Saturday, June 16, 2012

Flanking the flank

Some sort of flanking rules seem inevitable. I realize there was no flanking rule in AD&D (or was there? I don't remember.) but 3rd Edition opened the box and I can't see putting the genie back into the bottle now.

The question seems to be the implementation.

Our group can see it being done in one of two ways.

#1: The obvious way. The attackers get advantage. This makes the surrounded individual (the poor sap) unlikely to stay standing for long.

#2: The interesting way. The surrounded sap suffers disadvantage on his/her/its actions. This seems counter intuitive. I mean, the attackers have set themselves up around the poor sap; therefore, they should get the advantage for their efforts.

But, look at it from the poor sap's point of view. He/she/it is surrounded by enemies with sharp knives/teeth/claws. Naturally, one is going to be a bit timid in that situation; attacks will be halfhearted to avoid overreaching and opening oneself up for attack. Hence the sap's disadvantage.

I can see WotC going either way. I can also see them coming up with something else entirely. The only thing I can't see is there not being any advantage/disadvantage/other for being flanked or surrounded.

Milk carton items

Some of the things we've noticed the absence of...

1. Attacks of Opportunity. Not sure yet if I miss them.

2. Listen checks. I liked the die rolling but to be honest, it never made sense as a skill. Now, if there's something that's trying not to be heard, it becomes a Wis v Dex contest.

3. Flanking. I miss it. Playing the rogue put the spotlight on how much I liked flanking. During playtesting, I found that I spent a lot of rounds hiding and trying to get into position for a sneak attack. Meanwhile the wizard and cleric were machine gunning their magic missiles and radiant lances. *sigh*

4. Flat footed. Without it, having surprise doesn't feel all that special. (Edit #1)

5. Touch attack. Miss this one. It makes sense but it requires things like AC vs different things. (Edit #2)

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Session #1. A lot of good. A little bad.

Our initial playtest session went pretty well. There was the usual sidetracking and goofing off but that's a big part of playing a tabletop game of any kind.

Once we eventually got down to business, we went over some of the big changes from the rules we're all familiar with. The concept of having advantage and some of the overall simplifications. Then we handed our characters (we took turns rolling to randomly assign the pre-generated ones provided) and looked them over to spot anything interesting.

For starters, the wizard has an interesting little thing that affects his spellcasting. Namely, if he takes damage, on his next turn he has to make a Constitution check to successfully cast a spell. If the wizard casts a cantrip or does anything else, there's no check required. My first thought was that it would be same for any spellcaster, but a quick check of the two clerics showed that to not be the case. Odd but okay.

I rolled the halfling rogue, and there were a couple of things I noticed. For one, the sneak attack damage is essentially the same as his hit dice. In other words, it goes up every level. I thought that was going to be really overpowered, but during actual play, I only had one sneak attack opportunity. So, it might not be a big factor as long as there's no official flanking rule (more on that in a bit).

Second thing I noticed was this little rogue feature that is basically a Take 10 on any skill the rogue is trained in. I still roll the check for opening locks, finding and disarming traps, and sneaking but any roll lower than 10 is bumped up to 10. Nice! But it made disarming even moderately difficult traps impossible to fail. That means a 1st level novice rogue can disarm a moderately tricky trap without breaking a sweat. Not so good.

Finally, I found that the rogue was much more tactical in combat than the fighter, cleric, and even the wizard. I spent a couple of combat rounds doing nothing but hiding and looking for an opening to deliver a sneak attack. As I already mentioned, I only got one such opportunity.On the plus side, having advantage allowed me to nail the sneak attack (I rolled a 15 and an 8), so that mechanic is great.

While I was busy lurking and sneaking, the others struck me as being one trick ponies. The fighter, predictably, swung his axe every round and did serious damage thanks to a bonus that feels really huge at first level. Oddly enough, the cleric and wizard also came across as predictable. There were a few notable exceptions but for the most part, round after round they used their at-will radiant lance and magic missile (respectively). I was not a fan of the at-will carrying over from 4th Edition, and I like it even less after seeing it in action.

Yes. I know. No one wants to play a wizard or cleric that runs out of spells halfway through the first fight. I get that. I just don't think letting them spam magic missiles and shocking grasps and radiant lances is the answer. Making them usable X number of times per encounter isn't a good solution either because it makes one wonder why the wizard could cast, say 3 magic missiles early in a fight but then stop, and then move to the next room and suddenly be able to cast 3 more. It makes no sense.

