Review: the Cypher System in Play

Monte Cook Games

Yesterday evening, my friends and I played a Cypher System one-shot. None of us had played the Cypher System (or Numenera) before, although all five of us have experience of roleplaying games generally.

Two days previously, we had agreed to try a post-apocalyptic genre: dystopian London in the near future, with a climate disaster and a complete collapse in social order. Think Mad Max meets Deus Ex meets Nineteen Eighty-Four.

We had four characters:

  • Jackson Bollox, a foolish explorer who drives like a maniac;
  • Wrigley Green, a mysterious, stealthy speaker who mutates;
  • Meat Hooks, a fast explorer who scavenges;
  • and Cobalt Moss, a mechanical techno-warrior who wears power armour.

Here are my observations at the end of a three-hour session. Before I start, a hat-tip: Justin Alexander’s system cheat sheet was a godsend, and if you are thinking of playing a session of the Cypher System, I highly recommend you have it in front of you.

Pros

Monte Cook Games

Character creation is streamlined, intuitive, and relatively speedy. (I wrote about this in more detail in my previous post here.) The system does a great job of facilitating different genres and playstyles.

Combat is fast and narrative-led. Having players roll all the dice frees up the GM considerably. I wasn’t twiddling my thumbs by any means – I found I was constantly thinking up target numbers, for instance – but my turn was over very quickly, and the focus was more on description and imagination than dice rolling and rules calls.

Dice rolls offer varied degrees of success. In D&D, a 20 is an automatic hit and a crit, and 1s are automatic failures, but only on attack rolls and death saves. Most of the time, rules as written, your roll is either a success or a failure. In the Cypher System, 17s, 18s, 19s, and 20s offer you slight boosts to your attack rolls, like the chance to stun an enemy or deal extra damage, and 1s give the GM a free ‘intrusion’: a complication of some kind, rather like the ‘compel’ mechanic in Fate. (I see ‘free’ intrusion, by the way, because GMs can actually make intrusions at other times, too: the only difference is that the player normally gains XP for an intrusion, but on a natural 1, they don’t have a choice.) In other words, a quarter of your d20 rolls in combat are going to be interesting.

Mundane equipment is largely abstracted. All light weapons do 2 damage, for example, and armour is essentially just damage reduction. There are optional rules for making weapon types a bit more distinctive – crushing weapons ignore armour, slashing weapons are more effective on unarmoured foes – but the crunch is minimal. There also isn’t much of an economy: items are essentially expensive, very expensive, inexpensive, or somewhere in the middle, and a few very rare items are ‘very exorbitant’. Some players won’t like this very much, as they want the opportunity to optimize, but, to me, a character’s equipment isn’t of much narrative interest anyway, and I welcome the chance to handwave it a bit. The focus becomes them as characters, not the gear they’re carrying.

Cyphers are fun. If you’re not familiar with the concept, cyphers are essentially single-use abilities that characters pick up in the course of their adventures. Unsurprisingly, they are the Cypher System’s ‘big thing’. Cyphers might be potions, pills, nanotechnology, smartphone apps, gadgets . . . anything. They can also be subtle if you’re running a game without obvious fantasy elements: a stroke of luck, a haunting song, a bolt of inspiration. Because cyphers are single-use, they don’t run the risk of ‘breaking the game’ in the way that magic items do in D&D, and because characters are only allowed to have a few at a time, there’s an incentive to use them regularly.

Damage and recovery is handled well. Much has been written about the weirdness of D&D’s hit point mechanics, and various attempts have been made to come up with something more naturalistic. (Think about those ridiculous moments where a character withstands a ton of damage, from a dragon, say, or a bad fireball, only to be taken down by a rat bite.) The Cypher System doesn’t iron out these inconsistencies completely, but it has nice mechanics for taking and recovering damage which feel a little more realistic.

Cons

Target Numbers take a bit of getting used to. In D&D, it’s actually quite rare that a DM has to come up with a DC on the fly. Whether it’s Armour Class, a save DC, a spell effect, or something else, you probably have the DC in front of you somewhere, and if you don’t, then the difficulty categories are quite broad: 10 is easy, 20 is hard, 30 nearly impossible, and so on. In the Cypher System, I found I was constantly having to make a call as to what the Target Number would be. Perhaps that’s down my inexperience with the system, however.

Light weapons seem ineffective. This was a weird one. In the Cypher System, damage is a flat number, not a roll, and light weapons all do 2 damage. An opponent’s Armour is also a flat number, reducing damage like Damage Reduction in D&D: medium armour, for example, provides an Armour of 2. So here’s the thing: if you’re a character with a light weapon – a knife, say – and you’re up against an opponent in medium armour (eg, chainmail), your 2 damage is reduced to zero every time you hit, and you would essentially have to roll a 17 or higher to do any harm at all (17+ deals extra damage in the Cypher System). Perhaps I’ve missed something, but this seems a little debilitating.

