31 July 2010

Would "D&D Essentials get you to switch to 4e?"

A question from the Enworld forums.

. . . will the new Essentials products get you to try (or retry) 4e?

Now, why in the hell would a stripped-down, intentionally crippled version of a game that I'd already tried and found wanting appeal to me? What sort of appeal is there in getting the first 1/10th of a miniatures combat game? Clearly Wizards has learned from Games Workshop in a very serious way; Games Workshop requires that you buy the base rules and each army's individual rulebook, and then individual miniatures (roughly $40 per batallion or hero). And so Wizards creates book after book after book, each with sillier races and classes and ideas packed within.

But I digress. My answer: NO!

What about the Essentials book is supposed to appeal to me, exactly?

The game's an overly-combat focused, wargame-lite created by people who apparently not only misunderstand roleplaying (it's not a Charisma check, people) but aren't apparently sure what a DM is for. DMs aren't there to read "adventure paths", people. They're not there to read the module for you or to act as the rules jockey. And the party doesn't exist as a gigantic collection of skill checks and statistics, or as Class Archetypes or whatever. A party isn't composed of 2 Controllers and 1 Defender or whatever, it's Grimguts the Orc Slayer and Yomlin the Witcher and whatnot.

Watch my list of complaints about 4e and see how many are solved by the Essentials line:

1) Default inspiration is bland post-Tolkien anime-influenced fantasy. Nope, still does that.
2) Game revolves entirely around combat. Yeah, pretty sure they're not going to redesign all of 4e for this little box set.
3) An "Optimal Character Build" is heavily encouraged by the game. Again, not fixed.
4) Classes all play and feel exactly the same. And again.
5) Game has terrible art. And again.
6)Monsters are generic and bland. And again.
7)Game focuses is limited character options, rather than freeform play. And again.
8)Combat in game is a miniatures-light minigame requiring "battlemats" and exact positioning. If I wanted to play Warhammer, I'd bust out my Dwarf gunline and roll those tiny d6s. Or I'd play Descent: Journeys in the Dark
9)Feels overly "gamey". Everything feels paper-thin and artificial.
10)Hit point inflation has gone insane. Why, exactly, does everybody have 30 hit points at first level?
11)Combat takes too long. Combat takes at least half an hour, even for small combats. How that's acceptable, I have no idea.
12)Game feels bloodless and hollow. Since everybody has 30 health at 1st level and my sword deals 1d8, I have to hit the average mook, on average, way too many damn times.

I could go on, but you get the picture.

Now let's look at what 4e Essentials gets right, in the interest of fairness.

1)They release the game's rules as one book. While it's not the entire book, it's at least enough to get the core mechanics. You could treat the game as Holmes edition and limit advancement, or you could homebrew yourself the other 28(!) levels.
2)They gave the Wizard a unique class mechanic. It's not a unique one (hello again, Vancian magic!) but it's at least a start so that all of the class abilities aren't just rejiggered versions of each other. Like I said, it's a start.
3)They're trying to get new players. For all the irritation I have about 4e, it is spreading the hobby. Each person playing 4e is another person that we can try to help "get it", so to speak. I'm not saying my way of gaming is the absolute best way, but...

So, please, what exactly does Essentials have that will bring me back to the fold? I'm absolutely dying to know!

30 July 2010

A Little Bit Of Silliness

I'm supposed to be working on "Servants of Plague", but instead I'm browsing around at some blogs. At the blog "Tales of the Rambling Bumblers," one post in particular caught my eye: http://webamused.com/bumblers/2008/12/11/skill-challenges-threat-or-menace/

And for the same reasons I'd elucidated, here I find a blog post that explains exactly why I don't like skill challenges in 4e. I don't want to get into edition bashing, mind you, because the exact same thing has happened in every edition, but with much less explanation.

That thing is the reduction of roleplaying to a series of die rolls. It's the reason I flat out told my players (in 3rd edition D&D) not to bother taking ranks in Diplomacy, because I'm not letting you roll instead of talk to people. You can't roll some dice and tell me that you were so eloquent that the Duke cried and adopted you on the spot. I want you to prove it, and to come up with something that makes all of that happen.

