Wednesday, October 20, 2021

The Quick and the Dead

Still disagreeing, today Jake will attempt to convince me that we should play D&D using speed factors for weapons.

Has Jake gone mad? Find out... 


Hey Jake. So: you first, because i don't understand why speed factors are good.


Hi Zak.  Sure thing.  Using speed factor initiative – where everyone announces actions at the start of each round and the actions taken impact the order of combat – enhances a D&D campaign in a bunch of ways.

It provides a lot more verisimilitude than other initiative methods.  Quick characters with daggers are more likely to get a jab in before a lumbering great-axe wielder can swing her mighty weapon.  A Magic Missile spell will often fire before an enemy spell-caster can conjure a Gate.

Also, battles are made more chaotic.  Just like real-life battles, there's no set order to combat.  Furthermore, you can't hit a “pause button” on your turn to figure out what's the optimal move at that instant, much less have a conversation with allies to develop and execute a plan.

So why are those good things?  Several reasons:

1.  All other things being equal (e.g., complexity, speed at the table, etc.), rules that better reflect reality tend to enhance the game's immersion.

2.  Because most decision making is front-loaded at the start of each round, the pace of the action during each round really speeds up.  Taken as whole, speed factor initiative isn't quicker (or slower) than other methods, but there's fewer stops and starts in the action, which tends to keep players more engaged.

3.  It leads to more diversity of action.  Players get a choice to weigh that they otherwise wouldn't have: should they use the most powerful tool at their disposal, or is it better to use a less powerful tool that may let them act more quickly?  In a D&D game with cleaving or spill-over damage or a Great Weapon Master feat, this makes battle less monotonous and more tactical.

4.  Combat is more dangerous because what happens in battle is less predictable.  More danger tends to equate with more engagement.  Also, if your game looks at combat as a fail-state – a consequence of not being sneaky or clever or persuasive enough – more dangerous combat helps to reinforce that for the players.

5.  Equipment choices have more consequences and tend to be less homogeneous.  A sword & board fighter might not always choose a long sword over a short sword, or wear plate armor when less encumbering chain provides a better chance of getting a jump on opponents.

So, questions?  Thoughts?


These all seem like legitimate points to me, but the counterargument is that it's more numbers to explain to players, for them to keep track of, and to look up. And isn't speed factor different for every single armor class for any given weapon? (forgive me, I can't remember).


It is a thing that needs to be explained at the start of a campaign.  No question about that.  However, there's an easy way to avoid having to look things up (and thereby slowing things down) in combat.

Before a game, players figure their basic initiative modifier.  This is based on Dex and, if the speed factor system in play accounts for encumbrance, based on the load the character typically carries.  So that's pretty much normal, and the result is written in their “Basic Initiative Mod” box on their character sheet.

Then, where the weapons are listed on the character sheet, there's a new entry that goes before Range, Damage, etc.:  Speed.  Speed is the Basic Initiative Mod plus the modifier for that weapon.

At the start of each round, players announce what weapon they're using, roll the initiative die, and add the weapon's Speed.  That's it.  Adding that single number is one more step than it takes to do group initiative, but it's still very easy.  It's no more complex than an attack roll, or the standard 5e initiative roll for that matter.

Spells are equally easy.  The Speed for a spell is your Basic Initiative Modifier minus the spell's level.  These can also be prefigured on the character sheet.  Thus, a player chooses a spell of a particular level, rolls a die, and adds (or subtracts) a single number.

AD&D 1st edition has a gestalt initiative system.  It's mostly side-based but, on a tie roll, the order of actions is based on weapon speed factor.  But I think you're thinking of Weapon vs. AC adjustments.  Each weapon had a modifier for hitting each AC.

That's actually a very interesting system, as it helped fighters (and, to some extent, thieves) because the weapons they could use generally had better bonuses than the weapons usable by clerics and magic-users.  I think it was one of Gary's responses to the “linear fighter, quadratic wizard” problem.  However, it doesn't bear on initiative.

