Friday, February 24, 2012

Coming to Terms With Pathfinder II

Page by Page ... Well almost. The idea here is to take a look at the PF rules and bring up things that bother me. This is not a rant session--it is a way for me to talk with myself, and perhaps others who are interested about issues I have with Pathfinder. Perhaps I can work them out and find a way for me to be comfortable with the system that all of my current club players prefer.

Overall Feelings
  • I don't like slickness in my RPG. I'm an old school guy and loved the black & white art, the archaisms, the stilted speech, the historical rootedness of the game and the like. But this is a cosmetic issue at best, but it does matter to me. Not likely this will change much, as it started with 2e and just kept on getting slicker. And in fact with the dwindling market share for gaming books overall I don;t think it makes much sense to go slick--keep costs down and content high.
  • I do like splat books however. And all of the systems since 2e are splat heavy--PF too. That makes me happy.
  • I like gaming subscriptions and PF has that in spades, but I do wish they still had a magazine like Dragons. But I don't hold that against them.
  • The company is aces as gaming companies go, great community at Paizo, and Jason Buhlman is awesome.
  • It's d20--which I'm actually okay with. Because d20 is so lite, intuitive and logical it fits perfect into a rules lite approach. Unfortunately that's where the rules lite ends for PF.
  • The fact that it's d20 makes me sad in that its not D&D. d20 has a decidedly different feel from D&D, and though you can opt out of a lot of the other rules it does play a bit differently. For awhile I really thought that any game is played pretty much the same way depending on the players involved. But if that was the case, none of this would have come up for me. Don't know what to say about this. It's more about me letting go of something I love (D&D mechanics) to embrace a new way of doing things. I can see how d20 might be more efficient, but it feels a little different and that's something I'm just not quite comfortable with yet--even though I can handle it overall.
  • Chapter 1 Getting Started
    • No real problems here. Except I prefer a standard ability generation to 3d6--no big deal
  • Chapter 2 Races
    • Standard starting races--Good
    • Racial ability bonuses are a little high for me, but overall I can live with them. Truth to tell those hefty ability bonuses should make cheating on ability generation less of a problem; and it can steer racial choice as well.
  • Chapter 3 Classes
    • Single XP table, don't like that--it genericizes the classes some
    • Also don't like optional XP advancement. This is a product of a broken XP award system (see below), but sends the wrong message to players that there is an easy, medium and difficult way to game. May have seemed like a good idea at the time, but it sets the wrong tone for the game.
    • I do NOT like advancing ability scores. I don't think this should be automatic, other than by age, special circumstances or magic.
    • Absolutely HATE the multiclassing rules--could go into that more here, but suffice it to say that it makes no sense whatsoever in a class based system. Favored class as the only motivation to stay in your class is weak at best an seems a product of the multiclassing rules.
    • Lack of racial restrictions make no sense. Elvish Barbarians? Dwarf Wizards?
    • All classes are souped up in power--don't really like that.
    • Barbarian is less barbarian like than previous definitions of the class--Rage rules are no good. Should not be able to affiliate with spellcasters. No payoff for commensurate abilities.
    • Bard--I have never liked single class Bards.
    • I like the Cleric domains--well done. I hate Channel energy however. Stupid power just designed to up damage taking capacity of an adventuring party. Bring back turn undead and spells to heal.
    • Pathfinder Gods and mythos rock!
    • Druid is iffy for me too. The only Druid I have ever really liked is the AD&D + UA Druid. This one is okay, but meh. And all Druids should be true neutral, balance is integral to their ethos. Otherwise you are just a nature priest. To me this seems indicative of the misunderstanding later designers show about the original intent of the classes.
    • Fighters are fine.
    • Monks are pretty good. Monk is a hard class to define. I really like the AD&D monk best, but the interpretation here isn't bad.
    • Pallies are good. I like the idea of giving the Pallie more abilities like the old Druid had. Good work here.
    • Rangers are okay. They don't feel woodsy enough--but this has been a complaint of mine since they were first introduced into the game. I don't like the idea of a Ranger as a woodsy fighter. I think more of a scout or woodsman or forester. Fighting should be secondary to them. Can't fault the Ranger here for that as all Rangers seem to suffer from this stigma. Except maybe for C&C Rangers, I like them.
    • Rogue is a class I liked when 2e introduced it. Thief was always a little too narrow for me. That being said I really don;t like the whole talent notion of Rogues here. I mean it's okay, but not the direction I would have gone.
    • I hate sorcerers! Magic in AD&D should be Vancian in nature and driven by spellbooks if it is arcane in nature. Sorry, not a favorite class for me.
    • Wizards and their schools are awesome. We have a basic repeat of 2e Wizards here and that is good with me.
    • Overall the classes feel templated to me. They are all sort of designed to balance moreso than in the past; and I think that is completely unnecessary. And each and every class has some sort of special ability they gain as they advance. Also unnecessary to me. A customized skill system would be better. We don't need nifty new powers every level. It isn't very hard core in my opinion, and feeds into powergaming.
  • Chapter 4 Skills
    • Overall the system for skills is good. but in my opinion it makes the mistake 2e made in giving too many. I do like that skill ranks are limited to overall level, but that doesn't preclude a PC having as much as a +8 on a given skill at first level. Rare, but possible. Too high if you ask me. And skill points every level is also a bit of a stretch for me.
  • Chapter 5 Feats
    • Are entirely unnecessary if you ask me. Not only do we get power ups almost every level we also get feats. As a method or character customization they have potential, but not in the number which PF awards.
