Watch a Hobby Eat Its Own Tail

At DASTOW we’re expanding our 5E content. It’s a good system and one we have lots of familiarity with. One promise, though: I want no part of the nostalgia parade.

Look at the existing 5E products, and you’ll see a lot of work inspired by the great adventures of yesteryear. Look at all the remakes, “spiritual successors,” and straight-up reprints. The dream of the ’80s is alive in Renton, Washington.

I have close friends who wrote a lot of the content in Tales from the Yawning Portal, but just seeing it fills me with sorrow. This could have been something new, but it’s a “greatest hits” album with 5E stats. At least they had the honesty to put “yawning” right there in the title, eh?

Imagine if they’d put the effort into something new. I am aware that WotC is a business, and their greatest hits compilation is going to outsell a new album. But that’s true only in the short term. What do you do in ten years? Do a remake of your remakes? Nostalgia is not a check you can just keep cashing.

The tail-eating isn’t just a WotC thing by any stretch; it’s just that they have one of the longest tails in tabletop. Tails are at the top of the menu in the video game world. A few years ago, I went to E3, North America’s biggest trade show for video games. As I stood at the entrance, I saw a dozen banners draped over the arena and the surrounding buildings—each banner at least five stories tall.

Every single video game mentioned had a number at the end: Far Cry 3, Borderlands 2, Assassins Creed III, Call of Duty: Black Ops II, Halo 4, Resident Evil 6…you get the idea. Imagine what those studios could have accomplished with those teams working on new worlds and experiences instead?

Again, they’re businesses—I get that. But it’s short-term thinking. All those billion-dollar franchises started as one-offs, and if you never start anything new, you’ll never get to the point where you’re contemplating the lucrative sequel.

In our own tiny way at DASTOW, we’re going to deliver new experiences. Maybe someday they’ll be part of someone’s nostalgia kick, but honestly I couldn’t care less about that right now.

New stuff, as fast as we can dream it up. ’Cause that’s a more satisfying meal than a tail could ever be.

Swimming Rules for 13th Age, Part One

Because tactical movement tends to be abstract, the 13th Age Roleplaying Game takes a light touch toward such fantasy staples as mounted combat, flying, and swimming. Perhaps not coincidentally, those are topics most game designers tackle under duress, because it’s easy to get them wrong—and almost as easy to get them right but make them unfun.

Even though we aren’t under duress, we find our 13th Age characters dumped in the drink often enough to offer these somewhat-sketchy, wholly unofficial swimming and underwater combat rules for 13th Age. Try them out yourselves, and let us know what you think in the comments.

Design Principles

Let’s talk scope. Do we want to cover the entire breadth of life under the sea? Should we model water pressure and ambient light as the PCs dive deeper? Do we want to treat everything from weapon velocity to bleeding wounds to vocalized speech realistically?

Um, no.

Let’s focus on basic rules for the key moments that tend to crop up in typical d20 fantasy gaming:

  1. Character suddenly dropped into the water and must get back out without drowning or being swept away.
  2. Characters forced to fight undersea enemies with no warning.
  3. Characters intentionally exploring an underwater environment on a longer-term basis (beyond just one encounter).

Let’s also also talk depth—rules depth, not water depth. It’s not a game about swimming; it’s a game where you occasionally have to swim your way to the good stuff. So let’s design just enough to make swimming and underwater combat feel different and dangerous, not necessarily realistic.


In the first case, we’ll lean on the skill system. We want our rules to model two things: swimming in hazardous waters (ocean swells, swift current, crashing surf, and so on) and holding one’s breath. Not every encounter will feature both. Sometimes you have to swim through the flooded hallway, but the water is still. Sometimes your longboat capsizes near shore, and you’re battered by waves but not drowning.

Swimming under ordinary circumstances is automatic. Yes, even if your character is from the desert or the Elemental Plane of Air or whatever. Forcing rolls for ordinary movement gets old at the table really quick. As for extraordinary circumstances…that’s where the environment DCs in Chapter 6 of the core rulebook come in.

