RG House Rules: Dump Everything but Stats!

Today’s post is actually a supplement to my weekly post over at The Rat Hole. If you check out over there, I talked about a possible house rule to deal with what I consider useless Ability Scores in D&D 5e. Here I’m going to talk about a second way of making ability scores useful again.

As I noted in my other article, I love rolling up ability scores for D&D characters. Those scores are the foundation upon which I build the rest of my character. But in 5e, once you’ve generated those scores they don’t do anything. The bonuses that derive from them do a lot of work, bumping up skill checks and saving throws. But the ability scores themselves are static, with no purpose. That’s why, when I saw them sitting lifeless on the page I knew I needed to restore them to usefulness.

My plan to put ability scores back to work is actually pretty simple, just three steps. First, get rid of saving throws and skills. Second, in their place, switch to a “roll under” method of determining success, using the character’s ability scores. If the character has proficiency in that ability, they add the proficiency bonus to the ability score before rolling, and must roll under that number. Sounds a little crazy? Let me explain.

Let’s look at Grognard the Barbarian, who has to make a Constitution saving throw of DC 13. Grognard has a 16 Constitution score, because barbarian.  He’s only first level so he has a proficiency bonus of +2 and an ability bonus of +3, for a +5 to his Constitution saves. That’s pretty good, especially at first level, but there is still a decent chance that Grognard will get knocked flat on his butt; frankly annoying when playing a big, tough character. Using roll under, however, Grognard would need to roll under 18 (Constitution score of 16, plus his proficiency bonus of +2) on a d20. So most of the time, Grognard is going to shrug off any Constitution-based attacks, which for a barbarian is as it should be.

This extends to skill checks as well. You would retain any Skill proficiencies from character creation or other sources, and add that as a bonus to the relevant ability score when making a Skill check that relates to that proficiency. As in the example above, this will allow a character proficient in a particular skill to succeed more often than not. Which, as the hero of your particular story, they should be doing anyway. But it also allows some flexibility in what ability scores to use when making a skill check. Yes, most of the time you’ll use the score commonly associated with that skill, but sometimes your player might make a good case for another ability score to be used. Or you as the DM might switch things up and decide that another ability score better fits the challenge the character is facing.

As a balancing factor, we come to the third step in my “cunning” plan: subtract 10 from the DCs of any skill checks or saving throws, and apply the result as a negative modifier on the character’s ability score for the roll. So in our example above, Grognard may have an effective 18 Constitution because he is a big, tough barbarian. But the poison gas (let’s say) he is trying to resist is a particularly noxious kobold blend, so he takes a -3 penalty (DC 13 – 10 = 3), making his effective Con score a 15. Still a decent chance of success, but enough harder that it will make Grognard think twice about rushing into the cloud if he doesn’t have to.

While the house rule I’m suggesting is for skill checks and saving throws, it could be extended to combat. Simply subtract 10 from the opponent’s AC and apply the result as a negative modifier to the relevant ability check. So an AC of 14 is a -4 modifier, AC 21 is -11, and so on. Positive modifiers would be proficiency bonuses, plus any magical or situational modifiers. So if Grognard is attacking with his mighty 18 Strength, using his new +1 greataxe Helmcleaver, against an opponent with an AC of 15, he’ll roll under 16 in order to hit (18 + 2 + 1 = 21 – 5 = 16). Grognard has a pretty good shot at turning his opponent to mush, but it isn’t guaranteed.

So that’s my suggested house rule in a nutshell. Obviously I would want to play test this before implementing it on a regular basis, because I’m sure there are situations and corner cases where it might need some tweaking. But altogether I think it’s an effective way of making ability scores useful again, and also serves to make the characters a bit more heroic in stature.

But what do you think? Am I crazy? Is it a workable solution, or am I tampering with things nerdkind was not meant to explore? Let me know what you think below. And check out my article over at The Rat Hole for a house rule idea pretty much the opposite of this one.