There is no defined skill list. Some players might welcome this, but I felt skills in the Cypher System could be better explained. The system presumes that you do have skills – you can be ‘trained’ or ‘specialized’ in skills, for example, and both have defined in-game effects – but new players aren’t given much guidance as to what skills are available. Don’t get me wrong: skill lists are often handled badly in tabletop RPGs, 5th edition D&D included, but having no skill list at all isn’t necessarily better than having a bad skill list.

Fantasy magic is going to feel very different to D&D. Let’s say you want to play a wizard-type character who can throw fireballs, channel lightning, put monsters to sleep, that sort of thing. In the Cypher System, you would probably be some kind of adept: perhaps ‘an intelligent adept who casts spells’. Your character focus would give you a spellbook, but you would only get one readied spell per tier, from a choice of two. You might get a few spell-like abilities from being an adept, like the ability to hover or become invisible, but the choice on offer is considerably more limited, and less crunchy, than what D&D players might be used to.

Players used to ‘levelling up’ might be disappointed. Character advancement works quite differently in the Cypher System: there are only six ‘tiers’ (not levels), and it is emphasized that gaining experience points is not a goal in itself. That said, unlike in D&D, XP provides other rewards, like rerolls, wealth, artifacts, long-term contacts, and story benefits like a home or a new job.

Implications for D&D

At the end of the session, we talked a bit about what we liked and disliked about the system, how it compared to D&D, and – crucially – whether we would want to play a Cypher System game as a full campaign.

There were things I liked very much about the Cypher System. I liked the focus on exploration and narrative. I liked the speed of combat and the lack of book-keeping. I liked character creation. After playing the Cypher System, I now want to go away and tinker with D&D a bit. I would be interested to handwave equipment, for example, and introduce more degrees of success for d20 rolls. I even wonder whether the game would suffer much from using average damage rolls.

However: D&D is RPG comfort food. It can be weird sometimes, and frustrating, and it bears the baggage of nearly half a century of tinkering and revision. But for all that, it’s reassuringly familiar. D&D suffers sometimes from trying to be all things to all people: it lists exploration and social interaction as two of its ‘three pillars’, for example, but, rules as written, it seems to reward little except combat. The Cypher System is certainly better in this regard. For a game of high fantasy dungeon-crawling, you might miss the crunch and precision of D&D. But if you have a group that wants to do more than bash, bash, loot, then definitely give the Cypher System a try.

To subscribe, click here. You can unsubscribe any time. You can find me on Facebook at scrollforinitiative, Twitter at scrollforinit, and Instagram at scrollforinitiative.

New Year, New Game: the Cypher System

Monte Cook Games

D&D 5th edition is a great game. It’s not perfect, and there are definitely problems with its mechanics that need fixing, but, for now, it’s my go-to RPG. If nothing else, it is comfortingly familiar, and the game your friends are most likely to know already.

Over the next few weeks, though, I’m hoping to take advantage of my time off work and get some one-shots together with my friends from home. There are a number of systems I’ve been wanting to look at closely for a while, and this week we’re going to be trying out the Cypher System from Monte Cook games.

The Cypher System evolved from Numenera, a science-fantasy RPG launched on Kickstarter in 2013. It won Product of the Year at the ENnies and Best New Roleplaying Game at Origins. If you’ve been following RPGs for a while, you might recognize the creative team behind the system: Monte Cook, Bruce R Cordell, and Sean K Reynolds. Cook was one of the three lead designers in D&D 3rd edition (he worked primarily on the Dungeon Master’s Guide), and Cordell and Reynolds have both worked on numerous products for Wizards of the Coast.

RPG Review: Numenera - Shut Up & Sit Down

Numenera

Unlike Numenera, which is set a billion years in the future, the Cypher System is both setting- and genre-neutral, much like Fate Core or GURPS. In many ways, it is more ‘rules light’ than D&D: there are just three stats, Might, Speed, and Intellect, and only four character types, . There is also much more of a focus on narrative: as the introduction states, ‘story is king’. However, the crunch is still there, and, if anything, the simplicity of the rules can be liberating when creating new characters.

This week, we’re probably just going to get together to make characters and agree a setting, so I’ll hold back from commenting on the gameplay until we’ve had a chance to run a session together. To get a sense for how the game works, though, I thought I might walk through the character creation process to see how the game is different yet familiar for long-time D&D players.

My first ever D&D character was a dwarven cleric called Belise Samilkin. He was in many ways a stereotypical fantasy dwarf: he would run into melee combat as fast as his little legs would carry him, swinging a huge hammer and casting spells of protection and healing. So: how would Belise look in the Cypher System?