Adventurer Tier Hazard
rolling ocean waves DC 20
Mountain stream current (swift but shallow) DC 20
Champion Tier Hazard
Shore breakers, deep ocean swells DC 25
Swift current, few chances to grasp edge DC 25
Epic tier hazard
Tsunami-level waves DC 30
Pressurized water (geysers, clockwork plumbing apparatus) DC 30

Note that the backgrounds in 13th Age are more specific than just a “swim” skill; as a GM, you’ll need to use your judgment on what does and doesn’t apply. In a pinch, let characters use their Strength modifier in place of a relevant background.

Let’s add one key wrinkle that makes the wizards and sorcerers (probably poor swimmers) happy: a –2 penalty on the check for PCs in light armor and a –4 penalty for PCs in heavy armor. If they don’t like it, let ‘em take a round to disrobe from light armor and two rounds to get out of heavy armor.

Holding Your Breath

Let’s charitably rule that all PCs can hold their breath for a minute, just because we want to enable fun things underwater—however briefly—and realistic breath limits shut off more interesting story moments than they enable.

Unlike many other fantasy d20 games, 13th Age doesn’t have a robust saving throw system where attributes (Constitution in this case) and level are meaningful inputs. But it does have PD, which rewards high Constitution, and we can let hit points stand in for level (mua ha ha ha). After the minute is up, drowning (and asphyxiation if you’re stealing these rules for a dust storm or outer space or whatever) begins to take its toll.

At the start of each round, make an attack against each drowning character’s PD, according to the following table. If the character is fighting or swimming, use the high exertion option:

Tier Attack Bonus Damage
Adventurer tier +5 3d6
Adventurer tier, high exertion +10 3d6
Champion tier (didn’t get a good breath beforehand) +10 4d8
Champion tier, high exertion +15 4d8
Epic tier (enemy is magically trying to force water into you) +15 3d20
Epic tier, high exertion +20 3d20

With these numbers, drowning is a serious risk for everyone, but tougher and higher-level characters can last longer underwater.

Once again, let’s add one wrinkle. In real life, near-fatal drowning has a host of long-term consequences. But in the fantasy fiction that underpins 13th Age, characters often spend a few minutes coughing and spluttering after nearly drowning, and then they’re right as rain. To model this, declare that using recoveries (including healing magic) to restore hit points lost from drowning is twice as efficient; spending one recovery heals twice as much.

If it’s an underwater combat situation where drowning people are also being stabbed/bitten/magicked, you can either track combat damage separately from drowning damage (not a big deal, because it doesn’t come up that often) or just say to heck with it and let all healing in the quick rest after the underwater fight count double (also not a big deal, because you’re a GM and have plenty of ways to take those hit points back later.

With swimming rules and drowning rules in hand, we have everything we need to cover the first use case we outlined above.

For the second use case (an underwater battle) and the third use case (a long-term underwater adventure) we’re going to lean on the damage types already defined in the rules and on some new magic items. Look for those in part two, coming soon!

The Escalated Fighter Now Available

If you’ve been following our Escalation Series for the 13th Age Roleplaying Game and you play a fighter, we’ve got some great news for you. We’ve just released The Escalated Fighter, which has the usual new talents, backgrounds, and one unique things, but you’ll also find new exotic weapon options to make you unlike any other fighter.

If you don’t play a fighter, don’t worry! We’ve already released books for the barbarian, bard, cleric, ranger, and rogue, so go check those out! And remember to check back in often, because we’ve still got the sorcerer, paladin, and wizard yet to come!

Finding Inspiration in the Real World

Onondaga Cave

Onondaga Cave

Absolutely everything can provide inspiration for a creative endeavor—whether it’s writing, painting, or even game design.

I recently took a month and drove the entirety of Route 66—backwards, from Santa Monica to Chicago—and there is so much just here in the states that can ignite new ways of seeing or thinking about things. [Editor’s Note: Backwards, but not literally in reverse gear…] I visited three different cave systems over the course of the trip: the Grand Canyon Caverns, Onondaga Cave, and Meramec Caverns. Getting into the cool features and differences of each—state owned versus privately owned, dry versus wet, and so on—would take a blog post of its very own (comment if you’d like to see such a post!), but suffice to say that I learned quite a bit about what made each one unique. It gave me a new way of thinking about caves in

Onondaga Cave

Onondaga Cave

adventures—what they could hold, and what it might really be like trying to navigate through them with just a few torches. I took many photos—some for beauty, but some just for reference. I want to be able to look at them and imagine an elf, a gnome, and a couple humans crawling through the stalagmites, stalactites, and low ceilings. What else might they find?

