The Redsky 5e Conversion Book is launching on Kickstarter May 18th!
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Brandon Gurwitz is the CEO of Solar Studios. He works full-time as a software developer and has a B.S. in Computer Science from Rutgers University. He helped form Solar Studios after joining Tyler and Alex for a game of cards. Currently, he is putting his gamemastering experience and passion for RPGs to good use by co-designing the Redsky RPG. In this article, he shares his thoughts on some of the principles behind its design, and expands on ideas Ken shared in an earlier article.
Section 1 – Fantasy is my primary influence
I tend to find myself a bit on the fringe when it comes to creative influences here at Solar Studios. That’s because while all of the others find themselves with varying amounts of Science Fiction in their hobbies and passions, I tend to mainline Fantasy. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Star Wars as much as most nerds who grew up in the last 40ish years, and Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead were huge influences on me as a kid (in spite of the opinions of their author). Yet from the time I was a small child, my brain was jumping from Harry Potter to Eragon to His Dark Materials. Then when video games entered the picture, I was all about World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy, and of course, Skyrim.
And yes, I know that you go to the moon in Final Fantasy IV. That does not make it science fiction!
It’s a little remarkable that I wasn’t even aware of tabletop RPGs until college, but once that door was opened, nothing was going to close it. That feeling I get in Skyrim as I Fus-Ro-DAH! a bandit captain off a cliff is both amplified and distributed among real-life friends, because I’m not the only Dovahkiin on the block anymore. However, there’s a certain trope that often appears during games, or at least the ones using the most common TTRPG system: the players end up being Big Damn Heroes kicking down the door and demolishing the bad guys… with a little less effort than the gamemaster intended.
A lot of fantasy runs on tropes like that, and it’s great! I’m sure most RPG players have been in a party where the Paladin hands out smites like she is playing Whack-a-Mole, or everybody hits the deck when the Sorcerer starts casting a spell. There is another side of fantasy though, and one that I think could use a little more representation in tabletop games: being a small fish in a big pond. In many fictional worlds, you can only hope to get so strong or so skilled before there is just no more room to grow.
Section 2 – It always comes back to Tolkien
We can see the duality of fantasy characters in the granddaddy of modern fantasy, The Lord of the Rings. You get your big heroes in roughly half the Fellowship. Aragorn fights off five Nazgul by himself. Gandalf stares down the Witch King at the gates of Minas Tirith, and the undead king wisely buggers off to deal with the Rohirrim instead. Gimli and Legolas rack up a combined body count that nears triple digits in a single battle.
Everybody forgets that the story is actually about the dang hobbits.
Frodo can barely be called a 1st-level fighter when he sets off from the Shire, but what does he do when the Witch King himself attacks on Weathertop? He pulls out his sword and goes for the legs! This – predictably – ends horribly for him, but that’s the spirit of a hero! Of course, none of the hobbits can ever hope to grow in strength enough to take down a dragon, or an empowered undead wraith, or other such monster. By the end of the adventure, though, all four have gained in strength, skill, and stature enough to slay orcs, fight giant spiders, or get a sneak attack on that pesky Witch King. They come home from Gondor with such gravitas that they can stroll back into their occupied homeland and win it back from a wizard with a magic voice.
That is the other side of fantasy, the one that doesn’t get explored enough in the tabletop medium. Some monsters will always be too big to fight fairly, sometimes you have to use your words, and you might not get to walk around with a cannon in your pocket.
Section 3 – How this applies to our game
So how do we bring this tone to life in the Redsky RPG? Ken has already explored some of our design decisions, including the lack of magic in the world of Dema and our social encounter system. There are some smaller and less flashy changes that are being incorporated as well.
More Strategy, Fewer Levels
Statistics show that many people never end up playing D20-style RPGs at high character levels. Gamemasters out there also know how difficult it can be designing challenges for a group of adventurers who can be compared to demigods. Most RPGs have an unreasonable focus on whether you are of a high enough level to not get squashed by a given monster. Redsky instead focuses on diversifying the design of encounters to make it more about how you approach your battles, not whether you have enough Hit Points.
Revamped Damage Types
The tactical considerations of how you deal damage will be far more important in Redsky. You won’t be harnessing the light of the gods to do Radiant damage to your foes, but Poison and Fire damage will be far more important. The differences between Bludgeoning, Piercing, and Slashing weapons will matter.
Don’t Get Hit by the Big Monsters
A character at their maximum power will be a lot closer to Gimli than Gandalf. Dema is not the kind of world where a single barbarian can cleave their way through entire ranks of enemy soldiers alone. The lack of healing magic means that getting hit really matters. And no matter how strong you get, some threats will be beyond you and your companions. Your mighty sword arm won’t do you any good after being swallowed by a Cave Horror.
Changes like these will help gamemasters run games that feel both more natural and more dangerous. Creative approaches to combat and encounters are supported by design, instead of requiring the GM to improvise without any support from the rules. When the players encounter a big boss monster, their impulse should be, “Let’s plan this carefully,” instead of, “we aren’t high enough level for this.” That is the world we’re looking to bring to your table with the Redsky RPG.
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