Dwarf Paladin, Dnd Dwarf, Dnd Characters, Fantasy Characters, - D&d Rpg -  Cleric Spellbook Cards PNG Image | Transparent PNG Free Download on SeekPNG

Wizards of the Coast

Stats

Each character has three defining stats: Might, Speed, and Intellect. Might is an amalgamation of Strength and Constituion, Speed is roughly akin to Dexterity, and Intellect covers Wisdom and Charisma as well as Intelligence.

Each stat also has three components: your Pool, your Edge, and your Effort.

Your Pool is the basic measure of your stat, just like your ability score is in D&D, but it is also rather like your stat’s ‘hit points’: physical damage from a sword will reduce your Might Pool, for example, while a psionic blast might reduce your Intellect Pool.

You also have an Effort score (but not for each stat). In the Cypher System, you can spend points from your stat Pool to make a task easier, and your Effort score indicates how many steps you can reduce the difficulty by. By default, your Effort score is 1, but, as characters gain experience, they can increase their Effort scores and attempt increasingly more challenging feats.

So what’s Edge? It’s kind of like a cushion for your Pool and your Effort. When something requires you to spend points from a stat Pool, your Edge for that stat reduces the cost. For example, if it normally costs you a 1 point from your Intellect Pool to activate your mental blast ability, then a character with Intellect Edge 1 instead uses the ability for free. Your Edge also reduces the cost of applying Effort to a roll. If you had a Speed Edge of 2, for example, and you were applying Effort on a Speed roll – something that would normally cost 3 points from your Speed Pool – you would instead only spend 1 point from your Speed Pool.

So, what are Belise’s stat pools? That depends on what type of character he is. In the Cypher System, you describe your character as ‘an adjective noun who verbs’, and the noun is your character type.

Monte Cook Games

‘I am an adjective noun who verbs

At first, I thought Belise was not really a warrior, an explorer, or a speaker. He’s an adept, surely. However, that’s not a perfect fit. Belise might be a spellcaster, but he’s good at fighting, too! The Cypher System lets you do this with flavours. Perhaps you are a speaker who knows a little about magic, or a warrior with ‘skills and knowledge’ (eg, a military engineer). Belise is going to be a warrior with magic abilities, which means I can trade a few of my warrior abilities for some more cleric-like options.

As a first-tier warrior, Belise starts with Pool values of 10, 10, and 8 in Might, Speed, and Intellect, with 6 additional points to divide among my stat pools as I see fit. (‘First tier’? The Cypher System doesn’t have 20 character levels: it has six tiers instead, and first-tier characters are already pretty competent.) Speed is not that important to me, so I split the six points between Might and Intellect. I’ll put the remaining 3 points on Intellect, so my final stat Pools are 13 for Might, 8 for Speed, and 11 for Intellect. My Might Edge is 1, and my Edge for Speed and Intellect is 0.

My character type also determines my starting equipment and my special abilities. I’ll leave equipment for now and focus on my special abilities.

Monte Cook Games

I can choose four special abilities from the warrior list, and I can also ‘sacrifice’ any of the warrior options for a magic option (meaning I can never choose that warrior option in the future). I definitely want ‘Magic Training’ from the magic abilities, and I’m happy to sacrifice ‘Pierce’ for it. I also like the ‘Premonition’ ability, for which I will sacrifice ‘Trained Without Armour’. For my other two special abilities, I will take ‘Practised in Armour’ and ‘Bash’ from the warrior list.

Character creation doesn’t stop there, though! Belise is not just ‘an adept with combat flavour’: he is an adjective adept who verbs. In the Cypher System, this adjective is called your character descriptor and the verb is called your focus.

For my descriptor, I considered a number of options: Brash, Clumsy, Hardy, Honourable, Jovial, Kind, Strong, Strong-Willed, Tough, and Virtuous. I ended up going with Clumsy, which, among other things, boosts my Might Pool (‘Thick-Muscled’) and lowers my Speed Pool (‘Butterfingers’: yep, that’s Belise). For my focus, I went with ‘Channels Divine Blessings’. This focus gave me the option to choose two abilities from the ‘Blessings of the Gods’ list, and I went with ‘Health’ (a healing ability) and ‘Benevolence’ (which lets me banish demons and spirits).

So that’s that! I am a clumsy warrior who channels divine blessings. I have a Might Pool of 15, a Speed Pool of 6, and an Intellect Pool of 11. I am practised in armour and trained in magic. I can channel divine blessings to heal my friends or banish the undead. I can pummel enemies to leave them dazed and I can use my Intellect to learn random facts about creatures and locations. Other than equipment, my character is complete. Time to head for that tavern and find an adventuring party!

