Tuesday, March 20, 2012, 12:56 AM
One-Hour Gaming and the Path to Constructive Responses
What does a new edition say about us?
One of the hardest times for any gamer is when a new edition is announced, and particularly when tiny glimpses of the upcoming changes are seen. This is the time when what we see becomes a mirror
. In the changes we see approval or rejection of our own interests - even though the designers clearly aren't writing the edition for or against any one of us.
That mirror is no nicer to us than it was to the queen in Snow White. Not only are we not the fairest of them all (not even close!), but we are just one of so many gamers out there. The reflection and what it says is often harder to take the closer you are to the game, the bigger a fan you are, and the more you have done for it. It can be so very frustrating: does the game to which I was so loyal not love me back? Are these other members of the community really so different? Are they traitors? What's in their pocketssesssss, my preciousssss?
The Dark and Light Side of Passion
I'm an activist at heart. Both growing up in Colombia and working in the environmental field I've seen how some passionate actions just don't translate into change, some really hurt progress, and others are very effective. The hardest action can be to pause and observe, but it can be invaluable if then creating an effective action.
Passion can run afoul of frustration. When we feel frustrated our words get twisted away from our intent (to positively change the game) and become negative (actually hurting our chances to make the game better). They also feed the frustration of others, especially thanks to the Internet. Both 3E and 4E saw plenty of loud frustrated voices, but few of those helped the edition in any way (usually they hurt the edition).
Those of us that are fortunate to have seen D&D next can offer no solace. Non-Disclosure Agreements don't allow for that. It is also very difficult to win these arguments. It is so very easy to look at a review purporting to be a leak and to become absolutely incensed - maybe to post our own negative thoughts. Like the Dark Side, this is the quicker more seductive path. It isn't more powerful than the positive Force, but as I'm sure Yoda would say, it is sure easier to blog and post about!
Analysis and Perspective
Negativity and frustration can blind us to alternatives. Everything becomes an obvious attack and we naturally want to fight back. A harder but more positive approach is to take that deep breath, analyze the options, and gain perspective. The more we can glimpse this point in time and compare it to others, the more we can study our table and compare it to others, the more we can understand an issue and the potential for positive change.
Playing through previous editions and blogging about them has helped me see that no single edition has been perfect. Each traded one aspect for something else. In looking at 4E, my favorite edition, it has many aspects that left gamers wanting. Across all the people playing we hear too many players and DMs saying their game lacks flavor and RP and story. Droves are saying it takes too long. Tons of DMs exclaim they don't know how to challenge their players. 4E can answer all those and other issues, and you or I may not experience some or any of these issues, but that is not the case at enough tables. We can see how this sustains and exacerbates the edition wars.
Progressing solely forward from 4E to a true 5E would likely be very harmful to the game. Even merely refining 4E would likely not be enough. The game can benefit by picking up some important pieces that were left behind. Reducing the edition wars is a worthy cause. The challenge is always in figuring out which bits are nostalgia and which ones really make for great gaming, while deciding which 3E and 4E innovations should be retained. This is why D&D Next's playtesting is so critical. To get those answers, painful questions have to be asked and reactions evoked. Also, time is needed. The playtest for 4E was by all accounts too brief - there was insufficient time for designers to properly react to the feedback and to iterate improvements. D&D Next clearly has a very different playtest process and an entirely different approach.
A One-Hour Game
The one-hour dungeon
is a really evocative concept. I suspect Mike Mearls could have chosen 3-hour or 2-hour and played it safe. However, 1-hour is an excellent choice to solicit reactions.
Let's break down a possible way of reacting. 1. What is our initial take-away and why?
Our first reaction is
very valuable. It can actually be very easy to forget it later, as we see other parts or hear the perspectives of others. Recalling that first impulsive reaction is helpful.
I'm an RPGA guy, and before that an "I don't need sleep" college guy, and before that a "I don't know what sleep is, give me more sugar" school kid. I love a 4-8 our adventure. I'll take a 24-hour adventure. My first reaction is that I don't want a 1-hour adventure. I don't even think it should exist, and it might be bad for the game, trivializing it.2. Historical Perspective: Why is this being asked?
In analyzing a D&D Next topic I like to think about why this came up. One possibility is as a reaction to reports that 4E play is dominated by very long combats. They can be incredibly long at some tables. Speeding up play could perhaps be more fun. Looking back, previous editions had far simpler and shorter combats, which allowed for those other pillars of play.
Another possibility is from the marketing perspective. Getting new players to sit down for 4 hours is tough. Completing an adventure such as Against the Giants (even a part of it) can be a challenge even for an established group. Completing a campaign can be legendary. 3. How does the extent of this problem compare across all gamers?
I run a lot of RPGA Organized Play games, I travel to large conventions, and I travel to work (often setting up games in other states or even countries). These games help me get a perspective on gaming across many different groups. I also read the accounts of others, which helps me hear different perspectives. Is the one-hour dungeon something that speaks to an actual problem? If so, how widespread is it?
The topic of 4E play being long and AD&D or Basic being short comes up often online. This impacts many gamers and is a factor in determining what edition to play. The underlying aspects that contribute to 4E's length (many of which I love) are often criticized independently (example: players spending too much time analyzing their power options).
I also take a look at the environment around me and the different demographics. My generation is aging. Many of us have bigger responsibilities. In my own home game, and it greatly pains me, some of my players wouldn't mind my shaving a half hour off the weeknight game. At PAX I see the success of the 1-hour delve and 2-hour intro session for bringing in new players. Those same new players did not try longer games as often. Encounters play (1-2 hours) may now be roughly the size of LFR play (4 hours, sometimes longer).
