Next iteration

New D&D Next playtest is out! That means lots of reading, making notes, and being snarky. All the things I’ve done with the previous iteration in one convenient package. I’ve rather enjoyed being an ass in my notes in the past, so that’s what I’ll do again. This is an ongoing commentary as I read through the new rules, comparing them side-by-side with the previous version, so it will probably make more sense if you read the files with me. It is also rather detailed.

If you don’t feel like reading the 4000 words or so, here’s the short version: this is a much better playtest. Things got polished, many of the oversights were remedied. But new oversights were made! Of the two significant new parts presented, character generation and encounter building, the latter fails to live up to promises and doesn’t work. Disregarding that, we got a playable game. This one I’d actually consider running a playtest of. Regrettably, it’s still going in the direction I don’t like, but at least now it looks like it might get there. Continue reading

Supernatural

D&D Next playtest suggests D&D may be headed back to simulationism. Seemingly unrelatedly, the “fighter linear, wizard quadratic” issue is being brought up, as it also seems poised to return. For those unfamiliar with the phrase, it describes the rate of power growth of those and similar classes, which leads to wizards completely overshadowing fighters at higher levels. However, simulationism is at the core of a faulty assumption which leads to linear fighters. A faulty assumption that fighters have to be non-magical, mundane, well-trained people.

Let us start by stating that there is nothing wrong about playing a game where wizards eventually are the best – as long as that’s the explicit assumption that players accept. For instance, in Ars Magica main player characters are all mages. But often players also make mundane servants called grogs, and take them on adventures with individual mages when plot calls for it. There is never a doubt that mages are more powerful and more important (not necessarily capable of feeding themselves or finding their arse with the map drawn on their trousers, but that’s where grogs come in). But that is not the game D&D promises. It promises we can all be heroes. Warrior kings and archmages. Sword and Sorcery. Not Luggage Carrier and Sorcery.

If that is what the game promises us, if that is what the game designers aim to achieve as they sit down, where does it go wrong? With mundane fighters. Wizards, or at least D&D wizards, break the rules. They don’t do simulationism. They don’t do conservation of energy or any other stupid physics laws. And we can’t take that away from them – that’s their core purpose. But if fighters do obey some approximation of simulationist physics, they have no chance. Ever. If fighter design starts with “well, what can a man do with a sword?”, they are doomed. Because wizard design starts with “How soon should the wizard be able to change the world with a snap of his fingers?”

Thankfully, we seem to have avoided the atrocious “balancing” principle of wizards being dominant later on somehow compensated for by them being weak and useless at the start. All but the most hardcore oldschoolers seem to agree they don’t miss wizards stabbing enemies for 1d4-1 damage with their dagger because their 2 spells have run out, so I won’t beat on this dead horse here.

But back to our fighters. They’re not going to be on par with wizards in their ability to influence the world by themselves. No teleportation, no mass fly, no control weather. Instead, in order to compete with wizards, they need to be able to occasionally overcome them. They need to be able to shrug off the dominate they’re hit with, break through the wall of force, and wrestle the aberration into which the wizard turns themselves. In short, they need to be supernatural.

This is what Book of Nine Swords did in 3.5, and the reaction to it was very telling. Did it invalidate the core, mundane fighter? Sure it did. Mundane fighter’s idea of advancement was learning how to trip people up, or, more often, gaining a small bonus to attack or damage. Incremental and very rarely exclusive – others could learn same tricks if they cared to. Warblade’s idea of advancement was learning to parry spells with their sword. Which one is high-fantasy fighting man, capable of going toe to toe with wizards?

If they’re not supernatural from the start, fighters should become so by the time they turn paragon. There are a myriad ways to frame this: divine lineage, divine patronage, other firm’s lineage or patronage, sword magic, channeling chi, force of will… Artifact weaponry, if nothing else. Why artifact? Because merely relying on equipment is not sufficient, as wizards also have their allotment of magical stuff. No, if a fighter is still mundane but armed with a mighty sword, said sword should be a part of their class, i.e. kensai from 3.5 (terrible mechanically, but right idea).

Only by acknowledging the fighters as supernatural in their own right, and encouraging the DMs to do the same, can we avoid the issue of linear fighters in a simulationist game.

A Fistful of Gold Pieces

Come in son, take a seat. Lets talk about money. “Money” is an incredibly complex idea, one that permeates our society and influences many aspects of our life. Its roles are many, its mechanics are arcane, its biases are poorly understood by most of us. Generally, we accept that the more of it you have the better, and stop there. Its no wonder money and wealth in our games, being simplified representations of some aspects of real world money, are complex matters as well.

