Category Archives: Dungeons and Dragons
I’ve been reading a lot more older D&D books for some reason; most of the findings aren’t unexpected: adversarial GMing, emphasis of the dungeon as the primary campaigning grounds, random charts, and other joys of the Old School Revival. There’s been a few gems. Mostly it’s interesting to see how the game developed—I’m probably behind the curve here, since everyone else was doing that back in 2008, when 4e launched and Gygax/Arneson died, but the Next playtest triggered D&D nostalgia in me. Anyways.
Skimming through my 1st Edition AD&D Monster Manual, I find I can lump its contents into three rough groups:
- Mundane creautres: boring crap like mules and giant beavers, dinosaurs, megafauna (e.g., non-dinosaur extinct creatures, like saber-tooth tigers and giant sloths), etc. Regardless of their impressive cultures and tendency to stockpile trade valuables, Dire Lynxes and Giant Beavers are still mundane.
- Traditional fantasy staples: demons, genies, faeries, creatures from ancient myth (medusa, hydra), dragons, etc. Things that were taken directly from mythology,
- FUCKING WEIRD SHIT.
By the latter, I mean the nonsensical creations made especially for D&D. I’ve always liked these more than the others because they’re so out there, and even though you can tell they were made either a.) because it sounded cool or b.) to do something related to the “game” aspect of roleplaying games, that weirder stuff feels the more D&D than the dragons and demons and other basic critters. At the least, they’ve been such a big part of the game’s history because they were made for the game.
Some examples of what I’m thinking of when I say FUCKING WEIRD after the break:
Skill challenges are important because they’re the first mechanic D&D’s offered for long, non-combat challenges for the entire party. More of a framework and less a “mechanic” in the way “base attack bonus” or “saving throws” are a mechanic, but a mechanic nonetheless. They’re an integral part of 4e D&D, a major revolution in D&D games theory and mechanical interaction, they’ve always fascinated me with their potential and concept, partly because I’ve always been fascinated by attempts to blur the line between mechanics and “narrative” (in general, the non-mechanical happenings in the game—fluff, roleplaying, world-building, wandering around, setting, adventure goals, motivations, plot, etc.).
For a skill challenge example, I’ll use the first one in the Dark Sun campaign guide; it’s simple, streamlined, and well-described. The party want to find a secret alliance—a group that protects Preserver magicians, who are the guys who use magic that doesn’t corrupt the world—wherein they must undergo a skill challenge to join up. The challenge is divided into two parts: first, finding the alliance (Arcane/Streetwise with a secondary of Insight), and after two successes, they have to prove that they’re worth keeping around (Arcane, Diplomacy, Bluff to lie, or spend a Power to show you’re serious, with Insight as a secondary). In a nutshell, the “skill challenge” mechanic is using the provided skills (or ones the GM considers acceptable replacements) to succeed at checks; the party needs to make 8 successful checks before getting 3 failures, at which point they’re now in the secret club. Straightforward, right?
Now, that I’ve pointed out that I like the concept, and provided an example of how they work, here’s why I hate them. [Long-ass, double-size Super Special post; more after the break.]
It’s been a few weeks since the D&D Next playtest hit, and I’ve had some time to examine it.
First and foremost, it’s clear that Wizards wanted a cautious approach—perhaps overly so. The rules aren’t so much a beta (such as the many early Pathfinder builds) but are closer to a quick-start beginner module. The characters are pregens, and most of the information we have about the system is from reverse engineering the characters. My hope is that Wizards will release a real playtest edition of the rules in the future, as Mearls’ introduction letter notes, because if this is all we get, nobody’s going to be pleased; the message will be a transparent “it doesn’t matter what you wanted, because this is what you’re getting,” defeating the point of a public playtest.
Of the much-tauted “modularity,” there’s nothing concrete (or even abstract) so far. My feeling remains that promoting “D&D modularity” is like businesses “promoting synergy;” it’s a catchy buzzword and a desired effect for all parties involved, but the real-world implementations… don’t exist outside the realms of some voodoo economics thing. Thus the “modular design” remains in the “I’ll believe it when I see it” camp—I love the idea, and if they can pull it off, I’ll be duly impressed.
For good or ill, it’s still D&D, still looks like D&D, and probably plays like D&D. (I’m strapped for time, otherwise I might have run it as a one-nighter.) It retains the ubiquitous class/level system, rules unified around one system (d20), it’s high-magic fantasy, and returns to the Vancian system (prepared spellcasting). It also retains some of the least-offensive 4e elements, such as higher character HP, dealing “ability score” damage via abilities (such as on a miss), varied rests and “second winds” to regain HP and facilitate constant adventuring, and sacking fidgety Challenge Ratings for XP-based gauges. And parts of 3e have been included but streamlined, such as combat conditions (thank god), and an overhaul to the Difficulty Class for challenges.
