Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Giving Credit

I appreciate that Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition books give credit to artists on each page. It was sometimes hard to ascertain, prior to 4e, which artist was responsible for an illustration. I like to look at fantasy art and enjoy finding new artists.

Some artists' styles appeal to me and others don't. It isn't exactly random but I'd have a hard time describing the arcane rules that indicate what I will or will not like. My tastes are unique to me.

I like the Time Bender paragon path illustration by Jim Nelson (page 96, Player's Handbook 3). The psion class aspects don't speak to me. I would prefer art without crystals and a halo but the subject matter can't hide the core elements of Jim's style that grab my attention.

D&D 3rd edition books sometimes show the artist name (page 85, Player's Handbook v.3.5) and sometimes do not (page 150). Most of the time, such as Lars Grant-West, you can discern the artist. When you can't figure it out, those are the times when it can be really frustrating. First look for artist initials within the art and then turn to the credits (usually page 2) where you hope that only one artist in that book has those initials.

The Basic Set claims illustrations only by Larry Elmore and Jeff Easley. Usually it's easy to tell them apart until you find a dwarf (page 45) signed "E". I'm pretty sure that's E for Elmore. I prefer to avoid guessing games.

Many thanks to Wizards of the Coast for making my life easy by clearly indicating the artist name on each page. Please continue this tradition when designing page layouts for 5th edition's D&D Next books.

-Aaron

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Magical Success Story

I was living on a cattle ranch during the summer of 1992. From sunup to sundown we irrigated the fields, worked the cows, rode horses, and did manual labor. The truth is, at the time, I spent all my summers on the ranch but that particular year was slightly different. Every evening during that summer, seven nights a week, I played a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay game with two friends who had joined me at the ranch. Kevin Free and I played our wood elf characters under the watchful eye of Chad Wyman (the gamemaster).

I choose to relate this story because that campaign was the first time I experienced a magic item in a fantasy roleplaying game which felt truly magical. Chad gave a free magic item to each character at the start of the game. The elf wizard received a magic sword and the elf targeteer had a mithril (+1) breastplate. We didn't even know what the sword could do but assumed it was a generic +l equivalent item. Experienced Warhammer players might also notice that we started the game with a free advancement through our random basic career and into an advanced career (outlaw to targeteer and wizard's apprentice to wizard, level 1).

Casting battle magic spells in combat is very difficult in the Warhammer game. While casting a spell, the wizard "may do nothing else during that combat round (including move), and is considered to be prone for the purposes of attacks (ie, is hit automatically and suffers double damage)." The spell is interrupted if someone "wallops" the magician and the magic points required to cast the spell are wasted. These details are by way of explanation to say that the wizard was forced to fight in melee with the magic sword. Throughout that first battle, Chad evocatively described a distant sound of hammer on anvil heard by the wizard (wielding the magic sword). At a pivotal moment in the fight, glowing blue runes flashed into existence (etched along the sharpened blade edge) on the sword and turned a miss into a strike. The wizard struck down the key enemy in that combat. The fatal blow was landed, the blue runes faded, and the wizard no longer heard the faint hammering noise. In future battles, each time the cutting runes were needed to land a blow they flashed with a bluish light and the wizard heard the crystal clear ring of a single hammer strike as if from a forge.

The story of the wizard's runesword doesn't end there. Two additional powers were unlocked from the sword. It could be a flame attack sword (flaming with glowing red runes inscribed along the spine of the blade) or a bane weapon against Chaos creatures (with a golden glowing hammer carved into the blade just above the hilt and guard). Chad created a renewed sense of wonder and awe each time a new ability was unlocked from the sword. He did this with effect, language, and story. The first time they were used the flame runes hurt like hell, the wizard couldn't drop the sword until the runes deactivated, and they permanently burned a brand (of a hammer) into the palm of the wizard's delicate hands. The GM was a master storyteller at describing the scenes involving the sword's power and in foreshadowing that something magical was about to happen. While the anti-Chaos rune was active there was a painfully loud and consistent drumbeat of hammer on anvil heard in the wizard's head. It was so thunderous, in fact, that it cost the wizard in physical stamina.

We never considered trading the magic sword around like a commodity to the character that had the highest weapon skill attack bonus. The magic was mysterious and seemed powerful. Magical abilities of the item were unlocked as part of the ongoing story and tension of the game. There was a visual element to the magic that let you know that something special was happening (and an auditory element as well). Even after the second set of runes was revealed, I never suspected that Chad has saved just enough space on the blade for yet a third power to be revealed later.

The majority of my experience was due to the fact that Chad is a fantastic Dungeon Master. The rules might have helped. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay is a system that relies almost entirely on randomly generated characters. The elf wizard's sword could have been easily generated (page 188) by rolling a 91 or better on D100 for determining how many special abilities the sword had. Then rolling 26-40 Characteristic Gain (plus rolling 01-09 Weapon Skill +10% or 82-84 Weapon Skill 1d3 x +10%), 51-60 Bane Weapon, and 61 Flame Attack.

The rules also feature the following tidbit about magic items.
Using Magical Weapons: Characters who find a magical weapon may not simply pick it up and use it. The weapon has a will of its own, and will not readily accept a new owner. The character must make a successful Will Power test in order to master the weapon - if the test is failed, the weapon will not cooperate, and the character may not use it. Characters who persist in trying to use the weapon will find it will use its abilities to hinder rather than help them.
Is this a good rule for Dungeons & Dragons? I'm not sure but it could have given Chad something to work with as he unveiled new abilities requiring successive Will Power tests by the wizard. The wizard was definitely better equipped to succeed at Will Power tests than the targeteer (who had a pitiful Will Power attribute in the low 30s range on a 01-100% scale).

Magic items present a challenge because you want to capture a certain magical je ne sais quoi but the game rules can't replace the effort and skill of a DM. King Arthur's sword, Excalibur, was intrinsically tied to his story and was bound up in his fate. No one but Mjolnir's owner could even lift it. Famous weapons of myth and legend do seem to possess magical qualities. They are also assumed as part the story of the character wielding them. Sure there is a story of how the magic weapon was first acquired but, unless the weapon itself is the goal of their quest, the acquisition of the item is just background to the hero's ongoing adventures.

A +1 sword in D&D that conveys a +1 to hit on attack rolls and +1 to damage is not magical. It may be powerful, depending on the rules of the game in which it appears, but it doesn't break any laws of nature or normality as would be expected of magic. On the other hand, I can't remember seeing a flaming sword at local SCA event and I've definitely never seen a blade seemingly formed from a shard of the star-filled heavens made solid.

That's magic.

-Aaron

* Note: I played the archer (targeteer) and my best friend played the wizard with the fantastic sword.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Barbarians At The Gates

Going into D&D Next, what is the essence of the barbarian class? I decided to look at this question. Is the barbarian better described as a berserker? Is the barbarian a light infantry class that's constantly on the move and charges around the battlefield? Why is the barbarian one of the three least popular classes over at Wizards.com? After going back to the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Unearthed Arcana book I found that the barbarian class in 4th edition doesn't really look much like it's 1st edition ancestor.

What is a barbarian?

First edition says, "Barbarian characters are adept at the many skills necessary for survival in a hostile wilderness" and "Barbarians are tough and hardy fighters, hardened by the savage lands of their birth".

The 2nd edition Complete Fighter's Handbook says, "This is not the barbarian of history, but the barbarian of fantasy fiction. He's a powerful warrior from a culture on the fringes of civilization."

