Tag Archives: WOTC

5e Design Goals, A Question Or Two

So, there’s another design diary up on WOTC’s site, and that means another chance for me to write an inchoate, off-the-cuff rant there, and then post it here, and pretend that it’s content.

I’m a bit confused as to how these lists are created. Firearms rules, for example, can be as simple as crossbow rules: They’re a weapon, they do damage, boom, done. They can also be complex, with rules for powder measuring, firing in damp conditions, wheellocks vs. matchlocks vs. flintlocks, etc. They’re an example of a concept or option that can be iterated through multiple levels of complexity.

The idea of “only one rules change at a time” is likely to frustrate those people most likely to want advanced rules, and it goes against the concept of modularity. If the core system is fine, then, grid based combat built on the core, and hit locations built on the core, work fine, because each replaces a different module — in programming terms, each is a subclass of a different root class. The grid rules that determine where you are and how this affects your chance to hit should not care what happens after you’re hit — if your armor is DR or if your hit location matters. If there are such effects, it is the “after hit” rules that should contain them, and inform the grid rules of what’s happened (“I’ve been hit in my legs, I’m at -5′ speed for 1d4 rounds.”) The grid rules only care about “your speed”, they don’t care if some other rule has modified it.

Likewise, if we use a spell point system, we can’t have hit locations? Why not? I really don’t see your underlying logic here, in terms of how you decide to wall off one section of rules from another, or decide you can only pick one option from column A, two from column B, and free egg roll if ordering for four or more.

More 5e Comments

Yet another attempt to leverage the random, off-the-cuff drivel I spout on other gaming sites into an “article” here. Hey, the site’s free. You get what you pay for… including my constantly reusing that lame excuse when I post content I know is sub-par.

Anyway, Mike Mearls has posted an essay on class design that’s as free-flowing, digression-filled, and vague as anything I’ve ever written, so, I felt obliged to offer a response, that serves to also frame my own thoughts on game design and what makes a good game.

If you don’t read this article first, the following reply will make even less sense than usual.

a)Why not “Maneuver Dice”, since they tie into the Maneuver System? Calling them “damage dice” and then using them for non-damage is really poor naming. (How about “Action Dice”?)

b)Every time you say “simpler”, “for purposes of simplicity”, “to make things easier”, etc, I die a little inside. We’re gamers. We don’t need things simple when that simplicity comes at the cost of variety and depth.

c)A class’s story, place in the world, etc, is the province of the DM. A class’s mechanics is the province of the designers. If the class is not mechanically interesting, fun, etc, no one will play it, and that story will not be told. You guys handle the rules; leave the story to us.

d)A monk’s abilities may be “magical” in the plain English sense, “abilities that defy the normal laws of physics”, but they should not be “magical” in the game mechanic sense — they should not be affected by anti-magic fields, or detected with “Detect Magic”, or affect a creature vulnerable to “magic” or be hindered by a resistance to “magic”. WORDS MATTER IN RULES. Don’t say “magical” if you don’t mean “magic as a game mechanic/keyword”. If you DO mean that… please reconsider. A monk’s abilities, for purposes of that “role in the world” and “story” you’re always on about, should not be “magic” in the same same sense spells are.

e)Drop the alignment requirement. THAT is something that’s “story”, and while it’s good to have a note that “most monks are lawful”, it should not be mandated for D&D in general, though it might be part of a specific setting. It would be interesting to have different ki powers available based on being lawful or chaotic, though.



D&D 5e: Hit Points

Another in my highly irregular series of “crap I wrote on WOTC’s board that I’m reposting here in order to pretend I have content”.

OK, first of all, you need to read this, which is Mike Mearls’ take on hit points in 5e. Not “D&D Next”. Please. “5e”.

So here’s what I wrote in reply:

Mrrrm…. I sort of like the concept, but I have a few issues. First, while it’s mostly a matter of narrative, we’ve always tended to describe injuries as dramatically increasing in severity as we approach 0 hit points, not “He’s a little battered” right up until he goes negative. Sure, that’s a matter of habit and custom and 35 years of DMing, but it’s a hard habit to break. 🙂  Perhaps more importantly, if you define hit points this way, then how does a DM narrate, say, an impaling attack that causes someone to be pinned? (Many 4e powers do this, as do many 3e special abilities.) Acid, cold, fire, lightning… it’s going to be hard to narrate all of those convincingly as just scratches and dings.

Second, I think 5e’s design is too concerned with pick up games and one-off games and small party games. Making this kind of healing a module is a fine idea; making it core is more problematic.

Third, I suppose I’ll have to see the mechanics, but how do healing skills help with this? Does a ranger who knows “healing herbs and poultices” give a bonus to his allies, for instance, or a wizard who has studied anatomy?

If hit dice represent mundane healing, will mundane factors (no bandages, filthy conditions, etc) reduce this capacity? Probably not for everyone, but it would be a good optional rule for gritty games where resource management counts.