The changes are few, but important. Characters have Backgrounds and Themes which provide neat little abilities and features. The emphasis is on ability checks over skills and saves, which I found a straightforward, logical choice. Instead of tracking various modifiers, and to replicate character merits and flaws, you instead gain Advantage or Disadvantage: rolling 2d20 and taking the better or worse result, respectively. I like that it’s getting away from the modifier bloat, but I can see it turning Advantage into auto-win and Disadvantage into auto-fail if dice rolls are as I expect them. The worst (or least clear) part were the skill checks; instead of multiples of 5-10, they’re now between 1 and 30, which seems too wide a gap. On the bright side, since Next is moving towards smaller numbers, DC 20 is an “extreme” check, making me think stats are more static. It’s clear that this isn’t a complete game yet; the weapon and armor values are poorly edited, it’s unclear if spell effects scale with level, and there’s no rules for miniatures or mapping yet.
The Next rules strike me as a return to D&D’s roots: there’s a strong “back to basics” feel. The game feels like D&D has always felt. The “module” part is the Caves of Chaos, part of B2: Keep on the Borderlands; the monsters go back to the short & simple stat blocks; values (such as for XP) are going down instead of up. Heck, the rules seem much more focused on exploration than tactical combat, taking the game in a very different direction from where more recent D&D editions have gone. If I had to define the game, I’d say it takes 2nd Edition AD&D’s mentality, and backs it up with the three decades of experience D&D has received since then, incorporating a number of 3.x and 4e elements.
Problems? Well, WotC has not produced something that will unify the editions, much less pull back the majority of those already sold on another system. While Next isn’t that bad, it’s not doing anything flashy or decisive to sell the merits of returning to the flock to the many lost tribes. If this was the end-product on sale this GenCon, I think most gamers will stick with the product they sunk the last 4+ years into rather than jump ship to Next.
For the OSR Gamer
While the game has an old-school, return to the roots feel, absence of miniatures rules, etc., it’s still building off modern game design: there are a lot of mechanics that have either been tweaked or incorporated whole-cloth from 3.x and 4e. The 4e rest/second wind/healing surge styles in particular move away from the older Gygaxian simulationism and into more game-y territory. I’m not sure it will attract OSR gamers back to the herd because of its new-design mechanics and style, considering it lacks the same focus of game lines entrenched in OSR circles: Swords & Wizardry, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Labyrinth Lord, Dungeon Crawl Classics, et al. But it does have more of an OSR feel than 3e or 4th. And attracting OSR gamers with “new” mechanics and design is a Sisyphean task if I ever heard one.
For the Pathfinder/3.5 Gamer
Next feels a lot like 3.x, only slimmed down to cut out the rules-lawyering and gaming the mechanics for fun and profit, with some old-school, brand new, and 4e elements tossed in. Most players play Pathfinder for three reasons: to keep using their 3.x material, because they like Paizo (for its world, for its products, for its active and friendly staff), or because they dislike/distrust Wizards of the Coast (e.g., because Pathfinder wasn’t 4e). The last two aren’t groups who will be easily swayed by Next, while the former can incorporate their 3.x stuff into Pathfinder (or True20, FantasyCraft, 3.5) than it will Next. There’s a few great things in Next asking to be implemented into a Pathfinder campaign, but again, the die-hard Pathfinder fans would require Next to offer a free yacht and cure cancer to draw them back. I’m not sure Next is turning their heads yet: Pathfinder fans have strong brand loyalty thanks to the Edition Wars.
For the 4th Edition Gamer
This is turning out to be the hardest sell. 4th Edition was a bold move to take the game in a new direction; I wasn’t thrilled with the specific choices they made, but I see (and support) moving away from Vancian casting, balancing the classes, marginalizing rules lawyering and gaming the system, etc. In most ways, Next is going back to earlier D&D design as if 4th never existed, prying off a few parts and leaving the biggest design changes behind—that’s like a slap in the face to supporters of the last edition, and has the potential to drive away the brand’s stoutest followers. I don’t think Next is as horribly “regressive” as many 4e fans consider it; instead of continuing on the same path that 3e moved the game down and 4e started to flesh out, it’s taking the game back to the AD&D/3.x branching point, and heading down yet another avenue. Less “regressive” (albeit turning back the clock) and more “different.” But difference for D&D fans is seldom lauded. And brand loyalty, thanks to the Edition Wars, is not something to throw away lightly.
Truth be told, I’ve been burned out on D&D and its kin for a while now, though I have such strong nostalgic ties to the game that I’m loath to abandon it. I like a lot of what Next is doing, and it’s going for a type of D&D I’d love running or playing; its new mechanics and goals feel very D&D, but without the rigidity and tactical combat focus of 4th, the cumbersome nature and bad balance of 3rd (there’s still time for that, though), or the disjointed mechanics and simplistic design of AD&D. The mechanics are moving a bit more abstract, more exploration based, but still very crunchy and capable of having a capable tactical combat engine. It’s moving away from modifier bloat—hell, in numbers bloat in general, trying to keep the numbers as small as possible. With luck that will lead to solid internal balance while making a game both fun and challenging.