Second edition revisited the class in the Complete Barbarian's Handbook where it says, "The barbarian fighter's extraordinary stamina and physical skills let him survive in the most punishing environments. He relies on muscle and wits, overcoming hardships with brute force and sheer determination. His weapons are crude, his tactics unsophisticated, but his passion and courage makes him the match of any warrior."

Third edition says, "From the frozen wastes to the north and the hellish jungles of the south come brave, even reckless, warriors. Civilized people call them barbarians or berserkers and suspect them of mayhem, impiety, and atrocities."

Fourth edition says, "Barbarians are savage warriors who deal out powerful blows from their mighty weapons." Because of the new power source, Primal, 4e goes on to add that, "As a barbarian, you have a link to powerful nature spirits and other primal forces bound to the warriors of your tribe by the songs and totems of your legacy. These spirits lend energy to your rages, transforming you into a devastating force on the battlefield."

Hit Points: except for 4th edition, the barbarian usually had the largest hit die (1d12 per level) in the game. In 4e barbarians were a striker class and strikers had less hit points than defenders. The 4e barbarian was the only exception as it was a striker with hit points equal to those of a fighter or paladin (but not greater than those defenders and the barbarian did suffer in that it had fewer healing surges per day).

Armor Class: 1e and 2e barbarians (Complete Fighter's Handbook) were proficient with any armor, however, the 1e barbarian was rewarded with improved dexterity bonus to AC if it did not wear "bulky or fairly bulky" armor. The Complete Barbarian's Handbook version was limited to padded, leather, studded leather, or hide armor. 3e barbarians were limited to light and medium armors. 4e barbarians were similarly permitted cloth, leather, or hide armor. The 4e version lost the ability to use shields (whereas 1st, 2nd, and 3rd edition barbarians were able to use shields).

Weapons: 4e barbarians lost their weapon proficiency in ranged weapons, most notably bows. All other editions gave barbarians proficiency is just about all weapons (other than exotic weapons in 3e).

Overall, 1e barbarians could move faster, climb cliffs and trees, hide in natural surroundings, surprise opponents, have back protection against thief attacks, excel at leaping and springing, detect illusion, detect magic, hit as if they carried magic weapons, and in general detested magic. They also had a few more wilderness skills depending on their environment and background.

The barbarian warrior kit (Complete Fighter's Handbook) had a basic focus on wilderness skills as recommended nonweapon proficiencies. Required weapon proficiencies were battle axe and bastard sword. A free bonus was the endurance proficiency. The Complete Barbarian's Handbook version could move faster and carry a heavier load while still being able to move faster than other encumbered characters. They could fight with two weapons. Also the class regained leaping and springingback protection, and climbing.

A major change was introduced to the barbarian class in 3rd edition. Barbarian rage became the core feature of the class. Previously raging was limited to the berserker kit for the fighter class or within a certain subset of kits for the barbarian class. 3e barbarians also received fast movement (as in 1e/2e), uncanny dodge (similar to back protection in 1e/2e), and damage reduction (at higher levels). Barbarians had more skill points per level than many classes and were given a selection of wilderness skills reminiscent of their previous edition abilities.

With 4th edition, they took a certain style of 3e barbarian (probably the most common style) and made that style the narrowly limited focus of the barbarian class. The class continued the 3e focus on rages and was basically hit things really hard with a really big two-handed melee weapon. This was later broadened so that small characters (halflings & gnomes) could play barbarians. The skill selection continued to reflect a wild lifestyle. You chose a build in Player's Handbook 2, either you charged around the battlefield or you frightened your opponents with your roar of triumph. The attacks often focus on doing a lot of damage or embodying an "animal totem in human skin" (a quote from 2nd edition).

What was once an option (berserk rages) is now the only option. Fans of the 1e/2e barbarian may not have wanted that mandatory change. The original flavor seems to be heavily influenced by Conan, probably too narrowly since Conan might best described as a Fighter/Thief multiclass character. Some people I've talked to suggested that the barbarian class is a very slight variation on the fighter class and is unnecessary. On forums you see comments that "barbarian is a culture, not a class" and berserker should be the class with barbarian as a background (theme) option for characters of all classes.

Barbarians are supposed to be "really strong" but the strength attribute is completely divorced from class (and equally necessary for the fighter class) so it is difficult to differentiate the barbarian class on this aspect. Frenzied rages gave the feeling that barbarians were really strong which helped drive home the point but at a cost. Barbarians are supposed to have incredible stamina. This theme seemed to lessen over time. Barbarians relied less on equipment, presumably because they were from a less technological society.

Bring back into focus the animalistic physicality of the barbarian class.

It would also be fun to see the return of the anti-decadent, quirky, unsophisticated code of honor that was followed by "uncivilized" people. An example code of honor should be an inspiration for roleplaying and not a mechanical requirement in order to play a barbarian. The inconsistent use of a "must be non-lawful" alignment restriction seems incompatible with the barbarian code of honor (though both are from 1st edition) but perhaps barbarians are just a little too pragmatic to always follow their own rules.

-Aaron

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

An Ode To February

In order to cap off the month of February I posted a string of non-traditional fantasy images over at my art stream. When I looked very closely it was sometimes hard to determine which images fell on each side of the issue. Even the same iconic character, Regdar, is depicted inconsistently when he is illustrated by different artists. Does Wizards of the Coast provide diverse art? Starting with at least 3rd edition, it would seem so. A lot might depend on how specific does Wizards R&D get in their art orders versus how much is determined by the illustrator.

It was pretty easy, just in the two Player's Handbooks (3e and 4e), to find a wide variety of characters depicted.

I saw a few comments comparing Paizo with WotC. I can't speak to that but what I did learn is that I prefer visual references of characters in chainmail (see below).


-Aaron

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Gain 30 Levels In Only 15 Minutes A Day

Rodney Thompson posted a gem in his Rule-of-Three answers today. What is Wizards of the Coast going to do for the 10-minute work day? Unclear. However, the level of understanding brought to the issue was refreshing. The 15-minute day is a problem that sits somewhere between the rules as written, the Dungeon Master, and the players.

If you don't use published adventures then the "adventure design issue" falls squarely on the shoulders of the DM. I've played in games where the screen jockey was either unwilling or incapable of throwing more than one combat encounter at the characters per in-game day. Perhaps the pacing of their story required such singular fights or they envisioned the only worthwhile battle as a giant set piece. Either way, it was very difficult to challenge the adventuring party in 4th edition if you didn't realize the gulf in power between characters facing strategic resource management and those players who acted according to the understanding of one-fight-per-day.

Traditional spells, prior to 4th edition's power system, in D&D varied wildly in power scale even at the same spell level. Every vancian spell is a daily power though maybe you can memorize it more than once. On top of obvious power differentials between daily powers and the rest, 4e also added magic item daily powers.

Short adventuring days were surely a potential problem in previous editions. Some classes could go all day while others wanted to rest as soon as they had used up their "most" fun abilities. Take the worst case: the wizard was useless as he followed along with his martial buddies after he cast only a single magic missile spell. Certain Dungeons Masters may have gotten used to the idea that one colossal combat per day was the right way to run the game.

Hopefully 5th edition will be able to simultaneously handle both ends of the spectrum through inherent design or clearly delineated optional rules. Perhaps Rodney says it best:
[W]e should be putting the tools in the hands of the DM to create adventures that contain only a single, huge combat encounter to cover the entire day’s worth of adventuring and still provide a satisfying adventure experience.
Because, for some people, that's how they roll!