To subscribe, click here. You can unsubscribe any time. You can find me on Facebook at scrollforinitiative, Twitter at scrollforinit, and Instagram at scrollforinitiative.

Epic D&D Christmas Gift Guide

Wizards of the Coast

Now that it’s December, it’s time to start thinking about the Midwinter Feast! This post is a list of present ideas for all the D&D players in our lives. Enjoy.

Before we start, though, a disclaimer: there are no affiliate links here, nor am I being paid in any way to endorse these products. Also, where possible, please support your Friendly Local Game Store. 2020 has been a horrendous year for the high street, and we don’t need to add any more gold pieces to the hoard of Archduke Beeelzebezos. If you’re in the UK, may I put in a good word for the wonderful Thirsty Meeples? They are brilliant people, and when I lived in Oxford I went to their board game café as often as I could. Now is the time to support folks like them.

I considered sorting this list into price categories but couldn’t decide on dollars or pounds. As such, the gifts generally get more expensive as you go down the list, but there may be exceptions!

Dice and related accessories

Top of the list! Everyone loves dice. Even if you’re playing online due to the pandemic, it’s nice to have something to interact with which isn’t on a screen. There’s a huge range of colours and materials available, so you should be able to get something a bit special without breaking the bank. Etsy is a great place to go.

For those who have stumbled upon this blog and don’t know what they’re looking for, the classic dice set consists of seven dice: a d20, a d12, two d10s (one with 10, 20, 30, etc, for percentages), a d8, a d6, and a d4. I’m increasingly seeing sets with two d20s, as 5th edition often asks players to roll two at the same time, and some streamers might want to have an oversized d20 that can be seen better on camera. Other players might want to have a bunch of extra d6s – for sneak attacks, fireballs, or rolling ability scores – or a few extra d8s (for divine smite). There are even some cute little ‘healing potion’ kits that come with all the d4s you need to treat your wounds! (Just don’t step on them: d4s hurt.)

As well as the dice themselves, consider dice trays and towers (for rolling dice) and dice pouches or boxes (for storing them). There are some fun options here like dice pouches shaped like mimics and owlbears, but also some seriously classy products made by companies like Wyrmwood Gaming. Shop around.

Stationery

OC][ART] I did a DM Notebook with map of Sword Coast : DnD

Reddit (@rtakehara)

Wizards of the Coast like to push The Merch™ (D&D T-shirts, D&D hoodies, D&D socks, D&D beanies), but I personally think a lot of D&D players would get more enjoyment out of a humble notebook.

We all have our preferences. Some like hardcover, some like leather; some prefer wide lines, some prefer narrow; some want little jotters, some want big A4 pads. If you’re buying for a DM who uses their notebook for mapping, you might want to look for a notebook with squares, dots, isometric grids, or even hexes. Here, again, Etsy is a great place to shop around. I’m also a big fan of the notebooks from Leuchtturm1917 and Clairefontaine.

Then there’s other stationery! A campaign binder, a calligraphy set or a nice fountain pen, some parchment paper, bespoke character sheets, an attractive storage box . . . it might seem prosaic, but many DMs would love this stuff, especially if they are creative. For map-makers, check out Dyson’s article on the drawing of maps. A set of supermarket biros is a crap present, but a set of fineliners with nice isometric paper is thoughtful and will be appreciated.

Miniatures

For many of us, 2020 has not been a good year for in-person D&D games. Does that mean we don’t love minis any more? Er, NO!

Whether you’re looking for monsters or player characters, I highly recommend the WizKids unpainted range. They are reasonably priced, come pre-primed (a huge time-saver), and the selection on offer is impressive, as you can see here: https://wizkids.com/upm They also offer a range of pre-painted minis, but I don’t think the quality is as good for the price. Other good minis for D&D include Reaper and Gale Force Nine, but my go-to is WizKids.

Then there’s custom minis. HeroForge is unquestionably the market leader. They’re very special (and if you’re ordering outside the US, be aware that import taxes can make them a bit expensive), and the quality is outstanding. The ever growing range of options available is just amazing. They have recently launched full-colour minis (currently only on offer to Kickstarter backers), and you even have the option of downloading your models for use on Tabletop Simulator. Be prepared to spend ours tinkering with your designs. I recommend the premium plastic material.

If you’re looking to get started with mini-painting, then I recommend the following: four brushes (a large brush, a drybrush, a size-zero detail brush, and a size-two Winsor and Newton Series 7 brush for everything else), some brush cleaner and preserver, some spray-on primer (if your minis aren’t pre-primed), and a selection of Vallejo game colour paints. I am a huge fan of RealmSmith’s mini-painting tutorials, and his white dragon one is an excellent place to start. Everything else is either cheap or you have it already: a good lamp, an old mug for water, some paper towels, and an old T-shirt to protect your desk. Larger minis like dragons might seem intimidating, but I personally find them much more fun to paint.

