Saturday, August 25, 2012

Watching the GenCon D&D Keynote Speech

I know, I'm a bit behind, but I just watched it. Ed Greenwood is fascinating. I could listen to that guy all day.  I even made an icon of him.

John and Mike spoke with passion about the game. And Kevin admirably kept them on track -- it's hard to DM a bunch of DMs, as anyone who's been to one of Kevin's Boston game days knows, har har. Mike spoke frankly about the philosophical flaws of 4e, regardless of how well designed it was -- how it dictated a particular play style and turned a lot of players off as a result. I'm pretty sure he was talking directly to me -- secret signals were passed. His big talking point was player input and player choice. John showed some very purty pictures. Ed unleashed a kraken-sized load of FR novels from R. A. Salvatore and others. I don't read D&D novels, but I'm glad they are there to create a revenue stream and fire up the game-lust of the faithful.

You know, back in this post, I made some predictions about 5e, so let's see how I did. Here are my predictions from January of this year:
  • Overall Design Philosophy: Modular, rather than exception-based. Lots of watertight compartments you can screw with and not sink the whole ship. Emphasis will be on imagination, open-ended, interpretive play, less on mechanics. 
  • Armor Class: They will use the high = good, low = bad AC scale of 3e and 4e.
  • Saving Throws: Will follow the 4e model of being treated as additional forms of defense/armor, but will inexplicably be called saving throws anyway because the retro aspects of 5e will mostly be superficial nods to earlier game elements.
  • Generating Ability Scores: multiple methods will be described, from strict roll-in-order to point build. The preferred method will be roll 4d6, discard low die, arrange as desired.
  • Ability Scores' Effect on Play: More robust than in 1e, with anything above an 11 providing at least some benefit, but the list of bennies will be short. Strength will add damage, Con will add HP, Dex will add AC and missile accuracy, Int and Wis will affect arcane and divine spellcasting, and Cha will affect NPC interactions.
  • Classes: The basic game will include only wizard, fighter, cleric, and thief (yes, thief, not rogue, another easy cookie to toss at the retro crowd). Bards, barbarians, druids, and rangers will be add-ons. Weirdly, class abilities will get fairly modular again, with separate mechanics for turning undead, picking locks, and so on.
  • Races: The classic elf, dwarf, human, half-elf, and halfling. Half-orcs and gnomes will be optional. Dragonborn, eladrin, and tiefling will not be standard issue. Races will get some ability score tweaks and a paragraph or two of fluff in the basic game and that's about it.
  • Skills: the skill challenges of 4e will be quietly throttled with a silken cord and replaced with a short list of proficiencies, carefully limited to those most likely to be used in an adventure. "Roleplay it out" will be the preferred problem-solving method.
  • Combat: Far fewer conditions. Marked and blooded will be part of a tactical add-on. Daily and encounter powers will go bye-bye. Ditto healing surges. Combats will be shorter and deadlier for PCs.
  • Spells: Out-of-combat spells will come back in a big way. Rituals go bye-bye. Several game-busting spells like scry, fly, and whatever will disappear or become far rarer.
  • Magic Items: Won't be gimmes -- you'll find them in the course of play. Look for a general powering down of magic items. A +2 sword will be pretty cherry.
So how'd I do?


[Free Icons] 8 Bandits

Also suitable for footpads, thieves, robbers, rogues, thugs, and ne'er-do-wells.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Sadly, D&D is going to be Just Fine

After getting my secret decoder ring in the mail and huddling around the wireless set by the light of a single bare bulb, pencil and paper in my trembling hands, I've been able to obtain the latest DNDNext playtest documents. And then translate them into English in my head. 

Character creation is what I most wanted to see, especially race, class, and feat-thingie options. The new advantage/disadvantage mechanic has been used in clever and sensible ways, and really worked into the meat of the game. (Orcs can gain disadvantage in exchange for doing more damage, for example). The rules model cool things that a hero would do in a story, rather than describing how your little quasi-chess-piece can hop around the grid in slightly different ways and then slap a bitchin' name on it like Gold Gryphon Feint.

The whole "background and specialty" thing is presented as optional, but if you don't use it you'd have to make up your own procedure for doling out skills and feats. The various backgrounds (think "skill packages") are class-neutral, which got me thinking about cleric bounty hunters and wizard thugs and how unexpected pairings of class and background would make for interesting characters. The specialties (which are feat-trees, really) are as free-floating as you could reasonably make them. Acolyte thief, anyone? If you're creative, you can use the specialties to make the base classes into pseudo-prestige classes. Want a swordmage? Fighter + magic-user specialty. Ninja? Fighter + lurker. Mocha? Coffee + chocolate.

So ok D&D, you did it. You're going to be fine.  Now I can manufacture another reason to worry, namely: will these be core books I'd enjoy reading even if I never play the game? That hinges on entertaining writing, great illustrations, and inspiring concepts. I never bought the 4e books because they seemed like an issue of Newsweek for Kids. Lots of white space, enclosing bland writing with all the sharp edges wrapped in foam. Here's my suggestion. Get a different person to write each chapter and put their mark on it. Mike Mearls is going to tell you how to run combats, and when you read that chapter, it's Mike talking to you. In the DMG there would be, like, three legendary DMs or module designers writing about worldbuilding. Gosh that would be exciting. We could deal with it, really. You've done bland and it didn't get you any new converts. Go personal. If D&DNext turns out to be just fine, cool, but you've got the chance to make it special if you keep your eye on making magic and connecting with the reader.

