Thursday, August 2, 2012, 12:42 PM
4th Edition was sold with the digital tools. Much of the initial hype was predicated on the suite of digital offerings. The initial presentation had demos of the tools. WotC cancelled the printed copies of Dragon and Dungeon so as to tie them into their electronic offerings. The print copies of all of the Core rulebooks advertised the existence of the e-tools & magazines wrapped up in a package known as "Dungeons & Dragons Insider" or DDI. The little red DDI logo is pretty synonymous with 4th Edition, being attached to users and articles.
But DDI had troubles before it even launched. While WotC continued as if nothing was wrong, months before the launch they scrapped everything that had been done and started again. When the tools were released they were good, but two never made it out of beta and a couple were replaced with online equivalents.
Now 4th Edition is over. The last 4e book has been released and we can look forward to months of edition neutral content. However, DDI is still heavily mired in 4e, with adventures and content still exclusively using that system, and the tools still exclusively 4e (the one edition neutral tool having been cancelled). There's very little draw for the lapsed gamer or fan of older editions, i.e. the people WotC are currently trying to attract.
As the fans start pulling their funds away from 4e and saving or thinking about 5th Edition, can DDI survive?
We've already seen a couple bits of DDI vanish. One of the early selling points of DDI was "exclusive content". There would be DDI-only playtests (such as the barbarian) and DDI-only classes and races. Sadly, much of this content has been republished. There was the Dragon and Dungeon annuals and Heroes of Shadow that republished a race and class. Powers from the various online products have also found their way into published books.
While DDI subscribers were once the go-to playtesters, even this was abandoned in the lead up to 5e. In an effort to cast a wider net and make the playtest more accessible, the D&D Next playtest required no subscription and subscribers didn't even get an earlier sneak peak.
The problem with exclusive content is the lack of support. The goal behind 4e was "everything is core" with no side classes or races that wouldn't have content in later books. Like the Warlock in 3e or the ninja in 2e. However, since an option was exclusive to DDI it couldn't be supported in later books. There were no gnoll feats in Divine Power and no assassin options in PHB3. Which would be fine if there were regular updates on content, but WotC is really good and forgetting options and focusing on new content and ideas (which is good for a gaming company but less good for a publishing company where selling-out larger print runs is good).
The Virtual Table
The biggest selling point of DDI was the Virtual Table. Initially envisioned as a 3D game space it was released as a 2D version three years late. Then it was cancelled after just a year.
It wasn't really a surprise as it had languished over much of that time with few updates, and with many of the updates removing options and features. At the end, there was no way to easily share content (as that feature was removed) making it hard to learn and slow to start-up, and only featured cloud storage with a hard cap on the amount of content that could be saved.
For over half a year nothing was done with the tool. Which was sadly typical: get the project to the "good enough" phase and then move staff to other projects.
The VTT was finally cancelled for "lack of support". A curious phrasing that might mean "lack of updates" (suggesting WotC could be blaming the outsourced company that made the VTT) or alternatively might mean "lack of users". Of course, the diminishing users can also be partially attributed to the lack of regular updates & fixes.
There's also the transient nature of WotC's marketing pushes: if someone were offline for a two-week period last year they likely wouldn't have heard of the Virtual Table unless they went looking for it. Like much of D&D, the VTT it wasn't promoted after the initial hype. While books can manage with significant build-up followed by nothing – as they're visible on shelves or as suggestions on Amazon – a digital offering has to be continually in the public mind. And there is an upkeep cost that makes continual interest and demand necessary.
Thankfully, it sounds like the company that helped make the VTT is taking up hosting, as described here. (No word from WotC on the matter, so I'm hoping it's not a scam or elaborate hoax.)
Dragon and Dungeon
I don't foresee the magazines lasting long.
With 5e not ready to be released and not generating any funds, WotC is likely haemorrhaging money on staffing: too many paycheques and not enough profits. There have been layoffs every year for the last half-decade and 2012 is likely to be nasty. When looking at the people on staff there's going to be a hard choice between the people generating content that makes some money (DDI) and the ones generating content needed to make money next year (5e). Likely both will see cuts, but cuts to DDI will likely hurt the magazines the most. The e-mags are an easy thing to lose, as WotC can dump the editors, the people doing the PDF layouts, reduce bandwidth costs, and shrink the costs of having to maintain & update the server. That's a lot of money saved without diminishing the quality of any physical products. And with the magazines gone, the staff needed working on the other tools will spend less time having to update to match the online content (or will also be reducable).
The magazines have been languishing for some time. Let's look at page counts by year(ish):
Dragon issues 364 to 375 had a highest page count of 103 a lowest page count of 66 for a median of 85 and a mean average of 83.
Dragon issues 376-87 had a high of 119 a low of 86 with a median of 85 and a mean of 83.
Dragon 388-99 had a high of 103 and a low of 66 with a median of 85 and a mean of 84.
Dragon 400-11 had a high of 156 and a low of 30 with a median of 93 and a mean of 61. However, if you exclude the extra-large anniversary issue the highest issue was 100 pages for a median of 65 and a mean of 52.
Dungeon issues 155 to 166 had a highest page count of 136 and a lowest page count of 79 for a median of 107 and a mean average of 112.
Dungeon 167-78 had a high of 116 and a low of 84 with a median of 100 and a mean of 105.
Dungeon 179-90 had a high of 93 and a low of 73 with a median of 83 and mean of 80.
Dungeon 191-200 had a high of 167 and a low of 47 with a median of 107 and a mean of 77. Again, there's an anniversary issue there. Remove that and the highest page count is 111 for a median of 79 and a mean of 69.
The average issue length (mean) of Dragon held pretty steady at the mid-eighties until the most recent year where the average page count dropped by twenty-five. Conversely, Dungeon has been dropping steadily since the start, likely due to its DM-focus which is difficult in 4e without having endless monster articles.
(Disclaimer: I'm only counting the PDF of similar type content for page counts and not all of the web-only non-subscriber content. I've apparently misplaced a few issues and articles as well, so this might not be 100% accurate and the averages might wiggle a bit depending on the page count of those months. As my 4e game is on hiatus – and I'm not currently collecting a paycheque – I'm reluctant to re-up my subscription to check my math.)
The frustrating thing is there's no reason for this. They have tonnes of articles just sitting around waiting to be published. I've written something for Dungeon which whose final draft was submitted almost a year ago and still hasn't seen print, and I'm sure there are many similar articles and pieces. And the submission period following that (the fall one) I had at least one submission rejected because a similar one had already been accepted, which I've set to see published.