Game aids

Now we start getting into some of the really nerdy stuff.

It might seem a bit basic, but a dry-erase flipmat is an absolute godsend for people playing at the table. (Seriously, Sly Flourish has a whole article on this.) There are various options available, but try to make sure it’s something that lies flat. Bonus points if you get something with a hex-grid on the reverse. If youre in the UK, Blackwell’s is currently selling the Pathfinder flipmat for £6.62 with free delivery.

Another very useful product is condition rings. These are plastic rings in different colours which you can throw over miniatures to show that a character is stunned, poisoned, unconscious, or what have you. Totally unnecessary, perhaps, but fun. Etsy is your best bit for these (eg, these ones pictured above).

Then there are combat risers. (Combat what now? I had been playing D&D for nearly two decades before I first encountered these online.) If you’re more into ‘theatre of the mind’ combat, you may want to give these a pass, but if you like to be quite particular about movement on a five-foot grid, and you run a lot of aerial combat, then these are for you!

Finally, if you want to splash out, you might want to look at terrain and terrain tiles. Dwarven Forge is king here, and it is beautiful stuff, but import fees can make it prohibitive if you’re in the UK. WarLock tiles are new and popular, and if you’re in the UK, you might want to check out some independent terrain-makers like DMB Games.

Introductions to D&D

OK, this list is meant to be for people who are already playing D&D, but I couldn’t put together a list of D&D gifts without the D&D Starter Set. Launched back in 2014, this box has everything you need to start playing, including dice, character sheets, a rulebook, and what is still widely regarded as one of the best official adventures in 5th edition so far: Lost Mine of Phandelver. Last year’s update, the D&D Essentials Kit, is also very good, but I have to say, the adventure (Dragon of Icespire Peak) is a little disappointing by comparison. If you can choose one or the other, go with the Starter Set.

D&D rulebooks and supplements

Buying actual books can be tricky, for two reasons. Firstly, you don’t know what books they have already. Secondly, you don’t know whether they want the book on D&D Beyond, as a physical hard copy, or on some other platform like Fantasy Grounds or Roll20.

If you are going to buy a book, my advice would be Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, Volo’s Guide to Monsters, Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, or Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. These are the books that actually ‘expand the game’ in some way. Tasha’s is the newest and the one that your D&D-playing friend is least likely to own already. Many of these books have alternative covers which some players like to collect.

Then there are adventures. This is even trickier territory. For what it’s worth, my hot pick would be Tomb of Annihilation, Curse of Strahd, Ghosts of Saltmarsh, or Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. These adventures are quite different from each other, though, and they might not be every group’s cup of tea. Rime of the Frostmaiden was only released a few months ago, and I haven’t had the chance to read through or play it yet.

For really special editions, check out Beadle & Grimm’s store here.

Other RPGs

Sacrilige! Except, of course, not really. It’s well worth dipping your toe into other systems, and you may even find that you prefer them to D&D! Buying books from other systems can also be a safer bet than buying D&D adventures or supplements.

A list:

Books about roleplaying

There are also some fantastic books about roleplaying out there. I recommend Hamlet’s Hitpoints and Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering by Robin Laws, Of Dice and Men by David Ewalt, and literally anything by Keith Ammann (product links on his home page), Matt Colville, James D’Amato, or Mike Shea (Sly Flourish – again, his products are linked down the side of the home page).

Tech stuff

This is outside my realm of expertise, but for many players in 2020, playing D&D means playing online, so good-quality devices are vital. Specifically, this might mean a professional-standard microphone (Blue’s Yeti is well regarded, as is the ModMic), good headphones (start with companies like Sennheiser, Audio-Technica, and Beyerdynamic) an external webcam (eg, the Logitech Brio), and, for DMs, perhaps a tripod (eg, this one), as they may wish to point the camera at the game board to show off their minis and terrain. Full disclaimer, though: this stuff is expensive, and I am not an expert, so please research futher!

Another bit of tech to consider: a 3D printer. For people who love minis and want to make their own, this could be a generous and much appreciated gift. The Monoprice Mini v2 gets a lot of thumbs up online.

Commissions

Possibly the most unique and personalized gift of all, a commission could be a framed drawing of a character or the whole party, a specially printed map (try Etsy), or even – yes – a cake! (And no, it is not a lie).

Artists and clients is a great place to start for artwork, as are subreddits like r/artcommissions and r/hungryartists. Or, you know, if you’re Sofia Vergara, get Jeff Easley to paint your husband’s favourite D&D character. We can all dream. The cake pictured above was commissioned for me by my fiancée (#keeper) at The Cake Shop in Oxford’s wonderful Covered Market. My fiancée definitely rolled a natural 20 with that one.

