Fixing Alignment in D&D

Image result for batman as every D&D alignment

It isn’t so much that alignment is broken, but that I’m not sure alignment as it is expressed in the 5E Player’s Handbook is all that helpful. It is an element of D&D that has always, and still, provokes a lot of discussion and disagreement, as well as podcast episodes and blog posts trying to explain it and account for it.

The original idea for alignment came, according to Gary Gygax, from the stories of Michael Moorcock and Poul Anderson – in the first case, a self-conscious reaction to what was seen as the good and evil binary presented by writers like Tolkien. There were only three alignments: lawful, neutral, and chaotic. The good/evil axis was added later in 1977’s Basic Set, went back and forth a bit, but has remained consistent pretty much since then.

The problem that I encounter is that this alignment system is, in brief, that it is too vague. Does “evil” mean finger-steepling, sinister and malicious intent at all times? What about a well-meaning villain? What about the idea that most villains see themselves as heroic, if not outright good? Look at Thanos – is he evil because he plans on killing trillions, or is he lawful because he wants to do so in the most fair way possible, or good because he is willing to make personal sacrifices for what he sees as the greater good, or chaotic because his plans would cause the collapse of civilizations, at least temporarily, or perhaps neutral because he seeks balance in the universe (or says he does)?

The fix for alignment, in my view, is to literally “fix” the ideas of an alignment system to more specific terms so that they are clear and can also be flexible by culture. I ran into this challenge planning for a Ragnarok campaign, called Twilight of the Gods, set in mythic dark ages Scandinavia. The Norse clearly had moral ideas, but they aren’t my moral ideas – “good” for a Norse person is quite different from “good” from my point of view and the likely points of view for the players. Killing someone because you want their silver is not “evil” for the Norse, unless you kill them through treachery or poison.

What I did for Twilight of the Gods I described in a previous post, but I’ve since taken this same idea and applied it to Dragonblade, my medieval Asia setting, and Alaam, my elemental setting inspired by Islam and Zoroastrianism. I think the best way to explain my thinking is to show where I ended up – and I’m now quite convinced that more specific alignment terms are the way to go.

Twilight of the Gods (Mythic Dark Ages/Norse)

Rather than good or evil, characters are honest or treacherous. This reflects the fact that violence was not seen as evil – the greatest moral failings included deceit and cowardice for the Norse. Honesty implies keeping promises, including promises of vengeance or oaths of support, and reinforces the idea of boasting being motivation for great deeds in order to fulfill one’s own words.

Rather than lawful or chaotic, characters are civilized or wild. This follows pretty closely to the idea of law and chaos in original D&D, but lets me highlight a theme of the setting and campaign, which was between the old gods, who are closer to the land, and independent life that is bound to the cycles of nature, compared to the Christianizing/urbanizing influence coming up from the south. It also takes the “Chaotic Asshole” alignment off the table, where players choose to be Chaotic Neutral because they want to be assholes and behave randomly. Both civilization and wilderness imply a strong set of values, both of which are rational and interesting.

Dragonblade (Heroic Medieval China/South-East Asia)

Rather than good or evil, characters are benevolent or selfish. These ideas align relatively well with my own idea of good and evil, which I think is widely shared in my culture, but are drawn more directly from the philosophies that were influential during the medieval period in China – Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, Mohism and so on. The highest good is often seen as being entirely self-giving and self-negating, and the deepest evil is often seen as arising from a focus on the self above all else. This also gives roleplaying clues that are more clear, I think, than “good” or “evil.” What concerns characters in this setting is a particular kind of good or evil.

Rather than lawful or chaotic, characters are legalistic or free (committed to freedom). Like the take on good and evil above, this is similar to what is described in the Player’s Handbook, but actually quite different from what was in original D&D’s Law and Chaos. Again, these ideas are drawn directly from the philosophies in China at the time, in particular those of Laozi (Daoism) and Confucius.

Another way of looking at this alignment system is that the good/evil axis is rooted in Buddhism, and the law/chaos axis is rooted in Confucianism and Daoism. Since those are three of the most powerful influences on Chinese culture, I thought it was a pretty good fit. I also felt that whatever replaced “law” and “chaos” had to be two positive choices with a moral underpinning. I realize that boiling down Confucianism to “legalism” and Daoism to “freedom” is stupidly reductive, but hopefully the idea comes across. I’m actually not entirely satisfied with the term “legalism”, but it’s the best I have for the moment.

I like how mundane the alignments become. Chaotic Evil sounds like a lot to live up to – you have to go full Joker and watch the whole world burn. In Dragonblade, this would be Selfish Freedom, which seems a lot more common and easy to understand. Someone committed to Selfish Freedom could even be part of an adventuring party without a lot of trouble, in contrast to someone who was Chaotic Evil.

Alaam (Inspired by Arabian Nights/Islam/Zoroastrianism)

Instead of good or evil, characters are kind or cruel. Here I went with a simple, direct moral description of how one treats other people, rather than the inner morality that is more of a focus for Dragonblade above. These descriptors also fit well with the almost-fairy-tale sense I wanted to evoke of 1001 Arabian Nights. At the very least, it avoids the “But what is evil, really?” kind of question that plagues conversations about D&D’s standard alignment. (Thanos, to take my example from the beginning of this post, is clearly cruel.)

