Saturday, January 28, 2012

How is 5e D&D Gonna Pull This Off?

WoTC 5e Seminar
I know it's a pain to read a blog entry that links to other sites, but you don't really need to read these to follow my line of thought. But here are the most recent official discussions from Monte Cook, Mike Mearls and the WoTC team about what 5e is gonna try and look like:

Discussion 1: mainly about the overall course of the game's development, look and feel
Discussion 2: specifically about class design, but with some other stuff too

So, in light of what's been said so far I'm curious about one thing in particular. And here I quote Mike Mearls from discussion 1,

Mike: "If we get this right, everyone is sort of playing their own edition of the game. All at the same table."

The question I have is how in the heck are they gonna pull that off?!

From reading the design seminars it seems to me they are aiming at trading abilities and damage bonus for other types of abilities that might make your PC more, I don't know, unique? because it seems they are trying to keep power bloat to a minimum by gradualizing the base attack bonuses over level rise; and requiring PCs to sacrifice certain basic abilities like an increasing BAB for more unique abilities like double attacks or fancy combat maneuvers.

To tell you the truth I'm really not sure, and based on the discussion afterwards others aren't sure either. I don't think the Wizards design team is being purposely evasive on everything. Just that some things they haven't quite figured out yet. And I can understand why.

The idea of having a 1e PC, a 2e PC a 3.5 PC and a 4e PC at the same table? I mean basically that is kind of what they are saying. And I'm supposed to DM them all. I think I might be able to DM them all, but how do the players feel? the 4e PC gets powers, the 3.5e PC is creatively multiclassed and feat laden, the 2e PC has tons of skills and used a point buy system to design his stats and the 1e guy is, well ... 1e? How the heck does that work?

Near as I can tell they are planning on some type of PC design, that allows all these different builds to work more or less together in their class niche while not sacrificing power levels for any build. I mean they all sort of will balance with the ability to do cool things in line with their class regardless of the build chosen.

Eerrrr? O-tay ...

I've been around the block a bit game-wise and I have never seen this done. Even GURPS doesn't do it. At least not well. I mean you can have 4 PCs in GURPS that are all say 175 point builds, but one uses the fantasy supp, one uses the biotech supp and one uses the hi-tech supp and you've got three very different PCs. Yeah they're all 175 point PCs but who wants to trade their blaster-rifle for a magic longbow? Not me. Not if we're talking in terms of pure ability/power levels. I'm not sure this is a very good analogy, but what else do I have to turn to.

Long story short--WoTC is doing something that has never been done before. And bully for them for even attempting it. I truly hope it will work. As I was reading it I began to wonder if we wouldn't see some release like the first release of 3e which flopped until they were able to clean it up. Maybe the playtest will avoid another catastrophe like that.

Next time I'll pick out a few gems that I think would make at least a few grognards happy and show they are throwing more than token respect towards the venerable past of old school D&D. That and by Saturday night we should have some info on release dates for 5e product!

Friday, January 27, 2012

Genie in a Bottle

Every version of D&D has a genie in a bottle hidden within the pages of it's "rules". That genie is in the finer details of the rules themselves; and what those details do to the game and what they imply for it's play. Rule expansion, like genies can provide enormous boons, and bestow tremendous tragedy. As made clear in the beginning of the Castle Keepers Guide from Castles & Crusades,

"Tyranny of the Rules
The Castle Keepers Guide is a book that presents the C&C player with a host of new rules and options for their games. In some respects it simply builds upon existing structures, making them more useful and playable, while offering no real impact upon the way a CK [GM] runs a game or what is allowed. These options simply expand the game. In other cases the impact these rules carry can be staggering. ... they can change the nature of the game you want to run. Take caution while expanding your game with new rules and options. The more rules that you add to your game, the more clarity it gains, but the more freedom of action you lose." (CKG p. 7 bold emphasis mine)

And before you believe that this is a unique phenomena to C&C consider what the Pathfinder Core Rule Book says at the opening of it's book,

"The Most Important Rule
The rules in this book are here to help you breathe life into your characters and the world they explore. While they are designed to make your game easy and exciting, you might find that some of them do not suit the style of play that your gaming group enjoys. Remember that these rules are yours. You can change them to fit your needs." PF CRB p. 9

All games, yes even First Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons made it clear that the final arbiter was the GameMaster, and the players. Though admittedly some systems make the optional component less optional than others, GMs have and will continue to ignore, forget or simply exclude certain rules from play; as well as add personal embellishments in the form of "house rules".

