Monday, May 13, 2013, 7:14 PM
This is a bit of an esoteric blog, relating to the Wizards of the Coast Community forums. If you’re a poster or lurker there and have not heard the news out of the, check out this blog post and this forum thread.
Seriously, stop reading this now, check out those links and then come back.
For those of you who never ventured into the WotC Community, Mark “Wrecan” Monack was frequent poster in the community. Prolific really. He seemingly posted daily and contributed numerous blogs. He wrote house rules and speculated on the design of the game, blogged about the past and future of the game, and for fun he penned haikus related to each week’s Rule-of-Three. The bulk of his personal rules can be found under “Unearthed Wrecan”.
Wrecan did not just write blogs, he read them. A lot of them. At the end of every month, Wrecan would compile a list of the best blogs of that month, drawing attention to lesser seen authors not on the “Featured Bloggers” list. And he ran and judged contests for DMs on the message boards, generating content for everyone to use in their games. This summarizes Wrecan nicely: he wasn’t content with writing content, but wanted to highlight the excellence in the community.
When WotC started interviewing members of the community for their regular Playtester Profiles series, Wrecan was one of the first interviewed.
He was well liked by the entire community for his wit and intelligence. Even those that disagreed with his opinions and views liked and respected him. Which is what made Wrecan so special and important to the community: he was never afraid to let people know what he thought and disagree with them, but he never let his posts get personal and argumentative. He was always respectful and polite.
Okay, the above statement is not entirely true. Wrecan did get personal once. Personal and hurtful. And I totally deserved that little kick in the bum.
Suddenly... he’s gone. I’m surprised by how much his death has affected me. I can’t even remember when I started talking with Wrecan. It must have been in early 2009, after I’d been blogging for a few months. We linked to each other’s blogs, read each other’s work, and commented on what each other wrote.
Wrecan made me try harder and think more about what I was writing. Inspired by his blogs, I began to edit much more and used headings to break-up my blogs into sections. Wrecan set the bar for what it meant to be a Featured blogger.
No matter how burnt out I was feeling over Edition Wars or cyclical debates, I always wanted to see what he had to say. I cannot even guess at how many forum threads I read and participated in because I saw Wrecan had commented on the discussion. I’m not even sure I would have continued blogging had Wrecan not kept bringing me back to the forums with his blogs and thoughtful posts.
This is my 275th blog, a milestone number. And while I wish the situation would be happier, I’m happy to to dedicate it to Wrecan.
There’s already talk on the boards about doing something in memory of Wrecan, such as dedication in D&D Next or an in-world tribute such as naming a lizardfolk god or tribe after him (due to his prefered avatar, the lizardman from the 1st Edition Monster Manual). I’m personally fond of the idea of naming some part of the forums after him.
Regardless of what anyone else does, the legacy of Wrecan on the boards will be the deep respect he earned from all he interacted with. An excellent reminder of the value of being diplomatic and polite, of avoiding rudeness and not being argumentative.
I think we should all try and be a little more like Wrecan and honour his memory through deed and action rather than through a token reference in some book. He showed us that it was possible to make your point without being insulting, that it was possible for us all to get along. He reminded us that first and foremost we are a community.
He loved this place. We should make these forums a better place to post.
Goodbye Wrecan. I had hoped one day to bump into you at a Convention somewhere, shake your hand, and offer to buy you a beer; although we never met in person I considered you friend.
I will miss you.
Saturday, May 4, 2013, 4:41 PM
The first real Dungeons & Dragons video game in years is out. It’s called Neverwinter, the most recent in a long line of D&D video games to be centered on that city starting with the oft-overlooked SSI game Neverwinter Nights released in 1991. The name was recycled by BioWare hot off the success of their Baldur’s Gate series, who released Neverwinter Nights in 2002. A sequel was released by Obsidian Entertainment, unsurprisingly called Neverwinter Nights 2 . And now we have Neverwinter by Cryptic Studios.
This is long. So if you want the sound bite, here it is: Neverwinter is an action RPG that doesn’t provide solid enough action to really satisfy action aficionados. Similarly the story is too light to really hold story fans for long, starting well but quickly moving into filler.
As a free2play game it needs invested fans willing to pay, but there’s not enough content to keep people reliably playing repeatedly or enough bonuses that seems worthy of paying for. And it’s easy for people who are invested to skip paying and grind to get that same content.
Announced in August 2010, Neverwinter was initially supposed to be released in August 2011 to coincide with the release of the Neverwinter campaign setting book and a novel series by R.A. Salvatore. However, the game was delayed and on October 5, 2011, Cryptic announced the game would be shifting from free multiplayer game to a Massive Multiplayer Online Game.
In interviews, Salvatore mentions the Neverwinter book series (Gauntlgrym onward) was started at the request of WotC and Cryptic, with Salvatore given the responsibility of setting up the city for the state it would be in during the campaign setting and the MMO. With the first book having been released in 2010 and writing taking a little over a year, it’s safe to estimate Neverwinter began production in early 2009 or late 2008, setting the development cycle at four years and change.
Cryptic Studios is the company given the licence to make a Dungeons & Dragons game, so let’s get to know them a little. I like to describe Cryptic as having made three-and-a-half MMOs. Cryptic is an MMO company that was making MMOs before MMOs were what they are now. Their resume includes City of Heroes, City of Villains, Champions Online, Star Trek Online, and now Neverwinter. They’ve never released a game that isn’t an MMO.
I spent a LOT of time playing City of Heroes and it’s sequexpansion City of Villains. I preordered the game, participated in the closed beta, and logged in the first day the game was live. And I was dancing in Atlas Park when the servers went down. It was a decent game and scratched my super-hero PC game itch despite being 94.7% combat driven and overlooking all the non-beating up bad guys aspects of being a superhero. I like to compare the gameplay with Diablo in that you fought through wave after wave after wave of minions before getting to slightly harder boss monsters. But without the loot.
I also played some Champions Online which was really CoH 1.5. It had a nice free-form power system of CO, an improvement over the fixed powers of CoH, but it was really the system they wanted to do in CoH but could not get to balance at the time. Champions Online has a very simplified combat system and feels very much like a console port of a PC game, which makes sense as it was primarily designed to work on XBox in addition to the PC, however the XBox port never emerged. CO was also announced shortly after Cryptic’s Marvel Universe Online was cancelled, suggesting they just acquired the Champions characters and pasted that over the unfinished game. CO was similar to CoH in that you spent much of the game endlessly fighting waves and waves of mooks. Only moreso. In CoH it was common for missions to be “Kill 20 badguys” while in CO it became “Kill 100 badguys”.
I won’t heavily discuss Star Trek Online as I have not personally played it. (However, A friend I regularly game with has and when it went Free 2 Play I asked if he wanted to try it again and he declined, not wanting to do all the missions over again, which is telling and relevant.)
Neither Champions Online nor Star Trek Online were particularly well received. The CEO of the company said that they designed those games just like they had designed the well recieved City of Heroes, missing the fact that half-a-year after CoH was released World of Warcraft hit the scene. In the same year CO and STO were released, Wrath of the Lich King had been out for a year and dramatically changed how MMOs could tell a story with its focus on phasing over instances.
Cryptic has also frequently launched their MMOs without endgame content. Both CoH and CoV launched with 4/5th of the game, releasing the final zone and levels as a “free update”. While there is always going to be content that was not quite ready for release, the first three updates of CoH (the better part of a year’s updates) focused on content that was not quite ready for launch. In fairness, holding back end-game content is a standard MMO tactic. Under the assumption it will take some time before players reach those levels giving developers time to polish. This forgets the speed MMO players can consume a game and hit cap. It takes months to generate content that players compete in an afternoon. There are many, many gamers who blow through an MMO and then move onto the next game.
The Open Beta
Cryptic likes its “Open Betas”. They’ve had them for all their games, typically followed immediately with launch. They’re not so much Betas as Demos, only with the “beta” tag as players are often more forgiving of balance and technical issues. Then they wipe the servers and everyone starts fresh and you have to pay. So it wasn’t that surprising that they have an Open Beta for Neverwinter.
With that in mind, what we saw wasn’t really a beta. They weren’t really “testing” anything anymore, almost all the content was available (one class and race is absent) and there are no more wipes. Plus, they were taking payment in their e-store for items. Yeah... it was the launch. A "soft launch" maybe but still a launch.
Still... releasing an unfinished game and actually saying “hey, this is an unfinished game” is remarkably refreshing from Cryptic. It’s not “here’s the game, it’s finished” followed in a couple months by “here’s an extra class and zone as a *ahem* bonus”. And the missing content isn’t the last 5-15 levels or the end of the game but peripheral content, so there’s a complete play experience if less flexible.
The website gave two options to download: direct or torrent. I started downloading at around 11:15 am, MST, a couple hours after the downloads became public. I had checked the day before, late night on the 29th (read: very early on the 30th) and couldn’t download.
This was a little annoying. They could have easily allowed people to pre-download and install the game but not log in until the Open Beta officially began. And when the game launched there would have been far, far more people seeding than the paltry number I saw, and the load on their servers that morning would be far less.
Instead, I had to wait a number of hours to actually play (over four-and-a-half to be precise) with the direct download initially being much faster than the torrent, which promptly caught up and “won”. But barely.
The cynic in me wonders if this was intentional so the number of players early in the first day would be lighter, spreading the load away from the starting zone.
Now, with many more people seeding and less load, installation should be far easier.
The game currently has 7 races: half-orc, half-elf, human, halfling, elf, tiefling, and dwarf. Drow is in the game but is pay-only at the moment but will be available later. There’s a fair assortment of facial customizations, better than average for an MMO. However, you don’t get to initially customize your clothes or physical appearance as that’s handled by gear. So the game does not serve as a character visualizer. (There is limited customization of gear available, allowing some pallet swapping, but this seems to require spending real money.)
Speaking of armour, I was less than impressed by the gender disparity in armour:
*sigh* It looks so silly. And with body appearance governed by gear people won’t be able to making characters without curve fitting armour and a boob window.
After race you choose from 5 classes: Guardian Fighter, Greatweapon Fighter, Control Wizard, Devoted Cleric, and Trickster Rogue. There’s a ranger also on the way. Or rather, the Adverb Ranger. As it’s based on classic 4e, each class has a set role, although I wonder if they could have just called the greatweapon fighter the “slayer” or something as there’s only a single version of the other classes. But I suppose they might add a second cleric or wizard later.
You also get to choose your starting region, picking for over a half-dozen places in the Forgotten Realms each with a choice or three for fine-tuning. I’m not sure what the benefit to this choice is, if there’s a skill bonus or small passive bonus. It does give you a free title, so can announce where you’re from. Whee. But it seems mostly cosmetic. You also get to choose your god, which grants another title.
You also roll your stats. Kinda. It “rolls” by handing out a randomized array, arranged to suit your character. So there’s a little variation. There's not a lot of tutorial on what the stats mean though, which is very different than standard D&D. Each stat does an array of things. I'm uncertain if a balanced spread would be better than a standard 4e specialized arrangement.
Other than that, there’s not a lot of customization. You don’t get to pick powers at first level or feats. Customization comes later, at level 5 and then 10.
Following character creation there’s the big cinematic that establishes the story of the game. There’s an evil lich necromancer, her army of the undead, and a dracolich that is attacking the city of Neverwinter. This is mostly combat between a female rogue that is teleporting all over the place like a fey pact Nightcrawler. Martial power at its least mundane. There’s maybe two lines of dialogue in the entire piece, no motives or story and just action. But it sets a tone for a desperate besieged city.
My first impression was “yup this is a video game”. Standard WASD controls. It’s more First Person Shooter than your typical MMO, with mouse-look is always enabled. It took some time before I discovered that to interact with the UI via the mouse you have to click Alt (click, not hold) or pull up something like inventory or the character sheet.
The game holds your hand for questing. There’s a little sparkly trail that directs you right to the next quest objective. Because following big blinking icons on a map is apparently too hard. But Neverwinter is cut from the action game cloth, so the sparkly trail is similar to the directional arrow you often see pointing to your next story goal. It fits the genre.
You get the standard introductory quest with pop-up tutorials that tell you the basics of combat while you recover your gear from a ship sunk by the dracolich. Yup, starting on a beach washed up after a shipwreck. A dash cliche. Upon rewatching the cinematic, I was disappointed there was no establishing shot of the sea, or quick scene of the dragon strafing ships to further establish the cinematic is NOW. There’s not even really a shot of the sea. You can half-see it in the first shot of the city, but with the lighting and colour you might mistake it for more plains.
After the initial NPC’s mouth didn’t move while talking, I was pleasantly surprised that other NPCs seemed fully animated and all the NPC dialogue was spoken (with moving mouths). After Star Wars the Old Republic, going back to a non-spoken MMO would have felt cheap. However, your PC is still silent throughout. NPCs in chat have an unnerving tendency to stare blankly above you and to your right, like everyone is talking to another adventuring slightly behind you and off to the side. I often looked around to see if someone was standing behind me watching me play the game.
Quest text in MMOs has always been a soft spot of the genre. They often feel like the writer was being paid per-word. Which is ignorable when you can just skim the text and move onto the quest. But having the NPC dialogue spoken aloud really drives home how wordy and chatty every NPC is; I made a modest effort to listen before giving up and reading text and walking away, leaving the NPC talking away as if I were still there. You have to hit a button to cancel the read aloud quest, which is a feature-bug. If I wanted to hear the text I wouldn't be walking away, but it does allow you to keep listening while moving towards the quest, checking your bags, or healing at the campsite.
Your first couple quests are amazingly standard MMO fare. You have to heal a few wounded soldiers while sparse opponents wander around letting you choose to engage or not. Lacking the phasing technology of Warcraft, the field was littered with injured bodies so there was the standard MMO experience of walking away from injured soldiers because you had helped all the soldiers you were told to help. There wasn’t even the attempt to justify ceasing to help with a limited use item (“Sorry, I can’t help, I’ve run out of bandages” ) or the ability to continue helping without reward, as you stop being able to interact with the injured soldiers once you hit your quota.
After that you’re gathering arrows to replenish the supplies of archers, pulling arrows from corpses. You’re not gathering dropped quivers of arrows or lost crates of arrows but individual arrows, albeit in bunches of 3. So you quickly turn in your nine arrows and everyone seems really happy with your contribution despite the innumerable arrows behind you.
Meanwhile, while gathering those nine arrows, you’re blasting zombies in groups of two or three, flattening a good dozen opponents. This is the type of game Neverwinter is: the quests are a flimsy excuse for you to run around blasting through enemies and little effort has been made to make the quest anything more than a said flimsy excuse. The game very seldom has “Kill 10 boars” quests because you’re going to kill 30 boards trying to get the single MacGuffin at the end of the zone.
Running through the opening tutorial, you also meet the tiefling wizard/warlock/something from the opening cinematic who goes on about the dracolich seen in the same cinematic (dead-ish at his feet) and how it might be permanently defeated. And then it's never mentioned again.
After some short adventuring you reach a bridge with a young Red Shirt companion. You catch a glimpse of the Big Bad Evil Gal from the opening cinematic who “kills” the Red Shirt before sending some massive boss monster at you - despite the fact she’s an all-powerful NPC she doesn’t just squish you herself but vanishes, likely to appear again closer to the End Game.
Having defeated the boss monster you exchange words with the dying Red Shirt who has enough life left to ramble off half a Dostoevsky novel while slouched on a wall telling you your next quest goal. Then the Red Shirt falls over dead. Or rather there’s a camera change and he’s suddenly laying down, having died in the half-second screen refresh. And your character looks all sad over the death of the chatty nobody Red Shirt despite the dozens of dead people you’ve passed along the way. The funny significance of the Red Shirt (whose rank is literally Private, meaning expendable nobody) is echoed by the next quest giver NPC (also from the opening cinematic).
Moving into the city proper you enter one of the districts of Neverwinter and apparently the battle has ended. Guards are all calmly at their post and all the merchants are going about their business. Apparently, killing the low level ogre thingy (or really big orc) ended the war and saved the city and the lich just gave up. It’s very off-putting.
I think this is where I miss the phasing tech of Warcraft the most. It would be nice if low level characters not far along the main story saw explosions, siege weapons, fires, and soldiers running around. But high level characters who have saved the city see a calm peaceful place. This thought occurred to me even more after completing the next plot, where I killed the leader of a gang of rebels that took over a district but nothing in the district changed. It was still full of gang members who were still attacking me. As an alternative, employing Cryptic's fondness for instances might work. It should be possible to have a separate Before & After instance of a zone, so you can have a sense of progress and achievement. But far too late for ideas like that now.
Gameplay is vaguely reminiscent of 4e. Inspired by 4e. You have the At-Will powers that lack a cooldown and Encounter powers with a short cooldown. Unremarkable for MMOs. However, you also have Daily powers, which show some interesting design. During combat you slowly gain Action Points, represented by an icon that resembles a d20 (nice). When you have a 100% Action Points you can use your Daily Power and then you have to wait until it recharges via adventuring before you can use your Daily Power again. Different classes gain AP for different things, such as healing or taking damage or using encounter powers.
After level 5 you start gaining Power Points, which can be used to improve powers, making an At-Will or Encounter power better, or increasing your number of available powers. After level 10 you start gaining Feats, which are really just standard MMO talents with a reappropriated D&D name.
Combat is quick, typically against many foes. The game tries to be a mobile action game with a dodge option and warnings of enemy attacks, so you know to get out of the archer's line or fire or back away from the big bruiser. (Except for the guardian fighter who raises his shield to block.)
However, the animation of attacks stop movement and often the time between the warning and attack attack is so short you don't have time to react after your attack animation has ended. And you can’t choose to abort an attack and dodge. Quite often I'd also be hit by an enemy after I was out of range, because I moved away after the animation had started. This could be the result of lag/ rubber-banding but it happened a little too often. Soloing with a ranged character (cleric) the game descended into me dashing away from enemies and then standing perfectly still while attacking. This felt clumsy and was exceedingly awkward (especially as I’ve been playing a lot of mobile FPS lately).
