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  • 300: Earth & Water — Tense, Fun, Card-Driven Wargame Goodness for All

    by Candice Harris

    In April 2021, I posted an overview and my initial impressions of The Shores of Tripoli, a 1-2 player entry-level, card-driven wargame on the First Barbary War from designer Kevin Bertram and publisher Fort Circle Games. I recently had the pleasure of checking out 300: Earth & Water, yet another fun, light-weight, quick-playing card-driven wargame for two players. This time, instead of pirate naval battles in the early 19th century, we jump further back in time to 449 BCE for a taste of the Greco-Persian Wars.


    In 2018, a Japanese edition of 300: Greco-Persian Wars was released from designer Yasushi Nakaguro under his self-published brand Bonsai Games. In 2021, Nuts! Publishing, who kindly provided me a review copy, is releasing French and English editions opf the design with the updated title 300: Earth & Water, which is currently available for retail pre-order, targeted for release in May 2021. In addition, German and Italian editions are coming from publishers Schwerkraft-Verlag and Ergo Ludo Editions, respectively.

    In 300: Earth & Water, two players duke it out in a strategic, area-control battle in the Greco-Persian Wars, which lasted fifty years from the Ionian Revolt in 499 BCE to the Peace of Callias around 449 BCE. One player represents the Greeks (red) gathered around the Athenians, and the other controls the Persians, fighting for the hegemony of the eastern Mediterranean. Regardless of which side you play, your goal is to control more cities than your opponents.

    Set-up for 300: Earth & Water is quick and simple. You place a few wooden cubes (armies) and discs (fleets) on the game board for both the Persian (blue) and Greek (red) armies, shuffle the deck of 16 event cards, and place black markers on the campaign and score tracks and then you're ready to go.

    Game set-up
    The game board is a map showing Greece and a portion of Asia Minor at the time of the Greco-Persian Wars. On the map, you'll find cities connected by roads, with some cities having ports represented by a circle with wavy lines. Each city has amphorae icons to represent the number of armies you can feed if you control the city. The Greeks and the Persians each have two major cities: Athenai and Sparta for the Greeks, and Ephesos and Abydos for the Persians.

    During the fifty years of the Greco-Persian Wars, Persia launched three campaigns against Greece, but in 300: Earth & Water, the Persians can launch up to five campaigns during a game. The game ends if a player achieves an automatic victory or when five campaigns have been completed.

    Each campaign is split into four phases:

    ---(1) Preparation: Acquire cards, and deploy armies and fleets.
    ---(2) Operation: Play cards to trigger events, move, and battle each other.
    ---(3) Supply: Supply armies and discard down to your card carryover limit.
    ---(4) Scoring: Count the number of cities you control to determine which player scores for the campaign.

    Once the scoring phase is complete, the campaign ends and the next one begins unless you've finished the fifth (final) campaign.

    "Sudden Death of the Great King" cardDuring the Preparation phase, each player gets the opportunity to spend talents, the game's currency, to acquire cards, and deploy armies and fleets from their reserve onto the game board. The Persian player can spend up to 12 talents each campaign, or 10 talents if they have a card from the previous campaign in hand, whereas the Greek player has only 6 talents to spend each campaign, but can hold on to up to four cards from the previous campaign.

    Starting with the Persian player, first you choose how many cards you want to purchase, then draw your cards from the deck, and read the effects to see whether the campaign is terminated by the sudden death of the Persian King via the Persian event card "Sudden Death of the Great King". When this happens, the Persian player shuffles all the cards in their hand with the discard pile to form a new draw pile, then launches a new campaign.

    Assuming the Persian King doesn't unexpectedly die, the Persian player will continue their Preparation phase by purchasing and placing armies and fleets out on the map in areas they control. Cards and armies cost 1 talent each, but fleets cost 2 talents for the Persians The Persian player can also alternatively spend 6 talents to build the pontoon bridge across the Hellespont to connect the road between Abydos and Pella for improving their land movement options.

    The "Sudden Death of the Great King" card can be triggered by the Persian player only two times per game, using a cube on the game board to track this. First, Darius dies suddenly of illness, then Xerxes is assassinated. This event triggering adds an interesting element to the game as it can push the game along by reducing the number of campaigns you play. Sometimes it'll be exactly what you want if you're in the lead, but when you're not, it can be undesirable. Regardless, I found it to be very interesting as it added a bit of welcome suspense to the Preparation phase.

    After the Persian player finishes preparing, the Greek player follows in a similar fashion, first deciding how many cards they want to purchase, drawing cards, then purchasing and placing armies and fleets. Not only does the Greek player have fewer talents to spend each Preparation phase, but they also start the game with only 6 armies and 3 fleets in their reserve compared to the Persians having 20 armies and 5 fleets in their reserve. This can appear a tad daunting for the Greek player, but the Greeks have a better starting position on the map and are better at combat to balance things out.

    There are no limits to the number of armies players can place each Preparation phase, but both players can acquire only a max of six cards and two fleets per campaign. After the Greek player prepares, it's time to jump into the Operation phase.