    • A PC at level 11 for instance is going to have 6 feats! And humans are going to have 7. A human fighter will have 13!! In addition to all their class abilities.
    • Let's face the music, high level class based Fantasy RPGs top out pretty quick. It becomes hard to challenge a PC after a certain point. Adding more power is not the answer to this dilemma.
  • Chapter 6 Equipment
    • Lots to say here mainly about how the combat rules add a level of complexity that I really don;t think is needed. This is where my biggest beef is with PF--that and power creep. But it is really hard to just play streamlined combat without simply ignoring all of the combat rules. I suppose one could do this, and with a better controlled group of players I might be able to work something out in this regard.
    • I can't say I don't like the rules here, they all make some degree of sense; and are at least as good as most other RPG combat rules. There's just so many that are assumed to be part of the game that combat can slow things down, and become a cumbersome rule-look-up session.
    • PF has made some improvements on 3.5 however, where combat was even more cumbersome--especially with CMB and CMD--which is a good idea, but if everything is so complex why only simplify grappling?
    • My ultimate opinion on this is it ALL needs to be optional--NOT a part of the core system.
    • The actual equipment, money and the like is just fine though. Nothing special to turn my crank however.
  • Chapter 7 Additional Rules
    • 9 point Alignment system--good.
    • Ages, sizes, and such should be in the PC section--but no big deal. However, they miss a huge opportunity in offering actual PC background tables and information. That might mitigate some of the need for all the power based customization all over the place.
    • The rest of the rules here, encumbrance and miscellaneous stuff I can live with. I never used much of this stuff in AD&D, so the deets here don't shake me much--but it is nice to see it.
  • Chapter 8 Combat
    • Sigh
    • What can I say? this is where the recent d20 systems lose all of their potential elegance.
    • d20 combat can be so quick--quicker than D&D ever was. But now? Well, PF is better than 3.5 and it aint as bad as 4e, but still. I hate PF combat rules. When players will let me run it fast and loose all goes well, but all we need is a couple of rules lawyers and you almost _have_ to have the rules. It isn't taken well when I wing it, or make GM calls outside of the RAW either. So I'm almost forced--moreso with every session--of incorporating more and more rules into PF combat.
    • I do have some problems with specific rules, like Attacks of Opportunity, and negative Con to death, nonlethal damage and maybe one or two others I'm not too familiar with. But whatever, additional combat rules, get so technical that you could go one way as well as another.
    • Creating such a detailed system for combat is a huge bugaboo, because you are essentially trying to write a computer program to simulate actual melee or ranged combat. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson learned long ago that this is a subject fraught with differences of opinions and difficulties. D&D took the approach that abstract was better and left it at that. d20 has generally gone in the other direction. Though to be fair, 2e really started the ball rolling with its options books.
    • Sigh--if I could rewrite PF combat I would prolly have lots less problems with the system. Just do it d20 man and leave the deets up to the players.
  • Chapter 9 Magic
    • Pretty good coverage of the main factors affecting spells without becoming burdensome
    • Like the counterspelling, but I might tweak the results info
  • Chapter 10 Spells
    • I know I'm in the minority here, but I like spell descriptions separated by level.
  • Chapter 11 Prestige Classes
    • Puhleeeeze ...
    • I find no use for these beyond flavorful additions for GM use
    • These are PC developments that should be confined to specific campaigns and GM/Player creation. I definitely do NOT think they should be a part of a core system
  • Chapter 12 Gamemastering
    • This is where I went before and became very displeased with PF
    • Encounter design is broken
    • XP design is wrong
      • XP should be focused on the purpose of the game, which would include treasure, exploration, roleplaying, overcoming and/or negotiating with monsters/pcs, traps and the like. When you wrap XP into an encounter level or challenge rating you miss this element of flexible encounter creation and adaptation. It also constricts play and purpose within the game. Bad, bad, BAD idea.
    • Treasure value and worth is a good rule of thumb, but it should be made clear that this will vary greatly based on campaign type, to which only two sentences is afforded on pg 400.
    • There are some other good hints here, but I find them distasteful to my style of GMing, and can't help but wonder if others do too. I suppose a GM can simply ignore all this, but since this is the only real chapter on GMing, you would expect the heart of running a game to be here--the heart of the system, but instead it is a slanted approach to game play that turns me off somewhat.
    • Alternative races list should be out; not mentioned in the core game. This is a topic for later splat books.
  • Chapter 13 Environment
    • Good basic info on mundane stuff
    • Traps section is not bad, but suffers from lack of detail. Need better description than just a name. This might have been better used in a splatbook with more room--but this isn't really bad.
    • I don't really like CR ratings for environmental factors, but I suppose it is useful for some who desire to keep things carefully balanced.
    • Need MUCH more info on planes, but the basic stuff is here. Splat book material really.
  • Chapter 14 NPCs
    • Good useful info
  • Chapter 15 Magic Items
    • Overall I'm impressed with this chapter--the descriptions are decent
  • Appendices
    • Special Abilities
      • Good info: like the diseases, and poisons.
    • Conditions
      • Not a fan of mechanically driven conditions, but I suppose it allows for consistency
    • Inspiring Reading
      • Not a bad list--a new take on Appendix N
    • Game Aids
      • Like the heads up about their subscription lines
    • Player Character Sheet
      • You already know I hate the PF PC sheet
    • Index
      • Not bad, not bad at all--but far from complete

