. As a result of this fecundity the city has a massive hunt that culls populations regularly, these culled creatures are used for food, skins and as material components for spells. The immense city walls are in part to deal with the more aggressive swamp creatures.

3. Plants: the city is overgrown with plants, they cover every building, and are omnipresent. There are hundreds of unique varieties of plants in the city, and they are used for spell and magic item creation, and for potions.

Eventually sensitive humanoid creatures in the swamp that came near the island began to have prophetic dreams, in particular certain saan (lizard men) of the swamps experienced these dreams, and using their newfound prestige and power came to dominate the area. For decades they grew in power and number and spread over the swamp, treating the island as a holy site. Their shamans had prophetic dreams, and one told of them building a city on the island, and that outsiders would arrive and help them to complete it. When exploratory parties from the North appeared, not expecting to find the Saan and their society, they were welcomed and told of the prophecy. 

Over the next 100 years this group grew in size and power, certain travelers through the swamp would invariably find themselves drawn to the city where many would inevitably stay. Some of those passing in ships on the ocean were drawn to the city. The saan saw the city itself as a holy site, and with their black dragons they facilitated the slow influx of immigrants and protected the city from bandits and monsters as well as periodic raiding parties that sought to conquer the fledgling city, and adventuring parties that sought to pillage it. 

The inhabitants of the city constructed large barges that floated down the river for miles to get to a quarry where marble and stone were extracted and brought back. A wall was built around the island first, which took a decade. By that time several of the warlocks who had stayed in the city enlisted the aid of earth elementals to excavate a canal system. The city was built within this system, starting from the middle and growing outwards, and over centuries it grew until it reached the walls. The saan and black dragons kept the threats from the swamp at bay, and provided a first layer of defence against any military incursions. Over the years there were several assaults attempted from distant nations, but all were repulsed. The inhabitants of the city grew in number, the rumors of their prophetic dreams drew more and more of the curious, the greedy, and the foolish. 

City government formed around a cadre of warriors, they established a city guard, and created order. 

They rule to this day.

The city of prophecy attracted and kept the artisans, musicians and artists who passed through. The presence of the avatar of Iallus, god of the moon, produced great inspiration in those who were creative or skilled, whether they had prophetic dreams or not, as the moon has always inspired. As a result the city developed a reputation for the production of high quality goods, art, music, theatre, poetry and literature. 

The presence of Iallus beneath the island meant that it was lush with plants of all varieties, not just those local to the swamp, the city developed agricultural areas where they grew a stunning variety of fruits and vegetables and rare spices and other valuable plants. In addition, plant breeding became quite active and the city creates unique plants mined for rare ingredients (for magic and for health) and has crossbred varieties for special uses. The city itself is overgrown with plant life, so much so that salt is spread on the roads daily to keep the plants from overgrowing them, and canopies of multicolored plants hang between many of the hundreds of rooftop gardens, an series of elevated bridges known to many an adventurous thief.

Bhakashal is a cornucopia of delights.

The city of prophecy kept the most skilled, the “artists” amongst the warriors that passed through, and as a result a dueling culture, and a culture of display of weapons and martial skills emerged amongst the city’s ruling warrior class. An order of monks, worshippers of Palashurem, moved to the city and became part of that martial culture. In an interesting inversion, gladiatorial battles and public dueling, both part of the city’s life, are also the domain of the aristocratic class, so the powerful die for sport in addition to the poor. The artisans of the city developed a reputation as the finest weaponsmiths and a great range of different weapons and experts in those weapons emerged. 

It is said that you can find any weapon, and someone who can train you with it, somewhere in the city.

These high quality goods, skilled trainers and performers, rare plants, skilled warriors and high-quality weapons and armor became the trade base for the city, trade was expanded from the swamp towns and various villages to other distant cities to the South, Northern trade was largely ignored as there was very little immigration from the North. The city exported both talented artists and drew artists of all kinds who sought tutelage from the city’s greatest.

The city is located at the edge of a jungle and 80 miles or so from the coast and ocean, there are no other large cities in the immediate area. The marshes that surround the cover hundreds of square miles, and are dotted with thousands of small villages connected by water and land. 

Technology is late Renaissance level, spyglasses exist alongside swords and bows. Firearms are also present, but their spread and use is tightly controlled by the Warlocks who rule the city Houses, only Warlocks have guns, and very few of them. There are also surviving examples of higher tech items, but these are very, very rare. 

Magic is also tightly controlled by the city Houses, each House ruled by a Magus Warlock and a Ur Lord. Magic is not ‘common’ in Bhakashal, though the setting has over 400 new spells and several hundred new magic items, these are the provenance of the warlocks and the Noble Houses. There are no “magic shops”, no “magic garbage disposals” or “magic street lights”, magic is power and repute, and it is guarded greedily by the warlocks who wield it. 

Friday, August 27, 2021

 Ask Not for Whom the Bell Tolls... Roll the Dice!

Some topics come up repeatedly on TTRPG Twitter, and one of the most popular topics I have seen is character death. I’ve blogged about this repeatedly, but a recent surge in discussions on the subject, revolving around the idea that “heroes” shouldn’t die ignoble deaths, has led me to revisit the subject.

In particular, I’ve found that people are acting like amateur psychotherapists on this subject, “You don’t allow death in your game, I guess you like ‘easy mode’”, “You prefer heroes that can’t die, I guess you are too delicate for D&D”, “Oh, you like deadly games? You must be some sort of psycho that likes harming others”, “Oh, you run a game where the DM challenges the players, you must have a god complex”, that sort of thing. 