Personally, I think the easiest fix would be to simply increase the numbers of low level spell slots available to casters. Give them a dozen or 20 cantrips per day, or whatever number that let's players feel like they have lots but not so many that they can waste them.

The best fix might be to do away with the Vancian magic system. A few months ago, I read a blog (sorry, I can't find the link) who suggested that the Dragonlance Fifth Age system could be a great foundation for DnDNext's magic. I'm not overly familiar with that game but from the little bit that I've read, it's system of circles and points is pretty cool. Unfortunately, it also appears to be a little math heavy which is clearly anathema to 5th Edition D&D.

I have one other early complaint but I think I'll save that for another post.

Overall, I'm quite happy with the initial design and rules. It's definitely simplified and a lot of discretion is put into the hands of the DM. For example, does flanking give advantage? That's apparently up to the DM to decide. Also, 1st level characters are nowhere near the helpless and lucky to survive noobs of 3rd and earlier editions. They've got some pretty serious teeth.

As does DnDNext.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Some first impressions on the playtest stuff

Funny thing, how life gets hectic and things that held my interest end up pushed to the back burner. DnDNext was that thing and one day I couldn't read enough about it, and the next it wasn't even on my radar.

Then, along comes the playtest materials.

Yes, our group got in. No, I don't think it's all that exclusive of a thing.(My impression is that anyone who asked to be in, got in.)

Anyways, I read the guide on how to play and skimmed over the supplied characters. Not a lot of meat but the bones are shiny and white and new.

The materials do give a pretty good sense of where 5th Edition is going, and I think I'm gonna like it. DM Samuel at RPGMusings wrote up a really good summary with some good insights. I'll try not to simply rehash what he wrote but a tip of the hat to his spotting of the three pillars of 5th Edition.

Unfortunately, our group's first official playtest won't happen until this Saturday (June 2nd) but I thought I'd throw out my initial thoughts on the good, bad, and ugly.

Right off the bat, I really dig the concept of Advantage/Disadvantage. It's simple but a powerful tool and full of tactical goodness. This guy here breaks down the math quite nicely.

I'm also a big fan of the simplification of checks being made against each stat. As much as I might miss the old Will, Reflex and whatever that third save was, it only makes sense to treat them as ability tests instead. Plus, as an added bonus, it makes all six stats important in different situations. Charisma might not be the default dump stat any more.

The idea of Backgrounds and Themes for characters also seems like a welcome innovation. I'm a little worried that having feats embedded inside is a recipe for disaster. I, for one, create a character with one concept and very often end up playing him/her/it as something totally different. In 3rd Edition, that wasn't much of a problem as I'd just change up my feat selections and/or spell choices. If a background in 5th Edition gives you two or three feat trees to chose from, at best I'm going to feel restricted. At the worst, I'll end up stuck with a character I don't like.

I'm a little put off by the Cantrips and Orisons. They seem to take those iconic 1st level spells like Magic Missile and turn them into the dreaded At-Will powers of 4th Edition. After reading everything else and seeing not even a nod towards the-edition-that-shall-not-be-named, they drop the At-will thing on me. Ugh!

I'm hoping the feedback on that will get them to come up with something else. While I agree that there's no harm in the wizard/sorcerer/cleric/bard/etc... having a couple of piddly spells that they can fire off as many times as they want. The Light spell is a great example of something that's nice to have limitless uses of, but being able to machine gun Magic Missiles is a bit much.

Am I really in that small of a minority that I don't mind my spellcaster having to resort to swinging a sword or shooting a crossbow when he's out of spells?

On another note, Crwth spotted an interesting bit of wording in the How To Play guide. In the Stealth section, it seems to imply that one roll is made and that all contested rolls are compared against it.

He interprets that as the player announcing he wants to be sneaky, rolling a Dex check, and then using that roll for the rest of the week as he creeps across the country. I, uh, might be exaggerating that a little bit.

Still, even if it means that a character can creep along a 100' of hallway past multiple guards on one roll, that needs to be dropped. I know. Rolling a stealth check every 15' is tedious. And a lot of the time the DM knows there's nothing there to hear/spot the character but the DM can't let the player know that, so the dice clatter away for the next hour.

Doing it on one stealth check is not the answer. Sure, it speeds up play. Sure, it simplifies the task. But it's a cure looking for a disease. There's tension inherent in every die roll (or there should be) because there is a risk of failure. Rolling a lot of dice is not necessarily a bad thing. Especially not when checks seem to be simplified down to an Ability score plus a modifier or two plus Advantage or Disadvantage.

