How the NSA Saved Modern Role-Playing Games

It is the 21st Century, and over half the population is hooked on portable technology. Digital communications networks have become a necessity of life. But a clandestine government agency monitors all of its citizens in secret: what they read, who they talk to, and even their location. The Agency infiltrates powerful corporations, hacks private networks and plants backdoors in computer security standards. The citizens know, but they’re powerless to do anything about it.

It sounds like science fiction, but it’s now literally the world we live in.

This is bad news for privacy, but it finally solves the biggest problem in modern-era roleplaying: characters fearlessly solving all their problems with computers and the Internet.

Set your D20 Modern scenario in the current day, and any character with a $100 smartphone has the sum total of the world’s knowledge at his fingertips. This forces the GM to come up with a lot more answers than a mediaeval Dungeons & Dragons game, and that gets tiring.

It’s for this reason that many D20 Modern GMs set their game in the 1990s, before computer use was ubiquitous. But what if you want to explore the current day? Isn’t up-to-date realism kind of the point of a modern-era RPG?

Solution: throw in ubiquitous surveillance as a plot tool, and make your protagonists people who the government are going to have a problem with: hackers, private investigators, foreign secret agents, UFO truth-seekers, journalists or the like.

Now, every computer, smartphone and internet connection the protagonists use is a liability, because you never know when someone’s watching. That creates interesting decisions. For example, dare you use Google to find the suspect’s address, knowing that investigators could use that to link you to the case? Can you risk switching on your phone to use its GPS, when any agents following you could use it to pinpoint your location?

21st Century technology becomes a superpower that you can’t use without risking detection. Old-fashioned skills, knowledge and detective work become relevant again. You have to do everything personally, because you can never fully trust the machines. For the first time since 2007 you can actually play D20 Modern set in the current year without overpowering the original core gameplay, and that’s amazing.

Not only that, but it gives a new and different landscape for authors and roleplayers to explore. The 2010s are defined by pervasive advanced technology, and government surveillance of that technology. What makes this different from near-future RPGs like Shadowrun is that it’s more than just realistic, it’s real.


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Save on Anything Above a 3

Once, in a D&D 3.5 game, our party consisted of a human paladin, a lawful good dwarven cleric, a chaotic neutral druid and a chaotic neutral rogue. We entered a dungeon and were attacked by eight gorgons. We were level 8 and gorgons are challenge rating 8 each, so any sensible adventuring party would flee.

We weren’t sensible, and decided to try and tackle it anyway. The paladin and dwarf had nothing to fear from the gordon’s petrifying breath, thanks to our massive Fortitude bonuses. Both passed the saving throw on anything above a 3.

Combat went well, until both of us rolled a 3. The druid and rogue fled. Since both the surviving party members were chaotic neutral, they decided to abandon their former comrades.

Somewhere, in a dungeon, stand two statues of a human paladin and dwarven cleric.


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Tabletop Gaming at Chicago’s Biggest Anime Convention

There aren’t many places where you can see girls dressed as Fili and Kili, two of the dwarves from The Hobbit, facing off against a man dressed as Spike, the baby dragon from My Little Pony. But one such place is Anime Central, the colossal three-day Japanese animation convention held in Chicago each May.

The scale of this event is such that even unrelated nerd hobbies like tabletop gaming and sci-fi/fantasy are extremely well represented. “ACen” this year hosted over forty tabletop gaming sessions from Pathfinder to mahjong, booking out a half-dozen conference rooms for the entire weekend.

The dedicated games area hosted several Hackmaster sessions, along with a whole series of Pathfinder Society adventures. I’ve never thought the four-hour gaming session a good fit for a big anime con where there’s so much else to do in one weekend, but the Pathfinder rooms were always busy so it looks lke there’s plenty of demand.

What surprises me is that none of the Japanese tabletop RPGs appear on the gaming schedule. A gaming section at an anime convention, and nobody’s running Maid RPG? I passed at least a hundred maid cosplayers over the weekend; are none of them gamers?

But then, as most of the attendees were checking out of the hotels on the final morning, we stumbled upon a maid cafe event hosted by the D20 Girls. Convention rules prohibited panels from serving food or drink or charging for services, so the girls instead ran tabletop board/card game sessions. I had enough time before my plane to squeeze in a round of a fun and utterly unbalanced card game called We Didn’t Playtest This At All.

Like a fighter who dips one level in a spellcasting class, Anime Central is certainly a Japanese animation convention first, and gaming is secondary. Still, a gamer and anime fan will find plenty to do here.

Tabletop RPG retailers are well represented too at ACen. Thankfully, I passed my Will save and managed to spend only $10 on dice this year.

Photo credit: brownsaru (Fili) and thespookydoctor (Kili). (More photos)

How To Get Published in D&D Insider

Wizards of the Coast announced that they’re taking submissions for D&D Insider content during April and May. As someone with a few publishing credits in Dragon magazine I can tell you it’s pretty cool to see your work in print (even if it’s digital now), and getting paid for it’s not bad either.