I recently saw a post that fits this discussion perfectly. Someone posted a rules clip from a game where the rule stated, very clearly, that PCs in the game can ONLY die in a heroic way. Every hero gets a “death scene” and won’t be taken out by anything less than a villain. 

Let’s start out with what is obvious and what shouldn’t need to be said. There is nothing wrong with running a game this way. You can play a fun, interesting, challenging game where there is only one particular route to death in the game. There are also some side benefits to this sort of play, you don’t have to create new characters as often, and players get to “live in” their PC for an extended period of time, deepening immersion and helping them to create compelling, interesting PCs. 

I would go a step further, and say that many “old-school” referees emulate this style of play, perhaps unintentionally, when they fudge dice. Over 4 decades I have played in MANY D&D games where the ref “softened” the edges of the game (dialing down monster HP to speed up fights, tweaking rolls to allow PCs to survive, giving PCS max HP or starting above 1st level) to make character death possible, but less likely. Giving the players an even break is even Gygaxian:

Just so we are all on the same page here I will spell this out. Saving the PCs from death, whether through an explicit rule that says they “can’t” die except in a particular way, or by fudging/altering results to keep them alive, can be fun, challenging and is a perfectly acceptable way to play D&D.

However, the devil is in the details, and there are some important details being left out of this discussion when it comes to D&D (I will be discussing 1st Edition AD&D in my examples, but parallels with other editions and similar games should be obvious).

The main takeaway here is this: there are already a number of ways in which D&D “softens” death in the game, so “fudging” or allowing PCs to reverse or ignore rolls that would lead to death as you have taken it off the table is essentially “double dipping”.

Allow me to elaborate.

A. PCs in D&D have saving throws, these are used for individual spells but also for more mundane aspects of death such as poison, falling, etc. Gygax believed that all PCs should have a chance to survive even deadly things, as they were heroes. So one of the base mechanics of the game is designed to ensure that PCs always have a chance

B. PCs also have hit points, as has been sagely pointed out by thousands before me, hit points aren’t just “meat points”, they reflect luck, skill, will of the gods, etc. A high level PC can be stabbed, struck and shot with lightning yet still walk away intact because of hit points, almost comically so, giving the PCs a safety net that expands with time.

C. There are various class abilities that mitigate the possibility of death: paladins get a blanket +2 bonus on saving throws, monks get a save to deflect missiles and to reduce damage from failed saves versus certain spells. Druids can change shape and heal. 

D. The game has innumerable magic buffs that work against character death, potions of fire resistance, rings of fire resistance, protection from lightning spells, rings of free action, rings of protection, there are many different ways to reduce damage to avoid death in the first place.

E. Resource management is another important way to stave off character death, PCs who pack rope reduce their odds of falling while climbing down a sheer cliff, PCs who purchase beladonna and wolvesbane can reduce odds of being turned into were creatures, packing wine or vinegar can help dissolve various slimes, etc. 

F. D&D also involves teamwork and support from fellow PCs. Although solo campaigns are obviously a thing, many people play D&D in groups, and those PCs can help each other to avoid death and improve odds for survival. 

G. D&D also has Henchmen/animal-monster companions who can work to protect a PC or function as an additional target in the group to reduce the likelihood of individual PC death. You can almost see when players figure this out, bringing along henchmen/animal-monster followers helps reduce the odds of individual character death. 

H. D&D is notorious for the power of healing magic, both general healing spells that restore HP to spells that regenerate or even bring PCs back from the dead. Just for context, remember two things: first, D&D players complain endlessly that clerics are “heal bots” suggesting that healing magic is prominent in the game, and two, the CON based limit on being brought back to life implies that life restoring magic is assumed to be at least somewhat common in the game.

I.Player skill is also another important component in this discussion. In games where death is on the table, those who play smart, plan well, run away when necessary, etc. are more likely to survive by avoiding those ‘save or die’ rolls in the first place. 

There are a few things to note here.

First off, as you can see D&D already has a number of death mitigating options on offer. So adding another layer to the process by removing the possibility of character death seems, I don’t know, kind of pointless? 

But more importantly for me, and for the playstyle I prefer, eight of the items above rely on the player, not the referee. Player choices are the most important factor in survival. People like to take a “slice” of the game, the moment when a roll has to be made, a roll that could lead to death, and make claims about the game based on that one moment. I have even seen people suggest that D&D's mechanics are 'bad design' as they have rules that have consequences like these. It is taken as a sign of inelegance or a failure to appreciate the nuances of what gamers want.

This just completely ignores all of the context I have discussed above. By the time that roll happens there have been multiple decisions by the party that led to it, multiple ways to stave off death. Avoiding death is thus to a degree a player skill, not the whim of the referee, or the players just saying, “No, I don’t want my PC to die”, it’s a skill they hone with experience. It is not something that robs them of agency, as I have also seen some claim, instead it is the culmination of their agency, specifically their choices and actions led to that dice roll, that chance to survive or succeed.

The other important point for me is that using the games built in “luck mechanics” means that neither myself, nor the player, are responsible for making that decision. The dice do that. People often say this sort of thinking is ‘hiding behind the dice’, but to me it is ‘ensuring fairness’, I don’t want to have that kind of power, or decision making responsibility on this issue, neither do I want the players to have it, some things in the game should be beyond player and referee control. It makes the game more immersive, and it removes the burden of deciding if something “serves the narrative”. 