Crwth's nightmare example was of a player rolling a natural 20 and deciding that his character will simply stealthy move all the way through the dungeon unopposed. Or, he'll roll a 5 and decide to stop moving before trying again.

I can see doing that. I can't see getting away with it, but...

Then I read that section again, and I think the wording suggests that when trying to sneak past a bunch of guards/monsters, the player rolls a single stealth check instead of a check against each guard/monster.

Hopefully, it's just a case of poor wording that will be clarified sooner or later.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Gapping a generation

So, I recently stumbled across an interesting post entitled "4E Plays Like A Video Game, and Thats [sic] Awesome". It's an older piece (from November 2010) and #DnDNext wasn't even a thing. I think I spotted in on someone's Twitter feed or something, but that's neither here nor there.

The reason I mention it is because it's quite well written and thoughtful and has some excellent points.

It also made me want to rage-barf!

The essence of his argument, as I understand it, is that the elements of 4E that drew the lion's share of criticism didn't deserve it because they made the game fun.

The spamming of At-Will powers while the Encounter and Daily powers were 'fire and forget' were okay because they were just like the cool down timers in video games. The hand waving healing where everyone takes a breather and is at full health again was all right because it kept the game moving. Any nod to realism was unnecessary because it was a game and games should be fun.

I hate every one of his arguments, but I can't really dispute them either. If that sort of stuff makes for a fun game for him and his friends, then... great! Good for them. Sincerely.

At the time, he was twenty six years old. I was thirty eight. Twelve years but it might as well have been a hundred and twelve. He grew up playing RPGs on the Xbox and computer. I played them on graph paper.

For me, the hand wave healing and powers were a break from the immersion. To me, immersing myself in my character and playing a role is the biggest draw in DnD and any other tabletop RPG. I have dozens of board games and video games that are all fun and all vying for my precious free time. A few are easy enough to lose myself in (Skyrim, Mass Effect, Deus Ex to name a few) but most are fun and carefree diversions.

I don't care how realistic the physics are in the Need For Speed series. I just wanna drive a ridiculously cool car at ridiculously stupid speeds.

I don't care if the Madden games portray injuries accurately. I just want to run a clock killing 80 yard drive.

I don't care if my Ultra-Marine is instantly healed whenever the bullets stop flying. I just wanna saw some Orks in half.

However, I do care if my carefully planned and conceived DnD character has to worry about cool down timers.

Yet Monte Cook and the WotC design team want to bring everyone together under one unified edition. A game with a foundation that will allow the old codgers like myself to sit at the same table as the twenty-something Gazebos of the world. I hope they can pull it off because that would be awesome.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Balancing Act

It's the classic mystery novel setting. A dark and stormy night rages outside the country manor. Inside 4th Edition D&D lies dead.

I've gathered all the suspects in the study. By the fire is General Roles, puffing on a pipe and looking indignant. Mrs. Powers is pacing and railing about her dignity and good name. Professor Healing-Surges nonchalantly thumbs through a musty old tomb. There are others in the room but I haven't bothered to learn their names.

I also haven't bothered to truly investigate the murder. Diligently hunting down clues and gathering ironclad evidence is for pussies. I'm all about baseless accusations and finger pointing. So, once the dramatic tension has peaked, I point my finger squarely at...


The butler ... Balance.


Or maybe everyone shrugs and says that they figured that out way back in chapter six.

Regardless; the quest to balance all the classes was above all else, the thing that killed 4E for me. I probably could have adapted to the card game/tabletop miniatures emphasis of the game over time. But there was no getting past the fact that all the classes under each role felt alike. They had different names and flavor text but at the end of the day we were playing Controllers, Strikers, Leaders, and... that other one. Tanks?

Everyone had healing surges and At-Will powers and lots of Hit Points. Everyone was self-sufficient and independent. Everyone was great but no one ever stood out. All because of balance.

Now, balance has its place. It's good to have in computer games and MMOs. It's nice to have when crossing the Grand Canyon on the back of a bear riding a unicycle across a tightwire. It has no place in a tabletop RPG.

Why? Because balanced characters are no fun. In fact, it's downright boring.

There were exactly two times in our several months of playing 4E where I remember being excited. One was when someone chained together a series of power cards in a really cool way. The other time was when we started dying off after a grueling gauntlet of encounters. Otherwise, the only thing I liked was the role-playing portions, and those had nothing to do with the rules.

I suppose the video-game-ification of 4E required that the classes be balanced. No one wants to login to their D&D based MMO and have one player run around and kill everything before you even hit the key to draw your sword or cast your first spell. That sucks.