Coming to Terms With Pathfinder I

Okay, so here we are full circle again. Allow me to recap the past couple of weeks with you:
  • I am frustrated with my group. They continue to infight, make stupid mistakes, and die left and right. Nothing I do seem to make any difference. The group is over 14 players strong (most 13-16 years old) and we are playing twice a week.
  • In my effort to resolve the issue I delve deeper into the Pathfinder system to find answers
  • What I discover bothers me. I get the distinct idea that in this version of d20 PC power has continued to rise, and yet the rules seem to foster a "take it easy approach". This frustrates me. But I can't help but wonder if my old school style GMing (even tho' we are playing PF) has led to over 35 PC deaths in the past 7 month period.
  • First assuming that it is the game that is the problem I decide to quit Pathfinder. I feel like taking their focus on power down a notch by gaming with an old school system will help them learn that good playing is what will help them survive--not power.
  • We begin with Labyrinth Lord, though I allow a student GM to continue the groups Pathfinder game once a week.
  • In considering LL vs my favorite expression of a rules system--Swords & Wizardry I come to realize the kind of game I really want to play. I don't know if its S&W interpretations of the rules per se, but Matt Finch's tone and writing and spirit truly inspire me. Truthfully they always have, but in his writings I find my greatest inspiration as a GM. So I really decide it is the ultimate freedom offered by a 0e clone/simulacra that I desire as a GM. I want the freedom that offers, and I love Matt Finch's dark Swords & Sorcery tone in much of his work; as well as his solid old school ethos.
  • I announced I would no longer GM pathfinder and immediately was dealing with a lot of hate from players that really could only see playing Pathfinder and wanted nothing to do with old school games, and worse dissed them heavily and insulted me personally for suggesting we try them. That was hard for me.
  • So I realized that I am only seeing half of the issue. My players also have desires. Now, granted my current players are young players. They are all new to the game and so have little experience with one system let alone multiple systems. They also are very in love with the system we started with this year Pathfinder. I decide I need to see things from their point of view for awhile.
  • I start playing as a PC in the PF game while continuing my LL system (strongly influenced by S&W). This is a good experience for me, and more than a little fun. I realize several things. 1) Players are worried about staying alive 2) anything that helps you attain #1 is worth having in a PCs eyes. 3) Given a chance players will almost always go for power--failing that a really "cool" concept 4) our groups are really too big, players have to wait a long time to act or shout out to be heard, lots of them have little chance to contribute, and play is generally chaotic.
  • I found in my Labyrinth Lord game that players acted pretty much the same and that it was likely due to the size and dynamics of the group instead of my GMing style or the game we were playing.
  • I also started a second S&W/LL campaign at home with my own children and one of their cousins.This game went brilliantly. But there were only 4 of them and they really tried to work together. This confirmed for me that the group size and dynamics are critical to success. I have runs groups of this age for the last 5 or 6 years, and never have I had trouble like I am having this year--and Pathfinder is the biggest variable so far. But I have had one other group have success with PF (last year) at least to 3rd and 4th level.
  • So begins my analysis of the systems I am most likely to play, and I realize several things. 1) D&D is very distinct from d20 2) player options and "power-ups" have been creeping into the game since AD&D and have just grown exponentially from there 3) The goal is to try to find a game that offers GMs as much freedom as possible and players the most options possible.
  • My initial feeling is that a good, solid skill system that fits in with a flexible and lite core system is probably the best system to look for. So I am initially drawn to two games I really love--Castles & Crusades and Adventures Dark & Deep, but I also spend some time with Hackmaster and GURPS.
  • Hackmaster is now so different from both d20 and the original D&D that, though I like lots of what they do I decide not to pursue that very far. GURPS I spend some time looking at simply because it is likely the best skills based system out there (bold statement I know, but it is what it is : )
  • With this out of the way and some conclusions drawn, I return to Pathfinder to reanalyze the system  in light of what I learned so far.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Some Games Getting it Right

There's an art to crafting titles. And I aint no artist in that regard. What my title means is that given the course of my recent discussions on crafting a game that allows for extensive players options and customizability, while keeping a rule system lite and flexible there are a few systems I think are getting it right. Maybe not spot on--but doing a good job at giving players a start.

Before I jump in I want to make one last point clear in what balance I think needs to struck if a game is to offer options to players and fight munchkinism. Options must be balanced by a commensurate level of sacrifice by the player. We must be cautious against offering options and therefore access to increased PC ability and or power. Such options and power-ups (as GURPS calls them) must be counterbalanced by an increase in difficulty or challenge in the campaign itself. Otherwise our game degenerates into a farcical melodrama of the superpowered against the rest of the worldly worms. So, with that in mind I want to talk about two systems that I think are getting this right.