But what are your chances of making it into D&D Insider if you haven’t written for Wizards of the Coast before? D20 Source takes a look.

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How Many Of You Used Google Reader?

Google has announced that they’re retiring Google Reader, the RSS feed aggregator. Over 1,200 people read D20 Source via the RSS feed, and the overwhelming majority of those came from Google Reader.

Since most blogs have RSS feeds, a lot of people used Google Reader as an easy way to follow RPG blogs. For those of you who still mainly visit D20 Source from Google Reader, there are a few options.

Feedly is a top contender that has apps for iOS, Android, Kindle as well as Chrome and Firefox extensions. According to our statistics, 87% of D20 Source readers use one of these platforms.

Feed Demon is a stand-alone Windows RSS aggregator program.

NetVibes is an RSS reader similar to Google Reader. Lifehacker also recommends The Old Reader. Both are web-based, but have no mobile app version. NewsBlur has mobile apps too, with a subscription fee of $1/month if you want to subscribe to more than 64 feeds.

If you’re one of the 1.64% of D20 Source readers who use Opera, you may be surprised to learn that Opera has a built-in feed aggregator. (It also has an e-mail client, IRC client, a torrent client, and a USENET reader, left over from an era where Opera tried to cram as many features as possible.) Simply click the RSS icon in the address bar and subscribe via Opera Mail. You can read your RSS feeds via the menu Opera > Feeds > Read Feeds (this only appears if you’re subscribed to at least one feed). Press j to go to the next post, spacebar to scroll through that post, and k to mark it as read.

Most of these options will let you import your Google Reader feed list, which you can download from Google Takeout.


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E6: The World of D&D in Six Levels

E6 is a variant of Dungeons & Dragons v3.5 that challenges one of the game’s basic assumptions: What if there were only six levels instead of at least 20? And why would you want to play this way?

Lately, I’m looking at E6 as a possible solution to the problems I have with D&D 3e and 4e. For example, at high level in third edition D&D, combat is slow because characters have a lot of abilities and resources to choose from and opponents have lots of hit points. In 4th edition, this privilege is now extended to even low-level characters!

In fact, it was an intentional part of D&D 4e’s design to cut out the low-powered early levels that form E6. The idea was that D&D 3.5 had a “sweet spot” between levels 6 and 15, where characters were tough and had a lot of resources but weren’t invulnerable. 4e starts you out with enough hit points and powers to ensure your character’s survival, cutting out the low-level experience.

It’s exactly this gritty low level content that forms the basis of E6. In a way, it’s the anti-4e.

A world of six levels

For me, one of the most interesting things is how the world changes when everything in it is scaled for sixth level characters.

There are no Elminsters or Mordenkainens, no epic-level characters raising questions like, “Why do adventurers risk their lives saving the world when there’s a council of 20th level wizards who can stop any villain with ease?”

There are no spells above 3rd level, because there’s no such thing in this world as a spellcaster powerful enough to cast them. Anyone who can even master 3rd level spells like fireball is considered an archmage. Nobody can create a magic sword of greater than +2, and if a +3 sword exists it’s considered an artifact.

And, generally, there are few monsters of high level, with a CR10 dragon posing an epic threat. For the average peasant, even a single ogre is a serious danger, and that’s how E6 sees it.

There’s better realism, too. You never become so powerful that you can routinely survive 200 foot drops or take on an army solo. Characters remain human.

Porblem Sloved

But it’s not all philosophical - E6 offers to solve practical problems.

My number one problem with D&D v3.5 was that high level play bogs down under the weight of options and character survivability, and 4e did nothing to improve that for me. E6 never gets to the high levels, so you never get that issue.

Character generation is swift, and this lets DMs challenge their players better. I think this is extremely important. You don’t have to pull punches or obssess over encounter balance, because if a PC is killed it won’t take too long to roll a new one.

This in turn makes player decisions more meaningful, and players can be satisfied that they won because of their own ingenuity and not because the encounter was balanced that way or the DM was afraid to kill off their PC.

Quick preparation helps the DM too. Generating a complete stat block for an NPC takes very little time. Our old epic level campaign ground to a halt because of how long it took the DM to roll up each 25th-level villain - and we’d defeat it in about two combat turns.

The six level cap is also good for running mini-campaigns. You might run a slow forum game or find that your group can only meet infrequently, so a full twenty or thirty level campaign will never finish. It’s also good if you want to plan a campaign in advance but find that writing twenty levels is too much work and takes too long to get to the interesting part.

But why E6?

While there are other gritty, rules-light D&D variants out there, E6 has one big advantage: it literally is just D&D 3.5 with a level cap. This means you have access to a wealth of resources: the free Hypertext D20 SRD, about eight years’ worth of official and unofficial expansion books, and a very large player base.

The basics of running E6 are obvious (start a D&D 3.5 campaign and stop at level 6), but if you’re interested you’ll want to start with the official ENWorld thread from 2007. This goes into detail about the philosophy of E6 and gives extra rules and guidelines, such as E6-specific feats and a rule for advancing level 6 characters using bonus feats.

