RPG Mechanics Round-Up #14: Fate Core/FAE

Player Ideas as Self-Compels

Many GMs love using the ideas that players come up with during play. Sometimes the thing that players think is going on is more interesting than what you had in mind, so you just steal that idea. I like this as an overt system in Fate Core – the player comes up with an idea, and the GM can hand them a Fate point in order to make it true. “I hope there aren’t ratmen on the other side of that door…”

Tag Aspects to Help

In many versions of Fate Core, you have three Aspects that are for your character alone and two more that connect your character to the others. I like the idea of using those connective Aspects when helping those characters, letting you spend a Fate point to grant them a +2 on their test.

Aspects: Switching Between Worlds

I like the idea of a Fate Core game where the characters are switching between two worlds – maybe alternate realities, or maybe a mundane world and a fantasy world, etc. The fun would be designing Aspects that are beneficial in one world and that are a liability in the other. Another challenge would be in Skill selection, as there should be Skills that are useful in one world and not in the other – not a general Skill like Lore, but maybe Arcana for the magical world and Education for the mundane one.

Fate and Helping Dice

I like making systems more concrete at the table, using fiddly bits where I can. For helping in Fate, I like the idea of passing the player you are helping one of your own dice (especially since Fate Core dice sets tend to be distinctive colors) that they put on a “+” before their roll. So they end up having a total of five dice to combine.

D&D Using Fate Dice

DnD using Fate Core and Fate Dice. Ability score = DC for everything. Advantage is a + and disadvantage is a -. You would have a much worse chance of doing much worse or much better than your score, and obviously would never be more than +/- 4. But it’s an interesting idea, to me at least, and would result in much more reliable/predictable success and failure and far less swinginess in results.

It occurred to me that since D&D ability scores are from 3 to 20 and DCs tend to be in the 10 to 20+ range with 5E’s bounded accuracy, you could actually use Fate dice for D&D. Get rid of the ability score bonuses and just use the straight ability scores, and you can roll Fate dice versus the given DCs. There would need to be some adjustments made, and there would be more rolls that are simply impossible. It may very well be too much of a spread, but it would be interesting to try out I think. Just set the DCs based on a sense of how good someone would have to be to do these things. Proficiencies could let you set one die to a + before you roll. Advantage could let you set another die to a +, and disadvantage make you set one to a -, and if they cancel out you just roll.

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Scaling D&D 5E Spells

My DM and I were talking about how there are D&D 5E spells that should scale but don’t, so I thought I’d lay down some notes on how spells could scale in my games via house rules. These won’t be full spell write-ups, just my initial thoughts that would become house rules if players wanted to use spells in this way.

1st Level Spells

Alarm –> Greater Alarm

3rd level. If you cast Alarm using a 3rd level or higher spell slot, the area that it can cover is extended from a 20′ cube to an area up to a 100′ cube defined by the caster. This area can include any number of portals (windows, doors, etc) and can be limited in the same ways as the original spell.

Animal Friendship –> Charm Monster

This one is already essentially scaled up as charm monster.

Grease –> Wave of Grease

If you cast this spell with a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, you can create an additional 10′ square area of grease per additional spell level.

Jump –> Group Jump

If you cast this spell using a 2nd level or higher spell slot, you can affect one additional creature per additional spell slot.

Speak with Animals –> Speak with Monsters

4th level. As with speak with animals, but you are able to speak with creatures of any type, whether they normally speak a language or not.

Tenser’s Floating Disk –> Tenser’s Island

3rd level. You create a disk 10′ in diameter that can carry 5,000lbs but otherwise functions like Tenser’s Floating Disk.

Thunderwave –> Thunder Cone

2nd level. As with thunderwave, but the effect is in the shape of a 15′ cone. Thundercone could also be an entirely different spell.

Unseen Servant –> Unseen Staff

3rd level. You summon a staff of unseen servants, and the maximum distance from you extends from 60′ to 120′. The half-dozen servants otherwise function like unseen servants.

2nd Level Spells

Cloud of Daggers –> Storm of Daggers

When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, you can choose to create one additional 5′ cube of daggers per spell level rather than increase the damage.