But when “the dice” make a decision, ALL OF THE CONTEXT OF PAST DECISIONS AND ACTIONS AND REACTIONS inform that roll. The roll is just the culmination of it, the place at which the complex web of decisions bumps up against the “reality” of the game. The game is a dance between game world and PCs, the referee ensures the dance is rich and engaging in challenge and depth, and this dance leads to a roll. 

When you decide that the failure of the roll is, ‘what killed the PC’, at least in a game like D&D, you are just focusing on one element and ignoring the whole. PCs die because of the context of all of those issues, and their actions, the game has multiple built in cushions to help ensure they have a good chance of surviving if they aren’t too reckless or unlucky. To say it’s “all about a failed die roll” is to miss something profound. 

Again, you can play without character death and D&D works just fine. But keeping it in isn’t sociopathic, or combative, or evidence of a god complex. It is a brilliant piece of game design. If you don’t like how it plays, you can change it, and decades of gamers have done just that. But there are rewards to playing this way, and the reliability of those rewards that I have seen suggests they are worth knowing. 

If you leave death in the game and the players beat it, they have CHEATED DEATH. If you take death out of the game you can certainly challenge them, but they won’t have that experience. In my experience knowing your character is mortal, can expire on the roll of a dice, mirrors knowing that you can expire in the real world. It creates a bond and an immersion that is hard to create in other ways.

But it is about more than just, “one bad roll”, to see it that way makes you blind to so much of what is happening in a TTRPG and what makes it so exciting at the table. When my players leave a session they know that it was all out on the table, and that they walked away intact, that they took the real risk, and it paid off, that’s a sweet, hard to beat feeling. 

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

 Building Bhakashal - Playable Groups - Urdyll - Plant People (U)

Art by Nele Deil at Deviantart

Bhakashal is a place of wonder, both natural and supernatural. Years ago the reigning High Beastial created the Urdyll, the “people of the lotus” in the language of the Saan. Over the years they have developed their own society in the marshes around the city. These humanoid plant people share a collective consciousness, and are essentially part of one large plant that covers hundreds of kilometers of the marshes around Bhakashal. Because they are part of a collective mind, they often are slow to respond, and seem disconnected from the conversation. They are generally non-hostile unless threatened, and occupy their time with cultivating their environments so they may grow, and contemplating deep metaphysical truths. Due to their collective consciousness, they have the ability to see into other planes of existence, and routinely communicate with life forms from other planes.

PCs who choose to run a Urdyll are haldak, “the silenced ones” in Saan, their connection to the collective consciousness is fragmented, they are independent and are faster to respond and don’t seem disconnected. Their statistics are represented here. Haldak Urdyll PCs can communicate with regular Urdyll using their minds, but they cannot access the full consciousness and shared awareness. 

1. Physical Description - Urdyll are on average 7 feet tall, with coloring from dark green to light green, with browns, dark reds and blacks striating throughout. Their “flesh” is fibrous, their eyes are large and liquid black, and their “teeth” are silver. All Urdyll have “flowers” growing out of their heads and down their backs and legs, their colors vary, with males shading to oranges or reds, females shading to blues or whites, and androgynous Urdyll displaying purples or golds. 

2. Ability Bonuses - +1 to CON and +1 to WIS

3. Class - Popular classes amongst the largely nomadic Haldak Urdyll’s include Jinx, Warlock, Phantasmist, Slayer and Spider. 

4. Skills - Popular skills amongst the Haldak Urdyll include wine maker, brewer, blacksmith and bowyer/fletcher. 

5.  Abilities -  A Urdyll can breathe underwater, and can heal naturally at 1 HP per day and if they are in a forested area or area with rich soil (e.g. a marsh, a farmer’s field) and they can connect to it they can triple their rate of natural healing while in that spot. A Urdyll can root to the spot temporarily, requiring a full round to disconnect. While rooted the Urdyll will have +2 on all saves, and can only be surprised on a 1 in 6. 

6. Appearance - Haldak Urdyll are enamored with clothing as their “connected” fellows eschew it, so most dress garishly, bright colors, bold patterns and “rings” of thin iron at the sleeves. Since Urdyll have flowers that grow out of their backs, they wear custom shirts with no back, just front, and sleeves, and fine fabric kilts. Urdyll also favor large boots with “vents” in the sides allowing their feet and legs to expand and contract. They never wear hats, and as their body surface grows pretty much constantly, they have no tattoos. They do, however, wear jewelry, but all of it is oversized and their “flesh” grows around it to hold it in place. 

7. Technology - Many Urdyll are accomplished blacksmiths, and Urdyll iron and steel tools and weapons are renowned. Small metallic mechanical contrivances are not uncommon amongst Urdyll, and all Urdyll progress as a Spider with respect to the ability to figure out advanced technology, they get a level equivalent FRT roll to reflect this. The most common technology found amongst Urdyll is the spyglass, and the most popular weapons amongst the Urdyll are their fine steel knives and short swords. 

8. Custom - Haldak Urdyll are generally nomadic by nature, preferring to move around, even if only within a certain prescribed area. They often walk when others stand, and “sleep” standing up. A Urdyll will always focus on themselves first before attending to others, though they are willing to sacrifice for others, and indeed have laid down their lives for others, they have a strong sense of self and focus themselves before attending to others. Urdyll form lifelong bonds with trusted people, and prefer small groups to larger ones for long term association. They prefer to refer to others by last names or titles. Urdyll sing all of their conversation, and when accompanying music they speak. They have low, powerful voices.  