    The Operation phase is where most of the action unfolds in 300: Earth & Water. Players alternate taking turns to move their armies and fleets, attack opponent armies and fleets, and capture enemy cities. Starting with the Persian player, you can either play a card to trigger the event, discard a card for movement, or you can pass. If you're out of cards, you have to pass. The Operation phase ends once both players pass successively.

    Each card has an event for the Greek player on the top, and an event for the Persian player on the bottom. When you play a card for an event, you simply follow the instructions on the card for your particular faction. Then you discard the card face up on the discard pile. Here are a few examples of the event cards:




    While there are only 16 cards in the deck, it is a shared deck and each game can play out very differently depending on which combination of cards each player has on a given campaign/round. When you're budgeting in the Preparation phase, you have to decide how many cards to buy versus spending talents to build up your forces on the board. As great as it is to have a lot of cards from which to choose, is it worth the sacrifice of having fewer units on the board, leaving yourself vulnerable to attacks and poorly positioned for capturing cities? Alternatively, there are advantages and disadvantages to placing a ton of armies on the board, and buying fewer cards considering you can't take any actions when you run out of cards. This is all to say that there can be a surprisingly, impressive amount of variation of gameplay with this slim 16-card deck since the number of cards you draw and play each round will not always be the same.

    If you don't want to or can't play an event on one of your cards, you can discard a card for land or naval movement. For land movement, choose a city occupied by your armies and move one or more of those armies along a road to a different city. You can move as far as you'd like, but your armies must stop when they enter a city that does not contain any armies (from either side) or when they enter a city occupied by an enemy army. If the city is occupied by an enemy army, you immediately engage in a land battle.

    The Persian forces coming to fight in the port of Athenai...Land battles are played over multiple rounds until there is a winner. First players roll dice, one per army up to a max of three dice no matter the number of armies. The winner of the round is the player who rolled the highest single die. A roll of 4 or higher counts as a 4 for the Persian player since the Persians' combat skills are inferior to the heavily-armed Greeks. However if the battle is in one of the Persian major cities (Ephesus or Abydos), any die roll of 5 or more is a 5 since the Persians fought better in Asia than elsewhere.

    Once you determine the winner of the round, the loser removes one army, returning it to their reserve where it can be deployed again during the next campaign. If the players tie, meaning their highest dice are the same, both players remove an army. At this point, if there are remaining armies from both sides, players have the option to retreat, starting with the attacker. If not, you start another round of battle until only one side's armies are present in the city.

    You can also discard a card to move fleets from one port to another, which can initiate naval combat in a similar way to land movement initiating land combat. When moving fleets, if your armies are in a port city, each fleet there can carry one army up to a maximum of three armies. If enemy fleets are in the destination port, naval combat ensues. Once naval combat is resolved (the same way as land combat), if the attacker wins and is transporting armies, the armies are placed in the corresponding city. If any enemy armies occupy the city, you immediately resolve land combat.

    Players alternate turns, playing cards as events, discarding cards to move and attack with armies and fleets, and passing. Once both players have passed consecutively, the Supply phase begins starting with the Persians. who discard any remaining cards, optionally holding onto one card to start the next campaign. If they do, they'll be limited to 10 talents to spend in the next campaign Preparation phase instead of the usual 12.

    Next you check for military attrition for the Persian armies by comparing the amount of amphorae (food) in the cities under Persian control (not including the major cities) to the number of Persian armies on the map. If the amount of armies exceeds the amount of amphorae, excess armies are removed. Each city on the map has 1-3 amphorae (food) icons.

    As the final step in the Supply phase, you check your lines of communication. Your armies must have a line of communication with one of your major cities. If a city containing your armies doesn't have a line of communication, those armies are removed unless its port has at least one of your fleets since it's considered to have maritime supply. After the Persians supply, the Greeks do the same, except they can hold up to four cards in hand to start the next campaign. After the Greeks supply, players proceed to the Scoring phase.

    In the Scoring phase, both players count the points from cities they control to determine their score the current campaign. Each controlled city gives you 1 point, or 2 points if it's a major city. Take the difference of both players' scores and advance the scoring marker that many spaces in favor of the side that scored the most points. If either side has lost control of both their major cities — meaning your opponent controls them — the game immediately ends. Otherwise, advance the campaign marker to start the next campaign.

    In the example below, the Greek player controls three cities, plus two major cities for a total of 7 points. The Persian player controls four cities, plus two major cities for a total of 8 points. Since the difference is 1 point in favor of the Persians, the score marker advances 1 space toward the Persian side.


    The game ends at the end of the fifth campaign — and the player with the scoring advantage wins — or if either player achieves an automatic victory by having control of both of their opponent's major cities during a scoring phase.

    300: Earth & Water surprised me quite a bit. It sounded cool when I read the high-level description of it, and considering I love CDGs, I suspected it would be right up my alley — but I wasn't expecting to have so many fun and tense "Ohhhhhh!" moments, and outbursts of laughter from enjoying it so much.

    It's light enough that you can teach it to just about anyone, gamers and non-gamers alike. Plus, it's fast and easy to set up and quick to play, with games lasting only about 30-45 minutes. It's one that's really great to play back-to-back games switching sides to mix it up. Don't let the lightness fool you though, there's plenty of strategic options packed in this relatively small box.