According to the editorial, the last round of submission pitches were for next year, so the editors must have all the articles for 2012 already finished and awaiting formatting and publication. There were three Dragon issues in the last six months in the 30-page range and they couldn't pull from future articles to pad and just approve a few extra articles from the most recent submission drive? Okay, some of that is likely due to the limited time of the development team to tweak and polish mechanics, but, looking at my many back issues of the magazines, so many fun articles had very little mechanics or were larger concept or advice pieces.
Of course, there might be another reason at work. If DDI is set-up as self-sufficient, with the number of subscribers directly paying for the amount of content, then the shrinking magazines might reflect the dropping number of DDI subscribers. Fewer DDIers means less money to pay for articles. Which is a horrible vicious circle: DDI subscriptions drop so they have to cut magazine content which leads to more subscribers leaving. Scary thought.
The Character Builder has had its ups and downs. It was downloadable and adequate, before being improved to pretty-darn-good then cancelled for the online version that started more bare-bones than the original builder. Only now, at the end of 4e, has the Character Builder almost caught up and become fully functional.
Sad that it's very likely to go away with 5e. The edition seem very, very different and the code will have to be written from scratch. With that in mind, WotC would be very foolish not to move away from Silverlight to HTML5 and tools that can be used on mobile devices (especially smartphones and tablets).
While the upkeep cost of the Character Builder is likely negligible, and will get even smaller once they stop having to make regular updates, it won't work with their current edition and won't be making them money.
This will likely piss off pretty much every 4th edition fan and current player, really alienating the fanbase and is probably the worst thing WotC could do. At least until a year or so after 5e has launched...
The ideal thing would be to foist the Builder onto another company and let them take over hosting and operation. Much like the aforementioned GameTableOnline is taking over hosting of the VTT (eventually to be found over on www.rpgtableonline.com).
Oh, the poor, poor Adventure Tools, i.e. the "Monster Builder" as both times it never managed to branch out into other tools. Robust Encounter Builder, Treasure Parcel Generator, Map Maker, and Handout Helper tools would have been so very, very handy. Especially since WotC shut-down MapTools from doing much of that.
The first one didn't make it out of Beta and there's still speculation what the other buttons at the bottom would have been for. While those who downloaded the old Character Builder might still have a workable version of that program (mine lives on my laptop) WotC saw to it you couldn't use the Monster Builder by releasing a big update before its cancellation that half-updated the Builder to the revised MM3 formatting and math but also introduced numerous frustrating glitches that made the program all but unusable.
Then, many months after, WotC released the first version of the new Adventure Tools. Aka the "Monster Renamer". Icky.
The design of monsters in 4e has made this tool more useless than the others. While there's so many powers and juggling the errata/updates has made the Character Builder pretty much a must-have, monsters are pretty easy to reskin. Size and type have very little bearing on a monster so you can turn a tiny insect onto a huge humanoid with no game effect. With 5030 monsters in the Compendium and over 1000 post-MM3 you don't really need to make your own monsters (unless you're playing in the Epic tier). Realistically, the way 4e is set-up, you only need 210 monsters (one of each of the 6 types from level 1-35) plus a handful of powers to drag-and-drop onto those monsters.
The Character Builder and Adventure Tools need to be rebuilt from scratch to work in 5e. The VTT – which was ironically largely edition-neutral – is already gone. Dragon has dropped to under half the size it used to be while Dungeon continues its steady decline.
This is not good.
From August to the launch of 5e, there seem to be very few products for fans of the RPG. While there might be "D&D" products out there, I'm a not a fan of the brand itself. I've picked up a couple of the board games but only really need those 2 (plus the forthcoming Dungeon!). I have no plans to get Lords of Waterdeep or Dungeon Command. There's no shortage of awesome board games on the market. WotC will have to work very damn hard to earn my money the next year.
This is where the looming death of Insider hurts. DDI is a continual revenue stream, a semi-guaranteed income as long as there's a reason to subscribe. Additionally, the articles keep people coming back to the WotC website every day, checking in semi-regularly and thus keeping informed of new developments regarding D&D Next. The importance of this cannot be understated. If DDI goes away much of the current fanbase will just stop coming to the website. Given that's the only place WotC seems interested in selling and hyping 5e, this pretty much puts them out of the game unless gamers trip while walking down the road and stumble into a game store.
Plus, so much of 5e is built on nostalgia and a respect for what has come before: the mutual shared foundation of the gaming experience that we all have in common. And do you know what many of us D&D players have in common? Freakin' Dragon magazine. You know what plenty of DMs nostalgically remember as the source (or inspiration) of some of their fondest adventures? Freakin' Dungeon magazine. If DDI goes away so does Dragon. And that would be bad. It hurts the very legacy of the brand.
What to Do
Things don't have to end badly.
To survive there needs to be an investment in DDI. Money needs to be sunk into the magazines to make the cost of DDI more palatable. And there should be more universal and generic articles to appeal to fans of all editions, if not outright content for all editions. WotC should start hyping and selling DDI to fans of D&D regardless of the edition, breaking that ground now rather then when they're ready for 5e to launch.
There needs to be content that keeps people coming back to the magazine every month. Paizo realized this with their Adventure Paths, which sold better than other issues. When there was an AP adventure in every issue of Dungeon it encouraged subscriptions as people wanted to see what happened next. It wasn't just the "next issue" it had the continuation of a story told in adventure form.
This could be done with a new Adventure Path (or two). It shouldn't be impossible to make it edition neutral and reference existing monsters, ala Living Greyhawk or Living Forgotten Realms modules where there's different monsters at different tiers (for 2e use X, for 3e use Y, and for 4e use Z). Fiction would be another option. A serial Salvatore or Greenwood story or ongoing tale (see the Voyage of the Princess Arc) or even a comic tale: I loved The Twilight Empire: Robinson's War back in the day.
A more cheap option would be to put the old magazines online. Most of them are already digitized, having been released on CD. When 5e does come out this will be a great resource for ideas. It might also be a good idea to get some interns and set them to work tagging the issues, especially Dungeon. They could put 20 issues of "classic Dragon" up each month and that would be content for a year and keep people coming back every month to see what was next. Heck, it would be possible to do an issue a day (including weekend but excluding holidays) and that would keep subscription numbers high until 5e content was ready.
Very shortly, the 4e tools are going to radically decrease in value. They won't be being updated or revised, and even fixing bugs will cease being a priority; there are already no new hardcover books with powers and monsters and options to be added. Asking people to pay the same price for DDI when they're getting less new bang is silly. If the Character Builder is static it's pretty darn easy to pre-level your character from 1-30, save PDF copies to your computer, and unsubscribe.
To skirt this issue, DDI needs to cut its price. A reduced rate, closer to what it was when there was just the magazines (with a dash extra for server fees for the tools, to be reduced if said tools go away). And, of course, announce the new discounted rate several months in advance so people don't get stung by paying for a year the week before the drop.
