Friday, September 29, 2017

5e and Feeling Confounded

I have played 5e now for the past couple of years. In fact, I have not played any other game but 5e in all that time. I have written about my struggles with this edition and I have written about the things I think it does rather well. What I have not written about is how confused it makes me feel.

Well, confusion is not really the word, it's confounded. That's the word, confounded.

Confound: cause surprise or confusion in (someone), especially by acting against their expectations.

"Acting against expectations." Yep, that would be it, right there. I just can't quite seem to get my head around this game. I think it may be the basic assumptions have changed a bit with 5e when compared with all other editions. I'll be honest, I disliked 4e more than 5e, but I was able to grok 4e better than 5e so far--and I've played 5e for longer. Why is this?

I'd like to point a finger at bounded accuracy, though to be fair I'm not sure that's the real issue. Bounded Accuracy (BA) was one of the basic assumptions that shifted with this edition. It gives the game play of 5e a different feel. Essentially, BA requires a balance related to number of opponents, not level of opponents. But, frankly it's not that simple.

I've read far and wide that the encounter building guidelines are broken for 5e, and have certainly found that to be the case in my experience. In a way this makes me feel better, since even the designers seemed to struggle with the sweet spot. Not to mention that the death save rules, and healing available makes risk even harder to manage. I constantly feel as if I am dancing between extremes. In one session characters seem to cake walk through encounters I thought would be tough, and in others sessions I feel like I'm constantly having to pull punches and adjust encounter builds or else they'll be wiped out.

I know specifics would be more helpful, but as I mentioned last time I'm not the best at record keeping, so giving you an example seems to lack the necessary details to really make an informed assessment. For instance, I'm currently running The Haunt, a brilliant little haunted house number as an add on to the current campaign. In one part there is a Beholder Zombie in a slime infested pool. I've got six characters of just past 5th level. Though the disintegration ray the beholder got off was a close call, the PC made his save. Next the fear ray, and again a save was made. And the beholder didn't get off a third shot. Druid used call lightning, and wizard was using fire based spells and one lightning bolt. ZB had 93 hp to start, the recommended amount in the MM. It was a cake walk and they got a flame tongue as a result.

Second encounter: 1 Cloaker hidden on a coat rack. Took a bit but eventually the cloaker hit the party cleric and within two rounds the cleric was dead.  Admittedly I rolled a 20, double damage, but still ... The Barbarian was paralyzed by fear from the Cloaker's moan, and only the Druid was left. In this scenario the party had become separated by the House, and so they were split in two, the Druid was going to bit the dust too, when the Bard found them. They managed to do enough damage to the cloaker that it chose to flee and hide.

Now, by encounter builder stats, my party should have had an easy time with the beholder zombie, and a hard time with the cloaker--because we were down to 4 PCs since the party got split. This seems about right, since the BZ was down in three rounds, and the cloaker about wiped out three of them. But you see, that's just it.  It doesn't seem right to me. I think the problem is that I am still adjusting from an old school frame of reference. You see, a cloaker was always a dangerous monster. But in 1e it had 6HD. It was nasty even then, but the 5e cloaker--holy snit you do not want to run into one of those. The beholder zombie? Well, they weren't around until 3e, and frankly I had never used them. Looking around the web, several people question if a beholder zombie is even suitable as a CR 5 monster. Let me assure you, it is.

The problem is us old guys are always used to thinking of a beholder as a massively dangerous critter. Well, the beholder zombie is considerably nerfed when compared with the true beholder. It's a problem of perspective. See in this case, the encounter building worked quite well, but I had come to not trust it, and it came back to bite me.

Which brings me to the dawning realization that maybe the encounter building system isn't broken, as much as it is built for a different system, a different game. The more I actually _play_ 5e the more I find there are times when it works amazingly well and seems to fade into the background like a good system should. What usually gets in the way is my preconceptions and prejudices that come from years and years of playing other editions. Which makes me feel confounded. I often step back from a satisfying game and say quietly to myself, "Holy hell, we were just playing 5e, and that went awesome!"