Instead of lawful or chaotic, characters are obedient or rebellious. In this case, I am drawing more from Islam, where obedience is a very high virtue. The Middle-East is also a part of the world that has had strong central authorities for a very long time – thousands of years in the real world. This alignment axis assumes that the law, that authority, makes demands on you, and you have to respond one way or another. This fits with a strong theme for Alaam, which is that of the authority of the genies who created the world, and how characters respond to that authority.

Specific Is Best

My advice to other writers and designers in the area of alignment is almost always to make it more specific. Root your alignment system in the questions you want to ask in your campaign. Fix the alignment axes to the strong themes of your setting. Alignment is often the source of disagreement, but it has a great potential to highlight aspects of a setting right from the beginning. If you want to play a Lawful Good paladin, I think that it is a distinct experience to create a character who is Honest and Civilized, or Benevolent and Legalistic, or Kind and Obedient. Those are all, to me, much more interesting than Lawful Good.

To pick another crappy alignment trope – I am of course suspicious of any player who wants to play a Chaotic Evil character. But what about Treacherous and Wild? That’s at least really interesting. Or Selfish and Free – that’s not even necessarily “evil” in the villainous sense. (Heck, that could be a Libertarian) Or Cruel and Rebellious – the option most similar to Chaotic Evil, perhaps, but still easier to understand and portray. It clearly states a relationship to other people and to whatever authorities exist in your world, and that’s a big step ahead of Chaotic Evil in my book. Or, in my games at least.

What do you think about this take on alignment? What do you think the alignment could be for your favorite setting: Middle-Earth, Westeros, Krynn, etc? 

RPG Mechanic Round-Up #5: All D&D

Dungeons and Dragons – C’era una volta.. Il Bardo, il ...

This post will include some repeats from the previous RPG Mechanic Round-Ups, but then again, very few people read those, so I imagine it’ll all be like new! Anyway, these are all of the little notes for house rules and hacks that I have for D&D:

Simplified Hirelings

Instead of having hirelings that the PCs then try to manipulate into walking ahead to set off traps or walk into ambushes, PCs simply hire them to eliminate a single kind of challenge. For example, PCs could hire a locksmith to bypass all locks during their adventure, or a guide to ensure that they find good camp sites each night, or are able to forage food as they travel. They could even hire a trap-springer to walk into traps for them if that’s what they want. In exchange for this help from the hireling, the PCs take a percentage reduction from their XP for that adventure, or maybe just miss out on the XP they would get from disarming those traps themselves.

Druid Circle of Rust

New D&D Druid circle: Circle of Rust. Rusting grasp, shatter, etc. Focused on conquering technology and civilization. (This is something I want to put the work into later)

Mystery Monsters

When you first encounter a monster in combat, especially in an ambush, you only get two or three descriptors for the monster. Then each round, you get one more descriptor, unless you take a moment to stand back and assess the situation. Otherwise, it’s a whirl of claws and teeth and blood and panic, and you’re just not seeing details. This is only for new monsters – monsters you’ve already encountered you’ll recognize.

Get Saved

I had the idea to add save points to D&D. I’m not sure if anyone would even want this. But have the PCs go to a temple and have a priest “save” them – for a large donation of course! Then if they die, they can come back to live at the temple with maybe a little loss of the XP you earned – 10% or so.

Bleeding Wounds

When a creature takes piercing or slashing damage, they begin to bleed 1 hit point each round on their turn. This is halted if they receive any magical healing, or after combat with a DC 10 Medicine check. This rule would also lead to cool scenes like tracking your opponent overland after they flee battle and try to regroup, following the dollops of monster blood on the ground. (Or monsters doing the same to chase the PCs down) Of course, this rule will make low-level adventuring even more brutal, but that’s the point.

Effects by Damage Type

I like adding special effects for the three types of physical damage. With a called shot made at disadvantage, a bludgeoning attack can deal damage and destroy one piece of armor; a piercing attack can deal double damage; and a slashing attack can deal normal damage and sever a limb.

Damage Bonus for Melee and Missile

Sometimes higher-level combats take too long, as the characters whittle down a monster’s hit points, and sometimes a higher-level character isn’t as dangerous as they should be, apart from having more hit points. A solution I’ve always had for this problem is to simply let all characters add their level to the damage they deal with melee or missile attacks.

Level Up Your Community

This idea has come up in a few tweets and posts lately, and I was also reminded of it playing through the Thieve’s Guild storyline in Skyrim. The idea is that as the character’s level, their community also levels. This can happen automatically, as their fame spreads, or can be something they pay into with all of that spare gold they accumulate. This system could also help tie them more deeply to a community – rather than leave for a larger city that has a better magic item store, through their heroics they build up their little village until it has a great magic item store of its own.

Simplified: Hit Dice Power Everything

When you have a special ability that is only available in a particular situation, like sneak attack perhaps, or with any limited special ability, make it so that the ability is powered by hit dice instead. The player describes how the conditions are met, spends the hit die, and the ability can be used. So, for example, the player playing the rogue says how her character feints to throw the monster off-balance for a moment, spends a hit die, and rolls the extra damage dice. I haven’t worked it out yet, but I think this can be adapted for most limited-use or situational-use PC abilities.


Hit-Point Hack

Low-level D&D can be grueling in a way that isn’t fun, especially in later versions of the game that are less meant to be meat-grinders. At the same time, when high-level characters have loads of hit points, it can be more difficult to challenge them without just arbitrarily increasing monster damage. My solution for this is for characters to begin with three hit dice instead of one hit die, and for their first hit die to continue to give maximum hit points. So a 1st level fighter, for example, would have 10 hit points, plus 2d10 hit points, plus 3 times her Constitution modifier.

