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.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Crowdsourcing

I started working at Wizards of the Coast in 2000 as an advertising coordinator and it was soon after that Dungeons & Dragons: 3rd Edition was released. My impression is that D&D 3e was launched after a large playtest through fan gaming groups. I'm not sure whose brainchild it was to involve customers with the rules before they were finished. Was it Monte Cook, Jonathan Tweet, or Skip Williams? Perhaps it was Bill Slavicsek, Peter Adkison, or Ryan Dancey. I'll have to ask around.

By way of contrast, I would say that the development of the 4th edition rules was positively secretive. The 3rd edition of Dungeons & Dragons launched to much fanfare. TSR had really fallen apart and taken the D&D brand down with it. Game elements and marketing for 3e were designed to win the hearts and minds of existing players (though there was also a very expensive advertising campaign in mainstream magazines design to reach a new audience). You could "play a half-orc assassin" again and demons were back without the politically sensitive tana'ri label.

At least one blogger has speculated that part of the problem Wizards must overcome is us, the fans. Involving the disparate D&D factions in playtesting will certainly help each group feel a sense of ownership for D&D Next. This change from 4th edition's launch goes back to the method that was successfully used in 2000 to win back customers disaffected by TSR. If the only problem had been that D&D 4e was forced onto fans then I don't think we'd be working on 5th edition already.

Had the fundamental game of 4th edition been as robust as 3rd edition, enough players would have converted to make it a viable business. Instead, 4e has moved in the opposite direction. Players who gave the new edition their full attention eventually abandoned it because it was imploding. What 4th edition desperately needed was a lot more playtesting. In testing it's key to repeatedly engage with an element with minor variations. The number of game mechanic interactions that get encountered and tested increases exponentially as you expand the number of groups playing the rules. Insufficient testing is a common problem in software. Computer games are so prone to this problem that new releases can include a Beta period where the mass of potential customers is searching for code bugs for fun. No matter how much insider testing goes on, it can't reach even a fraction of the bugs that will be discovered once the game is "in the wild" being played by masses of customers.

I'm thrilled about D&D Next's approach to playtesting. I'm not excited because of the opportunity for fans to design 5th edition, rather, I'm excited to know that the game designers will have good data upon which to base their decisions when structuring a rules engine that will last.

-Aaron

Monday, January 23, 2012

You Might Just Learn Something

Dungeons & Dragons: 4th Edition took a page from 3rd edition's Eberron Campaign Setting and created more setting appropriate names for dinosaurs. A velociraptor in Eberron was called a clawfoot though it was still officially a dinosaur. With the release of D&D 4e they used the name behemoth as a more flavorful in-game term instead of dinosaur. In the D&D Next Playtest News for the Week of January 16th, Greg Bilsland asked the question whether fans prefer the term behemoth versus dinosaur.

As of 23 January 2012, dinosaur is winning the vote at 1,035 votes compared with 464 votes for behemoth.

Dungeons & Dragons grew out of Chainmail and Chainmail grew out of miniatures war games. There is a strong component of time period accuracy in military miniatures gaming for everything from soldier uniforms through tank armor values. Fantasy used to be more heavily influenced by (romanticized) medieval facts. Many of the authors of roleplaying games were fans of historical wargaming. In order to set themselves apart visually, games like World of Warcraft have established a strong identities that are quite a bit more fantastical and stylized than traditionally found in D&D.

It used to be that you could learn tidbits about world history from roleplaying games. Well, more than just that weapons kill and armor protects you. D&D was educational. The things we learned from game books weren't particularly useful. I've never needed to list Norse mythology for a job interview or tell the difference between Norman-Saxon armor and Shogunate attire. Even though it wasn't practical knowledge it still contributed to a more well-rounded, classical education.

You can't have a generic setting that is completely made up in look and culture. People don't have enough of a reference. The points of light setting was supposed to be so generic they wouldn't even give it a name and, other than races, it had no cultures, no nations, no landmasses, &c. There was very little link between points of light and anything with which players had experience. Dungeon Masters and players had to fill in the blanks because points of light was just a sketch of a setting. That process of filling the gaps is made easier when you can draw on other knowledge such as world history but the D&D setting in 4th edition felt so unrealistic that it was a big leap to connect the two.