Did I miss anything? Leave a suggestion in the comments!

To subscribe, click here. You can unsubscribe any time. You can find me on Facebook at scrollforinitiative, Twitter at scrollforinit, and Instagram at scrollforinitiative.

In Praise of Adventures in Middle-Earth

I was very sad to learn (belatedly) that Cubicle 7 would no longer be publishing new material for their excellent Adventures in Middle-Earth roleplaying game, created by Dominic McDowall and Jon Hodgson. 2019 was Cubicle 7’s most successful year to date, and Adventures in Middle-Earth won the 2017 Origins Award for Best Role-Playing Game, but the Irish company, which also publishes the fourth edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, has chosen to end its agreement with the licence-holder over contractual differences.

Adventures in Middle-Earth (AiME henceforth) is based on 5th edition D&D but makes a number of tweaks to the system to better incorporate the themes of Tolkien’s storytelling. This article will highlight some of the most innovative changes and consider how they might work well in other D&D games.

New classes

Cubicle 7

I have long been a fan of low-magic fantasy. Don’t get me wrong, conventional D&D is a lot of fun, too! But for me, the less overt fantasy there is in the setting, the more wonderful and fantastical it becomes. Thanks to the addition of bonded accuracy, 5th edition feels like a better fit for a low-magic setting than earlier versions of D&D might.

However, in 5th edition, most classes are spellcasters or have the option to be. Spellcasters have much more freedom over the spells they can cast: cantrips can be used at will, and Vancian magic has largely been replaced with spontaneous spellcasting. To all intents and purposes, magic is now routine. It might make spellcasters easier to play, or more fun, but it’s a stumbling block for those looking to create a world where magic is subtle or hidden.

There is little in the way of ‘blatant’ or ‘showy’ magic in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, and, to recreate this atmosphere, AiME uses six new character classes. One, the scholar, is a loremaster and rudimentary healer (more on healing later). The other five, to a greater or lesser degree, are modelled on existing D&D classes, with a Middle-Earth twist: slayer, treasure hunter, wanderer, warden, and warrior, modelled on the 5e barbarian, rogue, ranger, bard, and fighter, respectively. (On a side-note, I do wish they hadn’t chosen three classes beginning with ‘w’.)

An experienced D&D player might look at these classes and think they are ‘weak’ or ‘broken’, and yes, if you were to drop them into a regular D&D game, they might feel under-powered, the scholar especially. However, this is because these classes are not designed for conventional D&D. Journeys and exploration play a far greater role in AiME, and what might seem like ‘fluff’ or ‘flavour’ at first glance could become vitally important in a long period of exploration. More on this later.

Cultures embedded in the setting

New Line Cinema

By my reckoning, there are now close to 40 playable races in 5th edition D&D, including seven kinds of elf. Some players love this. For me, it’s system bloat. To paraphrase Keith Baker, creator of Eberron, I prefer to focus on fewer races but make sure that each one has a strong place in the setting. I don’t want my taverns to resemble a Mos Eisley cantina.

This is something AiME does really well. There are eleven cultures, most of them human (‘men’): the exceptions are, unsurprisingly, dwarves, elves, and hobbits. Your choice of culture affects not just your ability scores and racial features but also the way other NPCs respond to you: the Dúnedain, for example, are considered somewhat suspect by Bree-folk, hobbits, and the people of Minas Tirith, whereas hobbits are openly welcomed by Bardings, Bree-folk, and dwarves. Your culture also affects your starting equipment: wealthy dwarves begin with the better equipment than the more frugal Woodmen.

AiME also replaces feats with virtues, only five of which are open to all cultures. The others are culturally specific, meaning that only elves can take ‘Deadly Archery’, for instance, and only the Rohirrim can choose ‘Born to the Saddle’. Each virtue comes with a quote from Tolkien’s work, so you feel like your choice of culture matters and you are part of a wider world.

There and back again

Lord of the Rings - Choose Your Own Adventure

New Line Cinema

5th edition D&D claims to be built upon three pillars: combat, exploration, and social interaction. When you experience D&D in play, though, you could be forgiven for thinking that only the first of these mattered. After all, the Player’s Handbook devotes an entire chapter to combat: exploration gets maybe a couple of pages.

In AiME, however, journeys are more important than dungeons. As the rules themselves say, ‘travelling is not simply a means of getting to a destination, nor something to be undertaken lightly.’ Heroes have to make a number of ability checks along the way, and depending on their successes, the DM’s die rolls, the length of the journey, and the difficulty of the terrain they are crossing, the company can arrive at its destination inspired and invigorated or crushed and exhausted.