But in a tabletop game that's simply not a factor.

As I see it, the idea behind balancing all the classes is to ultimately prevent any one player from min/maxing their character and dominating the spotlight. The fallacy there is that it's up to WoTC to police everyone who plays the game. The reality is that every gaming table is different. We all have our inside jokes and our unspoken policies on what is okay and what is not. All without any heavy handed help from WoTC, thank you very much.

In a good tabletop game with my friends, I want the spotlight. I want my character to shine and show off every now and then. I revel in those moments when I cast my biggest hardest hitting splashiest spell at the big bad guy, and have all the dice fall the right way and have it fall in glorious defeat. Those moments where it all comes together are the best.

At the same time, I want the spotlight to shine on the other characters too. I want to cheer when the rogue disarms that trap or lands that brutal sneak attack. I want to clap when the paladin executes a devastating cleave, or when the cleric vaporizes a room full of undead, or when the druid hits the vampire lord with a sunbeam spell.

Those moments are exciting and thrilling and memorable. Those are the moments that make the game fun. Those are the moments that are lost when every character can do a bit of everything and where all the classes are balanced.

So, leave the talk of balance for the computer games and let the players deal with any spotlight hogging munchkins that show up at their table.

Monday, March 12, 2012


I, for one, love high-level play, and I made sure to tell WotC_Bruce on his blogpost about it.

I haven't had much experience from the player point-of-view, though I'd love to; I think I could do the higher levels of any class proud, bringing the pain down on the greatest foes, the darkest demons and the craziest gods. As a DM, though, I have taken numerous characters, of players past and present, through the upper reaches of power. Granted, I've also stymied many a party from reaching those vaulted heights, and sometimes, we, as a group, have had to labour to get there (such as going through four? parties to eventually see the 3rd edition eight-part official campaign to its conclusion).

As a DM, the high levels are a way to break through some of the humdrum that can occur when facing simple mortal enemies. It allows planar travel to become a little more common (and survivable), providing whole new realms to explore. It provides for greater setbacks in the party, greater wrongs to right. And it provides the opportunity to stand toe-to-toe with evil incarnate, or to dance with the gods.

As hinted at the end of Cordell's post, players have often found issues with higher-level play, some a little more obvious than others. He uses the term "broken". I can't say that I've ever found it broken, but there were points where room for improvement could have been made.

In 3rd edition, for instance, epic characters, whether fighter or wizard, had multiple attacks, and the effectiveness and purpose of them could be questioned. And as might be expected, epic level combats were of epic length; one combat would be an entire evening's event. But what can be done about that? You don't want to just scale up the hitpoints and the damage dealt at the same pace, do you? Won't players see through dealing 50 damage to a 400 hitpoint target as just the same as dealing 5 damage each hit to a 40 hitpoint target? I believe so, and I believe the 3rd edition designers did, too; thus hitpoints rose faster than damage, and SR and saving throws required some effort to keep pace as well, much to Griff's chagrin.

We never did get a chance to try the 4e epic levels, which is a shame. I'd have liked to see how 21st level and above worked out. Having played with the character creator quite a bit, back in our 4e days, I did make quite a few characters (or rather, notable NPCs) all the way to 30th level, and surveyed their advances and "snapshots" at various points. Unfortunately, I never did compare then to like opponents at those levels, to get a sense of how an encounter might ave played out. Anyone have any info about epic 4e?

I think regardless of the poll taken on the blogpost, epic levels are an obvious must. There's no reason to exclude them -- players who detest them can just start a new party when they tire of their advancement to godhood -- and there's every reason to include them, because who hasn't wanted to take on Orcus or Demogorgon at least once? Perhaps this next incarnation can get them right for those opposed, without alienating those like myself who had had little to complain about.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Multiple Attacks

I realized as I read Evil_Reverend's post on multiple attacks, with a slight surprise, that I was actually of mixed-opinion about them. I had always thought that I was someone in favour of them, because they did much as he stated: kept the fighter effective at later levels when faced with armies of enemies. But as I read, I realized that as a DM, and less so as a player, I really did have a deep-seated dislike for how they were implemented.

I had forgotten about the 3/2 system of multiple attacks in the early D&D versions, and since I didn't play fighters back then, I'm not surprised. The 3rd edition system, though, is still fresh in my mind...

