Archive for the ‘The Hobby’ Category

So things have been quiet here at the Toolbox; a part of that is because I’m doing a lot of prep work for a thorough investigation of Pathfinder feats, but an even bigger part is boring “personal life” stuff, like a big move for work that I’m in the middle of.  Anyways, hopefully I’ll have interesting things to talk about here soon, but my “hobby time” has been pretty scarce lately.

But that’s for another time.  Today is Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day!

So, Swords & Wizardry is one of many game systems that are indicative of the “Old School Renaissance  movement in tabletop RPG gaming. The idea is that RPGs these days aren’t like they were “back in the old days,” and that we’ve lost something in modern games that we had back then.  I generally agree with the notion, with the caveat that I don’t think modern games are bad, just different, and there’s value in reviving this older style of play.  S&W itself claims to be a “restated” version of the “Original Game” written by Gygax and Arneson in 1974.

In a lot of ways, I feel like Swords & Wizardry matches up a lot better with my assumptions about characters and the world than modern interpretations of Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons – not because those games don’t match my expectations, but because they are more-general systems that allow for a wider range of experiences, and Sword & Wizardry intentionally restricts itself to the grittier core of fantasy RPGing.

So, let’s look at some of what S&W does and how it does it, and I’ll throw my thoughts in as well.

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I’m generally loathe to talk up products on this blog; it’s not really what I’m about, and it feels a little bit vulgar. That having been said, I spend a lot of time on Kickstarter backing various neat games, and this one at least feels like it might be pertinent to my readership. And since I’m already backing the already-successful project, any increased funding gets me more awesome stretch goals, and I like getting more awesome in my games.

The game is called Myth and it’s a cooperative-style dungeon-crawl type game.  Players choose a deck to represent their character’s class (Soldier, Archer, Acolyte, Apprentice, Brigand, Trickster, or Skald), and the cards represent actions and abilities that character can use to fight the monsters spawned by the board.  Killing monsters lets you get treasure, and treasure lets you kill more monsters! (We all know that formula.) The board is powered by The Darkness, which has it’s own deck of actions and rules for how the bad guys behave. One of the neat things is that The Darkness reacts to your play style, sending stronger challenges as you get more treasure and show off your moves, and punishing you for being too cautious. If you’re character is kicking ass and taking names, the monsters are likely to notice and gang up on you. The game is played in Stories which are comprised of three Acts which can be played successively or in separate gaming sessions, and each Act can take a couple of hours to play (so most gamers will probably play one Act per session, unless you’re a college kid during Finals – then you might do two or three Stories in a massive gaming binge… I miss college some times).

The project was successful at $40,000 and they’ve raised over $200k by this point; all of that means the game is getting more and more awesome as they’re able to add in new characters, villains, and features. They have stretch goals listed out to $400k and they claim they have even more tricks up their sleeves, but they’re down to just about a week before the Kickstarter ends. If it sounds like the sort of game you and/or your buddies might be in to, please go check it out and pledge for your copy.  If we reach $400k and get the multi-headed Ratling Boss I will be ever so grateful.

MYTH -- Kicktraq Mini

So I’ve been scouting around the Internet for dice stats since LS posted his “race-weighted attributes” post because work blocks me from Anydice.com but lets me wander around all sorts of message forums (and with two sick daughters at home, work is the most likely time I can do this sort of research). I found a link to an old (circa ’93) newsgroup post that lists probabilities and expected values for 3d6-drop-zero to 9d6-drop-six (they’re arranged by “drop lowest” but you can reverse the tables to get “drop highest”). That’s useful information for a number-crunching nerd likle me.

But in a couple places in the thread I found a meme that seems all-too-common in certain parts of the hobby, and I wanted to address that.  Specifically, it’s the notion that 3d6-roll-in-order or other systems that approach it are better because you’ll get low scores, and low scores “provide much color to a good ROLE-playing experience.” I submit to the reader that this is crap.

I’m not saying that all characters should have 12+ in every stat to be “worth” playing. I’m not saying that playing a character with some (or many) low stats can’t be fun. I’m not saying that stretching your horizons and playing out of type isn’t a good thing. But I am saying that the notion that playing a statistically-average or mathematically-likely character, especially one that is wholly or substantially generated randomly, is a better roleplaying experience is disingenuous at best.