I just can't understand it. And in the comments, a man, Scott, says that, and I quote:

The only way a skill challenge is *really* different from previous editions is that there’s a structure whereby the entire party can/should participate, and the success or failure of the attempt rides not on a single roll or two, but on a number of rolls.
Persuading an NPC in 1e: Roleplay + Charisma check.
Persuading an NPC in 3e: Roleplay + Bluff or Diplomacy check. Or maybe Intimidate.
Persuading an NPC in 4e: Roleplay + skill challenge, in which the party might use Diplomacy, Intimidate, Bluff, Insight, or even other skills. (Assuming it’s important; otherwise a single skill check still works. You don’t run a skill challenge every time a PC wants to haggle over the price of rations.)
In all three cases, a bad GM and/or bad players can skip the “roleplay” part and reduce it to a die roll. And in all three cases, the dice are unnecessary if the roleplay is convincing enough.
Skill challenges change *nothing* about the roleplay.

Joshua, the author of the Rambling Bumblers blog, calls him out. And I can't see why not. The man has missed the point entirely- he's defending Skill Challenges by saying, "This system designed to get around roleplaying doesn't really get around roleplaying. In older editions, you used to just roll different things to avoid roleplaying!"

One, I don't know if everybody did that. I certainly didn't. And two, that's patently untrue. With the exception of 3rd edition D&D's Diplomacy skill, there was no mechanic for turning out of combat events into a series of dice rolling similar to combat. There was absolutely no precedent for this sort of thing, and there shouldn't be a call for this bizarre substitution, either. With skill challenges, instead of using actual brainpower, experimentation, or logic to solve Puzzle X, you use Skills A, B, and C until it works.

It's a sad, sad shame on par with the fact that traps are all detected with a die roll instead of planning and intelligence, but I digress. The point of this post is to highlight another blogger's intelligent and interesting post, not to add my own poorly-worded two cents to an old discussion. :P

Is it really that common to honestly mistake "roll-playing" from role-playing? I've always thought that was a strawman discussion, where people insist that making Diplomacy checks or rolling Charisma counts as an interesting roleplay encounter.

29 July 2010

Super Simple Combat Maneuvers


I don't like to update twice a day, but this is something that must be held onto. It's a dead simple system for adding combat maneuvers without introducing too much metagaming crunchiness, or complexity. There's no reason not to use this tonight.

Finishing the Plague Orcs

Enough slacking for me. Temple of the Plague Orcs is, and has been, nearing completion for a good, long while now and there's really no reason that it isn't done already. Sure, there isn't a map for it yet, but that's not really much of an excuse. AutoRealm is a passable dungeonmapper, if you can get it to work, and it's the only one that has a deep enough feature set. I'm also tinkering with the possibility of simply drawing it by hand? Maybe, and maybe not.

The module's only a couple of months overdue and it probably would never be finished if not for the idea for the next module to come out, the one about the icy ridge and the yeti and the artifact. Much more exciting than a run-down castle filled with decayed and half-mad pigmen, don't you think?


I know, today's got a boring update. "Oh, wow", you think irritably, "an update to a module I'll probably only glance over cursorily? First off, rude. Secondly, it's good practice for somebody who never finishes what he starts to try and complete something, even if it's only so that he can get to something else. One of the hardest things to do in this world is to finish what you've started after it's stopped being fun and started being boring, arduous work. It's a trial, it's boring, and it's difficult to get the little things right after having great fun making easy, broad strokes of "Hey, lets do something with ruins," and "Hey, let's make orcs a little different," et cetera. But figuring out the layout, and the fonts, and the exact wording, and playtesting, and so on and so forth is not only hard work, it's damn arduous.

That said, I'm currently looking for fonts so as I can put my layout into KolourPaint (the most intuitive paint application I've used on any platform, let alone Ubuntu) and make it shine. I'm not liking the faux-retro look that I've currently got going on, but it's a crapshoot as to what else to do. Hopefully an idea will present itself while I'm working on it. Suggestions, as always, are welcome.

27 July 2010

The Nerdiest Dreams

Sometimes, I have dreams about going into a locally-owned bookstore and finding an obscure, probably out of print RPG product and just trying to sit there and read it. It's all so insanely interesting and original, and it excites me so much to read it, but when I wake up, I can't remember what it's about at all.

The idea of reams and reams of obscure, vital, interesting roleplaying material out there makes me want to plumb the depths of every single yard sale in existence. Honestly. The mass-produced, boring, overly-derivative sludge that gets produced is so uninteresting it's insane. What I want is the early passion for the game, where people would write rules for the first time ever, with no idea whether or not they'd make any money, with one foot in the door and the other in giddy, amateur hobbyism.

Is it too much to ask for a age of more chaos and energy, instead of the saccharine emptiness of overly-glossy product filling shelves to meet revenue quotas?

23 July 2010

Testicular Fortitude Is What Drives Us!