Tuesday, July 24, 2012, 11:03 AM
I kinda want to kill a Player Character. But I'm finding it difficult to justify doing so...
I wrote about this once before in a very, very early blog but that piece is significantly rougher, and it's a different from the position I now find myself in. My forthcoming campaign is a horror game. I'm doing a Ravenloft campaign and my players are going to be everymen. They're little more than 0-level NPCs and definitely not heroes. I want them to be afraid of death, which means death has to be a real possibility. Therein lies the problem.
I want death to string and be more real: no resurrection magic and no punches pulled. I want to be fair yet mean, so if the Player Character makes a mistake it might very well cost them their life, just like making a bad call in a horror movie likely ends in death.
But I also don't want cookie-cutter player characters that are just collections of numbers. I want characters to have goals and aspirations, dreams and desires. I'm requiring the PCs to have back stories and backgrounds, so I can build adventures around the PCs. This way they're part of the story and the world, and the campaign's adventures directly involve them instead of the PCs just happening into trouble.
This leads me to the dilemma: if the players have spent a couple hours writing a back story it sucks to have that character die. While being more attached to the character means the player is less likely to act stupidly, each death does mean hours or more working and fitting the new character into the interconnected party.
It gets even trickier given I'm not letting my party take PC classes until they gain a level. Yet, to make something resembling a balanced party they need to know what classes they're thinking of taking. So there's some forethought and anticipation and planning. Which, if the character dies, is all for naught.
And now assassination is just the only way
Initially I considered working a player death into the first couple sessions, planning to twack a PC to strike fear into the players.
This is a little Joss Whedon, who added a character to Angel just to kill them and make the audience think everyone was mortal. Which was also something Mr. Whedon had wanted to do for the pilot of Buffy (with Xander and Willow's friend Jesse) but didn't have the spare cash to add the character to the opening credits for a single episode (and thus Jesse is never mentioned again).
I was going to conspire with my wife or someone else to have their character be killable, so they could spend less time on their character and thus not feel the sting of death as sharply. But this felt unfair; my wife would still have to spend some time writing a background and thus would end up spending more time total writing backgrounds than the rest of the table.
And plans have a way of going awry, so with my luck she would have survived. Or I'd have to stretch to find a way of killing her, making it look like I'm unfairly targeting her or going out of my way to kill her character. This might be more than a little off-putting to the rest of the table.
If the opportunity presents itself, I still might kill her character. Killing a PC in the first adventure is too dramatic to skip. But I don't want it too planned.
Fear of Death
Another potential problem is fearful play. This is somewhat good for a Ravenloft game – or any game trying to add a dash of 1e cautious explorative play – but bad for anyone who wants to Play Boldly.
I think the Play Boldly initiative really emphasises the difference in play between 4e and old school games. I started being a little bold in my 3e games, trying to be the one to take the plunge and open the door or touch they shiny object and generally not letting the game get hesitant. It really works well in 4e where there are far fewer consequences for bumbling into a room and moving heedlessly.
But if bad mistakes lead to a most painful death... playing boldly becomes a little more discouraged. If the monsters are deadly enough to kill instantly, if there is the threat of being separated from the party, or if you've already lost a PC, then you might be much more hesitant and much less bold.
And nothing is more bold than asking "why don't I just stay home and let someone else adventure?" Which is the big question. If you strike too much fear into the players they won't want to lose their characters to the seemingly inevitable. Some players get really attached to their characters, and losing them is like losing a friend. And there's the logical question of "why does anyone become an adventurer when they have an average life expectancy measured in weeks?"
The trouble around building a campaign around a PC is it makes them functionally immortal. Especially when you bring in prophecy or being a "chosen one".
This is one of the more notable ways in which D&D and RPGs diverge from inspirational source material. Fantasy and speculative fiction is rife with Chosen Ones and children of destiny, and heroes burdened with a destiny. Aragorn is the lost king of Gondor and destined for the throne. Harry Potter is destined to kill Lord Voldemort and their lives are intertwined. Star Wars has Anakan Skywalker and Babylon 5 has Jeffrey Sinclair. But heaven help you if you make one of your PCs a "chosen one".
I'm toeing the line of this, planning a couple future sessions based on what I already know of my characters. One of the players has made the curious decision of playing a young child, which just opens up so many possibilities and story ideas that it's hard to avoid that PC becoming the centerpiece of the campaign. I also known what PC classes the characters are thinking about taking, so I'm looking at ways to accommodate their choices. Such as a spellbook being found as treasure to justify one of the characters becoming a wizard. As such, it's hard to imagine killing those characters as there is the narrative plans. Killing them would just prematurely end their story arc. And eliminate fun story ideas I really want to tell. It's bad for both the player and the DM. But having an unkillable character isn't much fun either...
One of my players has opted to play a small child. For story reasons mostly, as he likes the idea of a kid whose imaginary friend becomes real and is a horrible monster. But I'm hesitant to attack or kill his character as the idea of violence against children makes my skin crawl. Hurting a child "on screen" at the table is one of those lines I don't want to cross is on, including rape and hurting puppies and kittens. So there's the Catch 22 of the player I don't want to hurt but I have to injure or he becomes noticeably immortal and the arms race begins. I buy semi-automatic weapons they by automatics. I wear Kevlar and they buy armour piercing bullets. I kill their characters except the twelve-year-old and they all roll up pre-teens as replacements. Suddenly my Ravenloft game has descended into the Monster Squad.
With no fear of death the tone of the campaign I want is lost. You cannot have a horror game if no one dies and all the monsters are paper tigers. There needs to be risk for there to be fear. But actually killing a PC is so darn tricky and could backfire. And if I TPK the story ends.
Sunday, July 15, 2012, 3:22 PM
It's time again for the contract-mandated Doom 'n' Gloom entry for "Jester" David's blog.
5e is coming closer and closer with the first playtest done and the second due "sometime". Last I heard the second round was the end of summer, so late August or early September, meaning it might be the last playtest before the books have to get finished and out to the printers. So there's still time for WotC to royally F-up D&D Next, producing instead what more cynical people have called "D&D Last".
But just how could WotC turn such a hyped and positive experience built around a framework of crowd sourcing and open playtesting into a poor edition and commercial failure?
I'll tell you.
Not Enough Testing
Despite the mass public playtest, this might happen. While WotC is being silent regarding the release date of 5th Edition, it's going to be 2013. I'm sure they'd like to have it out by GenCon 2013, so they can move beyond the Core books rather than continuing to hype the same product they've been hyping for eighteen months. And there's no way they'll miss two Christmases without new shiny products.
With a five-month lead needed before books hit stores, that means they need to be finished by mid-March for GenCon. It's been almost a month since the survey closed and it sounds like we won't see the results for another month (word being the next round of playtesting is "late summer" i.e. after GenCon). With that turnaround time they'll be unlikely to get more than three rounds of playtesting in, meaning higher level content could not be vigorously tested and all the rule modules might not have received as much testing.