The issue that Evil_Reverend brings up was one most of our group had noticed -- that at higher levels, when fighters (and the other classes) had multiple attacks, they really weren't worth bothering with. Sure, there was always a chance of rolling a 20, and yes, if you paid attention, you could save your weaker attacks for weaker opponents that were within reach. But everyone knew they were just rolling those dice to go through the motions, and that the third and fourth attacks weren't contributing to combat. But it wasn't the ineffectiveness of them that bothered me the most. It was the problem of using them, and here, the monk's flurry of blows also comes into play.

On the other end of the timeline, 4e did indeed have ways for the fighter to have his or her multiple attacks, which wasn't bad. However, I did like the 3rd edition idea of every class, not mainly fighters, eventually getting multiple attacks -- some just faster than others. I liked adding together these progressions on multiclassed characters, to nicely represent how the hybrid character is advancing with his or her mixed training and their individual contributions to melee combat. However, this isn't a "requirement" for me, in a new version of D&D; if the fighter (or fighter-types) are the sole owners of multiple attacks, I can accept that in the name of design or balance.

But, 3rd edition, bless it's heart, had the whole Full Action and Standard Action setup. System. Fiasco. How many times did a monk have to struggle with whether they were doing a flurry or not? Or how many times did any character with multiple attacks have to stop and wonder if some special attack was a Standard Action that they could do as part of a multiple attack set, or a Full Action that they now realize they couldn't do as a second attack? How many times have players realized that they should have five-foot-stepped before starting their multi-attack (when they don't have a feat that allows it), after felling the one opponent within reach with the first roll?

I realize that the reason for Full Action/Standard Action was to ensure that very powerful actions were capped out at one per turn, or that they represented extra effort to perform. I understand that the monk had to decide ahead of time whether he was taking that -2 penalty for every attack, even though it sucked when it was revealed that, had the monk just hit with his best shot, he would have delivered that final blow six rounds ago. I understand that it was largely because of balance.

But it interfered with gameplay. And while this is contrary to much of what I say about D&D: balance be damned. If the rules that exist for the sake of balance are causing players and DMs to curse while stumbling through them, they don't belong there. It goes back to why we're there.

It's too bad that the Wizards' post was focused on the fighter class, instead of discussing the 3rd edition's way of allowing them for everyone, or the monk... I get the sense that at that time, fighters were what they were working on that week. I was non-committal on the polls; I think balance comes into play again, and that it makes sense for the fighter to have multiple attacks done this way or that way, if it's to ensure that they're not too over- or under-powered. But even if they keep multi-attack solely in the realm of the fighter, I feel, as I think the designers do, that they're a required feature for that class: when a thousand orcs come along, it's the fighter that's going to wade through them, not some little ranger.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Ding! Dong!

4E is dead!

Maybe. Sorta. Kinda.

Probably a little more dead than 3rd edition is. At least 3rd has the OGL going for it. All 4th has is a badly watered down version. Nice thinking there WoTC/Hasbro. Maybe you can recoup some cash in the video game licensing that was pretty clearly the driving principle of 4E's design.

Still, 4E wasn't all the crappiness, so the announcement of the 5th edition was bitter sweet for me.

On the one hand, there was the rush of excitement over the next new thing. The promise of gaming perfection that lies before us.

Then I remember that we've had this feeling before.

Ultimately, I'm not sure that I'm ready for another edition of my beloved game. Our mountain of 3rd edition books are hardly crumbling to dust while the 4th edition books are collecting dust. Plus, I've acquired more than a few of the Pathfinder books and that's been just fine in my opinion. Why should I break open the piggy bank for yet another rpg?

True. The concept of a modular plug'n'play core is pretty cool. Having Monte Cook involved is also reason for optimism.

I'm just concerned that we'll buy in and get a bunch of shiny new books and modules all to end up playing 3.5 or Pathfinder again.

Not that 3.5/Pathfinder are blemish free. The higher level play is an exercise in huge numbers and fancy gear. Spell Resistance always pissed me off. Not the concept of SR (I like that!) but the math behind it. I always felt like no matter what I did to stack my odds of beating SR, the high CR monsters were always just a little too high.

Plus, encounter design was clunky and by tenth level all the old favorites from the monster manual were all but obsolete. Unless the DM spends hours leveling up those orcs, kobolds, and gnolls (but see the previous clunkiness comment).

So, I suppose 5E could allow a blending of 3rd's character rules with 4th's encounter rules. Sprinkle in some armor acting as DR and a defensive stat akin to the BAB, and we might have something going. Make race a little more relevant. Fix SR. Rein in the number creep that came with level progression and so on.

In other words, be perfect.

