Translating Diablo Loot to Tabletop

I like ARPGs. Y’know, “Action” RPGs that are now totally misnamed because most RPGs have at least as much real time action as they do, and which are instead defined by the dungeon structure, ability trees, and especially loot system introduced by Diablo. As an alternative to gushing about XCOM even more, I’m instead going to tackle the question of how to translate Diablo loot to the tabletop.

Before getting into that, the concern of whether or not this is even a good idea should be addressed. Because making a direct and obvious translation of Diablo looting to the tabletop is a terrible idea. You kill a rat and a treasure chest pops out, you pop that open and you find gauntlets of ogre strength and 27 gold. That’s literally a joke. It works in ARPGs because we all get that verisimilitude isn’t high on their list of priorities, and that the looting is mostly abstract in the context of whatever the greater story is (which is itself better off being just present enough to provide necessary context and stakes – Diablo 3 suffered for too strong an emphasis on a story that wasn’t very good). In a tabletop RPG, you actually have to narrate out that the ghoul was apparently carrying a vorpal sword that it didn’t feel the need to use over the rusty scimitar it’d been attacking the party with while still animate.

Not only that, but Diablo looting operates on having tons of fiddly little numerical increases in different stats. Damage. Accuracy. Rate of attack. Elemental damage. Even in a TTRPG designed to include all of these things (i.e. attacks per turn is a function of weapon, not character class and level, weapons provide significant accuracy bonuses or penalties, and so on), these just can’t have the same diversity as Diablo gives them because the numbers have to be smaller because the game isn’t run by a computer. Number inflation is already a problem in RPGs (especially with regards to hit points), and that’s with the numbers within any given level generally being pretty reasonable (i.e. the difference in to-hit bonuses for level 5 characters and their level appropriate opponents tends to be within maybe ten points from one end to the other). In Diablo, a key part of the system is that it’s possible for this weapon to be 7% more accurate but deal five fewer points of damage and attack only 95% as often. And at the end of the next encounter, you’ll have found another weapon with equally tiny fiddly bonuses. Players cannot be reasonably expected to update their character sheets that often.

So why, then, do we want to make some means of making it work anyway? What’s the benefit we’re trying to salvage? The Diablo loot lottery triggers the same reward centers as an actual, legit lottery, scratch card, or slot machine, but it does so without pumping anyone for money. It’s all the thrill of gambling without the cruel exploitation of the hopeless and/or mathematically illiterate. Most drops are trash that can be rendered down into gold as a consolation prize. Every now and again you get a solid upgrade that will keep you on track for level appropriate foes. A very rare few will be powerful weapons that give you a significant edge over the opposition. The chance that you might get that awesome weapon makes each drop exciting, even though most of them are going to be rendered down into gold and used to buy healing and portals.

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Everything’s Cool

Seeing as how the last thing I posted before going dark for two days was broody and sad, people might be worried about me. No worries, I’m doing perfectly alright, funerals just take up more time than I’d anticipated and I was unable to get any blogging done. I might’ve been able to squeeze out the usual Sunday YouTube posts since the real work of running and recording a game session was done in advance, except that this week’s Iron Fang Invasion requires some editing before posting, so I’m doing that on Monday (should go up just a few hours after this post), I’ll figure out an article for Tuesday, and we’ll be back to Dungeon Born on Wednesday.

Dust to Dust

I have mentioned at least once over the last few months my grandmother’s failing health, and also mentioned the death of my grandfather last year. Later today (provided this posts on time), I will be pall bearing my grandmother, at which point I will have run out of grandparents to bury. These occasions give me a generally morbid attitude, but I wasn’t close enough to either of them to be grieving too badly. I do get sad about it. I can see elements of both of them in my creative ambitions now. My grandfather’s art was music, specifically the oboe, rather than anything as nerdy as game design, but I like to think I’ve inherited something of his single-minded dedication to that art. He played in several orchestras and taught music at a reasonably prestigious university, and most of his expressed opinions on the world were informed by metaphors to music, in much the same way as mine tend to rely strongly on game theory and other board/video game metaphors.

My grandmother had an undaunted sense of independence. When I was a teenager, she was still in good enough health to visit our house, and survivor of the Great Depression that she was, she hated using more cups than was absolutely necessary, and would hide the first cup she used in the guest room so my mother wouldn’t put it in the dish washer and give her a new one the next meal. She’d wash the cup out, of course, but use the same one all day. As her health declined, she still insisted on doing as much as possible for herself. When I was watching her throughout this year (which happened only occasionally, as there are plenty of others able to help in the area), I’d offer to make every meal for her and she would refuse every one and do it herself, moving at a snail’s pace, but under her own power. I can see some elements of that in my desire to get away from having to answer to a single boss, who can threaten my livelihood whenever the whim strikes them.