I can see snippets of more modern and Indie game design in there, such as the hybridizing of fluff and crunch (through background, theme, Dis/Advantage) and giving the DM more adjudication powers (telling when something has Dis/Advantage), which I can get behind. And the snippets of older game design—simpler stat-blocks, the Caves of Chaos, the AD&D style exploration of the unknown (which happens to include dungeons filled with monsters and loot)—that I can also get behind. The Next beta has effectively blended the various eras of D&D into a neat package. But while I like what I see, I’m waiting to learn more about what we’re not seeing: this is so very far from a real product. It feels more of a proof-of-concept quickstart than a rule set.
But the real question remains: “Is this neat package better than the neat package I’ve already spent my money on?” I’m not sure Next has formed a majority, or even a consensus, among D&D gamers. And the way things have been moving, I’d rather pull out The One Ring or go FATE-based if I was running a D&D campaign… if only because those have less baggage of what each player’s “my D&D” should look like, and to get away from everyone’s preconceptions of how D&D acts, by moving into a system more flexible, open, and rewarding of creativity.
I must have missed it, but back in December, in the days leading up to Next’s announcement, there were a string of articles on The Escapist about D&D’s present and future. While it had a clear bias—the author worked on his own retroclone—it did have some interesting things to say about the game’s focus, the important part (for this post at least) is below:
“I have a theory about RPGs,” Mearls said. “When 2nd edition really got focused on story [in 1989], we had what I call the first era of RPG decadence and it was based on story. The idea that the DM is going to tell you a story, and you go from point A to point B to point C. The narrative is linear and [the DM is a] storyteller going to tell you a static story, and you would just get to roll dice occasionally. 3rd edition came out and said ‘To Hell with that,’ it’s all about players, we’re going to give you some really cool options, it’s all flexibility in the DM and for the players, there’s this meaningful choice.
“I think we’ve hit the second era of RPG decadence, and it’s gone the opposite way,” he continued. “It’s all about player power now – the DM is just the rules guy – and the DM can’t contradict what the players say. [The game] is taking away from the DM, and that’s where I worry because other types of games can do that better. I might as well play a board game, ’cause I’m just here enforcing the rules. Without the DM as the creative guy, what’s the point?”
Mearls admits 4th edition might have gone too far in creating a perfectly balanced game. “We’ve lost faith of what makes an RPG an RPG,” he said, admitting that in trying to please gamers with a limited imagination, 4th edition might have punished those with an active one. “There’s this fear of the bad gaming group, where the game is so good that even playing with a bad gaming group, you’ll still have fun.”
That reflects what I’ve been thinking for a while now; I’ve mentioned it in several posts. The evolution of D&D is a fascinating thing to track, with its ebbs and flows. But in a general sense, it’s moving the game away from DMs and more towards players, in a very strange and roundabout way.
The switch from DM to player was less about how the old games functioned, but more about how they functioned compared to the new ones. (Sure, it took a while to get away from the “The DM is running his story, and you’re all along for the ride” nonsense, but it wasn’t always there to begin with.) 3rd Edition shook up the way people played D&D by giving a wealth of character options: yes, the plot and setting and DM-based stuff is still relevant, but in 3.x and 4th, the character options take precedence in player planning. Back when I played 2e, the character was considered pretty static: your THAC0 would go down, your HP would go up, casters would get more spells, and that was the end of it.
In post-AD&D, the character is in a constant state of flux: leveling opens up options and new routes to take, more feats or powers or abilities. 3.x supplements were often billed by how many feats, prestige classes, and spells they contained—look at the Forgotten Realms back covers; it’s like they had some internal metric to gauge the minimum accepted number of player options. Instead of minor stat accretion, levels changed your character more dramatically, opening new possibilities. You started to look forward to level 4 when you got another feat, or level X when you got that class ability.
This deluge of options means that planning your character’s mechanical route ahead of time is encouraged, to get the specific build you want as you progress down the dungeon corridors. And when some choices are clearly superior to others, it began to defeat the point of offering a huge variety: why take feats designed as new player traps (Toughness, the +2 to two skills feats) when you could take Greenbound Summoning or Vow of Poverty?
Is this necessarily a bad thing? Not really; D&D has always been more of a tactical combat simulator with parts attached than a true “roleplaying” game, and giving players more opportunities to build something cool is just a logical extension. (Are D&D games more than combat? Yes, much more, but its wargame roots are clear when you compare it to other styles of RPGs.) As a player, that’s a big draw of recent D&D editions—when you want that style of tactical/mechanical construction, D&D scratches that itch. RPGs have always had a “build-a-character” angle, and 3.x opened that up in a big new way for D&D.
On the other hand, it does have its flaws. Naysayers have been claiming since 1999 that the new editions stifle creativity and reward manipulating the mechanics over imagination. Where older edition were vague about how things worked in-game, newer editions have spelled out precisely what characters can do with their abilities; part of why OSR gaming takes umbrage at new D&D design is that it sees this as a restriction of freedom. Not entirely true, I’d argue—it’s assuming that a different approach and mindset will dumb players down and kill imagination, because it’s new and it has more mechanics to emphasize.