    Pontoon bridge connecting Abydos to PellaOff the bat, you have interesting, tough decisions to make when it comes to the Preparation phase. You have to commit to the number of cards you want to buy before you actually get to draw them and see what they do. Then you have to decide which units to place on the board and where to place them, all while trying not to show your opponent exactly what your intentions are — and if you're the Persian player, you have to decide if and when it's best to blow half your talent budget to build the pontoon bridge, which will lead to better land movement options and lines of communication to your major cities...but think of all the armies, fleets, and cards you could get if you hold off on building the bridge.

    With roads and ports, armies and fleets, there are tons of different ways you can approach trying to outwit your opponent and control cities when the Operation phase kicks off. Then you have you think about the different ways you can move your units around the board, plus having the Supply phase before Scoring gives you some options for trying to cut off your opponent's lines of communication so they have to remove armies before the Scoring phase.

    When I first cracked open the rulebook, I thought, wow, that's a lot of words for a light game that plays in 30-40 minutes, but when I finished reading it, I found it to be thorough and clear overall. I appreciate that they included explanations of each event card in the game so you can learn the historical context behind the mechanisms, which gives it a more thematic feel when you play. Also, the back of the rulebook has additional info on the Greco-Persian wars, a book recommendation for learning more about these wars, plus cooking and music recommendations as well. I'm pretty sure that's the first time I've seen cooking and music recommendations in a board game rulebook, but I thought it was awesome since I love thematic music when playing games, and connecting thematic food is an added bonus.

    The variety of events on the cards is great, too, and works well for keeping things interesting with only 16 cards. The leader events are juicy, but you have to sacrifice army cubes to play them, so there are interesting trade-offs to consider. Not to mention the fact that you'll usually want to play all the cards for the events, but if you do, you won't get as far positioning your units on the board, so it's often hard to choose between which cards to discard for movement versus which to use for the events.

    I liked the effects of the Twilight Struggle scoring system, pushing the marker in the campaign winner's direction based on the difference in the area control/city scoring. It feels more tense each round having the scoring marker move only one way versus a scoring system in which both players gain points for their controlled cities every round.


    Lastly, I enjoyed how 300: Earth & Water can be suspenseful at times. In one of my games, my friend Richard was ahead by 1 point as the Persians. During the Preparation phase of the fourth campaign, he opted to purchase and draw his maximum six cards to increase the odds of having the sudden death of a Persian King event trigger. He ended up drawing that event, so his entire hand was shuffled with the discard and draw piles to form a new draw pile. He kicked off the fifth campaign pulling the same stunt, drawing 6 cards. He got lucky and drew the "Sudden Death of the Great King" card again which immediately ended the campaign, and in that case, immediately ended the game with him winning! I won't go so easy on him next time.

    If you're looking for a fun, entry-level, card-driven wargame or are interested in the Greco-Persian Wars, I recommend checking out 300: Earth & Water, especially now that it's more widely available. I'm certainly looking forward to playing it more! Read more »
  • VideoAssemble the Right Collection of Gold and Paintings in Art Decko

    by W. Eric Martin

    At SPIEL '18, BGG recorded a preview video with designer Ta-Te Wu of his forthcoming game Promenade.

    Wu attempted to Kickstart the game in May 2019 (KS link) through his Sunrise Tornado Game Studio brand, but didn't reach the target, so he then relaunched the game (KS link) as a limited edition item that would essentially be made solely for backers instead of the market at large. Promenade received good ratings for those who were able to play it, but the game was unavailable to most who were interested in it.

    Now in a story reminiscent of the early 2000s, a larger publisher has picked up this limited edition item for wider release, with Rio Grande Games planning to publish the retitled game Art Decko in Q4 2021. While the original game featured only impressionistic paintings from Wu himself, the re-release features artwork in five styles, each created by a different artist:

    Lauren Brown — Art Nouveau
    Alex Eckman-Lawn — Surrealism
    Kwanchai Moriya — Impressionism
    Alison Parks — Renaissance
    Heather Vaughan — Pop Art

    As for the gameplay, the rules remain the same as in the original release of Promenade. Here's how it works:
    Art Decko is a light strategy game for 2 to 4 painting collectors in which you try to create a valuable deck of gold and painting cards over the course of play. These cards — gold and paintings — both count as currencies in the game, and you can use them to purchase more paintings, acquire more gold, and pay for exhibition space in a museum. Your long-term goal is to manipulate the market value of certain styles of artwork, while also earning points by placing paintings in the museum.

    Cover of the Rio Grande edition
    The game includes paintings from five styles of art, and you start with five random painting cards in your deck. Each art style starts with a value of 1 gold for a painting. You also have five starting gold cards in your deck, with the cards being worth 1 or 2 gold, with some cards having a special ability on them.