Catching Up for Spring

I’ll tell you, seasonally activated depression is a hell of a thing. I had it mostly under control this year, and felt better on a day-to-day basis than I have in years. But the winter draaaaaaaged on this year (we just lost snow last week) and the extra month of SAD kicked my ass a bit. Now that Spring has officially come to the Canadian prairies, however, I’m back to my usual high-functioning introvert self. So let’s finish off the April TTRPG Maker Challenge so that isn’t hanging, and then I can get us back to gaming goodness.

13 – Biggest Influence

The biggest influences on how I think about game design come from three main people: Monte Cook, Kenneth Hite, and Robin D. Laws. I’ve read their work for years, including much of the things they’ve written about game design. But I’ve also spoken with (in the case of Monte Cook) and listened to them (in the case of Kenneth Hite and Robin D. Laws) talk on a variety of topics, and found that many of their ideas line up with thoughts I’ve had about story and narrative design. So they would count as my main sources of influence, as far as how and what I want to create.

But as I try make sure my games are inclusive, I’m also influenced by folks like Kate Welch, Liz Courts, and Crystal Frasier, who I follow on Twitter. Equal parts horrified by the crap they deal with from the idiots in our hobby, and awestruck by their ability to persevere in spite of said idiots, they influence me daily. I want to create work that helps our hobby grow and be better. I really believe that I can create inclusive gaming material that is fun for everyone. That on its own won’t fix everything, but it will at least contribute to a healthier gaming environment down the line.

14 – What are your Dreams & Plans?

I touched on that above, but I’d like to create material that helps improve our hobby. To do that, of course, means creating material that is fun and exciting to play, or it isn’t going to do anything. Short term, I’d like to flesh out the campaign world I’ve created for two D&D campaigns. Long term, I have ideas for a few games, both board and TTRPG, that I would like to develop.

15 – Do you design in public or private?

Mostly in private, until I use what I’ve designed in a game, then it goes public. And then I will often post the refined Whatever It Is on my blog for the world to see.

16 – Any design partners?

Not yet, though my friend Scott and I have begun brainstorming together, which is helpful for getting outside my head on things.

17 – Favourite form of feedback?

Constructive. Positive or negative, don’t just bash it or gush over it, but tell me why it did or didn’t work for you.

18 – Current Inspiration?

Eric Campbell, the GM for Alpha’s Shield of Tomorrow, is my current inspiration. I admire his ability to weave together narrative bits on the fly, when his players throw the inevitable curve balls. I also admire the joy he takes in the act of GMing, and I strive to emulate that joy; right now, I still approach GMing a bit too much like work. Pleasant work, but still work.

19 – Game that’s most essential to your design?

I don’t know that any single game is essential to my design. Even though I’m currently working the most with the campaign world for my D&D 5e games, I do often think about how other game systems would affect my design. I find that helps keep me from falling into safe and obvious choices.

20 – Favourite design tools?

I can thank my day job for teaching me the ins and outs of it really well, but my Google Drive has become my favourite piece of design equipment. Being able to connect all the docs I’m working on and having them available wherever I am has helped my work flow immensely. Beyond that I don’t really have a lot of what I’d consider tools. As long as I have something to write with and something to write on, I’m good.

21 – How many playtests?

Since most of what I’m working on is for my campaigns, most things get played one time before I start overhauling it. What I find useful is that my players don’t know they are playtesting, so I find their reactions to things very honest.

22 – How do you document ideas?

I have a google sheet to capture ideas, and I have copious notebooks I scribble ideas in.

23 – People who’ve helped you?

The few times I’ve dipped my toe in writing for the public, my friend Amber E. Scott has been very helpful, and dare I say, kind. Anytime I brought an idea or a question to her, she was always enthusiastic and positive in her advice and criticism. And she’s, like, stupid levels of talented as well. Seriously, go read any of the stuff she wrote for Dragon Magazine, or any of the Paizo material she’s written. Then send her a thank-you.

24 – Most notable achievement?

Finally getting started.

25 – Being a TTRPG designer means…

…creating something that is complete enough in itself, but will also incite acts of imagination and delight leading to fun.

26 – Blogs, streams, podcasts?