 9. Art - Urdyll emit a resin that softens iron and allows them to smith iron without the required heat, only force being needed. It takes time to work so it cannot be used effectively as a weapon in combat, but it can be used to soften iron that the Urdyll can then “carve” into various shapes. Many Urdyll are carvers, and leave behind or give away sculptures. Urdyll have also made several musical instruments with their iron carvings, the haunting oborre, a cluster of ribbon like wires emanating from a palm sized hollow globe, the wires are connected to a loop at the end, the musician strikes the wires with a small rod, the shrill caysak, a steel “bowl” held in one hand and a steel ball for the other, the ball is striated with holes, striking the ball to the bowl makes high pitched notes that cascade through heavier notes, and the magnificent Ysimmon, a 3 foot long sword perforated with “tubes” through the blade, used in pairs, the swords are swung around in circles and patterns to make sounds. 

10. Gods - Iallus and Poinar are the most popular deities for the Hadak Urdyll, Urdyll part of the collective have no deities. 

11. Virtue - Urdyll value honor above all other virtues, their word is their bond, and they are valued for their honesty and fair brokerage. Urdyll also treat attacks on their reputation and character as being as serious as attacks on their person.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

The Promiscuousness of Play - D&D as an Emergent System and 'Old School' Gaming

Image by Juan de la Corte - Battle Scene with a Roman Army Besieging a Large City (17th century)

Another day on Twitter another person saying stuff about ‘old school D&D’ that doesn’t line up with my experience. 

Must be a Tuesday.

Thing is, I don’t speak for all old school players, as a matter of fact, no one does. If there is one thing I’ve found over the years is that “old school” points to different things for different people. For some “old school” means a lot of power for the DM and an adversarial attitude between players and DM. For others it means “rulings over rules”, not being beholden to the RAW. For others it means trying to figure out what RAW was for older editions and playing EXACTLY THAT.

In short, “old school” is really only useful insofar as it is a term that points to a VERY BROAD SET of playstyles and picks out ONE or MORE of those playstyles and amplifies them. So maybe your “old school” group is heavy on the hack n’ slash and light on the social role play, maybe your group is heavily improvisational and rules light. 

I thought that it might be fun to highlight a few of the things we do in our “old school” D&D games. None of these are “required” by the rules, but they are great examples of how old school D&D hews to different play styles. I virtually guarantee that some old school players will look at these and think, “what the hell”, others will find some of them familiar.  Maybe in the process I’ll change some stereotypes about what “old school” D&D gaming is about.

Rather than talking about the RAW, I’m going to look at things that I feel are definitely important to the type of D&D we play, but are not explicitly addressed in the rules. The point here is that, for a game as open ended as D&D, there are a LOT of things that go beyond the game rules that are important to the quality of play, and thus there is a lot of variation in old-school D&D no matter how you treat the RAW.

  1. Open Books - For us D&D is a game, and as such, the goal is for anyone who wants to run their own game to learn while they play. To enhance this, the rule at our table is this: you may consult any rule book at the game table with the following exceptions:

    1. You may not read the monster book while you are monster fighting

    2. You may not read the treasure listings while going through treasure.

Other than that, the players are encouraged to get to know the rules for the game so they can eventually run their own. This means that sometimes they will guess things before you “reveal” them, that’s just fine. 

  1. Running PCs in Absentia - At our table if you are not there for a session your PC is run by someone else in the group you have chosen. If they are not available, then the referee runs these characters. They are given “minimal” roles while being ‘remotely’ run, but they are targets in combat, and generally will have their actions randomized by the referee to ensure fairness. 

  1. Rules Discussions - For the most part, if we can’t hash it out and agree on something in 5 min then the referee decides. We can then talk about it post session and decide on a ruling going forward. There are generally no ‘take backs’ or ‘rewinds’ related to adjudication. We move forward with whatever ruling we agree upon, but the past ruling, even if it is out of step with the new ruling, stays as is. 

  1. No Fudging - Once the dice are rolled they stand, and everyone, including the referee, rolls in the open. This is done for fairness, and for excitement. Publicly rolling for something that carries risk is an enormous source of excitement, and the possibility of harmful failure gives successes their value and sense of worth. 

  1. Extreme Randomization - The referee errs on the side of randomization of most NPC/monster actions, so rather than a monster or NPC doing the “obvious” thing, they sometimes do the ‘non-optimal’ thing that no one is expecting. Generally the referee sets 'probability spans’ based on their assumed set of options. Take an example, a party has entered the cave of a dragon, they are looking at the treasure hoard when they dragon returns. I roll for surprise and the dragon gets surprise, so she can decide what to do. Now, I could just have the dragon attack, but I prefer to add a random element to the process. In this case, as the dragon didn’t communicate with the party (and thus an encounter reaction roll is not used), I would randomize it as follows: 

1 - Dragon attacks with breath weapon

2 - Dragon attacks with CCB

3 - Dragon extinguishes party’s torches with wings

4 - Dragon announces its presence but stays at distance

5 - Dragon pretends to be blind and treats the PCs like pilgrims bringing tribute

6 - Dragon claims to be in need of help against another evil dragon nearby

That sort of thing. The idea is that “attack” all the time gets dull, so as a ref I try to keep things somewhat unpredictable. 

  1. Unpacking the Rules - Every once in a while a player will ask about a certain rule or house rule, e.g. why do we use dice X to do Y, that sort of thing. These are learning opportunities associated with the game that are too good to pass up, particularly in light of item 1. Sometimes this means a half hour of game design discussion, sometimes this means we consider alternate rules, sometimes it means us discussing how a spell or spell works. Sometimes we spend significant amounts of time discussing these things, it depends on the particular group. The point is that “rules discussions” don’t have to be acrimonious arguments, they can instead be opportunities to learn.

