Tuesday, May 1, 2012, 9:04 PM
I spent my last blog post talking about how in the run-up to D&D Next, people were often aruging less about rules and more about their remembrances.
Then I spent a few days actually reading forum posts here at WoTC, EndWorld, and RPGNet, and realized that, nope, people actually were vehemently arguing about rules. Their idealized version of the rules, or their obscure, bizarre interpretations of the rules, leading to inane discussions that say plenty about the state of the hobby and those gamers who bring their pitchforks and torches to the internet, and less about the actual state of D&D itself. The I want to play D&D, but I don't believe in classes or levels sort of arguments. People are tossing around terms (quadratic wizards and linear fighters) as if these were discussions of national security or geopolitics. At this point I imagine the current designers are regretting their decision to even engage in the current discussions or reveal some of their proposed plans, because every utterance is dissected with a rhetorically sharp scalpel.
I think it's pretty clear that the designers shouldn't give us the game we actually ask for, because by and large we have no idea what we really want, but we sure can tell someone else what they can't have.
And it's not like there aren't a million and one versions of D&D-games. Instead of arguing about what D&D doesn't have, maybe some of these warriors should just migrate to a game that gives them what they want. Or even better yet, design it and get their friends to play it with them, and if it's succesful, maybe they've won the fight after all.
I have to admit. I don't get it. I really don't. The anger, the despair, the you've lost me forever if you do, or don't do, x diatribes. I love the game, always have, but whatever the rules are, once they're in my hands, I've always made them my own. I've never needed to convince anyone else they had to do it my way, and I never had to argue with someone about why they didn't.
D&D has always been my game. I always just ran it the way I enjoyed the best, framed with whatever the current rules were, and have always been fortunate enough to find people who agreed with me. The rules have always had different iterations and different designers, but at my table, in the depths of my dungeons and in the middle of my far-flung campaigns, it's always been my game.
I've never relied on anyone to design my fun...
Wednesday, April 11, 2012, 7:03 PM
A few weeks ago I had prepared a long blog post about D&D Next, and the profusion of posts I had seen on RPG forums by people who were already prepared to dismiss, rather vehemently, (and in my mind, foolishly) the next iteration of D&D based only on a few possible rules or on some proposed ideas, because they were already certain it wasn’t their version of D&D. However, after rereading it and admiring my acid-tongued wit, I shelved it and went on to do some prep work on my current game.
Because, after thinking about, I’ve come to believe the issue isn't whether the new version of the game uses THACO, or Vancian spellcasting, or an AEDU power scheme; or whether Gnomes are in the core, or how Rituals are explained, whether the skill list is long or short, or if Rogues have Sneak Attack or Back Stab. The “splitting” or fragmentation of the D&D community over "editions" isn’t based on rules, or any particular edition, it’s rather based on remembrances. All everyone wants to do is recapture the feeling they had when they were first introduced to the fantasy world that is D&D – that first year of playing, those first characters, those first adventures. And while for a lot of us, that was a long time ago (thus, the rise of the old school clones and a fondness for the original modules), for others, it was 2nd, or 3rd, or 4th edition. Thus, the edition you were first truly introduced to, -and- the time period in which you first learned to play and enjoyed the game, is and always will be the "truest" D&D to you.
With D&D Next I believe the designers will do a good job of capturing the best rules of all the eras of D&D, and probably will be able to give us a version that beats with the unique heart of what has always made the first role playing game special, but there is nothing they are going to be able to do, with rules or advice or modules, to give you or me back that first, best D&D experience. In my case, it was those crappy dice I had, those goofy childhood friends I played with, those wildly imbalanced characters and those “homemade” magic weapons and those silly house rules which made so much sense then but are ridiculous now. No version of the rules will allow me again to sit on a Saturday night in my friend’s basement for 12 hours, trying to live through the Expedition to the Barrier Peaks (although the current DDi article is great) while listening to Seven and the Ragged Tiger.
Whatever form the new rules take, they’re not going to be a time machine.
All that being said, I know from PAX East one of the things they are trying to do is shorten the expected game time – you know, get through a dungeon in a hour or so, and maybe a whole campaign in a couple of months, and I do think that is a good thing. I know I can’t spend 12 hours in a basement every weekend anymore, and although I love the concept of a long, ongoing campaign, the reality of my life is that those sorts of epic gaming arcs and sessions are simply out of reach. It doesn’t I mean I don’t long for that, or think fondly on the times when I was younger and could commit to, or create such opportunities, but it does mean I’m realistic about what I can give to the game now.