Adventures Dark & Deep
The first is ADD by Joseph Bloch. I've already reviewed ADD, and make no bones about my love for this system. Joseph has cleaned up the Original AD&D system and using well crafted twists and techniques he here presents us with a very solid system, more rational than Gary's first, but still very firmly rooted in the original system. He has incorporated many of Gary's hints at what he might include in a second edition of AD&D were he to write it; and done so very well I might add. But what really captures our attention here is what he has done with the the skill system. In the ADD system skills are purchased with experience points. So a Player who wishes to develop or add skills to his PC must sacrifice hard earned experience towards a level advancement to get such skills. This is an elegant and just tradeoff in my opinion. Now, I vaguely recall Joseph saying at one time that his skill system was inspired by someone who did or wrote something similar, but can't now find the reference. The point here is that he has within a very finely retooled system, faithful to the original spirit of the AD&D game, a wonderful solution to PC customization and development question with his XP for skill system.

Not to mention Joseph also incorporated numerous new classes into his system that had been contemplated by Gary in the interim between 1e and 2e. These also offer options above and beyond what might normally be available. This would be sure to please players looking for new classes to play. And we also find here all the race and sub race variants to gratify the imagination of players hungry for new PC fields to plow.

Castles & Crusades
The second is another system I have raved about on my blog for some time now, Castles & Crusades. C&C has strong ties to the original system, but has chosen instead of sticking to the traditional system to embrace a rules lite d20 approach. This undoubtedly gives the game a very lite and fast feel, different from the original in important ways. But it takes all that is good in the d20 system and enshrines it within a very AD&D 1e feel.

And who can blame them for such an approach? We all have to admit that the original system was clunky, referent tables slow down game play, and noone could really call 1e lite. Very few of us, in fact played 1e as 1e. We used the combat and saving throw tables, but not alot else. d20 offers to the old school gamer a way to achieve that lite, fast and flexible feel like never before, and incredibly intuitive in so doing. And C&C takes this approach a step further with their Siege Engine or attribute based saves and checks. It is in fact in this that they easily resolve the skills based issue.

Recall in my post of February 22nd that I mentioned several possible solutions to this dilemma of giving increased player options while maintaining a lite system. How does one go about doing this? Two suggestions I made involved handing the player the reigns under GM guidance to make up the skills they can use. A sort of anything goes approach so much a part of the 0e game. Well, that is exactly what C&C fosters in it's Castle Keepers' Guide. On pg. 263 begins the section entitled "Role Playing Skills" and reads,

"The easiest approach to integrating extra character abilities is through role playing, allowing the Seige Engine, or the combat mechanic, to resolve any check or action the skill generates. If a player desires a certain ability for his character, that is not specifically written up for his class or race description in the Players' Handbook, attempt to accommodate it through game play. Discuss the ability with the player and determine whether it fits in teh context of the game, and if it is, determine how best to integrate the skill. often some type of sacrifice is needed, whether in experience points, weapons proficiency or other pre-existing trait. Once the skill is determined, assign the player character a bonus for making the roll against the Siege Engine."

And then the CKG goes on to explain how a player worked the swimming skill into her backstory and was awarded a +1 on swim checks. The marvelous thing about such an approach is that it leaves the creativity up to the player, and the GM gets to adjudicate based on the nature of the game. Both player and GM are empowered and neither are beholden to a predetermined rules matrix.

The CKG also describes how a GM (or in their case CK) can award skill bonuses based on the nature of an unfolding campaign. Say a campaign features lots of undead and necromantic magic. After a while of such adventuring, these players might be awarded an ability to identify certain types of undead, have +1 against such knowledge checks and even to determine weaknesses against new types of undead based on previous knowledge. 

And lastly the CKG offers an optional secondary skill table for players to choose or roll from. Such a table could also be used in the manner described above later in PC development if they are wiling to make large XP sacrifices. 

In my opinion C&C has managed to do several things in it's approach to PC development (and as another aside the CKG is literally full of other options for PC development at creation as well as over time). In embracing a rules lite core, very few additional rules have been introduced due to skill and PC option usage. It also has ecnouraged and preserved the original creative spirit in the game, keeping the ability of players and CKs to hold the creative reigns. Again, literally anything is possible in this system, and  you need very few new rules to make your vision a reality. And keep in mind that all of the CKG is considered optional to the C&C game. None of it has to be implemented; it is offered as an optional enhancement to play if you desire to use it. Which brings us to the last thing I wish to mention about how well C&C answers this question: options are optional. The Troll Lords offer numerous tools, and options and resource, but none of it is central to the game. None of it has to change how the basic game is played. You get to decide which of these opotions work best for you. And I love the consistent fact that the first option always encouraged and recommended by the Troll Lords is that which preserves the free, lite, and imaginative orientation of their game.

* * *
So, having considered this issue carefully, trying to balance the GMs desire for the utlimate ion fast, lite flexible play which allows his imagination to go in whichever direction he likes--with the desire for Players to creatively develop their PC in new and exciting ways I think we have our answer.

For those of us who deisre a system very faithful to the original with a wonderfully designed skill system I would heartily reccommend Adventures Dark & Deep. While not as rules lite as some, it is certainly more well crafted than AD&D and should play more smoothly.