  1. Games within Games - I like it when the PCs decide they want to play a game in the game world, that gives me an excuse to bring out games that we play at the table within our D&D game. So we have played variations on checkers, chess, Onitawa, Jenga and various card and dice games, some I have made up, some I have borrowed from other sources. The point of these games is to actually play them (and sometimes wager on them), there is no ‘metanarrative’ point or abstract goal, they are just games, and we like playing games as PCs as well as ourselves. 

  1. Post Game Discussion - When the game is over it is not uncommon for the players who are interested to take part in a ‘post game discussion’ about what worked and what didn’t. In particular it is an opportunity to review strategy and for me to ‘pull back the curtain’ on both adjudication and game design elements. My players want to eventually be able to run their own games, so discussing how I, as the referee, handled things in game is a great way to show them how to do it. So for example, I will tell them which elements I had planned and which elements I improvised, so they can get a handle on just how much improvisation goes on at the table. Or if I’m running a published adventure, I can tell them which adventure elements were there in the product and which I added. Included in these discussions are things the party did badly and things the party did well. I have often told them what could have happened if they hadn’t done X or Y. It’s important to let them know when they did a good job too.

  1. Player Involvement - as a referee I like to randomize as much as possible about the game world to keep it unpredictable and fun. But that puts a lot of weight on my shoulders. So sometimes I just ask the table, “What would be a good payment for this service”, or “what do you think would be a consequence of that decision”. The players don’t decide if something bad or good happens, that’s up to the dice to decide, but they might get a say in which good or bad option comes up. Generally I take their suggestions and present a random roll where there are a number of options, so not guaranteed, but they do get to have input.

  1. Damage to PCs is Described - rather than report the exact HP damage done to the PC, their damage is described, and based on the description you know how damaged your PC is at the time. The point is to remove some of the certainty from combat and to keep the players focused on damage their character takes. Damage to monsters by the PCs is also ‘described’ in the sense that I will describe the damage done to the monster so the party has an idea of how many HP the monster has left. 

There are no doubt many other examples of rules from our table, but the point is that none of these are required by the game, only the last one is even mentioned as a possibility in the 1e AD&D books as far as I know. However, these are all crucial elements of what makes our D&D game OUR D&D game. I would posit that ALL D&D games are like this, a mix of RAW, house rules that change existing rules and rules like those I have enumerated here, rules that are not in the game but help you to define how the game runs at your table. 

What this means is that there is as much variation between ‘old school’ D&D games as there is between them and many ‘new school’ games, as old school D&D has had decades to develop these local variations in play. Since these are ‘extra-textual’ rules, rules that are not found in the books, there are endless local variations. 

So really, if  you are interested in ‘old-school’ play the only real way to find out what this means for any given table is to play at that table. It also means that much of the discussion here about old school play by people who use the books, or what they have heard about the books and the game, rather than actual play as a guide, are talking nonsense. 

And I see a lot of this nonsense on a daily basis. Things that would be screamingly obvious to anyone who had sat down at an ‘old school’ game for even one session, but are completely hidden if you just stick to the books. Things that are not enumerated in the rules proper, but still shape the experience of the game as much or more than the RAW. You can’t know any of that by reading the rules. 

And if you think about it, over 4 decades of playtesting by millions of players will produce variations in how the game is played. Every day on Twitter I see advocates for ‘old school RAW’ lamenting the fact that people have strayed from playing the game “as designed”. I think they are wrong, I think it was meant to be tinkered with, but their basic observation, that lots of people house rule the game and play a “local variation” is quite sound.

To me this is the greatest strength of D&D and the source of its longevity. Any game can appeal to players as written, but D&D is pliable and plastic, people have been kit-bashing it for decades, and it has allowed the game to continue to grow and thrive. For me, any game that was produced by playing D&D and then customizing it to your group is D&D, no matter how ‘different’ it looks. Admittedly sometimes the end products look a lot different, but in practice what you find is that D&D has a lot of parts, and everyone changes a different set of those parts in their gaming, but they also leave a lot alone. So almost every retroclone I have seen, and most subsequent editions, have some shared and some uncommon DNA. 

But they are all D&D to me. 

Monday, August 9, 2021

Building Bhakashal - “Free Form” D&D as a Playstyle

Pictured: The Greek god Hermes, Roman Mercury, God of the Gym and Sports (Games)

Today I am going to talk about playing D&D as a game, not as a “narrative engine” or a “collective storytelling experience”.

But before that, I want to make something crystal clear. There is NOTHING WRONG with treating D&D as a collective storytelling experience, or as a “narrative engine”. I would say that many people play it that way, and it works well. I would also say that the current zeitgeist on TTRPGs is to play D&D in this way, with a focus on story. You can see this in the terminology and discussion, people talk about creating satisfying stories and completing the character’s “arcs”, the use of backstory to drive elements of the game. Also, you can see this in the discussion of making sure every player has a “chance to shine”, etc. It is also a big part of the “fudging” discussion, the idea being that a PC shouldn’t die for “ignoble reasons”, and that they should get to achieve certain goals because it is “good for the story” can involve tweaking the dice. 

So again, all this is fine, you can play D&D that way.

But you can also play it another way. And I wanted to talk about another way. I will discuss it’s advantages, but this isn’t knocking story focused play, it is making the case for trying something else with the game, and what that can bring to your table.