But, if the testing packages open up a little and the focus changes to increasingly high levels it might still work. Even then, if the next round is 4-9 and the round after is 10-16 (twice the level range of the initial tests) that still leaves 20% of the game unseeen for mass consumption.
WotC might also run into problems by listening to the wrong groups of people. The surveys are nice but don't always ask all the questions you'd like and there are few places to put miscellaneous information. They also had some pretty unforgiving deadlines; I wonder how much great feedback they missed by releasing the survey less than a week after the package released and closing after less than two weeks, well before a group that meets monthly might have been able to arrange a playtesting session.
We're already seeing the first signs of this. In the build-up to 4e, the developers spent much of their time insulting 3e. "Insulting" might be too hard of a word, but, when you love a game, that's what it feels like. At best it was a mocking and at worst an open criticism.
It comes from needing to sell the new edition, from having to create a need where none exists. WotC keeps producing books, but a new edition is spurred from dropping sales, which is problematic: people aren't buying books, a new edition requires people to buy more books, thus people need to be convinced that they need to buy new books and that they're unhappy with their current books.
In a more broken edition (1-2e, 3e) this is easier as you can just promise a better game. With a more balanced and stable system like 4e this becomes trickier, because it's hard to promise a better game, especially when so much of the edition promises to ease up on the unyielding balance of 4e.
In both 4e and currently for 5e, the tactic for convincing people that they're secretly, unknowingly dissatisfied with their current game is to point out the places where 4e doesn't shine – the problem areas and proud nails – and claim that those problems are being fixed. 5e will provide options for the non-combat experience, fix combat length, increase DM narrative control, encourage player creativity, cure your gout, and the like. But it's really hard to sell those features while not making 4e seem like it's all-combat that takes forever where the players have all the control but are bound by limited powers. You know, all the stuff 4e players have been trying to dispute for years, but now WotC is now saying is a problem.
It feels like WotC is throwing 4e players and fans under the bus.
It doesn't help that WotC couldn't increase D&D Next staffing without decreasing 4e staffing, thus reducing the 4e content for Dragon and Dungeon and reducing the number of books. (The reduction of books and "focus on quality" from last year coincides with the initial start-up of 5e, when there was fewer staff members to produce content.) Likewise, it feels more and more like DDI isn't worth the cost any more, and if subscription numbers drop because there's not enough content, then content will be cut even more and DDI will quickly die.
Similar to the above is the tendency to go too far in the opposite direction when reacting to an imbalance. This doesn't fix the imbalance: it creates an overcorrection, an oscillation.
4e does certain things very well. It's a great game for high magic heroic fantasy. The combat is fun and tactical, with choices each turn. But that comes at a cost, so, of course, there's going to be a backlash leading the designers to push away from that design. Much like pushing away from 3e's hard choices of flavourful options versus combat effectiveness lead to characters where your only choice was between damaging powers useful in combat. You can see the vicious circle at work.
WotC cannot succeed financially through trying to lure back lapsed customers while forgetting 4e customers. This is trying to win the sale of potential customers at the sake of actual customers. This was the whole problem with D&D Essentials, where they banked on a whole line of products (and two quarter's worth of income) on new players, ignoring current players during that period, many of which abandoned the game and have dismissed every product since as "Essentials". There weren't droves of would-be fans waiting in the wings for a newbie friendly version of the game to be released
Too Many Lay-Offs/ Staff Changes
This one is sadly inevitable. With the announcement of 5e, there are many, many Dead-On-Arrival products. Many people will look at Heroes of the Elemental Chaos, Into the Unknown, and Menzoberranzan and decide they just don't need those books, that they'll never get a chance to use them and get their money's worth before 5e drops. This means many quarters of poor sales. WotC is doing their best to pad their books, with the 1e and 3.5e reprints, hoping those will keep them afloat while they design the new edition. But WotC has been regularly laying off D&D staff even when they had as moderately successful edition, so reprints are unlikely to be enough.
The problem with staffing changes is that the newcomers don't know lessons learned earlier, do not know the full intent and thought behind decisions, and are often not part of "the plan". The loss of staff involved with the creation of 3e lead to the creation of 3.5e, where a planned reprinting with errata grew and snowballed into a whole revision of the edition that almost killed the industry.
Losing staff also reduces the number of voices on the team, the number of people to look at a problem and offer a different solutions or new mechanics. It can lead to a very narrow viewpoint, as a small minority in the designers make assumptions that may be unfounded or un-representational, or all try and fix a problem the same way and miss and innovative solution.
Even if the D&D team focuses its losses on people not working on 5e, there could still be problems. If the DDI or 4e teams are cut that could leave a void in content until the release of 5e, further hurting sales between now and then. And, again, if DDI dies that's a regular income stream being lost and more 4e fans who feel betrayed.
Just Being Retro
There's a lot of complaints about "WotC looking backwards" in the design of D&D. Which, of course, is bunkum: they're looking "backwards" in time but game design is not linear; new ideas are not inherently more fun or better. "Innovate" and "progress" are just buzzwords. A good idea is a good idea regardless if it comes from an MMO or an indy game or an older edition.
For example, weapon speed. Dismissed as an archaic element of 1-2e that only slowed down play. Okay, but let's actually look at it. The idea is lighter weapons strike faster, which is a tactical element that would work nicely with 4e. In a fight with an opponent with a strong attack it makes sense to hit first, so you can strike twice for every attack it makes. Switch to a faster weapon. In a fighter with a less damaging opponent where speed is less of an issue, or where you want the rest of the party to act first, then a slower weapon makes more tactical sense. That could have been a really interesting part of the game that would have fit with the design goals of 4e nicely.
That said, D&D cannot only look backwards. If they make a single edition that is your all-in-one retroclone edition that's all well and fine, but if fans of older editions want to play a game that feels exactly like an older edition they will play an older edition. After all, they already have the books and know all the rules.
Yes, the intent is so you can play a character that feels 4e alongside a friend's character that feels 2e, but... how much of an issue is that? How many groups are divided among edition of preference? A few, but are divided tables so prevalent that you need to design an edition around bridging them? In theory, the plan is to have everyone playing the same edition so fans of 4e will play at the same table as fans of 3e and 1e, but there are also tonal changes that separate fans of editions, variances in the type of campaign and adventure.
There needs to be some change, some new ideas, some new ways of playing, and some emulation of the direction every non-D&D RPG on the market has gone. Just being retro is not enough, even if that retro includes 4th edition.
This continues to plague WotC. As the sole power in fantasy RPGs they fell into the habit of telling the consumers what they wanted and making decisions of books to be released based on what they, WotC, wanted. Books that were good for them.