I saw cliff dwellings—abandoned for centuries, but still up there. I saw the Grand Canyon and hiked around the Rim Trail, thinking about how strange and wonderful it was that I could get so close to the edge of the canyon (parts of the trail are inches from the 7,000-foot drop). Now, fighting through encounters along a ledge or in a cave are by no means novel, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a new or interesting way to approach these things—especially when

Grand Canyon Caverns

Grand Canyon Caverns: Sleep in a cave!

you have a physical place to work from, a physical cliff to study, a physical cave to get down on your hands and knees in. It’s one thing to imagine your players in a hypothetical cave—it’s another to imagine them right here, in exactly this spot, their hands as cold and wet as yours as you crouch down to see the path through the columns.

Natural wonders are, of course, not the only thing from which to draw inspiration. There are plenty of strange and wonderful museums out there that focus on everything from mechanical dolls to westerns to vacuums (really). The thing to remember is that if you’re willing to look hard enough, everything has something to offer you. Learning the history of the most mundane item can spark something you didn’t even realize was inside you.

Meramec Caverns

Meramec Caverns

I doubt very much I’m espousing any new information at all, but every now and then, we can all use a reminder. Travelling absolutely anywhere—even just hiking near your home or going to see a nearby art exhibit—can be just the thing you need to get exactly the right setting or the right encounter or the right NPC for the adventure you’re working on. Keep your creative glasses on, and everything becomes fodder. The chipper, totally-with-it person who checked you into your hotel room or the cousin you’d never met who welcomed you into his home like an old friend—these are real people in the world, and they can be real people in your adventure. They may even be the emotional hook that brings your players into the game.

Meramec Caverns

Meramec Caverns: Light show!

The more you can use the real world to influence your game world, the more fleshed out it becomes. Pulling from the physical world gives players something to connect with, something to feel more invested in. Even if they themselves have never been inside a cave or walked along a canyon’s edge, adding real-world details often feels more authentic.

The thing to remember when creating a game world is that everything in the real world has something to offer you. Everything has a piece you can take home. You just have to keep an eye out for it.

Editorial Comments: Monster Mausoleum

Dave and Stacey collaborate using Google Drive and make liberal use of the commenting feature. This blog series pulls out some of those comment threads, either because they amused us or because we think they’re interesting from a game design back-and-forth perspective.

“Any attacks made against creatures hostile to the huecuva within the aura have advantage, while attacks made by creatures hostile to the huecuva within the aura have advantage.”
Stacey: I adjusted this language to be clearer. Is it okay?
David: Yes, but you could also be simpler: “The huecuva and all creatures within 30 feet of it, whether friendly or not, gain advantage on all attack rolls.”
Stacey: Okay, see but you’re reading it wrong. That’s not what it says.

“stunned for 1d4 rounds”
Dave: This is so much better than the axe attack that the draugr should do nothing but slam attacks, then use the axe to carve up a stunned party into filets for dinner. Something like the knockback that the chieftain has would be better.
Stacey: What if I beef up the other attack and make the stun only one round?
Stacey: I meant for greataxe to be 10 anyway. Also, everything in parentheses I’m going to recheck.
Stacey: Oh, or what if they just have disadvantage for 1d4 rounds?
David: That would work.

“261 (18d20 + 72)”
Stacey: Isn’t 18 x the con bonus 108?
Dave: Yeah, good catch. I must have changed the Con later, probably to make the poison DC more appropriate.
Stacey: We should change the 72 to 108, though, right?
Dave: It already is.
Dave: …because I changed it after I saw that.

“1d10 x 100 ft.”
Dave: I multiplied all these by 100 rather than 10, because you don’t want a 10 ft. teleport—anticlimactic.
Dave: If that’s too much, consider 1d4 x 100.
Stacey: I was just gonna say that. Okay.
Stacey: I originally thought the point was just to fuck with them by moving them around the room, not to effectively remove a player from the fight.