At the upper end, I like the idea of lower hit points at higher levels, so I would say that a character stops gaining new hit dice with level 10. At 11th level and onward, she still gets any special abilities or spells as normal, but no new hit points. Technically, with the low-level hit point hack above, she would have the same hit points at level 10 that she would normally have at level 12, so I think it balances out well.

Buy Used

Settings like Forgotten Realms and Eberron are teeming with adventuring parties, and this would have to mean that there is a hot market for used adventuring gear. This used gear has a starting price that is equal to one half what the PHB or other sourcebook lists, with the caveat that when the player-character rolls a 1 using the equipment, or a monster rolls a critical hit (if it is armor) then it is damaged and useless until the character pays to have it repaired. Used weapons break on a 1, used armor breaks on a monster’s 20, and used equipment of any other kind also breaks on a 1.

No Overnight Healing

Healing is just rolling your remaining hit dice, rather than recovering all hit points.On the one hand, this will somewhat punish characters that had to use their hit dice to heal during short rests. On the other hand, it softens the “video game” effect of healing completely overnight.

Bullseye (Random Scatter)

Roll a d8 for random directional scatter, and then another die for distance from the intended target in concentric circles like a bullseye. On the d8, 1 is north, above, or away from the DM, and 5 is south, below, or toward the DM. The second die could be feet, or squares, or even inches in the given direction.

So, for example, a mirror golem deflects a lightning bolt in a random direction. You roll a 5 on the d8, so it is deflected toward the DM on the battle mat, and you roll a 4 on a d6, meaning it extends for 4 squares in that direction, electrocuting everyone along that line.

Disarm Feat

Grappling is famously bad in RPGs. I’m not sure how many players take the Grappler feat in D&D 5E, but I’m assuming that few do. In real-world martial arts, you often have to make someone miss in order to disarm them, and I thought it would be interesting to add an effect like that to the Grappler feat. Once per round, when an opponent misses an attack against you, you can use your reaction to try to disarm them with an opposed Strength roll. If you beat your opponent by 10 or more, you can grab their weapon for yourself.

Simplified Paralysis Effects

Paralysis effects are not fun. Really, any effect where you just lose your turn is not fun, in any game. A way to fix paralysis effects like hold person is for them to simply allow a single critical hit. Basically, they hold you paralyzed until you’re shocked back into action by a damaging strike. I think that this would provide enough bang for the proverbial buck.

XP for Conditions and Disadvantages

Another way to handle conditions and disadvantages, stolen from Chronicles of Darkness. You get XP when a condition affects you adversely, and it is up to the player to choose when these conditions will come up. This means that they don’t miss the character-defining d20 roll because they’re poisoned, but at the same time are rewarded for causing their characters trouble. This idea can be expanded to disadvantages as well. It would be up to the DM how much XP to award, and also what counts as enough of a problem caused to warrant it.

Simplified Conditions

Another way to handle conditions is to have each of them impose disadvantage once and then be cleared. This is much simpler and less punitive than the RAW, but some groups would prefer that. Another possibility is for some conditions to impose disadvantage more than once if they are more severe.

Equipment and Encumbrance by Kit

I have not enjoyed, or even been very interested in, tracking encumbrance for many years now. The system I use with another game I’ve designed is to have a character simply choose a “kit” that represents their equipment. (This also represents the idea that even adventurers aren’t always in full armor lugging their worldly possessions around with them)

Some examples could be war kit, travel kit, hunting kit, town/city kit, etc. It could also be simplified to light, medium and heavy. These kits could work as ‘presets’ for equipment, as exist in a lot of video games, and could also be a way to abstract out what exactly a character is carrying. For example, hunting kit would assume the character isn’t wearing armor, since they would be focusing on stealth and mobility, whereas war kit would include all of their combat gear but none of their other gear, since no one wants to fight with a huge pack on their back.

Historical Bows

This is just a historical tweak for bow terminology in D&D beyond short versus long. A hunting bow would be smaller and more maneuverable, and would deal d6 damage (around 40-50 pounds draw). a horse bow would be heavier than a hunting bow, meant to go through armor and shoot at long range in combat, but still small enough to use from horseback, dealing d8 damage (60-100 pounds draw). A war bow would be huge and heavy, requiring years of training to learn how to draw fully, but would deal perhaps d10 damage (100+ pounds draw).

Critical Options

I like the Paizo Critial Deck(s) and having other options for critical hits. I even kind of liked the Rolemaster/MERP critical hit tables. I like having options for critical hits beyond double damage, and here are some that I like to use I my games:

  1. Automatically deal max damage (similar to double damage rolled, but more predictable)
  2. Deal normal damage and knock your opponent prone
  3. Deal normal damage and blind your opponent until your next turn
  4. Deal normal damage and disarm your opponent (weapon falls at their feet)
  5. Deal normal damage and destroy your opponent’s shield
  6. Deal normal damage and stagger your opponent, cutting their movement in half until your next turn

Automatic Downtime

I need to revisit this idea in light of Xanathar’s Guid eto Everything and how it expands downtime rules, but the idea here is for things to happen over downtime automatically, based on a character’s class and possibly background. A guild artisan slowly rises up in their guild hierarchy; a fighter builds a reputation that draws other warriors to her banner; a cleric receives donations and tithes and puts them toward building a shrine or temple in the area; and so on. Wizards slowly create scrolls; warlocks are shown occult secrets in dreams. This is to replace more complex systems that require rolling and saving up gold pieces, but on the other hand keeps the development of the characters and the world around them front and center during downtime.