Or we might be back here in 2017, blogging about #dndnextagain

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Rolling of the dice

I'm glad this blog post came up, because it is an issue that I have -- surprise, surprise -- an opinion on, and it's something that we've discussed quite a bit at our game table.

For those that are too lazy to click the link above, the general gist is that over the years, melee combat has given the deciding factor -- the die roll -- to the player, rolling to-hit to overcome AC - THAC0, BAB or whatever system you like. Spellcasters and the like instead had to combat Saving Throws, but it was the DM's lucky dice that determined the outcome of that, not the players'. This gave all the drama (good and bad) to the melee characters, and the rest just had to sit back and be told whether their idea worked out.

We tried a few different solutions to this, including systems found in various other games, such as Oriental Adventures, Pathfinder, 3rd edition and 4e. Some of my players and I had come to the same conclusion as Monte Cook did, that they were getting gypped, and I must say, I liked the idea that the spellcaster had that variable in their spell's strength, combatting against their target's innate ability to resist it. We even toyed with moving the randomness of an NPC's attack against the party into the players' hands, turning AC into a defensive roll against a very static attack value that the enemy had. It sure made things easier on my side of the table, but in the end it felt a little unbalanced -- the players shouldn't really have that much "control" over their fate, and having the DM (whether deceptively or honestly) widening his eyes at a roll just made behind the DM shield can add to the suspense of the story as it unfolds. Not knowing if the goblin keeps missing because of low rolls by the DM or because the goblin isn't a threat is fun to leave to speculation; seeing that the goblin didn't hit you when you rolled a 6 on a defense roll tells you right out that you can turn your back on the goblin and focus on the hobgoblin captain instead.

That being said, I'm not vehemently opposed to any one method. They all work, and it was fun to dabble with different systems to stir things up. My voting in the polls that followed the blogpost weren't weighted to either extreme; I might have a preference for the players' fates being more in their own hands, but if the game design can keep the spellcasters engaged without it, I'll be fine with that too.

The Future of Fighters

Forgive me the next handful of posts, as I catch up to news almost a month old.

Over on the D&D Next blog, Evil_Reverend had a poll asking about players' opinion about the role of the fighter in D&D, whether they should be the preeminent melee fighter, or if mastery of ranged weapons also fell within their purview; if they should be openly versatile in their style and methods, or if they should be restricted to a defined purpose.

We've opined before about the 4e way of doing things, I think the 4e fighter would have only gotten one try from me, just to say that I had. To me, the fighter has been, over years, quite frankly, boring. Boring for the very reasons that Evil_Reverend lists: "generic warrior", "reliance on weapons and armor", "particular niche".

However, the 3rd edition fighter had me break out of my anti-fighter shell, a few times in fact. And that's because of the feat structure of 3rd edition. I could be the heavy-plated tank that waded into battle, fearless. I could be the nimble, tumbling, quickstriking dervish, quick like a rogue but trading thieves' tools for a little more skill in combat. I could be the specialist fighter, tripping and disarming without penalty, effortlessly, from a distance. I could be that sniper in the back of the pack, nowhere near as comfortable in nature as the ranger, but good and ready to take the fight up close if, against all odds, my foes could get close enough.

And I did. I played all of these fighters, and they were completely different characters to me. This is why I liked the tone that Evil_Reverend had in his post, that he liked the versatility of 3rd edition, of the feats. He also argues for the "identity" of the fighter, that, I admit, was a bit lost in 3rd edition if you didn't play stereotypically. I just hope the attempts to accommodate the identity doesn't prevent me from completely abandoning it if I choose.

You can guess how I voted in the poll.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Going back to the soul of the game

All the talk about supporting all the past versions of D&D (or rather, the players from past versions) has brought up, in many forums, blogs and tweets, the discussion about the actual gameplay, the flow of the game.

To recap, in the early days, it was all about imagination, storytelling, and dialogue between the DM and the players. The DM told a story, but allowed the players to steer that story, and it was all a back-and-forth collaboration. The game was about orally telling an epic tale around the dining room table, instead of around a fire like the players' ancestors did. The DM was the ultimate rule of law in how the story went, though, and could nix attempts that the players made to steer it away from his or her overall plans, if necessary. And, once in a while, the DM might have the players roll some dice to add some mystery and chance into the mix.