For example, when is the next playtest update? I'm said "late summer" above because another poster elsewhere confidently says it's then based on something they read, which is like saying "a friend of a friend saw somewhere that 'late summer' was said by someone official". On the Tome podcast Mike Mearls implied it was sooner, but this hasn't been echoed anywhere I've seen.
WotC got all secretive with the build-up to 4e and hasn't quite stopped hiding behind the curtain and acting like if the audience knew the full truth they'd abandon the game.
As another example, it was recently announced that the Virtual Tabletop is shutting down. They announced this via a community e-mail to subscribers letting them know a full twenty-days in advance – less than the minimum renewal period – likely catching some people right after they had renewed. And as the message only went to subscribers and isn't mentioned on the website, there might be new people signing up in the hopes of VTT play at this moment. There was no news post, nothing on the main website, and many fans had to find out via ENWorld. Why did the VTT fail? The reason cited is "lack of support". This could mean lack of WotC which is fairly true, making it the third digital initiative from WotC that never made it out of beta, languishing away without regular updates (Adventure Tools and Gleemax being the others). But "lack of support" could also mean "lack of usage", which was also likely an issue: few people were actually using the tool. Part of this is the overestimated audience for a VTT, another part is the cost when so many other VTT are free, but a large part is lack of updates, fixes, and listening to suggestions from the users. The last is the big problem: not reading feedback from the users, absorbing their suggestions and requests, and implementing them.
When WotC does talk, they seem honest and like they mean what they say, but invariably something comes along that casts aspersions on their motives suggesting the pure business reasons behind it. Last year they slowed down their release schedule, ostensibly in response to feedback asking for greater quality, but we now know they had started work on 5th edition and were unlikely to have the manpower to continue to develop 4th edition material at the same rate. They started three new columns to talk to the players, but one was quickly revealed as setting the stage for 5e and testing the waters for certain designs.
Not Finishing what is Started
Another big, reoccurring problem is WotC's changing of direction in the middle of product lines, shifting format or design to accommodate some perceived better way of doing things.
At the start of 4e, they promised books would be DM books or player books, so each wouldn't be stuck with a book that was half content they couldn't use. They also planned three DMGs, one for each tier. They hinted at monsters to come with "scourge dragons" and "catastrophic dragons such as "earthquake and typhoon dragons".
We never got the DMG3 or much of any Epic support. While we got catastrophic dragons in MM3 we never saw the "typhoon dragon" or any of the scourge dragons. Books quickly mixed player and DM information, most notably the campaign setting books, sacrificing world information for player content. Then there were the format changes, swapping to softcovers and books that look very different on the shelves from earlier 4e books.
There are also the other unfinished ideas. The Design-a-Monster contest where the monster ended up on the cutting room floor. The adventure design contest and updates of 3e books to 4e, where only protests on the message boards resulted in the content being released.
I worry that the initial D&D Next books will hold back content, much like was done for classes and races in 4e. To avoid having to balance all the modules (or levels) for launch, they might put some options aside with the intent of revising them later. Which never works out: the content gets forgotten, or changes in direction / design render it useless.
I'm not saying all the above to be mean or negative, I'm saying it so the problems are visible, so people know what to watch out for.
How do we prevent D&D Last? First, current fans need to be shown some love, shown that WotC has not forgotten them. The game cannot be left in a holding pattern, allowing players to drift off and find other games.
First off, WotC needs people regularly visiting their site, which keeps them up-to-date with the game's news and 5e. A strong DDI is good for 5e. A weak DDI and another year of sparse content means players are going to start new campaigns and try different games, then WotC needs to win back a whole other audience. People are not going to prematurely end games they've started and campaigns in progress just because the newest edition of D&D is released any more than they're going to patiently put their gaming on hold for a year or save the money they're not spending on gaming books until WotC releases D&D Next.
The onus isn't just on WotC. The fans of 4e need to be understanding that they won't get as much content, and that the content they like best might be a little less in 5e. There really, really needs to be less crunch for 5th Edition. 4e suffered from too much of a good game and quickly collapsed under its own weight. And more should be done to communicate this fact to the fans, explain why D&D Next is needed.
The marketing department also needs to step up and give D&D their A-game. They can't rely on slamming 4e, which just pushes away 4e players. Nor can they rely on gimmicks that require people visiting the webpage, as that's selling to an audience that's already buying the products. They need to find ways of reaching people who don't visit the website, former players who have drifted into other games, people who stopped playing but now have the time or money. All the while, the marketing department need to continue reaching out to new players and getting new people into the game. There are many gamers I see on campaign setting websites that have not heard of D&D Next. Just the other day on a Dragonlance site someone asked what "D&D Next" was, inquiring if it was a video game or something.
The edition also needs to be tested faster and more vigorously. Now that the initial more focused playtesting has occurred, WotC needs to suck-up their fears of theft and release more content, including character gen and a wider level range. There needs to be very clear plans and outlines for future products and plans to release them as soon as possible.
Honesty and transparency might be nice. For example, there could be playtesting goals or questions separate from the package (such as on the website) and update the testing goals every couple weeks, challenging people to try different things with the same mechanics. "This week we want to know what you think of X, Y, and Z." That way they can use the surveys to collect generic feedback from people on a monthly level while testing balance and how other mechanics work on a weekly level from people who can play more often.
Lastly, as always, WotC needs to actually listen to their fans. WotC needs to find out the content they want, the races they want, the options they want, and then give it to them. Looking back at 4th Edition, what surprises me most is that we had to wait four years for goblin and kobold PC races. WotC needs to acknowledge to consumer requests, and respond in a timely fashion. They need to find out the rules modules people want, the types of games people want, and what will get as many people as possible excited about 5th Edition.
With the collapse of TSR D&D faced death once before. 3rd Edition was really a "do or die" edition, and boy did they ever "do". But twelve years later we're back in a similar situation, only with a fractured fanbase, stronger competition in the tabletop RPG market, more competition from virtual RPGs, and a tighter economy. WotC cannot afford to make mistakes.
Tuesday, July 10, 2012, 10:27 AM
The Eberron campaign setting is almost ten years old.
It was released as the culmination of a search for a new campaign setting, and chosen from amongst 10 thousand submissions. The contest began in 2002 and ended in 2003, when 3.5e was released and we saw the first teasing hints of the world, although the actual campaign guide was not released until 2004.
Let's quickly put that into perspective. I'm a librarian at an Elementary school, which is K-6, or ages 5-11. So the majority of the kids in my school are younger than Eberron. They have never lived in a world without the Last War and Warforged and magitech. They have never breathed the air of a world where there was no such thing as dragonmarks or dragon shards. Eberron is becoming less and less "the new kid" and more and more old school.
With 5e looming on the horizon, is it time for something new?