An image that blends traditional elements with fantasy has a bedrock which people new to the brand can identify with while they learn to identify with the Dungeons & Dragons brand itself. I'm not suggesting that we go back to the good old days. Still, the core game books were more approachable to new players when they were more reality-based.

In a campaign setting you have the opportunity to deviate more from standard medieval fantasy because you take the time to flesh out all the details. You can invent societies like the drow in Forgotten Realms. It works even better when you build cultures into your fantasy world that aren't generic fantasy populations but are, in fact, distinct from each other.

-Aaron

Sunday, January 22, 2012

It's Not Just A Game

The phrase "Dungeons & Dragons" has achieved widespread fame though not necessarily love and interest. Geek chic is the new normal but not everyone agrees. Sure, famous actors like Vin Diesel are seen buying D&D at their local hobby store but for many people they need to experience the Dungeons & Dragons brand personally before they're going to take notice.

More than just revamping the roleplaying game through D&D Next, Mike Mearls recognized in an MTV interview that Wizards of the Coast needs to grow Dungeons & Dragons into a multimedia brand. Perhaps medium would be more appropriate since I'm talking about making D&D available as a roleplaying game, a board game, a PC computer game, an Xbox Live Arcade game, novels, children's books, a massively-multiplayer online game, a social game, and the list goes on.

I never played the old TSR SSI gold box Advanced Dungeons & Dragons computer games (shown left) but my best friend in high school was playing them extensively. I am of the impression that hardcore gamers remember those classics fondly. Perhaps bring them back to iPhone, Nintendo DS, or another miniaturized platform as Square Enix did with Final Fantasy's sprite-based editions (I, II, III, or IV).

When you're curating a brand, like Square Enix did with Final Fantasy, you want to take your name to the customer where they live. You don't make the customer come into your space (PlayStation for Final Fantasy and tabletop roleplaying games for Dungeons & Dragons). This is exactly what the duopoly of Marvel and DC comics are accomplishing. Relatively few people read comic books any more but the brands (in this case the characters are the brands) have legions of fans among all ages. Superman has his own hit song that regularly plays on broadcast radio stations.

Magic: The Gathering appears to be following the lifestyle brand model of Harley Davidson by offering apparel in addition to the core product. Magic sales have doubled since 2008 and I suspect a large part of that growth is driven by exposure to the Magic brand through Duels of the Planeswalkers for Xbox Live Arcade (and now also PS3 and PCs).

Wizards of the Coast has definitely faced challenges in the past because of licensing agreements that give outsiders control of movie or video game rights. Recent changes should make fans happy and allow D&D to remain true to its essence while growing a broader audience. I don't play board games but I like anything that is good for the hobby. Sometimes what you try doesn't work. I hope the D&D managers don't let this cause them to act too conservatively.

I look forward to more experimentation by the teams at Wizards. You never know...


-Aaron

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Our Levels Go To Eleven

I have an admission to make, I fear the dreaded Level Up pronouncement by our Dungeon Master. Oh sure, back when I was thirteen I played monty haul AD&D but now I don't want the extra baggage. I try to publicly convince our DM that our characters shouldn't level just yet. Thankfully she has a long history of being stingy with experience point awards. Other players, who want their character to get more powerful, cast aspersions in my direction.

What could possibly be wrong with leveling?

Dungeons & Dragons becomes less fun as you level. The act of leveling is fun, don't get me wrong. However, the more you level up the closer you get to the point where the rules start to make it difficult to enjoy the game. A commonly accepted problem with the previous edition (3e or v.3.5) was that it was too difficult to play after 15th level. D&D 4e wanted to solve this problem on both the player side and the DM side but all they accomplished was adding another ten unplayable levels. A sense of growth is very important and despite my phobia about leveling I want character progression.

The mechanics of higher level play need to work in order for me to try it. I played from lowly Level 1 through Level 21 in 4th edition and it stopped being fun long before we stopped the campaign. Combats were painfully slow and long. Also, daily powers were overwhelming such that it was really difficult to threaten the players without tediously wearing them down first in those slow, complicated fights that I disliked. I believe that R&D "got the numbers wrong" and hit points grew faster than player's ability to deal damage so it was a slog to kill things other than minions.