[Free Icons] 8 Skeletons

More little icons for your personal use.


Tuesday, August 14, 2012

DNDNext English Translation Service

Yes, WOTC, I know it's just a playtest document. But does the writing have to be this awkward? I had to read it about three times before I could begin to follow it.

In the original:

"When you are in an area of civilization, you can find and take on bounties, allowing you to legally hunt down and capture or kill the subjects of those bounties. Additionally, as a legally recognized bounty hunter, sometimes the authorities will come to you with bounty hunting needs.
When you attempt to locate the subject of your bounty, if you fail to locate that quarry yourself, you always know where to go and from whom to obtain information on that quarry’s whereabouts. Usually this comes in the form of contacts you have cultivated on past hunts.

And now in English:

"You have the right to hunt down and catch or kill people with a bounty on their heads. You can find a list of bounties in any area that offers them. The authorities may offer you more work as a bounty hunter. If your quarry gets away, you can use your network of contacts to find out where the person is hiding."

A good editor could make the rules so much easier to understand. Please hire one. She doesn't have to know anything about gaming, just about writing with clarity and concision.

10 Dwarves

More little icons. Don't repost without attribution, blah blah blah.

Monday, August 13, 2012

12 Orcs

Suitable as paper miniatures and as icons for virtual tabletop games. Not for commercial use. Please do not repost this image without a linkback to my site.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

DMing for 80

As a quaint form of communication, play-by-mail has joined the company of heliographs and messenger pigeons, but in the 70s and 80s, PBM games were a viable sphere of gaming activity. Some game magazines, like Steve Jackson's Fantasy Gamer, published monthly updates for popular PBM games, like Angrelmar

It is 1984, you pick up the magazine and read:

Again the churchmen met on the Isle of Ara to solemnize the union of the four churches into the Imperial Church. Hildric of Dragona became primate of Angrelmar and head of the Council. He appointed Divor of Hatra to be Cardinal Bishop of the Imperial Church in Angrelmar. Many secular lords attended this council, including the regent, Rathal and Prince Vicor. Vicor used this occasion to denounce his cousin, Auerlus, for oathbreaking which Vicor believed cleared his own name at the same time. The council also accepted Lady Callizar's realm into the Empire as the Principality of Shalamar. That fall, at the Feast of Alfons, the lords of the South offered a crown to their Lady Callizar.

It goes on. And those were just the most significant events of a single turn in the game. At that point, Angrelmar had 80 players, each one a lord or lady with a fiefdom somewhere in a vast continent. The guy who ran the game, R., was in my wargaming group, and I played in the campaign for a bit. He received dozens of letters each month from players detailing how they were spending their incomes, where their armies were marching, and what alliances they had formed. Everything was plotted on the big map of Angrelmar, and each player received a letter from R. detailing the results of that turn's move, which represented one year of game time. And there was plenty of player-to-player communication too, via mail and phone calls. Schemes, deals, assassination atttempts...

It all added up to an insanely detailed living world of politics, economies, and war. It was so big that no one player could possibly grasp it all. You focused on your corner of the realm, your immediate neighbors, just like a real feudal lord must have done. Because a decade would pass by in a year of real time, your character would age, marry, have kids. The resulting narrative read like something out of A Game of Thrones.

Once a year or so, R. would host a council of the realm in which players would show up at a gaming con or at his rambling backwoods house to RP in person. Any big battles between players would be played out turn by turn, using lovingly painted armies of 25mm miniatures. The alcohol-fueled scheming and backstabbing would go on all weekend. Good times.

When email came in, these games continued for a while. Despite being easier to adjudicate with the help of Excel spreadsheets and instant communication, they yielded gradually to computer gaming, and have been all but forgotten. Even the laziest googler can find some that are still going, I suppose.

R. didn't do this for free, mind you. Each turn cost $3, which was fair compensation considering that running Angrelmar must have been a full time job. A monthly subscription to WoW is what, $12 now? So tell me, how much would you pay per month to play in something like Angrelmar? If I Kickstarted it, would there be takers?

Thursday, August 2, 2012

To Be Continued...

The blog will be quiet next week, but I'll be back! In the meantime, enjoy these icons I made:

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Unpacking Task Resolution Systems

Here's a tool you can use to tease out the mechanics of any RPG's task resolution/action system. It's based on attribution theory, which in layman's terms is the study of the factors that contribute to achievement. Google it if you're interested. Anyway, this is a simple matrix that defines each factor in a task resolution system as internal or external, constant or variable. Ability is constant. It's represented in most games as your skill level or ability score or ability modifier. Task difficulty is almost always set by the DM as the standard you need to reach in order to succeed. Effort usually appears only in systems that use dice pools or spell points or any other rule that allows the PC to buy advantage at the cost of some other finite resource. Luck is whatever the die roll adds to the PC's attempt. The first matrix is blank, for you to copy and print for your personal use. The second matrix I have filled in to give you an example. It's a way of standardizing how you look at game mechanics, whether you're designing your own or making a comparative study of other RPGs. Enjoy!