Anyhow, speed factor initiative can benefit from having a very slightly modified character sheet, but it's easy to keep track of and doesn't require looking up anything.


"It's no more complex than an attack roll, or the standard 5e initiative roll for that matter." Well it has one more number--and more than one if you have more weapons.


The formula is the same as with standard 5e initiative.  It's just that instead of applying a generic modifier to their initiative roll, players apply the modifier noted next to the weapon or spell that they're using.

It's definitely true that side-based initiative doesn't require anyone to apply any modifiers.  It's also true the standard 5e initiative doesn't require rolls each round.  So, in some sense, each of them are a bit simpler than speed factor initiative.

And you're also right that this system encourages characters to carry more than one weapon.  Those daggers that characters tend to get at the start of the game see a lot more use in a game with speed factor initiative.  When an accomplished warrior needs to take out a guard before he can cry out, a stiletto may well be a better choice than a battle axe.  That's almost never the case with any other initiative system.


I like that it encourages carrying more than one weapon, but it is more numbers like: each weapon has an initiative so if 5 pcs have 2 weapons each that's 10 initiative modifiers rather than 5.

So: more numbers right?

Sat 10:56 AM

Ok, well to be honest: you've got me convinced enough to try it.
I know that in DCC it's a LOT like D&D combat but there's just a few extra rolls with magic and mighty deeds, and, in my experience, that tiny difference ends up making combat take significantlly longer and take up more of each session.
Which is sometimes fun.
I wonder whether adding speed-factor will add significantly to combat time
Anything you want to add?

Two things:
If you try it, you may want to monkey around with the modifiers.  Personally, I've introduced a few complications, like reach weapons getting a +5 when combatants come together, then -5 thereafter.  If you'd like, I'd be happy to send you what I use.  But the main thing is, as you've eluded to, keeping the complexity level just high enough to get the benefits I discussed without slowing the game down.

Also, I've found that speed modifiers are a great widget to use in providing special weapons, armor, and spells, particularly in relatively low magic games.  For instance, you could have an extra heavy flail that takes more time to spin up but then generates enough impact to cause a point or two of shock damage to a target, even if the roll doesn't beat the target's AC.  Or a Magic Missile spell that requires the wizard to shout and roar, which makes it take longer to cast, but then allows their charisma mod to be added to the damage.  Stuff like that.

In Demon City, I have a blanket rule of "if your weapon is judged by the GM to be better in the situation than the enemy's weapon, you get a bonus"--which vagueness I think you can get away with in a horror game, because combat is rarer. In general I am pro- weapon-for-situation--i like when the Red Viper of Dorn stabs that dude in the hand because it takes to long to get a longsword out. So: i'm game to try. Thanks!

You bet!

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Disagree-a-thon: Bards

As promised, we're doing disagreements this week. You get to watch human beings talk about something we don't agree on without freaking the fuck out

Today Simon will defend the worst thing in all of roleplaying: Bards.
Smirking at what exactly, guy?

Ok, Bards, so...

1. Late-era bards w/magic powers: Music as magic out on an adventure looks silly. There's literally never been any pictorial or cinematic depiction of this that didn't look ridiculous. (Noise Marines don't count). 

And hokey.

2. Late/middle-era bards as "encouraging you to fight via music"--again, if you picture this happening in a dungeon it's a preposterous image and has never not looked hokey. If goblins are attacking, put down the lute and pick up a rock.

3. Old-era bards who are just travelling thief/fighters. These are just journeyman thief/fighters, the fact they have a day job doesn't make them a new class--why should it?

A duellist is just a kind of fighter, a burglar is just a kind of thief. What's the point?

4. Bard-as-charisma-wizard. Sure, a character can be charming, but the idea that the performer is somehow especially charming suggests a charisma that translates far away from the culture where said performer is famous for performing. While it's easy to picture a performer being charming to people who like lute music in some farming hellhole somewhere, it isnt going to translate when you're doing things other than trying to impress the mayor at festival time. It's not like being in a band helps you convince TSA not to search your bags.