    To start the game, shuffle your deck, then take five cards in hand. Fill the four galleries with 2-3 random paintings each, then place two random 3-gold cards (each with a special power) in the bank, along with the deck of 5-gold cards. Paintings in galleries cost 1-8 gold, while gold cards cost 5 or 8 gold. On a turn, take two actions from these three choices, repeating an action, if desired:

    Haggle: Discard a card from your hand to draw two cards from your deck.
    Acquire: Pay the acquisition cost of a painting or gold card by discarding cards from your hand, then place that card in your discard pile. Increase the "market rating" of the painting's art style or gold by the value listed in the gallery/bank. As the market rating of an art style increases, each painting in that style is worth more gold, effectively increasing its buying power; that art style is also worth more points at game's end.
    Exhibit: Pay the exhibition cost for a gallery, then place a painting into that gallery that matches one of that gallery's invitation markers. (A gallery might want, for example, 2 Impressionistic paintings, 1 Renaissance painting, and 1 painting of any type.) Mark that painting with one of your ownership tokens, then place the related invitation marker on the highest available victory point (VP) space, scoring those points for yourself immediately. That painting is now removed from your deck.

    If you use the special ability on a gold card instead of its listed numerical value, remove that card from the game.

    More art from the cover of the rulebook
    At the end of your turn, discard any number of cards from your hand, then refill your hand to five cards. If a gallery has no paintings in it, refill all of the galleries with 2-3 paintings, then replace each empty gallery's cost token with the next highest one available. When at least twelve paintings are in the museum, the painting deck is empty, or an art style or gold reaches a market rating of 70, finish the round, then proceed to final scoring.

    The value of gold depends on its market rating, with its value ratio ranging from 6:1 to 1:1. Each painting in your deck is worth 1-7 VPs depending on the market rating of its art style. Each exhibition space in the museum also has a random bonus that was revealed at the start of play, and you can earn additional points through these bonuses. In the end, the player with most VPs wins.

    And in case you're curious, here is Wu's original explanation of the game from SPIEL '18:

    Youtube Video Read more »
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  • One Impossible Problem at a Time
    One Impossible Problem at a Time

    I mean, make the leap. What’s the worst that could happen?

    A few months back, during a short Star Wars campaign, my character made the brilliant decision to put on an enviro suit, go outside the space station built inside an asteroid, and try to sneak up on an Imperial troop ship blocking our landing bay.

    One of my friends looked at me with a raised eyebrow, “Okay, let’s say you actually get onto the ship. What are you going to do once you’re on a troop ship that’s full of elite Stormtroopers?”

    “One impossible problem at a time!”

    Too often, we hear stories about players getting caught up in analysis paralysis as they try to account for every possible contingency before they act, and as a result the action of the game stalls to an interminable level. As if any plan actually survives first contact with the action or the enemy. I’m here to say that sometimes it is more fun to just dive in headfirst and see where the action takes you.

    Now, most of us GMs have been at a table where we’ve had a player declare their action and the rest of the table groans and we go, “What?” There’s a reason many GMs swear by the adage that if you play stupid games, you win stupid prizes. But there is a big difference between being what my college group used to call ‘chaotic stupid’ and taking an impulsive action. The type of players who earn the ire of their fellow gamers and the GMs are often immature, inexperienced, used to a different play style, or are just being deliberate trolls. That’s not always the same thing as a player getting an understanding of the situation and having their character take an impulsive action.

    Think about it from the perspective of your character having a split second to make a decision on the problem in front of them and go for it.
    Around the time my Star Wars game happened, another gaming friend shared a story of how his character watched the villain throw a child off a boat into shark-infested waters. My friend described how his character immediately dove overboard and yeeted the child to safety. This, in my opinion, is the epitome of one impossible problem at a time. Sure, my friend now had to deal with the fact that his character was in shark-infested waters, but that didn’t matter. He did the heroic thing and saved a child. Figuring out what to do about the sharks was the next problem.

    So, let’s take this from the perspective of both players and GMs.

    Some advice for players:

    • Play to the action and the excitement. Most of the games we play are meant to be action and adventure games, so don’t get too caught up in trying to cover every potential outcome. Think about it from the perspective of your character having a split second to make a decision on the problem in front of them and go for it.
    • That said, be mindful of the mood of the table. If your action is going to screw over any other characters, consider carefully before diving into those shark-infested waters. This isn’t to say don’t do the impulsive thing, just be aware of how it’s going to affect the rest of the table. Roleplaying games are a cooperative endeavor and if your choices are ruining the fun for other people at the table, you might want to reconsider.
    • Speaking of other players, always try to pull them in on your harebrained schemes. Diving headfirst into the unknown with a heroic action is always more fun when you’ve got someone by your side, on board for the next impossible problem. This helps share the action with the rest of the table and can even help a more passive player experience a bit of impulsive fun.