I would rather gradually grow my character to 8th level as the campaign story arc crests and be done. My player experience seems to mirror many other groups based on product sales. Adventures like The Sunless Citadel and The Forge of Fury sell much better than Heart of Nightfang Spire, Lord of the Iron Fortress, or Bastion of Broken Souls. I really enjoyed 3rd edition's Epic Level Handbook and it was very popular but I doubt even half the people who bought it ever played at those levels. My 4th edition, 3rd edition, and 2nd edition D&D experiences are all the same when it comes to what levels we played. Consistently in D&D we've ended our games by Level 12 at the latest (and I regretted those times when we didn't).

I was insulted by the repeated implications in 4e text that heroic tier characters (1st-10th) were putzing around killing rats and only making a local impact. I'm curious if any sizable chunk of games really work that way. The fantasy fiction that my games imitate are about grand heroes solving world-spanning problems like The Wheel of Time or The Lord of the Rings trilogy. If the characters start out as apprentices that entire rookie atmosphere for the game is gone by the time second level is over. I would never spend ten levels playing the village hero.

In D&D 4th edition, lots of cool flavor and interesting mechanics were hidden away from us low-level players. Paragon paths rock and even epic destinies brim over with cool descriptions. Many feats that opened interesting characters options, staple fantasy monsters, or inspiring magic items were powered-up such that they were locked away above 11th or even 21st level. Third edition did slightly better because you could often get into the fun prestige classes at 5th-7th level which was before the levels where the rules faltered under their own weight.

Slow down the power level progression. Increase the progression when comes to the level of customization and flavor players can layer onto their character. Make creative branching options available to characters sooner. This gives the important sense of growth and improvement without throwing fun out the window.

What about your games? Do you play mostly games where characters are below 12th level? Leave a comment below and tell me why you play low-level games?

-Aaron

Friday, January 20, 2012

Ideas Waiting To Be Stolen

Campaign settings do not make up part of the "essence" of Dungeons & Dragons. We played with only the core rulebooks (Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, and Monster Manual) and Dungeoneer's Survival Guide. I later owned Greyhawk Adventures but I didn't really understand what to do with it so I never used it and didn't like it.

I only understood the existence of official campaign settings later when I encountered them as crystal spheres floating in the phlogiston of Spelljammer. There I discovered Forgotten Realms for the first time and was reminded that maybe you could visit the setting of those Dragonlance books I had read. After that I bought Dark Sun but somehow never managed to play any games in the setting so I just made lots of characters and enjoyed all the art by Brom.

Forgotten Realms
Campaign Setting
The Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting book, published for D&D 3rd edition, changed everything. My hat goes off to Robert Raper (Art Director) and Jon Schindehette (Visual Creative Director). The FRCS is gorgeous, inside and out, from cover to cover. It's full of great art and, as mentioned previously, I'm totally willing to buy a roleplaying book for that reason alone.

Ever since the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, I buy campaign settings. Dungeon Masters and players need inspiration. I'm not going to play a game set in the Forgotten Realms but that doesn't matter. I'll plagiarize races, story seeds, setting tidbits, organizations, and game mechanics for my own Dungeons & Dragons world. Campaign settings give designers a framework upon which to explore world-building where players and DMs can then steal for their own use.

Within the halls of Wizards of the Coast you used to hear whispers that TSR was brought low by too many campaign settings which fractured the D&D customer base. In 3rd edition they tried to provide deep support for only a few settings. Forgotten Realms alone had over sixteen supplements released between July of 2001 and October of 2005. While the core Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting product was one of the best selling books in all of 3e or v.3.5, it's supplements fared much worse. The Eberron Campaign Setting was added to the mix in June of 2004.

Fourth edition tried to learn the lessons of D&D 3e and one of those lessons was clearly that continuing support for each campaign setting was a recipe for failure. Wizards was still hanging onto the baggage of 2nd edition. They needed to synthesize the two lessons. Settings don't factionalize the customer base but product lines do. The Forgotten Realms product line was a problem while the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting was a smashing success. Probably 80% or more of games take place in a campaign setting which is specific to only that playgroup. Published campaign settings can't possibly make tabletop game settings any more dispersed than they already are.

The Eberron setting really seemed to pick up steam but if your group had decided to try it you couldn't switch to the new system until a full year had passed with the D&D 4e rules. It took too long for fans to get the support they needed to convert their games from v.3.5 to 4th edition. Potentially this delay slowed adoption of 4th edition or just drove those customers into the waiting arms of Paizo and the Pathfinder RPG. Wizards of the Coast should be producing material to inspire the players of Dungeons & Dragons and germinate new ideas for tabletop campaigns everywhere.