Looking at organized play again, we've lost players that prefer more time for story, exploration, and RP. Those players have switched to home campaigns and to other RPGs' organized play programs. It would be nice to have them back, because some of them are great promoters, authors, and people to have at a table.
I also see that for all the brilliance of the set-piece 4E movie-style cinematic encounter, it is a far cry from the fluidity we enjoyed in previous editions. If I spend 2 hours crafting a fight in a volcano, including awesome lava bridges and special terrain powers, I can't easily shift that to a different location if the PCs want to go left instead of right. In AD&D, I could more easily improvise - without having years of experience as a DM. I could also run 6-10 combats in a 4-hour session, plus RP, plus character developing spotlight moments, plus cool story moments, plus NPC interactions, plus explorations and choices - and all very fluidly if I so chose.
Take Keep on the Borderlands. I find the adventure boring as written. Where it excels is in potential. If you take each of those caves and create intrigue between them... then the fun can start cooking. It's the sort of adventure where the ogre in the cave can be a solitary fight, or appear when the goblins pay him off, or show up unexpected at a critical moment - even outside the caves. It is far harder in 4E to be that flexible, especially as a new DM.
I also have to think about what I and others think we might lose. Do monsters have to be very simple for shorter adventures? Do we lose character flexibility? Will we lose the awesome 4E terrain innovations? Listing these kinds of concerns can help me get a feel for what we want to keep.4. Re-assess the question
It is around this time that I like to go back and re-read the D&D Next topic. What exactly is being asked and offered?
Here is what Mike/Wizards is stating as a goal: a fulfilling
1-hour adventure. One hour where you had a pretty complete adventure and had a really good time. He isn't saying Ashes of Athas should be more like the 1-hour D&D Convention Delve. He is saying that in 1 hour we should be able to have a cool adventure that has opportunities for all the pillars of play and not feel thin. He also isn't saying all games are 1-hour games.5. Vision
I try to envision a positive outcome from these changes.
At the home campaign level, it wouldn't be bad to be able to run a side-trek or short adventure in 1-hour. It would sure make it easier for many to get home games off the ground, especially on weeknights. With a bit more time, say 1.5 or 2 hours, I could cover far more story and adventure ground than I do now. It would be nice to do more with each session, and to have more combats per session. When I think of 4 hours... could I get most of a story arc accomplished? That has potential...
For stores, people could actually play a home campaign at a store. That's really hard to do now, but if the game could be light and easy, maybe it could be. And maybe the store would serve beer (ours does) and could be more of a hangout.
Imagine if Encounters wasn't a single encounter, but more like a complete chapter. Maybe traditional organized play could be set up so adventures came in 2 parts... you could play all of it in 4 hours at a con, but also do half at a time at a store or other public location. Much easier to reserve that room at a school or other public place for 2 hours.
Imagine if the 1-hour delve at conventions actually also had story and puzzles and real interactive exploration. Imagine if a longer adventure did that and more - if you could complete real changes during organized/living play in a 4-hour adventure. Instead of 3 encounters, an RP encounter, and a skill challenge, imagine accomplishing the equivalent of a classic adventure. That's a compelling vision. Lighter and smaller combats would give DMs more capabilities to change up the adventure based on player choice. A 3-hour classic could really resemble the tournament scenarios of old. 6. Formulate my stance
Now I go back and figure out where I stand. I really like 4E. I really like the goal of a 4-hour D&D adventure. But, looking at the past, at how other tables play, at commonly voiced issues, and at organized play challenges... I can see where Mike is coming from with a 1-hour goal.
However, I want this to be an option. I find myself preferring the goal of a 2-hour adventure. Part of this is that those earlier visions (such as a richer Encounters session) are great, but likely come at the expense of some of the great innovations of later editions. It is fun to have more complex monsters with roles. It is awesome to have at-will powers and still have a spellbook. It rocks to have cool intricate combats with terrain. Yeah, a 2-hour adventure. That's what sounds right to me. Still, 1-hour isn't a terrible goal if we watch the other issues. PCs and monsters and combats should be simple enough to run quickly, but robust enough to be fun if I play for 8 hours.
That's what I like and what I'll offer as constructive feedback.
I feel much better. With proper playtesting, Mike and all the other fantastic staff at Wizards (and I mean it, they are top notch) will see what works and what doesn't. I am very glad they are asking this question. A less competent and aspiring company wouldn't recognize the issues in 4E, wouldn't see the problems 4-hours poses to some demographics, and wouldn't give the playtests the time to work themselves through.
Having gone through this thought process I lose my frustration and most of my concerns. I have a feel for the issues and I'm eager to be part of the discussion in a positive way.
Charting a course is easier when we ask questions,
provide constructive answers, and work together.
Tuesday, March 20, 2012, 12:51 AM
Dark Sun Book Review
Death Mark, subtitled The Dread of this Desolation, written by Robert J. Schwalb.
Dark Sun Novels: A Little History
TSR and later Wizards of the Coast have seen great success (and at times great failures) through their novel lines. For an excellent historical look at novels, I highly recommend Designers & Dragons
, A History of the Roleplaying Game Industry
, by Shannon Appelcline.
For the Dark Sun setting, novels have long been intricately linked to the campaign world's history. The most famous Dark Sun novels are the Prism Pentad, a set of five books that progress the story of the setting from the fall of Sorcerer-King Kalak in Tyr to the eventual defeat of the Dragon of Athas. The books were incredible in scope and breadth and did much to help gamers visualize the harsh world - making it richer and more interesting. Unfortunately, the books also took away much of what made Dark Sun unique. As Sorcerer-Kings and Sorcerer-Queens began to fall, so too did the world many had grown to love. The conclusion of the Pentad even saw destructive rain storms...