    Some advice for GMs:

    • If you punish every impulsive action, you’re training your players to be passive and do nothing unless they’re absolutely certain no harm will come to their characters.
      If you punish every impulsive action, you’re training your players to be passive and do nothing unless they’re absolutely certain no harm will come to their characters. That sounds like a boring game to me and one I would hate running. Heck, I’ve been encouraging my players to be bolder and more proactive. Let your players surprise you and occasionally reward them when they do something bold and unexpected.
    • Before immediately shooting down an impulsive idea, try to consider how to make it work. If you want your games to be exciting, you need to reward the players that help bring action to the table. Sure, sometimes what they propose will seem ludicrous to you, but consider the competency of the character and if their idea has any chance of working. Feel free to keep things challenging, but your games will be more fun if your players feel empowered to try bolder actions.
    • If you do have one of those players whose impulsiveness seems like it’s coming from a place of inexperience or immaturity, try to take the time to guide them to something a little more productive. You can put boundaries on your game and keep the players all on the same page for the game. If someone is being a troll with their actions and deliberately trying to mess with things, put a stop to it. If you have to, call a break and have a conversation with that player. This isn’t fun, but when one player is not playing the same game everyone else is, it ruins the fun for almost everyone else at the table.

    Much of this is a dance of finding the right balance between the players and the GM. We all want our games to be exciting and unexpected, so players need to trust that their GM is going to allow room for the players to do the impulsive thing, while the GM needs to trust that the players aren’t trying to wreck the game. If you can find that balance, I guarantee you that facing one impossible problem at a time is the way to go.

    Read more »
  • Five changes you should make to your D&D 5e magic system right now
    A wizard and a magical dragon

     

    I’ve been running a lot more D&D 5e recently, and there are always a few pieces of the Vancian style magic sub-system that rankle me. Overall it’s great, simple enough, and conforms to the tropes of D&D. Mages can cast fireball and prestidigitation, some of the cheesiness of “Shut down the situation” type spells is mitigated or gone, and the simple “grants advantage when situation matches X, Y, and Z” is a phenomenal easy bump system that prevents the +42 to skill check of Pathfinder 1e and D&D 3.5. All that being said, there are some places where the limitations in 5e’s magic system are just… dumb. A lot of it is carried through from other editions and fits tropes that work in some arenas, but not others. So, without anymore caterwauling about 5e’s magic system, here are the five changes you should make to your D&D 5e magic system RIGHT NOW!

    1. The minimum range for any spell is touch

    This is one of my biggest gripes about a lot of spells. As a wizard, why can’t I cast Alter Self on the rogue. They’re far better at the infiltration. Why can’t I pump the fighter with Blur or drop Comprehend Languages on our animal companion? I don’t want to Contact Other Plane to reach out to the dread demon you want to contact, but I’ll totally cast it on your character’s idiotic butt. Divine Favor? Why can’t I bless our monk before they go into one on one battle against their corrupted teacher?

    The minimum range of Self cuts off a lot of narrative options, and it’s there to try to grant the illusion of balance to the situations. However, caster classes feel very limited when they can’t use their magic for other people. Removing the range of self (in 99% 0f the cases) means you can do more interesting things with the utility spells. If you feel you need to nerf it a bit, you could add the concentration requirement, but allowing these spells to affect others just feels more realistic and useful. In a world where magic is formulae and patterns (imagine it like coding with reality), someone has to have written versions of self spells that affect others, so just wave away the limitation and let your casters become more utilitarian.

    2. Spell lists need to be fungible and allow some versatility

    This idea won’t be super popular and breaks some of the “my class is special because we’re the only ones who can ____,” but let spell lists be fungible and malleable. A wizard or sorcerer should be able to cast cure wounds if they want to, maybe with a penalty. The Druid spell list (in my humble but not wrong opinion) sucks. There are many things I would love to do as a forest mage that a druid just can’t do. I’ll just play a wizard and pretend to be a druid. Why oh why can only wizards and bards cast magnificent mansion? That feels like a great warlock spell or druid spell – here’s an extradimensional space for you to have as your evil lair / hidey space in the woods. Sure, there are some narrative tropes you kill with this, and if those are in place in your game it’s not for you, but if your game setting can bear a little versatility, letting people get a little slippery with their spell lists is a great way to increase options for characters.

    If you want to limit it, just up the levels. You can learn a druid version of Mage’s Mansion as an 8th level spell, or it costs extra spell slots. For combat spells like Fireball or Lightning Bolt, sure, more of your players may be damage dealers, but so do your NPCs, and you can prep higher-level encounters because you know your players can handle it. My favorite way to open up spell lists when I feel a need to limit things is tied into a later suggestion about spell points, but it’s easy to say yes you can learn the 3rd level Lightning Bolt as a druid, it just costs 1.5 extra to cast. You have to “hack” the spell formula a bit, and that means more energy. It’s not going to become a staple because of the off-provider spell list tax, but it becomes an option and a way for a player to not give up their chance at a cool spell while also having their shapechanging.

    3. All magical classes need a way to “level up” in their magic throughout play without being fully restricted to their class

    Again, breaking SOME of the narrative tropes, but all magical classes need ways to gain or learn new spells. Sure, wizards can have a million spells but only prepare 15 and sorcerers are supposed to only have a few bits of magic that they innately channel, but there should be a new way to learn more spells / gain more prepared spells / increase your knowledge as a magic user. My gripe with the sort of idea that all magic users are bound by very strict rules is that it just isn’t realistic. For my day gig I’m primarily a front end developer who makes stuff look pretty, but that doesn’t mean I don’t write some backend SQL to interface with the database. It doesn’t mean I don’t rework database schema or handle server configurations. It’s not my bread and butter and I always have to refresh on the “grammar” of coding when I get into those arenas, but I can do it and have built more than a few go-to scripts and backend options that I can pull out. Magic feels very similar to coding to me. You are writing new code into reality, channeling what’s there in the mystic realm. Maybe wizards get to just write down everything, but why can’t sorcerers pick up a few extra tricks along the way. Why can’t warlocks figure out a way to gain a few more spell slots or clerics and paladins gain some more options? Sure, some sources of magic come from external sources, but magical knowledge isn’t restricted. Are the divine deities and other power givers micromanaging everything for their followers? Forgotten Realms / D&D deity style, probably not. I see it more as setting up structures and allowing favored people to tap into them. That means there is still some arcane knowledge that could be there.