The 4e campaign settings were too few in number and to slim in content to do the job.

-Aaron

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Customer-centric DNA

I was composing a response about why Wizards of the Coast should sell out-of-print game material when they announced that 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons is back! I'll bet some people were shocked by Wizards' decision to go backwards in time to the original AD&D.

The decision to release a special copy of the 1st Edition Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, and Monster Manual might not be that monumental. Honoring the memory of Gary Gygax with these Premium edition books might be a sweet and harmless PR stunt. If it were me doing this, it would also be an innocuous way to send up a trial balloon and test the waters. Will this product sell? How much will it sell? Either way I think this is a good deed by Wizards of the Coast whether as an olive branch to die-hard 1st edition fans or as a business opportunity.

Kris Hansen made the zero-sum argument in his blog post and, while it sounds intuitive, the truth is that we seldom act in such narrow circumstances. We don't know if "every dollar spent" on 1st edition PDFs translates one-for-one to less dollars spent on 4th edition. The current edition of D&D faces a lot of accusations that it tries too hard to be like World of Warcraft. I think we can all agree that Wizards of the Coast believes they are competing for share of wallet with computer games (like Skyrim). Every dollar spent on digital copies of AD&D 2nd Edition may be one less dollar spent on computer games or Pathfinder or any number of other things.

In a world where there are a huge array of choices you can't force the customer to do what you, a business, want them to do. We live in a customer-centric age (thankfully) and Wizards of the Coast needs a customer-centric DNA if they want to compete against prettier, flashier, easier, more advanced forms of entertainment.

Give customers what they want as long as they're willing to pay appropriately for it. PDFs sales for out-of-print roleplaying books are a niche market but they provide some key benefits: combating piracy, insights into popular topics, keeping brand loyalists happy, and revenue. Take the iTunes example, the music industry was floundering with massive digital piracy of music until Steve Jobs came along. The vast majority of customers would prefer to pay than be pirates as long as it's reasonable (and not too difficult). When Wizards of the Coast refuses to provide digital versions the pirates step in and take over.

Old editions of D&D have a finite amount of official products; no new roleplaying books are being produced for those old editions with the Dungeons & Dragons logo. You are starving (OSRIC) customers of those editions from getting new material but you can't starve them of the material you already produced because of piracy. Queen of the Spiders was the best selling PDF outside of the core rulebooks back when those old editions were for sale on RPGNow.com but WotC wouldn't have known that if they didn't make it available. That's valuable market research information (see City of the Spider Queen and the R.A. Salvatore's War of the Spider Queen series).

I will probably buy the 1st Edition Premium Player's Handbook and the other two core rulebooks from that set. I'm never going to play them because I think that the D&D game has improved since then. I'll buy them for the nostalgia that comes along with flipping through the pages and being inspired by the ideas present there, all over again, like I did when I was ten years old.

-Aaron

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

K.I.S.S.

The essence of Dungeons & Dragons, the core that makes me say that "this is D&D", and what makes D&D the only mainstream tabletop roleplaying game is the keep it simple mantra (officially known as Keep It Simple, Stupid or KISS). The topic of K.I.S.S. and D&D is too long for a single comment so I will return to this idea in future posts as well. You have been warned.

There are myriads ways in which D&D keeps the rules of the game simple in order to facilitate game play quickly and easily. Dungeons & Dragons game mechanics are necessarily an abstraction of the reality they're trying to describe so that they can "keep it simple". D&D rules describe a world that is a mix of the normal, physical reality in which we live and a magical realm of fantasy fiction.

Armor Class (AC) is a reduction of complexity that combines a character's ability to dodge attacks, deflect blows, and absorb hits into a single number. This is an area where D&D has gotten more efficient over time. Current armor class mechanics are much simpler than the THAC0 rules of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. It doesn't matter whether you're aiming for the head or the heart. You don't have consult a hit location chart to determine whether your character got hit on the hand or the head.

Combat in D&D is faster, simpler, and easier to judge because the core rule consists of a single roll of one die (a 20-sided die or d20) against a static target number (the defending character's AC). You don't have to count the number of dice you get to roll. You don't have to count the number of successes you achieved. You don't have to wait for the defender to roll dice or compare your dice with their results. You don't have to consult a chart to determine the outcome of your attack and the probability that you'll hit a given AC is easy to calculate.