I feel confounded perhaps not because of 5e "not working" or "working differently" but because my experience predisposes me to feel differently. I've also noticed something else. As I transition away from 4e, and the over reliance on minis that game sort of left me with, I use minis less and less for every move, and more just for combat scenarios. And even then only when we need to make strategic decisions. As the party recently fought a ghost that had possessed a party member, there was no need for minis, nor strategic play on the mat, in was largely a psychic battle occurring inside the characters heads and wholly in the theater of the mind. And the effect was to make the encounter much more frightening because they were playing it all out in their head, without the distraction of the mat or the minis to take away from the horror of the moment. Classic moment had all in 5e.

I just came away feeling good about things, and about the game we were playing. This was confounding for me, because I had just felt really frustrated with the edition less than 2 weeks prior. So, yeah. Me and 5e, we are learning about each other. I've played almost every week, sometimes twice a week for two years now, and I continue to grow and develop as a gamer in this the most recent edition of the game. 

If Mike Mearls Can Do It ...

Mike Mearls has introduced, some time ago now, an alternative initiative system that he is using in his campaign. He calls it Greyhawk Initiative, which I find quite telling. The system is gloriously clunky, but like all crunchy systems, once you get the hang of it, it works quite well in play. It sacrifices some things in favor of others, but overall offers a new and more realistic feel to the chaos of combat, and adds levels of strategy that were missing from the 5e default.

But the real reason I mention this is that the rules are so clearly drawn from old school AD&D. In fact, if you take the time to read the rules, he points out you can make the system even more AD&D like by factoring in something similar to weapon speed. I love this!

Clearly Mike is playing with the system to try and give the game a more old school feel, less 0e-sih and much more like Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Which is exactly what I've been trying to do for some time now. I mean if Mike Mearls can do certainly I can! Ummm, maybe. I mean Mike is probably one of the more talented game designers in our current age, so he has the chops to make things work. But, despair not! It can be done and is being done. So my hope of being able to make the game more old school in the vein of AD&D may not be folly.

However ... I'm not sure these kinds of changes are what I'm looking for. As has become clear from my last few posts, the kind of re-design that inspired me was more like Low Fantasy Gaming. A redesign that takes its spirit from early 0e gaming and yet uses updated mechanics to appeal to the modern crowd. Not that I like the "appeal to the modern crowd" but most gamers do nowadays.

When I try and cut out class skill increases and the like most players start wondering where all the good bits went. Which is why the design of LFG is so elegant. Because it also enshrines a swords & sorcery ethos that is common to those early days. Unfortunately, I pause for the same reason I do in adopting Mike Mearls rules experiments.

No matter how much I may like them, or think they are cool--they are not the game as written. Something AD&D sort of ingrained in my bones is that when you do have a rule that you find and decide to play by, then the rules should be your guide. You may find that certain houserules, are good, but when you go mucking about in the realm of houserules there are often ramifications to other rules, and you find that living by your group's new rule is more work than simply going by the rule as written in the core books.

I may be weird in this regard--and it certainly goes against much advice to the contrary in early and recent editions of D&D. The DM is the final word, don't let the rules restrict your play, story trumps rules, etc. etc. But I prefer a different approach. I do like rule light play, but if the rule is written it should generally be followed. It represents a sort of default physics of the game world everyone can rely on. Anything not covered in the rules is fair game, though, and if we need to cover some topic not in the rules we are free to do so as we need and see fit.

This is what has made me realize that AD&D may not be my "thing" like I thought it was. What I actually played was a more rules reduced version, more in the spirit of 0e with AD&D content. I never would have admitted this at the time, and to be honest most of the rules we didn't use, surprise, weapon speed, casting times, weapon armor factors, etc. were because we didn't understand them. But you can bet we used. AD&D classes, races, weapon specialization, proficiencies, the Hand and Eye of Vecna, and all the rest.

However, I'm still growing comfortable with actually changing rules or even adopting optional rules into 5e. I've tried it and it didn't work the way I wanted it to. It was easier to just say "it's in the rules."

But then again, if Mike Mearls can do it, maybe I can to ...