Other novels were released as well, though never as popular. The Tribe of One
series was popular, as was The Rise and Fall of a Dragon King
, though all the novels seemed to deviate from canon (sometimes horribly) and writing quality varied greatly. Still, every series has provided some depth to the world and all can help a DM or player enjoy their time in Athas more greatly.
With 4th Edition Dark Sun the Prism Pentad was re-released. In addition, two novels were released. City Under the Sand
is a decent read. It has a number of canonical issues, though some can be argued (the central figure is a metal-smith, which matches some canon but not the spirit of the majority of the metal-poor setting's canon). It does provide an interesting look at Nibenay and the idea of the buried city is compelling (even if various parts are hard to imagine playing out as depicted). Under the Crimson Sun
is part of the Abyssal Plague novel series and suffers in many ways. While both novels have some of the worst editing I have seen in WotC novels, the later is alarmingly bad - at times disrupting the reader's enjoyment every few pages. There are canonical issues, but also problems with the characters, the story, and the flow of the plot. My biggest grief as a fan of the setting is that the novels add little to the setting and miss the opportunity to reinforce what makes the setting so unique.
When I heard about Death Mark
I was both eager and concerned. Rob Schwalb is an incredible RPG writer, and his writing has strong narrative qualities. This guy is probably your hero, and certainly mine. But would this novel be better than the last two? Would it serve as a proper DM and player tool to help us better visualize and enjoy the setting? In a word, yes
So Much Anger, So Much Pain
I want to get out of the way what I didn't like, and it is likely a personal thing. I'm not much into horror and I'm not into descriptions of gore. While it is probably very fitting for the setting to include graphic details in combat and other scenes, I found it over the top and even disgusting at times. People didn't just die... they did so with some anatomically horrid detail I could have done without (eyeballs seemingly a favorite, but viscera are plentiful). I found it actually surprising - I wasn't aware Wizards novels would contain that type of description.
So, for me, this was a turn-off and it happened often. I didn't find the book scary, just more gore than I prefer. I still read it all, and I suspect it won't be a big issue for many gamers.
Beyond that, there were few negatives. Yes, there is a small mistake about erdlu (they aren't supposed to be ridden - that should be a crodlu) and 1-2 other issues, but they are incredibly minor. On the scale of Dark Sun novels, canon is extremely well handled. The novel's characters do get a bit confusing at times, especially when two female members of different houses come together and then their friends that help define them either separate or join the other woman. The amount of undead at one point seemed without proper explanation. While Athas certainly has tons of undead, the number appearing just needed an explanation. Portals to the Dead Lands, ancient battle and the necromancer had a tome describing it, anything to explain it and not make it so jarring.
Alternate and final artwork by Justin Sweet
As Beautiful as it is Brutal
That one major and other minor bits aside, this is an excellent novel. I highly recommend it for any Dark Sun fan, and for fans of this type of fiction as well. The story is really very good. The characters are well developed, they have interesting goals and motives, they are dynamic, and they interact in cool ways. The novel has many surprises, especially around how the characters come together and the choices they make - this is not a novel where you guess the ending (or even the middle) and that is a strong positive. The conclusion is both interesting and fitting for the story.
As a Dark Sun fan I wanted to highlight a few other positives, particularly as to the novel's utility for the D&D game:Merchant Campaigns
The novel features several major merchant houses, an aspect of the game that is detailed in the AD&D sourcebook Dune Trader
, but which sees only broad high-level treatment in the 4th edition Dark Sun Campaign Setting
book. Death Mark
does a lot to help us visualize the major houses Stel of Urik, Vordon of Tyr, and decadent House Shom. The novel does a great job of showing how these houses compete and how they market goods in a place such as Tyr. The treatment is sufficient for any DM to come up with several ideas around a merchant-centric campaign, and the characters in the novel make great NPCs (foes, allies, or both).
Dwarven Focus, Racial Differences
The Dark Sun setting turns traditional D&D races/species upside down. Elves are thieves, dwarves are beardless, and new races like muls and half-giants make the setting very different from traditional D&D. Death Mark
does a great job of portraying Dark Sun halflings, mul, half-giants, and especially dwarves. The character of Pakka is a traditional AD&D-style dwarf, with her focus a compelling central part of her personality. This is very useful for any Dark Sun fan and a lot of fun to read. In the interview on Athas.org (see link below), Rob provides an unofficial idea on how to weave a Dwarven focus into the game!Elemental Priests
4E stripped away some of the old AD&D emphasis on elemental priests. This novel brings it back in an excellent way. Pakka is much more of an AD&D elemental cleric than she is a 4E shaman. She brings back great memories of the sun clerics in the Pentad and really helps gamers get a feel for how primal/elemental forces can be wondrous, desirable, and feared on Athas.Basic Survival is a Gift
In contrast to how I felt about gore, I loved the tension in the novel. Friends can become foes and the other way around. Action is brutal and fast and furious, and everyone seems destined to die. Nothing is safe and from start to finish every character is struggling against a world that seems devoid of hope. Characters don't ever seem to win - except by surviving. That depiction is fantastic for the setting and invaluable to gamers as a reminder of how to portray Athas.Athasian Undead
A mixed bag. I thought the novel did a great job of reminding us how undead can play a role in the setting, through Under-Tyr or necromancers. But, I thought it could have done a better job of highlighting Athasian undead from old books rather than zombies and ghouls and Far-Realm variants. Tyr as a City-State
The novel is invaluable for getting a feel for a Tyrian-based campaign. From details of Shadow Square to the Golden Tower to Caravan Way and more, the novel really does a great job of making Tyr a robust and interesting part of the campaign setting. Numerous details are worth integrating into actual play, such as Torston's gang (which I already used!), the idea of what Tithian is doing with the iron mines, Under-Tyr locations and Yuan-Ti, various establishments, and more. Other locations, especially Silver Spring but also the mountains and rocky badlands near Tyr, see some valuable attention. War with Urik, and Fitting into Canon
The novel's focus on the war with Urik, and the way 4E reset the setting back to just after the fall of Kalak, all suggested this novel would conflict with book 2 of the Prism Pentad, The Crimson Legion.