An idea from this blog post:

In summary: Fantasy heroes, even theives, don't scavenge bronze coins from the bottoms of wells, or pry silver filigree from carvings in old temples, instead preferring to steal ancient priceless artifacts and great gems.

An old, unfinished system I once drafted had levels based on how much fame your character had amassed and had increasing power levels based on exactly how much Rank you had, where Rank was the numeric signifier of your fame/infamy. It encouraged heroes to go forth and brag about themselves, and do accomplish goals that were just difficult enough to get people to notice them; in other words, to seek out challenges. It was the only way to gain experience and to become ever more powerful.

As an example, a common man could gain rank by, for example, helping defend his town against barbarian slave raids. He would have a little bit of recognition, but not much, but if he kept on track, then he could continue gaining prestige and power and maybe become a local celebrity.

On the other hand, if Odysseus stole a couple of gold from a beggar, nobody would much care. It wouldn't add to his fame in the least- the man had already blinded a cyclops and slain harpies and braved the song of the sea nymphs and all sorts of other interesting goals. It's simply not important enough to be part of his legend after his death. If anything, it'd decrease his fame, as people would say, "Oh, yeah, he tells people he's a big hero, but I saw him bully money out of some homeless drunk. What kind of hero is that?"

It makes for egotistical and self-centered adventurers, and certainly changes the style of the game from penny-pinching theives into Greek style heroes who don't have any problem telling people exactly who they are, where they come from, and why they're here.

20 July 2010

I Don't Fit In Anywhere.

I'm a young gamer who loves MMOs, has free-form roleplayed in chat rooms with my friends, and doesn't think 4th edition D&D is anything resembling a good roleplaying game. (It's a decent miniatures game, and a seriously rules-heavy wargame. And speaking of which, if you have more complex rules than Warhammer, then you're headed down the wrong path.)

My first game was BECMI, which I taught myself, and then moved on to 3rd edition which I played for years. We played a seriously bastardized version of the game- it was transformed into a rules-light approximation of itself by ditching multiclassing, wealth by level, skills, grappling, and anything else we didn't really like.

I then went back to playing OSR games like Labyrinth Lord and OSRIC, although LL is the game for my heart. I don't think that race-as-class rules are bad, because humanocentric campaigns are cooler. As a matter of fact, I toyed with the idea of changing all the races into regular human classes (where the dwarf would be a dungeoneer and the elf, a battle wizard.)

I've read Jack Vance, and think Cudgel is a hilarious curmudgeon. R. E. Howard was one of my favorite authors before I ever rolled a die.

So where do I fit? People decry the decline of gaming by a bunch of snot-nosed kids who demand that games resemble the MMOs they love so much, and that they be combat-centered hack and slashing rampages where characters never die and storylines are linear and they win all the time and get newer, shinier swords. But I play MMOs more than I roll dice, due to my recent move, and here I am, reading about LL and oD&D and retroclones and trying to figure out whether or not Dwarfs deserve to exist in a sword and sorcery campaign, and what, exactly, the hit dice of a sand demon is.

I guess what I'm trying to say is: Don't lose hope for the next generation. We're not all idiots. Some of us are as entranced by the brilliance of Gygax and Mentzer and Moldvay et cetera as you "old guys". The very best of us realize how lucky we are to be accepted among people who've been playing for 20+ years, who are willing to impart some hard-earned wisdom on us.

Thanks to you guys for your patience, and for letting those of us that are trying to "get it" the opportunity to learn before the masters. 

19 July 2010

Getting Worked Up

It's difficult to get myself worked up about things in the gaming world. Some authors, whom shall not be named, have absolutely no problem getting upset about differences in playstyle, or of opinion of what games should be about or played like, or about whether new editions are better than the old. They can write enormous, screen-spanning essays about the minute details in the arrangement of planes in the 2e DMG, and then write about common misperceptions and slight flaws in the design. Some people will rewrite entire game systems so that they fit their preferred setting.

Your host, the underwhelming Nick Crayon, is unable to do these things because he simply does not care. And he's happier that way.

Maybe it's a product of the live-and-let-live philosophy ingrained in him by his culture. Maybe it's a product of the "evils" of tolerance preached in every relatively modern child's schooling, where there are no wrong answers and everybody's opinion is respected and deserves, at the very least, a modicum of attention.

And as such, it's increasingly difficult to think of things to write about. Angrier people have more interesting opinions, and they write significantly more. They have demands that they make, and whether you're for them or against them, they stand for something. It's the reason why Glen Beck and Bill O'Reilly and Anderson Cooper and Larry King are all popular- you know exactly where they stand and why. Even if you disagree, you can still see what they have to say, to find something to argue with or against.