How Realistic is Running in D&D 4e?

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about D&D 4e’s tactical nature. I stumbled across an article called 1d10 design mistakes in DnD 4e - Tactical movement, which complains that the rules for running in D&D 4th edition are completely unrealistic.

I touched on this topic in an article last year, Does Anybody Walk or Run Any More?, but that article mainly covered archery, so it’s worth going over again. (For a follow-up that examines archery more accurately, see also You Want To Shoot How Far?)

In D&D 4e, running increases your base speed by 2, at the cost of some penalties to combat. If all you do in the round is run, you can double move, allowing a speed 6 humanoid to move 16 squares in one round. That’s 80 feet over six seconds, or a mere 9 miles per hour. Even a horse with speed 10 can only gallop 24 squares, or 13.6 mph.

How do these figures stand up to a real-world comparison? Actually, pretty well. The Marine Corps Physical Fitness Test requires recruits to be able to run 3 miles within a maximum of 28 minutes, an average of 6.5 mph. An unarmoured human in D&D can run 3 miles in 19 minutes 48 seconds, enough to score 89% on the Marines physical fitness test.

What’s missing from D&D 4e is a faster sprint speed for short-term movement. D&D 3e allowed a character to run up to 4x his base speed as a full round action, and maintain that speed “for a minute or two”. That’s about 13.6 mph for an unarmoured human, a little less than the 15mph average required to run a four minute mile.

Alf’s article raises a good point, though. Why are running characters easier to hit, not harder? In D&D 4e, you grand Combat Advantage to opponents when running, giving them +2 to hit you in melee or ranged. This runs contrary to what you’d expect about a moving target being harder to hit.


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Before 4e: Iron Heroes

Mike Mearls is well known as one of the developers of Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition and various expansions. But less well known is his 2005 work Iron Heroes, which removes the spellcasting classes and magic items from D&D and expands the rest to fill the space. The result is an all-martial version of D&D 3.5 with several innovations I still think are really cool.

Iron Heroes class abilities cost power points to use (like 3e psionics or spell points). These power points are called Tokens, and can be accumulated during an encounter by taking tactical actions which vary by class. For example, an Archer can spend a move action to aim at his target and gain 1 point.

I like IH’s token pools far better than 4e’s encounter powers, because they make narrative sense. It’s hard to explain why the fighter can only trip once per combat, but if he can only trip an opponent after taking some action that sets him up for the trip, it makes more sense. The tokens system is also more versatile, because you can use the same encounter power twice.

IH’s system neatly solves another problem in 4e: the grind of weak at-will powers when you run out of encounter powers. Most IH classes gain tokens during combat, so special attack use scales with combat length.

It’s like 4e in some ways, though. IH heavily uses per-encounter resources rather than per-day. It also uses the reserve points, an early precursor to 4e’s healing surges, which lets you recover hit points between combat without a cleric. This is down to IH’s lack of magical healing, I think, as opposed to 4e’s design to remove reliance on a cleric PC as a healing battery.

I also like that like 3.5, IH supports miniatures but isn’t reliant on them. Distances are in both squares and feet. You can flank on your own by moving around an opponent and attacking in the same round, at the cost of your move action (i.e. no full attack this round) and an attack of opportunity.

You can buy the 2007 revised PDF edition Iron Heroes at RPGNow now for £9.43 or whatever that is in your currency. There’s also a complete Iron Heroes bundle for £22.07. If you’re looking for a low-magic setting or a change from your current D&D, Iron Heroes is still as good as it was in 2007.


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Mike Mearls’ Combat Maneuvers

Yesterday I mentioned the manoever system from Book of Iron Might. Mike Mearls, who later went on to design Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition, wrote this mechanically interesting expansion for D&D 3.5 in 2004.

The maneuver system (I’ll use the American spelling to stay consistent with the book, as it’s a game term) allows you to perform a wide range of combat techniques without taking a feat, but at the cost of a large attack penalty of -10 or greater. This penalty can be offset by taking drawbacks.

Lets say you wish to knock an opponent prone. You can do so, at the impossibly high penalty of -20 to attack. However, you can reduce that penalty by 10 if the maneuver provokes an attack of opportunity, by a further 5 if your opponent gets a saving throw or opposed check, and another 5 if the attack only knocks prone and doesn’t deal damage.

Other possible maneuver perks include disarm, bonus damage, ability score damage (2 points), blindness (1d4 rounds), speed reduction, daze, stun, and disabling a natural attack or special ability such as the beholder’s antimagic eye.

This deconstruction of the 3e combat system is what got me to first take note of Mike Mearls and his grasp on mechanics. His later work, the similarly titled Book of Iron Heroes, formed a lot of the groundwork for D&D 4th edition. I’ll write more about Iron Heroes in my next post.

If you’re interested, you can buy Book of Iron Might at RPGNow for £4.41 in PDF, £7.25 in print, or whatever that is in your currency, which looks like Monopoly money to me.