But as a GM, it irks me to get players expecting a game that’s boiled down to nothing but its mechanical/combat core, existing in a void of grids, miniatures, and the fluctuating modifiers of character optimization. There’s a mentality where the GM is only necessary to move the enemies around, since the game has clearly structured rules that everyone can learn its rules, and it gets to the point where the GM contradicting the rules (for balance, story, logic reasons) is the bad guy for impeding players’ progress.
And as much as I like character-building, it’s also a turn-off for me; my eternal love-hate relationship with the game. I like options, but I also like wide open creativity and freedom that allows the abstract. When you think about awesome moments in RPGs, usually what comes up are story- or character-based; you don’t remember that one time you rolled a die or used a game mechanic, you remember the situation that caused that one die roll or mechanic to be significant. Games need mechanics, but I don’t think they should be the end-all, be-all.
It helps explain my knee-jerk reaction about 4th Edition: 4e emphasizes things that were never my favorite part of D&D, the things that I never liked about 3.x, namely emphasizing tactical over strategic/cinematic, and the push for player-centric metrics. (Ironic, since my current ideal game is FATE, which gives players more freedom to manipulate the game—which consists near-entirely of mechanics—than in all editions of D&D combined, albeit in a circular, abstract way.)
Why, the best number of randomly encountered monsters there is… is 101-500. As in, one-hundred-and-one through five-hundred gibberlings. I’m not even sure what the GM is supposed to roll for that many monsters… 1d100 + (1d4 x 100)? It’s the sheer ludicrous nature of the numbers that get to me, humor found in the seriousness of such an illogical idea.
Let’s roll back a step. This….
…is a gibberling. Technically plural, gibberlings, since there’s like thirty of them; so sue me. As you can sort-of tell from the picture, it’s one of many species of bipedal humanoid thugs that exist in D&D worlds for adventurers to hit until gold falls out. Kind of like giant, evil, people-shaped pinatas. Gibberlings are one of several niche bipedal humanoid thugs, like Xvarts and Crabmen, in that they’re both low-level and seldom used.
See, they’re evil bipedal subterranean monkeys, so you’re not going to run into them that often, by virtue that they’re only a threat to starting level adventurers who decide to head into the most dangerous place on earth. (A realm populated by Grimlocks, which are Morlocks, and the more-popular Subterranean Evil Humanoids who are mirror-images of their surface cousins: evil dwarves who can turn really, really big; evil mafia elves.) Also, because there are much more interesting evil subterranean humanoid thugs to run into than subversive monkeys, like the aforementioned evil mafia elves, or the various giant bugs with jagged hook-hands or shiny tough carapaces.
What we have here is a case of Gygaxian Naturalism; the attempt to create a viable ecological niche for fantasy world monsters—in essence, to paint a picture of a realistic, living world, where things exist for more than just game reasons—regardless of the fallacy of it all. Which brings us to the magic number, 101-500: yes, when diving into a cave to look for scrolls and magic gems, you and your tomb-looting compatriots face the possibility of running into hundreds upon hundreds of evil, subterranean monkeys.
What the game is saying is that these things can live in warren-like communities, deep underground, which are quite sizable; the 101-500 falls under the term “wave” (which is bigger than the more reasonable 20-100 horde—what the hell do you roll for that, 20d5?), making me think that “waves” represent militarized gibberlings used as fodder by the evil expanding dwarves and evil mafia elves. But let’s look at this from a realistic point of view:
- First off, they’re a Challenge Rating 1/3; three of them will be an average threat to a party of four fresh-off-the-boat dungeon delvers, while six would be oppressive odds the plucky heroes might not overcome. In other words, around 75% of the time they’ll be a pushover challenge, save for the occasional good roll, or use of tactics a creature with Intelligence 5/Wisdom 7 shouldn’t know.
- Next, after slaying the first sixty of these, the players will inevitably gain some more character levels and see their abilities increase; thanks to D&D’s odd balancing structure, 2nd-level characters will slice through these things like butter, unless they’re threatened by dozens at a time and whittled down by lucky gibberling critical hits.
- As a related note to the above, there’s no way to increase the potency of a gibberling. These things are dumber than cavemen, so they can’t do what Orcs, Lizardfolk, even Goblins can do: the GM can give those races class levels, both to represent deadlier threats, and to keep them on-par with the characters. Gibberlings are stupid bestial monsters, with no way of advancement, so they’ll always be the same weak, 6-hp, starting-level monster depicted in the book… barring GM fiat (giving them class levels anyways, even though it doesn’t make sense, or giving them Templates to buff up their stats).