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

My DMing Style

I would love to write a detailed, thorough and insightful article about different DMing styles, but if I have learned anything in 36 years of gaming and the nine years of writing this blog it's that I don't know nearly as much about gaming as I thought I did.

So instead, I am covering what I think my DMing style is. And I have no idea where this is going. The reason is that such a thing as DMing style is hard to quantify at best, and more difficult when you are the subject of your own study. It's kind of like a one person participatory ethnology--essentially an oxymoron. But, here we go.

I came to gaming being DMed by some older guys in my Scout group. I was 12, they were closer to 14. I died. A lot. We played a sort of Original Dungeons & Dragons flavored with AD&D content, and I never DM'ed--I was always a player, and the newbie at that. I call this my proto-DM phase wherein I was primarily being inducted into the hobby and eagerly absorbing all my older proteges had to teach me. Something pivotal about these days was that there was no gentle, friendly shepherding to my introduction to gaming. This was like hazing for nerds. I mean the guys were nice enough, I knew they would never run my underwear up a flagpole or anything, but in the game? It was toughen up or be goblin food. You had to want it and stick with it if you weren;t to wash out of the game. This colored much of my early dungeon mastering when that time came. During these days my DMs included most of the following elements in their games:
  • Focused on DM fiat, what the DM says goes
  • Less focus on story and more on overcoming combat and obstacles
    • The story was the adventure
  • Everything seemed like a weird blend of fantasy, sci-fi and the supernatural
  • PC life was cheap
  • The game was hard
  • Stupidity and bad playing got you killed, quick
Once I recruited some guys in my grade to play with me and assumed the DM reins by default, I was pretty brutal myself. I killed lots of characters. I inducted my friends exactly as I had been. I look back now and am amazed they stuck with it. But then, so did I. I had been raised on a pretty rich diet of fairy tales, classic romance and the tales of Arthur, Merlin, Ogres and Giants, Aladdin and Robin Hood. So I shifted our games towards a fairly medieval style of play early on. That being said, the feel was still pretty gritty and grim at times, simply by dint of the rules. That's the way early editions play. During this time of what I call my DM infancy I used to:
  • Make combat deadly
    • I say "make", but it simply was. We played by the rules of rolling hit points randomly and your PC was dead at zero. Too bad so sad ... Which led to the next point we always,
  • Play the game hard--pull no punches
  • However, we moved away from fiat to an increasing reliance on rules
    • This resulted from all of us innately knowing that just being a hardass for the sake of being a hardass did no one any good. So we backed decisions based on how the rules read. 
  • Fascination with the medieval--we played more like an Arthurian fantasy
  • I did a few short homebrew one shots during this time, but focused on mostly TSR modules.
My group and I began early on to develop a sense of Gygaxian naturalism, as that's what had begun to define D&D during the 80's. We were reading Dragon magazine and starting to build our D&D libraries and followed the tone and suggestions that were coming out of TSR pretty religiously. Sure, we liked the odd twist, and by the end of the 80's I was throwing in quite a bit of weird stuff occasionally and we had expanded our play to include oriental flavors pretty comfortably. We also used Unearthed Arcana stuff, and 2e as it seemed useful. My style during this age of my DM youth developed some, and included:
  • Strong reliance on creativity, improvisation and unscripted story
  • Strong focus on unique challenges, weird monsters, puzzles, traps and conundrums to confound players
  • Hard game play, but I began adjusting encounters some for the sake of story and letting characters off the hook occasionally
  • Even with my softening stance I hewed very closely to not only the rules, but the spirit as my group played the game by what we saw was "reasonable", i.e.
    • No monster PCs
    • No Monty Hall crap allowed
    • No uber high level PCs
    • We used game and content logic to determine if things made sense
  • There was a sense of greater story and campaign arc--it was cool that some characters had lives of their own.
  • Campaign identity became more fluid at the same time it became more concrete. You had to be from somewhere, but the idea of different worlds all connected by the same web of portals or the like was the norm.
    • That being said our sort of default was Greyhawk
  • Most of the material during this time was modified TSR modules, but I did DM my first long term campaign during these days.
The heyday of 2e was a sporadic time for gaming in my life and among my old gaming buddies. I continued to game pretty much up to about 1994 or 5 when I knocked off for awhile. But before this we continued to develop along the same lines softening even further--largely due to Dragon magazine and the growing "craziness" of 2e. If the character's backstories could justify some oddball approach or decision and DMs were satisfied it didn't overpower the game we were generally okay with it. Some changes we were more comfortable with:
  • Monsters as PCs
  • Weird classes and class combinations
  • Stranger magic items
  • Inclusion of variant rules were not openly accepted, but at least considered
  • The game, for us, had begun to become character driven, and we realized each new PC could become something epic--but it was never guaranteed.