It’s worth noting that, by default, heroes may only take short rests while on the road, and, of course, as befits the rest the low-magic atmosphere of Tolkien’s work, there is little magical healing. The mechanics of the game encourage players to find allies and build friendships on their travels in the hope that they can rely on their hospitality. Thus, the new rules for ‘audiences’ (social interaction) and ‘the fellowship phase’ (downtime) become very important.

The Shadow and corruption

I came, I saw...: Fog of War, Part 12: Mordor & Barad-Dur

New Line Cinema

AiME does not use the alignment system. Player characters are assumed to be heroes (and are referred to as such in the rules), and every hero has a Shadow Weakness: a failing in their character that the Shadow seeks to exploit. This is based on their class: thus, a slayer might succumb to the curse of vengance, becoming spiteful or cruel or murderous, whereas a warden or a warrior can feel the lure of power, becoming arrogant, overconfident, or even tyrannical.

Characters can acquire Shadow points from behaving dishonourably, from experiencing distressing events, or from crosing an area tainted by the Shadow, as well as from taking possession of a cursed treasure. Overtime, this corruption can lead to degeneration and bouts of madness. Eventually, a hero who falls under the Shadow’s influence can be removed from the game. An elf of Mirkwood must sail to the West, and a character from any another culture will either starve to death in a solitary place, forsaken by men and beasts, or threaten others to the extent that they must be killed.

Deceit, theft, murder, even violent threats will quickly inrease your Shadow points, and once your Shadow points exceed your Wisdom score, you start to suffer bouts of madness. There are no murder hobos in AiME.

The road goes ever on and on

Virtual Tolkien Is A Free VR Recreation Of An Iconic LOTR Film Scene

New Line Cinema

With a bit of tweaking, AiME could work for any 5e game. I could see it as the basis for a low-magic Game of Thrones campaign or a D&D version of Legend of the Five Rings, where taint and corruption are a key part of the story. It’s a real shame the line has been discontinued, but with multiple region guides out there and even entire campaigns, there’s plenty of material on offer to help you get started. Give it a try.

To subscribe, click here. You can unsubscribe any time. You can find me on Facebook at scrollforinitiative, Twitter at scrollforinit, and Instagram at scrollforinitiative.

What Next for 5th Edition?

Wizards of the Coast

On Monday, Wizards of the Coast revealed that their next product would be Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, a collection of new rules and character options in the vein of 2017’s Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. Tasha’s Cauldron promises to include new subclasses, new spells and magic items, new rules for running sidekicks, and some intriguing guidance on how to run a session zero, as well as some reprinted material from Eberron: Rising from the Last War (including group patrons and the artificer class). Judging by the responses on social media, fans generally seem to be pretty excited about this.

Thinking about this new sourcebook, I asked Twitter and Reddit for what people would like to see from D&D over the next couple of years. After 400-plus comments, there are definite trends emerging: some expected, some rather surprising.

Spelljammer confirmed’

Giff Playable Race | New Player Option for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition  – FREE Fifth Edition Monsters, Maps, and More

Wizards of the Coast

Calls on D&D forums for a new Spelljammer book are the RPG equivalent of ‘Play “Free Bird”!’ at rock concerts. The setting which introduced the idea of D&D in space was born in 1989 and hasn’t been given any official rules support this side of the millennium, yet there is clearly a diehard group of fans who would be overjoyed by a new Spelljammer book and are hanging on Wizards of the Coast’s every word. There have been teases, perhaps – neogi were introduced in Volo’s Guide to Monsters, giffs in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, and illithid ships makes appearances in both Dungeon of the Mad Mage and the upcoming Baldur’s Gate III – but there hasn’t been anything official, yet.

Maybe it’s not Spelljammer’s time. Either way, there is clearly an appetite for a non-Faerûnian campaign setting. Planescape is a common request, as is Dark Sun, which was revived in 4th edition, but Greyhawk, Ravenloft, and even Nentir Vale have been put forward. Frankly, even somewhere outside the Sword Coast would be a breath of fresh air. So far, Chult is the only other part of the Forgotten Realms we have seen in an official adventure, and Ghosts of Saltmarsh is the only adventure to be set outside Faerûn (although Curse of Strahd takes place almost entirely within its own demiplane, so that probably should count, too).

Another popular request is non-European fantasy, especially settings that are Middle Eastern, Mesoamerican, East Asian, or African in flavour. However, this would need to be handled carefully, and Wizards of the Coast are probably wary of insensitivity. Tomb of Annihilation has been criticized for stereotypical tropes, and older sourcebooks like Oriental Adventures – still available for sale on DriveThruRPG, despite the disclaimer – are even worse. Regardless, the demand for such settings remains high.

The return of the module?