Bards Rock

In D&D, there is absolutely no reason for a bard to ever play a musical instrument unless they are out of combat, or they are using some kind of artifact item. I’ve always thought that bards should get a bonus of some kind for only using an instrument and their music in combat.

I have a few ideas for this one, none of which I’ve tried in 5E, for when a bard uses a musical instrument in combat:

  1. The bard counts as two levels higher than normal, and has access to more powerful spells
  2. The bard’s spells are power potent, adding 1 or 2 to their spell attack bonus and to the DC for saves against their magic
  3. They don’t lose spell slots – they can keep casting indefinitely, or maybe they have one extra spell slot per level that can only be used when they are using their instrument in combat (since indefinite spells is pretty powerful)
  4. There is an ongoing bonus effect – an aura of courage like a paladin has, or an aura of bonus hit points for her comrades, or something similar
  5. Her other bardic inspiration dice go up one die type, so from d6 to d8 and so on


Some of these will be full posts when I have time to flesh them out and add details, but ideas are cheap. Steal and enjoy!

RPG Mechanic Round-Up #4

Big Fish Points

Big Fish is a cool movie. In part, the movie is driven by the conflict between story on the one hand and fact on the other. One refrain that comes up in the various yarns is when the storyteller says, “This isn’t how I die.” The story then takes some turn for the better, and we know that it doesn’t end here even if things look dire.

The idea here is for the player to have “This isn’t how I die” points which she can spend when, according to the rules-as-written, they would normally die. This is to protect a character from a meaningless death, or a death that doesn’t make a good story.

Zombie Dinner Bell

In a zombie game, or any game where there is a potential for drawing the attention of swarming foes, have a dinner bell mechanic. Every time the characters do something noisy, or something that would draw attention, the dinner bell rating increases. As it increases, the number of monsters attracted should increase, maybe geometrically. So in the zombie example, first you attract 1 zombie, and then 4, and then 9, or maybe even 1 and then 10 and then 100 for a quicker escalation. I think that the effect could be comparable to that of the Jenga tower in Dread.

Always Minimal Success

Few things are less fun, in a RPG, than rolling a failure that just means you have no impact on the story. You take your turn to act as the player, and nothing happens because of a dice roll.

This idea is for a system that attaches a minimal effect to every action. To take D&D as an example, we could say that every melee or missile attack deals a minimal amount of damage, maybe equal to the character level, or equal to their ability score bonus. Even if you miss, you have some effect, chipping away at your foes.

For skills and other abilities, I would add a minimal effect that can be accomplished without any dice roll at all. It is possible to make something interesting of a failed roll, but there should be times when a character just gets to be awesome without having to take a risk. To take D&D as an example again, if a character is proficient with a skill, there should be a basic action they can always take. If they are proficient with thieves’ tools, then they can open a normal lock if they aren’t under time pressure. If they are proficient with Athletics, they can swim across a river or climb a rope without rolling.


RPG Mechanic Round-Up #3

Image result for game design

Still drawing from that idea document that I maintain, these are further game mechanic ideas that I like. Feel free to take these, use them, adapt them or hack them for your own games.

Advantage and Disadvantage with Fate Dice

As written, Fate Core allows you to use Aspects to add a +2 bonus to rolls after the fact, or to re-roll. I thought of another way to represent an advantage in a Fate roll, this time before the fact. In some of my Fate-based designs, I have a player set aside one of their four dice, and set it to a “+” or “-” ahead of time. This not only grants a bonus that is approximately equivalent to the +2 from an Aspect, it also reduces the amount of swing that is possible in the roll. With only three dice, the worst that can happen with the advantage is that three dice come up “-“, or a total of just -2. I also like how visible the bonus (or penalty) is on the table, and I think of it as similar to D&D 5th Edition’s advantage/disadvantage mechanic.

Using the Force or Magic Skill

One of the things I like about skill systems in RPGs is when you have to make a limited number of selections from a list, all of which are desirable options. (No dump stats or skills in our designs, please) One of the things I’d like to see more explicitly is treating magic, or whatever your equivalent is, as a skill, meaning that you have to commit time and practice to magic, and that time and practice does not go elsewhere. You have the super-skill, so you lack the other skills a mundane person would have.

Specifically, I have in mind Jedi in the Star Wars universe, who tend to be better than everyone at everything, and to also have magic powers. Rey is an example of this, but so is Luke, and Anakin or Obi-wan before him. They are fantastic at every action-hero thing they try, and also have the Force on top of that. I much prefer Force-users, or magic-users, as specialists who have an arcane, occult, rare specialty, and I think that games should reflect this by making the choice to have magic powers a choice with a cost.

Elvish Skills

I have an idea for a game from the point of view of elves, or of other beings who have very long lives compared to humans. In this game, there will only be three levels of skill to reflect the kind of mastery an elf might achieve (assuming D&D elvish lifespans): one year of skill, ten years of skill, and a hundred years of skill. I like there being a level of mastery that is simply unattainable for shorter-lived beings, and also reflecting the idea of some diminishing return in gaining skills. The differences in skill become very small at the highest level in any field, it seems. But I like the idea of a setting where these very long lives matter, and where the most highly skilled elves could simply clown the most highly skilled humans or others. It’s a challenge to build a game around this fundamental unbalance, but is fun to think about.