I came back to gaming around 2004 or so and caught the last couple of years of 3.5. I also changed my group orientation. I had always gamed with people about my age. As I was know in my 30's and gaming with students at the junior high school where I taught it necessitated a change in approach. I ran the school game club, and though I was teaching people to play my style remained the same in some ways. In quite a few methods I just picked up where I had left off. But my group dynamics shifted and group sizes were large. This required a less "deep" style of play and a return to more adventure focused play. We also played several different games during this age, from 3.5, 2e, C&C, OSRIC, 1e, Pathfinder, 4e, and Labyrinth Lord AEC. This variety of game systems also influenced my play to include more diverse approaches and rules variations. Generally my DM style included:
  • A balance between story oriented and adventure oriented play
    • What I mean by this is I spent a lot of time just running wilderness or dungeon crawls because we simply had so many people playing, I call this adventure oriented
    • However, we did run several strong story oriented campaigns that focused more on roleplay and interaction than just crawls.
  • I kept things fairly flexible and as light as could be--I don't like spending a lot of time rules searching when I've got players waiting at the table. I felt more pressured in this regard largely due to the sheer sizes of my groups.
  • I defaulted a lot to old AD&D pseudo rules I remembered and felt comfortable when I had questions. Frustration often resulted with new systems as I felt like I didn't know the rules well enough and was not following the line as closely. This was unsatisfying to me. 
  • I liked running combat theater of the mind, but began to use minis more and more for my player's benefit--also something I was less than happy about.
  • I found myself adopting some d20 techniques -- attribute checks vs DC and ascending armor class and ability based saves because they were easy--even though I found them unsatisfying.
  • I was not afraid for players to die, but I worried about it when it happened (new for me).
  • I still rarely used fiat, going with explication or the rules in a pinch. Unless of course I was caught with my rulebook down and had to make an on the fly call--here I relied on earlier rules.
  • I like using magic items instead of increasing player powers via class feats & talents.
  • I resisted and disagreed with players who wanted "new" abilities to be able to do things. It began to seem like we never had "enough" rules for some players.
Finally, about five or so years ago I had to cancel the club when I moved into an administrative position and I began looking for a group to play with again. For the past few years I've played with some more normal-sized groups, once a week and my DM style has continued to develop. As the majority of my play concerned long term multi-year gaming with the same group, I have had time to reflect and change my approach to incorporate these views. At this point, where I am currently, my DMing could be described as:
  • Campaign oriented play with an overarching trajectory of story set against strongly plot oriented episodes and adventures. 
  • Still very improvisational and "on the fly" with about an hour or two of preparation per three to four hour session of weekly play.
  • Homebrew more than ever, but honestly still prefer using pre-designed commercial modules which I change and hack to my own devices and as the stories unfold. 
  • More focused on the strange and unusual story elements and game "pieces" that spice up play and keep it unexpected.
  • Much more focus on character development over time.
  • Deaths are rare, and I feel less than comfortable with this.
  • I am still very much driven by what is in the rules, but will call on the fly if needed.
    • I do not like changing rules or even houseruling much. It seems arbitrary to me. I feel like players should be able to rely on what is in the rules. It's up to me to adapt and make it work.
  • I find myself giving too much magic lately. This is a holdover from my love of magic as a key to character identity and power. New versions don't seem to support this as there is still so much increase in class ability over the levels. 
  • Preference of rules light play, I like to keep the pace up
    • That said I love rules and especially well designed ones, I just do not liek them slowing things down.
  • I try to be descriptive, but feel as if I sometimes lack attention getting power
  • Still rely on minis every game--and not comfortable with it
  • I find myself increasingly walking a balance of giving in to players and pushing them just to the brink. 
  • I have tried playing 5e "harder" and more "heroic" and neither work very well. I tend to run at default setting, whatever edition I'm running.
  • I like changing things up, but find myself defaulting more and more to the way things are written.
Which leaves me scratching my head still as to what my "style" is, but if I had to perhaps encapsulate it, I would highlight the following:
  • Less rules for freedom and fast play, but play by those rules written
  • Improvisation and creativity to liven up the game and summon the story out of adventure
My weaknesses as a DM certainly include:
  • Record keeping
  • Guilt ridden angst over being too nice or too mean
  • Guilt and dissatisfaction with cheating dice and bending rules
  • Reading what my players want
  • Sometimes feel like I'm going through the motions and not taking time to savor the action or the story--may result from my concern for pacing
  • I require player feedback and communication before, during after and between games, otherwise I feel like I'm failing