However, Rob cleverly weaves a tale that works with both visions. This is fantastic, because DMs can take the best aspects of the Pentad and still gain utility (without conflict) with Death Mark
. This makes it much more valuable for any DMs that want to lead up to a possible war between Urik and Tyr. In fact, much of the novel's plot is useful as a campaign premise and does so better than the AD&D adventures that tried to mirror the Pentad.
This was an excellent read and deserves to be placed on the shelf next to the Pentad. Whether to insert it between The Verdant Passage
and The Crimson Legion
is a good topic for discussion, but it certainly deserves to be in every Dark Sun fan's collection. Where the previous two Dark Sun novels failed, this novel succeeds. It is a valuable resource for DMs both for helping to visualize the world but also as a source of campaign ideas. More importantly, it is a fun and well-written (and well-edited) book.
You may enjoy the following:
Actual cover, but I could not find a clear copy
Thursday, March 15, 2012, 10:32 AM
The toll of conventions, work travel, and writing for DDI sidelined my play a bit. Still, my plan to continue to run through the editions continues. We previously had fun discussing:
Since that time I've rested from D&DXP, written some fun DDI (Ecology of the Vegepygmy
was announced as coming out in April!) and continued working with the Ashes of Athas admin and author teams on fantastic adventures for Chapters 5 and 6! I've also been devouring as much old content as I can, as if the past could hold the keys to the future. It just might.
I'm also enjoying the discussion instigated by the D&D Next group and the Legend & Lore series (now back in Mike Mearls' hands). The first thing I always take from these is that D&D is in good hands. It would be easy to take 4E and want to go to solely forward to 5E, and to do so from the position of designers that "know" what to do. Instead, I see these talented designers turning to us for feedback on very key issues. The ideas are criticized, for sure, but we should realize that they must present an idea that is volatile enough so we react and provide feedback. Do the designers realize these are important issues and that the feedback needs to be considered? It sure seems so!
A clear case of that is when we see a part II to any post. Saving throws and the issues of dying (and challenge level) have earned that distinction. These are clearly tough topics, because they link to many aspects of the game. What is a hit point total without knowledge of expected monster damage? What is a save or die power without an understanding of expected frequency and even of overall lethality? What are leaders like and what kind of healing can any PC do? These issues are all related and will impact play... just as it has in every edition. Lets look at this, in part influenced by what DeadOrcs writes here
and Steve Winter writes here
Basic's look-up tables for determining a hit.
Sticks and Stones and Words of Power
Let's be clear. The only reason we are spending time discussing hit points, damage, and save or die is this: it is too hard for PCs to be threatened in 4E. What causes this? Why is this such an impediment for most, but not for all? Is the solution a return to AD&D or some other edition?
Our view of 4E lethality is sadly tarnished by the edition's initial damage math for both PCs and monsters. A typical straight PHB party (with a few exceptions) against MM elite brutes was a low damage and high hit point snooze-fest. You knew the PCs would win...just not how many hours it would take! (On the positive side, this really encouraged DMs to innovate their encounter design so fights would be exciting).
Over time we saw PC damage escalate substantially. Fullblade-style shenanigans and off-turn combos could see buckets of damage thrown at monsters. Nova, one-shot, we heard those terms a lot... for a while. A party of level 1 Essentials PCs can deal more than 130 points of damage if they have surprise and initiative! In contrast, monster damage saw few improvements at first. When I wrote organized play's first LFR paragon adventure I spent hours finding monsters that could properly damage PCs at that tier.
MMIII and beyond brought monsters that were a lot better - higher damage, lower defenses and hit points. Where tables of Living Forgotten Realms once asked DMs to please give them the high challenge option and add some extra difficulty on top, that same choice today in heroic is usually a TPK. I can't think of a low-mid heroic tier LFR adventure in the last year that wasn't an exciting combat that could have ended badly for us. Dark Sun monsters deal significant pain at all levels. And in Ashes of Athas we really can't go harder than level+2 encounters, especially since PCs have very few magic items.
Finally, there is a disparity across tiers of play. As discussed by DMG 42
, the damage dealt by monsters as a fraction of PC hit points actually declines as the level of play increases! In a soon-to-be-published blog by GoingLast
, they research how PC damage also scales poorly.
Simpler Weapons for Less Civilized Times
In comparison, OD&D's first three books saw every PC have 1d6 hit points (fighting-men get +1 at 1st level, but strangely lose it at 2nd level). It was easy for the wizard to end up with more hit points! All damage was 1d6, including from monsters, so you can see where this would take us... if something hit you, you could go down. Get hit twice, and you had to be really lucky to be alive. And, at 0 hit points you were dead. Dead!