As versions progressed, and players become more seasoned, the Player's Rights seemed to spring into being, where they had a right to dictate how to story went, even if against the DM's wishes. The checks-and-balances, then, became the ruleset and a more frequent use of the dice: if the player wanted to slay the dragon, the DM didn't have to argue with them that "no, you're level 3 fighter really has no chance of taking on that elder wyrm, no matter how brave, valiant, honourable and lucky his is"; he could just cede to the roll of the dice, knowing full well that there was no way that the player would pull that off (or, if the rules allowed critical hits and vorpal weapon rolls and the like, then the DM would accept that this was indeed an epic turn to his or her adventure.)

And then the game progressed further, and players evolved further, and came from another realm, a world where the story was "told" by machines (the world of computer RPGs), and thus their training was steeped in the art of Min/Maxing, and the game designers had to accommodate for this: they had to protect the poor DM from the unbalancing problem of every fighter taking weapon X and every wizard taking spell Y, and so the fool's errand of balancing the game was introduced, and along with more rules to aid in this balancing, the game became more number-oriented, more dice-oriented, and less imaginative - it became more of a wargame than a storytelling game, from the player's point-of-view anyway.

And now... they want to be able to support all of these players?

As a DM, since 3rd edition, I've always tried (and I stress the "try" part) to be a DM somewhere in the middle - a DM that allows the players to come up with solutions that aren't listed in their Skill list or Feat list, or covered in a table in the Player's Handbook or DM's Guide. I do, however, try to quickly find a way to make the request relevant to the representation of the character on the character sheet - that is, to find a way to use an ability score, or skill check, to give the player that way of "attempting" their idea with their dice and some modifier.

Sometimes, if I think that there should be no way of failing, I'll ask the player what their score in such-and-such ability is, and make a show of nodding and thoughtfully, deciding that yes, that's an adequately high-enough score to succeed at what they're trying, or that yes, that number of ranks along with their racial bonus makes that obscure skill-like idea possible. Other times, I'll ask them to roll, completely planning on telling them succeed regardless of the outcome (just to give them that worry that they might fail, and their best-laid plans are going to cause more trouble than they're already in), only to have to scramble when they roll a 1 -- I can't fess up at that point that I really wanted them to succeed all along, can I? So quick-thinking is required to have them actually fail, but for that failure to not be as bad as it should be.

But sometimes the math is good to have. Sometimes I'm not sure how easily this rag-tag group of characters should be able to dispatch this group of monsters, especially if they foolishly raced ahead after the last battle without so much as a healing spell from the cleric. In the old, storytelling days, the DM might "punish" the party for their foolhardiness by having one or two party members severely wounded (and then allowing a retreat if the party smartens up); but perhaps allowing the party to advance and persevere with a non-stop onslaught against the enemy is worthy of some future bard's song. Myself, I'd rather let the (somewhat) balanced numbers -- and the wildly karma-affected rolls of the dice -- make that decision for me.

But I will admit (but never to my players' faces), that sometimes I will fudge the numbers (more on my side of the DM screen than their own) if I think the dice are to blame, and not the players, for what would otherwise be a dismal outcome. If the players should have rightfully been able to defeat a simple group of guards, but the paladin's dice were completely against her, I'm not opposed to "cheating" -- and that *is* how some people see it, that "the rules say..."

Sticking to the numbers can be good! It's a way of keeping the campaign's story somewhat realistic (perhaps ironically, for a fantasy game), ensuring that incredible feats are possible (as they should be, because the players are all heroes), but also keeping a rein on something too fantastic, too out there, that the story becomes uninteresting to the players and to any third-party observers that might hear or read about it.

Because while my players will possibly disagree, given the sheer number of Total Party Kills they've had over the years, for me it *is* still about the story. It should be the source of tales around future dining room tables, and should be believable -- fantastically believable -- and not stories of Monty Hauls and DMs that are pandering to their players with vorpal weapons just to keep them playing.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Holy man

My favorite class, bar none, is the cleric. Crwth has been a cleric in his every appearance in D&D, and when he appears in other worlds (MMOs, etc.) he gravitates to the cleric/holy-man/healer role appropriate to that world.

Bruce Cordell asked in a recent blogpost about the reader's viewpoint on the cleric. Healer, or holy warrior?

I've always played Crwth as the heavy-armored cleric who wades into battle, taking some swings, providing some flanking, but mostly acting as field medic. Crwth the Cleric is like the IT in your company: doesn't bring a lot of tangible value to the endeavor, but the rest of the group couldn't function without him.

My wife plays a cleric the opposite way (she's not a D&D player except for Neverwinter Nights, but it's D&D enough). She has every slot filled with searing light, harm, holy word and fire storm. Once she's done mopping up the battlefield with the enemy, she might dig her party members' bodies out from underneath and pour one of their own potions down their necks.