Enlarge/Reduce –> Greater Enlarge/Reduce

4th level. Your size is tripled or divided by three, moving from Medium to Huge or Medium to Tiny for example. Weapon damage increases by 2d4 or is reduced by 2d4, with additional effects at the DM’s discretion.

Locate Animals or Plants –> Locate Anything

Locate Object –> Locate Anything

Locate Creature –> Locate Anything

6th level. Name a creature, person, or location. For the duration of the spell (concentration, up to 1 hour) you know the direction to the target of the spell as long as it is on the same plane of existence, regardless of distance.

Misty Step –> Misty Journey

4th level. As misty step, but you are able to affect up to six willing creatures at once if they are within 30′ of you. If creatures are currently engaged in melee, they will provoke attacks of opportunity when they step (but not when they arrive). (That’s the limiting factor for this potentially very powerful effect)

3rd Level Spells

Speak with Dead –> Greater Speak with Dead

5th level. As speak with dead, but the target does not need to have a mouth and can be undead. You can call up any spirit as long as some physical remains exist.

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Playing with Gender in D&D

Playing with Gender

This all started with goblins, but ended up being this little brainstorm I had during Save Against Fear. There are little kernels of this idea in D&D already, but I wanted to play out a view of sex and gender for the major intelligent species of D&D that fit with the lore as it is but was more interesting than just assuming two sexes and two genders in every case (which is ridiculous even with humans alone, not to mention every other intelligent species in D&D).

Note: this is not me wishing we could have lots of discussions and arguments about pronouns, multiplied times all of these intelligent species. That does not sound fun for me. He, she and they should cover it for these options in my opinion.

Goblin Gender

Otherwise this will be alphabetical, but I’m starting here because this was the first thought I had that led me along this path. I’ve always wondered about goblinoids: goblins, hobgoblins, and bugbears. Where do the drastically different body types come from? Do they intermarry? Can they interbreed? In previous editions they were just an outlier – where most intelligent species are ‘humanoid’ they are over there, the ‘goblinoids’, the other.

I realized, wouldn’t it be fun if all goblinoids are the same species, except they have three sexes, and the three types of goblinoids are their three sexes? So one sex is goblin, and one sex is hobgoblin, and one sex is bugbear, and it takes all three to reproduce. They all are born goblin-ish, and then have a big growth spurt if they are going to grow up to be hobgoblins, and then another growth spurt to become bugbears.

If you ask them how they make babies with three sexes, they of course attack you, because that’s an incredibly rude question.

Dragonborn Gender

Dragonborn (and maybe lizardfolk as well) are hermaphroditic with three genders. A dragonborn self-fertilizes when they are ready and lays a clutch of eggs. This is taxing and difficult, and when the dragonborn hatch they are much more helpless than normal for reptiles and require years of care like human infants and children. So the three genders are the One Who Lays, the One Who Guards, and the One Who Gathers. The first one is obvious. The second gender is taken on by a dragonborn who takes responsibility of guardianship for the layer and for the young. The third gender is for the dragonborn who takes responsibility to go out into the world and accomplish what needs to be done to support all three – hunting, gathering, earning gold, whatever.

Dwarf Gender

Dwarves have two sexes and one gender. Every wonder why all the jokes about dwarf women having beards and looking a lot like dwarf men? That’s because dwarves only have one gender. Though males tend to have thicker body and facial hair than females, they all are performing the same gender for all intents and purposes. Perhaps there are nuances there visible only to fellow dwarves.

Elf Gender

Elves have two sexes but are genderfluid over time. When you meet an elf, you are meeting someone on a 700 year long journey of exploration.

Gnome Gender

Ancient gnomes had a very strict system of two sexes and two genders. Modern gnomes are all transgressive about how they perform gender, and often take on aspects of the genders they see around them among other intelligent species. Intersex gnomes are held in high regard, meaning that they now functionally have three sexes.