At it’s core, role-playing has nothing to do with statistics. Role-playing is about taking on a persona and acting through scenarios, making decisions as though you were your character. We make a game out of it and attach mechanics so that you can understand and predict the likely outcomes of your decisions in a consistant way, but those are structures we build up around the core of role-playing.

The statistics are simply a way of describing our persona in a common language so that players and GM all understand the character and how he interacts with the environment. To say that a mathematically-likely character is better than any less-mathematically-likely character, we are first asserting that one persona is better than another for role-playing, and are then further asserting that it is better because of the randomness of it’s generation. Or, perhapse, it is better because it “forces” the player to “deal with” a flawed character. But why is that better, for role-playing? Can you not have just as-satisfying an experience role-playing as Superman as you can role-playing as Jimmy Olson?

Even if your character is stronger, faster, smarter, and better-looking thabn everyone else, there can still be interesting motivations, internal struggles, and decisions to be made, and that is what makes for good role-playing. Statistics say that my character is weak or clumbsy or stupid, and that’s one class of flaws, but it doesn’t say if he’s an alcoholic, a misogynist, bound by his word, or an extreme pacifist.  That’s another class of flaws. You can have an interesting, flawed character who’s stats are all 15+.

And here’s the crux of it: you can have an interesting time with a character who’s statistically perfect, but that wouldn’t be a terribly interesting character to me. I wouldn’t choose to play that character, much the same I wouldn’t choose to play a character who was randomly handicapped. I might choose to play a character with low INT or WIS or DEX, but the love-affair that gamers have with random generation has rarely made much sense to me. I have a couple theories:

It’s a game, and since it’s a game the notion of “fairness” comes in to play.  People want to know that they’re on even footing with their opponents, that no one is starting out with undue favor. But the problem here is two-fold – firstly your fellow players are not your ‘opponents’ (nor is your DM, if you’re “doing it right”), and secondly, how is random generation “fair,” exactly? It’s like the card game “We Didn’t Playtest This At All” where the rules not that star cards are simply better than other cards, and for game balance every player has an equal chance of drawing a star card. Rolling 3d6 is only “fair” in the sense that everyone has an even chance of rolling a superstar (or a dead-weight).

I suspect that another factor is that “that’s the way it was done” in the old days, and that’s the way it continued to be done out of tradition (and probably the above notion of fairness), and so people who played back then (or have adopted that mentality) had to live with bad rolls.  And occationally, having to live with sub-optimal results causes some people to rationalize and justify and find some reason to believe trhat sub-optimal is better, or at least not so bad. And from what I can tell, in old school rules attributes meant a lot less than the do in more-modern games. In Swords and Wizardry (ostensibly based off the 1974 rules), most stats are either +1, +0, or -1, so the swing between a “good” score and a “bad” score was minor. In 3.X, though, the swing is from +6 to -6 which is +/- 30% (a swing of 60%) on a d20! That is significant. Modern stats try to cover a larger range of variation, from vegitative 3s and retarted 6s to genius 14s and Ozimandian 18s. I suspect that all of old D&D’s 3-18 range covers just 7-14 in modern stats, because old D&D had a narrower focus.

My point is this: yeah, random-rolling characters makes things quick and ‘fair’ and can give you the ‘opportunity’ to play a character you might not have chosen for yourself. That’s fine and good and if it’s what you like, have at! But it isn’t going to fit everyone’s tastes, and please don’t act like it’s objectively better in any way. The core of role-playing doesn’t care about stats, except in that it’s how we describe our personas to the game. Hand-picking stats is just as valid, so long as everyone in the game agrees on what an accepitble character looks like.

Dungeons & Dragons Documentary

Posted: 23 August 2012 in The Hobby
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As a general rule I don’t intend to plug various Kickstarter (or IndieGoGo, or whatever) projects on my blog; that’s not what the Toolbox is about.  But I wanted to mention this one because, whether you love it or hate it, I feel like D&D is a piece of our cultural heritage as Role-Players.  If you can support the project, I encourage you to do so.