I think you can do a lot of mechanical tricks with the “hit dice” concept, which is a bonus.

I’d like to keep “bloodied” in as a conditional modifier. It’s a good idea and one of the “Top 10” innovations from 4e, IMO. It’s even migrated to our PF campaign. It has no mechanical effect there, but a player will call out “bloodied!” to let us know he’s wounded (well, his character is. Usually his character. Almost always.), or the DM will use it to let us know we’ve finally managed to really hurt the monster. (To a chorus of “What, you mean we JUST bloodied it?”)

I also wrote this, a little later:

I suppose I should ask this… if the system is designed so that you can expect to survive fights without an in-combat healer (cleric, warlord, druid, bard), then, what is the benefit to having them? They will have to be designed so that their healing abilities represent part of their “value”, but if that value is not needed due to how encounters are expected to be designed, then, they’re going to be underpowered in their secondary role. Further, if you argue that “Well, it’s a lot EASIER with a cleric”, that’s fine, but then how do you design an adventure which can “work” with both magical and non-magical healing? (By this I mean, “If you have magical healing, you won’t need to rest for a day after 2 fights, so we can set up the scenario to occur in a shorter span of time. If you don’t have magical healing, you’ll most likely need to camp after the first two encounters, which means the orc shaman has time to summon Cthulhu while you’re napping.”)

This latter one might need some expansion here (see! Real content!), to be more clear, and because I never say in a hundred words what I can say in a thousand. Or more. If “healing after the fight” and “no need for a cleric” (which, at this stage of the playtest, means “no need for a healer”, as only the four core classes are being developed, so please don’t get nitpicky and say “Oh, but not needing a cleric doesn’t mean you don’t need a healer at all”, because, right now, at this point, at the stage the game is currently at, the only healers are clerics) are core mechanical concepts, this implies that basic fight design is going to assume you can survive to heal after the fight without a cleric. The “standard, balanced” encounter will not require in-combat healing to survive.

Which means:

a)Those parts of a cleric’s design which are devoted to healing are not needed by the basic game design; those parts which aren’t are, by definition, secondary. That is, if we want to say a cleric is “Half healing, half melee”, then, if the healing isn’t actually needed to survive a fight, then you’ve got half a fighter when you could have a whole fighter, or a whole wizard, or whatever.


b)Healing without magic is time consuming and limited; your total daily fighting capacity is much less. This is strongly implied by the article, and I guess we’ll know for sure in three days. (Why they’re being so coy when the playtest is public and three days away, I don’t know. Just tell us the actual mechanics you’re using, dammit!) I do not object to this at all; it’s a very good way to distinguish between magical and non magical healing. But… this means that a party with a cleric might be able to complete a particular task or quest in one day while a party without one will not, which means any adventure designed without exact foreknowledge of what the party makeup will be risks being either too easy (you build it for a non-cleric party) or too hard (the party has to battle several times to get to the end goal, which is going to happen at a specific time; if they nap in between, they miss it.)

I should note a pretty good answer to ‘b’ is “Well, then the party better find a clever way to avoid some of those encounters” or “The DM should change the adventure!”, and that’s fine for a lot of cases. It’s problematic in any kind of structured play, where you don’t want DM subjectivity giving one group an easy out because he like their cunning plan, while another DM thinks their cunning plan is Baldric-quality and doesn’t let it work.

Further, it’s emblematic of a common thread I see running through a lot of Mike’s pronouncements, the idea that the game will run the same no matter what rules modules you’re using, and, frankly, given how smart Mike is, and what a good designer he is (and those two statements were not sarcasm, irony, or any such thing; I mean them absolutely and sincerely), I’m really finding it hard to understand how he can think this. He knows, he knows very, very, well, how much subtle changes to rules change how the game is played. A feat, power, skill, or spell can become overpowered, or useless, based on which modules might be used. Changing how often characters can recover resources changes how much they can do in an in-game day, which changes how the DM has to structure events. Even in a sandbox game with as much player freedom as possible, the amount of “stuff” a character can do before needing to turn in for the night greatly impacts how you design the sandbox, how far you can expect players to explore, how clever they need to be to exceed the expected limits. In a more structure adventure, it becomes even more important to have solid expectations of what you can do.

FantasyCraft has options and dials you can set for an adventure, or for a campaign, and these have a mechanical impact that ripples through the system. Dials that make things easier for players increase the resources the GM has to build encounters, and vice-versa. I’ve not seen a hint that 5e intends to do this, though it’s so early in the process I might be making false assumptions. Nonetheless, the message from Mike’s posts is “Everyone gets to play the D&D they want to play, all at the same time, and it all works!” is the design goal — and I frankly can’t see that being possible. A modular system is great, but then you need to have tools to adjust and tweak each encounter, NPC, etc, to be balanced with the modules you’re using — not at all impossible, but counter to the “Sit down, open the box, and just PLAY!, dammit!” design goal.