D&D Next has a strong vibe of nostalgia. Unsurprising since it's the first edition being designed by people who grew up playing D&D and spent their childhoods playing the game. Nostalgia is neither good nor bad. It is as responsible for the revamped Battlestar Galactica and the Abrams Star Trek movie as it is for the new Charlie's Angels series or the Land of the Lost movie. The execution is what matters, not the source of the ideas.
Given the edition is founded on the concept "the best of the past", shouldn't it focus on old campaign settings?
Probably. At least at first. We know the Forgotten Realms has a book coming out that will allow play in any era of the Realms (and hopefully, unlike the last three campaign world books, this one will focus much more on the world and less on giving players shiny new powers). A large tome or boxed set of several books detailing nations and regions throughout the history of Faerun would be excellent.
It might also be fun to have a Greyhawk setting guide. Greyhawk was Gary's world, and this edition and recent years really seem to be honouring his contributions to the game, so republishing his world might be fun. Given Gygax had his own Greyhawk, one with slight differences from the published versions (to keep surprises from his players), it might be fun to go through his notes and publish an alternate Greyhawk, one more in line with Gary's campaign.
Alternatively, it might be interesting to incorporate as much of Living Greyhawk as possible, referencing events from Regional modules and the advancements in that campaign. Or have a multiple-era approach like the Realms where you can play before and after the Greyhawk wars.
Still, as much as the edition should look backwards for inspiration, it should do its own thing and be its own game. And, eventually, it should have its own campaign setting that caters to its design and nuances.
The trick of having a new campaign is something that isn't just a rehash of older ideas. WotC already had a lot of generic fantasy worlds (Greyhawk, Mystara, the Realms, Dragonlance), worlds where the standard conventions are flipped on their head (Spelljammer, Ravenloft, Dark Sun), worlds that emulated different historical cultures (Al-Qadim, Kara Tur) and ones that expand on what magic would do to a culture or world (Planescape, Eberron).
It's hard to think of what's left. Some idea that's large enough for multiple adventures and campaigns, with many new locations and ideas, but has a universal appeal. I love me some Dragonlance but that world wasn’t design to support multiple world-spanning stories, just the one big Epic (the War of the Lance). You want a new world to have dozens of places to start campaigns and support multiple stories, each equally grand and stretching over multiple levels without going into ideas or stories better suited for other campaign worlds.
There are some ideas that haven't been done just yet, such as the water world. They must have gotten dozens of those during the campaign setting search (if not hundreds). There's been some rumblings from the fans for Chris Perkins' homebrew world Iomandra to be promoted to a full setting. People just like boats and islands and pirates, but it’s harder to have dungeons on a water world.
Does the above mean that there are no new ideas for alternate worlds? Naw. There are tonnes. Here’s a few, because I’m on summer vacation and have too much free time:
Underworld. Inspired by the forthcoming Menzoberranzan book, what about a setting that is all Underdark? Imagine a world where the surface was inhospitable or dying and every race dug down to survive. Instead of the subterranean races invading, it would have been the surface races. The entire world is this vast three-dimensional maze of different types of subterranean terrain, fighting for caverns and limited resources in this world where humans and elves and halflings are very much the underdogs.
Planar conjunction. As the different power sources in 4e are tied to different planes, it might be interesting to take that a step farther. A world where there was only a couple power source (say, Primal and Martial) with the related classes, until the other Planes collided and mixed with that world. A collision of worlds that allowed the other types of magic into the world. They Feywild and the Astral Sea and the Far Realm and colliding and overlapping with regions of this world of shamans and woodsmen.
A world without death. Inspired by a conversation Kieth Baker once had on the Tome podcast, what would the ramifications of being able to raise dead with a few thousand gold pieces worth of diamond dust do to a culture? What happens to the nation rich in diamond mines? How do all the nobles feel about the family patriarch being immortal? How are kings handled? It’d be fun to really look at all the narrative problems with magic in D&D and expanding that out.
War world. Take Eberron’s Last War and expand that out by a few extra generations. Imagine a world locked in perpetual war that has spread outward as nations betrayed each other again and again. No place has been spared fighting, and every place has been besieged, sacked, and ruined. War drives everything, with no art and philosophy left in a world that only produces soldiers and supplies for soldiers.
Fantasy Africa. While we have an orient and an Arabia, there's no world that's the equivalent of Africa. With Zulu tribes, Anansi tales, jungles and desert. Inspired by the myths of an entire continent mixed with a dash of D&D sensibilities.
Fantasy Western. This is an idea I'm running with in a novel I'm writing, mixing the tropes and character types of the western with that of fantasy. D&D skipped over the Old West and jumped right to the '20s with Eberron but there are a lot of fun stories in western tales.
Will It Happen?
Who knows. WotC has been unpredictable at best regarding D&D support and products. How they've handled and thought of campaigns has changed dramatically between 3e and early 4e, and from early 4e to the more recent releases.
It'd be neat to see something new with new ideas and the modern concepts of what a world needs and how to design a fantasy world, but WotC might just as easily focus on classic worlds and their older ideas, which makes sense as the development/creation time is smaller and it renews potentially valuable IPs.
And, sadly, with the splintered fanbase and eroding audience, it might depend on sales and how many people are actually interested in 5th edition, let alone a new setting.
I guess we'll see...
Thursday, June 28, 2012, 6:08 PM
The hook behind 5e, what really makes the edition special, is its emphasis on customization. Instead of the game telling you how to play, it will let you play the way you want, emulating the edition you want. 5e will have “rule modules” that can be used to customize and redefine rules, options that can be dropped into a game or used to build a campaign.
What are the must-have modules? Which optional rules that simple have to be included as soon as possible? Here’s my list:
By Any Other Name
First, I need to get one quick thing off my chest. WotC needs to rename the optional rule packages. The term “modules” is a little confusing, having been already used to describe adventures. Using “module” is a little like using “level”. D&D has a lot of “levels”, which can get a little comedic at times. This isn’t just old man Jester shaking his cane at the youngsters on his lawn. Randall "DeadOrcs" Walker also thinks we need a new name (referenced here).
Let’s skip the inevitable comedy and find a new term.
Modules we need sooner rather than later.
I’m not a fan. I don’t have a tactical mind. I suck so badly that my players walk all over my monsters in a straight fight, so a prefer the veil of the narrative where I can story-fy fights a little more.
But even if I don’t use it all the time, some fights just work better with a tactical chassis. And to many it’s the be-all end-all option. So it needs to be out sooner.
First level characters are unpopular. They’re fragile and have few options. But some people like the gritty low-level style of play, so just making first level characters badasses is a less satisfying response. It should be easy to start at third level or fifth level or tenth level, with clear guidelines for magic and speedy character creation.