-Aaron

Follow Your Feats

Feats were a genius idea introduced in Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition. Unfortunately they seem to have lost their way. Introduced in 3e, a feat was "a special feature that either give your character a new capability or improves one he or she already has". Within D&D 4e you find a different tone:
As you advance in level, you gain a number benefits that improve your capabilities. These benefits are called feats. Typically, a feat doesn't give you a new ability, but instead improves something you're already able to do.
I stopped playing AD&D 2nd Edition when I was in high school. My reasoning, at the time, was that you couldn't find enough variety and mechanical (game rules) support to differentiate one fighter from another. In retrospect I don't think I was 100% correct about the game itself but there is at least a speck of truth to the concept. Third edition's feat blew this complaint away. No longer were there very few and limited levers to customize your character. Fourth edition took a step back and feats no longer strongly distinguished one character from another.

Some feats were better for the game than others. Feats like blind-fight (3e) and skill training (4e) helped show a unique history, experience, or training one character had that another didn't. These were meaningful differences between characters within a given class that combined story with flavorful rules.

I'm biased against feats that impact numbers without representing any difference between characters. No one looks across the table at my use of weapon focus, to do 1d8+5 damage instead of 1d8+4, and says, "wow, we're did your character learn to do that". One, the bonus is relatively small and thus unnoticeable. Two, it carries very little connection to how you're a different flavor of warrior. Three, it gets hidden in the numbers; you don't typically tell anyone your mathematical bonuses while playing in-character. Four, it looks the same as what every character does. Worse than relatively optional feats like weapon focus was the introduction of weapon expertise (and versatile expertise). Hitting is fun. Missing is not fun. Because 4e is so dependent on tactical effects that usually come from hitting your target, the expertise feats were almost mandatory.

You really don't get very many feats between 1st and 8th level. Thus, taking an expertise feat just to be competent against the enemy was the right decision but it was also boring as hell; sort of like paying your taxes. Basically everyone took it or knew they "should" have taken it. I think characters need more feats, one every level, instead of fewer so I am completely opposed to effectively levying a tax of -1 feat on all characters. If game math requires everyone to hit +1 better then just give it to all characters or conversely give -1 defenses to all villains/monsters/enemies.

Feats were less interesting, less flavorful, and less fun in 4th edition. I believe the game designers were chasing a reasonable goal when they (unintentionally) took away the essence of feats. Some feats were a huge problem. Adding rules, through feats, added complexity to game play and created hard to manage rules interactions. Some 3e feats were positively broken. The spiked chain, improved trip specialist could pin an enemy down who couldn't stand up without getting tripped again as a "free" opportunity attack which triggered additional damaging follow-up attacks from the spiked chain.

A few feats had great potential but missed the mark. There weren't really enough energy spells of certain types to play non-fire Elementalists. Some feats exist to differentiate but also act as a gate to "let me play the character I want to play". Third edition's weapon finesse feat let you play a stereotypical variation on the fighter based around dexterity; this was especially useful for halflings. You spent the feat for the "right" to play a halfling fighter which is, not unlike certain 4th edition feats, akin to paying your taxes only this tax only applies to people who aren't adhering close enough to the social engineering in the game. Jump back to elementalism, energy substitution came to the rescue but with a slew of extra taxes: first you had to have spent 5 ranks in the knowledge (arcana) skill, you had to pay a feat to get "any other metamagic feat" as a prerequisite, and you had to spend a feat for energy substitution itself. Sorcerers got to pay a bonus tax: any spell a sorcerer modified with a metamagic feat got increased in casting time to be a full round action. I don't recall any attempts by the sorcerer character class to overshadow the game so I never understood how metamagic feats would break this class without its own little metamagic tax. At this point players should just politely ask the DM, "is it okay if I invent my own spell called Melf's Delayed Blast Acidball" and be done with these game designers.

A feat should carry more of a benefit than just letting you play the basic game. Everyone can hit things and it isn't really important if you use strength or dexterity. The feat you pay for the privilege of using reasonable alternate stats should also come with a benefit. Preferably a benefit that makes a dexterity fighter feel and look different than a strength fighter.

Bring back variety. Bring back flavorful feats. Let our feats heavily define us (not completely but enough to be quite noticeable).

-Aaron

Sunday, February 26, 2012

An Open Letter To Monte Cook

In The Challenge of High Level Play, Monte Cook says:
As a fan of high-level play across the editions, I've never agreed fully with the idea that the game breaks down. I think, however, there's some validity to it, but only if you look at it a certain way. What people are recognizing is that, at a certain level, play changes.
I'd like to clarify. When I say that high-level play breaks down, what I'm saying is that the math of combat and game rules no longer function. I am not focused on how the game "changes". In fact, in some editions the game doesn't really change at all.

Play breaks down for different reasons in different editions. I'm most familiar, off the cuff, with 4th edition. So what happens in 4e? The number of conditional bonuses and temporary modifiers become so numerous at high levels that it takes forever to complete one round of combat.

Further, the ability of characters to whittle away enemy hit points bogs down. 1d8+5 damage at level 2 could slay a monster with 32 hit points (Level 2 Elf Archer, Monster Manual, page 106) in four hits or about five rounds. At level 24, that same dragonborn warlord isn't even close to the same performance against an equal-level artillery threat (Great Flameskull, Monster Manual, page 109). Against the Great Flameskull, the warlord would need a +32 to hit bonus to equal his chance to hit the elf (which is probably 5 or more points higher than the dragonborn actually has). In order to kill the Great Flameskull in the same number of rounds, the hero would need to dish out over 58 hit points with each hit and that's probably double the damage actually done by a level 24 warlord.

Nothing has fundamentally changed but the game got slower and the hero is less able to take down threats than before.

Monte, Legends and Lore reads like you're dismissing other's observations as being in their heads. I may self-define myself as a person who doesn't care for high-level play but many who prefer epic level games also comment that play breaks down. It just doesn't work to lump everyone together and wave away the problems.

-Aaron

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Death Note

D&D Next should meet the needs of the majority of fans. The style of games I prefer often aligns with that of mainstream Dungeons & Dragons players. AFAIK. Only run games through 12th level? Check. Ignored nonhuman level limits despite the fact that they existed for "play balance"? Check. &c. However, there are some times when I just don't know.

Raising The Dead

We don't play with raise dead. My group generally doesn't get together to play adventurers who randomly explore dungeons for treasure without an overarching plot arising in the game. We play to have fun but there has to be story thread woven into the game or it's just a bunch of pointless dice rolling. We're not playing the roleplaying game equivalent of a D&D board game.

Death is a big deal. As 2e notes, "curative and healing spells have no effect on a dead character - he can only be returned to life with a raise dead or resurrection spell (or a device that accomplishes one of these effects)".

In AD&D 2nd edition, raise dead was a 5th-level priest spell and resurrection was a 7th-level priest spell. Who could forget reincarnate (also a 7th-level priest spell) turning your Level 20 Wizard into a raccoon, wild pig, etc. Clerics couldn't cast any of these death defying spells until 9th level and only if their patron granted "major" access to the Sphere of Necromancy.

D&D 3e offered raise dead (a 5th-level cleric spell that cost at least 500 gp in components), reincarnate (a 4th-level druid spell), resurrection (a 7th-level cleric spell that cost at least 500 gp in components), and true resurrection (a 9th-level cleric spell that cost at least 5,000 gp in components). A druid could not revive the dead until 7th level and a cleric couldn't do so until 9th.

Version 3.5 increased the costs of returning to life. Raise dead now cost ten times as much (5,000 gp). Reincarnate now cost 1,000 gp for components. Resurrection (10,000 gp) now cost double what raise dead cost and true resurrection went up by five times its previous price (25,000 gp).

Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition introduced ritual spellcasting separate from your character class. Even my dragonborn warlord, or a fighter, could cast raise dead (an 8th-level restoration ritual) with the proper training (i.e. the ritual caster feat plus, usually, trained in either the arcana skill or the religion skill). Now you could come back from the dead starting at 8th level. The cost of raise dead now depended upon the level of the deceased. For characters up to 10th level, it cost 500 gp to return to life. Characters of levels 11-20 paid 5,000 gp. Epic level characters of 21st level and above paid 50,000 gp (presumably using five astral diamonds as coin to buy the spell components).

The truth is that certain aspects of the game are ridiculously easy to change or "houserule". Did we excise all those spells and abilities from our D&D tabletop games? Absolutely. Frankly, only a small portion of our character's lives were played above the levels where they'd have access to those spells.

Death loses its impact, characters lose their humanity, and the world loses verisimilitude when people don't stay dead. Ghostwalk just doesn't appeal to me or at least I wouldn't use the word "death" to describe what's happening in such a game. When death equals "become a disembodied ghost" then the story line of that event isn't about the loss, of that person, to the world and their friends but, rather, about the loss that the character suffered because they no longer have a body. Inconvenient but not tragic. Raise dead works out to be the same; maybe you lost some points off your Constitution score (2e), maybe you lost a level (3e), or maybe it just cost you a small amount of free cash you had lying around (4e).

Death is part and parcel to the human condition. Appropriately, you don't see death & rebirth trivialized in the world. Nor do you see such a lackadaisical attitude in literature, storytelling, or myths. A game might need a way to rescue characters from a string of unfavorable die rolls. My group relies on a more sophisticated solution than raise dead spells: the Dungeon Master. Computer games don't have this luxury and neither does competitive tournament play. Some D&D players really want death and with that they want (or need) raise dead options. I recognize and admit that my style is at odds with those players. This is one of those times when I don't know how "most" other people play. Are the majority of games using raise dead as no big deal or are most people like our play group?

Tell me your experience.

-Aaron

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Little Diversity Goes A Long Way

Dwarf, elf, hobbit, and man; these races were central to the Fellowship of the Ring in the trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. You could choose to play the same race as Gimli (dwarves), Legolas (elves), Aragorn (humans), or Frodo (hobbits, though technically Dungeons & Dragons calls them halflings).

Around the same time, in AD&D 2nd edition you could also find the gnome and half-elf races in the Player's Handbook. [ed. note: They had also been in the 1st edition release but 2nd edition failed to carry forward the half-orc.] The next edition threw the half-orc race back into the mix of starting options (it had been removed between 1st and 2nd edition AD&D). The v.3.5 edition did not add any new races to the Player's Handbook but races and subraces had been added to D&D in supplement books. The 4th edition Player's Handbook brought a supplemental race (tieflings) into the core, added a reptilian race (dragonborns), split elves in twain (forming elves and eladrins as distinct races), and removed two options (gnomes and half-orcs).

In his regular column, Chris Perkins wonders "how many race options a campaign (not to mention the game) really needs". You can even take a couple polls on the topic. I prefer worlds dominated by humans with dwarves, elves, and other races in secondary roles. I'm no slouch at playing demihumans, I've played many dwarves and even a dragonborn, yet I want prominent humans in the adventuring party of player characters. My groups have tried different experiments with character race.

Take, for example, a game I played in that was run by Ed Matuskey. The setting featured a pseudo-European map. Russian geography and Russian culture defined elves. Halflings were the French. German city-states were made up of dragonborn. England was an intermixing of eladrin (fey) and humans. The Scandinavian region was populated by dwarven pirates (vikings).

There are gameplay problems that arise when one race defines a culture and dominates a geography. The player characters stick out like a freak show if they're in elven Russia when the party consists of a, relatively normal, mix of three humans, a dragonborn, and a halfling. It's immediately obvious to the NPC world you're where you don't belong if no one of non-elven descent should be there. Luke Skywalker and Han Solo were able to disguise Chewbacca as a prisoner going to the detention cells because it was believable that the two humans were stormtroopers. A magical hat of disguise can solve this problem in D&D but in a low magic game, which I prefer, that is an unpalatable solution. Race can be a barrier to subterfuge if the campaign setting is set up in certain ways.

We've also gone to the other end of the spectrum. In another campaign, all characters looked human with slight racial variations. The human character that used half-orc rules had attribute bonuses as if they were a half-orc but she looked like a human with green skin (anime style). Mix in the diversity of mankind and deception was easy. People of all these Dungeons & Dragons campaign nations mingled and NPCs didn't usually give a second thought to superficial differences in appearance. This was a great setting but it did lack in the traditional fantastical feel of the genre (on purpose, mind you). Just be cautious, and know what you're getting yourself into.

So what is the proper role for race and the proper options? Monte Cook ran a poll on the issue of Racial Importance. Players seem to want a variety of races and they want them to be relatively simple. How should the game handle hybrid races (those pesky half-elves and half-orcs). Go ahead an vote for which D&D races you have played.

Characters races and their impact on the game is a large topic. I'd like to focus on ability score bonuses. When a +2 Strength comes with very few races and is key to being a fighter, it is hard to justify a racial theme as "often warriors" without that bonus. Dwarves were supposed to be martial warriors but they get a bonus to Constitution so half-orcs, as a race, are better fighters than dwarves. The Essentials product (D&D 4e) let dwarves swap their +2 Wisdom for +2 Strength instead. I assume this is so that dwarves would make mechanical sense as iconic fighters. It definitely made already powerful dwarves the master defenders. I think this needs a solution.

The simplest solution is expunging racial attribute bonuses from the game. I think this is unlikely to be adopted by Wizards of the Coast. Except for Basic Set rules, races have always had their attribute modifiers. To keep the flavor of the races (tough dwarves, dexterous halflings, &c), you implement the Basic Set rule of minimum ability scores for each race: no one in the race is "bad" at their thematic good stat but the class appropriate attribute needs are the same across all player character races.

If D&D Next uses dice to determine ability scores, you could keep the +1 or +2 attribute bonuses for each race if you instituted a cap of 18 on all stats. Sure, if a +2 Constitution dwarf rolls a 17 and puts it into his Constitution he'll only have an 18 Constitution but he could also put that 17 into his Strength if he so chooses. In this solution an 18 represents the maximum physical potential of your attributes and races don't violate that physical barrier.

In a point-buy system you can charge demihumans an appropriate number of points if they want to have a superhuman 20 Strength (only half-orcs need apply). Instead of getting a +2 Strength, whether you're a wizard or a fighter, everyone pays the same number of points for an 18 Strength and the half-orc has the option to spend additional points to reach 19 or even 20. This avoids the 3rd edition problem where one stat bonus (+2 Strength) was considered better than others (+2 Constitution) so that the half-orc had to have a -2 penalty to Intelligence and to Charisma to balance out his more powerful +2 because his +2 applied to Strength instead of applying to some "lesser" attribute.

Lastly, another fine option is to limit the scaling of attribute based modifiers. An 18 doesn't need to offer a 33% better bonus to attacks (and damage rolls) than a 16. Under 2nd edition, there was no difference in bonuses on some stats between a 16 and a 17 or between a 17 and an 18. Flatten the power curve.

-Aaron

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Step By Step

I make characters. I make a lot of characters. For me, character creation is a fun hobby almost like a unofficial mini-game inside the explicit D&D game experience. Because I've spent significant amounts of time on character generation, I took this opportunity to review the creation process in a few random editions (determined by what I was able to pull off of the nearest shelf).

Until the 3rd edition came along, the dice "officially" determined what race and character class you could play. If the ability scores you rolled weren't high enough or placed in the right stats, you were prevented from choosing certain races and classes for your character. My experience was that Dungeon Masters manipulated the dice rolling methods until they found one that generally allowed people to play their character of choice. Some DMs replaced dice with a point-buy system, for determining ability scores, and the rules officially assumed this method in 2008 with the release of 4th edition.