The problem, or potential problem is that, as Stephen Chenault Says above, adopting certain rules or playing with the full spectrum of the rules releases that genie from the bottle. Some players may love and revel in the ensuing chaos. However it is undeniable that the nature of gameplay will change with those additional rules.

What really makes a D&D game distinct is its own unique genie in a bottle. Take for instance D&D 4e. For the first time the game could not be played without minis and battlemaps. And each class acted based on powers. Those rule changes unleashed a genie. And in the case of 4e a very powerful but well controlled one. However, that essentially warped the game--and I use word warped intentionally here. Warped in the sense that everything became skewed, unusual and different; in the same way a  real warp makes space and time seemed changed from before. The experience was different. The core was the same--classes, levels, hp, initiative, d20, saves etc. But the experience was different. Some felt it was good some didn't. It was still D&D, but a different genie had assumed control.

And lest some mistakenly assume that the change is always additional rules, consider 0e or Labyrinth Lord, or Swords & Wizardry. They release a genie in the form of less rules. The genie there is a free wheeling anything goes sort of genie, where all player expectations and GM creativity has had the walls torn down. Very truthfully, such games accept only the barest bones of what D&D is and let you, as Gary said "Imagine the hell out of it!"

Many people assume the genie is the game instead of the core. But that's not true. Because I've played all versions (except 0e), and many of the clones, and truthfully I play them almost all the same. I don't open any genies I'm not comfortable with. On the other hand I always open the alignment genie (a particularly volatile and unpredictable one at times.) So, sure there's a rule or two we use here and there specific to a particular edition or version, but it's still essentially the same game. Which in a way makes me realize how wonderful a thing Gary and his canting crew came up with those many years ago: a system so robust and strong, an idea so powerful, a movement so fundamental to the imagination that time, the market, culture or age could not dim or diminish in any way*. And that my friends brings me a great deal of peace.

* Now it's time to make my caveats clear. First and foremost I am very aware that Gary himself expressed great displeasure with 3.5 in particular and the direction WoTC had taken the game. I value and respect that. I have used his quotes to that effect often in my own debates in various edition wars. But I would cite for Gary his own reasoning in RolePlaying Mastery where he makes clear that some elements in the game can't change without changing the basic nature of the game. An act that he himself had done when he changed the game from D&D to AD&D. I'm not begrudging him this; just pointing out that lack of consistent thought is the bugbear of great minds. And the opinion of the moment is oft influenced by outside forces more greatly than we might admit. Minds and thoughts develop, as did Gary's. His evolution as game designer took him away from D&D and was already doing so as he contemplated the second edition of the game. Sadly we never got to see that. So, in my mind I pay homage to Gary even while disagreeing with some of his opinions, by stating that the core elements of D&D may be even more basic than he himself admitted in RPM. --

It's All D&D

Well, at it's heart anyway.

Long ago the foundation was laid for Dungeons & Dragons by the old gods of Gygax, Arneson, Kunz, Kask, and others. This foundation has continued to be at the core of the game. I see that core to be:
  • Levels
  • Hit Points
  • Initiative
  • d20 to attack*
  • Saves
*In the wee early days this was not the case--but it has become for me an essential element of what D&D is, tho the game can be played with other methods almost identically.

Quite simply that is the basic structure if you ask me. With those and those alone you can play a game. Remove those and the core begins to change into something else. Now, I realize that this is a bold statement, and perhaps takes in more games/editions/versions than some are comfortable calling D&D. But I look at it this way: if those elements are present, I am going to play it almost like I always have with little reference to other more obscure or less essential rules. And more importantly play it in the tone or fantasy sub-genre I want.