For GMs like myself who like lite flexible systems, and want to to hold creative power over their game i would definitely reccommend C&C. Though C&C abandons the traditional approach to a table oriented mechanic it's embrace of d20 lite offers better, quicker more intuitive play--and that can only be a good thing. As this game doesn't fall into the pit of many other d20 models that pile rule on rule until you simply can't play the game RAW by any stretch. C&C somehow manages to preserve the fast, loose and incredibly open creativity of 0e, while offering a well crafted system of guidance--not mechanics--in offering expansion to the game that so many players crave. In short both you and your players will be satisfied with what the Troll Lords have crafted for your gaming pleasure.

(By the way this is my 200th post! Hoody Hoo!!!)

When You Get The Chance Go For Power!

So, back to the Pathfinder game! The players were given the opportunity to create characters using anything PF legal. This had particular import in relation to character-ready races from bestiaries. There was a mad dash to try and find the biggest, baddest most amped up race available. Which just confirmed my suspicions that players haven't changed much over the years. Given the opportunity they will go for power every time.

I think we ended up with an Ifrit, 2 Orcs, a Drow and an Aasimar. Huh?! I could tell right away my dwarf was not going to be okay with that--mainly the orcs, but the Drow wasn't going to go well either--and it would be three to 1. But it wasn't to be anyway, as we started shorthanded--only four of us, with one down already and in the middle of a fight with a zombie ogre. My dwarf really debated with himself about just turning tail and running as one after another of his companions dropped around him like flies. But he was a Lawful Good Cleric so he hated the evil that raised this monstrosity. Not to mention it was an Ogre, which he hated by dint of being a dwarf. So in the end it was more in line with his personality to charge in and slay the beast. He did have +4 to his AC against giant types after all. So with a 22 AC I felt fairly safe, and rushed headlong into glory.

And the Ogre rolled a 28. Ouch. Suffice it to say I ended up as a dwarf stain against the dungeon wall. Didn't even get to shout my death cry. Oh well. We all died, except for the Barbarian who ran like a sissy girl, but lived to fight another day. That's when the freak parade mentioned above entered the adventure. I give credit to the the student GM for not letting the monster PCs enter the town--they would have nothing to do with them. But they still found the dungeon entrance and sallied onward.

He is also getting peeved by the cheating die rolls of our players. He keeps asking me what to do about it, and I can only sympathize and suggest he require all rolls be witnessed by him. Which is a bit of a pain around a table of 12 players. I really think this GM is doing a good job too. He isn't too tough , but he isn't a pushover either. We got kind of shafted, just because we ended up with 4 PCs fighting the Ogre because of last minute PC pullouts and late arrivals. But what was he supposed to do about that?

Once again however, my feeling is that Players will always look for power when given the opportunity. Not that this is universally the situation as a couple of players like instead to develop detailed PC backgrounds, and don't always jump for the wildest and off the wall PC options for something new and awesome. One of our girl players was more interested in developing a halfling fighter with a knightly code of conduct and how that fit into his life. I really tried to praise her for that and use her as an example for the other players. But it seems to fall on deaf ears.

Interestingly I just started an old school campaign with my kids at home and their young cousin. The ages there are 12, 11, 9 and 6. And it was like a breath of fresh air! There was a huge world of difference in how they played, how cautious they were, how much they thought things through and how they worked together to overcome obstacles. It was inspiring and gratifying--since three of them are my children! And it also let me know that it wasn't me doing something wrong in my GMing. I was GMing the same way in both games. It's just that the combination of players in my own kid's game did sooooo much better than the kids at school. Which has really given me pause to think.

I don't think my own kids are that much smarter than the kids at school for one. Nor are they more experienced--this is their first game. I think our school groups are just too big. 12 is too big for young kids to work together and coordinate. If for no other reason than too much is going on at once. It is also easy to get overwhelmed by monsters. If I do a one for one monster ratio, it's almost like they can't deal strategically with a battle like that. I think it would be much better if there were four or maybe five PCs per group. I also think it works best when friends play together--or at least people who know each other well. Not only so they get along, but so they can work off of each others' strengths, and warn each other when their weaknesses show.

It may still be that the PCs in our school group want power above all else just for the sake of having power and being "cool". But it could also be that they have failed miserably this year at playing the game and are simply looking for extra power or different options to find that winning "combination" of PC development that will allow them to prevail. Either way I think reducing group size is almost a must. And will probably be the next change I implement in my school club.

Oh, and no, I didn't create a new PC. I may still do so, but I was feeling lousy that day physically--getting  a cold--and just didn't feel like jumping back in the game. Magmar is dead--long live Magmar, and the few things I learned while playing in his sturdy dwarven boots.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Second Most Popular RPG of all Time

Okay, that's a bit of a stretch, The RPG market share is of dubious value at best, and it tends to shift from year to year. But according to the best info I can gather in the past two days, RPG Market Share looks something like this:
  1. Wizards of the Coast
  2. Paizo
  3. White Wolf / Steve Jackson Games / Mongoose and occasionally others
And like I said this is dubious at best. But let's talk about the past few years. For the past few years, WoTC has been the massive top dog without apparent rival. And for a long time White Wolrf's World's of Darkness was a fairly clear second. However, with the advent of 4e Paizo has actually made huge gains on WoTC. Third place has always been a dog fight of at times epic proportions. But one thing is without question--since the early 1980's Steve Jackson Games has been battling for that 3rd place position. And has never really dropped below the top five companies.