I should also add, despite a general attitude of mild melancholy, I’m not that broken up about it, so I’ll mention in advance that an outpouring of sympathy isn’t really necessary. I’m typing up some brooding thoughts on this because yes, it has been on my mind, but also because I’m out of other article ideas (since my grandmother died I have written and published two different articles on how much I like XCOM: Enemy Unknown, so clearly the grief isn’t overwhelming), and the funeral and wake are taking up some of the time I’d normally be spending on brainstorming these things. It certainly didn’t help that I spent most of the afternoon (Thursday, as I’m writing this, not Friday, when it will go live) heading to my grandparents’ old house in response to an evacuation notice which, it turned out, had been sent to me and every other person in the county in error. They didn’t deserve to die, but they lived fifteen years longer than most people get.

XCOM Alien Design

I’ve mentioned in a previous article that XCOM: Enemy Unknown’s basic mechanics are, with a few exceptions, easily transferable to the tabletop and would be a significant improvement over D&D mechanics for just about any edition you care to name. Today I’m going to talk about something else tabletop RPGs can learn from XCOM, although this time it’s going to be less of something where you can copy and paste the existing XCOM material in with only minimal changes and more something where a general design philosophy should be learned from, even though the specific implementation cannot reasonably be copied. Today, I’m going to talk about NPCs.

In XC:EU there is a steadily escalating stock of enemy aliens, with new aliens introduced each month. XCOM also gets new funding each month depending on performance so far, and research into alien technology to be replicated and construction of new facilities also takes time (and money, the accumulation of which takes time), so there is a constant arms race between XCOM and the aliens. Here we already see how the direct analogue to D&D breaks down. You could set up a specific campaign whose premise was an XCOM style arms race where the party is under pressure to level or gear up in response to escalating monster threat (I might actually do that sometime), but that’s a specific campaign premise, not something you can generalize to all of D&D.

That said, the way in which aliens become steadily more deadly as time goes on does map to NPCs getting stronger as level goes up. Rather than an arms race where players must level their characters fast enough to keep up with the NPCs, in most D&D games either the NPCs automatically level to match the players or else their levels are static and the players are expected to seek out encounters appropriate to their level.

What can and should be learned from XC:EU’s enemy design is the way the game changes as the power level goes up. As an example, let’s look at a series of three enemies, all from the base game, the sectoid, the muton, and the sectopod. These three enemies are your main bruiser enemy at tiers one, two, and three of the game respectively. You fight sectoids at the very beginning with regular body armor and mundane assault rifles, you fight mutons with carapace armor and laser rifles, and you fight sectopods with titan armor and plasma rifles. Or maybe you fall behind the gear curve and get murdered horribly. What’s important is that, although the sectoid has three health, the muton has eight, and the sectopod has a staggering twenty-five, that is not the beginning and the end of the differences between them.

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Turn-Based Squad Combat: XCOM Did It Right

New editions for D&D and things that wish they were D&D continue to come out at a steady pace. 5e is a few years old, and new Pathfinder is gearing up for a second edition. One thing that frequently gets changed between editions is some tinkering with the combat system. Hit charts gave way to THAC0 gave way to BAB, saves went from five to three to six, HP is constantly inflating, and so on.

And it’s weird to me that none of the more recent edition changes have drawn any inspiration from XCOM: Enemy Unknown, because those guys nailed it. Obviously you can’t just do a wholesale conversion because there’s a lot of guns and cover and so on in XC:EU, but the basics are really strong.

Continue reading “Turn-Based Squad Combat: XCOM Did It Right”

Reminder About Comments

I say “reminder” but really I’m reposting this because I am, for the first time ever, getting comments from more than one guy on my blog posts. Earlier I was mostly just leaving notices in case someone showed up, but now the tiniest inklings of an actual discussion are beginning to form. It’s cool. It also means those earlier notices are buried under like two hundred unrelated blog posts. So here’s what’s up with comments.

Real comments are still outnumbered about 2:1 by spam comments, which is why people who are posting for the first time need to have their comments approved. It’s not an Orwellian regime of only letting goodthink through, I seriously just check to see if a comment is spam and approve it if it’s not. You should be able to post automatically after you’ve had a single comment approved.

I Get The Weirdest Search Terms Sometimes

I should probably be figuring out how to flesh Guinevere out for another Merlin post, but I’m kind of tired and I’ve been wanting to do a post on this subject for a while: I have some of the weirdest search results sometimes. I expect this is common amongst anyone whose blog manages to achieve even the tiny amount of success I’ve managed, but the fact that it’s normal makes it weirder.

For example:

are there any official books about trielta hills

How did this person find my blog? It’s not a completely weird question to ask. The Trielta Hills are a location in Faerun, their thing is that they’re uniquely devoid of any lost wizard towers, ancient burial mounds, or lost kingdoms, which is supposed to be a “ha ha, we’ve got so many adventure locations that normalcy is weird!” but if you can’t find any location within 100 miles of where you’re sitting right now that wouldn’t make a great D&D adventure site then you live in a uniquely desolate area. It is indeed super weird that the Trielta Hills apparently have no notable history whatsoever.

Griping about dumb worldbuilding aside, though, how many pages of Google results did this guy scroll through to reach my blog? Must’ve been on like page twelve or something. Did I even mention the Trielta Hills in my Sphere of Influence posts?