In the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set rules (aka "red box", first printing in 1983), there are ten steps to making up a new character. 1) Roll for ability scores: Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma. 2) Choose a class: Cleric, Dwarf, Elf, Fighter, Halfling, Magic-User, or Thief. 3) Exchange ability score points. 4) Roll for hit points. 5) Roll for money. 6) Buy equipment. 7) Figure out your Armor Class, THAC0, and Saving Throws. 8) Note adjustments for ability scores: pick languages and jot down Charisma-based adjustments. 9) Give your character a name and alignment. 10) Get ready to play: select spells if your character can cast magic spells.

The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition Player's Handbook (1989) establishes ten steps in order to create a character. 1) Roll for ability scores: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. 2) Select a player character race: Dwarf, Elf, Gnome, Half-elf, Halfling, or Human. 3) Fill in the details of your character [optional]: gender, name, handedness, height, weight, age, hair color, eye color, body shape, voice, noticeable features, and general personality. 4) Select a character class: Fighter, Paladin, Ranger, Mage (including specialists like the Illusionist), Cleric (including priests of specific mythoi), Druid, Thief, Bard, or one of thirteen possible multi-class combinations (availability based on demihuman race). 5) Choose an alignment: Lawful Good, Lawful Neutral, Lawful Evil, Neutral Good, True Neutral, Neutral Evil, Chaotic Good, Chaotic Neutral, or Chaotic Evil. 6) Determine proficiencies [optional]: weapon proficiencies, nonweapon proficiencies, and/or secondary skills. 7) Roll for money. 8) Buy equipment (and, if using the optional encumbrance rules, note the effects of carrying your equipment). 9) Ask your Dungeon Master to tell you which spells are in your initial* spell book [only applies to mages and specialist wizards]. 10) Figure out your Armor Class, THAC0, and Saving Throws.

The D&D 3rd Edition Player's Handbook (2000) sets out eleven steps to create a beginning, 1st-level character. Some of those steps encompass more than one activity and they even included "Step 0: Check with your Dungeon Master". 1) Roll for ability scores: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. 2a) Choose character race: Human, Dwarf, Elf, Gnome, Half-elf, Half-orc, or Halfling. 2b) Choose a class: Barbarian, Bard, Cleric, Druid, Fighter, Monk, Paladin, Ranger, Rogue, Sorcerer, or Wizard. 3) Assign and adjust ability scores. 4) Review the starting package for your character class. 5) Record racial and class features. 6) Spend skill points. 7) Select a feat. 8) Review "Chapter 6: Description" and "decide [those] details now or wait until later." 9) Select equipment: "if you don't use the equipment in the starting package", roll money and buy equipment. 10) Record combat and skill numbers. 11a) Choose an alignment: Lawful Good, Neutral Good, Chaotic Good, Lawful Neutral, Neutral, Chaotic Neutral, Lawful Evil, Neutral Evil, Chaotic Evil. 11b) Fill in the details of your character: religion [optional], name, gender, age, height, and weight. Note: In this edition, the player of a Wizard or other arcane spellcaster gets to choose which spells his character knows.

The Player's Handbook for Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition (2008) instructs the player to follow nine steps to create a character. 1) Choose character race: Dragonborn, Dwarf, Eladrin, Elf, Half-elf, Halfling, Human, or Tiefling. 2) Choose a class: Cleric, Fighter, Paladin, Ranger, Rogue, Warlock, Warlord, or Wizard. 3) Determine ability scores: Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. 4) Choose skills. 5) Select feats. 6) Choose powers. 7) Choose equipment. 8) Fill in the number. 9) Flesh out your character with details about [its] personality, appearance, and beliefs. Note: "Spells" from previous editions are broken into Powers (combat spells) and Rituals (noncombat spells); players chose their powers in step six and also get to choose their own rituals (if they qualify to have any rituals at creation).

We see complexity growing over time. Skills went from optional in 2nd edition to mandatory (or at least assumed) in 3rd edition. New elements are added and carry forward: notably skills and feats. The 4th edition made the most changes:

  • No longer roll dice to determine ability scores
  • No longer able to roll dice to determine starting gold used for buying equipment
  • Gnome and Half-orc were removed from the list of character races
  • Dragonborn, Eladrin, and Tiefling were added to the list of character races
  • Barbarian, Bard, Druid, Monk, and Sorcerer were removed from the list of character classes
  • Warlock and Warlord were added to the list of character classes
  • Alignment was changed (making it closer to the three Basic Set options)

As we look forward to D&D Next, it is hard to know what we're going to get. Until the feedback on 5th edition starts coming back to Wizards of the Coast, probably no one truly knows what features will make the final cut to be in the Player's Handbook. Different groups of players have different tastes.

I want the most inclusive material possible for character creation that will fit in one book. Give me all of the 3rd edition character race choices plus the three new races in 4th edition. I'd like all eleven 3rd edition character classes, both new 4th edition classes, plus the ability to make specialist wizards and priests of specific mythoi. It is very easy to exclude character races or classes your group doesn't want to see in Dungeons & Dragons.

Options like skills and feats are difficult to exclude if they're involved in the delicate balance that game designers try to create between character race and class choices made by the players. The easiest solution is to give all characters the same number of skills and the same number feats as each other. Again, this is only necessary if you want play groups to have the option to exclude skills or exclude feats from their game. Another option, that seems workable to me, is to make feats a default part of the game but give each character a default feat choice every time a feat slot is available while allowing players (such as those interested in customization) to swap the default for any feat of their choice. I don't think you could use the same "defaulting" method with skills so I think they'll have to balance skills as a completely separate subsystem.

I can't wait to find out what we'll see in D&D 5th edition.

-Aaron

* Page 81 of the AD&D 2e Player's Handbook says, "...your character begins play with a spell book containing up to a few 1st-level spells. Your DM will tell you the exact number of spells and which spells they are."

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Do Characters Need To Grow Up?

Monte Cook hints at a few of the elements he considers sacred cows to D&D in his latest article on Wizards.com: Uniting the Editions, Part 2.
Six ability scores ranging from 3 to 18. Fighters, clerics, wizards, and rogues. (Or, if you prefer, fighting-men, clerics, magic-users, and thieves.) Character levels. Experience points. Rolling a d20 to attack. Magic missiles. Fireballs. Hold person. And so on.
Previously I wrote about the simplicity of "rolling a d20 to attack". Today I want to consider character levels and their role in Dungeons & Dragons. Generally, a player's hero (PC or Player Character) increases in level from 1st level through 20th level in its character class or classes. Some games have included more levels from 0-level characters through 30th level or higher. Character level has described a PC's power level in their character class (fighter, cleric, magic-user, thief, &c) and could also be referred to as class level but there are other options.

Levels and leveling are key to the success of the D&D game. As a character levels up their is a sense of growth and change in the character. The evolution of a character mirrors, in game mechanics, the human experience of time. Life doesn't stay the same. For example, ancient Jewish wisdom teaches that you're either improving yourself or you're sliding backwards but there is truly no such thing as standing still in your growth. We refer to the mechanism for gaining levels as experience points which reflects the accumulated benefits of going out into the wide world and living life.

Authors, like Richard Lee Byers, also recognize the need for the story protagonist to evolve, otherwise "he and his exploits may seem stale and repetitive". Within the context of roleplaying games we have many ways our characters can progress. The unfolding story, starring the player character, can move forward. The PC can acquire new weapons, armor, equipment, and even world-shaking artifacts. Magic-users can learn new spells. Characters can gain new or improved abilities. Lastly, the numbers on your character sheet can get bigger (or at least better since in some regards, such as THAC0, lower is more powerful).