But speaking as a tried and true Texas boy from the home of Steve Jackson HQ itself, Austin--I can say that growing up GURPS was always second place to the obvious ruler Dungeons & Dragons. So for myself when I talk about teh second most popular RPG of all time GURPS still holds it for me. And over time there are not many games or comapnies that ahve held their steam like the world's best generic gaming system--not even D&D.

Alot of this has to do with Steve Jackson himself and how he ran his company. Would that Gary had made similar choices back in the day. Oh well. Suffice it to say that I want to spend a bit of quality time talking about this decidedly crunchy, but very old school game GURPS.

The reason for this is that we have turned our attention to skills as a means to accomplish PC customization and though it wasn't the first GURPS is definitely the most experienced in engineering skill based systems and endless PC customization. Now, granted GURPS doesn't do everything well. High fantasy is difficult to achieve in GURPS and some have complained that HERO does supers gaming for accurately. This makes sense to me. While GURPS can do anything, it does best with realistic milieus. And Supers and High Fantasy tend not to be too concerned about realism--generally speaking of course.

So we look at GURPS for it's ability to capture something I think the original game inspired: endless creativity. literally anything goes, based on the collective vision of the GM and his players. You can build just about anything with the GURPS system. This open ended approach allows for a mechanically driven system that caters to just about anythig you can come up with. Like the original game, which fostered this GURPS captures some of thsi same vision.

However, GURPS doesn't need house rules--at least not many. It is a rules heavy system in that regard, and unlike the original D&D system which encouraged and really required house ruling. GURPS demands that you work your imagination into the system. The system is the vehicle through which you imagine your wildest dreams. That allows the rest of the game world, not to mention the PCs in the game, to interact with those dreams in a consistent and believable way.

Which brings me to the mechanism by which players are imbued with ultimate power gauged at a level predetermined by the GM. In other words the GM sets the power level (and in GURPS this is with build points) and the PCs have free reign within that power level to determine who there PC is and what they can do. Ultimate PC freedom within a system designed to allow just about anything you can imagine.

But the system is certainly not D&D. Don't get me wrong--it's a good system. One I think rival's d20 for its' intuitive nature. There are however, lots of sniggledy exceptions and additional rules to take into consideration in certain situations. But if we want a system that is lite and flexible, yet has ultimate freedom of PC development we are going to have to look elsewhere.

The problem is in choosing to go with say original D&D we have ultimate freedom but little player options. So what are possible solutions?
  1. Allow PCs freedom in inventing new abilities, skills and the like when they create their character. Maybe with a simple tit for tat mechanic that for everything you can do above and beyond your base class, you have to give something else up or do it worse. This will keep power creep to a minimum, but still requires lots of GM and Player judgment calls. ie is a d12 hit die tit worth a dietary restriction tat? And the like. Such judgement calls are likely to be enshrined as house rules over time.
  2. Add a skill bundle system, like LA, into the rules lite structure of 0e and allow players to define how their skill bundle is used of manifests within their PC. As mentioned in my last post this is a weak solution mainly because a loosely defined bundle allows too much leeway for PCs to abuse or even underuse their bundle. It will also require some, but admittedly less, judgment calls in order to decide what is too little or too much.
  3. Add in a more exhaustive skill system by which PCs can customize their PC. Perhaps under a single mechanic to keep the game lite. However each skill may require special circumstance rulings that will either engender house rules, or a more complex rule mechanic governing skills.
  4. As an extension on most ability systems we will need to determine how these abilities advance or get better the more a player adventures. Bonuses are favored in the d20 system. Skill ranks in GURPS, or % skill ability in games like LA. Either one needs mechanics or tables to handle how such skills would advance.
While not an exhaustive list of possibilities, each one of the above points towards a more rule heavy, crunchy system being the end result--even if it is a houseruled 0e game. I don't see a way that this can be avoided, except perhaps in one scenario:

Make it up as you go: Rarely satisfying in the long term, and incredibly difficult to manage is the type of game where rules simply aren't referred to--hardly ever. These types of games take he spirit of 0e and never let it go. PCs can literally do just about anything--be just about anything. This type of game requires a supportive DM that can go with player wishes and dreams for their PC. That says yes more often than no. The higher level the PC the more the GM lets them do, and become. these games can be wacky, wild and completely over the top at times. Everyone seems to have fun, realism isn't a concern--and a lot of us played this way when we first started the game.

However, after a time such games can wear a bit thin. Just like literature of this type usually stocks children's bookshelves, we grow out of such games as well. The "anything goes" philosophy gives way to a world that has to make some sense, at least internally. That plays more like a LoTR novel or maybe even a Conan novel. And we realize their has to be some consistency, and some expectations. Which engenders rules.

And that is fine--the game wouldn't be a game without rules. Even make-believe back when we were kids had rules. The point here is that to give players what they most often want we have to find a way to offer options for PC development. And when we do that it means more rules, more crunch and less of a rules lite flexible game. I really see no way beyond or around this problem. Unless maybe you go diceless or narrative resolution in design--and to me those get away from the concept of a TT RPG altogether.

And unless someone can show me otherwise, that leaves me with the question of which game does it most to my liking.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

If D&D Aint d20 Then What Is It?

Not sure that title looks right all capitalized, but the normal convention didn't look right either--so what the hey.