I’ll probably have a lot to say in three days…which means I’ll get around to saying it in thirty or forty.

Comments on 5e: The Grid

Again, this is simply a repost of an off-the-cuff rant to a blog entry at WOTC. Read it first, or this replay makes no sense.

An interesting fantasy, and I don’t mean the kind with elves. Now, let’s discuss how gridless combat really works, based on 34 years of actual play experience.

DM: The orcs charge around the corner! One attacks you, the others charge by to get the wizard!

Fighter: Like hell, I’m going to stop one with my axe!

DM: You can’t, they’re too far from you.

Fighter: You said this was a 10 foot corridor. My axe is five feet long. There’s no way I can’t get a swing at one of them!

DM: Sigh, fine. Uhm… the one on the right or on the left?

Fighter: I dunno, does it matter? Right. I roll a 19, I’m going to guess that hits, and, crap, 4 damage.

DM: OK, one of the orcs is wounded, they attack the wizard now.

Wizard: Can I cast a spell before they get here?

DM: Uhm… let’s see… they have a move of 6.. and you said you were “hanging back”… how far back, exactly, were you hanging?

Wizard (after doing some quick math in his head): Uhm… forty feet.

DM (eying him suspiciously): Well, then I guess you can get off a spell…

Wizard: Cool, I cast magic missile!

DM: At which orc?

Wizard: Uh… the wounded one. I roll…a 2. Smeg.

DM: OK, he’s still up.

Thief: I backstab him!

DM: You can’t.

Thief: Why?

DM: Because the wounded one is on the left and you’re sneaking in the shadows on the right.

Thief: Nuh-uh! I crossed over behind the wizard while he was casting. So I’m on the right.

DM: But the you’re in front of him, not behind him. You can’t backstab from the front. That’s why it’s a backstab.

Thief: Wait, wouldn’t he have to turn to look at the wizard who just magic missiled him?

Fighter: Hey, do I get a turn here? I’m going to charge the one that’s wounded. Death to the orcs!

DM: OK, as you turn to charge, the other orc, the one you’ve all been ignoring, attacks you from behind. +4 to attack! He hits, 12 damage!

Fighter: No way, I’d have backed away carefully and not let him do that!

DM: You’re going to back away carefully AND charge?

Fighter: I’m fourth level! Now, where’s the orc I’m trying to kill?

DM: He’s on the right… no… wait… I marked down the damage on two different orcs… uhm… which one was hit by the magic missile again?

And so it goes, in the REAL world. This is why I try to avoid any RPG without a tactical map (My systems of choice are GURPS, Hero, and D&D 3.x/PF/4e), and why when my group plays WOD or M&M, we *add* a tactical map, just so we always know where everyone is.

To elaborate: If there’s any possibility of conflict, confusion, or questions about “Can X do Y before A can do B?”, I really want the positions of characters marked as clearly as possible. The fact is, people imagine scenes differently, and fill in details based on their own expectations and assumptions which might not be shared by the entire group. Even something as simple as a barroom conversation turning into a barroom brawl can drag the game to a crawl when you try to establish where everyone was when the gameplay shifted from “roleplaying general milling around the area” to “Get to drawing, Screen Monkey!” (In other words, “We are about to engage in combat, oh respected Game Master. Please, draw us a tactical map of the region, so we may best engage in the enemy with full knowledge of our surroundings and his position.”)

“Theater Of The Mind” (Isn’t that White Wolf’s trademarked line of “Stand around in black clothes playing rock-paper-scissors” games?) works best if you’re into “telling a story”. It’s much less useful if you want to “find out what happens”, which is my preferred style of play. Contrary to what a lot of people like to assume or imply, disputes between the DM and players over the positioning of monsters, the relationship of various entities in space and time (and relative dimensions in space), whether or not you were standing in the area of the fireball, etc, are not necessarily due to immaturity, munchkinism, or competitiveness, but simply that people all have their own unique internal maps of the world, and in a complex conflict — anything worth playing out by the rules, as opposed to just saying, “Look, these guys aren’t remotely a threat, you have them at your mercy inside of 5 seconds” — you will have far too many factors to easily keep straight. It’s very easy for one player to not have heard another player say he’s moving across the room, thus placing him in the path of the first player’s lightning bolt, shotgun blast, or grenade. If one hobgoblin is knocked prone, it’s easy to say, “I attack the one on the ground”, but if there’s two of them, you need some other qualifier (“Uhm… the one on the ground who looks more wounded…”) and it quickly scales up from there. Within a player’s mind, often consumed with trying to juggle awareness of what everyone else is doing (pretty much the same, in a major battle, as trying to play mental chess), the distinction between “I plan to walk over there” and “I told the DM I walked over there” is easy to blur; likewise, “I run next to the orc” might imply a completely different orc to the DM and to you, and so on. The potential for conflict and confusion is high. I mean, as my players will be happy to attest, even with the aid of miniatures and a grid, I often mix up which figure has the Ongoing 5 (save ends) and which is Dazed Until The End Of The Next Turn. Now, you might reply, “Well, that’s what happens when you’ve got all those rules and conditions and powers. Keep things simple!” Just one problem — simple is boring. Calling one sack of hit point an “orc” and another sack of hit points with exactly the same combat abilities, except one spot higher on the attack chart, a “hobgoblin” is boring, boring, boring. I like my monsters and NPCs to have the same array of potential abilities as the PCs.