Hitpoints are handled curiously: you begin with hundreds of hitpoints and these quickly increase. By mid-levels you’ll easily have thousands of hp. Which is odd since even at low levels damage seems to be in the double digits. Reducing hp by 1/2 or 1/5 or even 1/10 would have been a nice way to keep the number bloat down. But the high numbers were likely to accommodate the curious choice of healing.
4e has a very video game friendly health system where you can rest and charge to full between battles. I expected swift out-of-combat healing like Champions Online or a Rest power like City of Heroes or Neverwinter Nights. Instead, healing while adventuring is minimal and even the cleric has limited healing options, as their powers recharging a paltry portion of your staggering hp total. Instead of having full health your hp atrophies slowly over a number of battles until you find a campsite that heals via proximity (and acts as a new spawn point if you die) or you drink a health potion. It’s actually a better representation of Tabletop RPG adventuring than I’ve seen in most video games, but doesn’t feel particularly 4e.
Missions are heavily instanced, like dungeons are in Warcraft. So when you’re in questing in a small zone you’re the only one there. You’re seldom competing with other players, interacting with other players, or even seeing other players. Apart from the opening or when running around the city you might as well be playing a single player game. Group play is strictly optional. It’s comparable to an always online single player game that has a graphically rendered lobby and auction space. That said, there are a number of outdoor zones with filler quests between the big instanced story missions where you do interact with players. This allows some cooperative play, even in impromptu situations.
The instanced dungeon maps are standard nonsensical affairs. Here’s one of the early dungeons.
It’s a long giant crypt that doesn’t even try to match the structure it originated from or the space available. There are huge dead areas and negative space. Blizzard always worked very hard to make the dungeons and instances of Warcraft look like they matched the exterior, especially in later expansions. If the dungeon exited onto a balcony then you could see that balcony from the air when flying overtop the dungeon structure.
As a extra example, here's a map of the exteriour of an orc structure and its interior.
As mentioned, the story begins with a city-threatening siege by an army of undead. And then this story just seems to go away, instead focusing on people trying to steal the Crown of Neverwinter and then orcs that have taken over a district in the city.
In an interview, the CEO of Cryptic said "It's not an MMO in the sense that there aren't zones with hundreds-and-hundreds of people. You are not fighting for spawns. There's a very strong storyline throughout the game. So it's more of a story-based game closer to things like Dragon Age or Oblivion, which we really try to follow." This struck me as odd as the last two Warcraft expansions have had pretty heavy stories and Star War the Old Republic was ALL about the story with numerous side quests. If you’re making a game that’s going to be competing with other MMOs you should keep abreast of what other MMOs are doing.
Unlike Warcraft that as two factions and often deliberately has two zones of the same level, or SWtOR which has two factions and eight classes each with their own story, Neverwinter has the one story. It’s quite possible to play WoW or SWtOR two times and never repeat a quest and a third time with only minimal repetition And even the single player games used as examples have some story variation and choices that generate replay value. Past Cryptic MMOs have been criticised for their single set of quest chains and story and I was hoping Neverwinter would avoid this. Instead, the game continues to offer content for a single playthrough.
I also found it interesting that right after you get to Neverwinter and the game actually begins, the game immediately drops the initial story and starts new unrelated stories for five level. And immediately after wrapping up that story you’re shunted to another zone for another story unrelated to both the main plot or the previous plot. It's very tacked on.
But even this limited content isn’t really enough. The Nasher plot is ostensibly meant to take you from level 4 to 10 before you start fighting Many Arrows orcs, as reflected by the level of the gear given to you as a reward. But both solo (and especially grouped) I was nowhere near my expected level. So I faced level 11 orcs with my level 9 cleric and promptly got my ass handed to me. Repeatedly. I had to stop and grind a full level to get enough power to continue the story (and even then some timely intervention from other players was necessary).
Curiously, we're also told very quickly that there are a number of factions fighting for control of the city. I thought this would be an interesting way to have some story divergence: pick a faction and push their agenda with related faction missions. Instead, we're locked into supporting the guard and Lord Neverember. A very, very obvious missed opportunity for some repeat gameplay.
Except for the addition of player created content via the Foundry:
BioWare’s Neverwinter Nights was famous for its adventure builder and vast community of writers, who slavishly created stories and campaigns larger, grander, and even better than the official story. While tricky to use, this engine powered a wealth of content. NWN2 tried to do the same with some lesser success. And now Neverwinter is doing the same with the in-game Foundry that lets players create, play, and rate stories by other players.
At level 15 you can start making Foundry missions, and can do so without needing to be logged in as a character. Missions can be taken from Job Boards readily available in most zones.
Of all parts of the game, the Foundry seem the least polished. And by "unpolished" I mean "glitchy mess". I spawned outside of maps more often than I spawned inside maps. Once while testing the game I spawned well outside the city but close enough that I was in play and died and died and died yet couldn't get into the city no matter how many times I released, refreshed the map, or exited the test and resumed play. It’s frozen on me a couple times, buggered my mouse, and refused to save after much editing. And when I leveled-up a character to test the adventure, it didn’t always give me the appropriate gear (or any gear. I had a few naked runs).
There's currently no tutorial or wiki but links are set up so they'll eventually be there. Hopefully for launch. At the moment you have to learn how things work yourself. Having done some NWN modules and Architect missions in City of Heroes before figuring out how most of the featured worked was fairly simple. It’s really quick to learn the basics, and I imagine the Foundry will very quickly be flooded by innumerable basic “kill all” adventures.
There are some fun features. You can customize the look of monsters quite nicely, and add standard gear to humanoid monsters then change the colour palette of the gear. And you can change proportions and the size of some body parts. Plus you can position individual mobs and traps for nice effect, and do expected things like have patrols, triggered spawns, and the like.
Adventurers are also at no particular level. They vary to match the level of the person playing. So you can run through a Foundry mission at level 5 and then run through the same mission at level 25 or 55. And you can choose to playtest a run through your mission with character of any class at set levels, which are assigned appropriate gear. So you can see how the mission handles for each class.
However, you're mostly limited to the few monster groups and zones already in the game and it look like there's only a few monsters not already included in quests (although, that's hard to say for sure not having seen all the content planned for launch). And you’re limited to pre-built encounter groups. You cannot, for example, add an ogre to a goblin encounter or just have a wandering ogre. Ogres are fixed parts of orc encounters. Nor can you add boss monsters.
Likewise, there doesn’t seem to be options to have treasure chests or crafting nodes. This is likely for balance reasons. So you can’t just hand out treasure like candy.
There is the option to make your own maps, but these are limited to adding structures to outdoor zones and there’s no ability to make your own interior dungeon. Which is a shame because there are really few dungeon maps to use, a fraction of the ones in the game. This is likely because you place items using the same maps used for the ingame maps. Which means you cannot easily use any maps with multiple floors. And anything with special scripting like secret doors and puzzles is likely beyond the Foundry.
Edit: The above paragraph is wrong. There is a make-your-own dungeon feature which is pretty slick, allowing you to piece together rooms. There's some pretty glaring clipping issues but it's otherwise nicely done. I don't know how I missed it earlier as I really looked for it. Glitch? Moment of blindness?
Not all maps are equal. Where walls end and floors begin is a little fuzzy for caves, and the uneven floor makes placing some items difficult. I recommend running through an empty map first to get a feel for the layout.
I recruited a friend to play with me and duo through the game. There was the initial annoyance of not being able to group until after the tutorial, despite running around beside each other.
The game also doesn’t seem to modify instances to accommodate parties. The missions my cleric soloed without much problem my friend and I tore through. A couple boss fights I had to play tactically with my cleric we effortlessly shredded as a team, despite the fact Action Points seemed to be gained at quarter-speed.
That said, I was playing a rogue which currently seems quite powerful when paired with a fighter. So perhaps it’s a class balance issue.
Sharing loot in a group is adequate. Coins are automatically shared, but seem to favour the person who picked-up the coin pile. While it might average out, melee characters closer to the loot might get a disproportionate share. But this is likely a low level issue when you cannot half a copper piece. Picking up items was trickier for a couple reasons. First, you have to choose need-or-greed via clicking ****-1 or shift-2 (as the mouse is locked into auto-look) but you aren’t given any information on the item so you still need to free the mouse to hover over the item - which is typically unidentified so you really don’t know if you need it or not. I can easily see this getting really frustrating at high levels with two of the same class but different builds.
There are two other ways to get group play: skirmishes and dungeons. The former is a quick match against waves of enemies that takes 10-15 minutes and gives you some gold and treasure. Dungeons are, well, dungeons. If you’ve played an MMO before you likely know what to expect from dungeons.
Edit: I should mention the one dungeon I played through was pretty much by-the-numbers. There were a couple tank-and-spank bosses that seemed very much like the single player bosses only with more hitpoints. There wasn't a whole lot of gameplay change, just the standard stay-out-of-zones and watch-adds.
Pay 2 Win?
Neverwinter is a free game but has a market that takes real world monkey for perks. So you can pay real dollars for the ingame currency “zen”, which can be spent on bonuses like companion pets, the ability to rename or redesign your character, mounts, and the like. Cryptic has been firm that you won’t have to pay and that payment is strictly optional and that paying just lets you get things faster.
That said, they certainly want to encourage you to pay. The bank is tiny and you regularly get chests that contain special items that can only be opened by a key that you can only get via zen. $1 gets too 100 zen so you can drop $6 to get a bag of holding, $5 and get a mount, $5 to get more than 2 character slots, or $6 to double your bank space. So the aforementioned key is $2 or so.
But can you pay and win? Yes. Easily. There are a number of level 60 characters already who have done just that.
You can buy zen and exchange them for astral diamonds, which can then be used to speed crafting missions to rapidly gain experience. And astral diamonds are the currency used in the auction house to buy gear, so you can buy zen, convert to AD, and then buy whatever items you want. So if you have enough money, you can just buy a level 60 character and give them decent gear.
Of course, this does mean if you do many daily quests and auctioning, you can earn astral diamonds which you can then sell for zen, bypassing the need to pay. So nothing in the zen store requires payment. If you have enough time to grind astral diamonds. This is actually well done. There have been times playing MMOs I wished I could just drop $50 and get a few extra levels to catch up with friends. And times I’ve played some freemium MMOs and wished there was some way to work towards one of those fancy perks without spending cash.
That said, the store looks a little empty now. I’d love some more fancy clothing and customization options, especially cheaper ones. If you're one of the people who paid $200 for the big fancy pack of goods, there’s likely precious else to buy in the zen store.
Bags have a sort feature. And you automatically have two bags: regular and crafting.
You have a second set of clothing, a purely decorative outfit you can swap on with the click of a single button. I love the idea of casual clothes, although I expect getting anything fancy will cost real money.
Harvesting is handled via skills tied to your class. Fighters get Dungeoneering, Clerics get Religion, etc. An interesting take on skills. But you can also buy kits that allow you to have a chance of accessing other skills’ nodes, which is a nice option.
It’s easy to help people in an area without feeling like you’re kill stealing. There is separate loot for different people, ala Diablo 3.
The controls are very keyboard and mouse centric. You attack via mouse buttons and all your powers are close to your WASD keys.
Edit: Additional Thoughts
I forgot to mention crafting. This is similar to the Star Wars the Old Republic system where you have a flunkie that crafts while you adventure. So you can always be crafting. It's actually well done if simple but fits the game. There's one type of crafting for each of the armour types as well as the bonus crafting profession of "Leadership" which gives you more experience and astral diamonds.
The game also has a combat advantage feature, which is easy to miss as I never saw it described anywhere. When attacking with a friend you can see a coloured semicircle around the base of nearby monsters. If you attack from that direction you flank. So positioning matters.
Naming is well handles. Like Champions Online characters are have names tied to the display name of your account. So if your display name is Bob and you make a character named Doug the character's full name is Doug@Bob. Which sounds weird but means you can always name your character whatever you want, no matter how many people named their character Doug before you. This is nice.
Currently, the game does not automatically move you to a friend's instance when you log in. You need to switch manually, which is a pain (and can descend into tag if there’s poor communication).
When below half hitpoints (aka bloodied) an injured FX appears that makes the screen hard to see. So when you’re getting beaten-up the game makes it harder to play.
I hate the reappropriating of feats as talents. Standard MMO talents don’t fit the game, and even Warcraft began moving away from finicky talents with Cataclysm. I’d much, much prefer a single big feat every 3 levels rather than small "feat points" every level.
If you accidentally hit escape while looting a chest, you can't re-loot. You’ve just lost treasure.
Quest rewards have a required level like dropped loot. So it’s possible to get a reward too high to use. If you’re powerful enough to do the quest you should be able to use the reward. Period.
There's a two character limit per account and you need to spend money to unlock more slots. Or, given it's a free game, you could just create a second free account. So that’s silly.
There are three currencies in the game: coins (regular), zen (paid), and astral diamonds (misc). It’s not particularly clear why this third currency exists. You earn diamonds by daily quests, refining, and miscellaneous tasks, all typically mid-level.
Auctioning is poorly done. Auctions use astral diamons for payment and the deposit, so you can’t auction anything early in the game. And you can't auctioned unwanted items to get more gold to get better gear.
When items drop they’re unidentified, and the only way to learn what they are is to use a scroll to identify them. Which means you’re burning money on scrolls and down an inventory slot. It’s a bit of a pain for very little benefit. (I also haven't found vendors that sells identification scrolls either and once ran out and had a couple items I couldn't even sell. But I don't want to say this is a bug as it could just be me looking in the wrong places.)
You’re not given any instruction on some items, like portable altars. As far as I can tell, these act like portable campsites that you cannot respawned at. But I don't see why they're called "portable alters" instead of "temporary campsites" then.
Crafting isn’t given a tutorial.
Healing in a group is a pain in the ass, as you can't target portraits and have to just try and hit the right person.
Non-instanced zones can be crowded with monsters, especially with things that can knockback. I’ve lost count of the times I was sent into another mob or dodged and AoE and aggroed a second group, or had more monsters spawn atop my fight. I’ve ended up in pitched battles against two or three groups.
There's a mini-event in one zone where you compete for lost relics, golden items made in the name of a goddess. And after the event and all that effort you keep the items but can't sell them or turn them in for a reward and just have to kinda throw them away. LAME.
And there was that time the "go here" sparkly quest trail led me right over a trap. Thanks.
Edit: Additional Thoughts
Zones are a pain to travel across. You slog through waves of monsters while looking for quest items, end up on the far end of the zone (especially if there's a quest/instance there) and then have to slog your way back. There's no "hearthstone" option. Given there's no real death penalty (if you have a spare injury kit or 5 minutes to kill) it's easiest to just commit suicide and grab a drink while your injuries heal. This is a pain if you have to leave the game suddenly, your bags fill up, or a friend logs in and you want to change zones.
There's precious little powers variation. The pre-reqs for putting points into powers are high, so you end up having having spare points you have to spend learning powers you already chose not add points to and have no space for in your action bar. You're picking the order you want powers, not what powers you want.
There's little lore on things like the destruction of the city or the Spellplague unless you go looking for it. I saw an NPC that described this stuff but walked away to do a quest turn in and now I can't find him again to read the lore.
There is no swim animation or interaction with water. You just pass through it and run normally.
You cannot swap characters easily. You have to log out all the way and then type in your login information again. This would be a pain if it just made you enter your password and reconnect, but it also wipes your email/account name requiring that to be re-entered.
The game design is similar to Cryptic’s earlier efforts: a simple hack-and-slash experience. It’s mindless. Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it also describes many other games I’ve enjoyed, such as the Diablo franchise and its clones. And it’s not a gameplay style anathema to D&D, demonstrated by games such as Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, which I spent endless hours grinding away, typically with a friend manning the other controller.
Really, it’s a Dark Alliance MMO more than Neverwinter. I've also heard comparisons to DragonAge II which is a pretty good comparison.
In that respect the game does what you want it to. The story keeps pointing you at the next zone and the new groups of enemies to fight before shaking things up with new enemies that have new tactics and powers.You can play alone but you’re more effective as a group and everyone gets to contribute and blast away. You get new powers and options, but you never have so many powers at once that you have too many choices. And the game really shines in multiplayer. While I can't give the game a great review I am enjoying playing it with a friend. In a group things just go faster, so I spend less time noticing the little problems, like the inability to attack while moving, outdoor zones where you can’t take 5-steps without aggroing, the slightly imperfect hitboxes, etc. It’s not that my problems go away, it’s just that there’s much less time for them to happen so I see them less frequently and are thus more easily ignored.
But the game has its problems. The static world reflects a style of MMO design on the way out. It’s very much a third-generation MMO despite every MMO in the last three or four years trying to become an early fourth-generation MMO. There’s not a whole lot of innovation. Excluding the Foundry, it's an unremarkable game I would have not looked twice at had it not been using the D&D licence (and even then, only because it's free).
There’s also only enough official content for a single playthrough. There are a lot of players who just play MMOs, who will blow through the content and move onto the next game. It’s quite possible to reach cap in two-days (without paying). If people feel like they’ve seen everything the game has to offer in a long weekend they’ll move on to their next game. If the game cannot hold a fanbase’s attention for long, few people will become involved enough to give it money. I'm enjoying it now
The existence of the Foundry, which exists to scratch people's need for side quests and tangential tales, makes the extremely tacked-on main story all the more needless. If I wanted to spend ten levels wasting my time with rebels and orcs I would have picked Foundry missions focused on rebels and orcs. While player-generated can help, this content can be extremely hit or miss. And unlike the official content, it’s less likely to be continually checked for bugs and balance after each update and patch. At best, this makes the game feel like a limited single player game with a lot of fan mods.
Combat is also problematic. Not just for the small balance issues but for the inability to move and attack in a game designed around mobile action. Plus the slight disparity between the graphics showing a hit and the engine acknowledging a hit. But this isn’t insurmountable and is fixable after launch with a little effort.
There also isn’t a whole lot of D&D in the early game. It has some lip service to the Forgotten Realms with the names of gods and places, but the game could just as easily be set in any generic fantasy world (that has reptilian kobolds). The D&D experience is a large one, so this may vary due to personal experience. Really, if you find D&D 4e doesn’t feel like D&D than neither will Neverwinter. Although, the lack of tactical play in favour of button mashing doesn’t particularly emulate 4th Edition very well either.