- But wait! The GM has rolled 500 of these damn things, and you can’t walk away from this hive of villainy—at least, until the treasure’s been found—so you’re stuck grinding out creatures which are almost a passable threat at first, then a pushover the further you progress into their ranks. They’re not a threat except in droves, or if they attack you while recuperating or whatnot. There are plenty of options, I’ll grant, but… they’re low-intelligence sub-humans.
- Lastly: who the hell wants to sit around and fight up to five-hundred of the same, basic, starter-level monkey thugs? Aren’t there more interesting things for your characters to do? Loot long-lost temples Indiana Jones-style; start a political intrigue and instigate civil war; join the army and fight waves of Karnathi undead; corner the markets on sheep farming and take down the corrupt fleece merchants tyrannizing honest and hard-working shepherds o’er the countryside…
My point being the sheer logistical headaches and infeasibility makes me wonder why they bother to include these kinds of values in the books. With many humanoids, I can understand the horde/wave theory; Red Hand of Doom was a fantastic one-book campaign, with mid-level players struggling to rally the land and use guerrilla tactics to whittle down an army of thousands of leveled Orcs ready to steamroll the planet. But with static monsters like gibberlings, there’s no point—or incentive, for either players or GMs, unless they love pointlessly one-sided combats—since they have a dwindling degree of challenge, offer marginal rewards (both tactically and in treasure), and killing hundreds of these things would take forever. Like, months, unless the GM rolled low, or you play really long and really often.
Roughly the same amount of time you could use to run… I don’t know, Red Hand of Doom?
Again with the new 5th Edition of D&D, D&D Next. (I’m pretty sure it’s more like 8th Edition, if you count all the forms of Original/Basic, and 3.5, but whatev.) Monte Cook’s been doing an interesting series on the countdown to 5th Edition in his Legends & Lore column; a pair of early design docs so far, reinforcing D&D Next’s stated goal of being the perfect edition for every D&D gamer. As always, they’re interesting, if just the tip of the iceberg—these are big topics that need more than the short blog columns on Wizards.
Needless to say, I like the ideas set forth in them—a modular approach would overcome most, if not all, the issues I brought up previously. Which would make the real challenge attracting all the former D&D gamers, OSR gamers, and Pathfinder gamers back to the original brand line before they get too entrenched in other systems. Also, with a modular approach, I can see some people joining games expecting to use Rules X-Z when the GM’s using Rules 1, 2, and 5. Making D&D everybody’s game might not kill off the edition wars entirely; they’d just turn into a Balkanized core product rather than hostile sub-groups.
Oddly, this reminds me of the ’90s—a lot of players hated the 2e AD&D changes, more in tone than of rules, and wandered off to buy Palladium, White Wolf, Deadlands, Star Wars d6, and others, and a large part of the 3.x build-up was scanning competitor products to make D&D the dominant brand again. I remember the statistics showing the 1999/2000 breakdown in gaming popularity; I just wish I could find them.
Of course, as much as I love those fantastic claims of Monte’s, I’ll believe them when they’ve had cold, hard, tangible implementations. Again, it reminds me of the glorious claims of 4th Edition’s electronic connectivity: e-books, e-tools, virtual tabletops, constant stream of real-time errata and updates and services. The e-books died pretty soon in the 4e run, and while the other e-tool packages are still around—D&D Insider, the monster builder, GM helpers—the much-vaunted virtual tabletop was horrid, obsolete compared to the VTs from a decade before, and the “constant stream of updates” turned into the Essentials line, itself a micro-edition war inside the macro-level one. With the switch to Kindles and Nooks, iTunes and Netfix, we’re seeing the growing trend of technical literacy and electronic connectivity come to the forefront; Wizards can’t afford to half-ass that branch again.
Anyways, at the very least, I’m intrigued by the concepts and am looking forward to seeing some direct implementation of them in the open-beta-like-thing. Also intriguing is the high vote percentage for story in games over simplicity (Savage Worlds) and simulation (Gygaxian Naturalism); it sounds like we’re leaning towards a 2nd Edition level of story and world-building with the tactical and character customization complexity of 3.5 and 4th. Which would certainly be interesting.
It’s been several weeks, so probably everyone knows that there’s a new edition of D&D in the works. It’s not a huge shock—it was coming eventually, that’s how these things work—but what is surprising is how soon it’s arriving in the lifetime of 4th edition, more or less proving the various 3.5/Pathfinder conspiracy theorists right (much as it pains me) that 4e didn’t have enough market dominance.
The big thing Wizards is pushing is to try to bring back all the various factions of D&D players. Which I think is where the open-beta will collapse: the finished product will undoubtedly please some fans but not everyone, particularly the groups who divorced themselves from D&D with 4th Ed.
The big two groups are pro-4e and pro-Pathfinder, the louder, more relevant part of the Edition Wars. I read someplace that “3.5 was designed to be the best version of D&D. 4th Ed was designed to be the best tactical roleplaying game.” I think it’s 100% right from a metagame standpoint, and reveals the cause of the gap between fan-bases: from a D&D perspective, 4th Ed is a major shift mechanically from what’s came before. (Of course, if you’ve only played other games, I have to imagine looking at the Edition Wars is like watching two identical twins in different clothes having a slapfight in the back of mom’s station wagon.)