In my last post I was pretty vocal about why d20 is NOT the actual D&D system initially created. Not that d20 is bad--it has lots to reccomend it. But it isn't the system as initially designed. So exactly what mechanics do I see as the original D&D system?

To answer this question I refer again to the actual incarnations of the game up to an including 2e. What we look for are things that change within the system and things that don't. I'm going to list the things that don't change under the column "definitely D&D" and those that have as flexible within the system.

Definitely D&D
  • Classes--Centered around the archetypal four of Fighter, Magic User, Cleric and Thief
  • Races--Centered around Human, Elf, Dwarf & Halfling
  • Non-Human Racial limits
  • Hit Points--determined randomly by die roll
  • AC--descending from 10 to -10
  • Attributes--Core of 6 determined randomly from a 3d6 base and a range of 3-25
  • Abstract Combat--based on class specific tables and a d20 roll
  • Saving Throws--divided by type of danger presented and based on class specific tables and a d20 roll
  • Alignment--Based on Law / Neutrality / Chaos & possibly Good / Evil axes
  • Vancian magic--fire and forget
Concepts Open To Change
  • Addition to numbers and types of classes
  • Addition to numbers and types of races
  • Extent of non-human racial limits
  • Die used for determining hit points
  • The way to randomly generate attributes, as long as no more than 3d6 is counted for the final score
  • The point buy system was introduced in 2e Player's Options book and never really caught on either
  • The addition of Comeliness never caught on permanently, so extension to number or types of abilities is out
  • Addition of combat complexity ie--different initiative die, criticals, fumbles, hit location, maneuvers, weapon speed, armor modifiers, specialization, and other bonuses and modifiers to combat
  • Addition of background development tables
  • Addition of weapon and nonweapon profficiencies
  • Addition of cantrip type spells, magic schools and the like
But you know what, as I try and compile this list something very important comes to me. The initial D&D is something more than just a set of mechanics. 0e, or  the original Dungeons & Dragons is much more about creating your own game. About changing the rules to play the way you want them to. Should we really say that a game that uses Minotaurs as the predominant race is "not D&D"? Back in the day I don't think the designers would have agreed that it was "not D&D". But maybe that's just me.

Then Gary built onto the original system with AD&D, and though he kept many of the core concepts mentioned above as "Definitely D&D", he also defined the game so strictly that he curtailed some of that creativity that had inspired 0e players. After that poibnt it became easier to say this was or was not D&D, largely as defined by what Gary had laid out for us. But wasn't AD&D but one manifestation of an earlier game.

But if you took that initial creative vision and developed it into something new, you probably weren't "playing D&D"; you were playing your own game. To still call the system D&D I would say the above pretty much have to be in place. And the fact is we are sort of stuck with the fact that the initial fantasy RPG was called Dungeons & Dragons, but it's system was ported into a number of different genres. Gamma World, Boot Hill Top Secret and others used many of the same concepts used in the system development for D&D. So really the "sysytem" used in TSR games in the early days was really separated from the fantasy genre itself. If you used the system to play fantasy you were playing D&D. And in that case you could really take out the qualifier of Races and Classes fitting fantasy archetypes and instead simply require classes and races as part of the actual system.

So really we have several visions of what D&D is and is not.
  1. Dungeons & Dragons really represents what some call an old school way of doing things, in the sense of creating and designing your own mileu, creating and adapting rules to fit your needs and using creativity, reason and imagination to determine the nature of your game.
  2. Dungeons & Dragons is a fantasy game with common fantasy tropes, played in rules lite fashion, with a gritty, deadly, swords and sorcery tone and according to a system that utlizies tables and die rolls (see above rules descriptions) to determine outcomes.
  3.  Dungeons & Dragons is the finalized system codified by Gygax and Arneson in the original game, Holmes, Moldvay, Cook and/or Mentzer in the BX-BECMI system, Gary Gygax in AD&D, and, to at least an extent, by TSR in the 2e system.
To tell you the truth I'm not sure which one I agree with.

I'm certain that #1 can lead to a game that is just more generally called a tabletop RPG--though it might be called a simulacra of some version of D&D.

#2 is really just a fantasy tabletop RPG and is more likely a clone or simulacra of D&D. I would be comfortable assigning a D&D moniker to such a game, and some of our present clones fit this description such as Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Adventures Dark & Deep and the like.

The last, #3, is clearly D&D by just about anyone's definition. Some clones come under this definition; as the critical thing here is the rules, not the actual out of print copy under that title. Such games as Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, Dark Dungeons and Swords & Wizardry to an extent are for all practical purposes D&D.

But coming away from this discussion has left me still with the same question that I had previously. Where is the system that allows for the detailed development of player characters and still maintains itself as D&D?Because the fact is 3.5, Pathfinder and to a large extent 4th edition is satisfying many players in their search for a fantasy game of choice. I think this has to do with a several things but most definitely includes expanded player options and customizability. The path D&D has taken in the past (including the d20 system) is periodic exponential expansion in available classes, races and the lik; but has also suffered from an inevitable power creep.