Neverwinter is emblematic of Cryptic Studios. It’s a hack-and-slash online multiplayer game that isn’t quite “massive”. Their graphics have improved over the last decade by the gameplay and design is pretty much the same. If you liked Dark Alliance or Diablo but wanted something a little more 3rd Person then Neverwinter might be for you.
Wednesday, April 24, 2013, 4:07 PM
Three elements define people: their ethnicity, their nationality, and their cultural heritage. My nationality is Canadian, my race is European mongrel (with a slim Scottish majority), and my culture is suburban Albertan with a geekcentric slant. The is true in fantasy worlds as well, save “race” (read: species) is often interchangeable with “ethnicity”.
This blog is really the counterpart to the entries on Race and Nation and focuses on the third part of the trifecta: culture. Specifically, this blog looks at the elements that make up cultures, with the aim of customizing and creating interesting and memorable cultures.
Below are links to the other chapters in this series.
Part 1: The Hook
Part 1.5: Factors
Part 2: Conflict
Part 3: Geography
Part 4: Races
Part 5: Nations
Part 6: Room for monsters
Part 7: Deities
Part 8: Cities
Part 9: Factions
Part 10: History
Part 11: Economics
Part 12: Culture
Part 13: Starting Zone
Culture versus Race & Nationality
How much culture varies from ethno-race and nationality very much depends on scale: if you're looking at populaces globally, regionally, or locally. On a global or continental scale, culture and nationality might be fairly interchangeable: someone from Japan could be described as having the "Japanese" ethnicity, nationality, and culture.
Looking at culture with a wide lense does invoke stereotypes, which should be done carefully: not all stereotypes are wrong, but not all are right. And some traits that may be accurate can be presented as negatives. But when looking at an average member of the populace, many generalities will be accurate. For example, if you were to grab a random passerby off a Japanese street, odds are they would be middle-aged, because Japan has an aging population with a high median age. While the country is not lacking children, youths, and seniors the average age is one of the highest in the world.
This is a little easier in worldbuilding, where the creator can decide which stereotypes are accurate and which are horribly flawed. And the GM can present a people comprised of horrible stereotypes without offending (unless the people are analogous to a read group).
When you reduce the scale subcultures emerge, such as looking at a country on a national or regional level. These subcultures might even be distinct cultures, especially if the scale is zoomed-in enough that everyone would share the same ethnicity and nationality.
For example there is no shortage of Japanese sub-cultures, most of which have just as much right to be called "Japanese" as the majority culture. In a campaign set entirely in a fantasy Japan, “Japanese” does not distinguish anyone, and differentiating people by clan or subregion works better.
While nationality can be equated with the culture of the majority, sometimes the values of the nation drift away from the traditional culture. The culture of a nation becomes less representational of the actual populace, or the culture is an idealized state that no longer reflects the day-to-day activities of the populace. There could be two cultures at once, the classical culture for special occasions and holidays, and the everyday culture that has grown over time. Similarly, there could be an ethnic minority that has a very different culture than the majority of the nation.
The Star Trek method of defining culture tends to focus on finding a single human trait and exaggerating it, expanding it into the dominant cultural value. Vulcans are logical, Klingons are honourable warriors, Romulans are Imperial, Ferengi are avarice, Changelings are orderly, Bajorans are spiritual, Cardassians are Orwellian, etc.
This is a little simplistic and it’s a little unrealistic to describe an entire population by a single value, but it works. Television writers and GMs alike have to introduce and convey the nature of a people as quickly as possible. Subtle nuances of cultures will be missed and there’s no time for deep immersion in an alien culture.
Once the basis for a race or culture is know it can be expanded with other details, even subtle ones. While exaggerating a single trait is a good place to start it’s a terrible place to end. It’s essentially a cultural “Hook” that serves as inspiration and drives later ideas. The trait can also offer inspiration, raising questions that need to be answered. Returning to Star Trek, knowing that Vulcans are emotionless raises the question “then where do little Vulcans come from?” which inspires new aspects of the culture and maybe a story or two.
A good start to culture is names. An exotic name can really define a character as not being a member of a standard fantasy world. I once played a Baklunish character in Living Greyhawk with the name Komiser Muavini Husam ibin Kharif al Barakhat. “Komiser Muavini” was his rank in the Spahis organization, “Husamn” was his given name, “ibin Kharif” denoted his family and “al Barakhat” denoted he was from the Barakhat province.
Do names have a deeper meaning or are they just syllables? Is there a naming tradition, such as babies named after a certain family member? Do children have a “son of” or “daughter of” in their name? Is there a geographic element? Do names include a clan or caste? Names could also be colourful actions and descriptions, like the stereotypical Amerindian names: Lives in Woods, Joined Together by Water, One Who Lives Lone, Leaps Over the Mountain, etc.
There could be some belief in true names, given young and seldom used or shared save by close friends and allies.
Names might be impermanent, with names changing or evolving over time. In cultures with high infant mortality, babies might not have permanent names until they reach a certain age. There might also be a difference between adult and childhood names, with the transition to adulthood being marked by a naming.
Language & Speech
Language is important. Charlemagne once said "to have a second language is to have a second soul." To discover what is important to a culture, you look at their language. The easy example is how the Inuit have dozens of words for snow; while not factually true it sounds true, as language describes what is people view as important enough to need subtle differences in communication. (To emphasise that point, in Canada alone we use: snow, sleet, hail, slush, flakes, blizzard, flurries, rime, graupel, powder, drifts, packed, and squall before getting into composite words and esoteric scientific terms.)
An uncomfortable example is how mental retardation is viewed in western society. The common term for people wth MR has varied over the year: retarded, challenged, developmentally delayed, special needs, learning disabilities, etc. This is an example of a euphamism treadmill where none of the terms are inappropriate (or inaccurate) but are made inappropriate because of how society uses (and abuses) the terms. Which stems from the negative cultural view of the individuals.
There’s a great deal of variety in languages. Languages can be literal and rational or full of subtle emotions. Languages can be lyrical and poetic or harsh and aggressive. They can be simple with limited vocabularies but modified by suffixes and prefixes or there might be an expansive vocab with myriad different words.
Beyond the actual vocab is the phrasing: not what is being said but how. The language of a culture might establish if they respect politeness or terseness. A polite society might have brusque words, but the culture uses longers or less direct phrases "I wish" or "it would please me" rather than "I want". This includes description and how abstract concepts are conveyed. Commonly used expressions are another example, such as how people curse or express surprise. What is an insult to the culture?
What a people eat and what they don't eat are determined by culture . This can be animals; many cultures eat dogs and horses, but this is frowned upon in North America. There are also non-standard sources of food such as insects and organs that are not typically consumed.
An example of how culture can radically change how food is used is semolina. Coarsely ground wheat, this is just a heavily processed grain product. In North America it’s commonly known as Cream of Wheat, and is a breakfast food (a non-wheat variant is the corn-based grits). In much of Europe, it’s instead sweetened and served as a dessert, occasionally chilled into a pudding. Same food, but very different implementations.
Preparation is another variable: ingredients might be cooked and kept separate, cooked separate but served together, or mixed and combined. There may be single servings or multiple small courses. Food might typically be raw or it might always cooked. Soft food might be prefered of the culture might lean to crispy. Food might be a casual affair with people eating quickly just to fill their bellies or it might be a slow ritual and an important part of the day.
Seasoning and choice of spices are also a nice variable. Some nations might default to plain food, others might prefer simple seasoning, while others might regularly have spicy dishes.
Utensils also vary. The big two sets of eating utensils are cutlery (fork, knife & spoon) versus chopsticks. Kebabs/ skewers are another utensil, as are combinations like the spork. Other cultures eat with their fingers or have a bread dish as an edible utensil.
One option for a worldbuilder is non-standard animals. What if ducks were more common than chickens or bison were the domesticated cattle of choice? There are plenty of exotic fruit we don't see, and that's without thinking of foods from mythology or fantasy flora and fauna.
How a culture defines and handles marriage varies greatly. Without getting into the same-sex debate (which does get a little easier when you can just cast a spell to speak with your god and ask if they're cool with it) there is a lot of diversity in how you define “marriage”.
Start with the bigger question: does a particular culture even have marriage? With races that live for centuries, marriage might not exist and there might only be longer relationship. If there is marriage, is it for a lifetime or a short term? Are weddings private affairs, familial ceremonies, or big public events? Even love as the basis for marriage has varied over time with marriage being an economical of political affair for much longer. The parties involved might have a choice or betrothal might be involved.
There’s also polygamy, which is divided into polygyny (multiple wives) and polyandry (multiple husbands). Polygyny tends to be more common in cultures with a high infant mortality rate, as the survival of the tribe depends on the number of children that reach maturity; fewer men are needed to sustain the population and thus are allowed to have multiple wives.
In the western world marriage has both a civil and spiritual component and is marked by the exchanging of rings worn on the left ring finger. Other cultures might view marriage as secular and strictly a contractual arrangement while other nations might forgo the legal portion and keep it a religious ceremony. Marriage could be marked by rings, bracelets, tattoos, brands, necklaces, etc.
Arms, Art & Leisure
How a culture decorates and adorn themselves and their homes can show how they think and what they value. Natural motifs and subjects such as plants or animals can suggest a connection or nature or effort to meld their lives with green spaces. Abstract patterns can suggest a desire for order or value of symmetry and balance. A lack of decoration and adornment suggest a utilitarian focus. Religious symbols suggest the importance of spirituality to a culture.
What people choose to decorate and adorn shows what is important. In our culture as computers became more and more important we’ve seen a change from plain beige boxes to vibrant and decorative cases with superfluous lights and detailing. While to most it is simply a method of transportation, you can spot the people who love their car as it might be airbrushed or feature a custom paintjob.
Art also includes dance and music. What instruments are played? Do people sit quietly to music or is dancing mandated? Do the songs tell a story (or history)? Is the music happy and jovial or somber and serious?
Armour and weapons overlap with art as there are elements of style and design in both. A culture might have stylized weaponry and armour or utilitarian arms, it might be blocky, crude, or sleek and elegant. The Lord of the Rings movies highlights this well; compare the ugly angular weapons of orcs with the curved and beautiful elven weaponry, or the dwarven weapons with their sharp angles.
Choice of weapons can also differentiate a culture. Such as if they use tool-weapons (axes, picks, hammers), blunt weapons (hammers, clubs, flails), or exotic and unusual weaponry unique to that culture. It sets the tone of the culture being offensive or defensive, or having overt weaponry or traditionally reappropriating tools as weapons.
Lastly there are sports and leisure. How do people pass the time? Are board games the prefered leisure activity or physical sports? Do people participate in team based sports or is competition between individuals? It’s been commented that many early sports were a replacement for war, either using martial skill for entertainment (wrestling, jousting, or archery contests) or to defuse aggression via friendly competition or to keep fit and skilled at violence despite weaponry being unavailable. Early board games tended to be wargames that emphasised and educated strategy.
Other forms of entertainment tended to be violent, such as bear baiting, fox hunting, falconry, etc.
The examples above are a small number of the ways cultures define themselves. Death rites and the view of death, the views of sex and violence, view of wealth and money (and what is considered wealthy), economics, government, and the like. Far more than could be covered here in a single blog.
There are lots of ways of distinguishing a people. There are two-hundred odd cultures on the planet, some with overlapping cultural elements and some with myriad different cultures. There are innumerable subcultures and countercultures on top of that. Attempting to accurately and realistically portray all the cultures in a fantasy world would be maddening.
As such, a worldbuilder must work efficiently, defining a couple key traits for each major cultures, be it a race, a nation, or other. It helps to focus on a couple big and memorable elements of the culture. These should be a little larger-than-life to make them easier to recall. These are essentially a cultural mnemonic
After settling on the culture's distinguishing element(s), use the theme to influence other elements of the culture. Look at how it might impact how the people live, what they like and fear, and be reflected in their behaviour.
A culture with deeply rooted ties to nature might build out of wood whenever possible and use carved vine and leaf motifs in their construction. Buildings might be designed to have large courtyards in the middle with gardens and green spaces. Armour and weapons might have natural designs and patterns. Important events and ceremonies - like weddings - might take place in natural settings, in glades under the sky. Their language might have many natural words and descriptions might focus on nature-based analogies: “as strong as an oak”, “as proud as a mountain” and “as temperamental as the sea”.
While it’s possible to continue the example into food, names, and the like that might not be necessary as the theme of the culture
With little art and constant warfare, the culture of war world is a little subtler. Weapons and armour would be utilitarian, as would most buildings. Art is nonexistent. I have to get creative to differentiate the world and its cultures.
Going with a non-standard food can emphasise this is not just a renamed Europe. I’m thinking of adding tapirs as a common food animal, replacing pigs and cows. Sheep and goats might be common, but more as a source of wool and milk respectively. Guinea pigs might be a source of smaller meals (although I might refer to them as cavy to avoid referring to the nonexistent pig). With food being scarcer - being rationed for troops and supply lines - people cook as much as they can, stewing and food to get the most out of usable meat. With soup, stews, and curries being the default utensil is likely a spoon.
Horses are useful for warfare and a heavy cavalry is vital to winning battles, so fewer horses are used as beasts of burden. Something like water bison or might replace them on the fields and pulling carts. This means riding horses are an expensive luxury and most commoners walk everywhere. Carriages would be exceedingly rare and non-military wagons would be pulled by bison at a slow yet steady pace.
Sports and athletics are unknown and games tend to be military training. Bouts are a common entertainment, with festivals holding archery, wrestling, quarterstaff, and hammer throwing contests. Dueling is also common, with disagreements settled in public on a weekly dueling day. These encourage people to practice their martial skills but are not to the death, either to first blood or someone is disarmed. Dueling weapons are commonly used and typically blunted or made of wood. They’re held publically as entertainment in dedicated spaces, a form of unprofessional and voluntary gladiatorial matches.
Death is a little more common and accepted in a world at perpetual war. It’s just a fact or life. The populace is likely more than a little jaded and accustomed to losing family members. As such, marriage is likely less permanent and widowhood commonplace. Remarriage is common. Marriage is really an extended support system for children; both extended families agree to raise any children from a union, and thus assist the raising of the child after one parent dies in battle.
The population needs to be maintained. There needs to be future generations to sacrifice in battle. The kingdoms cannot wait for people to find love, and once a child reaches adulthood a marriage is arranged by their family. Adultery is common and all but expected, as people invariable develop feelings outside of their arranged marriage.
With some ideas for human culture done, I can brainstorming a few quick traits for the other races. I won’t detail all the secondary races, but provide a few thoughts for the big three and whatever else jumps to mind.
Living for centuries, elves see the world change before their eyes. They have a worldview of impermanence and change. They do not get attached to people, places, or objects because those will only go away. Elves often come across as flighty or removed from the world.
Eves are predominantly left handed (but frequently ambidextrous). Where many other races thing left-to-right, elves think right-to-left. They read starting at right, their alphabet is flipped, and they sort things starting on the right. As such, elves seem to do much backwards, shaking and saluting with the wrong hand. Paired with their worldview of impermanence they are alien and difficult for humans to understand.
Elves do marry but enter into short-term partnerships of cohabitation and cooperation. These relationships typically last several decades and a century at the longest. These are voluntary unless a dalliance results in pregnancy in which case partnership is mandatory. Elves mark their partnerships with tattoos on their right arm representing that person, starting at the wrist and working up as they enter more partnerships. When the tattoos reach the shoulder the elf can no longer marry.
When an elf does swear an oath of allegiance or service they add a tattoo to their arm, showing that they will not marry while under their oath. But as they leave space above the service tattoo, this emphasises their obligation will eventually end. Elves also know they have to pick their allegiances carefully, as all their past oaths are visible on their arm.
Having adapted partially to aboveground life, dwarves eat human food. Those mountain dwarves that live underground make do with whatever food they can scavenge, frequently surfacing when food cannot be found. They have typically lost access to the vast warrens of dwarven fungi, delectable moulds, and ranches of meaty deepworms. Even now dwarves still prefer earthy food: insects, worms, and mushrooms.
Once, before the wars, dwarves divided themselves into extended clans that were sub-kingdoms that were greatly extended families. Marriages were kept inside the clan save for marriages to cement alliances between clans or end feuds, the latter being rare during the times of prosperity and peace. With the fall of the dwarven nation, the clans can no longer stand alone and intermarriage is the norm. Children take the clan of their mother (to guarantee lineage). With so many dwarven men killed in the wars, there are too few males for the females, so polygamy has become common: a male dwarf marries a woman and all her sisters.
The little people survive by staying neutral, going with the wind, and keeping out of sight. Most halflings live quiet lives as the ranchers and farmer who providing food for the owners of the land, or acting as traders and merchants along the coasts and rivers.
Halflings live lives of neutrality and servitude. Even those halflings who become spies and smugglers are indiscriminate regarding their employer. Even thieves seldom work just for themselves but tend to act under the employee of a master thief, a thieves guild, or employer. While halflings have their own desires, goals, and drives they prefer to work under someone. They feel comfortable under authority.
But halflings are not slaves, and a master that mistreats their halflings will discover that quickly as they awake to see multiple small lives in the candlelight.
As they are neutral, halflings are a little more festive than other races. They are fond of lively music using a variety of instruments and dancing. Halfling trader caravans are one of the only sources of entertaining, often offering small shows when they stop for the night and as they trade their wares.
I already decided on the dragon-folk of the north being amoral raiders, akin to Vikings. They sail their seas with dragon-prowed ships. To add some spice to this I’ll make the ships ice, magically preserved when raiding south. They can magically enchant ice to be as hard as steel and many use weapons of ice. As they have endless resources of ice, they can take the time to personalize and carve their weapons prior to enchanting them. They prefer weapons they can attach to wooden hafts (saving their hands from clutching ice) such as axes, maces, and spears.
The dragonmen live in a harsher terrain of ice and mountains and think in terms of the elements. They commonly use fire, stone, ice, and the like as descriptors. The elements are given attributes with earth being steadfast, cold being merciless, water being persistent, thunder being boisterous and boastful, etc.