Obviously, if 5e is going to try to make the “one hour adventure” a design goal — and they are — they’re going to default to very simple monsters and very basic fights and tactics, leaving anything more complex than “I swing!” up to the judgment of the DM, which basically means pixelbitching until you find out what he expects you to do. I hope that the initial rules include grid based combat as a “core module”, though. If I have to wait six months or a year to get a combat system that is more than “Hey, everyone, let’s make up a fun story about how we killed some orcs”, that’s six months to a year I won’t be playing D&D, which kind of makes the idea of “unifying the base” an abject failure. So, here’s hoping they don’t do that.


Beginning: Comments On 5E

Race, Class, Theme, Background

Well, since a lot of my writing time (i.e, time when code is compiling, tests are running, etc) is being taken up with occasional rants on the 5e boards, it seems to me that I could kill two birds with one stone (I took Weapons Focus (Sling), Weapon Specialization (Sling), Improved Critical (Sling), Manyshot, Avian Hunter, Improved Avian Hunter, and have a +2 Birdbane Sling and Bracers of Archery…er…Slingery…Slinging…whatever) and copy and paste some of them here, thus adding to illusion that this site has “updates” and “content”, which, in turn, helps create the illusion there are also “readers”. I feel a lot like Jeremy in Yellow Submarine, creating my own world for my own consumption. Solipsists of the world, unite!

OK, Background on Backgrounds

First, you need to read this post. (http://community.wizards.com/dndnext/blog/2012/04/06/beyond_class_and_race )Really. Nothing below is going to make sense without you doing so. “Who’s Pete?” you’ll ask. “Who’s Laura?”

So, having read that, here’s my initial reply to, as copied when I wrote it, meaning, even more typos than usual. (Hm… if over 50% of my posts are prefaced with “more typos than usual”, and it sometimes seems as if they are, doesn’t that de facto make them contain “the usual number of typos”, and my “edited” posts have “fewer typos than usual”?)

So… basically, all you’re doing is providing a set of pre-chosen selections of skills/feats/powers from a larger set, and calling them “themes” and “backgrounds”? The reason this couldn’t be done in 3e, 3.5, and 4e was… ? (Hell, it WAS done, in all of them, it just didn’t get beyond first level in most cases.)

I am not seeing a whole lot of advantage here. Someone who picks a “theme” still had to read through all the feat descriptions to learn what they do, comparing one theme to another theme and so on. As characters level up, they’re going to discover they don’t like the way some part of their background/theme works and want to change it, so, really, you’re basically saying, “Here, pick this pre-defined list of stuff that goes to 20th level, except that, by third level, you’ll be ignoring it completely.”

The only reason “Pick race, pick class, boom, done” worked in the pre-3e days was that there were no other options; people who wanted detailed characters who changed as they grew played Rolemaster, GURPS, Hero, etc. If you have a game that has enough feats and options to satisfy the “Lauras” of the world, “Pete” is going to realize he’s getting the shaft. He won’t be happy with the boredom of not having any choices to make as he levels up, because the designer made them for him. On the other hand, if themes/backgrounds are the only way to get certain options (“You can’t have Thieves’ Cant unless you take the Thief theme, period.”), then people will be rightfully pissed, because that basically makes it impossible to mix-and-match, so you’re left waiting for WOTC to release the “Sort of a fighter but he can speak Thieves’ Cant” theme.

Try to remember that the 1980s didn’t happen in a vacuum, that everything occurs in a context. Just because people paid 400.00 for a machine that only played “Pong” in 1975, and it was a lot of fun THEN, doesn’t mean you can market that same machine today and say “Hey! It was fun in 1975, right? So it’s still going to be fun now!”

3e finally caught D&D up to the rest of the gaming world. 4e had some genuine innovations and actually advanced the state of the art in many ways. Both had strengths and weaknesses that are well documented. Build on their strengths and correct their weaknesses. Prior to 3e, though, D&D hobbled through the 1980s and 1990s with a design philosophy stuck in 1975. 5e needs to be a game for 2012, 2013, and beyond, not a nostalgia trip.

In Which We Explain Further

So. Here’s a longer explanation. Basically, I think what WOTC wants is for D&D to be a beer& pretzels pick up game. They envision this:

Bob: Hey, gang! We’ve got about three hours. Do we want to play Settlers of Cataan or D&D?