Your turn.



1. It does look silly if it happens in a dungeon during a goblin attack. Outside of a dungeon, though, I say it can work just fine. In "Secret of Kells" animated movie the scene where a fae girl transforms a cat into a spirit by singing "Pangur Ban" looks cool. So, the party needs to rescue someone from a locked tower, it's hard to climb, it's suicidal to attack, the bard steps forward and sings, and music makes his magic happen, putting guards to sleep or summoning mist or whatever - I can see it working. 

2. Yes, this, too, is preposterous in a dungeon. It can work if you view it like Jedi Battle Meditation in "Knights of the Old Republic", which is as 3rd edition D&D as it can possibly get, with skills and feats and all. It works when you gather an army and it's on the march and you raise their spirits with drums or battle songs or whatever. It doesn't work when goblins attack in a dungeon, unless you want to play silly. Sometimes playing silly is okay.

3. Sure, playing a bard as a thief or a fighter or a mage who has a day job is fine. Like playing a pirate or a duelist or a knight - basically it's a thief or a fighter but with some fluff. You can add some stuff like this thief is an important member of Thieves' Guild, or this fighter is in the brotherhood of bards so he has some sort if diplomatic immunity, you can't just throw a bard in jail because the next month in every tavern of every town of your neighbouring contries everyone will sing the new ballad about you being a petty tyrant, and also fat and bald and impotent. But it doesn't require a new class, agreed.

4. The charisma-wizard thing seems as natural to me as intelligence-wizard thing. Sure, the mage is smart, but it takes more than just a well-operating brain to summon fire and ice and monsters and transform people into statues, and it takes more than a silver tongue to be a magic-using bard. It's more like someone who's so in tune with music, which is basic and primitive enough that pretty much any culture knows and uses it and is affected by it, - so that this someone can feel and use the very sort of music that would affect this audience before him. Which is, in my view, how charisma works - you meet someone, you feel what makes them tick, you do the thing that makes them tick.

And playing someone like this would be fun for everyone, I'd say. 

Your turn.

Why would anyone want any of this to happen?


1 & 2 Seem to center around the difference between the actual english word "Bard" and the image it conjures in the mind--which means an either court-bound or travelling medieval-ish poet/musician ---and a much broader definition that only gamers use, which is "music->magic". I have no opposition to someone doing magical effects via some suitably cool-looking music playing, like, you hit a gong and it causes an earthquake. All your examples seem like a VERY poor fit for the english word "bard" though--and I think the associations make it a bit like saying "Well I have a knight but he rides shoes instead of a horse and wears cloth instead of armor (because cloth protects you from cold, so it's a kind of armor) and he wields a paintbrush instead of a sword". Like: why are we using the word "bard" for this kind of PC that's only interesting with a completely different image unrelated to the word "bard" or its english-language associations?

As for "silly is ok" at that point you're arguing you might as well have literally any class, like a ceiling-toucher class made of people who are good at touching ceilings. That's fine to play a silly game, but it's not a good argument that it's as essential to fantasy RPGs as wizards and fighters.

3. Ok, you conceded that we can drop it,

4. First, that isn't how musicians actually interact with the world at all. Second, the wizard-intelligence thing only makes sense because the wizard has magic. And bards having magic is silly as proved up in 1 & 2.

Your turn.

Hail fellow well m...Hey where are you going?


1. When I say/hear "bard" I think of the old legendary figures like Taliesin. Since I'm not a native English speaker, no wonder that there can be poor fits like this. I don't mind using synonyms instead of "bard", minstrel, troubadour like that class that you made up, whatever. (Or I could argue that King Arthur's knights in reality wore cloth rather than heavy armour which didn't exist back then and didn't have lances, but that would be pointless and not interesting to anyone.) 

Agreed about silly games. 