Classes are the basic feature of our games that really define the way we play. They can be as complex, simple, well defined or blurred as you like, but classes are an essential part of D&D identity.

Levels are also an aspect of play that is closely connected to classes. Without levels much of the metapurpose of D&D design is lost.

HP, initiative and the d20 to attack are all defining componenets of D&D combat, that if lost or substituted would sacrifice the nature of play.

And lastly, the effect of saving vs the many noncombat encounters are what I consider the core resolution system of non-combat encounters. One could argue that ability checks or skills or the like are essential, but I don't feel this is the case--even though I someitmes use them. I can flow with D&D with or without these components, but saves are essential to me.

So what does this imply? Simply put it implies lots of games are okay by me. With these structures in place I can play them with my preferred rules lite, fast and flexible style of play in my gritty, somewhat dark and deadly flavor of a fantasy world.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Back to Basics

Blame it on 5e. And the stupid thing hasn't even come out yet. Truthfully, 5e doesn't really deserve the blame--or WoTC for that matter. It's more about the state of gaming today. And truthfully what I'm going through isn't really a bad thing.

No, what I've been doing, is good for my gaming health. I've been rereading several of my rulebooks for other systems--GURPS, HERO, C&C, 1e, 2e, 3.5, 4e, HM, BRP, DCC RPG Beta, PF, et al--in an attempt to get "at" what rules I like and don't like. I'll admit there are some systems that really appeal to me, HM and DCC are all really close to my heart for several reasons. I like their tone, and what their playstyle implies.

In my studies I've tried to focus on mechanics instead of supps, modules and setting type stuff--because the decor of a game isn't necesarily bound by the core mechanics. Although it can be implied, as I mention above. We can play almost any setting regardless of the rules. It's just that some rules make it easier to do than others. So what I have been wondering is what the heck are the rules that I really need to play the game I want to play.

Some time ago I made the claim that I and my 1e buddies really did play 1e RAW, with most of the rules intact. I just assumed that was the way we played--it seemed like it was. That's the way I recall it anyway. Well, it's taken some time but I finally decided that was not really the case. We played with lots of flavor from the game--spells, magic items, character age tables, any extra race or class that came up and the like-- but you know what? I couldn't even prove that we used the racial limitations on levels or abilities! Let alone weapon speed, weapon armor modification, encumbrance, movement, and on and on. Geuss my memory aint too good, huh?

So that got me to thinking--what the heck am I doing with PF now? Am I really playing with all the PF rules? Or am I sort of winging it along in some kind of very basic simulation of D&D  with PF classes and stuff. I'm sure you can already answer the question. But after closely meta-analyzing our playstyle for the last 4 sessions I've come to the definite conclusion that the only consistently PF rules we are playing is the classes. I mean basically it's a super lite d20 SRD fantasy game with PF classes. Rarely will attacks of opportunity come up, or use of CMBs or CMDs, let alone movement, combat actions etc. etc. We do use PF rules on healing and have switched back to using PF crit rules--which I still don't like, even with the crit and fumble decks. But generally speaking it's just when we need to know some obscure ruling that we look to the book other than that we actually don't rely on the rulebooks alot.

I was blown away when I realized this. It seems so counterintuitive to me. I mean here I've been haranguing myself over rules, systems, versions and editions and none of it really matters! I'm simply playing a very lite and fast version of D&D the way I've always played it. In spite of the fact that everyone is carrying their PF books around and saying they are playing PF.

This is becoming a bit of a watershed moment for me. There are those times when you take a real look at yourself, and are surprised by what you see. You know, those life defining moments when you either realize you need to fundamentally change something in your life--or when you realize who you truly are in some aspect or other. This careful look at how we were playing did this for me. Or more properly said is doing it for me.

That being said what can I say I like and don't like? What have I really come up with in gaming terms? The following list is just a few of my tentative initial realizations. And please keep in mind that these principles may apply more broadly to gaming in general or just to me in particular.