Wednesday, April 10, 2013, 6:42 PM
Let's start by paraphrasing Winston Churchill: hitpoints are the worst possible system for tracking health except all others that have been tried.
Hitpoints are terrible for verisimilitude and an awful reflection of reality. They’re also not particularly good at emulating cinematic combat.
This old argument has come up again and again (and again and again), most recently resurfacing on various message boards due to the continued warlord debates and the option of martial healing. This seems like a topical discussion to write about.
Are Hitpoints Fatigue or Health?
And no. Here’s an amusing flowchart on the topic.
Jumping right into the debate, are hitpoints a measure of energy, fatigue, luck, and skill? No. No amount of skill can stop a fire from burning you, or acid dissolving you, or diminish a fall from breaking bones. When your hitpioints drop low enough a PC does not faint like a Pokemon, but passes out from their injuries and is in very real danger of death. Likewise, skill at turning blows into scrapes and lesser wounds is of no use against surprise attacks, coup de graces, and the like.
Hitpoints are also tied to Constitution, the representation of physical health. If hitpoints were meant to represent deflecting blows, Dexterity should also be a viable stat to use for hitpoints. Wisdom, representing willpower, would also be a viable stat representing the ability to keep fighting despite weariness.
Additionally, many of the justifications for hitpoints not being health overlap with other mechanics. Skill at deflecting blows turning them into near misses or reducing damage is handled by parry mechanics. Glancing blows that inflict no damage is handled by Armour Class (which itself is an oddity given people in heavy armour are easier to hit given they cannot move). Similarly, powers or bonuses that grant a bonus to deflecting attacks typically give a bonus to AC not to hp.
Many monster attacks rely on physical contact. Attacks that “hamstring” or cause any poisoned imply physical contact of some kind. No amount of skill will reduce being chewed and swallowed by a purple worm. Similarly, attacks that target vulnerabilities must make contact. You don’t injure a werewolf by almost hitting it with a silver weapon. A trolls regeneration is less impressive without actual injury.
There’s also the language of the game. Healing spells are not cure light fatigue or moderate scratches (plus they’re referred to as "healing" ). Hitpoint loss is referred to as “damage” or “injuries”. Alternate means of recovery are called fast healing or regeneration. Being reduced below half hp in 4th Edition is called “bloodied” not “winded”.
But then are hitpoints a measure of physical health? Also no.
Hitpoints increase with skill and experience (i.e. level). A solid sword blow will kill anyone regardless of skill, although a person might survive a couple lesser stabs. In most editions, a longsword wielded by a strong individual can do as much as 12 damage, lethal to a rookie adventurer (usually) but ignorable to an experienced adventurer. Even a wizard can shrug off a full sword blow with enough levels. The sword blow does not do less damage, is not any less leather, and the wielder no less strong, and yet the effect is lessened.
While an experienced adventurer might be more fit than a rookie adventurer, fitness and physical hardiness is fairly independent of skill. An adventurer that spends their days eating rations and sleeping on stone floors for weeks in a dank underground dungeon should be less healthy than a farmer eating three square meals a day in the sun and fresh air.
Hitpoints are also reduced by things that do not cause actual injuries. Fatigue, poison, starvation, and the like do not cause actual physical injuries but reduce a character’s hitpoints as surely as a sword blow.
Adventurers also manage to continue fighting at full proficiency regardless if their hitpoints are full, halfway, around 10%, or a single hitpoint. When someone is beaten half to death, their skill, speed, accuracy, and strength decrease. Even accounting for adrenaline and the short duration of fights in D&D, there should be some minor dip in performance. But there isn’t.
And in the most recent two editions the rate of hitpoint recovery is keyed to level, so you heal faster based on your level of skill. But one’s amount of experience is unrelated to how fast someone recovers from injury.
Hitpoints add a pretty large buffer between alive and dead. There’s no way to knock out a guard or sentry without stabbing them repeatedly. The cinematic single blow to the back of the head is unknown in D&D.
Similarly, capturing a party generally difficult without overwhelming odds. Even grabbing a PC and holding a knife to their throat does not work as PCs generally have a sizable hp buffer.
Because hitpoints continually increase, the game has a damage creep where monsters have to deal ever increasingly amounts of damage to be dangerous, which renders low level monsters unthreatening. And because hitpoints increase at different rates for different classes, the damage needed to bloody a warrior class will all but kill a glass cannon like the rogue and splatter a wizard.
There’s also a need for player damage to continually creep upward, otherwise fights become increasingly long slogs as the party pounds away at a monster’s seemingly endless pool of hitpoints.
Because hitpoints rise and fall it’s a continual source of math in the game. Hitpoints have a high degree of tracking and fiddliness. They’re also seldom dramatic; PCs tend to die at the most inopportune and least dramatic times.
For review purposes, I’ll quickly copy how various editions have defined hitpoints in the past.
Your character's hitpoint score represents his ability to survive injury. The higher his hitpoint score, the more damage he can sustain before dying. Characters who survive long enough to gain a good deal of experience typically gain more and more hit points; therefore, an experienced character lasts longer in a fight or other dangerous situations than does an inexperienced character.
These hitpoints represent how much damage (actual or potential) the character can withstand before being killed. A certain of these hitpoints represent the actual physical punishment which can be sustained. The remainder, a significant portion of hitpoints at higher levels, stands for skill, luck, and/or magical factors.
Sometimes, no degree of luck, skill, ability, or resistance to various attacks can prevent harm from coming to a character. The adventuring life carries with it unavoidable risks. Sooner or later a character is going to be hurt.
To allow characters to be heroic (and for ease of play), damage is handled abstractly in the AD&D game. All characters and monsters have a number of hit points. The more hit points a creature has, the harder it is to defeat.
Injury and Death: Your hit points measure how hard you are to kill. No matter how many hit points you lose, your character isn’t hindered in any way until your hit points drop to 0 or lower.
Loss Of Hit Points: The most common way that your character gets hurt is to take lethal damage and lose hit points.
What Hit Points Represent: Hit points mean two things in the game world: the ability to take physical punishment and keep going, and the ability to turn a serious blow into a less serious one.
Over the course of a battle, you take damage from attacks. Hitpoints measure your ability to stand up to punishment, turn deadly strikes into glancing blows, and stay on your feet throughout a battle. Hitpoints represent more than physical endurance. They represent your character’s skill, luck, and resolve - all the factors that combine to help you stay alive in a combat situation.
Hitpoints and healing have changed between editions.
In 1st and 2nd Edition healing was capped at 1hp per day so non-magical recovery was much slower. And at higher levels hitpoints increased much more slowly with PCs no longer gaining new Hit Dice.
Healing and hitpoints increased in 3rd Edition where a high Constitution granted slightly more hitpoints per level and Hit Dice continued to be added until level 20.
The biggest change was 4th Edition, which more than doubled starting hitpoints but added non-magical healing to the game via the second wind mechanic, use of healing surges during short rests, and the warlord. Characters also heal completely overnight regardless of the percentage of hitpoints lost.
While in earlier editions, abstraction became more pronounced at higher levels when a once fatal blow becomes ignorable, 4e started with some measure of abstraction. Even a critical hit was unlikely drop drop a 1st level character. And based on the choice of healer by the party, hitpoints might entirely be fatigue and energy and not health.
5th Edition returns to lower hitpoints but retains the faster healing of 4th Edition while also loosely defining hitpoints as half health and half fatigue. And it’s uncertain if non-magical healing will be included.
I’ll end this section with a minor cartoon I did in response to hitpoint debates at ENWorld:
Good For Nothing?
With all the debates, why continue to use hitpoints? What are the benefits of hitpoints over other systems?
The primary benefit is the increased survivability of characters. The longer a PC adventuress the hardier they are, to avoid having to start at 1st level again. There’s something unsatisfying about characters being as fragile at tenth level as at first level. Hitpoints also generally prevent a single lucky strike from ending the career of a character.
Hitpoints are also easy to understand. It’s one big pool of numbers. The singular health bar. The lower it gets the more in danger you are of dying. It’s simple to understand and has been adapted widely in most games where you take the role of a singular protagonist. Video games continue to use the health bar, often paired with the even more implausible healing of endless first aid kits.
Hitpoints are also fast. One person rolls, compares it to a static number and if favourable rolls again and then says the result. It’s simple and it’s quick, which is attractive in a game with combat being frequent. There is negligible counter rolling, back-and-forth across the table, or interaction with the result.
Hitpoints aren’t the only method of health tracking found in role-playing games.
One method D&D had tried in the past is separating skill and fatigue from physical health. The most recent attempt at thing was in the 3e product Unearthed Arcana which included vigor and wound points. WP did not increase as levels were gained, as people’s physical health is static. Attempts at this were often problematic because some attacks would target Wound Points, adding the risk of a few lucky hits killing even a high level character. As adventurers are typically involved in many more encounters per day than monsters, WP/VP systems disproportionately punish PCs who can find their Wound Points whittled down over time.
Another option is less health but greater avoidance. So the PC has a more active party in avoiding damage, such as parrying, rolling to dodge. This option works best in fast games where doubling the rolls doesn’t overly slow down combat or variants where the PC roll all the dice.
A similar method is damage soaking, with the PC rolling to resist damage or flat damage reduction. Hitpoints can be lower and increase more gradually, but PCs gain more damage avoidance or ways of reducing damage. But this also increases the amount of rolling and the complexity of basic combat.
There’s also a greater number of outcomes. With basic hitpoints attacks have two results: hit or miss. Once other variables are included this doubles the variables. And adds the possibility of having a PC roll well only to have their awesome moment of glory defeated by an equally good roll from the monster.
The argument over hitpoints reminds the science nerd part of me of the light debates: if light was a particle or a wave. Three centuries of arguing ended up being moot due to wave-particle duality that said both sides were right (and all participants were wrong). The hitpoint debate has a similar needless divisiveness because hitpoints have to represent physical health in some way but they cannot solely represent health. There must be a meat-fatigue duality to hitpoints for them to function.
In this respect, more abstraction is good, as the DM can fudge the percentage depending on what is happening on a round-by-round basis. Using a favourite example, if a PC is hit by a red dragon’s fiery breath and knocked off a cliff where they fall thirty feet into a pool of scalding lava where they float for a few rounds before being dragged out, the PC might only have taking health-based damage. If the PC is instead bull rushed off a shallow slope into a marsh full of toxic swamp gas where they sink into quicksand and almost drown the PC might not have any actual injuries and all hp loss is related to fatigue and exhaustion.
Accepting that hitpoints have to encapsulate both health and skill/luck is pretty reasonable compromise that gives both sides something they want. Which is why it's never going to work...**Shameless PlugCheck out my webcomic at: www.5mwd.com
Updates every Tuesday and Thursday
Wednesday, March 27, 2013, 3:18 PM
This article drifts into an esoteric aspect of worldbuilding. Some articles in this series are neutral in regards to Bottom-Up or Top-Down worldbuilding, applying equally to both. Then there’s trade and economics, a subject that quickly gets finicky and OCD even when building a Top-Down world for mass consumption.
Regardless, it can be handy to know some of the major trade routes of the region as well has how towns and nations support themselves. It’s also useful to keep in mind the economics of the world and the game.
As this is such an esoteric topic, I’ll be covering a couple topics at once to keep things short.
Below are links to the other chapters in this series.
Part 1: The Hook
Part 1.5: Factors
Part 2: Conflict
Part 3: Geography
Part 4: Races
Part 5: Nations
Part 6: Room for monsters
Part 7: Deities
Part 8: Cities
Part 9: Factions
Part 10: History
Part 11: Economics
Part 12: Culture
Part 13: Starting Zone
Part 14: Player's Guide
The basics forces of economics are supply and demand: the value of an item is determined by both the ease of its availability (supply) and the number of people who want the good (demand). High demand and low supply mean high prices while low demand and high supply mean cheap prices.
Excluding monopolies, price fixing, and artificial scarcity. Economics is complicated.
Most D&D and fantasy worlds have currency economics based around precious metals. Rather than barter using goods of equivalent value coins are used. Coins had an inherent value, being made of rare metals that many people want (high scarcity and high demand). Incidentally, this is why many minted coins have ridges along the edges, so they cannot easily be shaved for precious metal filings.
The rarity of metals can vary depending on trade routes and available mining. In the early days of Egypt, silver was more valuable than gold due to its scarcity. After a few hundred years and as trade expanded, more silver crossed into Egypt and the price of silver dropped to half that of gold. While the value of goods is based around the availability of a precious metal, as it is not a closed system it is possible to increase the quantity of said metal. Returning to Egypt, silver is more common than gold yet fetched a higher price locally, so traders and miners were incentivized to mine and sell silver, flooding the market and eventually reducing the price.
In a nation that uses gold coins there will continually be more gold added to the system, decreasing the value of gold and devaluing the currency. This is an inflation of sorts.
Strong governments can prevent inflation through what amounts to denial. They just say their moneys is worth a set amount making the coins more valuable than the metal. This is what leads to counterfeiting. Conversely, if the metal of coins have more value than the coins itself, people are likely to melt down coins for a profit. In response nations will add non-precious metals to coins, making them into alloys.
As hinted above, when coins can become debased, being less than pure precious metals, it’s the implied value of the coin that has worth. There’s often an unspoken a promise that the coin has value and could be exchanged at any time for precious metals of the appropriate value. This is the basis for paper money - also known as promissory notes - which are basically a formalized I.O.U. system. At any time you could take the note to a bank and exchange it for gold, but you don’t as the paper is lighter and more compact than several kilograms of gold.
Things get even more complicated in the modern world which has largely abandoned the gold standard, where money is more akin to stock in a nation having value tied to the status of the nation.
Did I mention economics is complicated?
Services are also subject to supply and demand. If only a handful of people can perform a certain task their skills have limited supply. However, this has a different dynamic than resource scarcity as skills can be trained. This can be artificially limited through strict apprenticeships and trade secrets, but trade secrets are notoriously hard to keep hidden and highly sought. There’s an additional wrinkle in fantasy worlds of potentially untrainable skills, such as the flavour of magic in some worlds and bloodline powers.
A simple way of tweaking a world is to change the currency from the assumed copper/silver/gold coinage. Dark Sun did this with ceramic coins as metal was scarce: the value of silver was so high that a coin had too much purchasing power for common use. Dragonlance also did this by saying the Cataclysm devalued soft, unusable metals such as gold and silver so that only metals that could be used as weapons and tools had value, and the reigning currency was the steel piece.
This is interesting but should be pulled off carefully. Dark Sun is a world of sand and deserts, so ceramic should be easily procured, so the value of a ceramic piece is akin to that of paper money: it only has value as long as people claim it has value. Which works because of the rigid governments in charge of the city states. The Sorcerer-Kings say the bits of ceramic are worth a certain amount and so they are. This didn’t work as well in Dragonlance as the intent of steel pieces is that settlements are isolated and there is no central authority assigning value, yet most items in the game are made of more steel than their cost: a pound of steel was worth 50 steel pieces yet a 4-5 lbs longsword cost 15 steel, so you could make 180-odd steel pieces in profit by melting your sword. So steel pieces were worth more than the actual metal.
Other options might be equally rare items. A world could have the frequency of metals flipped, with gold being more common than copper which is much more rare. Gemstones make a viable alternate currency, as might volcanic obsidian. Currency could be organic, such as clam shells or dragon scales. It could even be something manufactured, such as relics from a forgotten age, like how the world of the Fallout video games use bottle caps as the currency.
For civilized of widespread nations that can have a representational currency, this is an interesting way of distinguishing the world. You can imagine Khorvaire in Eberron having a form of paper money prior to the Last War that still might be used in some cities or nations.
In wilder worlds, money might be less commonly used with barter being the standard method of exchange. In worlds with many rival nations, money from opposed countries might be rejected or have lesser value, or be suspect and treated to extra verification such as weighing. Money changers might be required to convert coins to the local currency, likely for a fee or percentage.
Just changing the denominations is one option, although it does require changing all the prices in the rulebooks. But if you have the time, it can have an interesting effect. Naming coins is also fun and makes currency much more interesting than just the metal. I’m personally fond of the innumerable coins from pre-decimalization British currency where you had the farthing, ha’penny, penny, tuppence, groat, sixpence, shilling, florin, half-crown, crown, half-sovereign, and sovereign and find the names have an interesting effect.
The Cost of Living
When designing a world, it’s a good idea to try and remember that the world is populated by millions of nameless NPCs who all have to earn a living while buying food, clothing, and housing.
Of versions of the game, 3rd Edition D&D had the most solid economic foundation; prices were based around the silver piece, which was established as the amount of money an untrained labourer could earn in a single day. The prices of food and lodging were based on that, expanding upward to more expensive goods.
Adventurers tend to distort the perceived price of goods. Because they have access to vast stores of forgotten treasure - thousands of gold pieces - it’s tempting to price everything in gp, to set the prices based on what a PC could afford. But this quickly makes mundane items staggeringly expensive. A single gold is a week’s salary to a common labourer. As such, most common folk pay with copper coins, nobles might throw around silver, and gold is the coins of the truly wealthy (and dragon hordes).
As a ballpark number, I equate a silver piece with $50, which is close to a day’s earning at minimum wage. A copper is a reasonable $5 while a gold piece becomes $500. The average longsword, priced at 15gp, costs roughly $7500. Getting a sword is an investment not made lightly.
Trade and Trade Routes
Goods have to come from someplace. Few settlements have ample food and water and ore and lumber and livestock. It’s a lot like a more complicated game of Settlers of Catan. Sometimes a player will have all the resources they need at all times but more often trading is required.
Trading and natural resources are a lot more complicated than in Settlers as climate determines if fields are better suited for animals or crops as well as what crops are available, while geology determines if rough terrain is better suited for metal ore, precious stones, or quarried stone. Regardless, Settlers of Catan makes for a handy inspiration and baseline for needed materials. Nations need to have ready access to rough and flat terrain for ore and food respectively, or they need to have a monopoly on something that allows them to trade for what they need, or they need to be able to make do with what they have. While you can’t build roads out of surplus herds of sheep you can opt to build cities out of available materials (stone, wood, clay adobe, sod, dragon bones, etc).