Gang: D&D!

Bob: Great! Everyone, pick a race card, a class card, a theme card, and a background card, and fill in your character’s name. All done? Great! Here’s the adventure, “The Cryptic Crypt Of The Crypt King”. The box set comes with 10 adventures, and there’s lots more for sale for only 5.99! I’ll be the DM!

Gang: Whee! Let’s play!

And, I ought to be clear: This isn’t a bad concept for a game. Indeed, it’s a good concept. So good, it’s been done by lots of successful games: Heroquest, for example. Talisman. Heroscape, to some extent. Dungeon. Descent. Loads I probably haven’t heard of.

It’s probably a great idea to use iconic D&D characters, monsters, settings, and terms, too. There’s tremendous value tied up in the D&D IP. Games of this type have a large market and pursuing that market is something any smart company should do, if they think they have a niche and it won’t be seen as a “me too” product hastily rushed to market (cough Spellfire cough).

But it’s not D&D the RPG, and 5e is supposed to be the “unite the tribes” edition of D&D.

So, What’s Wrong With Themes, Etc?

Absolutely nothing. I love them in 4e; they should have been part of the core. I love Pathfinders “archetypes”, which serve a similar role, changing aspects of how the character acts, removing some abilities and granting others. Backgrounds, which help better shape a character’s origin, and give them greater ties to the world and/or minor skills from their upbringing which either enhance their primary role or give them useful tricks you might not expect, are also good. On the surface, making these things core in 5e is undeniably a good thing.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that WOTC seems to see think that the main problem with D&D is that it takes too long to make a character, that there’s too many choices, and that if you could just “start playing”, it would be great. What’s wrong with that?

First, you don’t have an awful lot of choices at first level, even in modern editions, unless a DM stupidly hands someone every supplement ever made and says “Pick a class”. For a first timer, the core classes and races ought to be enough.

Second, if one of the goals of “themes” is to collect useful choices that work together well into a bundle, this has been done since 3e; there’s always been “starting packages”.

Third, and this is really the issue here, D&D isn’t about making a character to start the game. It’s about advancing a character. It’s about playing his journey from “zero to hero”. It’s about taking him in unexpected directions as the game unfolds, both in terms of personality and game mechanics. Each level up is a chance to learn some new skills, choose new powers or spells, pick a feat, swap out old abilities, and so on, reflecting what’s happened to the character in the past couple of games.

Saying “Here’s your race, here’s your class, here’s your theme, boom, done!” works if you want a pickup game and just want to jump in. However, it’s contrary to the absolute heart of D&D, and that is the character’s ongoing story. D&D’s revolutionary idea, the concept that created the entire genre of role playing games, wasn’t “one figure equals one man”, or the integration of magic and monsters into tabletop wargaming, it was the idea of a continuing character who exists from one game to the next, growing in power and ability, trailing a story behind him. (And, importantly, not following a story laid out in front of him!)

Rules concepts like background (social skills, job skills, training, initial position in the world, cultural traits, minor bonuses and penalties from one’s upbringing and schooling and childhood and family), and themes (specializations, unique abilities, variant talents, unusual paths, esoteric powers) are great. They add tremendously to the class-based system, and help avoid the problem of drawing all character options from a single resource pool. However, and this is crucial, they must be bolt-ons to a core class system that is itself extremely flexible and capable of expressing a wide variety of character concepts and ideas within a single class. The game design, as a whole, needs to be centered around the campaign, around the ongoing adventures of the characters and their growth and progression — not on isolated adventures designed to be begun and finished in a single evening, with no continuity from one to the next, and no character growth.

But That’s Not What They’re Saying!

At this point, someone’s getting ready to point out that WOTC isn’t saying “No more campaigns” and that they’re talking about long term play, with themes offering pre-selected choices at each level, yadda yadda. Ah, but here’s the thing. The only time “too many choices” ever matter is at the moment of character creation, and then, only for very new players. If a player is intrigued enough to stay beyond a game or two, he’ll learn the rules, and want to make his own choices. The utility value of a theme, as a means of simplifying the game, diminishes rapidly with level. (This is not the same as the utility value of a theme as something which offers “out of the box” abilities or unique specializations or skills.) So, there’s a problem here. The “theme” player, if he just lets the theme run its course, is less involved in his character, and in the game, than the player who actively selects their abilities each level. He is disenfranchised, cut off from most of the game’s options, and each mechanic that allows him to ignore a theme pick and choose a non-theme pick undercuts the concept of the theme itself. Why bother with  20 level theme, if no one’s going to pay too much attention to it past fifth level? Of course, there’s nothing that says a theme has to make every choice; a theme could only come into play every four levels, or whatever, but, again, this goes against the idea of “simplifying” choices.