The benefits of each level should be explained, and the option of campaigns starting at a higher level should be clearly presented to the DM. This makes it easy for groups that loathe lower levels to skip characters with single digit hitpoints and move right to more heroic characters.
Much like 4e had its three tiers, there should be level bands. These can be little more than design tools for the DM, so they know what levels they can start their campaign to get the feel they most want. Gritty fantasy could be levels 1-5 while more heroic fantasy could be 3-10, high-powered fantasy could be 8-16, super heroic wuxia could be 14-20, and epic could be 19+ (numbers being arbitrary of course and pulled from my sunshineless place). DMs could be encouraged to stick to a level range they want, with advice for ending campaigns at early levels. After all, not every story needs to run from level 1-20.
Similar to the gritty fantasy above but different. Some DMs want higher mortality rates with poor luck leading to character death. Other DMs feel only bad decisions should result in character death. Others want the story to dictate if a character dies.
This is an easy tweak, changing when characters die, how many death saves are needed before death, the DC of stabilization rolls, negative hitpoint thresholds and the like. In the base rules death should be possible at all levels but err on the side of the players. Then death can be made more or less common.
Some DMs want magical healing to be special, and some want healing to be common and easy to really avoid a 5-minute work day.
This could be done by changing starting Hit Dice, adding other ways of healing, or increasing the amount healed through alternate sources of healing. Reducing the amount of healing is tricky, but it would be possible to limit or remove the use of Hit Dice to heal, or tying it to a skill check making it less guaranteed.
Wounds & Scars
Sometimes you just want to maim your PCs.
This works with the idea of a campaign like Star Wars or Kill Bill where magical swords drop limbs like autumn trees shed leaves. Or a pirate campaign, which is not as fun without eye patches, hooks, and peg legs. Likewise, many DMs want healing to be a little slower and devastating injuries to result in slow-healing wounds like broken bones or painful sprains.
While wounds should not be Core, it’s a common house rule so it behoves WotC to produce an official rule to show how it’s done properly. Which, in many ways, is the point of rule modules: give the DM house rules that work and not some poorly executed rule with unforeseen consequences.
Of course, there should also be some commentary and advice aimed at the DM, so they know why the rule is not Core and how it affects the game. For example, most wound systems stack penalties on a character the longer they fight, so parties get weaker as they reach boss fights, which can affect the difficulty level of encounters.
Changing classes is probably something that should be avoided. You don’t want a rule module to have to change class features and options, as that means the module potentially needs to be update to accommodate every new rule book and accessory.
General rules are the easiest way of changing the availability of magic, such as restricting magic using classes, limiting related themes, or attaching a cost or penalty to spellcasting. Because these are non-standard optional rules that do not have mass appeal, these rule modules can be less balanced and less fair to magic using classes. They’re niche rules.
For example, a rule module might increase the time needed to cast spells, limiting their use to rituals and removing spells in combat. Spellcasting in combat might provoke attacks or give opponents Advantage when making attacks. Spellcasting might require expensive material components or hard to fine tomes.
The reverse is also true, with higher magic campaigns where rituals and permanent enchantments are cheap and every class or character might have a little extra magical *oomf*.
Encumbrance & Wealth
Micromanagement is not something every group or player likes. There needs to be some system of tracking weight carried, if only so parties don’t try and drag the contents of entire dungeons out with them.
In contrast, other DMs want every kilogram tracked, with location being important and different rules for pulling items from a pelt pouch versus a backpack. So a more complicated system with a range of weight penalties on skills and actions might work better for them, and different action costs for retrieving items depending on where they’re stored.
On the other side of the equation, even tracking gold can be a hassle for some groups. Having to manage personal versus party funds is a chore and figuring out the collected wealth of characters including magic items reeks of bookkeeping. Instead, a generic wealth system akin to d20 Modern might work better, with the actual numeration being vague and downplayed.
High/ Low Biological Needs
Similar to tracking gold, some groups will want to track food and rations while others will not. Sometimes, a DM will bring this up for an adventure or arc, such as a desert journey or trip into the Underdark, where the PCs are out of their element and ready access food cannot be assumed. Others will want this to be a larger part of the entire campaign, such as a Dark Sun game.
As such, there can be a simple mechanic (days of food) or a more complicated mechanic (individual rations and water, with so many needed each day depending on size and temperature, with related weight and space requirements, the risk of spoilage, etc).
Likewise, there could be more detailed rules for resting and sleep. Penalties or problems for sleeping outside for extended periods or underground and the like.
Crafting & Professions
Sometimes you just need to know how to make a wagon wheel, or repair a sword.
This is one of those things where not everyone is into crafting. But, that’s the whole point of the edition: making rules that not everyone is into.
Crafting and the like are options that people will use if they have them. You don’t think about it if they’re not in the game (much) but when you have “stoneworking” on your character sheet, suddenly opportunities to work stone will present themselves. Players find uses for options, be they magic items, or skills, or mundane equipment. Uses will be found.
For example, in a 3e game I played, the DM awarded a free 4 skill points to be put in a profession or crafting skill as a “secondary skill”. Someone did take stoneworking, and used it to craft gifts to win affection, to carve a headstone to honour a fallen friend, as a testament of skill to win over dour dwarves, and to assist in building defences for a gnomish tunnel overrun with gnolls.
Wounds & Vitality
This optional rule was introduced in the 3e Unearthed Arcana, still one of my favourite gaming books of all time. The rule saw more play in the first WotC version of Star Wars (original and revision). Basically, wound points represent physical health while vigour represents everything else, rather than hit points being the catchall.
The strength of a wp/vp system is that it satisfies people wanting certain attacks to actually hurt and cause wounds that take longer to heal, while still allowing luck and skill to play a role in health. A character typically has a set number of wound points that rarely increases – so a sword blow to the belly is always going to be as lethal as a sword blow to the belly – but they also have vitality (or vigour) that lets them get better and better at “avoiding” lethal strikes as they climb in level.
The 3e version didn’t work perfectly, but there was an update by Paizo in Ultimate Combat that looks a little smoother. (A rule not working properly in an early edition is a challenge to try harder to make it work, not an excuse to abandon the concept. The to-hit mechanic in 1e and 2e was iffy, but they didn’t just give up on a percentage chance of hitting.)
Generic hit points don’t satisfy everyone, so an alternative is nice.
Damage Reducing Armour
Another common house rule: armour that doesn’t increase your chance of avoiding being hit but instead reduces the damage from a hit. Most role-playing games to the contrary, slapping on heavy plate does not make one harder to hit. Most knights were pretty darn slow and easy to hit.
As it adds a layer of complexity to the game, and is non-traditional, it certainly should not be a Core rule. But it’s a fun option.
Modules we need, but can wait for. This is stuff that can come after people have gotten a feel for the base game and can already play the edition and genre and style they want.