4. First, if we talk about magic-musicians, I say they should be stranger and different from just musicians, and it should be somehow related to their connection with music. Second, I think we agree about doing magical effects via some suitably cool-looking music playing being okay. Some mages cast spells by reciting strange words and making gestures, some call the wind by whistling, or make the dead rise by tapping a complex rhythm, or make stone and steel shatter by singing a high note like an opera tenor breaking glass. And having a mage whose powers are limited to such musical things is fun. If it's more fun when we don't call him a bard, okay. We can call him something else. 

Are we still disagreeing?

Who's the real troll here?


1 & 2. Ok, so Taliesin is, if i understand, a travelling mythic middle-ages bard. Not an ethereal faerie singing a song to cast magic spells. 

So none of your reasoning makes sense there.

4. See 1&2

The idea is: Bard --in a rhetorical framework where it's an adventuring class as essential as a wizard or a thief--doesn't have much to stand on.

Wizard-but-singing or banging an organ is really a different image altogether.

No, you're a cringey dork


Taliesin was something similar to Thomas the Rhymer, a historic figure with legends connected to him. Thomas was supposed to be a lover/prisoner of faerie queen for seven years and gifted with prophetic abilities by her; there's a tale about Taliesin that a king tried to imprison him, and the bard sang a song that called a terrible monster to come out of the sea and do nasty things to the king. The king wasn't impressed until the monster really did arrive. 

So - historically they were travelling poets, but I like to think of them as travelling poets who could make magic happen with their poetry. 

4. When we speak of adventuring class - sure. It can be a variant of any basic one. I mean, Fafhrd wanted to be a scald - here's a fighter-bard, or rather a fighter/thief-bard. Something to fleshen out the character. If we're talking about essential classes, once again, a bard isn't more essential than a burglar or duellist, or illusionist. If we want to have a mage who's specializing in casting illusions, I don't see why not have a mage who's specialty is using music for spells. If we want to have essential adventuring classes - we have fighter, who doesn't do magic, we have wizard, who does magic, we have thief or specialist who does other things - then there's no reason to make bard a separate class.



An illusionist has a job that has to do with adventuring.

A bard only has a job if we add-on to the word "bard" a bunch of associations which either aren't implied by the word (singing and the monster appears, so just a wizard basically) or which look silly (lute during goblin fight).


Isn't an illusionist just a wizard, basically, but limited to illusions?


Yes. Which is a legitimate adventuring person.

A "bard" is as much an adventuring class as a baker.


I could imagine, say, "Butcher" as an adventuring class, though probably not baker. Anyways, 

if we take an essential wizard and slap some limitations on him, and call him something shorter than "wizard who uses music" to keep it simple, would there be a problem with it?


No problem: but the name can't be arbitrary. Words have associations, especially in historical or fantasy contexts.

The name should be about what the class brings to the adventuring table AND not conjure an image of something that's not an adventurer.

Must be casual friday.


True enough. And I suppose people could find a name suitable for such a character, I'm pretty sure you could if you needed one. Not that I ask you to give one right now, just that there are suitable names that could be used, aren't there?


It's probably conceivable, but I don't have one in mind.


Okay. So I guess we've reached the point where we agree. If it's not called a bard but has a reasonable name, and it's not silly on the level of playing a lute in the middle of goblin attacks to make everyone feel better, it can be fun, and fun things should be used in games.


Fair enough. A pleasure, Simon.


The pleasure, dear sir, is all mine!




Thank you for reading the disagree-a-thon. If you left a comment with a good disagreement and haven't gotten in touch yet, email zakzsmith AT hawtmayle dawt calm.

The only cool bard--by Jacques Callot.
He's dead now.
Eager for more bardic content. A new Cube World installment, FUCKING BARDS, is now available in The Store, go get one.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Reader Participation: Disagree.

One of the ironies of the recent situation in games is that nobody really likes the RPG conversation right now--especially the people who joined the mob trying to kick me out.

From Wundergeek up there to Matt Mercer to Patrick Stuart to Cavegirl, basically everyone who participated in the harassment is interacting with the community less, there are fewer conversations about anything important, and there are endless complaints about how nothing comes of the endless Discourse and how circular it all is ("System Matters" anyone?).

