Previews of the Playerâ€™s Strategy GuideÂ have hit the website, teasing us with a very different 4e book. Itâ€™s funny with comedic and cartoony artwork as demonstrated by the cover art of Mike aka GabeÂ from Penny Arcade. What strikes me is this is a book on optimization, an entire play style is being given an entire book. I wonder if any other variant styles of play will see full books devoted to them. I very much doubt it, but this blog is devoted to what they could contain.
Firstly, I always laugh at the phrase â€ścharacter optimizationâ€ť. Itâ€™s such a retroactive attempt at rebranding. Similar to how they keep rechristening senior homes or people with disabilities. Or how Trekkies suddenly decided they wanted to be called â€śTrekkersâ€ť instead. The problem is never the actual term but the associated connotations. You can say â€ścharacter optimizationâ€ť but you mean â€śpower gamingâ€ť, â€śMin/Max-ingâ€ť, or being a â€śmunchkinâ€ť.
Iâ€™ve blogged about power-gaming beforeÂ and stand by my assessment that power gaming is a disruptive play behavior but one that is sanctioned and approved. It strikes me as ironic that a play style that hastened the end of an edition (3e, which was brought down by its imbalance and ability to abuse) warrants its own books.
But, whatever. Optimization isnâ€™t inherently problematic by itself, and only truly becomes disruptive when it becomes detrimental to the party or impacts the fun of other players. It actually makes sense to have a book like Playerâ€™s Strategy Guide so players who might be less adept at optimization can compete or work with their skilled peers and not feel left behind or even detrimental to the party.
A Role-Playing Book
No, I am not talking about the April Foolâ€™s product. Although, that they though a book on role-playing was so inherently funny they built a gag around it doesnâ€™t suggest they hold role-playing high in their respect.
But a book on role-playing could still be a good idea. First, because role-playing is often removed from the actual game, itâ€™s actually new-edition friendly, allowing it to be re-printed or re-published at a lower production cost. Secondly, it would serve as a good selling feature or entry-level book, bringing new players into the game by showing what D&D could do that few other games can or bring back old players by demonstrating the new edition isnâ€™t just miniature combat / a WoW-clone/
A role-playing book should contain advice on creating memorable and interesting characters, touching on such topics as mannerisms (physical quirks or habits), attitude (happy/sad, optimistic/pessimistic), background (what you did before, how you became an adventurer), and such. It could give examples of personalities or associated traits, such as those found in personality tests.
It should also give advice on role-playing your character well, which can be important to players new and old. For example, itâ€™s tricky to make a character that has personality quirks that are not so complex or subtle as to be unnoticed, never coming up in play OR that are not so distracting as to detract from the rest of the play experience. A good character is memorable yet doesnâ€™t require constant action to maintain. Players new to role-playing might fall into the trap of playing a character that is so quirky as to be exhausting. There is also that very, very fine line between memorable and comedic, and it leads to a disappointing play experience if your serious and loved character becomes a source of unintentional comedy for the table.
It might be nice to see some advice on characters that shouldnâ€™t be played, such as the well-worn exception-to-the-rule PC (good drow, friendly dwarf, sullen gnome, etc). Generally this is when a player wants to play a character whose sole personality trait is that they are non-standard or played against type, often because they feel it makes them special. One of my DMs tends to refer to such characters as â€śpink ninjasâ€ť to emphasize the conceptâ€™s silliness. Likewise, given D&D is a team-based game the stereotypical â€ślonerâ€ť personality is also a bad choice. I love Batman and Wolverine as much as the next comic nerd, but they just donâ€™t work well in D&D.
Backgrounds alone are worthy of pages of discussion from the bad and overdone (avenging the murder of family/ village is the main offender) or "backgrounds" that are really giant adventure hooks for the DM, almost forcing them to move a campaign in that direction. And there are also the novel-writers that produce dozens of pages covering three-generations of their PC's family, all likely irrelevant or contradictory to the intended campaign world.
I could probably devote two or three blog posts to scattered RP advice alone, and D&D is just my hobby not my profession.
An Exploration Book
Unlike a Role-playing Book, a book on exploration would be geared to DMs and could include mechanics and rules.
The emphasis of the book would have to be making exploration regularly and consistently fun and entertaining, and tips to avoid letting it slide into a boring slog. The principle complaint against exploration is that it can be boring (agreed), but the very same complaint can be levied against combat. Baseballâ€™s seventh-inning stretch has nothing on D&Dâ€™s sixth-round slouch. This works to the advantage of 4e. This edition worked hard to remove the 5-minute work day by providing PCs with many resources but increased the length of combat so a single game session was unlikely to have more than three combat encounters. Unless the PCs are involved in a multi-session adventure, they're likely to rest between games, requiring DMs to create harder encounters to compensate for a party's resources or ask the players to remember what powers/abilities they had expended between sessions (Read my full blog entry on this Here). By adding short exploration encounters the DM can invisibly extend the length of the adventuring day and diminish PC's resources decreasing the need for notoriously long higher-level encounters just to challenge a party.
Keeping with the Delve format of modern adventures, the book could be a series of rooms without monsters or overt combat, instead being filled with interesting features, new terrain, and dangerous obstacles to be overcome. Item powers, as introduced in DMG2, could feature prominently in such a product. Variant traps would also be a good idea, such as ones that are less useful as features of combat and have a higher damage output but don't descend into repetitive and unnecessary Thievery checks to disarm. Instead, skills might just offer new options or change the conditions of the trap instead of outright negating its existence.
A book on the subject of exploration should give examples of good adventures or arcs in all three tiers of play, highlighting how exploring a ruin-filled vale at Heroic levels is different from a steaming jungle in Paragon tier and a forgotten astral dominion at late-Epic. Things that challenge and impede a low-level party might be speed-bumps for a high-level party, and a good book should outline how challenging things should be for certain level bands, much like how the DMG lists appropriate falling heights by PC level. A series of rocky terraces along the side of an ancient giant's ziggurat might slow a Heroic party with uneven skill at Athletics but even at low Paragon tier it should warrant little more than description and a short paragraph of Grey Box Text.
And that's all I want to bore you with for now. I feel I've made my case for why the above could easily be turned into 160-page books, or at the very least 64-page accessory books. There's alot of material and advice on those topics, and currently most of that is being handled by the competition or fan community. More often than not, when I need advice on a D&D topic that is not new player powers I turn to blogs and Podcasts and not the official products, and that's a shame.
Â I hadn't really planned for this blog, having intended a different entry that I decided didn't fit my theme and needed more work. This was the last-minute replacement, though-up to get some ideas out of my head and committed to the digital.
That's it for this week. Next week I'll do 2-4 odes to campaign settings, saying what makes them interesting and why they should be in 4e.