Monday, September 25, 2017

OSR Gatekeepers and A Contrary Opinion

Matt Finch has created a sort of new face to his Youtube channel, or at least the channel he's now calling Uncle Matt's D&D Studio. He recently released a video about Old School Gamer Radio and how some in the community are concerned the station will create a "Gatekeeper" for the OSR. How this would even be possible I have no idea. For, as Matt himself points out in the video, the OSR is so massively amorphous that to try and set oneself up as a Gatekeeper is a herculean if not unattainable task. I mean I suppose someone could set themselves up as a gatekeeper, but whether they achieve it or not is something else.

Way back in the day of explosively erupting OSR blogs and fora, there were a few who tried to become "hubs" of OSR activity and some went quite far in this direction. There were even more of us, yours truly, who thought about trying to do so. But the fact is noone could really pull it off, and the rest of us who think far too much before beginning projects became overwhelmed just thinking about it. There was simply too much stuff.

Nowadays, the OSR has shrunk some. at least the media presence has. What has increased was alluded to in my last post--the sheer volume of material being self published, indie published, and small press published (not sure myself what distinguishes those three venues) is larger even than the old media presence of OSR startups were.

But my question here is would a gatekeeper be such a bad idea? Given the comments in my last post you might be surprised to hear me say, it depends. Since I decried the flood of material that is being poured out upon the gaming public is so massive we are not swimming in endless product, we are drowning in effluvic confusion. If your purpose was to give some coherence and cataloging to the OSR I would be all in favor of that.

However, if your purpose is to somehow bottleneck the OSR, or cork it even, then I might not be quite so quick to jump on board. A Gatekeeper in the sense of you shall not pass--which is unfortunately the usual connotation of gatekeeper--is something I don't think would be a good thing. I mean, I have written before about the reasons for creating your own game or your own product. I'm all for that as long as you are clear about your reasons and control your product (I can explain this more in another post). Shutting down the freedom for people to create is never a good idea.

Which brings me to the contrary opinion portion of this post. First allow me to say, I hate Facebook. I use Facebook, rather frequently in fact, and I hate it. It is the most user inimical piece of commercial trash I have ever seen become so popular. I suppose it's like a lot of other things around the world that we hate, but that dominate culturally and have become the accepted medium of use for whatever it is targeting. In this case social media is dominated by Facebook. But Facebook is a mess. They've fixed some issues, but generally FB crams what it thinks you want to see down your throat and what it wants you to see right along with it. Searching through facebook is like trying to pick a popcorn kernel out of the gumline of a great white shark. I can't see what I want to see, I see tons of crap I'm not interested in, and I can't find anything ten minutes after I saw it. Maybe I'm a FB ignoramus, but I hate the thing. And I just used it barely fifteen minutes ago.

I mention this for two reasons. First, I recently saw a post on an AD&D page (there are several) that opined how the good old days were great because of all the different companies that were starting up putting out stuff illicitly compatible with D&D. You could walk into a hobby shop and see the walls lined with minis from different companies and products from adventures to play aides to GM aides from all sorts of different small presses seeking to get in on the market. Though I can't recall everything he said, he made a passing comment about how today we are all channeled into one direction by the mega-companies, and that all products coming out today have to show some obeisance to the almighty Wiz-Paiz-bros and thus narrow our defining choices to a few of the same things.