And that sums up my attitude about any new edition of D&D - I'm also realistic about what the game can offer or give back to me. New rules, different rules, different art, better packaging, more playtesting. Sure - I can expect all of that. I've been playing for over 30 years, and I've seen it all in some measure with each new version or iteration of D&D, yet, somehow I've had great games with all of them. But none of them have been able to capture the milieu of when I first learned to play - those summers in the basement and the joy of first flipping through the books and struggling to learn arcane rules I can barely remember now - and no future editions will give me back those experiences, no matter what rules they have.
Monday, January 9, 2012, 8:11 PM
...a new edition of D&D is on the way.
This is interesting, but not terribly unexpected news. As I said before (actually, in the post just below), I'm not sure I really need any more rulesets. However, I will watch with great anticipation like everyone else, and I'll join the playtest and I'll buy it when it hits the shelves. I've had a blast running 4E, and have been running campaigns as deep and immersive as any that I've ever run in any version of D&D. I like the 4E system, but then again, I've liked all of the versions of D&D, because, well they're D&D, even though I've never been blind to their faults. I do believe in supporting the most recent iteration, because I believe that helps support the businesses that support our rather unique hobby. Will it be the iteration I play most? I don't know, but I'll be rooting for it to be a huge success. Just like I root for Goodman Games' DDC, Rule of Cool's Legend, and a host of others. A rising tide lifts all boats, and the strength and popularity of D&D - and therefore WoTC -is often that tide.
No one's asked me, but here are a few things I wouldn't mind being considered going forward:
One thing 4E got right was DM prep - one page monster sheets with everything I need to run said monster right there, easily laid out without external reference, is key. I don't want to have to -study- and annotate my monsters before playing to figure what they do.
Tactial 4E combat was great, but I have to admit - I'm little worn out on the emphasis on a grid. I would like to be able to play without grids and minis and all those things. Hell, do away with a lot of that range/movement related stuff period. Make it three rings: Close, Medium, Far (like guys who are in "close", slugging it out with swords and axes, and those who always want to be "far" back from melee, lobbing in arrows). You can move and make a melee attack against any creature in the same ring as you, or one "ring" away at a small penalty. It takes two move actions to get to anything two rings away, but you forfeit your standard action to get there. Ranged attacks can hit any ring. You can have Medium burst attacks that hit enemy in that ring/range, etc. All of this is off the top of my head, but anything that steamlines movement, range, etc., but still allows you to play with some positioning without resorting to minis is fine by me. We do this all the time in our superhero games.
I really liked the 4E Essentials builds. I hope something like them stay, and I always felt if 4E had started with that sort of class structure (basic attacks, stances, and the way the arcane/divine classes were presented) then it might not have been as divisive. I think the AEDU system is cool, and it never bothered me, but there is an elegance and ease to the Essentials builds. I loved the Essentials Hexblade. I also liked the regular 4E concept of the Warlord class, and would like to see that carried forward.
I really hope the Player "mini game" of tweaking and optimizing their characters by turning dials on their "builds" is tossed aside. That means less feats and all that stuff. I would rather characters be differentiated by their class/race, their in-play characterization, and yes, the magic items they have (which a DM can monitor and control), then all of the hardwired character op stuff that Players have access to by cherry-picking feats and paragon classes, etc.
I'm sure there are other things I could think of, but I imagine we'll all have months to throw our hats and opinions in the ring. It seems like they (the designers) hope to please all of the people all of the time - an edition that bridges them all - and I can't even begin to imagine how that is possible, but I'll enjoy watching them try...
...and be cheering them on all the way.
Sunday, January 8, 2012, 9:41 AM
I had to wrestle with a lot of changes over the last part of 2011; I was transferred across country - an interesting change - but one that required a lot of work. That being said, before I moved my group (The Bannerlands) was able to wrap up our Epic 4E Campaign, and since I've settled in Virginia, we've moved our gaming to the VTT - a new sand-box campaign set in Dol-Thamar. It's been a bit of a slow start, as we've had to get through the holidays and learn the VTT interface itself, but it's promising, and for someone who has played face-to-face D&D for over 30 years (and quite frankly prefers its), I do think it has the possibility to keep a good group like mine together, when the threat of moves and relocations would otherwise spell the end of it. I like the guys I play with, and want to keep telling the stories we've been sharing.