Of course it doesn't have to be that way. Things are like this because evasive behavior--always acceptable in certain quarters--had a real renaissance during the last 2 years' orgy of cancellation of complexly interconnected industry figures.

So, anyway, here's what's happening: let's do it right.

Disagree with me.

Pick something important you suspect we disagree about (or that you disagree with someone else in the comments about), put it in the comments. I'll pick as many juicy disagreements as I can and we'll have a cheapshot-free conversation about them, without dodging, and we'll find some things out.

System Matters, Existence of God, Vance vs Moorcock, Blades in the Dark vs anything else you could be doing, the utility of D12s, whatever.

Then, soon after, we'll publish that conversation and show how things are supposed to work.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Endless Pointless Zak Debate

As the legal process chugs along...

...we’ve been having depositions. For example:

Mandy got asked how I could have “forced” our ex-, Viv to move in with us. 

She admitted--despite what she'd earlier claimed--that I hadn’t forced her to move in with us. She said I called Viv and I asked if she wanted to move in with us. That's it.

When Viv said reasons she might hesitate on the phone (she might have to break her existing lease, for example) I said reasons why these things actually wouldn’t be a big deal and so Viv was like, yeah ok, I’ll move in with you. She did, liked it, and redid the living room.

Viv said the same in her deposition--after much hemming and hawing. So that’s on the books. It’s resolved. It’s down. It’s over. Mandy and Viv were lying about that. They can't say that anymore. We move to the next thing. 

The Rules

Depositions aren’t complicated, the process goes like this:

1. People ask each other questions

2. They answer them

It closely resembles what every sane person since Aristotle would recognize as “a conversation between people who disagree about something” and which the RPG internet calls “An endless Zak debate”.

Of course it's not endless--it's usually pretty quick. (Mandy and Viv could've said the two sentences it took to admit the truth two and a half years ago but they dodged it until there was lawsuits.) It only ever takes a long time if the person being asked questions is lying and is trying to figure out a way to avoid saying that. But even then it ends pretty fast.

What people who complain about answering questions are scared of isn't wasting time (they have enough time to say all the other shit they say online): it's being revealed as liars.

The Great Rebranding

I didn't invent asking and answering questions. This, for example, was on the internet way before I showed up.

Rebranding the most common and efficient way any issue gets solved in any sphere where the truth is admitted to matter (whether it's legal, academic, scientific or journalistic) as “an endless Zak debate” rather than just like admitting that's how grown-ups who disagree have to talk to fix anything is probably the single most toxic thing the RPG internet ever did to itself.*

The arguments raised against just answering questions are, basically:

-“I have a bunch of feelings and therefore cannot be asked to do anything”.

-“Before investigating, I decided anyone who disagrees with me about this is evil and I don’t talk to Nazis”

-“I don’t wanna”

-“Ew, isnt' that a  debate (it's not) "debate is bad"

Whether you think these are good or bad excuses, using them guarantees issues will never get figured out or solved and conflicts never de-escalate. Instead you get…

The Normal Way 

This is how the RPG internet likes to handle things:

1. One person says a thing, articulately, or forcefully or both.

2. People use the tools of social media to spread or otherwise express approval of this take.

3. Another person disagrees in a completely different venue--sometimes equally articulately or forcefully.

4. They never talk to each other. They are never put in a position to answer questions.

5. It never gets resolved ever.

6. Everyone argues about it over and over and complains that it never gets resolved, no-one learns anything, and people who lied or never did their homework are not uncovered and they stick around and poison the community forever by lying about bigger and bigger things.

This is supposedly a really good alternative to talking to people/Terrifying Zak Debate.