I’m a bit of a packrat when it comes to these, I follow way more than I’m able to consume regularly. So I often end up binging. But of the ones I do consume regularly: WebDM and Matthew Colville are tied as my favourite YouTube shows, Shield of Tomorrow is currently my favourite play-through show, and I listen to Ken & Robin Talk About Stuff like a religion. I don’t follow any blog in particular, but I try to follow the RPG Blog Carnival around, as I find that usually gives me a pretty broad reading list.

27 – Feature a TTRPG designer.

My friend Amber E. Scott. Read all her stuff, and you will a) be entertained the entire time, and b) come away with a really good idea of how to write good gaming material.

28 – Favourite interview?

Not listed among my podcasts above, but I listen to Dragon Talk a bunch. Any of their interviews are pretty good. Anything with Matthew Mercer is good. And the time I moderated a panel for and got to ask questions of Monte Cook, was probably my hands down favourite.

29 – Your community.

Working from the inside out, my particular circle of regular players are pretty good. I’ve managed to winnow out anyone who wasn’t fun to play with, and they are all as tolerant and inclusive as I could want. The local community in Edmonton is generally a good one, with pockets of folks not yet on the inclusivity train. But they are either doing the work to change, or failing to come out to public events as they discover their brand of gaming isn’t tolerated. And the community I encounter online? Pockets, sometimes whole swaths of great folks, interspersed with douchecanoes. But I think the tide is starting to shift, and I will hopefully live to see my hobby reach an effortless inclusivity.

30 – Top tips and advice

Don’t be afraid to just start. I was for years, and it kept me from doing something I really love. Pick something you really want to design write, and do it. It will likely be bad and that’s okay. Put that wobbly, misshapen Thing in front of some players and let them sniff around it. Pick up the remains after they are done and work it back into a new, better shape. Talk to people you trust, and have them look at the Thing. Take the advice that sounds good.

Try and fail. Keep trying until the failing becomes sporadic. It may disappear entirely, but don’t worry if it doesn’t. The only folks who don’t fail, don’t try.

April TTRPG Maker Challenge – Even More Catch-up!

Hard on the heals of my previous catch-up post, another catch-up post! Folks, I’m really good at this whole blogging thing, let me tell ya!

8 – Describe Your Routine

When I freelanced full-time, I kept a pretty tight routine. I’m an early riser, so I would get up at 5:30am, have breakfast and clean up, and be sitting at my desk ready to work at 6:30am. I’d work through to the afternoon, taking breaks as needed, and finish up around 3-4pm. Now that I have a day job and my freelancing is my second job, I don’t have a rigid routine. I usually plan for about 2-3 hours after I get home from work, with additional time if needed during weekend days. I try to make Sunday a day off, but I have used that time if I needed it.

I find routine useful but I’m not a slave to it. I’ve found that if I try to adhere to a routine too closely, it can sometimes be restrictive. What I tend to do instead is set things up to facilitate slipping into work as easily as possible, which then allows me to work as I’m able around other responsibilities. That doesn’t work for everyone, but it has served me well.

9 – Describe Your Process

I usually start by jotting down some notes about the thing I’m trying to right, in a very free-form manner. If it’s a longer piece I may pull those notes together into an outline before I start writing, but for shorter projects I’ll often just work from my notes. If it’s something I’m going to use in game, I’ll GM whatever it is from just my notes, and add or edit those notes as the player’s interact with it. Then I’ll move to the writing phase, with that player feedback in mind.

If I’m editing for someone, I’ll read through the document a couple of times, just getting a feel for it and seeing if anything jumps out at me. Then I start taking more critical reads. Depending on the length, and what the client has asked me to focus on, each of these reads will focus on a different aspect of the document. Once I’ve done all that, I make a copy of the document, accept my edit suggestions, and read the document with my edits to see if there is anything I missed or want to change.

10 – Favourite Game to Relax With?