Of course, the end of the year brings the requisite lay-offs at WoTC, and more recently there have been the articles in The Escapist, and Ryan Dancey's comments on EnWorld. It's all more of the "end of the world" talk, and although some of it is interesting (and Dancey does provide some fascinating insight into the workings of the PnP RPG industry), I've found myself loathing it more than usual. It always surprises me when gamers fail to understand that their hobby is someone else's profession or business, and that business decisions have to be made in order for books and games and whatnot to flow out into our hands. Sometimes those decisions are good, sometimes they're not, but it's pretty clear if you lurk through the message boards, those decisions are guaranteed to upset someone.
One of the things I think Dancey (but let's be honest, it's not like he's an uninterested observer in all of this) was particularly compelling on was his talk about social networks, and that the real trick with PnP RPGs is developing a group of people who will actugally get together, stay together, and play them. I'm not presenting a full picture of his argument here, but my gist is that the strength and weakness of our hobby stems from any one person having a live and consistent group to play with. I think that's true, and it's one of the reasons I've tried to always keep an active group together, because often I can convince them to try a game, any game that has struck my fancy, if we've already been gaming together (in our preferred system of a choice) for a while.
Here's the thing, no matter what happens, all of us have enough game "rules" to last a lifetime, in about any genre we could imagine. I actually don't need WoTC or Paizo or Green Ronin- I have their rules, multiple iterations of them in fact, as well as lots of free rule sets on the Web. I really don't need the RPG business to survive as a market commodity (although I want it to, because I love buying that stuff!) - what I need are RPG players - people willing to sit down with me and try PnP RPGs, and that can be much harder to find.
That's why it amazes me that people are so vitriolic decrying one game system or another, or that they spend as much time as they do hand-wringing and worrying and lashing out. They think they're attacking a set of rules, or better, a company, but what they are really attacking is another gamer - they're attacking our hobby. I don't care whether you're playing Pathfinder or 4E, whether you're playing BASH or ICONs, Traveller or Alternity. As long as you're playing something, and introducing others to the concept of PnP RPGs, then I am rooting for you. If some spent less time trying to convince others what not to play, and more time positively introducing people to RPGs period, I think the hobby would be healthier.
I applaud all the efforts by any company to broaden the audience for PnP RPGs. Are they all the attempts I would make if I were the head of things? Nah, probably not, but that doesn't matter. They're a business - they want to survive - and I think they know that surviving means not just selling books, but selling an idea - a hobby. Surviving and succeeding means creating a RPG hobbyist that will carry his/her enthusiasm forward to others.
So, I'm down on our hobby right now. Not because of what the industry is or is not doing, not because of the fear that new editions are on the way or because there's a perceived schism in the community or because of any decision by any company at all - simply because of some of the gamers in our hobby themselves.
It would be nice if people focused more on the games they play and positively introducing people to the RPG hobby we love, than wasting time arguing and debating over the RPG business itself.
Monday, April 4, 2011, 9:57 PM
Where I reference Charlie Sheen, the NCAA tournament, and D&D all in one blog post…
I’ve been DMing D&D for 30 years; from nearly the first moment I was introduced to the game and picked up a twenty-sided die, I’ve spent the preponderance of my gaming time on the DM’s side of the screen. This wasn’t always my first choice, but rather necessity borne of two realities. First, in order to keep playing the game I loved, I often had to shoulder the DM duties: it was always easier to entice my friends to play if I did most of the work! And second, the few other DMs I gamed with generally sucked; so much so, it was simply more fun to run the game myself than endure those miserable sessions. It’s not to say I couldn’t find an occasional one-off game that was okay, but it was - and although 4E is easier to DM than any edition, I think it still remains - exceedingly hard to find someone with the energy, enthusiasm, and ability to run an engrossing weekly, campaign-based game (my preference).
Make no mistake, maintaining a campaign is hard work. D&D is a game, and the DM’s “side” is pretty thankless. Those who choose to play the “DM” are often frustrated novelists, control freaks, or simply the guy who actually bought the books and has the most miniatures. In older style games the DM position tended to be more “adversarial” – where the DM hoped to outwit, out think, or out survive the Players - although I think that type of play is no longer en vogue. Instead, the DM now is expected to get his game enjoyment predominantly from the narrative he weaves with and for the Players, and from the tools he uses to stitch that narrative together: hanging plot hooks, drawing maps, creating new monsters, making up new artifacts, etc. The “game” is not about the DM besting the Players or vice versa, but rather about the DM and Players cooperatively creating a compelling and interesting narrative; after all, how many times have you heard someone say that you can’t really win or lose an RPG, it’s simply about telling a great adventure story?