  1. The core of D&D style gaming is very similar across platforms
  2. Classes are the most defining feature of the game
  3. The genie's in the details--the really fine ones
 Now I just need to explicate these, which I will do if I don't get shaken from my line of thought.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Another Hackmaster Fan

I'm always on the look out for people who are eloquent at describing their love of Hackmaster, which I am very fond of. I suppose the reason for this is that lots of people ask me why Hackmaster? Why do you like that game? With a sort of unbelieving look of befuddlement on their faces. I try and explain and usually I do an okay job. I think I've done so on this very blog o' mine. But occasionally I run across an excellent quote or two that captures someone elses wisdom about why Hackmaster is so awesome. And their words ring so true to me that it also captures my own fascination with this game on levels I have yet to express.

So today I was crusing around the gaming related net and ran across The Days of Knights Forum and found a post by a fellow Hacker called BattleMage423. The thread was asking why people preferred Hackmaster over D&D. His answer was well done and quite complete really, so without further ado I quote him in full here:

D&D over Hackmaster... a classic question, lemme think. First off, in no way am I putting D&D down; I was raised on that game, it's phenomenal. Hackmaster is awesome in different ways:

-Hackmaster is more real. When you're hit with a Natural 20, more happens than just double or triple damage. Last session I ran, my cousin Ish's character was critted in the chest and was paralyzed from the neck down. Also his lung was punctured, so while he was unable to move on the ground, his throat filled up with blood and he suffocated. That kinda stuff never happens in D&D! Also you have to keep track of spell components, and they're not always easy to find. In Hackmaster, magic is displayed as it should be; an unbelievable power harnessed by individuals with great skill. Spells shouldn't be tossed out like jelly beans in a parade. There's a whole lot more to talk about on realism, but let us move on.

-Comedy. I read an article about D&D the other day saying that comedy does not belong in the realms of high fantasy. Why not!? The game is serious enough with the threat of death looming all over, so why not make that threat something cool and humorous sometimes. My brother Robbie had a -8AC and got killed by a crit to the head from a Flying Monkey because he wasn't wearing a helmet. He learned a valuable lesson from a comedic beast; always wear your helmet.

-GM versus Players. I know when you play D&D everybody is trying to have fun. Well Hackmaster is no different, but the fun comes from survival lots of the time. As GM, it is your duty to provide fair dungeons and encounters for your players, if you're a wuss. What the GM's duty is, is to truly test the mettle of your players. Make them earn every last gold piece and magical item. And make no mistake, the players won't let you budge for an instant. If a GM is ever caught bending the rules for his monsters or NPCs he can be banned from ever GMing again!

-More things include Honor being the single most important thing in the entire TeraVerse of Hackmaster. If you got it you're the man, if you don't, you're spit on, or if you have too much people and monsters are liable to smack you down a few pegs. Alignment is more enforced with a handy-dandy but EXTREMELY complicated Alignment Graph. Try smacking a begger with your Paladin in D&D and you may get away with it, do so in Hackmaster and you might as well rip up your character sheet. But perhaps most of all, Hackmaster is a spin-off of 1st Edition D&D, which was in my opinion the best edition. I'm not actually old enough to have played in it, but I did play lots of 2nd and 3rd and read up on 1st.

I could go on more and more, as I've barely scratched the surface, but I'm kinda at work and I need to do my job. But if anybody has any questions, lemme know, I'll be glad to help inform you on the greatness of Hackmaster.

-Ernie the Fourth-
HMGMA# 10097
Reaper of H.A.C.K

"Knowledge, logic, reason, and common sense serve better than a dozen rule books."

-- E. Gary Gygax

Way to go Ernie. You've captured some of my own thoughts quite admirably. Long Live Hackmaster!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Legends Past

Meet Jener: 9th level AD&D fighter.

My friend Scott's favorite character. He commisioned old school artist Jim Holloway, of Oriental adventure fame (though he worked on many more pieces), to work up this character sketch. Set him back about $150, but well worth it in my opinion.

Brings back lots of memories.

Any of you guys ever have a famous RPG artist draw your characters? I never did, but another friend of mine commisioned Clyde Caldwell to do an oil of his female 6th level Ninja. But he never got past the pencil and ink sketch which cost him $100. The oil would have cost him about $500 if I recall correctly.

Cool stuff anyway you cut it.
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