Does the irony escape you? I mean, yes, there were lots of startups back in the day that, when they could fight off the lawsuits from the TSR conglomerate, were producing material that found its way into hobby shops. But we were all technically channeled into the direction of TSR anyway. Everything was trying to ride TSR's coattails and an easy way to do it was put out product that could somehow be used with the D&D productline. I too recall those days fondly, but for different reasons. I actually liked it when TSR ruled the roost, but I've written about that elsewhere too. What I can't recall is if this poster, that shall remain beyond my grasp of search and recall skills, mentioned that things are so great nowadays because of OSR product proliferation.

This, I agree with. Yes, I know I just lamented by ibuprofen requiring exhaustion with this same OSR proliferation. But the whole gatekeeper thing got me to thinking that an OSR gatekeeper, or at least an OSR librarian would not be a bad thing. We need somebody in charge to index all this crap. Which brings me to the next reason I mention I hate Facebook. One Book Shelf. Now, I'm hesitating myself on this one. Becuase I really, really, really love One Book Shelf. Primarily for DriveThruRPG and RPGNow, but just love the whole concept. What I do hate about it is the general lack of organization it entails. I mean the search features work quite well, and you can usually find what you're looking for if you know what the title is. If they have it, you'll find it. But the browse features suck ogre rocks. I always end up frustrated and giving up after scrolling through two or three pages. Sometimes I find a tasty treat, but usually I end up coming away spending no money and less than enthused about the OSR generally.

Now, please don't misunderstand me, One Book Shelf is a great thing and the world and the internet is a better place because of it. And it is in large part, a product of the community that created and supports is via content. But I lament the fact that it seems like a huge pile of papers that have been sort of stacked into rough approximations of piles by category.

Now, I know the inherent difficulty in doing any sort of cataloging of the type I am suggesting here. I mean let's say Bob puts out his homebrewed adventure for Setting X written with rule-set Clone Y in fantasy Genre Z. One Book Shelf catalogs that under setting material, rule-set material and genre material. It also cross indexes it for rule-set A, B, and C which are compatible with Clone Y and with other material in settings similar to Setting Y as well as by genre and ... well, you get the picture. It's a big, hairy Gordian Knot type of sorting job that data managers and library scientists absolutely love. But done badly can actually go about hurting the end user and the creator.

This kind of "gatekeeper" would be a godsend to the OSR. The one thing I will put out there, is that we could go back to the day of sorting by creator. DTRPG & RPGN does allow you to do this, and it is the best feature of the site. The only problem with it is that you really get no feel for the creator/publisher/creator/designer herself. This does not replace a good website or face page or catalog for the publisher in question. That is still very much needed.

When I want DCC RPG stuff I go to Goodman games first. If I'm looking for C&C stuff I head to the Troll Lords site. Frog God stuff? FG site. These sites do more than just showcase or sell product. They connect you to the experience of what you are buying. This is basic economics, but you don;t create and make customers through product. You have to create an experience. Now, I know, in this day of increasingly cheaper product price, cost can trump experience. But in out hobby experience has always been paramount. I mean we are one industry that goes out of its way to try and support actual brick and mortar stores, because we love our FLGS. We want an experience.

This is the reason I am beginning to hate Amazon. I mean I used to love Amazon. Why? Cheap prices? I mean sure that was great, but really I loved it because: Books! Books was what Amazon was about. Now, I feel like I am stepping into WalMart every time I of to the Amazon site. All the shaming I felt for shopping there was overridden by the fact that, one we have no local bookstore or game shop, and two it was all about books! Now, I fin myself less an less on Amazon, because they have lost that experience.

What we need for the OSR is a site or hub or something that connects you to the actual presence of the creator and what she represents and is offering to let me in on. So much more powerful than what DTRPG or RPGN is now doing. Now, that is a gatekeeper I could get behind.