Bringing them together is no easy feat: Pathfinder fans are often generalized as knee-jerk reactionaries so resistant to change that they’re willing to shell out for, and then gulp down, a barely-modified version of the SRD and questionable new content (the Ultimates), while 4e fans are painted as elitist pricks buying into a soulless board game version of World of Warcraft, devoid of roleplaying merit and written for (slow) grade-school students, just because it’s new and shiny. (Or that they’re dumbed down like all the vidya games kids today play, depending on how old your source is.) As with all generalizations, lots of hyperbole and personal bias surrounding small kernels of truth. (Except that last part in parenthesis, which is just asinine.)
Sadly, I think those two groups would be the easiest to gap to bridge, which is a shame, given how polarized the camps are. (Moreso because Wizards, as the preeminent gaming company, needs to continue market dominance to remain profitable for Hasbro, and apparently has to rectify the Pathfinder-4e gap: otherwise, all these 5e press releases are lying.)
Our third faction is OSR: Old School Roleplaying/Revival/Renaissance, depending on the week. I have to say, I don’t really understand OSR because I wasn’t gaming in the ’70s, and spent most of my gaming life with 3.x and World of Darkness. But the one thing that’s come across through all the new OSR games? Straightforward dungeon crawling adventure, random charts, a return to the glory of combat matrixes and everything you meet trying to kill you. A cross between nostalgic charm and the old-school itch that was scratched in 3.x with Dungeon Crawl Classics and Necromancer Games.
You’d think that 4e’s old-school “points of light” setting, akin to Judge’s Guild or Greyhawk, would be a draw, but no: I’ve seen OSR gamers complain that post-Advanced D&D games have too much “roleplaying,” have mechanics based too much on video games, or that everything not left to random chance (e.g., Chartmaster) is storygame swine bullshit. (Of course, these were also old grognards who lurk in the backs of gaming stores near the Warhammer tables and design their own OSR rules based on the Gor novels, so I think it’s safe to say they’re ignorable.)
Lastly, there’s a large faction—er, factions—built up around 3.5. Why not switch to Pathfinder, FantasyCraft, True20? A number of reasons. The aforementioned “it’s just the SRD reprinted with nicer art,” or “I don’t want to pay for rules I already own,” or the stolid “the power-level borders on wish-fulfillment.” Several of the pro-3.5 groups just boil down to “I can’t build character I wanted/optimize how I used to outside of 3.5.” One of my friends got an earful about how Artificers are the most powerful class because they can shit wands and solo dungeons; that’s not exactly the kind of example I’d use to promote a system, but it fits a lot of the remaining 3.5 optimization groups.
I’ve seen many, many people with the delusion that Wizards is going to just reprint 3.5 material for 5e, and go back to that system, in order to “beat” Paizo. I know a lot of people who have this opinion, or wish, and while I agree with them on many other things, that’s… never going to happen, no.
Contrary to popular belief, 3.5 had about run its course—look at MM4 and MM5 and tell me it’s not slammed with filler, monsters with class levels and all that. Yes, they could have done Completes ’till the cows came home… and now Paizo’s worked hard to distance themselves from Pres-Class bloat, rather successfully, making it into a Pathfinder strength. Yes, I would have loved some more “It’s ____ Outside” books to go with Stormwrack and Sandstorm, but look at how well Dungeonscape and Cityscape sold before 3.5 ended. Otherwise, I can point to both the library of 3.x compatible books from respected third-parties, or the rotten quality control with the Pathfinder Ultimates
Wizards only had about a year or two of 3.5 material left, and going back to the system isn’t going to change anything; what’s propelling Pathfinder isn’t its new content—it has hardcover sourcebooks, what, three per year?—but its subscription-based lines focused on their own world of Golarion. Moreso: even if Wizards went back to 3.5, I’d hope that they do a lot of major tweaking there, not just crapping out the books they’ve already printed. And I’m talking FantasyCraft tweaking, not True20 tweaking, rebuilding the system from the ground up to make it new, edgy, and competitive.
In any event, the reason I don’t see a fifth edition pleasing everyone is that each niche wants something radically different from the others. Wizards isn’t going to win back the OSR or 3.5 crowds without reprinting older material; even if that happened, it isn’t going to appeal to either current 4e fans, or the Pathfinder fans Wizards is trying to win back. And Wizards has a tough first stretch: convincing the diaspora factions to return, and collaborate with current fans, after many have proclaimed they’ll never buy from Wizards again. (Of course, those were angry words on the internet: it means jack shit.)
A camel, so my father says far too often, is a horse designed by committee; I foresee that this one—with an already entrenched sense of party politics, squabbling after varying goals—isn’t going to come out like an Arabian stallion. I am curious, of course; I’d like to hope that it’ll end unifying the various factions under a superior game system, the best Dungeons & Dragons edition yet. But I foresee one of three things will happen:
- It’ll be left up to the Balkanized fans, ending up with a version skewed towards one faction, resulting in no change to the Edition Wars status quo and not expanding Wizards’ market like they wanted.