For TTRPGs, any game I can play with my friends is my favourite game to relax with. The social aspects of gaming are key for me, so I’m less fussed about what I’m playing than who I’m playing it with. If I am relaxing on my own, I usually load up either Star Trek Online, World of Warcraft, or World of Warships, depending on what I’m in the mood for at the time. Honestly, though, if I truly want to relax I read. I usually go through 3-4 books a week, not including game books and comics. I’m currently doing a sequential re-read of John D. MacDonald’s Travis Magee books, as well as the Pathfinder books by Dave Gross (which I highly recommend if you want stellar fantasy action).

11 – What’s yer Brand?

Probably something I should give a hard think about, as I transition from writing for myself/my games into writing for public consumption. I think if my brand is anything, it’s based around the question of what I really need as a game master or player. When I started writing my own material for the gaming table, lo those many decades ago, I emulated the style of modules at the time. So I found myself writing out a lot of details and information I never really used at the table in later years. These days I look really hard at the bare minimum I can get away with writing down and still have it be useful. That said, I obviously can’t just publish a prettied up list of point form notes and expect people to buy that. But I want to focus on giving game masters and players either what they absolutely need, or discovering some need they didn’t know they had yet, and filling it. And then filling it better than anyone else once other publishers start jumping on board the idea.

12 – How do you get your work out there?

Well, you’re looking at it. I’ve put a bunch of campaign and gaming useful material up for free on my blog, and you can search back through to find that. When I have a few pieces ready, I’ll post them for sale over at DriveThru RPG, because I think that’s a great marketplace. And I’ll likely update my website to do my own sales. As for getting the word out, social media is my friend! I’ve been lucky enough to make gaming friends all over the world, and I make a habit of spreading the word when they have something they want promoted. Hopefully they’ll return the favour when I’m ready.

Okay, I promise I’ll make daily updates from here on out. Pinky swear.


April TTRPG Challenge: Catch-up Edition

As has become tradition with these daily post challenges, I had several days where I wasn’t able to get a post up. And so here we are with a catch-up post! Yay! That said, I’ll be better about getting regular posts up. Also, if you haven’t been following the hashtag on Twitter, I highly recommend it. Some fantastic people are taking the challenge this month, many whose work I admire, some whose work I’m excited to discover, and a small few who I know and consider a friend.

But enough about them. Let’s talk about me! Which as an introvert is sort of my worst nightmare, but let’s go!

Day 3:  How did you start creating TTRPG?

Like a lot of folks in the hobby I think I started creating for TTRPGs by writing up things that were “missing” from the game. I started playing in 1980 and started GMing shortly after. Getting published modules and books was difficult, living as I did in Northern Canada, so by necessity I had to create a bunch of my own material. I also devoured sci-fi and fantasy stories and naturally wanted to bring what I was reading into the games I played and ran. So I would come up with stats and descriptions for Green Martians from the John Carter books, or figure out how the glaive from Krull would work in D&D. That would continue through every decade of the hobby; if it didn’t exist and I needed it, I made it. But it’s only fairly recently that it occurred to me that I should publish some of that material.

Day 4: Describe your work.

Up to now one word described my creative work: necessity. I created the things I needed, when I needed them, for the campaigns I ran. Between work and other responsibilities, and dealing with some seasonal anxiety and depression issues, I only made TTRPG material when I absolutely couldn’t find it anywhere else. That has changed in the last few years, and I’ve started to have the time and inclination to create things for my own enjoyment. Which will hopefully translate into creating things other folks will enjoy.

On the freelance editing side, I’ve worked on a bunch of TTRPG projects for writers and publishers putting out their work on DriveThru RPG. I started offering my editing services for that about six years ago, and while the workload has been variable I’ve enjoyed all that work. The best part has been demonstrating the value of good editing to a TTRPG project, and how it can make a product stand out from the many other products around it.

Day 5: Favourite game you’ve worked on.