Battles were basically about the luck of hitting (and everything usually missed) and whether your DM was kind (a random encounter could feature 100 nixies, all dealing 1d6 and having 10 charm spells... and charm ended only when dispelled... oh, and the nixies come with 10-100 fish that deal... wait for it... 1d6 damage). Players also did tricky things to avoid damage: 10' poles, sending mules and henchmen (or both) at trolls, throwing oil, etc.
OD&D's Supplement I, Greyhawk, added the rule of hit die type varying by class (d4 for magic-users, etc.) and fixed some spells like Charm. Gaining levels gained you more attacks and better spells, but as we discussed before it was a brutal game.
The Holmes Basic Set
The previous owner didn't follow the instructions for the special d10 (no true d20!) that comes with some versions of the Holmes set!
Our group took up the first Basic D&D
set, released in 1977 (three years after OD&D and two years after the Greyhawk and Blackmoor supplements). While AD&D is often seen as Gary's edition and Basic as Dave Arneson's, it was written by a freelancer: Eric Holmes. It pulled together the OD&D box, supplements, and its various fixes. You can purchase the 1981 version, by Tom Moldvay, here
Our group's first reaction was one of confusion. We really were not prepared for a book that was more
poorly worded than OD&D, but this actually may be. It is actually hard to tell whether elf and dwarf are a race or a distinct class, and the class features are never in one place. At the end of character generation we were pretty sure we had a few things wrong. Thankfully, the game is very simple. 9 pages contain the information for players. The rest is spells, monsters, items, and a smattering of info about running a campaign.
The included adventure is B1: In Search of the Unknown
. I had completely forgotten this, but it is one of a few adventures that teaches by dumping the work in your lap. A barebones description is provided for a room and then the DM should go to the monster table and pick something. I'm sure the vision is of a DM doing a lot of work up front, but they probably picked at the last minute, as I did, which vastly increases the illogical stocked dungeon feel of old.
Here is one of my favorite rooms, largely due to the wacky cat-bottle. Note the place they left for you to write in monsters and treasure!
To get back to the topic of damage, let's take a look at this table (click for a larger version):
B1 monster table, which you use to populate the dungeon.
We can see that most monsters do d6 damage (though several have save or die or other effects). PCs in Basic still have very few hit points (high con can grant up to 3 extra hit points, and a fighter gets 1-8 at first level). How many hits do you want to take when your fighter has no more than 11 hit points, and probably an average of 5?
The core truth of unforgiving monster damage remains in each Basic version and even in AD&D (with slightly more PC power). It is really only in Skills & Powers for 2E and then in 3E were PCs begin to accrue the building blocks toward reliable survival. And yet, it was only a start. Most 3E players can talk about a time when a monster took their PC from full HPs to death. Other monsters could cause an irreversible death, such as by dissolving the PC. And there were save vs death situations. While I like the potential thrill of these situations, far too often the result is disappointing - especially if we care about our characters.
Just read those categories and try not to laugh! Death Ray, baby!
Further hurting the old editions, healing was problematic. Healing was largely the cleric's job, and the cleric had to spend actions and get rid of cool spells to keep the party standing. It felt like a chore, which is why the cleric was often a role that was accepted like this: "fine, I'll be the cleric." In 3E organized play, it was customary to carry signs stating your desired party level while shouting "need cleric" (as everyone else in the room was doing). 3E also had wands and such, which further created a post- and pre-combat dynamic that was largely unhealthy.
Back to 4E
4E was designed as an antidote to all of these problems. Each of the solutions it brought forth was really good. A system (surges) by which PCs could heal out of combat and in combat (second wind) if there was no healer. A role, the leader, that could heal - meaning it wasn't the sole domain of the cleric. Leaders could heal with minor actions, allowing them to do stuff, plus their attacks often dealt damage and provided either healing or protection or helped reduce further damage (perhaps by bolstering an ally's next attack). Hit point totals escalated, as did damage, but on the whole the larger numbers provided insulation against a single lucky damage roll by a monster and allowed the narrative more time - it could now be the party's narrative! Healing was higher too. Where before a typical cure spell often seemed to just give us enough for another round, 4E healing could often be significant - lasting us longer than a single round of combat.
All of these innovations were excellent. They were just too much collectively. There are solutions (the simplest is to further increase monster damage while reducing their defenses). However, on the whole 4E has left far too many DMs feeling that they could not challenge their players and far too players feeling like the game was predetermined. Look no further than the reaction to Fourthcore
for the proof. An antidote to the antidote, it caused people to sit up, blink, and suddenly recall earlier styles of play. That we see a ton of WotC designers approving of it is thus no surprise.
Resisting Our Basic Instincts
When looking at D&D Next, it is tempting to follow this line of thought and discard all of 4E's advances. But, as we see, the invulnerability came from previous problems. And there is more than mechanics to consider.
Over the years, the baseline for how we play has changed. These days we expect far more story and connection from our play experience. Not everyone, and there are many styles of play, but on the whole we expect a greater narrative. Just as in the movies, we want the cinematic action to be surrounded by a compelling narrative... less The Beastmaster
and more Lord of the Rings.
Some of this comes from other RPGs. When we play Call of Cthulu with its investigation and horror, when we play Vampire, when we play Legend of the Five Rings, we come back with a desire for more story and RP.
At the center of the action are our characters. Today's author and today's DM is supposed to work towards a fun adventure that interacts with the PCs, including their personal story. We see this even in D&D Encounters. Players that spend time on backstory are rewarded as the game feeds off of them. Compare how Basic is written to the DMG and DMG2 in 4E. The PC is barely a point of emphasis in adventure preparation, and certainly not in adventure design. The Basic adventure is a fun delve, with barely any story. The reason Ravenloft was so critically acclaimed is the same reason Gardmore Abbey is the most likely contender for best 4E adventure.