    Here are a few things I like to allow that can be achieved through play / sidejobs / extra bonuses to reward cool narrative play.

    • Classes with spell slots and “pull from list” style magic casting can undergo quests to learn magic outside their class, gain extra spell slots at certain levels.
    • Classes that need to prepare spells each day can find ways to add spells to their spell lists and can learn how to add extra “slots” to your prepared spell list. The paladin CHA + 1/2 paladin level may be upgradeable to CHA + paladin level.
    • Warlocks with their cast often and take short rests all the time can increase their number of spell slots every few levels through service to their patron or finding a way to eek more power out.
    • Sorcerers can add more spells to their Spells Known list through study and learning, but it takes a lot longer than a wizard just copying a spell into the spellbook.

    The crux of this suggestion is let your players spread their wings to learn new things / expand their options. You control balance in the game and if the players want to play out something, give them a reward. If it makes them too powerful, well they’re still having fun probably and enjoy not feeling like they’re about to die.

    4. Use spell points, not spell slots

    This one is pretty easy – use the spell point variant from the DMG. Since it’s not SRD I won’t link to an unofficial source, but the crux of it is:

    • Spells get cast by using points instead of slots.
    • A 1st level spell costs 1 point, a 2nd level costs, 3, a 3rd level costs … etc.
    • You gain a set number of points per level (based on caster type) but can’t cast above a certain level of spell. At 10th you get 64 points and can cast 5th level spells.

    What this opens up is the ability to not pick and choose between spells as much. It’s 100% D&D official and implementing it will give players the chance to “just do” the magic they find fitting rather than worrying as much about preparing beforehand. Again, breaks some narrative tropes and that may not be for your game, but mechanics-wise it feels better. The only thing that will save you from this monster is its weakness to acid. You can waste a bunch of higher-level slots, or just cast it again. If the tone of your game is more combative and dire, it may not work, but it lets utility casters not have to choose as much. You can always probably dredge up a few spell points from your reserve of mana while still saving back 5 for that fireball you just may need.

    5. Casting times need to be shortened for many spells that have 10 minute casting times

    Last one and it’s fairly situational, but I HATE seeing a casting time of 10 minutes on some spells. I get the idea, I see where the devs want to keep some of the spell cheesiness out of combat, but sometimes this goes way too far especially with other limitations to prevent “cheese”. I’m looking at you 5th edition fabricate. So, lower the casting times on a lot of the spells. My advice, take them each down a step.

    • 10 minutes changes to 1 minute
    • 1 hour changes to 10 minutes
    • 8 or 12 hours changes to 1 or 2 hours
    • 24 hours (only hallow) … sometimes change to 2 hours

    One more thing, as I duck out of the way of the rotten tomatoes, do the same for rituals. Almost all rituals are 1 minute. Wait, what, why? Well, for me it’s about limiting the player chafing and flow of the game. Players want to preserve options and if they can cast something as a ritual, they will.

    Mage: I cast detect magic as a ritual.

    GM: What do the rest of you do for 10 minutes while the guards are looking for you and will likely have searched this area by then?

    Other players: Uggh, no we’re not taking that much time. Fine, I sit and wait.

    From a narrative perspective, a long ritual or casting time pauses everything. No one would watch a movie where the main hero charges up for a long time while everyone else sits around… except old school Dragon Ball Z fans, but even then we make fun of that malarkey. A 1 minute casting time makes most of these spells non-combat tenable but removes a lot of the friction of using them otherwise. Spells with very long casting times are all about the narrative anyways. Sure, it may be a 1 hour ritual for astral projection, but if it’s 10 minutes it feels less onerous. An 8 hour ritual for awaken makes some sense, but what are you doing the whole 8 hours? Tinkering, puttering, meditating? Sure, maybe. Those are great spell descriptions from a narrative sense, but we’re also playing a game and need to honor the players’ take on the narrative. If they want to awaken a tree to stand watch, maybe make the duration 8 hours then. If they want to do it to honor the tree as part of their druidic ceremonies and it stays awakened, make it 8 hours of meditation and chanting. The crux is to make sure that characters don’t have to just sit around while one person does everything, even if it’s the same number of real world minutes.