And they're famously popular. The explosive, opinionated people are the ones with the TV shows. The "psychologist" who gets all the attention is the enormous, hyperbolic Dr. Phil. The radio DJ with all the attention is the, shall we say, attention-grabbing Rush Limbaugh. The most popular TV station is the one that devotes what seems like half of its time to its opinion panel, with such conservative icons as Sean Hannity and friends.

Shouldn't we be devoting more of our time to more moderate voices? Or is that too much to ask, coming from a relatively moderate blog?

18 July 2010

Designing Combat Systems

I think that designing a combat system to be elegant and expandable is possibly the hardest thing in this game. Anybody can throw a thousand rules out there, and patch together a system (I'm looking at you, Palladium), but it's hard as hell to have as little as possible.

In my case, the game I'm designing has two sentences on how to roll attack and damage. The attacking is easy: Roll underneath your Agility + Attack - your target's Defense on a 2d6. Minimal mental math, right? All you need to do is compare a couple of one-digit values to a pre-determined score.

But the damage formula is giving me a hissy fit. Ideally, it'd involve rolling your Might + Weapon Damage versus their Toughness + Armor Bonus. But the game uses a roll-under system, similar to the one used in old editions of D&D, and in Labyrinth Lord. Roll underneath your attribute for a success, roll over and fail.

In addition, I'm trying to keep the dice rolls down. What I'd had before is comparing the defender's Toughness + Armor Bonus to the attacker's Weapon Damage + Might, and that'd be the modifier on the Toughness roll. But as anybody can see, that's a relatively complex formula to do at the table, and not nearly as elegant as the attacking roll. But is there any solution?

Might should be an adjusting factor in your damage, just as Toughness should be a factor in whether or not you take damage. Ditto with Weapon Damage and Armor Bonuses. But I'm not entirely sure how to express that.

Perhaps roll the Weapon + Might into a Damage score, and Toughness + Armor Bonus into a Resistance roll, and then compare those to each other, like in the attack roll? And then use that result as the bonus or penalty to the defender's Toughness save?

It could certainly work, now that I think on it, especially since the point is that if you get hit, you're probably going to get hurt. A failed Toughness save can result in one or more damage, depending on how poorly one rolls. Getting hit by a sword is sincerely unpleasant, and you'd be lucky not to die from some of the larger weapons people bring with them.

But is my solution elegant enough?

10 July 2010

The Sand Elemental

In the session I DMd the other day, one of the things that stuck out in my head was the total lack of interesting desert-native creatures. Desert locations are extremely cool, and they can be underused except in the "plunder this pseudo-egyptian tomb" location. But even that is underused, considering how vast and varied such a location has the potential to be!

In an effort to reconcile this, here's the Sand Elemental, a creature I'd created for the session but (sadly) never was encountered. Such is life!

07 July 2010

Weapon Sizes and Damage

As a compromise between oD&D's weapons all dealing a single d6 and the (in my mind) unnecessary complexity of giving each and every weapon a statistic, weight, cost, and price, I've decided on a good compromise.

Each category of weapon has a single unique damage die:

Throwing: 1d4
Bow: 1d6
One-Handed Weapon: 1d8
Two-Handed Weapon: 1d12

Blunt weapons, such as must be used by clerics, are one die size smaller, except the throwing weapon, which would be 1d4-1 damage. This is to counteract blunt weapons' other useful properties, and to help reconcile the clerics' weapon limitations in a fairly simplistic system.

This gives a uniform damage type and serves to differentiate the weapon types without worrying about whether to get a Battle Axe or a Two-Handed Sword, and whether a Pole Axe is better than a Spear. Weapon versus weapon discussions are boring and limit player choice where there is no real reason to. In addition, it means that a busy DM has one less table to try and memorize when stocking his Dungeon of Dangerous Depths, and that players aren't penalized for attempting to play a scimitar-wielding Dervish instead of a Polearm and Bastard sword-wielding generic Fighter.

Pocket Mod: Use Them

Recently my gaming has improved tremendously. How?

Introducing Pocket Mod. It's basically a piece of paper folded a couple of times to make a miniature booklet. The cool part is that you can customize it. I've taken to printing them out and using them to record the dungeons I make up during gameplay, and also to make a little cheat-booklet of the monsters I plan on using, as well as some ideas for traps and pitfalls and whatnot. The notes will probably get distilled into a short adventure module which will undergo serious revising and then get posted here and various other places.