As our PCs become important, they are less disposable. We want surprises but not gotchas. We want the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, and the knife's edge of a potential TPK... but we want it to feel fair. We want to go out in a blaze of glory for high stakes in a thrilling encounter, not a random spider bite in an empty meaningless corridor.
For those reasons, we want D&D Next to feel like a fair system. Ideally it removes the excessive insulation that hurts 4E, while keeping some of the safeguards that make it such a fun and balanced system and can allow a DM to use combat as a narrative device.
Similarly, our thinking about healing has also evolved. Do we want a return to wand healing, where we waste charges and gold and time to be able to keep adventuring? Do we again want to be at conventions or even our home groups, hunting for that player that actually likes playing a cleric... and then hope they actually are a healing cleric and not a battle cleric? Do we want the encounter to hinge on how much healing the cleric took, and whether they drop in combat? Do we want the cleric to spend time choosing cool utility spells, only to convert them to curing instead? Do we want the cleric to have to spend an entire round doing nothing but healing... when we may drop the very next round even when they do?
Closing the Lid
We closed the lid on the Holmes Basic set with a sigh of relief. Unlike OD&D, which felt so different from recent editions, Holmes Basic felt too much like a clone of OD&D (because it largely was). The game had offered too little. While we continued to enjoy the exploration and narrative space that was possible, our PCs felt limited, thin, and vulnerable - because they were. And this hurt our enjoyment of the game. Sure, we could work to make all of this better. I could take B1 and work on it to make it story rich, just as the PCs could work on their end as well... but in truth we would prefer to do that over a better rules layer.
4E provided immense innovation. In the realm of survivability, it went too far. For too many it is a system where the PCs cheat death. On the other hand, our experience in Basic was that death was cheating the PCs out of a good experience. It was possible to have a PC die 3-4 times in a game session... and that wasn't a fun story (though it pairs excellently with chips and drinks).
As I ponder the fantastic potential of D&D Next, I have high hopes. I yearn for an edition where the average DM feels the game is dangerous for PCs, but the players feel there is more than a die roll or two deciding their fate - especially that their actions will influence the outcome. Importantly, I hope D&D Next continues to contribute to the idea of a PC being part of a narrative and the adventure and DM working to further that. It has become one of the game's greatest strengths (and can always be removed for delve-style fun).
Addendum: Early Basic Products
One of the products I own from the era of early Basic is the Dungeon Geomorphs set. This links to that idea of a dungeon as a mess of rooms and corridors filled with monsters without rhyme or reason. The set contained a bunch of maps with the traditional blue ink (meant to prevent illegal copying - fear of piracy way back then!)
The other old bit I have is the Monster and Treasure Assortment, a set of regular paper (green!) printed with lists of random monsters and treasure. It is also telling about the game - random tables dominated the game!
Finally, look at the last page (again, these are just sheets of paper, no cover!). The product listing shows us how little there was back then.
While watching a game of the Holmes set was my first brush with D&D, I had never played it before 2012. Next time our gaming group will move into the edition I started with: the Moldvay Magenta
set! My memories can't be wrong. This must be the best edition of all, and practically perfect in every way!!!!
Thursday, January 12, 2012, 3:39 PM
OD&D and the Challenge of Pleasing Everyone, Part 2
In the first part
I shared how our group felt about exploration and open play. Our party was mapping, moving through the dungeon and bashing into doors to see what they could find. Surely fortune, but perhaps danger? With our table illuminated by my old lava lamp, we continued.
Of Trolls and Fire and Vicious Combat
The next door the party opened led to a room inhabited by two trolls. I described their warty grey-green skin, their long nose and round-ridged eyes, their long arms, and their stooped posture, rather than name them, but the players instantly knew what they were. (The room originally had four 6 hit die trolls, I changed this to two 3 hit die trolls). Lard sent his mule inside ("Ok, I guess you brought your mule into the dungeon...", I said), making a strength check to push it into the room. This would prove sound for all but the mule, as that mule later soaked up several hits by one of the trolls.
Combat raged as the trolls could attack three times and each PC only once. All damage was a d6, which led the players to have fun with unarmed attacks, throwing a crossbow bolt by hand, and other silly things that still do d6 damage on a hit. In general, combat was more descriptive. (Why is it that 4E's powers, so descriptive in nature, don't result in players being more descriptive? I would love to see D&D Next find a nice balance between robust options and imagination.)
Because the trolls had a lot of hit points and the party missed a lot, the combat eventually settled into the usual pattern of die rolling and calling out results. We had descriptions from time to time, but it had that grind aspect. Yet, it was perilous. The trolls regenerate. One troll dropped and the other was still strong when Magicuserelf began to parley. Eventually an agreement was in place - the party could adventure beyond but must give all their treasure to the trolls (the other one was alive again now) upon exiting. The PCs agreed, surely planning treachery. The trolls also kept the mule's remains as a (yummy) down payment.
The next battle was made easier by a decision to burn the furniture stacked inside the room. Now, most rooms in this very first adventure lack any distinguishing marks. I made up the stacks of furniture to add color. This room held some really horrid snakes hiding amongst the furniture, and the use of a flask of oil was a great idea and made the fight very easy. Of course, this was a huge judgement call on my part. These are six 5 hit die snakes, and I turned them into 1 hit die due to the fire damage. I could have been far more cruel (say 1d6 fire damage) and it would have been an easy TPK.