(Except When It Does)

So a little bit ago I listed a few topics I was planning on addressing when life gave me a break.  Instead of giving me a break I got a nasty head cold which has killed my productivity.  I’ve taken that as a sign from The Universe that “this ain’t going to get easy anytime soon,” so I’ll just have to press on.

At the end of that list (which wasn’t written in any particular order) was a statement about how more and more I’m of the opinion that, in role-playing, the system doesn’t matter.  I waffled on that a little bit — after all, if system doesn’t matter then why do we have D&D and GURPS and Savage Worlds and World of Darkness and RIFTS and ad nausiem — but I think I’ve come back around and decided that System Doesn’t Matter (Except When It Does).  Let me see if I can explain myself in a meaningful way. (more…)

D&D Next Packet v0.2

Posted: 21 August 2012 in The Hobby
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So while I was away the world changed, and we suddenly have a new D&D Next Playtest Packet.  I haven’t had a chance to look at it yet, but lots of other people have: once I’ve worked my way through it I’ll add my thoughts to the conversation and probably try to run another playtest (I’m particularly interested to see if my players take to the character creation system or not).  Apparently, this process is expected to continue for 2 years.

In the mean time, there’s a summary of changes included in the packet and I thought I’d share my initial impressions on that.

Changes

Hit Points: everyone, both players and monsters, have lower hit points.  I’d have to look at what exactly this means, but I think it may be a good thing.  (Though, I’d have to finish my investigation of What Hit Points Mean before I can really say.)

Surprise: rather than changing your initiative (-20 to your roll), Surprise now just prevents you from acting at the beginning of combat (essentially just like always).  This is probably a net-positive, but I really liked the penalty-to-roll mechanic.

Opportunity Attacks: exist again, but only trigger if you leave a character’s reach.  I think this gives characters more maneuverability around Giants than around Orcs, but I’d have to check. They also added a disengage action, so you can run away without provoking an attack.

Ranged Attack in Melee: rule only applies to ranged weapons, not spells.  I’d have to refresh myself on what the rule was to be sure of what this means, but again I think it’s probably good.

Short Rest: can be taken even if you have fewer than 1 HP left.  Not sure if that really changes the dynamic or not; apparently it lets a henchman use a healing kit on you, which seems reasonable.

Long Rest Variants: They say they haven’t changed the rule, but they’ve added variants to try out.  I’m tentatively intrigued.

Conditions: Some conditions were altered; I don’t remember having a problem with any conditions before.

Armor and Weapons: the tables have apparently been heavily revised, which is good because they needed it.  Medium Armor no longer penalizes Move Silently.  Don’t know what I think of that one.

Monsters: New stat block format, new abilities, and an XP-based encounter-building system.

Spells: Changed spell disruption rules (now not just Wizard-specific), clarified what you need to cast (your voice and a free hand), and added and revised spells.

Classes: Changed Cleric’s Turn undead and Channel Divinity.  Added combat superiority and fighting style for Fighters.  Changed Rogue’s Sneak Attack and Skill Mastery.  Too vague to really comment on at this level.

Misc: added a skill list (yay), associated skills with attributes (boo), changed the word “Theme” to “Specialty” (huh), and changed some feats.

Oh, by the way…

Did I mention that none of this matters any more?  OK, that might be a little bit of an exageration (for some of you), but WotC also announced that they’ll be releasing their “whole back catalog” of D&D products in electronic format.  I’m not sure what that means, either in terms of what exactly will be available and in exactly what form, but if it means I can hand them a reasonable amount of money and get all those 2nd Ed. treasures I apparently missed out on, color me excited.

On Cheating

Posted: 20 August 2012 in The Hobby
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There are a few people around who have recently made posts about cheating in RPGs — so I’m going to reference a post from three years ago on the same subject.  I think the old post addresses the topic better, and the same ideas can be applied to the newer posts.