Character classes simplify the complex job of building a person, from a collection of mechanics, down to picking a hero archetype. Once you pick a class you've greatly reduced the number of decisions required to finish your character. D&D has fared better in some of its editions than others when it comes to keeping classes simple enough to meet the K.I.S.S. requirement. Dungeons & Dragons has succeeded because it doesn't use a point-buy character creation system or even the categorized decisions of a game like Vampire: the Masquerade.

I don't want to dismiss complexity. There is a proper place for complexity and amount of it that D&D needs which I'll address in more detail at a later date.

-Aaron

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Good vs. Evil

One of the things I look for and enjoy about fantasy roleplaying games (especially Dugeons & Dragons) is the appearance of classic story elements. While some clamor for verisimilitude in the game mechanics, I look for the connection between the game's concepts and the human experience.

D&D 4th edition fixed a long running problem both mechanically and numerically. Page 19 of the 4th edition Player's Handbook says, "Most people in the world, and plenty of player characters, haven't signed up to play on any team-they're unaligned". Human beings don't typically fit into neat little boxes and the lowliest 3rd edition Paladins can't walk around scanning politicians every ten seconds with detect evil at will as a spell-like ability in order to determine whom to cull from the herd.

I'll admit that my gaming group dropped alignment long before the release of 4th edition and it wasn't that hard. Only rarely did we encounter problems where the game mechanics of D&D strongly preferred we retain alignment rules and penalized players (or monsters) because we had chosen a more realistic approach to human nature.

The 4th edition concession to an Unaligned alignment could be slightly improved. People have free will to choose between Good versus Evil in each situation they encounter and the oppressive dictator might be a gentle father to his children. From the first book of the Bible we see the character of Esau who lavished his father, Isaac, with honor and respect but was willing to murder his brother. The sentient population of a D&D world isn't just Unaligned, they're in-between Good v Evil and a mix of both at the same time.

In order for people to relate with Dungeons & Dragons, it should mesh with the broad tropes of storytelling.

-Aaron

Monday, January 16, 2012

Not Just Along For The Ride

Here on 5e World, I intend to blog about any insights that will help Dungeons & Dragons: 5th Edition capture the essence of D&D and be the best game possible. From time to time I hope to cover lessons learned from previous editions (Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 2nd edition, 3rd edition, v.3.5), related games (Wheel of Time RPG), Open Game License (d20, OGL) games, and even from other roleplaying games outside the D&D family. This isn't just a place to point out things that didn't work in Dungeons & Dragons: 4th Edition, I also want to remember the successes of each edition that should be retained in future iterations of D&D.

Q: What huge leap forward was made by 4th edition?

A: Character balance.

Classes in 4th edition fill different roles and Wizards of the Coast made certain that no one class could fill all of those roles. Roles were conveniently named and assigned to each class: Controller, Defender, Leader, and Striker. If you wanted to kill a monster and kill it quickly you needed to have a striker or two otherwise it was going to be a long slow slog through all those hit points. The gap between the damage dealt by strikers and all other classes was such that my players always noticed.

In D&D v.3.5 there were classes that felt superfluous after a certain level because they could be completely replaced by the walking "toolbox" of spells held by Wizards, Druids, and Clerics. The spellcasters could kill monsters faster than the v.3.5 fighter ("Save or Die"), deal more damage than the rogue (flame strike), bypass locks better than rogues, hide perfectly (invisibility), and have a bunch of game-changing fun abilities to top it all off (fly).

Non-spellcaster classes in 4th edition now scale up just like their Wizard friends. At 20th level you still feel just as valuable to the party with your archer Ranger as the Wizard in your adventuring group. At-Will, Encounter, and Daily attacks across all classes succeeded in giving Wizards of the Coast a mechanism to keep the game fun at high levels for all players regardless of the flavor or style of character they like to play.

Keep up the good work.

-Aaron

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Death by a Thousand Errata

My goal with these blog posts is to keep them short and focused on a single topic within the context of giving feedback to help improve Dungeons & Dragons Next. Now let's talk about errata, D&D, and the digital age.

Errata was published during the print run of Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition and v.3.5 on a semi-regular basis. There wasn't the online support from Wizards of the Coast that 4th edition has so players mostly built their characters from the D&D books they had on the shelf or shared with their gaming group. Thinking back to my games, we rarely used any of the official errata. Basically we only used rules changes if the issue being fixed was egregiously broken or if the errata improved the situation to the player's advantage and, even then, sometimes we didn't use the errata at all.