But the point is about the Pocket Mods. Try printing one, and see if you can't think of a thousand uses for it.

Sorry for sounding like a shill, but it's really fairly cool.

06 July 2010

Minus the Plusses

I have a feeling that magic items may be more interesting sans modifier. Take away the plusses and minuses, and you get away a large part from the "magic item store" problem that many people have run into, and the stinginess inherent in the thought that multiple magic items will "ruin" campaign balance.

For example, imagine a Holy Avenger without its plusses; a sword that "merely" penetrates the defenses of magical evil creatures and is able to dispel magic. Or, one of my personal favorites, the Frost Brand. Minus its bonus to attack and damage, it would merely shine when freezing cold, possess the power to put out fires, and deal extra damage against hot creatures.

Of course, magic items are still sharper and more deadly than nonmagical ones, and they have a certain property that allows them to strike more often by virtue of being of superior balance or enchantment. It perhaps isn't too much to allow magical items to grant a blanket +1 to attack and damage, or maybe +2. Maybe even +1 to attack and +2 to damage?

The net effect should be to roughly equalize all the magical items, and to make properties more important than bonuses, such that situation and player preference is more important than superior bonus, and to make the game incapable of providing magical items that characters discard at the first opportunity upon finding a brand new magical item and the problems that brings to any sort of self-consistent gameworld.

Next Campaign!

Now that Temple of the Plague Orcs (the first free module the author's produced, a basic site-based adventure for 1st-3rd level characters) is nearly done, it's time for a post-mortem analysis.

The adventure, for the most part, was a good bit of fun when I ran it for my playtesting group. They died once, freed a prisoner, defeated small militant bands of plague orcs, and profitted. Although we never fininshed the module itself since the real world got in the way, it's mostly irrelevant. All that was left was two rooms and the warlord himself. So what went wrong and what went right?

03 July 2010

This image isn't at all related to this next post, but I like it a lot. The colors and the composition are really cool, and there's something about it that makes it greater than the sum of its parts. Not that the Elric / Giant Floating Skill combination isn't really, really cool, but just that it has a certain kind of charm. If you like the art style, feel free to check out Ming Doyle's site, it's chock full of coolness.


There's two reasons for the recent dearth of posts:

1) The author managed to snag himself a nice stomach bug, source unknown. No details, as they're not particularly nice, nor relevant to gaming in general or this blog in specific.

2) The author's been working on a retro old-school platformer with his buddies for a competition on The Independent Games Source, for the A Game By Its Cover competition. Lines of pseudo-code have been running through the author's brains for the last week, and it's hard to turn off the exact, mathematical side and change gears into the abstract writerly side lately.

But regardless, here's something really interesting: a forum post detailing another man's quest to retool the schools of magic. I've long felt that the magic as written needed work, but haven't given a single thought as to simply adjusting it. Here's a snippet, followed by the link:

The schools of magic in 2e DnD are arranged as follows in the PHB:


What can we say about this arrangement? Well, it seems natural enough that Altering things is opposite of Protecting (Abjuring) things (presumably they are being protected from being altered). Evocation also seems to be direct and brutal while Enchantment seems to represent subtle manipulations, so that is a fairly natural opposition. 

But Divination and Conjuration? WTF?!? I mean, isn't most of divination about asking questions to stuff on other planes? While Illusion and Necromancy aren't as obviously mis-opposed, there isn't a lot of reason to oppose them either: I mean are you seriously arguing fake stuff is the opposite of dead stuff?

Some of the bordering schools make sense too. Illusions and enchantment both seem to do mind stuff. Conjurers are typically depicted conjuring whilst inside a circle of protection. Evocation and Necromancy seem to share some direct damage causing flavored effects. 

But Alteration and Divination? Evocation and Divination? So blowing up stuff and changing stuff is next to knowing about stuff? Cause invokers are so subtle and inquisitive right? Yeah... And Necromancy next to Abjuration? WTF? And while it might be convenient for a conjurer to also just charm whatever he summons, what is the RP reason that these are related magic processes? 


It's yet another post that really shows what kind of intellects are at work in the fantasy sphere. It's enough to make an average blog author feel quite... insignificant.

01 July 2010

D&D Legacy

Is 3rd edition D&D really in the same category as AD&D, BD&D, oD&D, and the like? Enworld has them lumped together and I don't know why I haven't taken thirty seconds to ponder this just yet.

Not much to update today, been kinda busy.