Anyways, the post attempts to break down who cheats, how they cheat, and why they cheat.  To save you from reading a years-dead post and comment thread, here’s the gist of it:

  • GMs cheat because it saves players from failure, or makes things more cinematic, or lets the story continue as it ought. This is both right and just, and GMs should feel free to do just so. Players can’t do anything about it and just have to trust that the GM is making the game better.
  • Players sometimes ‘cheat’ because they make honest mistakes, or they’re bad at math.  These are harmless and probably don’t mean much in the long run.
  • Bad players sometimes intentionally cheat, lying about die rolls, re-using expended powers, and intentionally applying bad math. If caught, they probably won’t do it again.
  • Very bad players go so far as to doctor their dice or have variant ‘builds’ of their character available so they can address niche situations better. These guys cheat maliciously and will probably keep cheating until there’s an uncomfortable confrontation.
  • The best solution to cheating is to not directly punish the offender, but passively punish them by rewarding everyone else.

I have a number of problems with this post.

GMs Cheat and That’s OK

I’m going to go ahead and say that it is in fact not OK for the GM to cheat.

Think of it this way: you’re at a football game, and the visitor team is up by 6 points.  The home team gets the ball and carries it down the field, eventually getting a touchdown.  The refs throw a flag and call the ball dead at the 2 yard line, not because the ball was dead, but because it makes for a more exciting game if that happened.  Then the team plays again and gets a touchdown; they go for the kick but it hits the upright and bounces away.  Now the refs call it and say that hitting the upright was ‘good enough’ for the extra point and the home team wins by 1 point.  What an exciting victory!

Except that it’s not; it’s not exciting and it’s not a victory, because it didn’t really happen.  Sure it’s a cool story, but it’s just a story that the refs are telling and it has nothing to do with the team’s actual effort or performance.  And it’s not really a victory because the team didn’t really overcome any obstacles (the refs just declared that they’d done so) and it had nothing to do with their play anyways: the refs knew what they wanted the outcome to be and orchestrated things so that’s how it happened.  In a way, the teams were irrelevant.

This is what it’s like when a DM cheats.  He can do it easier than any other player in the game because his role is to portray the entire world, and he can justify it by saying “this makes a better story” or “this makes it more fun.”  But the cheating player can make the same justifications for why his cheats are OK, too, and now we’re back in 3rd grade yelling “bang, I shot you!” and “no, you missed!”  Lawlessness and chaos.

A GM, like a referee, should be impartial to either the success of or methods used by the payers to engage the situations he’s presented them with.  If he’s not, if he’s always there to pull their fat from the proverbial fire, eventually they’re going to recognize that what they actually do is irrelevant — the story will progress essentially the way the GM decides it will.  And depending on how egregious the GM is about cheating in the name of “fun,” the player’s whole character might well be irrelevant — he’ll catch the ledge or not, hit the target or not, persuade the duke or not based on what the GM has decided, and nothing more. In large doses this is absurd, but it’s frustrating even in small doses.

Players Cheat and Should Be Punished In-Game

Sometimes players cheat.  I would hope that it’s always accidental but sometimes it’s not and we need to know how to deal with that.  Here’s my solution: don’t play with cheaters.

You don’t always know up-front that they’re a cheater and you should probably give them the benefit of the doubt — take them aside after the game and confront them directly about their cheating and how it’s unacceptable.  If that fixes things, great; it never needs to be brought up again.  If it doesn’t fix things, politely ask them to leave; and by “politely ask them to leave” I mean “tell them in clear terms that they are no longer welcome to play in your game.”  Done.

What you shouldn’t do is punish them in-game for cheating.  That’s passive-aggressive and kind of a dick move, especially if you haven’t explained to them what you’re doing and why.  It might ‘fix’ the problem, but it’s childish and demonstrates that you aren’t an unbiased GM.  If you punish cheaters in-game, now they’re going to wonder if you punish them in-game for other out-of-game reasons, like favoring the wrong sports team, having excessive body odor, or eating the last piece of pizza.  Even if none of that’s true you’ve eroded their trust in you, and that’s not going to be good for the game in the long run.

Why Are We Cheating Anyways?

I have no idea why cheating is even a factor.  If you’re sitting around a table with your friends pretending to be dwarves and wizards, what exactly are you gaining by cheating?

Sarah Darkmagic has an interesting post up about why random rolling for gender is a good thing for the hobby.  She makes some interesting points which (I hope I don’t butcher this) basically boil down to: most gamers are men, most gamers aren’t into gender-bending, random-rolling for gender would produce more female characters and force us, as a community, to consider female-oriented stories as much as male-oriented stories.