In addition to trade for the goods necessary to survive and grow, trade also occurs for luxury items: fabrics, spices, drugs, exotic foods, precious minerals and stones, magic reagents, slaves, and the like. This is where supply and demand comes in; some nations with have a greater supply of some goods, while other nations will have a lower supply. Thus, it’s very profitable to move the goods from one nation to another. And the farther away the nation, the greater the profit. This leads to trade routes: long roads that lead from one part of the world to another that goods travel along. There are a number of real world examples, such as paths across the Sahara, the Silk Road, the Amber Road, Via Maris, etc.
Sometimes, the nations that solely provides a much desired trade good can become wealthy and potentially survive despite lacking necessary goods, or they might be ready targets for conquest and occupation. Nations and cities on trade routes can also flourish, becoming extremely wealthy . The Islamic Caliphate of around the 10th century flourished in part due to its central location and use as a trade hub (the Islamic empire controlled the tail end of the Silk Road for almost a thousand years until sailing around Africa became viable sometime around the 15th Century).
Economics in War World
As always, when making a world, you must decide if a change will add atmosphere and differentiate the world or if it will only add complexity and detract from the world. I’m not convinced changing coins or currency will help the tone of perpetual warfare.
I already have one form of alternative currency: the nation of Firaxies uses enchanted glass beads to denoted accrued debt. But that works best in addition to a familiar currency.
Instead of changing the type of metal or value of coins, I’ll instead change the presentation and assumptions of the coins.
Gold and silver are useless in a time of war: they’re soft and make poor weaponry. So mines producing precious metals are rare in War World, as nations far prefer to mine iron or the metals needed for bronze. But the coins retain value as gold is still a precious metal but few new coins are minted each year. Instead, most nations are still using the thousand year-old dwarven coins, now worn and dented.
This aids the tone of a world weary from continual war, a world where nations don’t even bother minting fresh coins and everyone is using coinage worn smooth from continual transactions. And it helps justify why nations might share a currency despite being at continual war, so there’s no need to derail an adventure by having the PCs continually visit a moneylender or be considered spies for having a rival nation’s money in their purse.
This also helps justify the other lesser-seen coins: electrum and platinum. These coins might not actually be made of electrum and platinum but be silver and gold respectively but in much better condition and so worth more.
I can justify little trade in War World. It’s hard to trade with someone when you plan on invading eventually, and asking for needed goods exposes a weakness that might be exploited.
The one neutral nation of Firaxies helps with this bringing some trade and justifying how some nations receive their goods. The lack of trade does help push nations to continue their wars, occasionally out of a necessity to capture rarer yet need goods.
This is actually a small benefit. With limited trade this means there is a very limited supply and high demand for non-local goods, which means trade is a profitable albeit risky business. This is the sort of work that attracts adventurers.
A lack of regular trade helps justify the need for PCs. There might be small independant trade caravans crossing between nations that desperately need protection, as the governments cannot get involved. Trade is handled by private merchant companies that have to swear neutrality in the larger wars. This might also be racial, with kenkus, dwarves, and halflings regularly acting as neutral traders.
There might be small satellite communities hidden away that ferry needed resources back to the capitals, but the long supply lines are vulnerable and need additional protection. Reversing this, vital trade lines are a good attack point for elite squads of soldiers like the PCs, and banditry is very profitable for evil parties.
There are the four major regions in the world, one for each of the cardinal directions: north west, east, and south. Each would likely have some trade with each other quarter, being slightly less openly hostile (at the moment).
Brainstorming a few rough trade routes, they might look like this:
I drew some trade routes along the major rivers and roads and along the coastlines, stopping at major ports or at the midpoint between major ports. There are a few places traders would stop where there were no cities, so now knowing there would need to be a supply settlement there I can add cities (or large villages).
From there I opted to graphically illustrate the goods being traded. While I could have used text, I opted for a visuals and pulled some clipart from Microsoft Office.
I placed a variety of trade goods across the map including ore, stone, grain, lumber, livestock, gemstones, a couple types of spices, slaves, fruits, and silk. I could also have added things as mundane as salt, sugar, narcotics, and weapons or as exotic as magic, adventurers, or even dragons.
This all isn’t incredibly useful for the word, especially as far as adventurers are concerned. But knowing the trade routes and economics can help add details. When the party is guarding a caravan crossing through dangerous shifter lands it’s handy to know that they’re carrying gemstones, which are rare in the north. Or when the nobleman talks about their silk tapestries, it’s not just silk but Thiraxian silk from the far south.
Saturday, March 23, 2013, 8:23 AM
The fifth playtest package for 5th Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (or 6th Edition Basic Dungeons & Dragons depending on how you look at it or who you ask) came out a few days ago. While I haven’t had a chance to playtest this yet, I hope to have a chance in a few weeks. But let’s do a little review and feedback based on a readthrough.
Tying skills descriptions to ability checks makes some sense, in that they’re not separate skills but bonuses to ability checks when performing certain deeds. This package emphasises this a little more than previous packages but has some other slight problems.
It could be done a little better. Instead of referring to the "bluff skill" or "spot skill" it could be phrased "you gain skill at bluffing" or "skilled at spot". Flipping the phrasing keeps it familiar yet helps break the mental connection with past editions. But I still think naming them something other than skills would help, such as competency or proficiency.
I’m less a fan of describing the skills with the abilities. First, because the skills are codified and described in such a basic place, it’s a little harder to add new skills. Secondly, because the skills are tied to a single ability score it’s harder to justify applying the skill as a floating bonus to other ability checks. A character cannot make an appeal to reason and apply their Diplomacy bonus to an Intelligence check or bend an iron bar using Strength to Intimidate someone. This is particularly odd for something like Search, which is really just Spot but using a different ability. Someone that’s well-trained at Spot should be skilled at Searching even if not naturally proficient.
I like the addition of being able to learn new skills, but the skill improvement mechanics is unclear. I’m uncertain if all skill dies increase with level increase or just one, and also not clear if new skills learned start at a d6 or the current die. I’m likely overthinking it and the die is static for all skills, but there’s something funky about gaining a new skill at 17th level and having it start at a d10.
There’s still the problem of double skills. It’s less prevalent now with most races and classes granting advantage instead of skills, but the rogue still falls victim to this flaw. Ostensibly this problem goes away if you allow players to pick their skills, but that defeats the purpose of having skills associated with Backgrounds: I like Backgrounds having set lists of skills, as it makes the choice of Background more interesting and important.
I love the stat change to races! It means all dwarves have good Con and all elves are Dexterous, as Odin intended darnit! But the second boost via subraces gives the races some Ability Score flexibility. This is perfect.
I also cannot gush enough about the change to halflings. I winced when I first saw the races as the stout halfling (hobbit) was fearless while the lightfoot halfling (kender) was stealthy. Now all halflings are fearless and the stout gets a different ability, one that also fits its “stout” name.
I also enjoy the return of darkvision to dwarves but I miss stepping up hit dice for the dwarf and weapons for the dwarf (and elf). I would have prefered weapon proficiency granted if the class does not confer it and the damage dice stepped up if the character already has proficiency. But this likely changed due to the problem of stepping up a d12, as the best increase was to 2d6 (the average roll only changing from 6.5 to 7).
Humans still feel a little bland, but they feel a little more in line with the other races. I’d still like an environment-based “subraces” or bonuses to the class. Or even something like a bonus to saving throws.
Overall I’m exceedingly happy with the racial changes.
Maneuvers as Feats
Initial Reaction: NERD RAGE! So much nerd rage. I liked the idea of martial classes drawing from a shared pool of maneuvers mirroring yet contrast the list of spells other classes received.
Secondary Reaction: Well, characters could take the Martial Training feat to gain any maneuver, so they were functionally already equal to feats in terms of power. And with the removal of Martial Damage Dice to fuel maneuvers, they would have looked a heck of a lot like feats anyway. So it’s not a huge change...
More than likely, the designers removed the MDD and changed the mechanics of maneuvers to their current implementation and then realized nothing separated maneuvers from feats save the name. Which makes it just a change of nomenclature. And there was some funkiness in the last couple packages were some options were maneuvers and some options were feats, with a few specialities giving out maneuvers by way of Martial Training.
And it’s better to have one mechanic than two. There’s less overlap and confusion that way. As the list of options grows, you don’t want to slow down things at the table searching for a maneuver only to realize after five or ten minutes it’s really a feat and you were looking in the wrong place.
Although I wonder if it would have reduced the initial gut reaction nerd rage if they’d called them “maneuver feats”. I imagine they didn’t name them that because they wanted to see how viceral the fan reaction would be. Which is also likely why they didn’t explain that change in Legends & Lore or warn us that it was coming; once again they’re poking the community to see how it reacts.
I'm less satisfied by high level play. Advancement just seems to stop after level 10 for most classes. It's just more of the same for many levels. The same effect could be gained by just ceasing leveling-up. I'm aware that after 3e and 4e high level play the designers are tarried of introducing option paralysis. But I feel like they're overcompensating somewhat.
Curiously, darkness is a barbarian’s friend. When not raging they can give themselves advantage at-will while granting advantage to attackers. So, when there’s no light or fog and no one can see, the barbarian (and their opponents) can fight normally. It’s weird but a corner case. (And it gets even better when they hit level 14 and snag Feral Senses).
Feral Instinct is worded curiously. Wouldn’t it be easier to just say barbarians have advantage on initiative checks? Unless this is meant to stack with potential advantage to initiative. I suppose the subtle tactical difference is the barbarian can choose to pick the lower roll if advantageous.
Unchecked Fury needs it’s recharge clarified. Is it the first time you miss in a turn? The first time you miss in a fight? Or the first time you miss each day?
The renamed channel divinity options are nice, with the flavour better captured by the name. The boost in damage at 11th level is nice for the domain options, but I don’t see why it has to jump at that level when they could just have the power increase every 5 or so levels. If they could design the domain bonuses to increase consistently it’d be a nice way of filling out the cleric’s level chart
Domain spells seem to end early, capping out at level 5. It feels like someone forgot to update this list after the package advanced to level 20.
I have surprisingly little to say about the cleric.
I like the basic implementation, where the druid gets shapechanging and spells at first level but gets to choose which it focuses on. I miss animal companions and while I know they’re thinking of an advanced modules that adds them, they are missed. Animal companions all but defined the druid class in 3e.
The Wild Shape ability really feels limited. The 3e version where all your stats changed was a bookkeeping nightmare and far too broken, quickly making the game “find the most broken animal in the Monster Manual”. And I wasn’t fond of the 4e ability of “become any beast, but in name only”.
I think I might prefer a size-based statblock with a few animal-based power sets that you can add. So you can Wild Shape into a medium creature changing your stats but then choose to add “hound” gaining keen senses, or “ape” gaining climb, or “great cat” gaining stealth. Mostly utilitarian powers. And at higher levels you unlock more sizes as well and bonuses. The
Nitpicking the current version of the power, the hound form needs some kind of scent ability. And it should be clarified if the druids attack bonus applies to their animal forms or not. The bear form mentions the ability to climb in the flavour text but this isn’t reflected in the statblock. The great cat form seems superiour to the bear form in most respects, being stronger, more agile, faster, and more accurate. The bear form does more damage on a basic hit, but the great cat has the ability to do 3 attacks each doing 1d6+3 while knocking the target prone.
And like most of the classes, levels 15+ just seem dead. They not only lack a memorable capstone ability but level 20 is a dead level. They just get hitpoints. Whee...
And the fighter returns to having unique abilities!
Here we first see the martial feats. Neat. The fighter gets three. That feels a little low. Although they do have one of the fuller advancement charts so I shouldn’t complain.
I can see Expertise making a lot of people happy. The fighter has a resource to manage and it’s an encounter-based one to boot. Although this makes Combat Surge seem all the more redundant and tacked-on. And oddity is that you can spend an action to regain an Expertise die, but only if you have no die left. I imagine this is so you cannot spend two actions in a row to regain both die, or spend an action in a turn you’re not in a good position to attack anyway.
(Aside: I’d love to see some developer feedback and thoughts in the playtest material. A “we didn’t do X because of Y”. Reasoning and justifications. Some design notes. We get a lot of this during the Podcasts and Legends & Lore articles anyway so having it in a place where the playtesters can see would be lovely.)
I dislike the name “Death Dealer” as a class feature. Would “Superiour Offence” not have worked?
The Superiour Defence options seem to work best in a game where the DM announces the numbers the monsters rolled, rather than when the DM knows the AC of his party. Especially in an edition where the attack and defence numbers don’t change the DM will learn to know what hits and misses his party and will likely skip the “the orc rolls a 17” and just jump right to damage. This means in many games the fighter will use this power and the ability will do nothing, opposed to when they know the odds.
There needs to be a skirmisher variant of Multiattack for mobile swashbuckler fighters. There’s also not a great option for the warlord variant.
Combat Surge feels tacked-on, like we’re really seeing a “surger” Prestige Class tested than the fighter. It was adequate when the fighter had no other resources, but now we have Expertise it seems unneeded and unrelated to the existing mechanics. It might be interesting to have a “burn out” mechanic where the fighter can strain themselves, using all their Expertise dice for either the Encounter or rest of the day for one heroic feat of strength. Or gain extra Expertise dice at a cost.
The first thing I noticed with the mistake in the “Ki” ability description where it doesn’t acknowledge the increase in usage above level 10. Did we even see a monk that only went to level 10?
I don’t have many new comments regarding the monk as it’s pretty similar to what we’ve seen before save maneuvers becoming feats. I dislike the static damage on most of the Ki powers. The 2d6 damage from Vortex punch is neat at level 8, but at level 18 it might be a little less impressive.
I'd like to see some support for monastic weaponry. The standard Asian fair. Plus more fighting styles that evoke real world monks and martial arts. We also need a variant that is slightly less mystical for those who just want a brawler.
I’m okay with the paladin getting spells at first level, although it is a bit of a change. Spellcasting is something the class should do but it doesn’t seem essential.
The paladin gets their own Channel Divinity although a few are shared with the cleric. This is okay, as there should be some overlap. It’s a shame the paladin doesn’t get to choose a god and their patron has no influence. Paladins just seem to serve generic divinity. (“I am Galalot, paladin of vague abstract goodness!" ) Like the cleric and the monk, the paladin’s powers deal static damage. It’s impressive at low levels where a 3d10 radiant smite will devastate a boss monster but significantly less impressive at higher levels. With eight dead levels where the paladin only gets hitpoints, there’s no shortage of places this could be added, even if meant knocking down Deadly Strike by a die.
Paladins being defined by their oaths seems like a solid design choice to me: they’re the class bound by a code of conduct. It’s their defining feature of fluff. I would have liked a little more flavour here, with some specifics on what their Oath entails. Suggestions for codes of conduct, restrictions, prohibited behaviour, and the like. What a paladin can or cannot do, what they have vowed to always do and to never do.
Unlike the paladin, I’m less impressed by spells for the ranger. I would have like a spell-less variant. This could be as simple as “gain a Martial feat” every few levels. But even making sure to include some ranger-specific spells at each level that feel less magical and could be reflavoured as a non-magical ability usable a number of times each day.
I like the approach to favoured enemies (which was first suggested in these blogs). Great minds think alike and it’s flattering to be on the same page as professional designers (but it should be noted the Terms and Conditions of the website do give WotC ownership over content posted, likely to prevent lawsuits over “but I had that idea first!" )
The ranger's stat boosts don't a include Wisdom, which is it's primary spellcasting ability. I'd switch out Con for Wis as an option to gain a bonus for characters that do want to emphasise spellcasting.
As a whole, I’m unimpressed by the ranger. It feels lacking other than a couple generic wilderness abilities and favoured enemy. It needs other minor powers. Maybe something about hiding their own tracks or a Wild Empathy ability that gives them advantage on Charisma checks against natural animals. I wonder if it wouldn't be possible to slip it an extra Marital Feat for a favoured maneuver or fighting style, to allow the ranger to compliment their speciality. So the ranger still needs to take the relevant speciality but they can be that little bit better.
I'll reiterate my point from the last package: the rogue needs d8 Hit Dice. The wizard should have the lowest hp, the "below average" number. Rogues are not as squishy as wizards and need more hp. Being comparable to the monk and cleric in terms of health works fine.
I'll set myself apart from the crowd and say I like the new Sneak Attack. It's functionally identical to the Sneak Attack from the previous package where the rogue sacrifices Advantage to deal extra damage. Only down they can make a Hail Mary attack with Disadvantage. This works nicely from a favour perspective: the rogue is trying to stab a very small and vulnerable target area which should be hard to hit.
I'm not particularly satisfied with the rest of the design, as all rogues gain sneak attack. I wonder if there could be an alternate power to choose from instead of just sneak attack. Or tie it to leveling up. Every odd level you can either increase sneak attack or some other ability.
Blindsense seems like a renamed variant of Feral Senses. I wonder why WotcC wants invisibility to stop working after level 10?
The final 10 levels still feel less like a rogue and more like a mandatory Prestige Class.
Once again, the wizard is an example of a boring, boring class that only gets spells. They get a new power this package which is pretty much more spells, but on a delay so the wizard can't nova.
How about adding some more magical feats and giving a few of those out at higher level? Or allowing the wizard to gain more lore skills as they increase in level?
Having a couple small bonuses tied to tradition would be nice. Maybe the ability to swap out spells?
I'm also not particularly happy with wizard spellcasting for a couple reasons.
First, you prepare so few spells at low levels you'll often be casting the same spell again and again. At level 4 you can have 5 spells prepared (7 if the scholarly tradition is taken) but can cast 9 spells so there'll be two doubled spells. It doesn't leave a lot of space for utility spell. And while you can cast them as rituals it means relying on even fewer spells for combat casting the same spells again and again.
Now, in theory the wizard will be more of a blaster at low levels and memorize utility spells in low level slots as they gain levels. However, this doesn't work well as wizards gain too few spells known each level. Their spellcasting is closer to that of a 3e sorcerer than wizards of previous editions. While at level 3 and 5 they can cast 3 spells per day of their highest spell level (2nd and 3rd respectively) they'll only know one spell at that level. So they're casting the same spell again and again (and again). And you can bet it'll be a combat spell. There's never a time you can learn utility spells unless you're happy with a single combat spell at each level or relying on cantrips.