I have some strong advice for the designers of D&D Next.

Focus on giving players, and their characters, "more options" as the key aspect of leveling. Make room for levels to be about adding new capabilities or better expressing a vision of who the character is through new characteristics. I've mentioned before that I don't like to level but that is only a half-truth. I love to level when it means growth for my character without the march towards failing game rules. Sooner or later the game play aspect collapses under its own weight when leveling is expressed as bigger, more powerful numbers. Slow down the mathematical growth from level to level. Damp down the power differential between 1st level monsters and 10th level characters.

Give us access to elements that make characters wider (more options) rather than taller (bigger numbers).

Feats, prestige classes, and paragon paths are all great ways to add options or definition to characters as long as you exclude flavorless height-enhancing versions such as 4th edition's weapon expertise feats. Since they were introduced, I've always thought characters were not given enough feats. The E6 variant of D&D v.3.5 does a great job of demonstrating how Dungeons & Dragons plays just fine if you freeze the height of characters (represented by numeric level) but continue to allow them to grow wider (with an ever increasing number of feats).

-Aaron

Friday, February 3, 2012

Narrow Thinking

Currently, Wizards of the Coast gives us lots of opportunities to voice our opinions. I'm talking specifically here about polls. If you're following Christopher Perkins' The Dungeon Master Experience, or Monte Cook's Legends & Lore column, you can vote in weekly polls. They're inconsistently posting polls in blog updates over at the D&D Next Community as well.

Market research is notoriously difficult to do well. You want to get as many responses as possible so you don't want to put up barriers to participation. Some people don't have time to read a long explanation of your market research question and some just don't want to spend the time. When formulating your survey or poll questions, it is very important to apply the K.I.S.S. principle. At the same time, you do want clarity and understanding so everyone is speaking to the same topic rather than each individual's different understanding of a confusing question.

Self-selecting questionnaires and public internet polls are not scientific market research. That doesn't mean they aren't useful. Sure, you can't say "I know these poll results give me the true answer" but it is a lot easier to total counts in a poll than to read 5000 forum posts and decipher which side the comment falls out on. Both inputs are useful: run polls and scour forums for public sentiment. Ultimately you have to be careful how you use the information and the information will be more useful if you did a better job in formulating the original question.

Don't be dogmatic in interpreting the results of a survey or poll. Just because players would rather use the term dinosaurs in the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual doesn't mean you couldn't use behemoth as a synonym in 5th edition. Alternatively, create a complimentary monster or monster-type using the behemoth term. It is a great word and I think that using such terms enhances the D&D experience.

There are two other polls that seem prone to narrow interpretation: Mechanics Supporting Story and Weapon Damage Types. Mind you, I'm not saying that Wizards R&D will take a narrow approach but rather I want to use these examples to explain the option for broader design.

The discussion in the mechanics/story poll revolves around the dwarf race. If you broke down the 3rd edition dwarf into a point-buy system, I think you'd find that all the little dwarven racial benefits add up to the most expensive ECL +0 race in the Player's Handbook. In 4th edition there was a tension whether the dwarf was the best fighter race (second wind as a minor action rocks!) or not; at least until Wizards R&D, presumably, tried to align flavor with mechanics by also allowing a dwarf to have +2 in the primary fighter stat (Strength). You see, the dwarf is iconic as a fighter and, after the latter 4th edition changes, I believe that dwarf is the best race to choose for that class. The upshot of the poll is that a majority of players want game mechanics to support flavor.*

Should Wizards of the Coast give a bevy of flavor-defining mechanical benefits and restrictions to the dwarf race? Yes and no. We've built up too much flavor around dwarves. There just isn't enough room to create reasonably straightforward races at 1st level when every single aspect of a dwarf is backed up by mechanics. An alternate solution would be to parcel out some of the dwarf properties as feats. If given enough feats to make meaningful choices, the player could choose how deeply they wanted dwarf traits to define their character sheet. Another alternate solution would be to create a dwarf aspect that increases as the player levels. This works with the feat idea before if you can continue taking more and more cultural/racial feats as you level or it could work by having a racial character class. The class doesn't have to be the only way to play a dwarf and if "raised by dwarves" perhaps even a halfling could take the "dwarven-training" class. Dwarf feats or a dwarf class are just two potential examples of taking a bigger picture look at the results of the poll for Mechanics Supporting Story.

The Weapon Damage Types poll is different. Player clearly like to see flavor expressed in game terms such as bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing weapons. Thinking about simulationism for a moment, most weapons can be designed for multiple functions. Take the rapier, it could be designed with a basket hilt to allow you to punch a skeleton in the face so a piercing weapon does bludgeoning damage occasionally. A greatsword with a dull blade is effectively just a giant club. If you were a weaponsmith in a fantasy world where damage types mattered, you best design your creations so that adventurers will be handicapped as little as possible if you want to sell your wares. Weapon damage type flavor might be interesting to players but it still presents the same challenge that game designers must overcome so fantasy worlds are not populated with adventurers carrying around a golf bag with a nine iron for one monster type and a driver for another type.

-Aaron

* The poll uses the term "story" but I believe that is slightly off from what is described. The story is what enfolds during the game and has a plot whereas the setting elements like dwarven racial tendencies are a flavoring of the stories that get told.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Sacrosanct

When Wizards of the Coast was resurrecting Dungeons & Dragons with the 3e release they considered what parts of the game could not be changed. The sacrosanct elements that must remain in the game, in order to qualify as D&D, were referred to as the Sacred Cows. I am reminded of this question in the tone of WotC's quest to produce 5th edition.

Sadly, I don't have a list of the Sacred Cows that were identified by Jonathan Tweet and the 3rd edition design team. Therefore, I'll create my own take on what must be retained in D&D Next.

At least one of the AD&D 2nd edition sacred cows was partially slaughtered, or at least turned upside down. We still use 20-sided dice to resolve combat attack rolls to determine whether they hit or miss. THAC0 (or the "To Hit Armor Class 0" target value) has been removed from the D&D game but the change was so seamlessly brilliant that it's only the calculation that's different. There are some slight differences that may lead one or another to prefer THAC0 as a system but those differences aren't material.

Sacred Cows in D&D Game Mechanics:
  • Classes
  • Fantasy Races
  • Attributes
  • Equipment
  • Hit Points
  • Armor Class
  • 1d20 Combat Roll
  • xdx Damage Dice
  • Class Levels
  • Monsters (and NPCs)
  • Traps

I'm very interested in other opinions. What would you include on this list? Is there anything I've included that really doesn't rise to the level where it deserves to be on this list?

There remains a lot of detail within those Sacred Cows that is flexible. In order to have a D&D flavor, the rulebooks would need to have a minimum of four classes: Fighter, Thief, Magic-user, and Cleric. The more I think about it the more I think that extra classes, beyond those four, are good for the game but I'd say those are probably the minimum. The attributes (currently Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma) have fluctuated over the history of D&D. I do not think the current list is needed exactly but I think something roughly similar would be needed to meet this Sacred Cow requirement. I have not included magic items on this list because I have played in many low-magic D&D games that featured little to no such items but I think weapons and armor are core to the experience.

One last note, what other explorations of D&D are interesting to you, the readers?

-Aaron

Monday, January 30, 2012

Licensed To Have Fun

Three main innovations in Dungeons & Dragons were introduced with 3rd edition in 2000. I believe it was these three innovations that were largely responsible for the success of the edition: core elements were standardized across the players at the table, substantial character customization was made possible, and the Open Gaming License (OGL) was instituted for D&D.