She’s commenting on a tweet from @PelgranePress that said “RPG idea: define your character. Last thing – roll for character’s gender.”  For my part, I think Pelgrade’s idea is kind of great, but Sarah’s strikes me as more than a little abrasive.  Let me explain:

Pelgrade’s idea is essentially to build an entire character and then determine randomly whether your character is male or female.  I think that this is a pretty great idea because I regularly hear gamers saying, “I don’t know how to play a female character” (or, less commonly, the opposite).  And my thought is that, for the most part, if you’re trying to think of “what would a girl do in this situation” rather than “what would a person do in this situation,” you’re already coming at it from the wrong angle.  Yes, there are practical considerations to take in terms of the upbringing and personality that men and women might have in the setting of your game.  And it’s probably that women are going to feel threatened in situations where a man might not, and so on.  But in general, I think that once the personality and upbringing of your character is determined, whether they’re male of female has a rather small impact in playing them.  Pelgrade’s idea, from my perspective, ensures that you build your character as a full person rather than focusing on one (obvious) piece of the whole.

Sarah’s point though strikes me as abrasive for (I imagine) the exact reason that she thinks it’s a good idea: it would force people to play as women.  This bothers me for the same reason I don’t want a random roll to determine my character’s race, class, or attributes: maybe I don’t want to play a dunce wizard.  Maybe I don’t want to play a brawny dwarf.  And maybe I don’t want to play as a woman.  Not because there’s anything wrong with any of those, and it doesn’t mean I’ll never play one, but simply because I want to choose the I want to portray.  I don’t want to pick a role out of a hat.  One of Sarah’s basic premises is that most gamers are men and most aren’t comfortable with gender-bending — so the solution is to force them to gender-bend?  That sounds like a wonderful way to turn off a large segment of the community.

I have no problem with women gamers, and I have no problem with female characters.  I regularly gender-bend, and some of my favorite characters etc., etc.  But it’s because I chose to play a female character because there was something compelling that I latched on to.  It may be one thing to encourage game designers and module authors to consider female-oriented stories when they put pen to paper, but forcing players into roles they don’t want or aren’t comfortable with sounds like a bad idea.  Sarah’s comments are a great thing for The Industry to take note of and improve the overall availability of and support for female-oriented play, but it shouldn’t be forced on any given gaming group.

D&D Next Petition

Posted: 17 July 2012 in The Hobby
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So Michael over at Neuroglyph Games has a post up about a petition to WotC to reconsider the path they’re taking with 5th Edition.  Unsurprisingly, he takes his cues from the Open Letter to WotC that was published a couple months ago, and his message is the same: 5e is unlikely to unite the market, and the market doesn’t need to be united.  We like our various rules systems at the best thing to do, for both WotC and Gamers, is to re-release the old systems, continue support for all rules sets, and release content that people will buy.  He notes that there’s loads of material for old systems that never got converted to newer rules sets, and new modules could be written and statted for use with all forms of the game.

There’s a Kickstarter up right now that I think shows a great model for this sort of thing: The Bestiary of the Curiously Odd is a Bestiary book that’s going to bee 200+ pages of monster descriptions and fluff, without any stats; then they’ll publish no less than 3 smaller statbooks, for Pathfinder, OSRIC, and Traveller rules systems.  They just tripled* the market for that bestiary for the cost of a couple small softcovers.  WotC could do the same thing — write up one book with the adventure descriptions and NPCs, and a series of statbooks so that the adventure could be run for 1e, 2e, 3e, 4e…  And with print-on-demand capabilities, you can even avoid a lot of the traditional costs that would be associated with storage, etc.

Michael’s petition is up on Change.org, and since I know a lot of my readers are non-US I want to point out the “outside the US” link on the form as well; I don’t know that it will get noticed by anyone at WotC or Hasbro, but I think it’s at least worth voicing our opinion.

The Next D&D N5xt

Posted: 29 June 2012 in The Hobby
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Mike Mearls has an article up talking about the survey feedback they got from the first round of open playtesting for D&D 5E, and what that means for the next round.