- It’ll try to be all-inclusive, and attempt to match all the groups’ goals—or at least keep the 4e fans and draw back some 3.5/Pathfinder gamers—and end up being a muddled mess that doesn’t please everyone.
- Most of the divergent fan goals will be ignored and we’ll get whatever Wizards’ designers were going to do in the first place. Which, for all I know, might not be such a bad thing.
We shall see. Hoping I’m wrong on this.
(Of course, to make the superior version I’d buy, they’d have to kill too many sacred cows, and would fall into Pitfall One above. Like the antiquated class/level system that, regardless of edition, craps out in the upper-mid-level experience. Either ditch it and revolutionize the brand, or play into the reason people like it—to customize/optimize character builds—and make an edition with a near-constant stream of minor upgrades and enhancements, if not levels, like every encounter or something.)
I’ve tried hard to keep away from politics on this blog—SOPA doesn’t count, since it would directly impact WordPress, this blog, and just about every other site I use on a daily basis. But I’m already tired and apathetic enough of the Edition Wars, and Internet Politics is that taken to eleven.
But this is just too loving funny to pass up. Well, humorous, at any rate.
It’s a bit dated—Gingrich has climbed far enough in the polls that he’s no longer just the pseudo-intellectual member of the crowd, he’s the pseudo-intellectual frontrunner. (Momentarily; it’ll boil down to whether the GOP wants to try and get independent swing votes with Romney, or use Newt and keep the right-wing votes they’d otherwise lose by going Mitt.) And it’s a tad biased—I’d like to see Obama with a “make promises he doesn’t keep” ability to balance that out.
In other news, I’m pretty sure I’ve played a character with Herman Cain’s stats. Don’t worry, it was 2nd Ed, so it translated to nulls across the board instead of negatives.
Continuing on from yesterday, a topic somewhat related to leveling: experience, how it’s attained and how it’s balanced.
The oddity I find with experience is that D&D is the only game on the market where you’re rewarded more for what you kill than what you do. It actually baffled me when I first ran across a non-D&D game, Alternity: wait, you’re not rewarded for each thing you’re killed? Right; there’s no incentive to kill everything then, other than the stereotypical gamer reason of “to take their stuff.” Which, I think, is part of the reason most other games don’t base their rewards system solely on what you’ve defeated in combat.
I can’t remember where it was—it’s been a dog’s age since I opened one of those books—but I swear Spycraft (2nd Ed) had a system which blew me away in its superiority. It still gave rewards for what you killed, but they were minimal—Spycraft’s use of mooks and all meant that the PCs should be outnumbered, but by baddies with no Wounds. (Only having Vitality Points and no Wounds meant mooks insta-dropped to crits, didn’t have action points, and had “minion” levels instead of real PC/NPC class levels.) A proper action movie has the protagonists outnumbered, but not outgunned—see any Bond movie—and Spycraft did a damn good job with that. Much better than d20 Modern, at any rate.
Instead, Spycraft rewarded you with a chunk of XP based on whether you succeeded on your mission objectives or not. It made a lot of sense for mission-oriented style of play, and was a helluva lot more interesting than going out into the killing fields to shoot some ultra-nationalist commies or neo-Nazis or mafiosos or whatever, to get the 300xp you needed to get another level in Ace Pilot. The downside is that it required the players to know what got them a reward: to use a bad pun, it took plot agency out of their hands and put it into the hands of the Agency. In short, it was built to reward established GM-devised missions, not so much player-directed ones.
It reminds me a lot of AD&D, and isn’t as far off from the game’s wargame roots as you might think. First Edition gave you XP for finding magic items/the amount of gold you found, which fit with the game’s mindset: in 1e AD&D, finding gold and magic swords was your mission objective. 2nd Ed had a bit emphasis on story awards, a stack of XP doled out once the group met story objectives or advanced the plot… of course, that might have just been my group, but I’d note it also showed up in the Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale games.
Spycraft 2nd still feels too crunchy to me, but I love it for some of the ideas it added: for starters, its XP rewards and damage saves for items, two things I want to add into Pathfinder. It’s the kind of d20 hack I wish Paizo had made into a core Pathfinder rule, trying to strengthen the actual mechanics. It might have distanced the game from 3.5 more, negating the “backwards compatability,” but Pathfinder as written drifts away from 3.5 enough to make it a separate game… yet one with many of the same flaws.