Of course, we’re at a very early design stage in 5e. It’s hard to say what the final form of “themes” or “backgrounds” will be. WOTC is doing 5e right, in the sense that we (the customers) are being shown the design in progress, along with the reasoning for it, instead of being told “Our professional funologists have determined that you’re not having fun. Our new game increases your fun by 78.6%. Play our new game. Have fun, Citizens. Serve the Computer. The Computer is your friend, unless you’re a commie mutant traitor.”, which was basically the 4e marketing pitch. The main test balloon WOTC is floating now, across several different columns/blogs, is “We’re thinking D&D ought to be a casual pickup game, not a long-term campaign game.” It’s time to start tossing some +5 flaming keen javelins at that balloon.

D&D 5E

Well, as everyone probably knows by now, this site not exactly being known for cutting edge news or steady updates (I’ve got a good excuse for not posting much this past month, namely, I’ve been taking care of my sick mother playing SWTOR.. anyone on the Ebon Hawk server? I’ve got a BH 28 and a JK 4), Wizards Of The Coast has announced development on D&D Fifth Edition, with rules previews coming at D&D Experience which is, I think, in January or February, and an open playtest starting in Spring 2012 (the Mayans predicted this), and probably a 2013 release, though there isn’t an official date set. Some are figuring 2014, to coincide with the game’s 40th anniversary, but that would mean two and a half years of limbo sales, since people won’t want to “invest” in 4e with a “new” edition on the horizon… unless WOTC spends the next two years or so selling “beta” releases of the 5e rules, constantly updated with new material, until the “final release” in 2014, which would be an interesting marketing strategy, and by “interesting”, I mean “I think it’s amazingly stupid, which means, it will probably work perfectly”.

As for what that means for this site… I don’t know. I’ve mostly been producing 4e materials, because it’s easy to do. I’m still passionate about Earth Delta, having had some more monster ideas this weekend. This site has always been run on the basis of “Whatever I feel like writing about at the time”. My 4e campaign is winding down, and it looks like I’ll be using True 20 for my next game, since I’ve failed to sell my players on GURPS. (They wanted to stick in the D20 world, and D20 Modern is not that great, having used it for a long campaign, and there’s no true “Pathfinder Modern” out there, and Spycraft gives me a headache, and that’s saying something. )

So, really, in terms of new rules and crunch, I’m not sure what I’m likely to be inspired to work on. I’ll probably do more review/walkthroughs, as they seem more popular, anyway, and I have no shortage of material to work with.

Reskinning vs. Renaming

Sort of an amplification of my earlier post, here’s an example of how I typically “reskin” a monster. This is an extremely simplistic reskin, and could actually use a bit more tweaking, but I wanted to use a “real world” example, not something I made up explicitly for this purpose. The original monster is on the right; the reskinned monster on the left. Even something as mildly changed as this cannot be done with the online “monster builder” tool. (Hell, I can’t even bring the damage in line with MM3 standards!)

How To Turn A Kuo Toa Into A Hobgoblin

This Is Reskinning

As you can see — I added in a trait to make the “It’s a hobgoblin in a diving suit!” idea mechanically relevant, not just fluff; I added in the hobgoblin racial ability; I changed the damage and attacks to be in-line with the new standards; I changed the language and added a skill; and I edited the name throughout. Changes of this nature are the bare minimum of what I’d expect from a tool which allows you to “reskin” monsters.

The New 4e “Monster Builder”: WTF?

I mean, the new “Monster Builder”. Which doesn’t build monsters. Which doesn’t do ANYTHING, really. You can change the name of the monster and the name of the powers, and that’s IT? When you change the monster name, it doesn’t even propagate to the rest of the text? So what’s the point?

This is about on par with sending the subscribers a $0.99 ball point pen, and telling them they can print out a stat block and then scribble changes on it.

“Insult” or “Direct Slap In The Face” doesn’t begin to cover it.

I’d heard it was bad, I’d been in some threads on it on RPG.net, so I can’t feign total ignorance of what to expect, but I figured (OK, hoped) people were using it wrong or I was misinterpreting what they were saying or something, and I didn’t want to post a rant on the “official” forums until I’d had a chance to play with it myself. I really can’t imagine that WOTC would have the utter gall — or lack of sense of shame — to publish something this utterly and completely useless and display it for paying customers. The first BETA of the old Monster Builder was a hundred times more useful than this.

WTF, Wizards? I mean, seriously, WTF? You know, companies like Blizzard (you may have heard of them… they make some kind of fantasy computer game that is, I hear, pretty popular) have a “We ship when it’s ready” policy, and while there’s a good bit of whining and wailing whenever a delay is announced, there’s a lot less of it once the product hits the streets, and most people have come to rightfully expect that they’ll get a quality game right out of the box, even if it’s late, and that works a whole lot better than “Ship and Patch” (Vanguard, oh, Vanguard, you could have been amazing..). If you don’t have a monster builder worth shipping, then, don’t ship it. Just say, “Look. We respect you as customers and we won’t insult you by presenting this to you as anything other than an interface mockup we threw together in about a day.” (Because, really, that’s what it is — I started writing a “Monster Builder” in C#, and in one day, it had the ability to edit a name and to apply the core formulas to AC, Hit Points, etc, based on changing level. Well, I lie, because I could also change the monster’s role and see the changes propagate through the hit points, etc. Oh, and I could change size, type, and origin. And edit keywords, so if I wanted a new origin, say, “Abyssal”, I could add it, and it would show up in the “Origin” dropdown. ONE DAY, Wizards. That took one programmer ONE DAY.)