As I’m writing this, it strikes me: why am I writing this?  I’ve pretty much already decided that 5th Edition isn’t going to be for me.  At best I’ll riffle through 5E’s pockets for a few nice ideas, but it’s unlikely that they’re going to make a system that serves me better than 3.X or Pathfinder, and certainly not the way they’re heading right now.  Everything about 5E strikes me as “wonky”, so why bother spending more time on it?

I think the answer is: D&D, and role-playing in general, is something I’m passionate about.  I want to see it done well, and so I can’t help but engage in this dialog (such as it is).  D&D 5E probably won’t become something I want, but if I don’t participate it definitely won’t.  It’s still probably a futile exercise, but…

Anyways, go ahead and read Mearls’ article, I’m going to go through and address his points.

I do think they’re on to something with speed of play, though that may just be in light of the slow pace of modern gaming, and D&D 4E in particular.  It strikes me that the way we play modern systems (regardless of the rules system) tends to bog things down with options and analysis and so on.  The playtest rules at least feel a little more “fast and loose,” so I’ll give them credit for that.  I think most people had positive responses for (Dis)Advantage because they haven’t grasped the full implications of the mechanic.  I’ve all-but decided that I’m strongly opposed to it, myself – not because I think it’s a bad idea, but because I don’t like the roll-twice-drop-one mechanic (and the way it’s math plays out alongside static bonuses).

I like the sounds of adding in combat options and different maneuvers.  I’m… intrigued by the thought of Facing rules.  In my gaming career I’ve never encountered anything like that, though the people I know who have rarely seem to have good things to say about it.  Too much book-keeping?  I don’t know.

Surprise (which was just -20 Initiative for those surprised) was actually something I really liked.  I might have changed it to, say, -15 or -10 so that it wasn’t quite as severe (the best you could do when surprised is a score equal to your DEX mod, and most of the time you’d have a negative score — which means you’re going after everyone on the other side for the entire battle).  I can see how the permanent loss of initiative could be frustrating over the period of a long battle.  Maybe make the -20 temporary?  Or have the surprised members just lose their first turn?  It’s something to think about.

Critical hits were automatic on a 20 and did max damage.  I guess I can see how that’s boring, but it’s also not far from the way things have always been.  I’m a fan of 3.X criticals (threat range, confirm roll, and 2x the roll) with my only real complaint being that a crappy roll can do less than a regular hit (been thinking about max damage+roll for my games).  I really don’t like auto-crit on a 20; it means that 1 in 20 swings will be a critical, regardless of how easy or tough your opponent is.   like confirm rolls because it means 1 in 20 *hits* will be a critical, and that’s a bigger number for weak foes and a smaller number for tough ones.

They’re still interested in getting rid of skill points, and I can kind of understand that.  I think it’s a mistake, but I can understand it.  The idea of having training replace your attribute mod instead of enhancing it is interesting, but it means that training is less useful for someone who’s attributes SHOULD make them good at it.  So a character with a -2 mod is just as good with training as the guy with a +3 mod.  That doesn’t feel right.

Resting and Healing is where I had some of the biggest issues with the playtest.  He doesn’t really say much, except that it sounds like they want to put out different sets of rules depending on how gritty you want your game.  when it comes down to it, THAT is one of the things I dislike the most about the way they’re approaching 5E.  If I get together with friends to play 4E or Pathfinder or OSRIC, there’s a reasonable expectation that we all understand the system we’re going to be playing with, with a bit of variance for house rules and preferences.  With D&D 5E, though, the ASSUMPTION going in is that you can drastically change the rules system, and so it strikes me that there will have to be a negotiation each time a group forms — and when I say that, I mean more of a negotiation than “do we want to play 4E or 3.X?  Each time a new campaign starts there will need to be a discussion as to whether we’re using Themes, or Facing Rules, or High Lethality, and when someone tells invites me to their 5E game, I need ask, “well, which 5e?”

The one thing he does say definitively is more than a little concerning for me: they want to move Healing magic out of the spellcasting system and into a theme or something so that Clerics can heal *and do something else* each round, be it heal and attack, or heal and cast a spell, or whatever.  This concerns me because it’s essentially the biggest tactical failing of 4th Edition.  Tactical Healing works best when it’s a choice you need to make, like taking any other defensive move rather than an offensive one.  By allowing a Cleric to do healing and attacks at the same time, there’s no trade off.  Healing becomes assumed (because why would you not choose to heal, if it’s essentially free), and in becoming assumed it becomes necessary.  Now instead of having Cleric (or at least, Healer) as an option, it’s a staple that every party needs to have in order to be successful.