‘Campaign-adventures’ like Curse of Strahd and Storm King’s Thunder have become the norm in 5th edition. These hardback tomes run to 250 pages and cover at least two tiers of play (usually), offering potentially hours of material. But it wasn’t always thus. Before 5th edition, ‘modules’ were often much shorter, not to mention cheaper: softcover booklets of 32 pages or so, and normally just a single dungeon like The Sunless Citadel or The Forge of Fury. There would be enough content for one or two levels of play, and if the adventure was event based, the plot would be simple and fairly linear.

While the unveiling of a new ‘storyline’ is always a big event for Wizards of the Coast, there is clearly some fondness for shorter, more modular adventures. They’re quicker to read, kinder on the wallet, and easier to slot into an existing homebrew campaign. It feels like Wizards may be listening to fans on this as Ghosts of Saltmarsh and Rime of the Frostmaiden, two of the most recent adventures, are designed around a series of shorter, more self-contained adventures that can be run separately or as a longer, connected narrative.

Interestingly, D&D’s closest competitor, Pathfinder, made extensive use of shorter modules throughout its first edition, and seems to be following a similar approach in its new, second edition. While some of these adventures had a tendency to be a bit railroady, a number of them were very well liked, and two, Rise of the Runelords and Curse of the Crimson Throne, ended up being released as special hardbook editions. Maybe there’s something for Wizards to take note of here.

More character options

D&D Adventurers League: The Secret Your DM Doesn't Want You to Know! -  Wizard's Laboratory

Wizards of the Coast

Other than new settings, the most popular request on Reddit was for more options: feats, spells, classes, subclasses, races, subraces, monsters, magic items. Tashas Cauldron of Everything, then, is much anticipated!

Several users have noted that despite multiple treatments in Unearthed Arcana, including a new ‘mystic’ class, psionics has still not appeared as official content. In both 3rd and 4th editions, rules for psionics were released relatively early, in 2001 and 2010 respectively. Yet in 5th edition, the game designers haven’t been able to make the mystic work, and it’s looking increasingly likely that psionics will appear as subclasses of existing classes (a psychic warrior fighter, for example) rather than a whole new set of mechanics. Given the importance of psionics within the world of Athas, a Dark Sun campaign setting would be a fitting place to publish them.

It has also been pointed out that 5th edition is relatively light in terms of its support for higher level play. For example, only two of the official hardback adventures so far have covered the fourth tier of play: Rise of Tiamat and Dungeon of the Mad Mage. There are reasons for this: 90 percent of D&D campaigns never progress beyond 10th level, and encounter balancing gets increasingly unwieldy the higher up you go. As time rolls by, though, there are only going to be more and more groups gaining access to high-level play. A Manual of the Planes for 5th edition – Leomund’s Guide, perhaps? – could tie in well with this. There has been some kind of planar guide in every edition except 2nd, so a 5th-edition equivalent would be welcome. It would also be interesting to see whether 5th edition could return to the paragon paths and epic destinies of 4th edition: player choices which, like subclasses, had a significant impact on the growth of a character over time.

6th Edition?

Sapphire dragon | Forgotten Realms Wiki | Fandom

The sapphire dragon for D&D’s 45th anniversary

There seemed to be a firm consensus that another edition in the next two years was neither likely nor necessary. 5th edition is probably the most popular edition of Dungeons & Dragons ever. It took several years to playtest and has one won over thousands of new players, and won back plenty of others who jumped ship to other RPGs after 4th edition left them disappointed. Wizards of the Coast have deliberately avoided rushing out new products and have generally stuck to a model of one or two campaign adventures a year plus one or two sourcebooks. Generally speaking, this has kept quality high and helped to aoid the ‘rules bloat’ that came to define 3rd edition and games based upon it. A new edition would probably alienate more players than it would win over.

That said, it’s clear that there are fundamental problems with the skeleton of 5th edition which can’t be ironed out with house rules and other hacks. The issue of linear warriors, quadratic wizards remains. Encounter balancing is a bit of a mess. The game is supposedly built around the three pillars, yet the rulebooks have whole chapters on combat and next to nothing on exploration and social interaciton. For some players, D&D is ‘broken’ enough to make them explore other RPGs, whether it’s Old School Revival retroclones like Old School Essentials or crunchier systems like Pathfinder 2e. For most people, though, it seems like 5th edition succeeds more than it fails. At least, that’s what the sales would suggest.

Unless D&D stops making money or its popularity starts to wane dramatically, 5th edition is here to stay. But who knows? Maybe ‘5.5’ will be announced in time for the 50th anniversary in 2024. D&D: Gold Edition?

To subscribe, click here. You can unsubscribe any time. You can find me on Facebook at scrollforinitiative, Twitter at scrollforinit, and Instagram at scrollforinitiative.