Let us look at the roles money play in roleplaying games. Just as with its real-world counterpart, we tend to accept it at face value in whatever system we use, which means we accept whatever the game designers assumed its purpose would be – not necessarily something we want to do! This is particularly true of go-to systems like D&D, which suffer a bit from being “generic” (not to mention a certain Generic system here): they have a particular purpose behind them, yet they get used for all sorts of applications, to which they may not be well suited. So, what is money? What are the categories of its usage in games? Continue reading

Next: on a serious note

In the three days since I put them up, my notes on D&D Next playtest materials have become the most read post on this blog. Hot topic, eh. It has been pointed out repeatedly that while observant, they’re too sarcastic and childish. I’d say there was a clear warning saying these were personal notes and not an analysis, but obviously that wasn’t communicated clearly enough. Failing that, I’ll do the next best thing: I’ll write the actual analysis that I said I wouldn’t. Yes, I’m caving it to peer pressure. And yes, I fully expect this post to get only a fraction of the views of the previous one. On with the show.

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Notes on D&D Next Playtest

As I was reading the playtest materials sent out yesterday by Wizards, I made notes of things that stood out, in hopes of making a post out of them. About half way through I realized I have no desire to write any analysis on these notes, and you’ll see why soon. Instead, I’ll put them up here for what it’s worth.

First and foremost: this is a cut-down version of the rules. WotC wants to see which parts of the rules are essential and shouldn’t be left out. I’m all for it. So some of these points will undoubtedly disappear after a few iterations.

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Inconsequential Combat

A while back I wrote a post on the inconsequential nature of most fights in D&D. Summarizing (and by all means, do read it, it’s probably the best post I have here), combat is inconsequential because its purpose is resource ablation. Originating in the dungeon crawling roots of D&D, this default approach allows the party to go through 4-6 fights a day, with tension rising as resources get expended. Only the last fight will carry the threat of killing a character or three, if things go well. Everything before was a prelude, with good tactics on the part of PCs letting them reduce the danger in that final confrontation. Troubles begin when your adventure doesn’t expect the PCs to have that many fights in a day.

This is the bit that many DMs stumble over: they consider threat of death being the purpose of combat, and therefore try to make every fight be a fight that can kill a PC. Since 4e wasn’t built for that, they have to use more and higher level monsters (or introduce drastic house rules like “halve the hit points and double the damage of monsters”, but that’s outside the scope of this post), which only serves to make combat longer. And since the PCs still refuse to go down, this results in DMs becoming even more frustrated as combat is now longer and still not doing what they want it to do.

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Dragon Tipping

This idea was brought on by recent discussions of save-or-die, as well as omnipresent lamentation of the way solo monsters get brought down by status effects in 4e, and finally something I have touched upon in a past post: intuitively, it should be harder to trip a dragon than it is to trip a goblin. But how, and why?

Because a dragon is a solo monster. This suggests that it should be tougher, not to mention more dignified than to spend half the battle on its back. A spell that would stop a goblin’s heart should merely give it hiccups. See the common thread? Status effects inflicted upon solo monsters should be inherently weaker. This is what the +5 bonus to saves tried to achieve, but we all know how that fared. This is tangentially related to the thought that power is different from level, and that solo/elite/standard/minion actually describe the difference in tiers between a monster and the PCs. Now, what can we do?

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4eLite

Following is a substantial mod of 4e, an attempt to cut away many of its unnecessary complications by getting rid of legacy elements and any attempts at simulation. Pure gamism & narrativism. No Red Queen’s races, no sacred cows. At the same time, the goal was to keep most of the original material viable and functioning essentially the same way. Not many explanations as to why certain elements are removed are provided – that’d take too long, and this post focuses on actual rules you can play with. Feel free to ask, though.

As I was writing this, one concern kept creeping up: would it still feel like D&D? I get rid of some of its essential elements, after all. But having run several sessions with this rule set, I can confidently say it hasn’t diminished our enjoyment of the game in the slightest. Your mileage may vary, obviously – let me know if you try it.

Why bother?

4e tries very hard to be balanced. It knows it works best with all the numbers within a certain range of one another. It shouldn’t be too hard to hit your opponent, just as it shouldn’t be too hard for the opponent to hit you. Attempting a task reasonable for your character should result in success more often than failure, but still not be guaranteed. With that in mind it goes out of its way to make sure that no matter how far you advance and what abilities you take, you won’t jump off the track. Naturally, this approach presents all sorts of constraints on characters and monsters, most of which are entirely unnecessary. Instead of moving the target along with projected average character progression, it’s much easier to set the critical values to what we want them to say, bolt them down and move on. Which is where this mod comes in.

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Marvelous initiative

New Marvel RPG came out a few days ago to general praise of various roleplaying blogs. I haven’t read it yet, though it’s quickly making its way to the top of the “to play” list. In the  meantime, this post caught my attention. It describes the way initiative works in MRPG (is that the official abbreviation?), as well as some reasoning behind it. And it’s trivial to adapt to most other games with minimal changes. Here’s how I’d use it in 4e. I’m assuming you’ve read the post or the game itself, so won’t describe it in unnecessary detail.

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Patient Two

In the previous part, after months of preparation the party had delivered their oldest enemy, the lord of madness called Patient One, to the one place where it could be destroyed. They ventured down into its prison, dragged it out of hiding and watched it burn. Just as it looked like it was about to unleash some new hell on them it exploded, showering them in aberrant flesh. They have won. Or so it seemed.

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