A Few Greatest Hits

I would argue all of the biggest problems on the RPG internet have been caused by the online nerd social norm that’s it’s ok to blow off questions. Some examples:

-If not The Original Sin, then a very early one was Ron Edwards claiming that playing the game Vampire: The Masquerade caused brain damage on his own forum. When asked for proof, he said—explictly, you can go back and read it—he did not have to answer questions. Ron suffered no consequences. This was one of the earliest examples of folks from his scene—the storygamers—making bigoted statements against people who played other games going unchallenged, which tradition continues to this day.

-The Gauntlet forum’s official policy is “If you ask someone a question and they give no answer, assume the answer is ‘No’” which has got to be the single most abusable and thoughtless rule in the history of forums—and is completely responsible for that community falling apart.

-Edition wars? When D&D’s 5th edition was announced, fans of 4th edition (including many still-active designers) claimed that 4e was very popular and selling well and that WOTC's decision to do another edition was actually based on old people complaining on the internet. They were asked for proof of this. They didn’t answer. They also claimed there was no way people having more fun playing older editions were telling the truth and/or that there was something wrong with people who said this. Again: when asked they provided no proof. This kind of thing is what caused the edition wars.

-The guy who founded the actual website “Storygames” eventually apologized in a thread for the way OSR creators and fans had been treated on his site for years. He was asked what he was going to fix the damage he’d done by platforming stupid gamer hate for years. He gave no answer.

-Arnold K / Goblin Punch literally cited my belief that people should answer questions as a bad thing when he joined the hatemob against me, and when Scrap Princess joined she bragged about how she wouldn’t answer questions or back up the obviously false claims she’d made. This kind of set a fashion in the new OSR where flaunting your total inability to make sense was cool—probably best exemplified by Jared “infinite mao” Sinclair and the Troika Trolls—who delight in their total failure to help each other or anyone else figure out anything. They are currently all blocking each other and hating on each other on twitter because of, basically, they don't want to answer questions.

-Ok, but all this is small beans next to, say, sexism, right? Well: RPGnetters (et al) also made bold pronouncements about how women felt about everything from preferred mechanics to RPG art. Women then showed up to protest these claims. When asked why these women’s opinions didn’t count, the RPGnetters gave no answer.

-When an RPGnet mod was accused of rape, they were asked a lot of questions about what happened, how, and who knew what when. They didn’t answer and apparently did no internal investigation.

-When someone with Green Ronin was accused of sexual harassment, the company’s heads—Chris Pramas and Nicole Lindroos—refused to answer direct questions about whether this happened, how it happened, what evidence they did or didn’t have, etc. 

-Racism? When the accusations against me came out, everyone who supported my ex was asked why they supported the white girls rather than the women of color—who were telling more consistent stories that actually made sense, were corroborated, and were backed up by documents. Nobody answered.

Literally all of this could be fixed if people would just adopt the social norm followed around every dinner table: you ask a question—when someone doesn’t answer that’s weird and they look like they're hiding something and it’s obvious and everyone knows you can't be trusted.

So, I'm asking you (and there are thousands of you reading this) why are you ok with this? You don’t put up with it at the dinner table, why do you put up with it here?

Or maybe an easier question: does it seem weird to you that this super normal way of interacting in real life is called "Zak debate" here? And that finding out who you can trust is considered bad or not worth it?



P.S. Oh but can't we just never ask questions about anything important and just play games? Sure. There's lots of new stuff in The Store since last I mentioned it, pick something up:

Cube World #46--Goblins and Murder

Cube World #43 --Ths Stair and the Vizier's Secret

Cube World #44--Traps, Traps, Traps
Cube World#45-Warmutants of the Cube

Cube World #47-The Pentamorph and More
Cube World #48 Two Cults

 Cube World #49-Two Gimmicky Dungeons

Cube World #50-Hell on Earth (and in Hell)
Cube World #5-Four Elementals and a Giant's gut
Cube World #52-The Fox Witch and the Freckled Hog
Cube World #53-Quiet Places



*In the law it's called "depositions" and "testimony" and "cross examinations", in science and academia it's "defending your thesis", in journalism it's "interviews" and "press conferences".