The poll accompanying the article discusses the alternatives provided by 3.5 and 4e regarding how healing places in the cleric's turn. Third edition provided the spontaneous casting of healing spells (provided you were a Good cleric), which at first glance provided extra functionality to the battle medic I played. However, while I would happily go through the cleric spell lists, choosing select spells that sounded powerful and impressive, I could probably count on one hand the number of times those spells did NOT get converted to a healing spell via spontaneous casting. No matter how good it sounded to blast out a flame strike against a difficult enemy, it was instead saved for a Cure Critical Wounds to help out whichever party member went toe-to-toe with said enemy instead.

4e was definitely geared towards me as a cleric, providing ways to heal the party while still doing some magical damage to foes. But while we didn't exhaustively play 4e to 30th level, I did feel that 4e Crwth was always lacking in healing effectiveness, that I was giving up some of that total healing that I could accomplish by being given this other way of participating. Even with every character having their own healing surges and second winds, I still had the feeling (not backed by numbers, mind you) that we were worse off as a party in the healthcare department.

Along the same topic, Cordell also comments on the idea of holy damage vs. radiant damage. The difference, to me, was minor. Radiant is described as "light charged with uncommon energy", so that could include holy-backed energy, as well as "mystical moonlight or starlight, and the alien light of far realms". To me, all of these other lights are still the realm of the gods -- the moon, the stars, other realms. Perhaps it hasn't come from a prayer-backed source, but the deities are behind it regardless. Granted, this doesn't differentiate between good gods and bad - radiant doesn't have any alignment behind it. That's why I feel that holy/unholy is the better way to go, and yet the non-devout can still harness it through other means. That's just my opinion, of course, but you can guess how I voted in his poll.

And finally, in the same vein, there's the Angry DM's response to Cordell's healing post, and his take on healing overall. It's quite the interesting read, but I won't address his points for now; I mention it to bring together the discussion of such things as they stand in the early stages of #dndnext, D&D 5, or whatever they end up calling it.

So my overall view of what I want the new cleric to look like? The same as he was in 3.5. That's right, I thought the cleric in 3.5 was just fine, with his limitations and decisions. 4e was nice in that I felt more participatory in the damage-dealing (well, not really; I still can't roll worth a damn when it comes to attacks), but I felt less participatory as the field medic because everyone could heal themselves. I don't begrudge the party member who carries Cure Light Wounds potions, but leave the rest to me!

Of course, as long as they allow me to heal in some capacity, any capacity, I'll be there, no matter what the rules provide.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Everything that's old is new again?

Since you're here, you must know about the announcement of a new version of D&D being planned.

Since you're here, you probably noticed that this blog is going to be all about our opinions on where it should go, how it seems to be going, and, ultimately, where it ended up.

Since you're here, you possibly know that we've done this before. Go take a look if you didn't, to get a feel for what to expect.

The tl;dr version of our 4e blog: we didn't care much for roles; we didn't care much for the loss of customization (compared to 3.5); we did like the new encounter design (especially me, who's usually the DM). Do we have hope for this next version going "our" way? Perhaps it's too early to get my hopes up, but a post in Legends and Lore by Monte Cook left me a little hopeful:
Like simple rules for your story-driven game? You're good to go. Like tactical combats and complex encounters? You can have that too. Like ultra-customized character creation? It's all there.

In this game, you play what you want to play. It’s our goal to give you the tools to do so.

He also goes on to point out that D&D isn't just the rules, but the adventure, the story. That the rules are just a tool to provide some structure to the storytelling, to provide the suspense that you didn't know your story needed, or the twists that you never would have expected.

The story. Our group has been playing since 3rd edition was introduced, and we still revel in memories of adventures a decade gone. "The cowardly kobold Meepo in Sunless Citadel" that Cook mentions is our Meepo too, even though our stories of him are probably different than others'. Fleshshivering a dragon in mid-flight. Riding a beholder. Death-striking a dragon. Lightning-rodding party members. Citizens. Axiomatic rocs. All of these things bring back such fond memories of years gone by, and keep us coming back.

Our group is currently playing Pathfinder, having given 4e a somewhat fair shake. We had discussed revisiting 4e after a break, to see how we felt, but with this announcement, I don't know that we will. Some of us have applied to beta-test this next version, but if we can't (or depending on the NDA involved in such a thing), we'll write about our views here, and then use what we find out to decide if we're moving forward, or if we'll be stuck in our ways.

Cook says that their goal "is to make a game that all D&D players want to play." He says the right words so far, so let's see how they do.