This goes away in theory if other spellbooks are introduced. But this suggests PC wizards will meet other wizards and places assumptions on the demographics of a campaign. There's also no "scribe scroll" option. The cost is also quite high. The rules say there is no assumed amount of gold, the ballpark estimate it gives is 50gp per adventuring day per level. To copy a single spell into their spellbook a wizard must sacrifice all the treasure they accumulated for that day.
I like the breakdown of time and scale, which is a handy for planning how large you want the area to be.
I’m uncertain about breaking pace into four categories. This seems a little granular. We really just need three: normal, fast, and slow. It’s odd that the fastest travel time (rushed) is the one that matches the expected overland movement rates.
There’s also no discussion I could see regarding terrain’s effect on speed, which seems more like an accidental omission than problem with the rules. I’d just like to see terrains (and the addition of mounts or vehicles) being handled with a multiplier on the distance.
The visibility paragraphs of the Your Outdoor Map section should be clarified for what that means to exploration and hexes. Ostensibly, in a 1-hour turn you should be able to see up to 4 hexes away while you can just about see the neighbouring hexes in the middle of your hex in a 1-day turn. I would have liked Wisdom/spot check DCs to see what the neighbouring hexes are, modified by terrain and height.
The above might help adding a new Exploration Task: scouting. You can scout ahead, gaining a bonus to Wisdom checks to determine the terrain of distant hexes. Speaking of Tasks, I quite like the Exploration Tasks, and the ability to multitask at a risk. I’d like to see a couple more though; with the current 5 it’s easy for everyone to pick a single task and not need to multitask. Extra potential action lead to the fun debate of risking multiple tasks or prioritizing the ones you need. From my times exploring at the table, other tasks include the aforementioned “scouting” as well as “gathering food”. It might be nice to include a “looking for campsite” option.
The Wandering Monster table is fun but I think we need more tables. Not all encounters are going to be combat, and many are flavourful. We need an initial Random Encounter table that leads to either this Wandering Monsters table or a Incidental Encounter table where you might have some other small event occur, such as passing traders, stumbling across a body, encountering a hazard, and the like. But this might work better as expansion or website material where it doesn’t eat into the page count. I do quite enjoy encounter distance is spelt out so simply. Although the possible 200-400 feet away you notice an encounter on a plan is a little awkward: my table isn’t big enough for a battlemap of that size.
I like the simpleness of the rules for getting lost. I also like that it’s independent of direction, so there’s no weirdness such as suddenly going south when you were trying for North. I might risk additional complexity by making the roll a d6 with a doubled chance of going 45 degrees off, so you have a better chance of going slightly to the side rather than the current odds of being knocked right off course.
I would have liked some resting and campsite advice and rules here as well. Just a little something for an oft overlooked bit of the rules.
I like how the game is shaping up and am generally happy with the changes. I’m very impressed with this package and hope they can continue to improve the game.
Now all they need to do is stop major revisions and stick to fine tuning. We need things to stabilize for a couple packages to get the really nuanced balancing done. The fighter has been completely overhauled in every major package. While progress has been made each time the game will never be perfect, just perfect enough. You can look at the entire history of D&D as slow continual tweaking of the classes and rules from the fighting man to the current iteration of the fighter. The game will never be done until it ceases publication. Eventually they will have to call it done and move onto other parts of the game, because if they continue to make sweeping revisions it will be harder to get the nitty-gritty balance just right.
Thursday, March 7, 2013, 6:32 AM
I spent a lot of 3rd Edition playing Living Greyhawk before it ending at the onset of 4th Edition to make way for Living Forgotten Realms. With 4e winding down I wonder what will replace LFR. In an ENWorld discussion on potential replacements one idea was suggested that really resonated: a brand new world. A new setting exclusively for the living campaign.
A New World? Why?!
At first, making another new campaign setting for D&D seems like adding an extra nipple to a male cat: it’s not getting use out of multitudes already in its possession. At last count we have twelve and six half Campaign settings (Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, Mystara, Spelljammer, Planescape, Blackmoor, Dark Sun, Birthright, Greyhawk, Ravenloft, Eberron, and the Nentir Vale plus the quasi-settings of Al Qadim, Maztica, Taladas, Red Steel, Masque of the Red Death, and Kara Tur). Do we really need a thirteenth? Plus, in addition to that wealth of official worlds there are innumerable 3rd Party worlds. To just scratch the surface, I’ll namedrop Paizo’s Golaron, FFG’s Midnight, and Monte Cook’s Ptolus. With all those worlds, what hasn’t been done?
But, the catch is, all the above already have fans. They have people who have made the world their own, who have preconceived notions of what makes a good “Red Steel” game or what the Nentir Vale/Nerath is like. And because people like them, they don’t want to see them altered. Look how people reacted to the changes to Dragonlance or the Forgotten Realms. People have fond, fond memories of the established settings and don’t want to see them messed with.
Because of the above, there’s also a steep buy-in to established worlds. There’s the perceived need to buy read sourcebooks to “get” the world or for the adventures to resonate. With novels and potential decades of canon this only gets harder.
Additionally, because the worlds are primarily the Intellectual Property of Wizards of the Coast LLC, it’s better if they aren’t altered too much, as that can dilute and weaken the property. They need to be left in a state that WotC can publish and republish content every few years to maintain a firm trademark. And because of the risk of losing IP, WotC does not want to open up their established worlds for just anyone to play with and alter.
As such, it’s probably a mistake to make too many changes.
Similarly, not everyone partakes in a Living Campaign. While Living Greyhawk has shown they can be a popular method of consuming the game, Living campaigns do not target the baseline audience. The vast, vast majority of the player base will not consume the game via organized play. So pushing fans of a campaign setting to partake in a Living Campaign is not a good idea, nor is leaving the fate of said campaign world in the hands of people who might not be the sole or even the most dedicated fans of the setting. This goes double for worlds such as Dragonlance or the Realms that have a dedicated novel reading audience that does not consume any of the gaming material.
(Aside: For the above reason, I’ve always been disappointed by WotC’s decision to base their recent Events - like the Rise of the Underdark story - around D&D Encounters, which seems like an especially niche slice of the fanbase, keeping the story away from the majority of players.)
Benefits of Newness
A brand new setting has several strong benefits.
First, players will have no preconceived emotions related to the world. They won’t be attached to people and places and what happens in the Living Campaign won’t affect their homegame. Similarly, there will be no established flavour or canon that the campaign can get wrong. And the buy-in can be very low, such as a single cheap sourcebook or even a couple short PDFs.
Second, it doesn’t interfere or affect WotC’s ability to release their products, such as attempting to coordinate tie-in books or fiction, or the future publishing of that world.
Third, the fans of the world can make the setting their own.This final point is the huge one.
While Living Greyhawk ostensibly could change the world, none of its changes would be canon, and so there was a “why bother” sense to ang changes. And, as a result, very little really changed. Major NPCs and kings were not killed or replaced. Rary and Mordenkainen were never in danger of death. While one of the selling points of Living Forgotten Realms was that the actions of the player characters would have meaning and events referenced elsewhere, this proved too hard to coordinate and manage. As novels needed to be written a year in advance of publication it was not possible to schedule with the more quickly produced modules.
A brand new world would (read: should) be primarily defined by the players. The staff and volunteers making up the campaign could partially define their own regions and make their own grand stories, establish their own conflict, and create their own places and NPCs. Regions could change as the result of the success or failure of their modules and the core plot of the campaign could change depending on the outcomes of tournaments and limited specials.
Suddenly, world leaders can die, the conflict in the world can change, the world can progress, and players can dramatically influence the world.
It’s also makes the campaign very responsive to planned events. If WotC wants to emphasise the drow one year, the module writers could have a year-long event with the drow invading the surface across the continent, with regions under actual threat from the Underdark. Failure could impact the world with entire cities enslaved or devastated. Or the fight being taken to the drow, ending their threat for a generation.
Handling Regions in the 21st Century
One of the hooks with Living Greyhawk and Living Forgotten Realms was that adventure writers were spread out via real world geography: in-game regions were associated with real world regions. It made LG interesting as regional modules could only be played in certain regions (and, eventually, online if half the players were also of that region). This feature was mostly superfluous in LFR as regions just denoted who wrote what adventures with no other benefit (other than only competing with other writers in your region rather than the entire world).
This was neat but it also meant that Living Greyhawk play lived and died based on the activity of the local playerbase, and not just number of players but their willingness to write and skill at doing so. This also meant if the actively writing members of a region prefered one play style the non-active players would be limited to that style: the meta-regionals and the majority of regionals in my area were notorious for being PC meat grinders because a chunk of the playerbase really liked challenging adventures.
However, with virtual tabletops being more accessible and technology being more omnipresent in gaming, do regions have to be limited by meatspace?
A more interesting approach might be to remove physical regions but go to a faction-based system, akin to guilds in MMOs: groups earn power and reputation the more modules completed by affiliated members. This is similar to the method used by the Pathfinder Society Organized Play Program, but could vary through the addition of player-created groups. Players establish a group requiring a minimum number of members and perhaps completion of a special module, and then attempt to grow in power. This does require a little setup and maintenance, although it could equally be handled by emails as by automated processes.
It would be even more interesting if these factions possessed territory based on their membership and number of adventures completed. There could be other perks, such as tying the ability to write modules based on the power of the faction. In essence, this means the factions that successfully play the most adventure get to write more adventures and are rewarded by having more opportunities to play. Factions can also be designed around the type of adventures people want to play, so players can join factions that write adventures they like.
There should still be the equivalent of Core modules, generic adventures that can be played regardless of faction, but these might be limited in number encouraging people to join large factions.
It’s a neat idea that does require a lot of set-up, a large player base, some dedicated staff (i.e. paid), and likely a specialized web service. So one of the few gaming companies that could handle this would be Wizards of the Coast.
Bug into Feature
Continuing my wild unsubstantiated and crazed brainstorming, the problem with all organized play campaigns is the non-linearity and soft continuity. It’s quite possible to play adventures out of order and have the effect before the cause. (“The dragon of Thornwood is rampaging.” “Funny, I just killed him.” ) It’s also possible to play at the same table as someone who did the same deed as you but not together. (“You killed the dragon of Thornwood? Funny, I killed the dragon of Thornwood.” ) Or even different completely results (“Odd, I thought the dragon of Thornwood escaped.” ).
I wonder if this could be made into a feature of the campaign. Something less odd and more a part of the world. Such as a campaign where time and the present is not right and reality is flux, where events repeat or diverge before solidifying. Everything actually is happening at different times over and over again until a consensus is reached.
Because it’s so funky, this would have to be a major feature of the world.
Does it HAVE to be New?
Here’s the catch, the world should be unfamiliar and open enough to allow the players to make it their own, but it doesn’t have to be unconnected to established worlds. One option is setting the campaign on an unexplored continent or region of the world.
With this in mind, it might be possible to continue Living Forgotten Realms via Abier. There might be modules that take place on the traditional Forgotten Realms (such as the Core modules) but the rest of the campaign would be on a separate region the players can influence, possibly trying to conquer or explore this new region for familiar nations or factions.
This does have the problem of making LFR not actually about the Forgotten Realms anymore, preventing familiar people and places from making an appearance.
Another fun oddball idea might be the Birthright world, which has a number of continents that might house an offshoot campaign. Given the narrative of that world is feuding kingdoms blessed by gods, it lends itself well to players being able to establish their own kingdoms. The more more important a faction the more it grows in Regency and territory.
This has the same problem as moving LFR in that you lose all the benefits of having a familiar setting and name, but without even having the familiar name. However, Birthright has a smaller fanbase so this will be less noticeable while still having a name many gamers will recognise. It also lacks the negative associations many gamers have towards the Realms.
Just some musings, but I like to think there's some fun ideas there.
Wednesday, February 27, 2013, 3:05 PM
Many aspects of worldbuilding have an instant payoff. The very first descriptive words of the Hook can establish the tone, nations and cities quickly establish the backdrop, racial or class limitations drive character creation, and large chunks of the plot can be driven by factions and pre-established conflict.
And then there’s history.
History is important for establishing the “why”, it drives the reasons for much of the current conflicts and stories. But most of it is entirely in the background. While players interacting with a campaign setting might ask “why”, for the most part history is deep in the background, the unseen foundation propping up the rest of the structure.
For settings planned for publication, history is a necessity. DMs and people using the world need to know the “whys” to make use of the world. But for personal campaign settings, histories are a lengthy time-consuming self-indulgence. The players in the campaign are unlikely to see 90% of the world’s history. Time spent working out past dynasties, old wars, fallen kingdoms, ancient disasters, and the like is time that might be better spent doing anything else, from writing adventures, fleshing out nations, or spending time with loved ones.
This does not mean you should ignore histories. They do serve a purpose. This also does not mean you should never write a lengthy history, you should just be aware who you’re doing the work for and why. If it’s because you like writing lengthy histories and knowing the full nuances behind current events, then that’s fine. Happiness can be a rare and fleeting thing, and if writing histories brings you joy then that’s reason enough to continue.
But, then again, you shouldn’t just ignore the history of your world...
Below are links to the other chapters in this series.
Part 1: The Hook
Part 1.5: Factors
Part 2: Conflict
Part 3: Geography
Part 4: Races
Part 5: Nations
Part 6: Room for monsters
Part 7: Deities
Part 8: Cities
Part 9: Factions
Part 12: Culture
Part 13: Starting Zone
Part 14: Player's Guide
Given writing lengthy histories is not entirely time spent productively, how much time should be spent planning and outlining past events?
First and foremost, anything relevant to the story should be be known, at least to the DM. Anything the players are likely to ask about should also be known. Anything immediately relevant to the backgrounds of the players should also be planned.
Tolkien makes for a solid example. The world of Middle Earth has an expansive and detailed history. Much of this bleeds through in the narrative where we get glimpses of other stories, and hear songs of past events. But little of it is relevant to the actual plot, and much of excised in the film adaptation as it is mostly irrelevant. The backstory Gandalf provides early in the novel has the majority of what we need to know: there was a war that the bad guys lost and there were Rings of Power with one being tied to much of the Big Bad’s power. While Gandalf goes on a little long, there’s much more he also doesn’t say. We don’t need to know of Morgoth, the Maiar, or the Silmaril. And while the movies omitted much of the extra backstory from the songs and poetry, there is still a sense of history: there are the ruins of fallen keeps, statues of old kings, and other hints of a larger, older world.
A good campaign should have the same sense of history as the Lords of the Rings. The DM should know the history the PCs need to know and will (eventually) have explained to them. And they should also know that little extra backstory behind the main history. The rest is all flavour. A good DM only need know the basics of their entire world’s history, the broad strokes and rough outlines. With the skeletal outline known, gaps and details can be filled-in as needed, improvising answers to player questions or adding more details as necessitated by the direction of the adventure.
Recycling my analogy from the Introduction, think of an an archery target. The bullseye is the present and recent past, where the most detail is required. This includes the backgrounds of characters and adventures as well as the events surrounding the main plot of the campaign. In the bullseye, timelines should have annual or even monthly entries. As you move away from the bullseye time period, details should become lighter. Entries in the timeline might come once a decade and there might be lengthy gaps where no events of importance occurred. This does not mean nothing historical happened, just nothing of relevance to the story. Beyond the middle rings of the archery target are more distant events. These should be the distant foundational events of the region. Timeline entries should cover whole centuries with entire generations being glossed over. The outer ring is the most distant of events, the creation and early years of the world. This is likely little more than myth, the age before history or before the current races developed civilization.
A Lengthy Example
Using a real world example, imagine a story set during World War II. The relevant history could potentially stretch back to the German Empire of the 1870s but practically everything prior to the end of WWI can be glossed over. So the 1920s to 1939-ish is the bullseye period. Relevant events are the worldwide economic depression and the resentment the German people felt over the Treaty of Versailles. A timeline might have details of the major battles and involvement of nations since the start of the war with some details of Hitler’s rise to power.
In the next ring come the details of the Great War, Wilhelm II, the Germanic Empire, and the broad strokes of European politics for the past few hundred years. This is mostly handy for the background information, such as Nazis referring to a “Third Reich”, the relations between the major nations, the establishment of the economics that would play a role, etc. Books can (and have) been written on the subject but for the campaign a couple paragraphs are more than enough.
The more distant history is largely irrelevant to the story. Rome, Greece, and Egypt are functionally irrelevant to a WW2 tale (to say nothing of the Mongol Empire, Chinese Dynasties, the Mayans, etc). But for someone unfamiliar with Europe a rough understanding of the prior two millennia helps to paint a background picture. Such as the ancient ruins in Italy and western Europe, which are far older than anything in Germany. Or how despite being allies in the current war - and the previous two major wars - England and France have a rivalry and mutual dislike. Some knowledge of the prior 500 years is also important for race relations, with the lingering inequality and racism.
Now, while I said the ancient Roman and Egyptian empires were irrelevant save for scenery, this might not necessarily be true. The lore, history, and myth surrounding Egypt tied heavily into Raiders of the Lost Ark. But not much knowledge is really needed, just that Egypt was once a great empire that built fantastic monuments in what is now desert, and that they were tied to the early days of a now prominent religion who lost many relics in those lands. In a campaign emulating the adventures of Doctor Jones, greater knowledge of antiquity might be useful, but for one archaeology-based adventure in a WW2 campaign just a brief note of Egypt and the Hebrew people is enough.
Summarizing, a timeline for someone unfamiliar with European History for a WW2 campaign might have monthly details for early 1941, summaries of most of the years from 1920-1940, summaries of the decades from 1800-1920, of the centuries from 1200-1800, and some notes on each millennia from 1000 BCE to 1000 CE.
The time before history spans from 200,000 BP to 7000 BCE. While much happened during this time, including the domestication of crops and animals and inhabitation of North America. Really, prehistory denotes the time before written history. There’s no uniform transition between prehistory and ancient history. Prehistory can be as recent as 3000 BCE, as not all cultures developed writing at the same time (or wrote on substances that withstood the passage of millennia).