Half-Elf Gender

Half-elves are normally born to human and elven parents at some point in the elf’s centuries-long life. What they call their parents could be unique to a particular half-elf, and they might very well be born to a mother who later, when the half-elf meets them as an adult, is now a man, and possibly even a father to new children. So half-elves tend to cling to their human side for stability, or embrace the fluidity of their elven side.

Half-Orc Gender

Half-orcs raised with orcs are given their purpose from the gods. Half-orcs raised with humans tend to choose and perform a human gender, though sometimes they encounter orcs later in life and are given a purpose then.

Halfling Gender

Halflings have two sexes and three genders. The three genders for halflings are male, female, and bachelor, in honor of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. And, as far as we can tell, Merry and Pippin and Gaffer Gamgee and loads of others. Of course, women can be bachelors too. No self-respecting halfling would call her a bachelorette.

Human Gender

Humans have two sexes and three genders. But you don’t need terminology for this. You just describe men and women and intergender/nonbinary people, and then some of the men happen to be trans men and some of the women happen to be trans women. You have a lot less baked in bigotry, which is fun anyway.

Some Other Thoughts

Kenku Gender

Kenku keep their sexes secret from outsiders, though most assume they have two. In a kenku community, there is the gender of the sitter and the gender of the builder. A sitter is the one who primarily sits on the eggs while they develop, though a group might trade off on this activity, one tends to be primarily. The builder is the one who is responsible for building a nest, initially to garner the interest of potential sitters.

Orc Gender

Until adolescence orcs do not acknowledge gender. At adolescence, an orc goes into the wilderness to commune with the gods (this could be a metaphorical urban wilderness). The gods tell them their purpose and place in society, and that is functionally their gender. Some will have the purpose of parenting, but others won’t, and the part in society they perform is more important than what other species tend to think of as gender.

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Shame Is Good.

Often when we say “shaming”, we mean “humiliating.” That is, when one person tries to force a feeling of shame on another person as a way to harm them or coerce them. This is an unfortunate change in the meaning of the word, because shame is good, and crucial to social and emotional life. A healthy relationship with shame is just like a healthy relationship with anger or fear or happiness, in that it does its job. But what is shame’s job?

I go with the work of Paul Ekman and others here in the area of discussing a handful of core emotions that serve social and evolutionary purposes, each of which one can find in every society all over the world. One of those core emotions is shame. (For a rough course in this theory, watch the film Inside Out. Seriously. It’s amazing, and they did their homework) Shame’s job is to acknowledge wrongdoing and remorse as a way to reconnect a person with their community. This is the face of shame (sometimes feigned, but consistent and recognizable):

The Universal Expressions | Oh, Not Him Again

Ironically, in some cases we see this expression on the face of a person who is denying wrongdoing, but that’s what indicates that shame is a deeply-rooted and universal expression – it comes up unconsciously in one’s face when the emotion is present, and it looks similar cross-culturally.

In brief, shame says “Yeah, I screwed up.” And in our evolutionary past, when being ostracized could easily mean starving to death or being eaten, it was crucial to allow people to acknowledge wrongdoing and seek reconciliation in order for them to survive.

Shame is not a popular feeling – this whole post came from an ongoing conversation with a friend of mine (more than one friend, but one in particular), wherein he says that shame is the root of evil and should be rooted out. The thing is, when I talk to him about what he means by “shame”, he doesn’t talk about the universal emotion described above and unconsciously expressed in our faces. Rather, he is talking about humiliation, or shaming, which is completely different in my opinion.

Shame is an acknowledgement; shaming is an assault. But we confuse the two, and I think it’s a significant problem. This problem is exemplified by Donald Trump.

I think that the core element of Trump’s personality, which as driven his rise to power, his persistence despite massive moral, financial, and professional failures that would have sunk anyone else long ago, is his utter inability to experience shame. He is pathologically shameless, and I think this lies behind everything else about him – the grandstanding, the weird obsession with gold and his hand size, picking fights randomly, punching down, cheating everyone in his life, betraying allies at the slightest sign of disloyalty, and constant lying.