Fate Core Hack: Changeling the Lost Dream

Image result for rankin bass goblins

(Maybe call the hack Changeling the Lost Dream?) These are my notes and thoughts on a kind of complicated hack that I used to run a game session at Save Against Fear. The scenario was called The Long Night, something I’ve run before as a Changeling: the Lost scenario. It’s a scenario I like, starting off with an obvious mystery, then introducing some nightmares, and then finally a sinister goblin plot.

I developed the most recent idea for The Long Night before Changeling 20th Anniversary Edition came out (but after I backed it on Kickstarter), but historically there have always been parts of Changeling the Dreaming and Changeling the Lost that I liked, and others that I didn’t. One example: I like the way Dreaming’s Arts work better for the most part than Lost’s Contracts, but I prefer the way Lost handles kiths to the way that Dreaming does. Dreaming is way too Europe-specific for me, and the non-European kithain suffer from White Wolf’s tendency toward stereotyping (ahem Gypsies ahem). I much prefer Lost’s approach of generalizing out one step for a much more flexible system that can be used to represent fae-type creatures from any culture where they appear.

I also really like Fate Core, especially for one-shot play in a situation like a convention where everyone will want to incorporate their zany one-off ideas, and where I don’t want to spend a ton of time explaining the system. So what I did is hack together Dreaming’s Arts with Lost’s kith, using Fate Core rules.

The result was pretty awesome. My players had a great time, ending with a mighty triumph over the Goblin King that used all of their biggest abilities with flash at just the right moment. They worked together beautifully, something that Fate Core really encourages. In fact, I learned some tactics from these players, as two of them were familiar with Fate Core already, and were very adept at creating advantages and handing them off to each other for big effects. One of the players wanted me to send her my hack so that she could use it in her own game.

Unfortunately, I only wrote up the rules I needed for the scenario. But I think that in principle someone could easily read through what I’ve done and do the work themselves to fill it out for their own game.

The Hack


For each pre-generated character, I added three Aspects: each character’s high concept, which was basically their kith and seeming; their trouble aspect, which was some way that their kith and seeming could cause trouble for them in everyday life; and an aspect drawn from their Durance and how they survived as a roleplaying hint and also a statement of what they are good at. I then left the last two slots blank and encouraged the players to fill in aspects however they would like.

Custom Skill List

This list is similar to the one that I use for my weekly Fate Core Vampire game. Basically, I reorganize the Fate Core skills as they appear in the core book and the SRD, and replace some of them with White-Wolf names (Charisma, Manipulation). I also add Streetwise and Survival, since in my view those are significant aspects of White Wolf games – Streetwise in particular.

Athletics, Charisma (replaces Rapport), Contacts, Drive, Expression (partially replaces Craft), Fight, Investigate, Kenning (replaces Empathy), Knowledge (academics, science, medicine), Lore (enigmas, supernaturals), Manipulate (replaces Provoke and Deceive), Physique, Resources, Shoot, Stealth, Streetwise, Tech (partially replaces Craft), Will

Kith and Seeming Stunts

For each character, I came up with one Stunt for their Kith and one for their Seeming, adapted from Changeling the Lost. Not all of these will adhere strictly to Stunt rules as written, but they’re in the right range I think.

Darkling – Ephemeral: Any Darkling can spend one Fate point to add +2 to a Stealth roll to move in darkness.

Mirrorskin – The Mercurial Visage: A Mirrorskin can alter her features at will to help her mimic another person, granting a +2 to Manipulation rolls made to do so.

Elemental – The Stuff of the World: Elementals can spend a Fate point once per session to clear all physical stress boxes.

Airtouched – Velocity of the Zephyr: An Airtouched gains a +2 to any Athletics roll related solely to movement speed. 

Fairest – Fairest of Them All: Any Fairest can spend a Fate point to add +2 to a Charisma roll where she can use her appearance to best effect.

Muse – The Tyranny of Ideas: A Muse can spend a Fate point to boost another character’s roll if she has a moment to inspire them.

Ogre – Brute Force: An Ogre can spend a Fate point to add +2 to a Fight roll or a Physique roll related directly to brute strength.

Stonebones – Obdurate Skin: A Stonebones Ogre can spend a Fate point to give herself an armor rating of 2 for a scene.

Wizened – Nimble: A Wizened can spend a Fate point to add +2 to Athletics for a roll relating to nimbleness, including dodging in coming attacks.

Chirurgeon – Analeptic Charm: The Chirurgeon gains +2 to any Knowledge roll used to treat an injury.

Arts as Extras

As I did with my Fate Core hack of Vampire the Masquerade, for this Changeling hack I reduced each Art from five levels to only three, and made each level of the Art cost 2 refresh. Rather than tie them to Skills, I simply give a character skill in each Art as she buys it up, so that at level 1 she has a +1, at level 2 she has a +3, and at level 3 she has a +5. For Arts that have a target or minimum roll, I simply used +0 for level 1, +2 for level 2, and +4 for level 3. This means that most of the time, Arts rolls will be successful, but there is still a risk, while masters of an Art will almost always succeed on activating the 1st level (unless something is tagged against them, really). Another option would be to tie each Art to a Skill (I thought there would be too much overlap here though) and keep the basic target numbers for each level.