D&D 4th edition made two important changes to the errata process. One, the Dungeons & Dragons Insider (DDI) initiative gave Wizards of the Coast the Amazon Kindle-like ability to telekinetically edit monsters and player character features (feats, powers, magic items, &c) across a large swath of players. Two, the consistency of the game design made game balance more of a focus and easier to measure.

Wizards of the Coast went too far with errata in support of 4th edition. There was too much errata for 4th edition, too often, and without enough regard to the pain such changes cause. In many ways becoming more like World of Warcraft was positive but not along the lines of constant fiddling with D&D items/feats/powers in pursuit of game balance.

Once put in a print publication, like the Player's Handbook 2 or Martial Power, the standard should be very high before rules errata are published that change the impact of that game element. In order to change something that has been published it needs to be broken or game-breaking rather than just imperfect.

I have an annual subscription to DDI but I would still like to be able to read my printed D&D 4th edition rulebooks and brainstorm character builds. The current rules errata are so far away from what I own that either players won't buy print books at all (IMO, a bad business plan for Wizards of the Coast) or players will ignore errata (which factionalizes the 4th edition player base).

-Aaron

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Do You Really Get What You Pay For?

Within two days of Wizards announcing Dungeons & Dragons: 5th Edition I noticed in my Facebook feed a post by ArtOrder linking to An Open Letter to D&D Next’s Art Department. Kristoffer's letter reminded me of a complaint that I'll get to in a moment which I think extends his point in a slightly different direction.

I bought a lot of roleplaying game books over the years that I never intended to play and never used any of the game mechanics. In each case I bought those books because I liked the art and the ideas the art inspired in me for characters or monsters. Not once was I swayed in favor of buying a roleplaying game because it included free nudity.

Nymph, MM v.3.5, pg 198
Dungeons & Dragons: 3rd Edition was an inspired reboot of a classic game but it wasn't perfect. The cheesy blonde nymph on page 143 of the Monster Manual (Core Rulebook III) wasn't much of a fey nor "nature's embodiment of physical beauty".

The v.3.5 update of the Monster Manual clearly tried to make up for the failure of the previous attempt. Elmore's blonde bimbo was replaced by a naked, but more fey appearing, porn star complete with areolae, tracts of land, and more.

As a father of four children, all of whom should play D&D like my wife and myself, I can say that I don't want this kind of art in my roleplaying games.

Kids play Dungeons & Dragons. I started playing when I was ten years old (yes, I know that was a long time ago). D&D is an all ages game and the art in the only mainstream tabletop roleplaying game does not need to provide titillation.

As a business, I don't think the nymph in v.3.5 of the Monster Manual sold extra copies of the game but I can feel very confident that there are parents who will skip buying books that cross the line. While I have not made an exhaustive analysis of 4th edition art, in this regard I believe that 4th edition has actually gotten slightly better than v.3.5.

The art in my Dungeons & Dragons books is important to me and important to why I enjoy the game. If done inappropriately that art can get in the way of fun and ultimately send me elsewhere to spend my money.

-Aaron

Friday, January 13, 2012

Bring It On!

Wizards of the Coast, the makers of Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering, announced on January 9th that a 5th edition of the venerable D&D roleplaying game is headed our way. Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition, its official moniker is D&D Next, got some substantial press coverage.

I can't wait!

I started playing playing D&D back in 1985 and I still love it to this day. I even had the pleasure of working on Dungeons & Dragons during my time at Wizards of the Coast from 2000 to 2006. Wizards has stated that they want the participation of fans and I created this blog as place where I can transcribe my thoughts for that process. I'm ready for 5th edition now, tomorrow would be acceptable, but I also don't want it rushed because there are some areas for improvement in 4th edition.

Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition was perfect response to the problems of 3rd edition (technically D&D v3.5 at the time). Make fighters as useful as wizards? Check. Remove the problem of unlimited swordplay but finite wizard spells? Check. Rationalize the planar cosmology? Check. Add key fantasy concepts like the realm of Faerie? Check. Allow more options for building a party of varied character classes (I'm looking at you, Cleric)? Check.

Thank you, Wizards of the Coast, for 3rd edition and 4th edition. Now bring on the D&DNext iteration!

-Aaron