If Donald Trump were capable of shame, he would be an entirely different person. A far more tolerable person. He’s exactly the kind of person who would be ostracized in order to be devoured by wild animals 20,000 years ago, but in a media-driven age of radical capitalism, he instead becomes a brand. He becomes unavoidable, irresistible for some. He becomes President, because why not? His image is that he is untouchable, the “Teflon Don”, because nothing can bring him down, and the key to that untouchability is his apparent inability to experience shame.

What Do We Do With Shame?

This is a key question as we continue to reorient society to be a place where more people are heard and their concerns taken seriously. Women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, and others are, in fits and starts, over decades of conflict and struggle, making a place for themselves in our white supremacist, patriarchal, hetero-normative, etc. culture. Nobody knows how to do this. We have to dismantle some things, and build up some new things, and unlearn a lot of deeply ingrained habits, and learn new life-giving habits, all at once, in public, while the world burns around us. A non-trivial challenge, one might say.

The purpose of shame is to visibly acknowledge wrongdoing, that a transgression has occurred, and to prompt one to make amends and be re-integrated into the community. But how do we do that in a way that is fair?

In the past, there was a “boys will be boys” mentality applied to the wrongdoing of white males in the United States, as well as in the case of institutions that enforced white supremacy like the police. There were never real repercussions for wrongdoing – certainly nothing resembling justice or equity, even less so reconciliation. This mentality still exists everywhere it is not actively being brought to light and rooted out. There is a lot of work to do.

One response has been to burn people down when their wrongdoing is brought to light and acknowledged. People who are critical of this impulse, like most recently Dave Chappelle in Sticks and Stones, call this “cancel culture.” The sense is that if someone is caught in wrongdoing and called out, they are cancelled and that’s it. No more from them in the public sphere, ever. The problem, I think, is that there is no way back. A healthy person who feels appropriate shame and wants to make amends cannot do so, and is treated very similarly to someone who is shameless and spiteful and never admits any wrongdoing. Given this situation, where shame cannot function healthfully, successful people will find that shame is a liability and we will encourage more Trumps and Trump-ism.

Shame is crucial, but for shame to work, there has to be a way back. Otherwise we are punishing healthy shame, and it’s hard to blame people for working hard not to feel that shame if they can avoid it, and keep that shame from moving them to reconcile.

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Curse of Strahd: Non-Racist Vistani

I haven’t run Curse of Strahd (one of my players hates vampires so I’m not likely to do so any time soon) but I have read through it, and have read about it, and parts of it are racist AF. Here’s a great article that lays out how the depiction of the Vistani and mongrelfolk in particular are deeply racist. I’m going to talk more about the Vistani – the mongrelfolk have been in D&D monster manuals for decades and need their own consideration, in the context of all of the racism that is baked into D&D.

I’m not going to go through all of the problems and questions of Curse of Strahd either – I think there are things that a DM can adjust about the module, and other things that require some more consideration, and which definitely might or might not be good for a particular group; there’s a lot of violence against children baked in that I would have to remove, for example. (Pun intended)

I was thinking about the Vistani and how I would run them, because there are some aspects of them as a story idea that I like. I like that they can travel between worlds, and that they are the only ones who can traverse the Mists of Ravenloft. What struck me is how similar they could be to a carnival or circus – I imagined adolescents of the multiverse running away to join the Vistani, and I had my answer.

The Vistani is a carnival.

Now, there are plenty of stereotypes about “carnies” as well, though they tend to have more to do with social status than race, as with the Roma on whom the Vistani are obviously based. The advantage of a Vistani carnival, however, is that it can divorce the idea of the Vistani from race or species entirely. They are bound together not by ethnicity or even culture, but by sub-culture and profession. They are entertainers who wander from place to place.

I think that this retains a lot of what’s potentially interesting about the Vistani while getting rid of most of what’s problematic. You can still have a fortune teller – she can even be “Madam Eva”, a changeling playing up to tropes and stereotypes about fortune tellers at carnivals. Some of them can still be shifty thieves, since people who wander from place to place are more likely to take a loose view to the laws and customs of any place in particular. They can be insular, secretive, and highly loyal to one another; they can be exotic and play to tropes if they want because they are entertainers. They can even keep the reputation for stealing children, coming from young people running away to join them periodically. They can retain their dramatic, colorful dress, as I can see them taking on articles of clothing and jewelry (and magic items) from the various places they travel as a way to mark how long they have been part of the carnival and how far they’ve traveled.