I think the concept might be a bit too “military” for a fantasy RPG, even with one wargame roots. Heck, I was reminded of Spycraft’s system when I was reading the rules to Force on Force, a new set of wargame rules built for ultramodern insurgency warfare, which tries to get away from note-taking chores and point-buy armies to focus on the scenario and mission goals. A storygame wargame, if you will. And the mindset, shared by both FoF and Spycraft, reflects proper military wargame doctrine: it doesn’t matter how many of the enemy you kill if you can’t achieve your goals. It’s also a lot less gamey in the traditional sense; instead of the traditional IGOUGO alternating turn-based rounds, it divides between the side with initiative, and the side that takes reactionary actions. Something I think D&D and Pathfinder could learn from.
I really want a tweaked D&D game that’s less kill-oriented and more goal-oriented like that, though it sounds like a lot of work to rebuild. (Damn, apparently I’m more narrativist than I thought.) Which, ironically, brings me full-circle to 2nd Ed AD&D and its story awards as a method for rewarding attained goals.
Running low-level Pathfinder has reinforced one thing in my mind: the players level far too quickly, even on the slow track (which several were grousing about, before it evened itself out).
The mindset behind 3.x D&D was to blaze through the first 4-6 levels with ease, in order to get into prestige classes—speed through the lower levels of base classes in order to start customizing your character. The irony is that it’s skimming over about half of the “sweet spot,” the low-mid level realm where most campaigns take place in, and the area where the game is most evenly balanced and developed. Pathfinder attempted to mix this up, with its three experience tracks, but that just changes the number of encounters per level by a handful: I find it odd they didn’t lengthen classes at lower levels, since the drive to reach pres classes ASAP is something Pathfinder did away with. It doesn’t address the core problem: d20 leveling is fast, compared to both older iterations (AD&D) and newer games (Exalted, 7th Sea, Shadowrun, and specifically CthulhuTech, which goes the other route and is painfully slow.)
Shorter, more manageable campaigns are a good thing, don’t get me wrong. Not every game can withstand the demands which come with a multi-year campaign. And “shorter/more campaigns” was a player-based driving force for this, hence the major shift between 2nd AD&D and 3.0. But it’s tied to the d20 emphasis on player customization: you need to level frequently, allowing your character to expand their abilities and powers and get more feats. Sooner or later, the system can’t handle any more leveling—epic level play has always been hit-and-miss for D&D—and once a game is over, you can start building again with your next interesting concept.
Hence why I constantly contrast d20 with AD&D. The first D&D campaign I played in took years to advance a handful of levels. (No high-handed claims that this gave us more time to build character and roleplay, that was back in high school; the modus operendi was sex jokes, bad puns, and nerd/fantasy pop culture references. Which, for high schoolers, I guess counts as roleplaying.) But there wasn’t the huge drive to level: AD&D characters were static, the variables only changed by a handful of digits, save for fighter hit points. That also meant they didn’t do as much, and had a cardboard cutout feel of similarity: the only differences were in who used what weapon.
Now, players in my last Pathfinder games have their character build prepared five levels or more in advance: plotting what feats to take, what class abilities to get, which prestige class to take and when. They know, with the CR system, it’s more-or-less 8 to 18 encounters per level to level (depending on the advancement track used). It’s part of the optimization paradigm: there’s such a wealth of abilities to take, but only a few will give you the character you want, and you have to look and prepare for them. To some, if you’re not focusing on character build, you’re not playing the game right.
The players who don’t look ahead, merely taking whatever sounds interesting when they level, stuck out (and badly). My Legacy of Fire monks were horribly unprepared build-wise, and had the inane idea that monks don’t need items to exacerbate their bad builds. (Armor, longsword, spear and magic helmet, no; amulets, belts, rings, vests, gauntlets, shoes, pants, hats, and weapons in flavor-of-the-day DR-overcoming properties, yes.) And for all their feat versatility, and the thousands of d20-based feats, every fighter I’ve ever seen has stuck with the Weapon Focus/Specialization and Power Attack/Cleave feat trees, leaving them a bit underwhelming and single-focused.
Anyways, back to leveling. When I started my Starblazer game, which uses the indie FATE system, I asked everyone what they wanted to see in a game. What struck me most was my Pathfinder-fanboy friend—the one who won’t buy compatible 3.5 supplements because they’re “not Pathfinder”—telling me he wanted a game with long-term character development, since he’d either a.) not been in a game long enough to support it, or b.) played in games which didn’t emphasize it. The implication was that his character in my Pathfinder game didn’t have the room or need for the development he wanted because it’s focus is on tactics, numbers-crunching, and combat, and to get ahead (or change) in those, you need to level constantly.
I’d like to contest that—the old mantra of “any game can promote roleplaying and development”—but most of my players have implied the same thing. (Well, 3/4ths of them are heavy in Pathfinder Society, so that might be an influence; several have said they like the Adventure Path and home campaign style since it’s “for real” and not just “numbers-crunching.”) I don’t want to sound hypocritical, given that I’m still using the system. Besides, if I wanted to run a long-term game with room for development, I wouldn’t use a class/level system. (Hence, Starblazer.) But one of my biggest problems with d20 is its time limit built into the XP and level system, restraining the number of encounters, roleplaying, character development—in short, the campaign length is determined by the number of encounters run.