One of the best things I ever worked on was The Player’s Guide to Zeif for the D&D 3.5 Living Greyhawk campaign. About a year or two before they closed LG down, they split the region we were in and we were given the opportunity to develop a new area of the Greyahwk world as our new in game region. We were given Zeif, and at the time the entirety of what was known about the nation was contained in a three-page entry in the Greyhawk Gazeteer, and a two-page article in an edition of Polyhedron. As part of the “History Team”, I helped develop the history of the nation and the stories and legends that current Zeif was built upon. I also helped edit parts of the rest of the document, which was equally exciting. It was the first time I’d worked collaboratively on a project, so I learned a bunch about that process. And there was a real sense of pride when we had finished and it was out in the world.

Day 6: Favourite game mechanic?

My current favourite mechanic, which is actually a collection of mechanics, is the dice rolling in Star Trek Adventures. For pretty much anything in the game the player will roll 2d20, trying to get a GM determined number of successes by rolling under a target number (generated by an ability+skill combination from the character). Rolling a 1 is a critical success which counts as two successes, and a 20 is a critical failure, which causes a complication. Players can spend Momentum (another mechanic I love) to get extra dice. As well, if they have a Focus which applies to the roll, they extend their critical range up to the level of the Discipline being used. If the roll involves their rank 5 Command discipline, for instance, they now get a critical success on a roll of 1 to 5. The GM, on the other hand, can spend Threat to either/both increase the number of successes needed to achieve the goal, and increase the threat range (spending three threat will extend the Complication range to 17-20 on the die). And these mechanics handle 90% of the checks in the game. I love it because there is just so much packed into this one simple die rolling mechanic. It aids the story, and allows the players and GMs to decide how important the roll is to them, and act accordingly.

Day 7: Your workspace.

I don’t really have a set workspace. I’m lucky enough to have a dedicated game room in the house I rent, so I do a bunch of my creating and crafting (and of course gaming) in there. But I work at my desk a bunch, because that’s where my computer is. I also work on things at my job on my lunch breaks and after work, because I have a computer there as well. But then, I also carry a notebook or two with me everywhere I go, and will often write things up freehand before copying that to a digital document. From long habit I’ll use the hand-written thing in game, and edit/modify it through play, before I write down the “true” version of it. As long as I have something to write with and something to write on, I can work. I have also begun using Google Docs regularly, so if I can get online that’s just a bonus.

I will say that I enjoy working at home the most, however. I tend to get up early (5:30am most days), and I enjoy working in the quiet of the morning. I also like being surrounded by my growing collection of gaming books. Whenever I feel uninspired I can grab a random book and flip through, and I will usually get some idea that I can develop.

Okay, all caught up! I’ll get back to posting these daily, for as long as that lasts, and do another catch-up post as needed. Talk to me in the comments about your TTRPG experiences, and follow the hashtag on Twitter to hear from excellent designers.

April TTRPG Maker Challenge, Day 2: Where ya At?

Geophysically, I’m in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, on the northern prairies. Because I live in Canada I’m also on Treaty 6 territory, a traditional gathering place for diverse Indigenous peoples including the Cree, Blackfoot, Metis, Nakota Sioux, Iroquois, Dene, Ojibway/ Saulteaux/Anishinaabe, Inuit, and many others whose histories, languages, and cultures continue to influence our community.

Edmonton is a vibrant city in many ways, and tabletop gaming is no exception. I think we may have more tabletop cafes per capita than any other city in Canada, and recently I’d be willing to say that about Friendly Local Game Stores as well. There are four very active tabletop gaming cons locally, two focused on board games, one on just TTRPGs, and the last tries for a mix. And just this year we added a tabletop game prototype con and a computer and tabletop gaming con, so there are no shortage of events. In fact, if you’re in Edmonton and have the weekend free a few weeks from now, you should check out GOBFest, running April 14 and 15. Always a good time!

As to where I’m at in my making? I’m just starting out, really. I mean I’m a GM, so I’ve been making for over 35+ years. But as far as making for general consumption goes, I’m a newbie. I’ve learned a bunch editing other people’s projects, though, and I have that experience to draw upon. I’m actually really excited to take this next step and start putting more of my stuff out in the world.