(Hell, even sliding the level seems broken… the Aboleth lasher has “2d8+8 damage (4d+8 against a dazed target)”, and while the first value changes, the second does not. So the one function it has, that of changing level, still requires you to manually edit some values.)

Random WIP: Hyperspace

Honestly, this is sort of being posted because I don’t like long stretches of “No posting”, not because I genuinely think it’s likely to be of interest to anyone. (Oh, BTW, the next stage of the Battlelords walkthrough is almost ready; I need to decide if I want to split it into three parts or charge ahead and finish it now.)

Anyway, work on Stellar Battles proceeds in fits and starts; I’m still having trouble finding the right tone for it, in terms of rules. On the one hand, I’ve really been wanting to do the Ultimate Kick Ass Space Opera Laser Sword Five Mile Long Starship Pew Pew Pew Lasers Barfights And Smugglers And Ancient Mystic Powers And Forgotten Alien Artifacts science fiction game for a long time.  A very long time. As in, honestly, it was the very first thing I tried to design back when I was 14 and one way or another it’s been in the back of my mind for a while. I know I want race/class/level, because while I love freeform systems for a lot of reasons, I honestly find that I prefer RCL designs because they let me better define the core archetypes for a game while still (if using more modern variants, i.e, OGL-based) allowing for the kind of fine-tuned character control I like. I’m definitely not interested in doing a new game w/the 4e engine, not because I don’t like the system, but because I’d rather focus all my 4e efforts on Earth Delta.

This leaves me pulled in two directions.

One, go very much mid/late 1970s, esp. pulling from the “unofficial” stuff and the things Gary Gygax (sometimes with good reason, sometimes without) hated, and that’s Classes Galore… lots and lots of classes, most with some kind of simple “At this level, the blah can blah 1/day” powers to liven them up — see, well, classic Arduin, and no real skills/feats/goodies/ whatever, just boolean proficiencies or class specific powers laid out in varying levels of detail (ranging from simple notes bound to cause arguments to pages of niggling detail bound to cause arguments).

Two, give in to my passions and use a more “modern” system, either an OGL/Pathfinder variant or FantasyCraft, the latter being a system I really like for its plethora of crunchy bits and how it weds the kind of meta-gaming systems you normally find only in wussy free form commie hippie “story telling” games with the kind of hard tactical crunch I find endlessly appealing.

Three, screw it all, make up my own core rules that will draw from many strains of inspiration but not be particularly “plug and play” compatible with anything else. This is another thing I keep waffling over. I have argued, many many times, that the world doesn’t need one more way to kill an orc. And I stand by that. At the same time, I like creating systems for their own sake, knowing that they’re unnecessary and redundant. There’s a few mechanics I really like (non-Boolean success systems, for one) that aren’t a common part of the core D20 family. (By “non-Boolean”, I mean “multiple successes”, where how well you do matters. Hitting someone by 10 points does more damage than hitting him by 1 point. Tasks such as picking a lock require accumulating successes over time. The best known systems that use this mechanic, though, are dice pool systems which tend to fail in terms of granularity.)

Putting it more plainly, since I get no money, and very little in the way of fame or even feedback, for these kinds of projects, the only thing that drives me is passion, and if I don’t have passion for a particular style, it doesn’t get done. While I’m willing to play almost any game, except that which must not be named, when it comes to either running games or designing games, I like high granularity and high levels of mechanical character differentiation. That last one is important and it’s what tends to keep me out of the “Old School Renaissance” except as a source of ideas I can rip off inspiration. (It also kept me very annoyed at 4e until the first wave of “Power” splatbooks and Dragon articles.) I don’t care if one 4th level Fighter is run as an axe-wielding illiterate barbarian and another 4th level Fighter is run as a gallant Knight — if, when the dice hit the table, they are mechanically identical, then, for me, the system doesn’t work. The more generic the mechanics, the less interest the game holds for me.

However, the title of this topic was “Hyperspace”, was it not? It was! I’ve been dancing around the system issue by focusing on the setting, which is going to be, like most of the settings I prefer, something mostly drawn in big, bold, colorful strokes with unending room for GM improvisation and expansion. However, it does need some “rules of physics”, both literally and figuratively, and if you’re doing a grand space opera setting, you need to set out how faster than light travel works, as this is going to shape the game universe more than any other decision. It will influence politics, economics, and character backgrounds in all sorts of ways. There is no disconnect between “swashbuckling action” and “world building” — if the universe in which you’re buckling your swash has no sense of verisimilitude to it, you are not Errol Flynn innnn spaaaaaaaace… you are a four year old running around a living room, waving a plastic sword and going “I’m a piwate!”.