If you don’t want to be a Healer, don’t be a Healer.  If you don’t want all Clerics to be Healers, we’ve already begun to address that.  But if we take away the tactical cost of healing we lose the ability to choose to have it or not.

Mike Mearls, the guy in charge of D&D N5xt, did an Ask Me Anything over at Reddit.  I didn’t get a chance to ask the one question I’m curious about — that is, have they considered not making a 5th Edition — but Blog of Holding has a run-down of some of the answers Mearls gave that hint at new mechanics they’re considering for the game.  More and more I’m thinking I’ll take a pass on D&D N5xt and just cherry pick their best ideas to add as houserules to systems I do like.

I recently read a rather long post by The Angry DM discussing the question “what is Role Playing?”  Angry got a bit irritated by stock phrases like “role playing means different things to different people” and the notion that role playing and dice are mutually exclusive (or at least at odds with each other).  Angry notes that long before Gygax and Crew created their spin-off of Chainmail “role playing” was an actual term with actual meaning.

Angry goes through several pages of discussion (and I think it’s all good stuff), but his thoughts basically boil down to a few key points.

  • Role Playing is the process of envisioning a situation, putting yourself into the place of one of the characters, and then making a decision on what that character would do.  If you’re imagining a scene and deciding what your character would do, you’re role playing.
  • All the other bits that we associate with role playing, including speaking in character and describing actions, are good aids for role playing, but they’re really just presentation.  They help the other players understand the new situation that comes about once your character has acted, but they aren’t  necessary to role playing as such.  Someone who narrates rather than monologues is role playing just as much as anyone else.
  • There are two classes of role playing — ‘weak’ role playing, where the decision you make would be made the same way and for the same reasons regardless of what character you’re portraying (buying an item at $30 instead of $60); and ‘strong’ role playing, where the decision you make is heavily based on the personality of the character you’re portraying, and often involves resolving an internal conflict (wanting two mutually exclusive things, or not wanting either of two options).
    • “Weak” and “strong” are not meant to signify “bad” and “good” roleplaying, it’s just a matter of how dependent on the character your choices are.  Angry notes that in some cases, such as combat, weak role playing can be very appropriate, as people trained for high stress situations fall into predictable routines.
    • Angry also notes that this doesn’t preclude combat from having strong role play opportunities — the Elf Fighter who engages the Orc opponent, heedless of his party or other considerations, because he has an intense hatred for Orcs, is making a strong role playing decision.

This whole discussion struck a chord with me because (as with many posts I read relating to our hobby) it gave me words for considerations that I didn’t have before.  It would often bother me when, having asked my players what their character’s attitude or opinion on a thing was, they would respond with “why should I have to know that?” or “why should I decide that now?” or “I just want to develop my character through play.”  I’ll acknowledge that developing characters in play is valid (and honestly expected), but I can now say why the lack of a clear understanding of my player’s characters bothers me: I yearn for strong role play, where characters are presented with difficult choices to make and internal conflicts to resolve.  That is exceedingly difficult to achieve as a GM if I can’t get a view on what my player characters care about, or fear, or whatever.

I don’t have a good fix to the issue (I still desire answers and my players still resist providing them) but at least I know what’s going on and can begin to address it constructively.

I’ve been putting off writing a D&D Next post, partly because I still feel like I haven’t fully digested the materials, partly because my group only got a half-hearted playtest in, and partly because I’ve been interested in pursuing other things, like hexcrawl mechanics and fixing feats.  On Friday, though, my post on DCs got mentioned on Friday Knight News, and I figured I should go ahead and address 5E directly. (As an aside, the FKN posts look to be neat aggregate posts, and I think I’ll keep a closer eye on Game Knight Reviews generally, as some neat thoughts are floating around there.)

