Tag Archives: Design

Unearthed Arcana: Mass Combat, Simplified

Mass combat, via

Last week’s Unearthed Arcana covered Mass Combat for the second time since the series launched at the beginning of Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition. Behind only the Ranger class, it is the second most-covered subject of the series, meaning D&D’s designers feel there is a gap in players’ expectations and the rules as written.

Frankly, I don’t care much for either entry, as both sets of rules offer too much unnecessary crunch to a game that’s elegant and streamlined. I don’t have any particular gripe with the rules they’ve presented (though they’re more complicated than just using a swarm, for no real benefit), but rather with the fact that any rules are presented at all. Simply put: most RPGs, including D&D, don’t need them. However, this latest Unearthed Arcana does capture the most important element for running exciting mass combats, buried in the very final section: Critical Events. An RPG should focus on the moments where the characters’ actions influence the direction of the story most, and these inflection points–Critical Events, in the parlance of the UA article–should be the point of focus for the rules and the Gamemaster.

To illustrate this thesis, think of the Trojan War. It’s a story that has been retold a thousand times, but can you recall anything about troop formations or the tide of the broad battle at any given point? The Greeks attacked and the Trojans held firm. Alternatively, think of the battle between Hector and Patroclus; Hector famously slew Patroclus, believing he was Achilles for he had donned Achilles’ armor. Achilles, on learning of Patroclus’ demise, entered the battle in earnest and turned the tide in the Greeks’ favor. More to the point, if you were retelling the story at a tabletop, would you rather focus attention on the minute movements and formations of the regular Greeks and Trojans, or on the epic duel that led to the entry of the Greek’s greatest champion and, ultimately, the demise of Troy? To borrow from the silver screen, would you rather focus on the naval battle around the Second Death Star, or the Millennium Falcon’s bombing run into its core?

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Analyzing D&D 5E’s Unearthed Arcana Revised Ranger


This week, Wizards of the Coast released the much-awaited The Ranger, Revised Unearthed Arcana, in which they took the first pass at a truly redesigned Ranger class. In previous Unearthed Arcana editions, they proposed new archetypes to mixed reception, but this one is actually a rebuild from level 1 to 20, with three subclasses: the Hunter Conclave, the Beast Conclave, and the Deep Stalker Conclave.

Full disclosure: I’m a Ranger critic. As we discussed on Total Party Thrill #18, I love the concept of the Ranger class in Dungeons & Dragons, but I’ve been disappointed with its implementation in 5th Edition. As printed in the Player’s Handbook, the Ranger is a total mess; it’s the weakest of the martial classes in combat, it lacks a niche, and its class-defining abilities are either useless, overshadowed by other classes, or simply less fun in practice than they should be. The Fighter has both trickiness and brute force in combat, the Paladin has better burst damage and party buffs, the Barbarian tanks, the Rogue dominates the Exploration pillar with its Expertise, and the Druid has identical-or-better wilderness and animal handling capabilities. The last hope for the Ranger, his last One Cool Thing, is the animal companion. It’s only available to one subclass, and it happens to be the single worst class in the game by a longshot.

In short, this revision is overdue. Let’s break it down, ability by ability.

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Fixing Dark Heresy 2E’s Random Item Acquisition for Rogue Trader


Lately–as I’ve mentioned on the Total Party Thrill podcast–I’ve been running a Warhammer 40k Rogue Trader game using Fantasy Flight Games’ Dark Heresy Second Edition system. Rather than members of the Inquisition, as Dark Heresy is designed for, the player characters make up the crew of a Rogue Trader vessel. We had to lightly reskin and reflavor a few items, but it has been an overall smooth conversion, but one mechanic has stuck in my craw since the first game of Dark Heresy we ran in 2014: item acquisition.

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Group Spellcasting: D&D 5E Homebrew Challenge

Not the same Unearthed Arcana

This is not the Unearthed Arcana you’re looking for… via

Homebrew Challenge is an occasional column in which we develop a homebrew solution for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition in order to create additional player options, actions, or abilities. We discuss the challenge, the solution, the design principles we employed and ideas that we rejected, and the areas of concern that Dungeon Masters should keep an eye on.

The Challenge: Group Casting

The idea that a group of casters can combine their power into a single spell is as old as magic. It shows up in fiction in various forms, from Shakespeare’s witches in Macbeth to a variety of psykers, heretics, and cultists in the Warhammer 40k universe. The goal here is straightforward: create a mechanic by which two spellcasters can combine their spells to achieve a greater net effect.  Continue reading

Keith Baker, Phoenix: Dawn Command, and the New Frontier of RPG Design

Phoenix: Dawn Command

The following article was originally posted by the author on The Mad Adventurers Society, and is reprinted here with permission. You can find the original here.

When I initially received an email from game designer Keith Baker, I was astounded. Not only is Baker the creator of the Eberron setting for Dungeons & Dragons, as well as the designer of the narrative card game Gloom, but he had also just launched a Kickstarter for his latest game, Phoenix: Dawn Command. I knew he’d be swamped with promoting his Kickstarter, and I am a nobody blogger who got his attention on Twitter and sent him a 750-word email for his trouble. I was working on a story about a growing trend of what I have dubbed “prop-based” RPGs: games that use proprietary elements, such as special dice, unique tokens, or, in Baker’s case, cards. I wanted to know what was behind this trend; in a matter of months, we’ve seen Kickstarters for games that use proprietary decks of cards, like FAITH, Neon Sanctum, and Phoenix: Dawn Command, and there has to be a reason that designers are focusing on cards.

I still haven’t answered that question to my satisfaction, but Keith is such an insightful designer that I’ve spent the past couple weeks reexamining my own beliefs and principles when it comes to game design, specifically around conflict resolution. I’ve previously written about why the rules exist (spoiler: it’s to justify killing the characters when the players don’t want them to die.) Around these parts, MAS’s own dynamic duo, Sammy and Fiddleback, took a run at randomness and PC death on episode 65 the Potelbat podcast back in September (spoiler: everyone hates randomness.) As both a player and gamemaster, I am very much of the crunchy system mastery/optimization persuasion. I have spent hours poring over rulebooks precisely to understand and mitigate the randomness of die rolls in order to assure my character is reliably good at whatever it is he’s supposed to be good at, his “One Cool Thing,” if you will.

I’ve played dozens of different systems using a variety of mechanics: d20s, percentiles, dice pools, FUDGE dice, and whatever you want to call Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars dice. I’ve dismissed some for being to high variance—“swingy” like 40k RPGs—and some for being too low—“curved” like FATE and Dungeon World. Maybe what I’ve been looking for all along isn’t the right mathematical outcome curve of dice blended with the right measure of static modifiers and properly turned target numbers. Maybe what I really want is a slight preview of the next die roll. Maybe what I want is actually cards.

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BoardGameGeek’s W. Eric Martin on Recycled Designs in Gaming

W. Eric Martin is an editor for BoardGameGeek and posts pretty regularly from the site’s official Twitter account. This morning, he shared some observations about the game industry and this year’s new games, prompted by the trends–or lack thereof–he noticed at this week’s New York Toy Fair industry trade show.

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