The key is that none of this is linked to a real-world ethnic group, or even an imaginary one. None of these traits are intrinsic to them, and you can just as easily find honest, forthcoming, or even boring Vistani, because Vistani just means something like Circque du Soleil or Ringling Brothers. Oh, the Vistani are in town! That’s so fun! Also, the Vistani are in town, so watch your coins.

Given this idea, I think it would be cool if the Vistani kept showing up in all kinds of campaigns. You need some random group of people to give the PCs some cryptic hints or sell them some magic items? Hey, look, the Vistani. And so what if these particular Vistani happen to all be kenku and loxodon with a fire genasi ringleader? Now something racist has become something cooler, more interesting, more versatile, and more fun.

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RPG Setting Round-Up #3: Villains by Necessity

Villains by Necessity is a novel by Eve Forward, and reading it was the start of my ongoing ideas about running a D&D style campaign where evil PCs save the world despite themselves. I start from the germ of her idea, which is very D&D-esque, and have built outward from there. I’ve run what I call, uncreatively, “The Evil Campaign” three times so far, and it has been consistently really fun for me and for the players. For one of those run-throughs, we handed off DMing so I also got to play in a version of it. The premise is pretty simple, I can just bullet-point it:

  • The Last Battle against evil has happened, and good won. The Dark Lord or Lady or Whomever was cast down in ruin, their towering iron fortress leveled (or recycled), and their armies scattered.
  • In the aftermath, the forces of good deal with the question of how to handle all of the leftover ‘evil’ people and races (yes, this campaign takes racial alignment starting at face-value, as a way to criticize it – it is an assumption of many in the world that is false). Basically, Sauron is defeated, so what do we do with all of these Orcs, Easterlings, and Haradrim?
  • Rehabilitation Camps are opened, where evil creatures are redeemed through calisthenics, encouraging mantras, re-education, and of course some quiet slave labor.
  • 100 years pass, and the PCs are the last evil people they know in the whole world. They find out that there is a scheme to magically eliminate evil forever, and they grudgingly come together for mutual survival and to stop that scheme.

To me this is a fun campaign idea that addresses some of the problems that evil campaigns run into, and I encourage you to spin it off and run your own. Here are some notes and ideas I have for my next one.

D&D Roadside Attractions

DnD needs more roadside attractions as PCs travel around. They could be related to the rise of the Heroes of Legend, or to things that used to exist, like a theme park that is modeled after an orc village, where you can buy “authentic handmade orc crafts” and drink “traditional orc blood-mead.” The kinds of roadside attractions you create would be a great way to tell the players what people think their history is, what they value, and even what they have forgotten. A 1st level adventure could clearly be the PCs coming across a mysterious roadside attraction. Someone is charging admission, but they go further in than they’re supposed to, and find out this “ruin” is still active.

So, google some real-world roadside attractions, and then create D&D versions of those. A giant concrete dragon advertising a caravanserai. The world’s largest ball of hemp rope, the very rope that was once given to adventurers 50 feet at a time! A library named after a famous barbarian princess and decorated with taxidermy monsters.

An Angel for Every Town

Every city has its own angel. And the angels should be freaky, like Bible angels and mythical ones more than D&D ones. The angel will become the theme of the city – angel of rivers, angel of trees, angel of iron, etc. This angel should be a constant presence while you are in the city. It could be the reason there isn’t much of a police force, and not many soldiers guarding a city. What would make this more interesting is to have the angel maintaining its own priorities that are not understood by the mortal populace, who assume the angel is there on behalf of their religion, and the angel lets them think that in order to accomplish what it wants to accomplish.

I like this as a call-back to Revelation, where there are messages for each of the angels of seven early churches.

Goblin Dimorphism (Trimorphism?)