Through the combination of combat and gold, the PCs gained third level. Each level provided some hit points (1 for magic-users, d6 for clerics, and roughly d6 for fighters). Clerics finally gained spells and magic-users gained 2nd level spells!
Recognizing Later Edition's Advances
Despite having so little text, deciphering how OD&D combat works is a challenge. Monsters often have little guidance. It wasn't clear if the Nixies could only use Charm once, or if they could use it once per PC that approached. Monster powers are sometimes clearly unequal - one attack form might be clearly superior. There is no real balance, and clearly the adventure has no inherent balance. I am guessing Temple of the Frog is for characters that are levels 6-8, but really no level is suitable for the rooms with 250 guards!
It took several editions to really address these balance issues. Even 3E had wildly different threat levels based on what PC levels you gave monsters, had very uneven "special attacks", and the entire encounter design process was confusing and complex.
Because of this, only once did I contribute to 3E organized play with a monster "stat block". Many of us preferred to work just on story and found monster creation to be a chore. It really limited how much I contributed. 4E's encounter design has been a joy for many and is directly responsible for my writing entire adventures for Living Forgetten Realms (which in turn led to being an admin for Ashes of Athas and then to being published in DDI). I guess I owe a lot to 4E's design!
In creating D&D Next, a big question will be what to do with 4E's fantastic encounter design, which rests atop a layer of crunch that is very 4E-centric. If we want a more open play style, must we abandon 4E's innovation? To play AD&D style, will we need to leave behind those advances?
As Shawn Merwin wrote, these decisions are important. I'm a parent too, and when he wrote that D&D Next will be the edition our kids start with
and identify with as their version... that really struck a chord! *
Progressing further, the party encountered a room with several rooms formerly used as cells, some statues of people in combat, and stairs going down. It was no surprise for the players when the medusa attacked. (The room held 2, but I changed it to 1).
Part of the "fun" of a medusa is her gaze attack, which in this edition is just whenever a PC looks at her. (I noted as a DM that there is no attack penalty for attacking blind, but I came up with something on the fly). The combat began with her attacking Magicuserelf and the hireling. Falath valiantly fought while Magicuserelf bravely ran away. The rest of the party responded, though sadly Magicuserelf was killed by mistake when he ran into the dark room where Borkin was searching for treasure. Borkin couldn't see who it was and took him to unconscious. Technically, 0 hit points is death, but I house-ruled that this death took place at the end of the round. Borkin then stepped on him as he walked out the door, killing him for good!
Rukia, Falath, and Borkin engaged the medusa. Chucktesta cast Protection From Evil on Falath, which helped avoid some blows. Lard tried casting Sleep, but unfortunately the medusa's hit dice meant she was immune. When she attacked her snake hair was a major problem. Every attack required a save against poison or the person bitten was dead! One of the interesting bits in OD&D is that monsters attack a number of times per round equal to their hit dice. This medusa was making 5 attacks a round!
Poor Falath the hireling fell to poison. The remaining 4 PCs pressed their attack, finally bringing the wicked snake-woman down.
How Do We Heal Again?
At some point one of the players asked about healing. In OD&D you must rest a full day before you can begin to heal. On "every other day thereafter one hit point will be regained until the character is completely healed." As if to make fun of us all, the rules then add, "This can take a long time." Ha!
What it really means is that in OD&D you sleep in a dungeon to regain spells but you can't ever regain hit points. For that you must leave the dungeon and have a week or more pass. It isn't hard to see why the game has addressed that, providing different ways to heal over a non-combat day (AD&D), ways to charge up wands with healing (especially in 3E), and eventually leading to healing surges, second wind, and at-will healing (in 4E). 3E and 4E both made innovations to deal with this, but especially 4E. It will be interesting to see what is retained or furthered from these advances.
Raising the dead is only for high level spellcasters. However, through some strange humor Larp used a Knock (Up) spell to cause the spontaneous rise of a fully grown new PC, which replaced Magicuserelf. The details are... well, it involved a lot of laughter and several house rules.
Closing the Lid
It was interesting to note that in this session the problems of OD&D really came to light. We all saw how combat lacked variety, other than that which we chose to provide with vivid descriptions. Our characters were pretty similar, and the few differences felt arbitrary rather than balanced. We did enjoy that the game's form encouraged greater imagination and exploration. Role-play and story were really something for which we responsible (most gamers during OD&D days didn't do that much RP), though nothing impeded it and the open play lent itself to it.
I could see that while this second session was still fun, and the group would have gladly continued, there was also the sense that the game's shortcomings were a good reason to move on. Whereas last session they insisted in continuing with OD&D, this time they gave in. Next time we break out the first Basic D&D set! What advances will the game bring? What steps did it take toward a new vision for D&D?
No, I can't tell the difference either!
* Starting a month ago, my daughter really wants to learn to play D&D and to play with my current group. I kept my knowledge of D&D Next a secret even from my kids, just in case they might blurt out a question like "is this the new version?" and alert my players. I did, however, tell them we might want to see whether a new edition would come out before they started learning the current one. They are very excited about this coming version. My son helped roll my dice during the second OD&D session. They both did roll OD&D PCs, but my son cried when he realized he wasn't a very smart magic-user, and my daughter wanted some of the 4E powers she's heard me talk about. We took a break and spent the evening painting minis instead. I'm planning my own custom D&D version to make this more fun for them, plus to make custom adventures that are more of a story-telling exercise and feature combat more rarely. We'll see how long I get away with that...