So, in this vein, although it’s difficult to say whether I have been a “great DM”, I have been a dedicated one. I diligently put in the work with all the tools I mentioned above, and I considered myself “old school” tough but fair. Yet, I was absolutely a modern “Michael Bay” DM as well; if something could explode, it did. Everything “erupted” and “oozed” and it’s as if every creature was strung on wires and every object was filled with gas and napalm. I thought of each adventure as a movie without a budget, and schemed accordingly. Every scene was filmed from a helicopter and every set piece had a huge tracking shot. Adverbs and adjectives dangled from my plot hooks, and I sought both to challenge and entertain the Players. I hoped that every time Players walked away from one of my campaign sessions, they had been amazed by the sights and sounds. My enjoyment from being a DM was often derived from the fact that my Monsters were formidable, that my Encounters were devious and creative, and that my Players knew (without a doubt) that they were in the presence of a DM who really cared about his game and put in a lot of energy and effort.
In effect, I wanted to “wow” them with my creativity and cleverness, and as long as my story was interesting, and my Encounters ruthless and exciting, complex and devious, then regardless of the outcome, we were all having fun. I mean, after all, it’s wasn’t about the winning and losing, it was about the story…
And then for the first time in an extremely long time, I had the chance to simply sit back and be a Player. A full-fledged Player, running not one, but two PCs!
I’ve been managing my most recent ongoing Campaign for a couple of years, and one of my old friends, who I’ve gamed with for 20 years, had the opportunity to join up, and offered to run a huge adventure for a few months so I could actually take a break and just play. I knew my friend was a good DM, and I was excited beyond measure. I drew up a Paragon Essentials Slayer (“Bloody Bad” Dray) and an Essentials Mage (Dayereth Dust) and, excited by all of their abilities and features, settled back to enjoy the “other side of the screen”.
And, my friend was every bit as good a DM as I knew he would be. The Adventure was interesting and clever, the monsters were extremely hard and fought with superior, realistic, tactics, and the Encounters were full of detail, color, and “cool things”. And yet, as each battle got harder and each Monster more difficult, as they Story grew more involved and the set pieces got more elaborate…as I struggled to wring out every bit of effectiveness I could out of Dray and Dust, something happened…I didn’t just want to experience this amazing Story we were all creating, I actually wanted to win the damn thing. So, as an example, it suddenly mattered to me whether Dray was Dazed or not, because I really wanted to use one of his opportunity action abilities (which he couldn’t while Dazed). Thus, while it was awesome that the monster that had Dazed him was incredibly described, had “hand-crafted” powers, and was generally “cool” beyond all measure – as I sat there fumbling with dice I couldn’t use, I grew desperate to show how “cool” my character was as well, and to feel like I was effecting the battle and helping my Party. And as we had more and more Encounters with admittedly awesome and diabolic creatures that also could Daze pretty much at will, I began to feel more and more frustrated as a whole suite of Dray’s abilities were turned off and useless.
Each fight was spectacularly well-planned. The monsters were clever; they were thematically appropriate, and they used realistic and brutal tactics. They were truly monstrous…and as a Player I began to hate them every time they appeared, because I knew that my character would be next to useless.
Similarly, I loved Dust’s ability to control and manipulate the battlefield. Yet, most of his big Dailies had Save Ends effects. And in our most desperate of fights, when we needed those powers the most, the creatures always saved against those effects…always (more on this below). While it made those fights into nail-biters (and well, into some outright defeats also), from my perspective as a Player, they were also disheartening. Dust was not cool, or awesome, or amazing…he was simply failing and losing…albeit, losing spectacularly.
Slowly (and brutally), it dawned on me. It didn’t matter whether the battle was “exciting and dramatic” – that it was occurring on a huge precipice with flaming arcs of lava and sentient chains that whipped from the ceiling. As a Player, rolling a miss on a critical Encounter power, flatlining a Daily, constantly being Dazed or Stunned – these things simply sucked, and would have sucked just as much as if the Encounter had occurred in a 20’ x 20’ room with blank walls. Thus, while the Narrative itself could be “exciting”, the Game part – you know, the part where you actually have to roll dice and succeed at something, well, that part could be underwhelming. I would wait for my turn, it would finally come around, I would creatively describe and then launch into my best attack, only to roll a…2! What the hell? I would then inevitably mutter “uhhmm, I guess I missed”, and then flip my Attack Power card over. I found it hard to enjoy the DM’s cleverness, during those times I was frustrated by my PC’s failures.