So, what are my thoughts on 5E?  Firstly: this. This a thousand times.  I don’t think anyone wants or needs a 5th Edition, and the genesis of one is something of an ill-conceived reaction to the fact that 4E lost a lot of players and Retro-clones and Pathfinder has been eating WotC’s lunch for several years now.  The answer is not to give us another franken-system, the answer is to give us what we want, and produce new and updated material for the four systems everyone’s already playing.  We don’t all have to buy the same product, and WotC should be more concerned that we’re buying their product than which product we’re buying.  I’m no publishing industry insider, but it seems to me that the realities of publishing have changed a lot, and I for one would be likely to buy material for each D&D system if WotC would let me (ask my wife: I’m still buying 4E producats and I don’t even like that system).

Anyways.  On to the actual 5E stuff. It gets long.

(more…)

D&D? NEXT!

Posted: 24 May 2012 in The Hobby
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So a little background, I didn’t really encounter D&D until college, and by “college” I mean 2003, so it was right there with D&D 3.0 and 3.5.  I had a few terrible experiences with a few terrible DMs and decided I’d stick to my RIFTS and World of Darkness, thank you very much.  A few years later I heard about D&D 4E, saw the similarities with the MMOs I’d been playing for years, and felt it was an elegant solution to all the problems I saw with earlier D&D.  I’ve backed away from that opinion, but that’s maybe a discussion for another time.

By the time 5th Edition (are they really calling it D&D N5xt?) was announced, I’d already moved on to Pathfinder and figured there wasn’t anything they could do to bring me back.  Then I started reading about things like Hexcrawls and disassociative mechanics and complete game structures…  Suffice to say I dismissed 5E out of hand as something I could even care to follow.

This afternoon, I saw a post by a friend of a friend talking about the playtest materials (which I guess got released today?) and how it was a mix of 2E and 3E, consisted of a whole bunch of book-keeping, undid a bunch of what 4E had established, was catering to players that WotC had lost with 4E…  And now I’m thinking maybe I should rethink my initial dismissal of 5E.  Maybe there’s something there.

So, anyone out there been involved with D&D N5xt?  Does anyone have the playtest materials and can give me a second opinion?  Is there a way I can get the playtest materials?

My last post was about time, and how keeping track of things allows you, the DM, to coordinate events in the game-world without falling to fiat or “dramatic timing.”  I noted that it opened up a lot of possibilities, the most obvious of which is a reliable way to determine if the players make it to the demonic altar in time to stop the evil ritual.  In the comments, dhlevine proposed a third way of using contested game stats and a die roll to see if players make it in time.  I acknowledged the idea as an alternative, depending on the mechanics available to you and the desired effect, but after thinking about it I think I’ve concluded that reducing time to a die roll is as bad as DM fiat.  It’s arguably less biased, but if you’re going to roll a die to determine the time things take you might as well not keep track of time at all.

The key piece that’s informing my determination here is player agency.  It’s a term that I’ve only recently come upon, thanks to either Hack & Slash or Papers and Pencils (I can’t remember which I saw first). The basic idea is that players have ‘agency’ when they are given meaningful choices and the choices they make have consequences (good or bad) in the game world. It’s the notion that players can control their own destiny. When a DM or game mechanic takes away options, negates choices, or ignores consequences it results in a less engaging, less fulfilling game experience for the players.  This is why railroading doesn’t work.  Players denied agency become frustrated.

Bringing us back to the question of time, if the answer to “did we make it in time” reduces down to a die roll, then you’ve essentially negated any choices the players have made that would affect timing.  I suppose you could hand-wave it, or have penalties or bonuses based ion player choices, or do a preemptive roll to see if the character can/do take time to prepare…  But it all ends up with the dice, rather than the players, making the final determination.  That just strikes me as poor form.

I’d like to take a moment here and note that I don’t hate die rolls.  They are a useful method of conflict resolution, especially if well formed mechanics are built around them and used appropriately.  My point here is that using dice to determine timing is an unnecessary and inappropriate use, and you might as well simply declare timing by fiat as leave it up to the dice.

Just a quick plug here — the role of women in RPGs is a pretty… energetic topic of discussion.  I stumbled upon an interesting article on the subject from Game Knight Reviews, and though I’m still making my way through it I wanted to toss up a link to the Women Fighters Tumblr page they pointed to.  They post pics of women in “reasonable armor,” the sort of stuff that’s feminine but functional.  Just a useful source of inspiration for players and DMs.