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?