Actually the addition of proficiencies, though weakly done, and the concept of kits in 2e started to break ground in allowing a skill based PC development path. The argument against such a path is that skills waters down the class based system. This is the bugaboo Gary Gygax tackled in Lejendary Adventures via skill bundles. While this allowed for a "lite" approach to a skill based system, it really lacked the sort of specificity most PC developers yearn for. A skill bundle like "Weapons" covers so much ground as to almost be too powerful in its ambiguity. It did however, allow lots of latitude for PC description and customization. And LA's "Orders" concept does preserve a form of archetypal characters for the avatars in the game. Overall however, LA suffers from lack of definition that, though it might have been corrected with time, for obvious reasons never quite got there.

Next time a look at the "OTHER" most popular RPG of all time.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Spreadsheet Comparison of D&D systems

So this long weekend granted me by the school board gods has allowed me to put together a somewhat rough and dirty spreadsheet comparing many of the predominant D&D inspired systems. First and foremost I make no claims as the greatness, completeness, or even perfect accuracy of the information contained in this file. It needs lots of clean-up and still lacks comparison of several factors present in all systems. I have just decided that enough is enough for right now. I think my basic answer was attained in this preliminary look via the information included here. (This file is an Excel file hosted by Mediafire--it's the first one I've done this way. Let me know if it works or not.)

Most notable for it's absence is the expansion or change of combat rules. I simply didn't have the time to go in depth there yet. And I wanted to get this posted before the weekend was up and I had to get back to work. And I also managed to get a couple Labyrinth Lord sessions in with my kids and their cousin too.

My motivation here is simply to get a handle for myself on the development of systems over time and what clones and simulacra have tried to hearken back to. For me this is now fairly clear--and not only that another thing became clear that wasn't as to me clear beforehand. And forgive me for this if it seems to start up an edition war or something--it's just what the data says. Presented as it is, in chart form, here--even in this preliminarily rough form--the conclusion is inescapable. So here I present the most surprising thing, to me, in bold and hi definition color:

The d20 systems are NOT the same game we grew up playing.

Dungeons & Dragons was built upon an identifiable and distinct system designed by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson.

All that changed with the development of the d20 system by Jonathan Tweet, Monte Cook, Skip Williams, Richard Baker and Peter Adkinson.

There it is, with the culprits clearly named. A spade called a spade. 

Now, the d20 system is elegant, smooth and efficient.  About the only way it could be made more simple is to make saving throws just a one mechanic role. I for one might import C&C's Siege engine into d20 and you would have a system so snot-slick-smooth that it would freakin' reflect four pointed ninja stars. Yeah, don't get me wrong--d20 is a shit-slick system, well designed. But it is NOT the system we grew up playing. You can shout all day that it's better, it's quicker, it's more intuitive, it's faster and I couldn't really argue with you much at all--except maybe of the definition of "better". But one argument you can't win is that it is the same game we were playing back in the day. It simply is not.

Now I suppose you might say it's a lot like playing cops and robbers with different kids. But the kids in your new neighborhood play by different rules, but that in the end it's still cops and robbers. But by that definition every fantasy game with elves and dwarves and classes is Dungeons & Dragons. Sorry bucko--it just don't quite wash that way. The D&D name doesn't lay claim to all fantasy RPGs. even tho' it might have inspired them. Cops and Robbers under your rules is another thing entirely compared to cops and robbers under my rules.

The d20 system changed the game. That is clear to me now. Notice I'm not saying anything about this being good or bad--it is just a fact.

Also, something else that became clear to me is that the main change in the game (what I am going to call the actual D&D system) was in player options. Now to a degree this also includes combat maneuvers and mechanics, but principally involves addition of classes, races, proficiencies and the like. The actual expansion of the game centers around PC development. And unfortunately in some cases this led to a rule heavy system designed to incorporate all of these changes.

The most noteworthy, and honestly the last development of the actual D&D system was with 2e. The basic system was still in place, but options went through the roof. I feel like they had made an effort at curtailing this by consolidating classes under a four archetype system, and developing PCS via kits. They tried to make the combat system more intuitive via THAC0, and then developed an entirely new approach to the game via their options line. And although there were adherents to certain of these changes they could actually all be counted as dismal failures. Some might blame the splatbook phenom which 2e initiated as reason for their demise, and they wouldn't be totally wrong. But 2e was the first to begin to take the system in new directions, and in so doing they began to lose, what Gary himself had said was so solid that little should be changed going forward. And then the 2e TSR team did just that.

Which in my opinion leaves AD&D as the last incarnation of true D&D commercially published. And truthfully, AD&D was actually a very specific and personal sub-manifestation of D&D engineered by Gary. The game as presented in Original D&D, and later cleaned up some for the Classic D&D line (B/X) was the heart of the system. A system that could be expanded upon endlessly by those playing the game. AD&D was claimed to be by Gary the ultimate expression of the game, but obviously this was only one possible manifestation of what D&D could be in the hands of the creatively imaginative player and DM.

The crux of expansion in the game really seems to center around offering the player increased options. Which is open ended in the actual system itself. Even AD&D continued this trend in its supplements and magazines. None of which bogs down the system much.  What tends to bog down the game is increased combat options--which didn't really occur much until 2e. But what increased player options does do is introduce power creep. We can see this across the development of the actual D&D game and its d20 variants. Each one more powerful than the ones before.

All of which brings me to how one can  meet the expectations of increased player options while avoiding power creep and keeping the game lite and flexible. And I think Gary answered this question quite nicely in his last game--Lejendary Adventures, which we'll explore some next time.