Two of the major changes weren't new. Standardization and character customization were, by 2000, old innovations in the roleplaying game hobby. D&D was long overdue to add a little dose of these improvements in game design since Gary Gygax pioneered the industry in 1974. By the time we got to 4th edition, Wizards of the Coast had amped up the standardization aspect while dialing back the level of customization in an attempt to make the game understandable by designers (so they could balance game mechanics against each other).

One truly visionary innovation came out of WotC's relaunch of the flagship game in the hobby industry: use with the Open Gaming License. It took a lot of courage to champion the OGL concept within the halls of Wizards of the Coast. It is easy to understand why the underdogs would band together to create a virtual game that was bigger than any of their individual products.

Does Hasbro benefit from allowing the OGL to apply to D&D?

I am a proponent of centering your business on your customers. The argument goes thusly, if you give customers something they truly value then they'll reward you for the benefits they've received. Just to illustrate the contrast, an opposing perception is that you can "sell" something to consumers and convince them to want it. While I don't subscribe to "creating demand", the theory does have a tiny element of truth inside it in that sometimes people don't know that they'll enjoy something until after they understand it (which generally requires them to give it a try). Back to my point. If the players of Dungeons & Dragons benefit from an OGL for D&D then that should increase the probability people will play the game. More players leads to higher sales and revenue for Wizards of the Coast, a division of Hasbro, Inc.

You may have noticed that I hand-waved some of the details in order to get to the point. Ryan Dancey suggested that, through the d20 System OGL, Wizards of the Coast would benefit from "network externalities". When everyone, or almost everyone, uses the same rules engine it is very easy for players to move around within that system. Further, it would be less likely that anyone would leave the d20 arena, it would be more likely that new players would try the d20 system, and ultimately it is the most powerful force within d20 gaming that benefits the most from this arrangement. When the d20 System logo was used, D&D benefited directly because a Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide were necessary to run the game.

Wizards of the Coast cannot, and in some cases will not, satisfy every niche gamer demand. The size of the beast (sorry, Wizards) is such that a certain minimum sales numbers are necessary to make a profit and that threshold is higher for Wizards of the Coast than for leaner operations like Green Ronin (or vanity publishers). For example, take D&D Next and the wizard character class; some people are interested in highly powerful magic-users that are balanced by their fragility as we see in AD&D 1st edition rules. An OGL for 5th edition would allow someone to satisfy this minority demand and thus keep those players interested in D&D Next. This would be a boon to the "unity" goal of the upcoming edition.

Game publishing is a mix of game design and game development. Design being the Mark Rosewater activity of exploring "new" game space and development being the Aaron Forsythe* activity of perfecting "existing" game designs. Sometimes exploration leaves you empty-handed and you end up with a failure. Allowing other individual designers and companies to play in the D&D rules sandbox allows Wizards of the Coast a huge amount of free design resources. Dungeons & Dragons R&D can produce their own innovations while they simultaneously watch for ideas within the industry that work. Any movement forward in game design on behalf of D&D is something that Wizards R&D can leverage internally.

The players of the game are the true winners. That's good for D&D and its owners.

-Aaron

* Yes, I know that Mr. Forsythe has been promoted from head of development so that he is now the head of all Magic: The Gathering R&D including both design and development aspects of the product.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Backward To 2nd Edition

As part of the D&D Next process I want to look back with fresh eyes on things I probably read long ago in the half-remembered past.

I pulled off the shelf the Dungeon Master™ Guide for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: 2nd Edition. If Wikipedia is to be believed, this "10th printing August 1993" version is not the Revised edition. The first thing I noticed is that this was not the Dungeon Master's Guide and I gave a little chuckle. I'm so used to saying the possessive but I know that the brand trademarks the term dungeon master. I'm sure they thought Dungeon Master™'s Guide would look funny (and it does).

My perceptions of AD&D 2e may be colored which is another reason I wanted to approach it anew. I stopped playing D&D for a long time in favor of Vampire: the Masquerade because I felt that there wasn't enough variety possible in character creation. It was just too restrictive which is a comment that seems funny once I finished rereading a little of the DMG. On with it.

I tend to read roleplaying books from beginning to end like I read fiction or textbooks. Thus came I to read the Foreword by David "Zeb" Cook, 2/9/89:
A foreword is normally the place where the author of a book expresses thanks and gratitude. I'm not going to do that here. It's not that everyone involved doesn't deserve congratulations and praise, it's just that I already said all those things in the foreword to the AD&D® 2nd Edition Player's Handbook. Everything I said there is true for this book, too. On to other things.
Very early on Zeb has established that you are meant to own both books. Why do we accept them as separate books at all? The 2e DMG is only 192 pages. Seems a little light.
Let's assume that since you're reading this, you are, or plan to be, a DUNGEON MASTER™. By now, you should be familiar with the rules in the Player's Handbook. You've probably already noticed things you like or things you would have done differently. If you have, congratulations. You've got the spirit every Dungeon Master needs. Curiosity and the desire to make changes, to do things differently because your idea is better than the other guy's - these are the most important things a Dungeon Master needs. As you go through this rule book, I encourage you to continue to make these choices.
The tendency I have seen is that DMs make changes. However I'm not as certain as Zeb about the cause. Is it because everyone who is willing to DM inherently wants to make changes or is it because the only people capable of running AD&D were those willing to make up for the flawed rules?
Choice is what the AD&D 2nd Edition game is all about. We've tried to offer you what we think are the best choices for your AD&D campaign, but each of us has different likes and dislikes. The game that I enjoy may be quite different from your own campaign. But it is not for me to say what is right or wrong for your game. True, I and everyone working on the AD&D 2nd Edition game have had to make fundamental decisions, but we've tried to avoid being dogmatic and inflexible. The AD&D game is yours, it's mine, it's every player's game.
Yes, let's try not to be dogmatic and inflexible as we work to produce the best 5th edition possible.
So is there an "official" AD&D game? Yes, but only when there needs to be. Although I don't have a crystal ball, it's likely that tournaments and other official events will use all of the core rules in these books. Optional rules may or may not be used, but it's fair to say that all players need to know about them even if they don't have them memorized.
I've never really understood tournament D&D. Even the Dungeons & Dragons I played at conventions had DMs that rewrote rules here and there as Zeb advised earlier. The D&D rules are too complex to be balanced and produce fair competition yet not complex enough to avoid constant intervention by human hands.
The Player's Handbook and the DUNGEON MASTER™ Guide give you what you're expected to know, but that doesn't mean the game begins and ends there. Your game will go in directions not yet explored and your players will try things other think strange. Sometimes these strange things will work; sometimes they won't. Just accept this, be ready for it, and enjoy it.