Remember, for each of these, I only wrote out the levels that characters in my convention game would have, so this is far from complete. Also, as I said, I’m using Changeling the Lost kiths but Changeling the Dreaming Arts.

For Unleashing, which is new to the 20th Anniversary rules, I decided that the effects would be up to the GM, but that an Unleashing would add one particular Aspect to the scene, which the character could tag once for free.


Unleashing Autumn causes rot, decay, and ruin. The problem is one of scale. Collateral effects can harm anything or anyone nearby, and well as anything or anyone connected through sympathetic magic. You choose which person, place or thing you want to bring to ruin initially, and it spreads from there. Aspect: Ruin and Decay.

  1. +0 Autumn Eyes: enables you to recognize weaknesses and stress points in people and objects.
  2. +2 The Poisoned Apple: the changeling can reify her negative emotions into poison and infuse food or drink with it. Anyone who ingests the food or drink is struck by an attack – mental if Chimerical and physical if Wyrd.
  3. +4 Shivers: gives the changeling the power to haunt a person, place or object. Precise effects are up to the GM, but often involve a new permanent Aspect.


Unleashing Chicanery imposes delusions, but the scope of those delusions often extends far beyond the original intent. You choose whom you want to delude, and another player (or the GM) determines the delusion. Or the delusion can be an Aspect defined by the GM. 

  1. +0 Trick of the Light: the changeling uses this cantrip to become temporarily invisible. She is invisible to other changelings and supernatural creatures unless she makes the effect Wyrd, in which case she is invisible to everyone.
  2. +2 Dream Logic: success puts a victim into a suggestible state for a single scene. They will view your requests and suggestions in the best possible light, and only try to resist if told to do something that is clearly dangerous.
  3. +4 Lost in the Mists: this cantrip imposes a lasting delusion in the target. This cannot be a complicated delusion – something that can be explained in a brief sentence.


Unleashing Chronos is more dangerous even than unleashing most other Arts. Those affected can become unstuck in time, and the resulting weirdness can be more than the Mists can cover. You choose whom or what you want to speed up, slow down, or stop in time. Aspect: Unstuck in Time.

  1. +0 Backward Glance: enables the changeling to look into the past of a particular place. First, determine how far back you are attempting to look. If your roll doesn’t enable a look that far, it automatically fails. +1 One scene, +2 Up to a day, +3 Up to a week, +4 up to a month, +5 a year and a day.
  2. +2 Set in Stone:  through this cantrip, a changeling can remove the target from the normal flow of time. Not frozen in motion, but no longer aging. It is also possible to prevent wounds from healing over time, interfere with chemical reactions, and so on. +2 One day, +3 One week, +4 One month, +5 One year, +6 One decade.
  3. +4 Time Dilation: enables the changeling to move the target forward in time with all of the attendant aging and decay: +4 one year, +5 one decade, +6 one century.


Unleashing Contract might draw the oathbound to you, or even help you seek someone out who would be the right one to undertake a quest. It might also escalate a rivalry to a deadly oath of revenge. The cost is that you often find more than you bargained for. Aspect: Bound by Words.

  1. +0 Done Deal: the changeling can solemnize a formal contract, and the Dreaming will enforce it. The strength of this enforcement is based on your roll and subject to the GM.
  2. +2 Casual Contract: this cantrip can enforce a classic fae trick, turning a casual agreement into a binding contract.
  3. +4 Sanctified Words: this cantrip grants an ongoing boon as part of a contract. As long as it is upheld, the boon (often an Aspect) continues.

Dragon’s Ire

Unleashing Dragon’s Ire inspires greatness in battle, and also escalates the violence involved. Often, a scene will simply receive the Aspect: Dragon’s Ire, useful for violence and violent compels.

  1. +0 Burning Thews: grants a +2 to Physique where strength is concerned and +1 to melee damage for a scene. To use in front of mundanes, must be made Wyrd.  
  2. +2 Dragonscales: grants armor 2 against physical stress for a scene, in addition to the +2 to Physique and +1 melee damage.
  3. +4 Tripping the Ire: in addition to previous levels, the changeling receives a +2 to her Fight skill for the scene. So, +2 to Physique for strength, +1 to melee damage, 2 armor and +2 to Fight skill.


Unleashing Legerdemain causes a torrent of telekinetic activity, much of which is not under the changeling’s direct control. Aspect: Telekinetic Activity

  1. +0 Ensnare: entangles the target in whatever is nearby and makes sense – literal vines, cables, even shag carpet. To escape, the target must make a Physique roll to escape the obstacle.
  2. +2 Mooch: this cantrip enables a changeling to steal a small object, replacing it with a short-lived simulation. Chimerical by default.
  3. +4 Gimmix: the changeling can either hurl a large object, like a washing machine, across the zone, or have longer-term and more precise control over a smaller object. A hurled object deals a base of 4 physical stress.


Unleashing Metamorphoses results in changes to shapes and size to living things all around the changeling. Aspect: Shifting Size and Shape.

  1. +0 Sparrows and Nightingales: enables the changeling to make changes in her or another’s appearance, ranging from things like hair color to apparent kith or ethnicity. The changes last for at last a scene, and up to a year and a day.
  2. +2 Worms and Giants: enables the target to grow or shrink in size. +2 half size or one and a half times larger; +3 one quarter normal size or twice normal size; +4 one eighth or three times; +5 one sixteenth or four times. This size change only lasts for a scene at most, and precise effects are up to the GM to adjudicate on the fly.
  3. +4 Chimeric Exultation: you transform the target into a creature of legend. Specifics have to be determined by the GM, but gryphons can fly and dragons can breathe fire and manticores can sting and so on. Lasts for one scene.