Thus, the first draft of the hyperspace rules.

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The Saga Of Heinrich

I’m working on a much longer article, one of my walkthrough-review thingies, though not my long-promised Alma Mater one (coming soon!), but I wanted to share this little tidbit. In Friday’s 4e game, the Big Fight consisted of the usual — Helena Bonham Carter as “Insane flame wielding sorceress”, two demons with tridents that spent most of their time stabbing at the fighter  (which is her job) or belching poison gas,  and a swarm of high-level minions since the whole plot involved bringing in a small, elite, army, and while minions are easy fodder for level-appropriate PCs, a guy with an AC of 27 is going to take down a LOT of first to fourth level city guard types before he’s killed.

Anyway, 7 of 8 minions were dead by round 2, though to my surprise, most of them survived to act at least once. Then something extraordinary happened. Everyone was bound and determined to take out the villainess, who had been teleported into a swarm of melee types thanks to  the PC chaos mage rolling a natural 1, and I really have to wonder how the fight might have gone if she’d been able to stay back out of reach for a few more rounds, but as Archie Bunker might say, that’s not German to the conversation.

The one last minion (who has been missed by a few area attacks) was standing back, and kept plinking with his crossbow. And hitting. For whatever reason, he was ignored for round after round, and each time, managed to hit a PC from distance, doing 8 points each time… nothing spectacular at 11th level, but more effecting than the god damn (irony sort of intended) mezzodemons who managed to roll 2s and 3s with remarkable consistency.. I think both  of them rolled natural ‘1’s in their first round of combat, and one spent most of the combat blind and hoping his poison breath recharged.

Several of the players had commented on how lucky that minion was, and without really planning on it or intending to, when his turn came up, I said something like, “Well, it’s worked so far… Heinrich is going to fire on the druid…”

And, bingo. He was no longer a minion. He had a name, and that meant he was destined for greater things. The druid decided to go into melee with him, and managed to miss with her first attack, giving them time to parley and work out a bit of respect. Turns out he’d been trained in the borderlands of the nation he was from, so he’d spent some time dealing with elves (in my universe, elves occupy the same trope space as Native Americans do in westerns… except they talk like trailer park rednecks[1] and settle internal disputes like Klingons). When he realized that the demons and his commanding officer were dead, he surrendered. And of course, with a name like Heinrich and wielding a pike, he had to have a Goot Cherman Achsent. With a ‘1’ on his Bluff check (“I do not know anything about the invasion plans, for I am a lowly foot soldier and was not told such information”, said in a flat, dull, monontone, obviously repeating a memorized speech), I suspect there will be some Interrogation next.

He’s got stats now. He has made that rarest of all transitions; he has survived minionhood. He still might not survive the PCs, but at least he can take more than a hit point of damage. He’ll probably end up part of the Watch at the player’s home fortress, or maybe in the city they’re currently in, given that it’s having a bit of an open enrollment session at the moment…

So why am I posting this? Because it’s one of the Cool Things About Gaming, the thing that brings me back to the tabletop again and again and again, as a DM and as a player — the allure of the unexpected. In online games, the unexpected is expected — there’s hard-coded lists of all possible events, and even the lowest probabilities occur over and over again, mostly because you’ll keep farming that boss until he drops the uber-item you want, and you know there’s exactly a 1.54 percent chance of him doing so each time. Only in a tabletop game with a human gamemaster can you truly interact with a world in whatever way you choose, and have the world respond as it should. That’s why it saddens me that a major focus of WOTCs apparent design and marketing efforts are on trying to make tabletop games into limited, quick-to-play and quick-to-finish encounters, disdaining worldbuilding, character depth, improvisation, and fun for straightforward “Enter the dungeon here, kill these monsters, exist here, collect your treasure at the gift shop.” If that’s what you want, WoW does it better. You can’t compete with an online game for get in, kill monsters, log out, play. You can’t. You have to focus on what’s different  about tabletop games, not what’s the same, only slower paced and with no cool particle effects. However, Hasbro is almost certainly looking at the money WoW makes and the money D&D makes and is saying “Hey, they’ve got elves, you’ve got elves, why are they making more money? Elves is elves, right?”

[1]So D&D 4e has nerfed languages. Bah! There’s still accents.

Eladrin Accent:”Surely you do not intend to attack me with that weapon. Put it down, and I might forget your impudence!”

Elvish Accent:”Y’all better think twice afore you try to use that thar pig-sticker on me, less’n you want it shoved up your ass, sideways.”

Drow Accent:”Oh, like, wow, that longsword is sooooo last century. If you don’t, y’know, drop it, I am going to freak. Totally.”