D&D as a Game

The central premise of this playstyle is that D&D is first and foremost a game, and as such is designed to challenge players and give them problems to solve, environmental challenges, resource management challenges, martial challenges, etc. At some point in this process of challenging the players dice will be involved, to bring in a random factor. I have chosen to call this free-form D&D.

You can certainly tell stories about what happens at the table after the fact, or view the collective actions and responses of the PCs and game world as an, “emergent story”, but the basic idea of “free-form D&D” is that the referee is NOT manipulating the challenges of the game, either covertly or overtly, to achieve any narrative goal. Thus free-form D&D is a playstyle that removes the referee’s hand from important aspects of the game so the randomization can drive results, not any desired narrative structure or end. The idea is to “get the referee out of the way” as much as possible so they can be primarily an adjudicator, not a driver of the narrative. That’s ENTIRELY on the players. 

It’s easiest to explain this by contrasting it with the “narrative focused”, “storytelling” approach.

1. No “Backstories” - in the free-form D&D playstyle, you don’t need backstories. Backstories funnel your PCs along predetermined paths in order to address whatever “unresolved business” marks your PCs past, and thus drive the referee to introduce “narrative arcs” related to player backgrounds into the story. Alternatively, they create a degree of investment at the start of play (“it’s time to complete Grabnar’s story”) that makes it tempting for the referee to direct the game to predetermined ends. Instead of this, free-form D&D gives you a background based around your class, culture and skills, enough to be suggestive to the players, and build upon, but not enough to compel the referee to introduce a ‘storyline’. Your actions and the game world’s reactions are all that you have, no preconceived story for the referee beyond that. 

2. No “Story Beats” or “set number of encounters per day” - there is no “typical day” in a free-form D&D game. Every day of adventure is driven by PC choices and actions in the game. PCs act, the game world responds. So if the session is entirely “shopping at the market for supplies”, then that’s what they do. If the next three sessions are that, and the players are enjoying it, then that’s what they do. Random encounters and the ramifications of past actions can interrupt whatever the PCs are doing, but there is no need to ensure that the group has a fight every session, or social role play every session, or character development every session, each session emerges out of the environment, past actions and the challenges therein.

3. Everyone has to Earn a “Chance to Shine” - rather than creating the situation necessary to ensure that each player gets a chance to shine (e.g. putting in a locked door so the party thief can use “pick locks”), the players have to do that themselves. They have to act boldly and make smart decisions, they have to be creative, and patient. They have to find ways to be useful when their particular skill set is not needed. They have to be a team player to get others to help them reach their goals. The referee does NOTHING to make these things happen, the players have to make it happen.

4. There Does Not Have to Be a “BBEG” - much like a video game, many campaigns are run with the idea that the sessions will get progressively harder as you deal with minions and lower level enemies until you pull back the curtain and see who is orchestrating it all, bonus points if you can weave in some PC backstory. In free-form play you will certainly meet powerful enemies, but there will be many of them and there need not be any overarching story leading to an “End Boss”.

5. The PCs are not “The Chosen Ones” - free-form D&D absolutely eschews the idea that the PCs are the most important people in the game world. They can certainly become important and powerful if they play well and luck is on their side, but there is no guaranteed arc to triumph, they are not “fated” to do anything, nor are they going to be the most important people in the game world. As it happens, all of my favorite fantasy stories are like this, I never liked “chosen one” stories, this playstyle hews to Howard, Leiber and Vance in that respect.

6. Treasure and Magic - Rather than assign treasure and spells, all magic is randomly generated, from “level up” spells, to spells found in treasure hoards, to loot and magic items found after defeating monsters. All of it is randomly generated, which means that it can produce nothing, something small, or something far more powerful than the party would normally have. Rather than the referee doing this, the dice decide. This makes the “challenge” of the game further independent of the referee, and it means both players and the referee have to figure out how to incorporate the results.

7. Random Encounters - a core part of this style of play is that stuff will happen as time passes. But rather than have this driven by the referee, it is driven by the dice and random encounter tables. Keep in mind that encounters need not be dangerous or involve combat, they can lead to information gathering, alliances and new goals. But the game ensures that SOMETHING will happen, even if the PCs don’t know what to do. The game world reacts, but not strictly due to the referee deciding “this would be a boring story if nothing happened”, instead due to a regular check for encounters that is driven by dice. 

8. No Hand Waving - the goal in this style of play is to avoid as much as possible hand waving things that make the game challenging. So for example, encumbrance is used because you can’t just carry everything, and managing encumbrance is a resource challenge. Travel is similar, it takes time and triggers random encounter checks, it also gives time for information gathering, alliance formation, etc. The goal here is to avoid saying, “It would harm the story to have a long interlude of travel here, so we will just fast forward”. Instead, the travel is part of the challenge, but also part of the immersive experience. 

9. Don’t Make It “Too Easy” Or “Too Hard” - this is actually a Gygaxian insight, and one of the areas where I think he is most misunderstood. The goal is not to make it too easy on the players in order to serve the story (e.g. your “story” is that the PCs are big shots who should not really face the threat of death), nor to make it too hard (e.g. your “story” is that the game world is cruel and crushes everyone as the challenge is extreme). This means, for example, that you don’t add HP to the monster to keep it alive, or ignore HP for the monster to allow it to die as combat is “boring”. You play it out. You don’t optimize every opponent, nor do you minimize every opponent. 

10. Don’t Consider The Party When Creating Challenges - instead of calibrating the challenges to the party, create environments and situations that they can engage with. Some will be very easy, some will be very hard, but the idea is that you don’t use the party’s makeup to set the challenge. This is very important, as there is a strong tendency to design challenges so that certain aspects of the party are useful. Avoid this temptation. True story: in high school I played in a game where the DM had set up an adventure that relied on a PC being able to use their wand of frost at one particular point. The PC who had it was hit by a fireball and their wand was torched.