Unleashing Primal causes an elemental storm with unpredictable effects. Usually one or two new environmental aspects. Aspect: Unpredictable Elemental Storm.

  1. +0 Willow Whisper: cantrip enables the changeling to speak with any object or animal, as long as they speak in a whisper. One question per degree of success, and the target’s knowledge is of course limited to what it might plausible know if it was aware.
  2. +2 Eldritch Prime: the changeling is able to summon one element, like fire or water, into a scene directly. Often this will take the place of an Aspect or obstacle.
  3. +4 Dance of the Five Kings: the changeling can manipulate any element that is present in the scene, for the duration of the scene. Usually must be made Wyrd. This element can be used to create obstacles, deal damage, and add Aspects to different zones.


Unleashing Soothsay tends to reveal truths you’d rather remain hidden. Aspect example: Ugly Truth Revealed.

  1. +0 Omen: for each degree of success, the changeling can ask one question about the target of the cantrip. The answers come wrapped in imagery and symbolism, of course.
  2. +2 Seer’s Wisp: the changeling summons a chimerical wisp that leads her to whomever or whatever she names. The wisp often takes an interesting path, and can be a challenge to follow.
  3. +4 Tattletale: enables the changeling to scry distant places, seeing and hearing what is going on there chimerically and unobtrusively.


To unleash Sovereign is to call upon the authority of the Dreaming to strengthen your own. Such power cannot help but foster resentment in those it is used against, of course. Aspect example: Imposing Authority.

  1. +0 Protocol: this cantrip enables a changeling to enforce Fae etiquette for a scene. Everyon in the zone where the proceedings are taking place are bound by Fae etiquette, even if they are not fully aware of it. (Assume some version of feudal rules with Fae quirks) To break protocol requires a Will roll to overcome an obstacle.
  2. +2 Dictum: the changeling gives a single command that must be obeyed. Anything that would shock the conscience or threaten direct harm allows a Will roll to resist by overcoming the obstacle. Dictum can only be used on the same target once a season without spending a Fate point.
  3. +4 Geas: the geas must be physically possible, and it must not require self-harm or harm to loved ones. Otherwise, any task can be laid upon the target with the full weight of the Dreaming enforcing it. The changeling spends 1, 2 or 3 Fate points, or reduces her Refresh permanently by one.
    • 1 Fate point: a simple geas with a minor curse – do not speak until sundown or you will reveal your secrets.
    • 2 Fate points: retrieve the Goblin Goblet or all food and drink will taste fetid for a year and a day
    • 3 Fate points: leave your home and never return, or each step you take will feel like walking on iron knives
    • Permanent Refresh reduced by 1: never speak to your true love again, or you will be the instrument of his death


Unleashing Spring results in riotous growth in all nearby plants. Aspect: Riotous Growth.

  1. +0 Awaken: precise effects are up to the GM, but could include causing a plant to bloom, starting a stalled car, or even awakening someone from a coma. Can also be used, if made Wyrd, to clear either mental or physical stress.
  2. +2 Well of Life: the target is imbued with healing energy. Anyone who touches it is able to clear their stress or a minor consequence.
  3. +4 Renewal: the target is returned to life, or wholeness if an object, until the following sunrise.


Unleashing summer unleashes not only heat but also strength and desire. Aspect example: It’s Getting Hot.

  1. +0 Flicker-Flies: chimerical wisps of light congregate around the target, providing chimerical light equivalent to a torch for the scene. Those nearby also feel subtle stirrings of an emotion of the changeling’s choice.
  2. +2 Aphrodisia: this cantrip targets a living thing or an object, making it desirable to everyone nearby who has a +2 or lower Will. The effect lasts for one scene. Those affected will find the target of the cantrip desirable and fascinating, and there is always a chance that fights might break out…
  3. +4 The Beltane Blade: ignites the ambient Banality in a person or object into red-gold flames. If successful, the cantrip deals 4 physical stress and if the target was not already enchanted, the cantrip enchants them as well, making them vulnerable to chimerical effects and weapons.


Unleashing Wayfare causes everyone affected to move, travel, and even teleport unpredictably. They often end up where their fate directs, for good or ill. Aspect example: Unpredictable Travel.

  1. +0 Hopscotch: enables the changeling to make one enormous leap, or to cause an object to leap into the air. She can attempt to force another creature into the air, but that creature resists with Will. +1 a story up, or about 10 feet. +2 two stories. +3 five storeys. +4 up to 10 storeys. +5 as far as the eye can see.
  2. +2 Quicksilver: doubles one’s movement speed, enabling them to traverse two zones and still have time to act. In addition, the target can take one additional action (and more, if the cantrip succeeds with style).
  3. +4 Flicker Flash: enables the changeling, or the target of the cantrip, to teleport. It must be to a place that the changeling knows, or she must have something in her possession from that place. Failure can mean that she teleports, but to someplace she did not intend.


Unleashing Winter spreads cold, lethargy, and fear to freeze the heart. Aspect: Fearsome Cold.