In a fantasy world, prehistory would be the period before the current dominant cultures rose. Prehistory might actually be well recorded, just not by traditional or surviving races. This might be the time of fallen empires of now-devolved lizardmen or the Age of Dragons. The history for the elves might begin several thousand years before human history.
Prehistory is the age of legends and myth. It should include some origin tales and creation myths. This era should be less timelines and more prose, and it should be light on specifics and hard details. Everything should be expanded and distorted after ten-thousand years of telling and retelling. The stories should have truths, half-truths, and lies pretending to be truths.
It’s tempting to expand this section into a full-blown mythology but very little of this will be relevant to the players. However, it maybe help establish the tone of the world, and sometimes campaigns have a story seed in prehistory.
This era spans from roughly 5000 BCE to 500 CE. It’s the era of antiquity, of Sumer, Egypt, Greece, and early Rome. The history can be pieced together but there are gaps filled with legends, although much is known about the more recent periods.
This is the foundational time of history. The nations and regions of this era are long gone and the prior ones have been forgotten. The current nations share little with the the empires of this era except territory. The more recent nations might be common knowledge but other might be more obscure, known only to the educated.
It’s handy to think about this era from a D&D worldbuilding perspective. This would be the era of grand fallen civilizations that have left relics and ruins across the continent. Or, in other words, this might be when many ancient dungeons were built. This is likely the stereotypical time of forgotten magic and lost knowledge when magic items were crafted, artifacts forged, and wondrous relics were fought over and lost.
After thousands of years, only the most memorable events would survive to the common day, often those attached to stories of oft-told legends. Scholars might be able to learn more if pressed, the common man likely has large gaps in their knowledge. Few people can name more than a half-dozen Roman rulers but everyone knows the basics of how Julius Caesar died.
The covers 500 CE to 1500 CE and is otherwise known as the Middle Ages. The feudal and medieval periods ending at the Renaissance.
This is a tricky period as your standard fantasy world would take place in an idealized generic era roughly similar to the 1100s to 1400s. But for our purposes, Middle History would be any time 500 to 1500 years prior to the present, the time between antiquity and the modern age.
This would be the period when familiar elements before to form. Many of the prominent nations and regions during this history might still be around in some form, either having slowly grown in power or beginning to stagnate and collapse. The precursors to other modern empires would have risen and fallen during this era, the vacuum of their passage leaving room for new kingdoms. This would also be when the great cities of the modern era are founded and begin to grow. Some long-lived organizations might have also been founded at this time. While the buildings of the previous era are likely ruins, the structures built at this time might still be in use.
From a worldbuilding perspective, it’s easier to write this period last. This time frame connects the current era with the ancient world. Knowing how things start and how things end, this period is a matter of filling in the blanks. It’s a deliberate gap that can be used to help justify the current state of the world.
This would be the period from 1500 CE to the Present. In our world it’s the most recent five-hundred years, but can be any time after a significant change radically altered the world. In our case it was the Renaissance but in a world akin to Medieval Europe it might just as easily be the Rise (or Fall) of a Rome-like empire or the Black Death. Other examples might be a great war or a massive natural disaster such as a great earthquake, supervolcano, or drought. Anything that serves as a stark before/after distinction for an entire region or continent. At the same time, this break between what came before and the now should be several generations in the past. Anything that occurred during the lifetime of the current population is simply too recent. Without the benefit of a few decades of hindsight it’s hard to tell if an event really changes everything. For example, World War II and the creation of the atomic bomb might seem like a paradigm changing event but the following fifty years were not that different in terms of squabbling and competing nations.
Elves and other long-lived races do make this tricky, as their “recent history” will be very different from the humans. It’s tempting to use elves as the baseline then, setting the change several elven generations back. However, the benefit to having long lived races is their greater knowledge of the past and variant perspective. Really, this depends on which race is the focus of the campaign. In a humanocentric world humanity should determine how far back “recent history” begins, while in an elfocentric world it what is recent might be many hundred years older.
History in War World
I’ve already decided that the modern history of War World is a period of endless warfare that has stretched back a thousand years. With what I’ve written above, this stretch can be divided into two periods: the recent wars and the older wars. The time prior to the continual warfare would be the ancient history, half-remembered by most and forgotten due to its seeming irrelevance to modern life.
The Obsidian Age: I’ll start with the distant time before history, which I’m calling the “Obsidian Age”, a counterpart to the iron and bronze ages: instead of stone, there was obsidian. Mostly because it sounds cool. I have nothing else planned for this era so I just need a simple hook to hang ideas from and “obsidian age” works.
In the distant past (pre-prehistory), the primordial gods and their titans were more active in the world, with fire and earth being particularly combative, sometimes with each other and sometimes with the dragons and other powerful beings that roamed the world. Dragonfire and primordial flame blasted the landscape creating battlefields covered in black volcanic glass. As the battles quieted (or moved to other worlds) the young races spread and turned the remnants of the ancient battles into tools of hunting, agriculture, and civilization. For untold centuries, humans, elves, and halflings wielded obsidian and spread across the face of the world.
The Obsidian Age ended when the dwarves emerged from their mountains, bringing iron and knowledge of working stone. The oldest writing were the dwarven runes, carved into enduring stone.
The Time of Peace: The Time of Peace is a bit of a misnomer. There was war, but as the war had an end and there were generations without conflict this has become known as the time of peace.
This will be the standard fantasy antiquity. The various races (dwarves, humans, elves, and gnomes) worked together and built fantastic structures across the landscape. Modern generations marvel at these ancient cities and ruins, with their curious aesthetics and impractical designs being planned for something other than defence. This allows for ancient ruins in otherwise unexplored regions, possibly with forgotten lore and secrets.
There should be a couple fallen empires that ruled during this time. Dominant forces akin to Rome, Netheril, the Baklunish Empire, or Thassilon. Your standard source of ruins that people can look back on fondly and wistfully exclaim “those were the days” despite potential barbarism.
A dwarven trade empire might be fun, an empire built not on conquest but on economics. The dwarves dug deep in search of gold, gems, and iron then sold their wares across the continent, establishing trade cities wherever the terrain was mountainous enough. They built vast highways both aboveground and below to better ferry their goods across the continent.
I know war has to explode sometimes so I can look for ways to set-up conflict. The dwarven trade empire works perfectly for this because it keeps the peace but doesn’t prevent subtle conflicts such as espionage and sabotage. Rival nations have to play nice or risk upsetting the dwarves and being alienated from trade, which allows tensions to build under the surface.
I’ll also stick an empire on the the southwestern subcontinent, mostly because that area is lacking in the present. Having the current civilizations built on an ancient empire adds some flavour to an otherwise bland area. And having a powerful empire there encourages travel across the mountains. This empire was a human nation that spread to the limits of that region before becoming blocked by water and mountains. Unable to easily expand, the empire focused on monumental public works while the empire slowly stagnated until it collapsed (as nations that do not continually expand are wont to do). But not before establishing strategic passes through (and underneath) the mountains.
The Time of Peace ended when the wars began a thousand years ago. I’ve already established the dwarves lost their wars, so they make a lovely first victim of the war. The dwarves expanded too far, and the edges of their territory began to be assaulted by goblins and orcs. The straight highways the dwarves had built allowed enemy forces quick and easy travel between dwarven cities. At the same time, the dwarves delved too deep and more subtle menaces from below emerged. Troglodytes or aboleths would be an interesting threat, as would other aberrations (kuo-toa or mind flayers) but any subterranean menace would be interesting. I’m going with kuo-toa as they’ve always been implied to be a major menace yet few worlds have had them play a significant role. So the dwarves faced kuo-toa with troglodyte shock troopers.
Busy defending themselves against the threat from below (which, given the depths and darkness, only the dwarves could face) the dwarves entreated the elves to defend their flank from the goblins and orcs. The alliance worked well until the drow returned, engaging the elves (massive coincidence or coordinated by the kuo-toa?). This forced the elves to withdraw their forces, ending the alliance and dooming the dwarves.
The dwarven empire ended and hordes of orcs and goblinoids spilled from dwarven tunnels spreading across the land. With many nations reeling from the sudden assault, rivalries flared as the opportunity for revenge or conquest presented itself.
War had begun.
Aside: A limitation on worldbuilding is your potential audience. For the subterranean menace I mentioned above I mentioned multiple different races. Kuo-toa are my first choice, however, they are classified as “product identity” by Wizards of the Coast and not included in the Open Game Licence. If I were to consider writing-up War World, either as a free world on a website or as a sellable PDF product, I would be unable to use the kuo-toa. But if War World were limited to my personal homegames then the kuo-toa would be usable.
The New Wars: I’ll skip over the intervening middle era to establish an outline of the present. I already know the major power nations: there’s Kaledon, Guimarn, and Firaxies. In addition, there is the animal husbandry nation to the south, a couple elven nations, and the conquered nation to the east of Kaledon. I also mentioned a fallen empire to the south, at the edge of the subcontinental mountain range.
Recent history (within the last hundred years) includes the the occupation of the northern elven kingdom and Kaledonian conquest of its neighbour. The elven occupation should be roughly a century ago, while the Kaledonian victory could be much more recent since it’s still facing resistance. I’ll put that fifteen years ago.
The fall of the southern nation was a big change, and could be the big event that signaled a calendar change, as I presented that as a formidable opponent that took multiple nations to bring down. But I think it should be a little more recent, only a couple centuries back.
From there I can add the foundation of empires, the rise of current rulers and the like.
With the southern nations busy with their own war, I’ll have Guimarn conquering its northern neighbour and expanding its territory around the same time. Guimarn might not have originally been a military dictatorship nor might Kaledon have been ruled by a death knight. I can have the ascension of those figures also be events in the recent history.
I can also have assorted open wars. Kaledon and Guimarn should have regular warfare that has grown cold in recent years. The most recent should be a generation or so ago, so the nations’ forces might be replenished and ready for conflict to resume.
The Old Wars: I’ll start by thinking of a transitional event between the current era and this older middle era. It needs to be something large that stands out on a continental or national scale. The eradication of the gnomes is one possibility. However, given how key the old dwarven empire has become in the past (the War World equivalent of Rome) its final fall might be a transitional event. For much of the “Old Wars” era the dwarves were fighting and defending their homes and there might have been this optimism that this was temporary and the dwarves would win. No one expects the millennial-old status quo to just end. I want the dwarf nation to be shattered and ruined generations ago, much farther back than the start of the modern era. So the transitory event might be the definitive fall, a point-of-no-return. Such as the destruction of the dwarf capital. So over the centuries of the Old Wars period the dwarf empire was fragmented with cities isolated and cut-off from each other, with city-states and regions regularly falling or being abandoned over the years. But it wasn’t until the 0-year when the vast dwarven metropolis, the center of dwarfdom, finally fell. Rather than allow orcs, goblins, and other non-dwarf races to occupy their city the dwarves sabotaged the massive support beams that held, collapsing the entire city over the invaders. The orc and goblin hordes were decimated in the process, changing the dynamic of the surface wars. The sinkhole created by the catastrophe also ruined mountain passages and disrupted trade routes, causing even more disorder.
Beyond that, the Old Wars period is marred by numerous other wars. The elves withdrew to face the drow. The gnomes fought their losing wars with the kobolds and giants. Several long-dead human nations eradicated each other after the dwarf-enforced peace ended. A few nations might have been destroyed by extraplanar threats such as Fey or demons.
At this point I’ll brainstorm a timeline. Arbitrarily I’ll have the modern era start 400 years ago. 413 to end in a familiar number. Which means the middle era runs from -600ish to 0.
I’ll start by establishing the dates of the events mentioned in the sections above and adding some other important events.
ME (modern era) 413: Current Year
ME 398: Kaledon conquers its neighbour.
ME 397: Ceasefire between Kaledon and Guimarn
ME 361: Hostilities resume between Kaledon and Guimarn
ME 353: Ceasefire between Kaledon and Guimarn
ME 325: King of Kaledon becomes undead
ME 321: Guimarn attacks Kaledon
ME 313: Elven nation occupied.
ME 295: Military coup of Guimarn.
ME 277: Current King of Kaledon takes the throne
ME 251: Guimarn conquers its northern neighbour
ME 247: Southern Nation crushed
ME 226: Nation of animal husbandry begins half-orc breeding program
ME 186: Kaldeon established from union of city-states against southern nation
OE -1: The dwarf capital of Dwarfhome falls.
OE -11: The siege of Dwarfhome begins.
OE -46: A number of villages amalgamate into the city of Nespirc.
OE -658: The Great Betrayal. The drow attack the elves
OE -670: The Dwarf Wars begin
Looking at my sample timeline, I can see where there are gaps. Not much happens between 0 and 150 so I can squish events like the gnomish genocide in there.
ME 168: The gnomish bastion of Gnomehold falls. The Gnomish Purge ends.
ME 116: Deciding to make a stand, the gnomish people gather in defendable location: Gnomehold.
ME 54: The Kobold Principalities begins its Gnomish Purge.
That said, it’s good to leave some gaps in the event of future great ideas, rather than trying to force said idea into a packed timeline.
If this were a full campaign world, I’d expand the timeline by thoroughly describing the most recent years (411 and 412) and then add rough details of the major events every year or two from 380-410. After that we have notes for every decade from 300-380 or so. And then just the highlights prior to that. The idea is to create some adventure hooks for yourself and set-up future conflict and stories.
Here’s a brief idea what that might look like:
Late 412: A general on the Guimarn War Council dies suddenly. There are rumours of assassins hired by Kaledon, possibly as preliminary step to invasion, but possibly also due to rivalries in the Council.
With an opening in the War Council, lower-ranking generals begin competing for a promotion by demonstrating their worth.
Miners unearth a forgotten dwarven outpost in the mountains. The small keep looks intact suggesting it fell quickly or was abandoned early in the wars. Although, it could have been abandoned even earlier for now forgotten reasons.
The winter was mild suggesting the rivers and northern seas might be quickly free of ice. This generally means the northern dragonborn raiders will be more active.
Mid 412: The summer storm season is more violent than usual and several tornadoes tearing through Kaledonian farmland. Many agricultural zombies are lost suggesting food might be low that winter.
There is a rash of murders in Nespirc, all identifiable due to the removal of the victim’s eyes. The initial deaths go unnoticed in the slums, but the killer soon spreads into middle class neighbourhoods. As suddenly as they started the killings end.
ME 400-410: The draconic rulers of the Kobold Principalities begin to rouse. Shifter tribes raid northern Guimarn until repelled. Kaledon and Guimarn quietly rebuild and position their forces in preparation for the next war. The Nespirc Fraternity’s civil war ends with a new Elder Brother chosen, although the Thieves’ Guild is still disorganized.
ME 390-400: The second Kaledon-Guimarn war ends with a ceasefire so Kaledon can focus its forces on its other neighbour. Mage Colleges from the western coast begin to open in the East. The Fraternity in Nespirc loses its Elder Brother to disease without a clear successor; the Fraternity falls into internal violence. An attempt at unionizing the guilds of Nespirc ends in violence.
A good campaign setting is not akin to the thought-experiment of Schrodinger’s Cat: events should not be dependent on the PCs being in eyesight and things should change, unfold, and progress in the background. The world should be a dynamic living place. Knowing the history of the world helps set-up the events of the future, in addition to giving a background to the adventures of the heroes just as it helps provide background flavour and justifications for the world being the way it is.
Saturday, February 16, 2013, 2:59 PM
With the design of 5th edition still underway, I wanted to rant a little about the ability (or rather the current inability) to add PC classes to monsters. Being able to make an orc into an orc fighter is pretty vital to my enjoyment of the game, mostly because making a classed creature equates with the DM’s ability to make NPC opponents.
This is a topic with some baggage, which needs to be discussed and acknowledged: past attempts have led to preconceived assumptions of what mixing classes and monsters means.
What Has Come Before
Almost no monsters had classes in the first couple editions. You had monsters and you had PCs and the rules were sketchy when you tried to make an encounter with say human fighters or an evil necromancer. You could add classes to some humanoid monsters, and creatures like orcs were often given their distribution of classes and levels. This was always a little awkward as it was presented randomly, so you could create an orc encampment as a random encounter with a chieftain and his bodyguards and shaman. But adding classes to monsters was not quick and the rules for doing so (and awarding xp) were a little muddled. And, like all encounters prior to 3e, determining the challenge of the encounter was nebulous.
3e unified monsters and PC rules: the math was the same and all the numbers worked together. Classes became a common way of customizing and tweaking monsters. If you needed a monster to be a slightly higher CR then you could add a couple fighter levels. This was most common with the humanoid races, who needed class levels to advance. 3e also allowed monsters to be modified by adding Hit Dice as well as by templates. Templated were fun and allowed the DM to easily make a creature celestial or vampiric or a half-dragon and removed the weirdness of earlier editions where the Hit Dice and powers of a creature would radically change when it became a vampire or werewolf.
The downside to the 3e version, was the math. Monsters were as complicated as PCs and there was a lot of finicky bits that existed to make some more arbitrary aspects of the design work. Building a high or even mid level orc opponent was a lot of work: there were feats to track, skill points to add, stat bonuses to consider, and generally a whole lot of mathematics. It was a long, slow process. Templates, while ostensibly simple, also often required a fair amount of rebuilding and math, being very time intensive. Changing something as simple as the size of the monster meant recalculating its ability scores, factoring in skill bonuses or penalties related to size, grapple bonuses, reach, and the like.
4e dropped the idea that PCs and monsters had to share math and rules, and also dropped adding class levels to monsters. Instead of adding class levels to increase or decrease the potency of a monster, 4e allowed DMs to rapidly increase or decrease the level of a monster. 4e also kept templates, which were used to make monsters elite or a solo. There were also class templates, which adding a dash of class flavour to a monster while also making them an elite or solo. Late in 4e they also added monster themes, which were pretty much powers you could add to a monster to give it a particular tone or make it fit a particular area. These were great although underutilized, only appearing in a couple products.