Thursday, January 12, 2012, 3:07 PM
OD&D and the Challenge of Pleasing Everyone, Part 1
Last week I shared what I could about the playtesting of D&D Next and drew parallels to the experience of going back and running OD&D (the first "white box" version of D&D) for the first time.
The Original D&D "White Box" and Supplements I and II
One of my big surprises was how much fun everyone had during the first session. Sure, everyone came into it with a very positive mindset, but I still expected the weaknesses of the rules to pose greater barriers to our enjoyment. Later editions had added so much to the game. Would a second session provide different results? What parallels exist between this learning process and playtesting D&D Next?
The party continued through the swamp, following the directions given by the Nixies. They caught a glimpse of the bandit town outside of Blackmoor and its massive walls and swarms of troops, but continued until they reached an overgrown wall and a crevasse leading into darkness.
Perhaps it was the lack of rules or perhaps it was the lack of knowledge that caused the party to hesitate. What awaited within? If simple Nixies had defeated the party, whatever awaited within could be even more dangerous. The anticipation was palpable. (That's something that 4E, with carefully balanced encounters has often lost.)
Magicuserelf (clever name), ordered the hireling, Falath, into the darkness. The dwarf, Borkin the Broken, said he did not wish to enter. Cue Larp (his name later became Lard) casting Charm Person on Borkin and we all entered (along with Chuktasta, priestess of Ra (we briefly used the deities found in Supplement IV)). Rukia, the cleric, lit a torch. I silently noted that I had no idea what a torch did in this edition.
Within they found a stone door bearing a small indentation. Larp realized that the rings they carried afforded egress when pressed into the indentation. The door opened, leading them into the dark musky dungeon beneath the Temple of the Frog!
I asked who would be doing the mapping and handed a sheet of graph paper to the player of Borkin. This was an old school moment, and probably eye-opening for some. Players used to map their exploration. It has some benefits. You simulate the confusion that might take place when an adventurer tries to quickly map as they walk. You also create a sense of the unknown, because the blank space is so very apparent. A passageway not taken becomes a blank area and nags at the players.
It also has downsides, as it eats up some time, focuses on one player, and is fairly repetitive. (After the fourth 2x3 square room, the interest level drops).
It is fun to note that the paper we used for character creation, as well as that used for mapping, was the same paper I used to play with when I started playing Basic in the early '80s. I grew up in Colombia, South America, and brought my old gaming paper with me when I brought my books over to the US. That means these sheets of paper are older than some players!!!
We had some fun reading over the rules for doors and traps. Dungeon doors are always stuck, opening on a 1-2 on a d6. (Despite having polyhedral dice, OD&D sure uses the d6!). Traps activate on a 1-2 on a d6 whenever a PC passes over them (apparently all traps are on the ground). PCs can listen at doors, but humans only hear what is in the next room on a 1 (other races on a 1-2). All monsters have infravision, but lose it when hired by PCs.
And so began the process of opening doors. I had forgotten about this. The constant checks to see if you could even open a door! Wow. Several doors would be left unopened as no one could enter them. Imagine the impact on adventure design when you don't even know if PCs could enter the room with your important plot point! In some cases this was in their favor, such as when they did not open the door to a very nasty beast.
The Goals of D&D Next
D&D Next has the goal of acting as a universal rules system that borrows the best from each edition. Just the simple OD&D version presents real questions as to how that can be accomplished. Some might think the mapping of old was fantastic. It certainly has positives. But it also creates negatives. 3rd and 4th really moved into a situation where the map of the dungeon was far less critical than the rooms themselves. Exploration increasingly became entering a room or a situation: the encounter
. It is clear to most that this focus robbed us of some story. But in playing OD&D it is also clear why we moved away from older systems. There is a balance act here, and perhaps also room for innovation.
If Legend & Lore indications are true, D&D Next will have some modular aspect. That may be a way to marry these differences between editions and between gamer styles. That may seem like an insurmountable task, but it need not be. Wizards doesn't need to please everyone perfectly, just to provide options that are pleasing enough. Many of my friends run mapless 4th edition combat; it actually works really well. I mean, if we can abstract so many things in OD&D, we can certainly abstract a "slide 2" to have it still be meaningful. Being able to toggle the role of the map, of the encounter room, of the grid... this would be very powerful.
This is where I am really glad that Wizards will be using an open playtest
. I think playtesting is less about voting on what everyone likes, but rather in establishing patterns of responses and seeing what clever alternatives and best scenarios can be uncovered for the different audiences/demographics. I playtest very often and even a single adventure encounter will see four different experiences at four tables. I never expect to please everyone the same way, but rather to offer each aspects that will make this enjoyable on the whole. I also aim to provide the Dungeon Master with knowledge that can help them alter the encounter during play to achieve the desired result.
Some gamers may feel that Wizards is making a hollow promise to allow playtesting. I've in the past written how impressed I was in meeting Wizards staff. They really like playing D&D and they really want our game to be better through what they do. I think this has become increasingly true in recent years, with an emphasis on connecting with gamers. I sense genuine excitement when they say they want to design this edition with fans.
Now, let's be realistic. At the end of the day, they should also create the game they want to publish. They need to be passionate about their game. And there will be tough calls where they must use their sole judgment. This happens in any creative process. But what I hear is a true commitment to making this as collaborative as possible and to give the process the time it needs to properly collect feedback. I suspect this is in part possible because the market really needs a very good D&D Next and because 4th Edition is probably at its best right now. Recent releases have been innovative and of very high quality. They can deliver D&D Next when it is ready, rather than feeling intense pressure to deliver it soon.
In Part 2...
We will next take a look at combat and see whether the experience begins to fall apart for our players