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).


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!


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


* 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 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).


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.


* 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.