Take the time to have fun with the AD&D rules. Add, create, expand, and extrapolate. Don't just let the game sit there, and don't become a rules lawyer worrying about each piddly little detail. If you can't figure out the answer, MAKE IT UP! And whatever you do, don't fall into the trap of believing these rules are complete. They are not. You cannot sit back and let the rule book do everything for you. Take the time and effort to become not just a good DM™, but a brilliant one.
One area where 4th edition succeeded was making the task easier for the DM. Over at Wizards of the Coast you can read the trials and tribulations of Shelly Mazzanoble in her Confessions of a Full-Time Wizard column. I also recommend Confessions of a Part-time Sorceress: A Girl's Guide to the D&D Game. Shelly is brilliant, funny, kind, and a great writer. If you read through all of her work you'll find that she tried running D&D and, I believe, had fun. I'm speculating here but I suspect that all this stuff about making up rules on the fly, my rules aren't your rules, and modifying the rules wouldn't have worked so well. She's not the typical player of D&D. I'm glad 4e succeeded in bringing in players like Shelly. It also got us, Dungeons & Dragons gamer geeks, some famous companionship in the likes of Gabe aka Mike Krahulik (of Penny Arcade fame; D&D already had Tycho aka Jerry Holkins).
At conventions, in letters, and over the phone I'm often asked for the instant answer to a fine point of the game rules. More often than not, I come back with a question - what do you feel is right? And the people asking the questions discover that not only can they create an answer, but that their answer is as good as anyone else's. The rules are only guidelines.
I never read Dragon magazine back when I was playing 2nd edition so I can't speak to discussions at that time or even online forums for 2e. What I can say is that I saw a lot of rules as written (R.A.W.) arguments around 3rd edition. Was that a change from previous editions because of the high quality of the 3e rules or is that the way the world has always been? If you've been playing D&D that long, what was your experience?
At the beginning of the first DUNGEON MASTER™ Guide, Gary Gygax stressed that each of us, working from a common base, would make the AD&D game grow in a variety of different directions. That is more true today than ever. Don't be afraid of experimentation, but do be careful. As a Dungeon Master, you have great power, and "with great power comes great responsibility." Use it wisely.
Thanks, Zeb.

-Aaron

Thursday, January 26, 2012

D&D 3rd Edition Top 10

My favorite Dungeons & Dragons: 3rd Edition supplements in chronological order. Readers can already guess that Forgotten Realm Campaign Setting is on this list. It's almost obligatory to include Core Rulebook I, II, and III. For each entry I note a few things that stand out such that the book made my Top 10 list for 3e.

1. Player's Handbook - Really transformed character creation for D&D in many ways (for the better). The named, iconic character illustrations by Sam Wood and Todd Lockwood really evoked the genre. In most ways 3rd edition is my favorite version of Dungeons & Dragons even though I'm glad it was replaced by 4th edition (going on 5th edition).

2. Dungeon Master's Guide - Adding levels to monsters really intrigued me. I liked the art that was re-imagined from AD&D such as Wayne Reynolds' skeleton attacking Alhandra on page 114. The magic items were cool with good illustrations. I was constantly envisioning ways to leverage the immovable rod.

3. Monster Manual - This had the best cover of the three core rulebooks. Dragons by age charts were a great idea in principle. The book was filled with art that I liked, which matters to me.

4. The Forge of Fury - Perfect for plagiarism. Over and over again, many DMs stole these maps and some of the room descriptions for games I played.

5. Sword and Fist: A Guidebook to Fighters and Monks - Full of awesomeness and written by Jason Carl (one of those DMs that recycled The Forge of Fury maps into other settings). What more needs to be said? The black & white drawings in this book almost all rank among my favorite D&D images. The feats and prestige classes rocked, too.


7. Magic of Faerun - Dead magic, wild magic, the shadow weave, spellbooks inscribed on steel pages, and unusual metals for weapons & armor were all interesting concepts that I reuse constantly. I recall that most of the broken prestige classes seemed to come from this book but also utility feats like energy substitution.

8. Epic Level Handbook - I've mentioned elsewhere that I'll never use these rules. They amplified the heroic art in order to make it feel epic and I think they succeeded. Wizards of the Coast, please realize that we want our characters to feel that cool even at 5th level and project that same amount of awesomeness even in art orders for levels 1-10. I just love to browse this sourcebook.

9. Savage Species - Above I mentioned that the DMG made this list in part because of adding levels to monsters. A missed opportunity for Savage Species would have been to provide level progressions for three monsters from the Monster Manual (dwarf, elf, and halfling). Level progressions for dwarf, elf, and halfling would have been a fun nod to D&D Basic and old school fans as well as easily brought into 3rd edition NPC communities the vibe those D&D Basic classes established for each race. D&D 4th edition tried to fix problems with Savage Species and update it but I prefer the Savage Species variant to what has been done since.

10. Races of Faerun - The cover illustration is kinda DC Comics but despite that still stands out as one of my favorites (shown below; by Greg Staples). This sourcebook provided a little variety for the player character races, which was much appreciated.

That's my list. What would you have included differently?


-Aaron

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Hardcore Old School

There are lots of stories that my friends swap about playing Dungeons & Dragons in the old-school style. In the hope that Wizards of the Coast has managed to bring new people into the hobby I'm going to speak of a few things that I encountered while playing D&D back in the late 1980s. I wouldn't quite describe my old friends as grognards but they have described similar experiences to me.

One of the Dungeon Masters I played under was particularly stereotypical of the old school method. Mitch (his real name is Robert Mitchell) did everything to extremes. His games were powered up over standard rules but he just made all the enemies that much more difficult. Mitch had fallen for the illusion of power.

As others have mentioned, the rules weren't clear or robust enough to handle every situation. This lead to a lot of power and control in the hands of the DM. Based on stories people tell it seems that it was not uncommon for that decision-making authority to "go to their head" for DMs like Mitch. I've encountered this in particular for the adjudication of the wish spell. In Mitch's game I played a half-elf fighter/thief (a very westernized ninja) who acquired a wish at 2nd level (as did another character). We knew that Mitch would misinterpret our wishes as much as he could within the context of the words that we used. We weren't allowed to use game mechanic terms but had to phrase the wish in terms our characters would use for conversation. He wished for the "strength of a storm giant" and I wished for the "agility of a mongoose" hoping to get +1 to Strength and Dexterity respectively. Mitch ruled that wishes were granted by a specific patron and chose Loki (from Norse mythology). Loki granted him the ability to turn into a full-size storm giant for one attack per day and me the ability to turn into a giant mongoose. It wasn't very useful to turn into a huge giant in a majority of dungeon crawling adventures. Smarter players than myself tell me they would write five page contracts for each wish they wanted to use (akin to legalzoom.com) so that their DM couldn't twist their request because of all the clauses and stipulations. The DM giveth and the DM taketh away.

Another type of story about old school D&D, that I experienced directly on multiple occasions, is the thief character that scouts out the enemies. The thief goes in ahead of the other characters to get the lay of the land and give the party information to plan their attack. The key to this old school trick is that the thief steals some, or all, of the treasure while he's sneaking around. The other characters never know about this. The fighter does all the dirty work, for the lazy thief, of killing the monsters and advancing the party through the dungeon but he gets much less treasure than the DM or modules place in the adventures. Some may have never heard of this behavior from the wild west early days of D&D or perhaps it still happens in your games. From this and similar problems grew two rules in my gaming: 1) no evil player characters in heroic games, and 2) no major conflict or strife within the party unless it serves a greater storytelling purpose.

There was clearly a difference of opinion, in those situations, on the goals of the game. My goal was to have fun in a cooperative environment with a reasonable amount of conflict thrown in for excitement. Others viewed the game as a contest (DMs seeing a contest of wits in the granting of a wish) or competition (where the thief who has the most stuff wins). It is also true that some of these people had built up a mental picture and set of motivations, from which they were inflexible, for their character that were in conflict with other players having fun. When I read Gary Gygax describe adventures he ran or looked at Tomb of Horrors it sounded like what I think of as un-fun is some people's conception of the essence of the original Dungeons & Dragons game.

I'd like to see less complexity and I understand that we'll need to tone down the rules in order to get there. I prefer 4th edition to 1st edition but if I get my way we'll move a little closer to AD&D. However, there are some parts of the older, lighter rules experience to which I don't want to return.

Comment below if you've had similar or completely different experiences.

-Aaron

PS: I understand that the problems I'm describing come from human nature and not from the rules but game mechanics do matter.