11. Randomize NPC/Monster Generation and Behavior - There is always a tendency to “optimize” your NPC/Monster “builds” and tactics. free-form D&D instead randomizes the process of monster/NPC creation. So for example, randomly rolling to determine what spells an NPC magic-user has, or the magic items that a NPC has. Always rolling for monster/NPC hit points. It also means randomizing behavior of the monsters rather than picking actions, this is done in several ways:

  1. Encounter reaction rolls are used for all interactions between PCs and monsters/NPCs

  2. Morale is used for groups in battle

  3. If a monster has multiple attack routines (say a claw/claw/bite, a breath weapon and an at will ability), randomize their choice of attack.* 

  4. When there are several courses of action open to a NPC/Monster, randomize them when directing the actions of the NPC/monster*

* By “randomization” here I mean weighted randomization, e.g. sometimes you just split up the chances, so 1-2: CCB routine, 3-4: breath weapon 5-6: at will ability, other times you will assign more probability to one or more options based on the context. So for example: 1-4: CCB routine, 5: breath weapon, 6: at will ability. So it doesn’t always have to be an even split. And sometimes the environment will dictate the options, e.g. if the PCs and the monster are a distance apart, and the monsters’ at will ability is not a distance attack, then they will use their breath weapon, no need to roll. 

12. Sandbox the Game: it is absolutely crucial in this style of play to play in a sandbox game. In such a game, the PCs have no meaningful restrictions on where they go or what actions they choose to execute. They have complete autonomy over how their character acts. So for example, the players can start an adventure to find the magic axe of Borghadesh the Bald, and two sessions in decide they aren’t interested in the axe anymore for whatever reason, so they decide to find a nearby town and look for a new job. They can leave a dungeon as they are taking too much heat and do something different for a few sessions. They can spend a session buying stuff for their next job. They can spend a session testing magic items, or making them. 

In essence, the PCs are the avatars of the players, and are directed in any way they want. One day my Tuesday group, who had been hired to bring back a creature to a warlock who was willing to pay big coin, decided they didn’t trust the warlock, and that he had nefarious plans for them, so they found a ship at port, signed on as crew, and left. Cue 3 months of an entirely improvised nautical campaign. 

Complete freedom. No rails. No requirements. No asks by the referee. They can do what they want. The referee’s role in a game like this is to create a deep and immersive world, and allow the players to explore it. But that means you will sometimes watch as they explore the environment with no particular purpose in mind. Or want to do something you never thought about. One of the players in my Wednesday game decided he wanted to create a “hobbit hole hideout” in the marshes around the city “in case we need a place to hide one day”. Another found a grove of trees and grew a garden that he goes to to contemplate and pray to his god. These things were asked for, role played and created in game at the player’s requests. 

To make this work you have to remember a few things. 

First, the point of this is to keep the referee from directing the “story”, so rather than the referee deciding what adventure the party goes on, the party decides what they want to do. The ref creates the game world and the possible hooks, but the party is free to choose any of them, or pursue something else. The less involved the ref is with the decision making process the less influence they have on the outcome.

Second, the ref has to do a lot of improvisation to make this work, so they need to have a robust set of random tables, constructed with bounded randomness, available to them. It will be useful to have “in the bag” bits and pieces lying around, a Tavern, a ship, a small town, that they can use. Caveat, some refs can improvise everything but the maps in these situations, but most need back up. I know I do. The good news is that Bhakashal gives you a lot of that backup, and there is a SEA of OSR materials that are essentially system neutral (maps, for example, are system neutral for the most part) you can plug into the game to help with improv. 

Also, the ref can always say, “OK, we are done for today, this decision requires me to work up some things, see you next week”. However, I find that this is rarely if ever needed. Either a random encounter, or any one of a number of “back pocket” encounters I have available to me, e.g. that thief that got away from your last adventure, she’s back with some ogres and has just found the party, can keep the group busy to the end of the session, and then the referee can work up what’s needed to meet the new direction. 

13. Nothing is Wasted - any encounters you create in this system are entirely transferable, in part due to point 10 above, since encounters aren’t keyed to particular parties, if the group isn’t interested in that encounter you save it for later, and perhaps “re-skin” it if needed. I have a number of “set-piece” encounters I have used with multiple groups to great advantage. I’ve read posts from refs struggling with whether or not to railroad the PCs to an encounter so as to not “waste” their effort. This isn’t an issue in free-form D&D.

14. The Referee Never Fudges - In free-form D&D fudging is off the table. Fudging is almost always done for “story related” reasons, e.g. it is “anticlimatic” or it “is slowing things down”, or something like that. Fudging is the antithesis of free-form play, fudging is the referee stepping in to “tell a story” with the results, to change what is there to make the experience more like a story. 

The easiest way to achieve this particular goal is to roll everything in the open, that way there is no question of dice results being ignored or altered. This takes some getting used to, when you have the power to change things without player knowledge it can be a difficult thing to give up. And there will be times when a bad result comes up and you REALLY WANT TO CHANGE IT. 

Resist this urge, it is the urge to TELL A STORY rather than PLAY A GAME. 

15. Minis and “Dressing” - This is not a hard and fast restriction, but the sandbox nature of free-form D&D means that using miniatures for NPC/Monsters and other forms of elaborate “dungeon dressing” is more of a challenge. Using elaborate setting materials and minis for all monsters is certainly fun, but the need to pivot pretty quickly makes them less useful, and can become pretty costly. 