  1. +0 Hardened Heart: the cold of winter grips the target’s heart, providing an armor rating of 2 against mental stress, but also makes the character appear cold and unfeeling. They may have difficulty making Charisma and Contacts rolls as a result, at the GM’s discretion.
  2. +2 Terror of the Long Night: this cantrip inflicts deep, primordial fear on the target which lasts for a scene. It initially counts as an attack inflicting mental stress which can be resisted with a Will roll. After this, even if the defense is successful, the target must make a Will roll to overcome an obstacle in order to act for the scene. This roll requires a round of mental effort, after which they can act freely.
  3. +4 Stasis: you freeze a person, animal or object in time. As long as it is not touched or moved it will remain in stasis, at minimum, until the next sunrise – or longer: +5 a week, +6 a month, etc.

An Idea That I Dropped

I thought about adding a third stress track, representing the effect of Banality, but decided to just have Banality be a source for physical and mental stress for Changelings, maybe as the result of failing an Art roll, or a way to take stress in order to barely succeed. It could still be thematically present, demanding Will rolls in order to avoid stress from Banality when opening a bank account or something.

There It Is (For Now)

Obviously, there is a ton of work still to be done with this hack, but here is what I have now. It’s a big head-start if you are interested in hacking Changeling for your own Fate Core game. As always, feel free to comment below with your own ideas.

My Brave Sparrow


Back in October, we visited my aunt and uncle in Maine. This would be the second time that my daughter, now five years old, would visit them – out on the Maine coast at Tenant’s Harbor. The last time we were there, a couple of years ago, one of the places we visited was Marshall Point. It is ridiculously beautiful, as much of the Maine coast is, featuring plenty of ocean spray and stones and a lighthouse, as well as a museum that has never been open when we were there.

What I remember most from that first visit two years ago is that for two hours, my daughter just ran around squealing with delight. It was clearly her favorite place on Earth. Something about the sea, and cold wind, just sets her off.

I was glad to see that, on our next visit two years later, her joy remained. But the last couple of years have had some hard bits for us as a family, and five is a long way from three. At first, she was really hesitant. She wanted to hold hands on the stony trails down to the water. It took some convincing to get her to walk with me out to the lighthouse itself. She had just learned how to identify poison ivy from our traipsing out behind our house, and there was a lot there to avoid, which made her nervous. It was wonderful, but I definitely had to lead the way.

While we were on that trip, I had printed out some interesting indie games to read through while on vacation. One of those games was Brave Sparrow, a fascinating little game by Avery Alder of Buried Without Ceremony. It is designed as an alternate reality experience. In brief, you are a sparrow, but you have forgotten who you are and how to fly. So you have to find your wings again. You gather feathers, and then you go and seek out numinous experiences in beautiful places, and see whether you can re-attach your feathers in order to fly again.

Specifically, one goes on missions. To count as a mission, you must take a risk, and act with courage in a place of beauty.

This game was on my mind on our second trip to Marhsall Point. I was proud of my daughter, because I know that it took a lot of courage to follow me around in a place she probably only barely remembered. And I’m learning that kids go through ups and downs with everything, including fearfulness.

Our second visit was entirely different. Her adventure meter had apparently refilled, and the tide had gone out. Not only were we clambering over sea-wet stones, but we were naming and claiming them: Baby Snail Island; S Island (featuring a stone that once had a compass etched into it, but only the S for South remained). She chose her own path, and took risks, and led the way. She was agile, and confidently chose the best way from rock to rock, navigating obstacles and stopping when she was stuck.

She acted with courage, again, in a place of beauty. My heart was filled, and so was hers, I think. She even inspired her grandma to clamber around on the stones with us.

I’m not sure what to write, here, but I’d made a note to write something, so here it is three months later.

I remember thinking, this is about the best thing I can ever do as a dad. Be with her while she acts with courage in a place of beauty.

My brave sparrow.


Clockwork: Dominion Is Out!

clockwork dominion cover

The year is 1999, or maybe 2000, and I’m having a series of conversations with my friend Zeke about this game he’s designing called Spiral. It includes a card-based mechanic, and some lore that I don’t remember apart from the snakes with robot arms. I only dimly remember the conversation, and I’m surprised Zeke remembers it at all.

Fast-forward 13 or 14 years, and science-fiction Spiral has become Victorian-Steampunk Clockwork, and the card mechanic Zeke was developing is all grown up. He asked me to help out with the RPG project, and my official title eventually became ‘Editor.’ Clockwork became Clockwork: Dominion. We had a highly successful Kickstarter campaign. Many hundreds of hours (or more) of editing, and thousands of hours of writing, design and testing for my friends Zeke and Than later, and our new TRPG Clockwork: Dominion is available for purchase.

The game itself is excellent. The art is excellent. Zeke did a great job with the layout and book design. I have yet to hold a physical copy in my hands, but it probably won’t be long. I went into this project not even a fan of Steampunk and Victorian stories and games, but I’m proud to have helped to make it a game I would recommend to anyone, period. You can pick up Quick Start rules for free to get a feel for things, but for the whole experience you really need to core rulebook and the custom deck of cards. Honestly, I’m not even aware of a close second in terms of Steampunk TRPGs.

clockwork dominion quick start rules

I’m really proud of this game, of the whole project, of all the work that went into it over at Reliquary Game Studios (by which I mean, on Google Docs). I wish I could be at GenCon this year because Clockwork will have booth space and books to sell (and sign) and all of our game sessions have long since sold out. It’s going to be awesome, and been awesome, and I expect, will continue to be awesome, as more than just the core rules are coming.

Anyway, check out this game. You’ll be happy you did.