April TTRPG Maker Challenge

I’m taking part in the #AprilTTRPGMaker Challenge this month from @kiranansi. While I’ve been blogging about and editing TTRPGs for a few years, I am just easing a toe in the water of writing and designing my own material. This looked like a good opportunity to talk about that process, as well as solidifying some of my thoughts around making game material. I hope you enjoy, and if you’re taking part I look forward to reading your posts.

#1: Who Am I?

My name is Brent Jans and I’ve been a table top gamer since 1980, when I started playing Dungeons & Dragons at the tender age of ten. Since then I have played many games, more often as the game master than not. About five years ago I started blogging semi-regularly about the hobby as Renaissance Gamer (a play on the term “renaissance man”). About three (four?) years ago I hung out my shingle as a freelance TTRPG editor, mostly trying to provide editing services to other freelance or small press TTRPG writers and publishers who might not otherwise use an editor; you can find links to some of the work I’ve done on my Need an Editor? page.

Here on my blog I talk about whatever gaming-related idea or topic pops into my head, though I do have semi-regular articles on food at the gaming table, campaign inspiration, and inclusivity. I also blog a bunch about local gaming events and stores, because supporting the local gaming community is important to me. My blog posts are also where you’ll find a bunch of my creations/ideas for my home games, posted to share with other gamers. I also post an editorial once a week over at The Rat Hole, an excellent site for both board game and TTRPG reviews (which you should totally check out, hint hint!).

About a year-and-a-half ago I started a D&D 5e campaign (the first time I had played actual D&D in almost ten years), then I started a second one. I created my own campaign world for that, and my players are currently exploring various parts of one of the main areas, Cotterell. I’m excited, because the campaign has me writing new game material on a regular basis, and I’m eyeing some of that for publication. I have wanted to publish for years, but never put my focus into it the way I should have until very recently.

I also recently pulled the trigger on a project I’ve had in my head for many years. The Canadian Library of Roleplaying Games is my project to collect, preserve, and discuss gaming material from the start of the hobby until now. It’s very early days, but my meager collection is growing and a number of folks locally have come on board to help. It’s probably the thing I’m most excited about, moving forward.

And that’s me. If you have questions, feel free to drop them in the comments below. In the meantime I’ll see you tomorrow!


January RPG Blog Carnival Roundup

Whew! Sorry, everyone, January got away from me a bit. Between work getting busy and illness, I looked up and it was February. Nevertheless, we had several contributors to the January Blog Carnival, and I want to thank all the bloggers who took on our theme of “gaming on a budget”. Here’s a little round-up of our contributors:

Rodney has a three-point plan for gaming on the cheap over at Rising Phoenix Games. It’s a cleverly simple plan, and if you follow it you’ll come out the other side with a role-playing game library you’ll actually use. And books you will use are always a better value than books that sit on the shelf unopened.

Loot the Room looked at great RPGs with a low initial cost of entry. And by low, they mean free. Hours of entertainment for free, you say? What sorcery is this?! It is true, though, and they have four suggestions for games you could take home with a few mouse clicks.

Eric’s Gaming Pulse had some ideas on gaming on the cheap. An interesting aspect that Eric touches on that we hadn’t considered is how to budget your time as well as your money.

The Wandering Alchemist had some great ideas on how to stretch your money and make sure you’re getting bang for your gaming buck. I particularly enjoyed the discussion around which systems give you the best value. It should come as no surprise that generic systems are a much better value, allowing you to play a wider variety of campaigns types.

Cirsova jumps into the RPG Blog Carnival pool after a long absence with some Dos and Don’ts for gaming on a budget. The Dos are some excellent advice, and the Don’ts are a handy look at what you could do once you have a bit more in the way of funds.

Last but not least, I share a few ideas for the miserly gamer over at The Rat Hole. If you take nothing else from my article, remember two things: the internet is your friend, and save all the paper.

Thanks again to all the bloggers who took part this month. If you like their stuff please take a moment to drop by their sites and tell them so. And as we are well into February, make sure to check out the February RPG Blog Carnival hosted by Daemons & Deathrays. This month’s theme is “Time Marches On”. Boy, they aren’t kidding.