Look at this way - the run of VCU through the NCAA tournament was exciting; it was a great narrative that the media was eager to seize on (commentators love to find a “story”, a human element that the viewer can relate to). And as VCU “killed” more Giants, that narrative was even more compelling. Yet, none of those teams that lost to VCU reveled in the fact that they were part of one of the tourney’s true “feel good stories”…they’re never going to look back fondly at the tournament and the VCU Final-Four run. So while they were part of the VCU narrative – a great collegiate sports story if there ever was one – in the end, it wasn’t their story. For those teams, it was and always will be, just a brutal loss.
Let me stop just a second and address the obvious protest – I am not suggesting that a DM never test PCs, or that Players never experience frustration or defeat, or that every fight or Encounter is an automatic “win”. But as a DM it’s important to remember the “game” part of an RPG; the part that does involve chance and the (often) binary result of success/failure, and it's this part that gives an RPG its tension and makes it more than just a collective exercise in ad-libbed story telling. As a DM I never cared when my Monsters missed or fell or failed – I had hundreds more and none of them individually mattered; they were only there to challenge the PCs. But as a Player, failing often over the course of a game night or over several critical Encounters did matter - and I was reminded just how little one could enjoy the story, when a big part of that story involved the PCs falling flat on their faces. Just as much as a any good DM should occasionally challenge PCs weaknesses, they can and should also play to their strengths as well. It’s not just that Monsters and Encounters are designed to be a challenge, they are also designed to be overcome…
Here’s the thing, people rankle at comparing RPGs to a videogames, but there is a common denominator: people don’t fire up a videogame hoping to lose, planning to fail, or never expecting to get to the end of the story or the final boss battle. They want to win, and I think Players in RPGs want to “win” as well. Sure, they hope the story is engrossing, but at the end of day, what they really want to do is have their PCs succeed in using their unique and cool abilities, defeating the monsters and obstacles, freeing the princess, finding the gold, and simply being, well, awesome. As Charlie Sheen has said, they all want to have that Adonis DNA; the warlock brain, the tiger blood, and the titanium spine!
Having DM’d for so long, I think I had lost sight of that. I thought we were all having fun if my Adventure and Encounters were amazing and my Monsters incredibly challenging, but it was less about my efforts to “wow” the Players from my side of the screen, and more about the ability of the Players to “wow” themselves on their side. I think it’s also important to not view the DM and Player divide so starkly; after all, I guess I have a PC as well: his Class is DM, and his Role is Creator. And his Feats and Powers are all designed to help, in some nicely subtle ways, the other PCs be awesome.
None of this is to detract from my friend’s DMing – this really isn’t about his particular Adventure or some of the difficult Encounters we faced. It was an exceptional Adventure that I would jump back into in a heartbeat. It’s just that I had forgotten how it feels to roll the dice from the Player’s side, and how unforgiving and brutal those dice rolls could be. How it's easy for a a good DM to challenge (or hamstring) a Party, but how hard it can be to simultaneously stop congratulating yourself on such cleverness, and support the Party as well. It takes an extremely deft touch to both challenge the Players and simultaneously root for their success, definitely easier said than done. But during my stint as Bloody Bad Dray and Dust, I was reminded that I want my Players to enjoy our Game because their PCs are ultimately winners, not because I am a creative or clever DM.
I returned to the DM’s chair a few weeks ago, and this past Sunday the Players were engaged in a knock-down, drag-out, DEFCON 4 battle. Things were exploding, blood was flowing – my creatures were fast and smart, my terrain interesting, my tactics clever. If I could have reasonably tossed in a helicopter (in Arvandor, no less), I would have. The best moment came, however, not when my monsters pulled off a fiendishly clever tactic, or I described in amazing technicolor detail the give and take of the battle, but rather when the PCs circled together and took out one of the main creatures with some great tactics, better die rolls, and a Critical Hit. The Players all high-fived and clapped each other on the back, chortling with glee at their success - and in the spirit of Dray and Dust, I found myself cheering right along with them Although they may never remember my descriptions, my tactics, or the specifics of what I did as a DM for that Encounter, my Players will remember what their own PCs did, and that for me means we were all winning.
As already noted, it’s not hard to challenge a PC’s weakness. Yet, it can be just as fun to play to their strengths. Here are some practical suggestions for a night of “winning”:
Just my thoughts. And oh year, here’s a few others;
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