“princess peach” “different plot”

When I wrote my weird Mario ramblings in 2017, I thought it was barely reaching the level of “better than nothing,” but apparently it’s actually bringing some amount of traffic in? I hope this guy found what he was looking for. My interpretation of the Mario canon is definitely a different plot.

5e op necromancer

Was this guy looking for an explanation of why Necromancers are OP? Or was he just looking for how to build an OP necromancer? The latter one isn’t exactly hard. You just prepare Animate Dead into every slot you can and call it a day. Sure, we can quibble a little bit over how often you should prepare Animate Objects instead, but really, do we care exactly how much we’re breaking the game after we’ve already broken it?

what awaken on line affinity are you

Dark. You are dark affinity, because everyone is dark affinity. Jason got there by killing two NPCs for power, and I guarantee you’ve done that at least once.

ffx11 love chaos

This guy was probably trying to type in FFXII and just failed super hard at it, but I like to imagine that this is actually a secret code used to communicate to Google that he is ready to join their chaos cult.

Apparently at least one person has reached this blog by Googling its exact url.

vampirer blog white wolf

It’s not weird that someone searching for a blog about White Wolf wound up running into my Beast: the Primordial article. It’s also not weird that they made a minor spelling error. It is kind of weird that I got three different views from the exact same misspelling.

This is the single most popular known search result leading people to this blog (which still makes it a minute amount of total traffic – almost all search results are unknown). The exact url of one of my articles. It’s a good article and all, but why do people enter this one into a search engine instead of the address bar by mistake so often?


Forget page twelve, this guy must’ve been on like page two hundred before my blog came up in a Google search for a term that refers to a massive online marketplace, a massive rain forest, and a famous tribe of warrior women with an association with the hero of a recently popular super hero movie.

Adventures In Professional GMing

I’ve sort of been doing the professional GM thing for a year-ish, but it was only about two months ago that I got at all serious about it, publishing my services page and figuring out how to advertise without being an irritating jackass about it. Those two months have seen in some ways explosive success, but if things do not continue to scale up, it cannot last.

To explain, I am now running about four or five games per week, constantly riding the limit of what I can handle. Even though I’ve found a far easier way to feed this blog than what I did during 2017, I feel just as busy, if not busier, with personal projects because of how much time is consumed running all these games. My GM’s Guide videos aren’t improving the way I’d hoped, considering I have very little experience making this kind of content and should therefore be able to rapidly improve as I learn basic concepts, because I have little time to experiment. When I do take the time to try something new, I have to use the result even if I don’t like it, even if it needed several more takes, because there’s no time for refinement or to re-record using my existing style. I’m not wrapping up Vestitas at the pace I’d hoped to. I should be nearly done with the Grey Harbor urbancrawl by now, but instead I’m hardly 10% of the way in. Work on side projects like Dark Lord and Dinosaur Riding Barbarians has completely halted as all effort goes to the GMing. I’m not writing as much as prose as I used to.

Despite having consumed a large chunk of my spare time and creative energy, I’m still making less than a quarter of what I’d need to quit my day job. I make less than $300/month right now, optimistic estimates for August suggest I may make $500/month if everyone who’s paid for at least two sessions (i.e. the first session to see if they like it, then at least one more afterwards) continues to do so, and I estimate the ceiling for this is between $1,000/month and $2,000/month. That upper bound is still not enough to live reasonably comfortably on even in a fairly low cost of living area, but it’s a pretty beastly fund for creative side projects. The annual cost for covers and editing on fiction is in the neighborhood of $2,000-$3,000, and speaking with map and token artists from Roll20, the cost on putting out an adventure to the Roll20 Marketplace is looking to be in the neighborhood of $1,000-$1,500. It would take only two or three months of effort to fund these projects if I can hit that ceiling.

If. The main question at this point is whether or not I can get away from running games for tiny groups of two or three people and start putting together larger groups of five or six, and if the $15 price point will be as consistently successful as my current $10 price point has been. If so, that could provide the money I need to pay for the art assets and editing I’ll require to get some high quality products on the market and generating passive income, enough to supplement the GMing and let me live off of creative work. It’s not an impossible plan, but there’s a lot of “ifs” (if I can scale upwards to $1,000/month, if my books or adventures are profitable, if this even lasts longer than a few months at all rather than burning out quickly), and this whole thing may end up being a big waste of a considerable amount of time.

But hey, after several years of effort, I’ve at least gotten as far as step 1) Convince a significant number of people to consistently pay me for my creative work in any amount.

I Get A Mount Now, Right?

This blog now has 40 followers. It remains unclear to me exactly how many of them are real human beings, but I figure even just drawing the attention of a significant number of bots is some kind of achievement. Even if 90% of my followers do turn out to be bots, they’re not my bots, they’re other people’s bots, who latched onto my blog because they estimate that doing so will make them look more human. That’s not great compared to real human followers, but it’s probably better than nothing.