    And Finally…

    The whole point of these sorts of changes is narrative and fun. Again, if the narrative tone of your games is very low magic, this doesn’t work. If it’s fairly standard D&D or anything with more accessible magics, it makes the play so much smoother, the options so much more available, the personal choices so much more meaningful, and the challenge rating of creatures you can throw at your party much higher. Limitations are good sometimes, and sometimes they fit awkwardly. These changes aren’t for everyone, but for a lot of games out there they will let your players feel like their characters are far more capable and interesting. They won’t feel as cookie cutter based on the classes. Give these changes a try and let me know what other changes you make to your magic systems in your games.

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    Sly Flourish

  • VideoThree of Five Keys: A Quest Design Pattern

    New to Sly Flourish? Start Here!

    Consider a quest where the door to the infamous Black Vault requires five gemstone keys and an evil wizard seeks these five keys to open it. In this scenario, the characters need only acquire one key to end the entire quest for the villain. Grab a key, throw it into the ocean, and the villain's whole quest is over.

    Flip the situation around and we still have the same problem. If the characters seek to open the door and the Cult of the Black Vault seeks to keep it closed, all the cult must do is destroy one key and the characters can't succeed.

    This is the problem with all-or-nothing collection quests. Any one item falling into the wrong hands can break the entire quest. These quest models are fragile.

    Instead, a slight change to this quest design makes the quest more flexible and provides a robust framework for stronger confrontations between villains and characters.

    What if the vault door required only three of five keys to open instead of all of them? Now, instead of needing to find only one key to stop the evil wizard, the characters have to find three of them. The chase is on as the characters and the Cult of the Black Vault hunt for keys all over the land.

    If you prefer a video on this topic, see my Three of Five Keys Youtube Video.

    Requiring the Majority of Keys

    We can fix collection quests like this by ensuring that the quest requires only the majority of items to complete the quest, not all of them. Maybe it's four of seven keys. Maybe it's five of nine. The more keys required, the longer the quest will take. Instead of an easy victory, characters may be traveling all over the world to acquire the majority of keys before the villains get them.

    Often such collection quests include a moment where either the villains or the characters need to steal keys from the other. Instead of this being a requirement (when all keys are needed), now the results of such a heist can go either way and the whole quest isn't over should one side or the other succeed.

    Requiring the majority of keys, instead of all of them, makes collection quests more robust and flexible. It gives us room for fun improvisation. Our carefully designed campaign won't fall apart when the characters get crafty and acquire a key we didn't expect. It gives us room to let the game go where it goes. We know that, whether a character or a villain acquires an item, more keys are needed to stop one side or the other.

    When running quests where a number of items are required to complete the quest, ensure only the majority of items (three of five keys, four of seven keys, etc) are needed so the quest isn't over if one key falls into the wrong hands. This powerful quest design pattern gives you a durable quest model with great flexibility and lots of opportunities for a fun chase across a fantastic land.

    New to Sly Flourish? Start here, subscribe to the weekly newsletter, watch Sly Flourish videos on Youtube, join the Sly Flourish Discord server, or support Sly Flourish on Patreon!

    Check out Mike's books including Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, Fantastic Adventures, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

    Send feedback to mike@mikeshea.net.

    This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.

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  • The Dials of Monster Difficulty

    New to Sly Flourish? Start Here!

    When running Dungeons & Dragons we DMs have a number of dials we can turn to change the difficulty and challenge of any monster. Some dials work best when we turn them before the battle begins, others we can turn while combat is already underway. We can use these dials to change up the pacing of our game, making things more or less challenging depending on what works for the moment. These monster dials include:

    • The number of monsters
    • Each monster's hit points
    • The monster's number of attacks
    • The amount of damage a monster inflicts

    Turning these dials changes monsters significantly, giving us a lot of control over how dangerous any given monster is.

    Best of all, we don't have to spend a lot of time turning these dials. We can turn them up or down in our head, making them awesome tools for improvisational play.

    Let's look at each of these dials and see what effects it can have on our game.

    Tune the Number of Monsters

    Before a battle begins, we can decide how many monsters might be in that battle. We can start by asking ourselves what makes sense for the situation. Is it likely to be twenty hobgoblins in the mess hall or just four? Like many of our decisions in D&D, we start by asking ourselves what makes sense for the situation in-world. That isn't the final answer, though. We have another question to ask:

    What will make the game more fun right now? Sometimes the answer to this question is "more monsters". Othertimes it's "less monsters". If the characters have already recently fought in a big knock-down drag-out fight, maybe we want to go with less monsters. Not every battle needs to be a challenge. Run easy battles from time to time. They can offer a lot of interest and a lot more fun than you may realize.

    Start by asking what makes sense and then tune the number up or down to fit the pacing and energy of the game. If you need to, use the lazy encounter benchmark to see if the battle might be deadly.

    A battle may be deadly if the sum total of monster challenge ratings is greater than one quarter of the sum total of character levels, or one half if the characters are above fourth level.

    You can also turn this dial during combat if the in-world circumstances make sense. Another wave of monsters might follow the first, for example, or another group may stray off or get distracted. It's harder to turn this dial without the players seeing it though, and they'll know if you're adding monsters just to make things harder if it's too ham-fisted.