Kickstarters We Like: Air Deck

If you travel a lot and like to play cards, you’ve probably gone through your share of decks. Paper cards wear out pretty easily, and with all the jostling that comes along with travel, it’s only a matter of time before you spill something on them. And even if you can avoid that, it takes up a lot of room in your pocket.

What I like about the Air Deck is particularly the way it’s compact. Usually, if you can find a smaller deck of cards, they’re made for people with tiny hands and perfect eyes—they hold a regular card shape, but at a fraction of the size, making them harder to hold. These, on the other hand, are of normal length, making them just as easy to hold as an average-sized card; it balances in your hand just as well, but is narrower for ease of transportation. In fact, the narrow design might in fact make it even easier to hold onto than wider cards—and easier for solitaire on an airplane tray table. The typeface is also nice and bold, so you don’t have to bring along a magnifying glass just to ready your compact cards.

Waterproofing and durability also make great design choices. Losing a beverage is annoying enough, but when you spill it onto your card game, it’s twice as disappointing. As someone who can manage to drop the most important of items into the most toxic of shit, I always appreciate durability—and in this case, the ability to wash the cards as well.

The Air Deck seems like it’d solve a lot of the most common travel deck problems, so if you frequently travel with cards, consider supporting this Kickstarter! You can grab a black or white deck for 10 euros (roughly $11), and it runs until July 2.

Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate

This week Wizards of the Coast announced Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate, a D&D-themed version of their acclaimed Betrayal at House on the Hill board game. My first thought: “Great ideas win out—even if it takes a while.”

“A while” being “fifteen years, give or take” in this case.

When I first saw the game that would become Betrayal at House on the Hill, it was one of the last Milwaukee Gencons, 2001 or 2002. I was a D&D designer for WotC, so I spent most of my Gencon time speaking on panels or running the Delve (a continuous four-day pickup game) inside the WotC castle in the exhibit hall. Nice work if you can get it, eh?

I was hanging around the castle after a shift DMing the Delve when the head of RPG R&D at the time, Bill Slavicsek, grabbed me. “Follow me—we need a fourth player for a game we’re trying.” With me in tow, Bill scurried over to the open board game area, where we met two designers in Hasbro’s board game operation: Rob Daviau (who later went on to pretty much invent legacy board games) and Mike Gray (who’s been key to more Hasbro games than I can list).

“It’s a haunted house game,” Rob explained. “Here, pick a character.”

What I played over the course of the next hour or so was a 80% complete version of what later became Betrayal at House on the Hill. The characters were horror-movie archetypes (cheerleader, professor, and so on), the stats were tracked with paperclips on cardstock, and the room tiles even had decent graphics. The traitor mechanic was there, though the supply of plots was much thinner.

After a brief explainer from Mike and Rob, we were able to hit the ground running—and it was fun! When it was all over, Mike explained that while Hasbro’s board game group liked the design, they weren’t going to be able to do anything with it. (I can only imagine the business and logistical concerns for an operation of Hasbro’s scale.) WotC had a separate line of board games, though, and they weren’t beholden to the same set of concerns.

“I think you guys could take the game if you want it,” Mike said. Then Rob piped up. “It doesn’t have to be a haunted house, you know. Look at the tiles and the monster tokens and the items. This could be a dungeon…”

One thing led to another, and the game did wind up on the WotC side of the fence, where Mike Selinker, Teeuwynn Woodruff, Bill McQuillan and a bunch of other people whose names I’m cruelly forgetting turned it into Betrayal at House on the Hill a couple years later.

Rob’s “it doesn’t have to be a haunted house” observation sat latent for years, but now that game’s structure will support a new theme, some 15 years after that Gencon afternoon in the board game hall. Rob gets his wish, and the haunted house becomes a dungeon.

It was a good idea then, and it’s a good idea now. Board game production requires a surplus of patience, whether you’re a huge corporation or an adorable indie. For all my fellow designers who’ve touched the various incarnations of this game over the years, I think 15 years of patience will pay off this October.