It can also lead to a “sunk cost” fallacy, e.g. since you have spent hundreds of dollars on minis and dressing, you want to find a use for them, and this can lead the referee to push the “story” in the direction of the PCs engaging with the encounters that these materials are used to support. 


First things first, you might ask if these suggestions are realistic and sustainable? Can you play D&D this way over the long term? Well, as it happens I have had an opportunity to play test all of these recommendations over the last 3 years. 

In particular, over a 10 month period last year I ran 7 concurrent D&D campaigns for 7 different groups. We logged over 560 hours at the table using this system. I have been asked many times how I could have run this many concurrent games, “how do you create so much content and run so many games, how do you keep this many campaigns moving?”

The answer is essentially that I don’t do these things, our games are essentially player and dice driven, the big “secret” here, the “trick”, is that the players do most of the heavy lifting to direct the game, and the dice make many of the decisions. The referee’s role is primarily that of an adjudicator, the PCs act based on player directions and the referee makes the game world respond. The referee doesn’t have to be a storyteller who spends hours prepping plot, you just let the players play and react to their actions.

It also has a number of corollary benefits:

  1. Everyone gets to be surprised - since so much is randomized, it’s not just the players who are surprised by what happens at the table, the referee gets to be part of that too. In any style of D&D the players actions can surprise the ref, but in free-form D&D even the game world’s response to the PCs actions is surprising to the referee. This is important as it keeps the game fresh and interesting for the referee. We often forget that the ref needs to be entertained too, running a long term game is a lot of work, keeping a degree of unpredictability is key to maintaining referee interest in the game, which in turn helps the ref to make the game interesting and engaging for the players.

  2. Randomization is a source of inspiration for the ref. I’ve lost count of the number of times a random prompt inspired me to do something creative I simply wouldn’t have thought to do. When I’m stuck, random tables get me unstuck. When an encounter reaction roll is positive and I have to decide how to interpret that when it’s a blue dragon, I remember how much randomizing monster actions adds to the game. Essentially, free-form D&D provides regular and generative prompts through randomization, these prompts can drive creative play in a different way than a set “story” 

  3. In free-form D&D successes are earned as the referee does not fudge, aid, or harm the players to serve the needs of any “story”. So if the PCs achieve a goal, they will know the referee did not tip the scale to help them achieve these goals. You roll everything out in the open, if you roll enough damage to kill a PC, the PC is dead. One of the greatest and most rewarding aspects of this style of play is the look on the players faces when they are successful, they know they earned it, you didn’t give it to them. 

  4. Fairness is another important aspect of this style of play. Of course, a referee can always be unintentionally impartial (say in the odds they set for a task), or deliberately impartial in other ways, but the fact that they do not “tip the scales” to serve any narrative ends means they are less likely to play favorites or work against any given PC. Also, rolling in the open helps contribute to a sense of fair play. 

  5. Challenge based D&D brings the excitement, players know you won’t fudge, and you roll in the open, so whenever you roll dice they hold their breath, every roll counts, as every roll is beyond your and their control, there is something special and thrilling about knowing the dice stand when they are rolled, and the roll impacts the PCs. 

  6. This play style also impacts immersiveness, or, put in another way every time you “hand wave” something like travel or encumbrance you are removing the mechanics of the game that model time and space, and thus removing the sense of time and space from the game world, making the experience less immersive. Essentially, aspects of the game that are isomorphic with aspects of the real world create immersion, so the possibility of death in the game, the need to take time to get places, the need to limit what you can carry, etc. 

  7. This model is sustainable and generative, it can support long term play, as the consequences of the player’s actions will create challenges, actions are generative of game world reactions, and this happens even if they have no particular direction in mind. 

  8. This model also removes much of the burden of “driving” the campaign from the referee, so that they can work on creating the deep, immersive world that sustains this form of play. 

  9. Players are not beholden to any backstory or predetermined narrative arc, so they get to “discover” their PC as they play it. This form of character engagement is visceral and engaging, just like you come to know and define yourself through actions in the world, your PC comes to know and define themselves through their actions in the game world. This kind of isomorphism contributes to immersion.

  10. The game world gains a feeling of independence from everyone at the table when this style of play is embraced, when the monsters, the treasure, combat, negotiation, exploration, etc. are randomized, the game becomes to a degree independent of the players and the referee, it becomes a third contributor to the mix in producing gameplay, the ref, the players and the game. This degree of “independence” is important as it makes free-form D&D a game, not a shared storytelling experience. 

One last point. I am amply aware that the referee’s ability to create the entire game world and adjudicate the game means that they can always “tip the scales” or direct the game towards particular, narrative ends. If that’s what the referee wants to do, there is nothing to be done about it. Even fully randomizing aspects of the game, and rolling in the open, cannot ensure that the referee does not try to direct the game to achieve narrative ends. And of course, since the referee sets the odds between options, and sets options, they still have an enormous impact on how the game develops. Still, embracing randomization, open rolling and eschewing altering results to meet narrative ends brings the greatest degree of independence of the game from the direction of the referee that is possible. Nonetheless, this is a playstyle preference, if the playstyle is not adhered to, then the above mentioned positive impacts will likely not be felt. 

The goal here isn’t to prevent referees from imposing narrative goals on play, it’s to get them to want to stop trying to impose narrative goals on play, to get them to, as much as possible, let the player’s choices and PCs actions drive the game, not any desire to “tell a story.”

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