    Turn the Hit Point Dial

    As written, the hit points of a monster can fluctuate between the minimum and maximum allowed by the monster's hit dice. An ogre's stat block reads 59 (7d10 + 21). 59 is the average. An ogre can have anywhere from 28 to 91 and still be within range of its hit points. We can decide, during the game, how many hit points an ogre has within this range based on how we feel the battle is going. Will it help if the ogres present more of a threat? Turn the dial up and give them up to 91. Is it time for those ogres to go down? Turn the dial down to 21.

    If we're willing to break the rules even more, and I give you full permission to do so for the fun of your game, you can safely double a monster's hit point if you feel it works for the story and the pacing of the current situation or drop them down to 1 if it's time for the monsters to go away. While the hit point dial is safely turned within the range of a monster's hit dice, I think it's perfectly fine to turn the dial outside of the margins and increase a monster's hit points up to double their average or down to 1 when it suits the situation.

    Being willing to double a monster's hit points or reduce them to 1 is also much easier math than figuring out the minimum and maximum values of a monster's hit dice. When in doubt, be lazy.

    Change a monster's hit points up to double its average or down to 1 hit point based on what fits the story, pacing, and current situation.

    Turn the Number of Attacks Dial

    Sometimes it isn't just the hit points or damage that pushes monsters into the danger zone. Sometimes they need to do more stuff. Many monsters have a multiattack action. If we want to turn up the threat, we can give monsters an additional attack in that multi-attack action. If we overcalculated and things are too deadly, we can remove attacks, maybe knocking it down to just one.

    Sometimes monsters with additional abilities never have a chance to use those abilities if it's simply better for them to attack. The ankheg, for example, has a bite and web attack but can only choose one. This might be completely appropriate but if we want to get nasty, turn up the attack dial and let the ankheg do both in one turn. If we have a monster that can both multiattack and cast spells, let the monster drop one of its attacks from multiattack and cast a spell in its place.

    Increase or decrease the number of attacks or actions a monster can take to fit the situation, and pacing of the scene.

    Turn the Damage Dial

    Just like the hit point dial, the damage dial can follow the minimum or maximum amount of damage listed by the damage dice equation. If an ogre can hit for 2d8+4 it could hit for as little as 6 or as much as 20. It's rare that we want to turn this dial down, unless things got out of control, but we may want to turn it up if a monster just isn't posing much of a threat and such a threat is warranted for the situation.

    If we're using static monster damage, something I recommend, it's easy to turn the dial up and down on damage. Just change the amount. Maybe the ogre's doing 18 damage on a hit instead of the 13 average it normally does. Often adding 50% more damage works well. If, like most DMs, you use dice for damage, you can add 50% more dice to the attack when it's time to turn the damage dial up. Most of the time this means dropping in an extra weapon die; two at the most.

    Turning the damage dial can be tricky. We don't want our players to know we're turning the dials. If we use static damage, our players will know when we're changing it. If we use dice, we can throw in an extra die or two and likely never tip our hand.

    If we're using static damage, we can, instead, come up with a story-based reason that the damage goes up. Say the characters are fighting a helmed horror and having a hell of a time getting past it's 20 AC, we can describe how the fires within the horror start to burn hotter and hotter; beams of white light coming out of its eyes; as its blade blazes with white fire. Now it inflicts an extra d8 of fire damage on its attack); maybe even 2d8 if we really want to get nasty. At the same time, its armor begins to melt, dropping its AC down to 18 or even 16.

    If we know that a monster is hitting lower than we think is right for the situation, we can jam that damage dial into the red right from the beginning, maximizing its damage from the first hit or doubling the damage dice of the hit. This essentially gives the monster free critical hits all the time — obviously very nasty — but sometime's that's what fits the story.

    Turn up the damage dial by increasing the amount of static damage a monster inflicts on its attacks or adding one or more dice to it's damage dice.

    Grant Circumstantial Advantage

    When we have weak monsters attacking stronger characters, we might come up with a way to grant the monsters circumstantial advantage. Perhaps a monument nearby fills them with violent power. Perhaps cultists drank demonic blood and can now attack with advantage until they explode into demons. Perhaps the monsters have the high ground and are able to attack with advantage from their perfect angle.

    Use in-story circumstances to grant weaker monsters advantage on their attacks.

    Tweaking Attributes

    You can also, of course, take the path of tweaking attributes or giving monsters different armor to increase their AC. A particularly strong monster might have +2 to attack and damage. A heavily armored one might have an increase to AC based on its armor. There are lots of ways to change up monsters with just a few tweaks to its flavor.

    Giving Yourself Flexibility to Run a Fun Game

    We don't turn these dials to stick it to the characters (or the players). These dials give us the ability to change the pacing of the game so it's always the most fun. Perhaps we turn the dials to make things harder. Perhaps, instead, we turn the dials to give the characters a break after a long slog of battles. The tools that help us control pacing are vital for running a fun game and the ones we can use easily, like these monster dials, give us the improvisational aids we need to do so.

    New to Sly Flourish? Start here, subscribe to the weekly newsletter, watch Sly Flourish videos on Youtube, join the Sly Flourish Discord server, or support Sly Flourish on Patreon!

    Check out Mike's books including Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, Fantastic Adventures, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

    Send feedback to mike@mikeshea.net.

    This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.

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