Hobgoblins are just female goblins, kind of like the etymology of names for female humans in many languages (man/woman, ish/ishah). Maybe bugbears are a third gender, but goblins won’t explain how it all works to non-goblins. Humans took to calling them bugbears from folklore, and because they didn’t have a word for a third gender. So goblins are just three genders, and if you ask them how reproduction works for them, they tend to kill you in your sleep. Maybe goblin children all look similar, but then grow up and hit puberty and some grow larger to become hobgoblins, or larger and hairier to become bugbears.

Arcanotech Religious Interface

This would also work for a religion in a setting like the Ninth World – I’m imagining an arcano-technological interface that lets you select from a number of gods with which to make contact. Contacting the deity is like talking to Alexa or Siri. Clergy charge for access, a one-question amount, or by the minute like a phone-sex line, and they keep timekeeping devices handy to make sure you don’t go over your minutes. Addicts show up, wanting the experience of talking to a deity again and again. Are these really gods, or AIs, or demons, or complex algorithms telling people what they want to hear? Cold-readers in another room with remote access?

Truly the Darkest Timeline?

The defeat of the Dark One caused a rift in the multiverse, and there is an alternate world where the Dark One won, which is demonstrably worse than the default setting for the evil campaign (which is far from perfect). It is like the Midnight setting, a place of widespread misery, repression, and necromancy. In part, this is just my reaction to the vapid morality of “good and evil are just two sides of the same coin”, which is of course absurd. Good-intentioned people can create a dystopia, which is what the evil campaign is about, but good and evil aren’t both somehow needed for “balance.”

In part this comes from my own daydreams about an alternate universe where Al Gore was declared President by the Supreme Court, climate change was mitigated, and we’re all in self-driving electric cars enjoying our socialized medicine, there never was an Iraq War, etc.

Have you ever run an evil campaign? It’s tricky. How did yours go?

The True Pillars of D&D

Sorry, this one sneaked out less finished than usual.

If you ask WotC, they say that D&D has three pillars: social interaction, exploration, and combat. If you watch a game of D&D, or listen to an actual play, though, I think what you actually see are the four true pillars of D&D, which are as follows:

Zany Plans

Some examples from actual plays I’ve been listening to lately include “My only weapon is a bear trap, so I helicopter it around my head to slow my fall”, “I put the vampire’s head in a bag of holding, then destroy the bag of holding”, “I disguise myself as the love of Strahd’s life to save my friends.” I’m not sure what it is about ridiculous plans and D&D – maybe it’s a problem with how clearly D&D is aimed at a single outcome (a fight) and players get squirrely. Why would I do the obvious thing again when I can do something absurd and make my friends laugh?

Part of it is that players don’t want to stop. They come to a challenge, and they lack the obvious means to overcome it, but don’t want the fun to stop. So they try something ridiculous.

Shopping Trips

Few people talk about how ridiculous it is that the default D&D setting is rooted in capitalism. It isn’t the slightest bit medieval, really, apart from some of the color. But shopping trips have been a part of pretty much every trad TRPG I’ve ever played. I mean, these books have extensive lists of prices for a reason.

This is a pillar of D&D that I don’t find all that much fun. I make house rules to avoid it, but it usually doesn’t work. About half of my players at any given time hear the siren call of a shopping trip.

And it’s understandable: why risk their lives to scrape together piles of gold except to go spend it?

Long Conversations with Unnamed NPCs

Few things will make a NPC more fascinating to D&D players than not bothering to name them. Present an Important Person who has a cool name and will be central to the plot later, and players might not even notice. But they walk into a tavern and there’s some rando behind the bar, and suddenly that random person you came up with on the fly is the center of attention.

My advice: take the plot things you had for the named NPC and give as much of it as you can to this suddenly-fascinating roasted-insect vendor or whomever.

Checking Your Phone During Combat

This pillar comes from in-person play more than actual play, though if you are playing over Discord it is easy to have any number of other windows open or your phone offscreen. But combat is slow, even at a well-run table, and it’s hard to keep people from wandering off and checking their phones. It just is.

What Are the Pillars of Your Game?