The disadvantage to the 4e system was that making something like an orc fighter meant you either added a template (giving the monster a larger role in the combat) or you had to design an entire monster from scratch, which could be just as math-heavy and time intensive as adding classes to a 3e monster. The needs of a good elite or solo were also different than the requirements of a classed monster. As bad as many early elites and solos were, templates were worse and did a poor job upgrading monsters to elite status. And because classed monsters were at least elites, there was no easy way to pit the party against a rival group of adventurers... excluding designing a party of unique monsters from scratch.
The 4e books were also bad at teaching DMs how to design monsters. It explained the math but most but much of the subtleties were lost or unexplained. As monster powers were often designed very differently from PC powers, it was less easy to just port over powers.
All of this made NPCs difficult to design.
There are a few reasons why adding classes to a monster is beneficial. First, it allows for much greater available resources. Instead of being limited just by the options of the monster books, the DM has all the resources of player books at their disposal. DMs that buy player-centric books get a use for that content, an excuse to actually use their purchases.
This can also help mitigate PC power creep. Instead of having to rely on continued new monster books with upgraded options, DMs can use PC options from newer sources that might be of a higher power level, turning power creep against the players. Similarly, optimized PCs can face opponents of equal challenge and potency.
There’s also an advantage to known commodities. The same classes have existed for forty years because they’re evocative and descriptive. Creating a new variant of the bugbear such as a “bugbear cuthroat” or bugbear footpad” is simply not as elegant as just having a “bugbear assassin” or “bugbear rogue”. Classes carry narrative weight.
Similarly, monster power X blends into monster power Y. Unless the players have read the Monster Manual or the DM stops to read power aloud it has limited impact. It’s just mechanics and it’s difficult to put flavour into monster stat blocks without killing space. In contrast, fireball or channel divinity or bull rush are recognisable, they are known by their names which are evocative enough to need no other description, but also player books have the advantage of being able to pair flavour with mechanics without having to fit everything into a single succinct statblock.
Additionally, sometimes you don’t want a monster. Fantasy fiction has a history of evil wizards, corrupt rulers, and other human opponents. 4e struggled with this, having each be a unique monster rather than customizing existing monsters. There were dozens of different orcs all of varying levels in addition to XXX humans and YYY elves. Short of having pages of human or generic humanoid monsters in the Monster Manual, NPCs will always, always have to be constructed. Relying on pre-built monsters drastically limits options for human-centric games, such as urban campaigns or worlds without a myriad of intelligent humanoids.
While it’s possible to reflavour monsters as humans, this isn’t always satisfying. Why would an NPC warrior - especially one like a common town guard - know a maneuver impossible to the fighter? Why would an apprentice wizard be able to cast a spell unknowable to a high elf wizard?
This always reminds me of RPG video games (typically J-RPGs) where you sometimes fight a character before they join your party and they kick the entire party’s butt and use moves they somehow forget once they become a party member.
(Aside: This is one way relying on pre-built adventures and internal playtesting might fail the game. The designers are comfortable enough with the rules - and skilled enough designers - that any difficulties making NPC opponents are unnoticed. And initially, DMs will default to designing adventures around the content available. Absences tend to be noticed in longer lasting campaigns, when the story dictates something that might not exist.)
The Option of Complexity
The catch with adding classes to monsters is that it must be simple. 3e and 4e both failed with this endeavour. And the challenge provided must be more accurate, something that was hard to guage in 1e and 2e. As such, there really needs to be a few different ways of customizing monsters.
We need the simple levelling up and down of 4e, so DMs can quickly and effortlessly tweak the difficulty of a monster. The simple customization of monster themes is another simple way of tweaking monsters that should be included and emphasised. Monster themes should replace much of the design of templates from 3e (and 4e). Celestial, fiendish, and draconic creatures could be easily handled by dropping powers onto a monster, possibly paired with an increase in level if needed. Some class options could be handled by themes, giving orc, humans, or even mind flayers a dash of fighter or wizard.
For DMs who want more granular control and have the free time, there could be more complicated templates that rebuild monsters and methods of adding classes to monsters. This might (read: should) be closer to the multiclassing rules. Monsters don’t need the full range of class options and just need to be recognisable as that class through the use of familiar powers and class features.
Lastly - given monsters and PCs have completely different math - we need complete monster building rules. This is because NPCs in combat are designed like monsters, and sometimes you need a level-appropriate evil king, a necromancer, or something as bland as a town guardsmen or innkeeper. And, really, I’d like a Monster Manual filled with chimera, hydra, and dragons and not dozens of assorted NPCs across multiple level bands. An important note regarding NPC design just including the math is not enough. We need advice on what powers to include, what to avoid, what powers work best at higher or lower levels, how PC powers differ, and the like. Little things like “don’t give incorporeal monsters attacks that weaken” or the possible effects of giving a monster multiple Martial Damage Dice when paired with a lucky crit.
Heck, a regular bi-monthly article on monster design wouldn't be a bad idea.
Obviously this all needs to come later, when the rules are in a more solid state and the monster math has been finalized, but it’s worth thinking about now before the game gets too far along.
Wednesday, January 30, 2013, 3:40 PM
I've recently been reading the Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding, a book that isn't so much a step-by-step guide to building a fantasy world (like this blog series) and instead essays on a variety of topics related to Worldbuilding. While I feel comfortable that my blog doesn't overlap entirely with the book, I was reminded a huge foundational topic I overlooked. Oops.
So I'm writing this and squishing it in between the first Part I: The Hook and Part II: Conflict.
The continent of Westeros and Faerun are both fantasy settings. As are the Tablelands of Athas and the ringed city of Sigil. All have similarities: people earning a living, falling in love, fighting, dying. And yet, the differences between A Song of Ice and Fire, the Forgotten Realms, Dark Sun, and Planescape are massive. But none are pure historical dramas; all four settings have magic, magic users, and at least one dragon. What separates them is a matter of degree.
There is not a single factor separating the four example worlds. Fantasy settings have three major variables: power, fantasy, and magic. If the Hook is the foundation the world is built upon, these variables are the framework of the house that establishes its shape and defines its limits. When designing a fantasy setting it helps to know how these three variables influence your world, and the degree of each variable. In short, you need to know how fantastic the world is, how powerful the inhabitants are, and how much magic there is in the world.
Sometimes the Hook of a world will pre-determine one or all of these variables, like Dark Sun. The requirements of the a metal-scarce post apocalyptic D&D world where the familiar becomes unfamiliar place constraints on the world’s variables. Other times they're largely independent of the Hook. Birthright is defined by kings literally having a Divine Right to Rule, so its variables are unconstrained.
This is part one-and-a-half in a series of fantasy world building.
Below are links to the other chapters in this series.
Part 1: The Hook
Part 1.5: Factors
Part 2: Conflict
Part 3: Geography
Part 4: Races
Part 5: Nations
Part 6: Room for monsters
Part 7: Deities
Part 8: Cities
Part 9: Factions
Part 10: History
Part 11: Economics
Part 12: Culture
Part 13: Starting Zone
Part 14: Player's Guide
Magic Versus Mundane
One of the safe baseline assumptions of D&D is that there will be magic. Magic is primarily what separates D&D from being a historical or alternative history role-playing game. However, the amount and commonness of magic does vary. The variables are not absolutes; the choice is not between no magic and magic. There’s is a spectrum, ranging from no magic on one end, all-magic on the other with the majority of worlds falling somewhere in the middle.
The perceptions of the common man are a good determinant of the frequence of magic. If someone were to walk up to the average person and cast a minor spell, how would they react? In our world, it would be impressive. Mind blowing. There would be denials. Most people would dismiss it as a trick as the mere existence of magic defies our world view. Ours is the ultimate low magic world. Even in a world where magic exists, such as the world of Harry Potter, casting a minor spell would astonish and stun the average person as magic is rare and hidden. However, to someone living in Eberron or Ptolus a dash of minor magic is something they might have seen dozens of times. Casting a magic missile would be akin to pulling a coin from behind someone’s ear: not everyone can do it but it’s not that impressive.
Westeros from A Song of Ice and Fire is very low magic: most inhabitants have never seen magic and many doubt its existence. Most D&D settings have much more magic than Westeros, but there is still a range. Depending on the DM, Ravenloft can be comparably low magic, with few spellcasters and each magic item a unique treasure. The heroes of Dragonlance have no shortage of magic, but they're the exception as the common person doesn't see much magic beyond cantrips that could just as easily be sleight of hand. Even in the Forgotten Realms, the common person cannot cast spells and might see only a handful of examples of true magic in their lifetimes. On the far end of the spectrum, in Eberron magic is common and everyday. People are used to enchanted brooms that do the cleaning and streetlights of perpetual magical light.
A side element to the commonality of magic is how much of a science magic is. Is magic like a formula where anyone can cast a spell if they say the right thing and move their hands a certain way? Or is it more like an art where precise repetition and mimicry is not enough? Or is it an innate, inborn talent that only certain people have? Or is it some combination of the above?
This is handy to know from a world building perspective. If magic is a skill anyone can learn if they practice hard enough yet magic is rare, then why? Is the skill tightly controlled? Such as being licensed or only taught by masters to apprentices? Conversely, if magic magic is everyday but can only be cast by certain people - such as those with draconic or fey blood - what does that mean? How do so many people have faerie blood? Are dragons super promiscuous?
Fantastic Versus Realistic
The overlooked middle-child of world building is the amount of fantastic elements. This is often bundled into magic but there’s enough of a difference to warrant separate discussion. Magic describes how people react to spellcasting, to the amount of magic in their lives and the world. In contrast, the fantastic relates to how realistic the world is, how similar the setting is to our world. A world where every town has a spellcaster and every king has a court wizard might be moderate to high magic, but if there’s little else separating it from medieval history it is less fantastic. A world where there is only a handful of true wizards but flights of dragons battle armies of griffons for control of floating islands would be low magic but very fantastic.
Two good examples are Westeros and Dark Sun. Neither are bristling with magic yet both are particularly fantastic settings that are unlike our world. Westeros has irregular seasons that last for years at a time while Athas is a burnt wasteland of deserts and badlands. The frequency or even absence of magic would not make their world more like ours.
The fantastic can apply to the world itself, its inhabitants, or both. Fantastic settings are where the natural laws of the world are very different from ours. This can be the inexplicable or scientifically implausible (winters that last for years, flying islands, the seas turning to black sludge) or the rational and scientifically known (a tidally locked planet, a world with two suns, an ocean world with limited land). Fantastic inhabitants includes the number and frequency of monsters and magical beasts, such as gryphons, dragons, and the like. But it would also apply to intelligent creatures with differing abilities, such as a world where everyone is telepathic or has wings.
Again, there is a range of the fantastic. Despite taking place in the empty space beneath the surface of the world, life in Hollow World isn’t that different from life on the surface. It’s fantastic but not dramatically so. In contrast, Sigil is a city inside a ring and has no farmland or extra building materials. It’s possible for someone to live a mostly normal life, but eventually having to import food or being unable to readily travel will have some impact. SpellJammer is the far extreme. Life for the average person may be recognisable on ports, but only just. The setting is so fantastic as to make lifestyles generally unrecognisable and even the most mundane tasks will be impacted by the setting.
Like magic, the level of the fantastic is best evaluated by its effect on the common folk and not the PCs. Heroes tend to be extraordinary and encounter creatures outside of the norm. Even in a low-magic and low-fantastic setting the PCs might still regularly stumble across the wondrous. As heroes, they’re exceptions to the rules. There might only be a dozen monsters in the entire continent, but you can bet the PCs will somehow stumble into each and every one of them. This is somewhat like the Cabot Cove Syndrome from Murder, She Wrote where, because a protagonist live there, a small, sleepy fishing village featured abnormally high murder rates, higher than the national average by an order of magnitude (according to estimates, during the run of the show, the town lost 2% of its population).
High-Power Versus Low-Power
The final variable in the structure of the world is the power level. How potent the monsters are, how powerful the heroes that fight them are, and generally how epic the world is.
This variable affects the common man a little less than the others, as generally they are always out of their depth when facing monsters. The slight difference of having a slim a chance against a beast if they’re lucky or if they should just run and hope they escape before being disintegrated by the beast’s mere presence is lost on the average town guard. A world’s power level determines how far above the common man the player characters are assumed to be. It’s based on the danger of both monsters and the world, the scope of the threats they will face.
In terms of monsters this would be the frequency of magical beasts, especially powerful ones. A world filled with dragons isn’t necessarily a high power campaign if most are barely the side of pony and the largest is a little larger than a clydesdale. Terrain also plays a part. In a world where just venturing outside the walls of a city is dangerous, heroes have to be that much more potent. If half the world is covered in poisonous brambles that can kill with a scratch then only the hardiest souls risk the wilds.
In addition to the amount of danger posed by the world, the number of high-powered NPCs, organizations, and foes also influences the power level in the world. How powerful are the movers and shakers in the world? How powerful do the PCs have to be to influence the world and be considered major players? What level were the great heroes of old, and the current warriors of renown? If all events worth caring about are influenced and orchestrated by rival cabals of century-old wizards then the power level of the world skews high. If the Jaime Lannister and Lancelot are level 6 than the power level is likely lower.
This can best be thought of in game terms. In your world, what is the best starting level? Or, for systems that use point buy, how many starting points are characters given? This can vary based on game system and edition: 4th Edition PCs are a little more potent and heroic than those of most other editions. Likewise, many game systems have fragile characters that never really becomes that much hardier.
Pathfinder has the additional wrinkle of the Mythic ruleset, where characters of any level can become more formidable: in addition to regular levels PCs gain Mythic ranks that increase their power without just increasing the numbers. This makes for a lovely design tool. In some worlds, characters should just be Mythic, the stakes are just that much higher and things are that much more dangerous.
Once again, Dark Sun is a good example. In 2nd Edition, Dark Sun characters started at level 3. Folk in Athas were just tougher than people in other worlds. It’s a high-powered world. Over in Ravenloft, the setting tends to work best at low levels when characters would be fragile and have reasons to be afraid of what lurks in the dark. PCs in Dragonlance used to be forcibly retired around level 15. In contrast, in the Forgotten Realms it often seems like you need to have a level in the teens to do anything noteworthy.
Recent worlds have tended to push away from the epic. Eberron has very few NPCs above level 10, so players have more chances to shine. Paizo’s Golarion tends to assume anyone above level 12 is a power player in the world. This is not universal: Kobold Press’ Midgard is decidedly epic (or Mythic given the system) with such places as a desert where Great Old Ones wander,
Setting Your Variables
Deciding on the variables of a world are largely a matter of taste and desired tone tempered by the amount of time willing to devote to customizing or hacking the rules.
Certain types of campaign and store lend themselves to different worlds. So the first step is deciding what story or stories you want to tell with the world. The plight of the common man tends to gets lost in sweeping epics, so if you want to have small personal tales keep things less powerful. If you want things to seem familiar and relatable, rein in the fantastic. If you’re going for a big budget summer blockbuster feel, going low fantastic and/or low power does a disservice to the story. For those wanting to leave reality farther behind, more fantastic and magical worlds also lend themselves to escapist stories.
Also consider how you want the PCs to be perceived. High powered and high fantastic campaigns can diminish heroes and make the PCs seem less special, while adventurers stand out more in less fantastic and grittier worlds. It’s also easier for PC magic users to stand out in low magic worlds where just being able to wield magic is extraordinary.
Not every game system is going to easily translate into a particular range of variables. D&D can be tricky to finesse into low magic given three-quarters of the classes eventually gain some manner of magic. It is even harder in 3e and 4e where magic items are assumed for a character’s power level. Likewise, as the majority of opponents are unnatural it can be hard to make the game less fantastic. If running a game using Cortex by MWP or Legend of the 5 Rings system by Alderac Entertainment, it’s harder to make the world more fantastic (given the lesser bestiaries) or for characters to become more powerful (give the fragility of characters in those systems). These issues are not insurmountable, but making new rules and hacking a system takes time & energy (and skill & experience) so often it is easier to work with the strengths of a game system.
The Variables of War World
The Hook of my example setting is largely independent of the variables. I have the freedom to do whatever I want. Although, the foundational Hook can still inspire and guide my design.
For example, the perpetual warfare does suggests either high powered beings pulling the strings of nations to keep the world fighting or a lack of high powered characters who could put a stop to the warfare. However, the horrors of war and its effects on the populace are more easily emphasised in a lower powered world, where the heroes are not so far above the common man. A low powered world would also mean the PCs have a greater chance of influencing the world and generating a ceasefire.
I want the wars in War World to be the responsibility of people. They’re not being tricked or manipulated, magic is not involved. At some point every nation was given the choice to fight or stop fighting and they chose the path of violence. I’d also like the option of focusing on the impact perpetual war has on people. As such, this pushes me to a lower powered world.
I also want the focus on the world to be on its Hook. Floating earth moats, armies of dragonriders, and other fantastic elements distract from the perpetual war; the differences between War World and our world stand out more if the main difference is the warfare and not some other fantastical x-factor. But I want some fantastic elements so I’ll go closer to the middle, the assumed baseline of the game. There are monsters and dangers but they’re not omnipresent.
Magic is tricky. While a high level wizard could obliterate an army, because the world is low-powered this is not an issue, so magic could be common. Unlike Eberron which has had enough periods of peace for the magical tech to spread, War World might view magic as a weapon and less offensive uses of magic are uncommon. For this world, I’d like magic to be mysterious yet a skill anyone can learn. I’ll equate it with dance or other arts: anyone can learn to dance if they practice long enough, but some people just have natural talent. But how common it is - how many people know magic well enough to teach - is the big question.
A sneaky secret is that I don’t have to pick one option at the exclusion of others. With multiple nations and regions in the game, there can be some places with more common magic than the baseline. Some nations might be more magically focused while others might view it as the weapon of the enemy or too dangerous in the hands of civilians and restrict its use.
As a baseline I’ll have magic be rarer but not unknown or uncommon. There is magic and many people have some talent but there are few masters to unlock their potential.
And those are the variables of War World, reflecting my personal biases and leaning to the stories I want to tell. A low-powered world with a less fantastic setting but some fantastic creatures and moderate magic ranging from rarer to uncommon depending on the nation.