Many “indy games” put some story or plot manipulation in the hands of players, letting them partially design the story or manipulate events, possibly toying with the linear series of events.
I say “indy games” but, really, the entire RPG hobby is pretty darn niche and anything that isn’t D&D, Pathfinder, or World of Darkness is likely considered indy.
There’s a number of different ways the mechanic could be implemented, but the strength of modules means WotC can put out a couple and see what works. They could even introduce them in an issue of Dragon, telling people to playtest away, and them publishing the best received versions.
While many people are complaining about WotC looking backwards for inspiration, pulling ideas and rules from indy games is the best way for D&D to “move forward” as an RPG.
Early on players should be focused on learning the basic rules and sticking to the Core equipment, but eventually other levels of technology and eras of play need to be introduces.
Alternate eras are easy, as they just require a few alternate equipment lists, changing the price of established goods. For example, heavier plate armour might become more expensive in an earlier or later era. Metal armours might provide less of a bonus as the armour is made of bronze (or the base numbers remain the same while “iron” armour in a Bronze Age game is better). Or advanced equipment might not exist at all, being replaced by hide and bone clubs.
Alternatively, there could be rules for guns, laser weapons, and the like. If only for updating Expedition to the Barrier Peaks or the common (yet still fun) adventure that mixes the real world with fantasy, either adventurers travelling to our world or people from reality travelling to a magical realms.
Likewise, some campaign worlds (*cough* Ravenloft *cough*) feature slightly higher technology, and have early, crude firearms, which also need to be represented. If you want to run a game that’s more Soloman Kane than Conan you need a flintlock and rapier and not a longsword and plate.
This one is a no-brainer being tied to WotC’s various campaign settings. Ravenloft needs mechanics for fear, horror, and madness as well as corruption by the Dark Powers. Dark Sun needs defiling and deserts. Eberron needs its dragonmarks and dragon shards. Dragonlance needs moon magic, dragon mounts, and some kind of chivalric honour system.
Some of these are fairly small. Most of the Eberron sub-systems could be handled through a single Dragon article, and that setting could just be updated online. Others, like Dark Sun and Ravenloft might be a little longer and serve as a nice place to put other related mechanics and variant rules. A Dark Sun book would be a good place to put more in-depth desert and heat hazard rules, more detailed food and survival rules, as well as some optional rule systems for weapon breakage, improvised weapons, and weapons & armour made of alternate materials.
Alternatively, 5e could not re-release new campaign setting books but simply publish related rule modules and have lists of “campaign packs“; i.e. Dark Sun would have the “biological needs”, “magical defiling”, “wild talents”, “desert hazard”, “weapon breakage”, and “crude technology” rule modules. The actual world and setting information could cheaply be handled by releasing PDFs of old products.
Now, when I say “world-specific mechanics” I don’t just mean “mechanics specific to campaign settings”. The term also applies to various mechanics specific to various campaigns. You can’t run a pirate campaign without good ship and vehicle rules. You can’t run a sea-based campaign without aquatic rules and solid swimming and 3D options. You can’t run an Arabian Nights campaign without flying carpets, wishes, and enslaved jinn. You can’t have a medieval European game without jousting and tournaments. You can’t have an investigative Lovecraftian campaign without the risk of madness.
This is a tad tricky as WotC likes producing content for the majority, and this is especially the case for Dragon where an article has to reach the broadest majority. While an article on “mental diseases and insanity” might be perfect for many campaigns not everyone will want to drive their party insane, and not every player will positively respond to the loss of Sanity. But I think 4e has shown that some content needs to be produced for everyone, not just the largest minority.
While the big nine alignments are Core, a 4e morality system would be a nice option. Or something even more simple where people choose “good” or “evil”.
There could also be a more complicated version where players choose the order of their alignment: are they Lawful Good or Good Lawful, deciding if the law comes first or goodness trumps legality. Or an allegiance system akin to d20 Modern.
And while mechanic-based alignments should not be Core, they are a nice option, with penalties for changing alignments or rules for alignment changes. Penalties or complications for acting against your alignment and the like.
There are also related options, such as honour, reputation, or corruption.
A really good honour system would be nice for Oriental Adventures or Dragonlance. Sometimes it is more important than alignment.
A system for tracking reputation or trust with a group or location would be neat, ala the various reputation systems for Warcraft. I needed something a while back when running a classic Dragonlance adventure, when the party was escorting a group of refugees overland and had to earn respect and convince opposing factions to ally or vote with them.
And then there’s corruption. WotC tried this with “Taint” in 3e and TSR had the various corruption mechanics from Ravenloft. This could also be used for magical corruption, such as the madness males suffer in the Wheel of Time books when using the One Power. Or it could be a stain on the soul from evil actions, or being in an evil place.
Sometimes you just need to pit an army of 10,000 orcs against your PCs at the head of a rag-tag army. The “easy way” is having the players be a strike team performing missions and accruing Victory Points or some such thing, and that’s an option that should be included. But sometimes victory should come down to who can defend the wall or besiege the castle better, along with luck and the skill of forces.
Some people want diplomacy and the like handled through role-playing. Others are happy with opposed Charisma checks (or Cha vs. Wis). But sometimes you want a little more.
This is the “diplomacy skill challenge” type of rules module, a mini game where you have a verbal combat of point/counterpoint. The battle of wills over a fancy meal, with veiled threats, hints of half-known secrets, and verbal posturing.
Modules we want, but should be fine-tuned, polished, and don’t really need the first year.
Eventually we’ll need some epic love. Eventually.
Really, there’s no reason to have a cap on play. Why can’t you keep playing and having adventures? Levelling might slow or have limited bonuses, but there could be alternate benefits or bonuses.
Capping play always bugged me. Why would the brave heroes just stop saving the world? There’s always room for more stories with the heroes coming out of retirement for “one last adventure”.
The “let’s be bad guys” module. While the default game should probably assume heroes, sometimes the party will want a little role reversal. In my experience, this is especially prominent among rookie players (often when young), where the freedom to “do anything” leads to atrocities. Not everyone wants to play the shining knight or noble hero, as shown by the continued popularity of the Grant Theft Auto games. Most sandbox games make some allowance for going naughty, and D&D is the biggest, freest, and most open sandbox game going.
This includes semi-villains such as pirates and Vikings but also bandits, Underdark raiders, orc warbands, Athasian slavers, members of a thieves guild, or cultists of Vecna.
There not only needs to be rule options (powers, classes, themes, backgrounds, etc) tied to evil options, but also advice for DMs running evil groups: suggestions for how to manage competing characters as well as advice for getting evil groups to work together.
Not every campaign needs to be a complete level 1-20+ marathon. Sometimes you can have a shorter game, a palate cleanser or miniseries. And evil games can be fun for that. Between epic length campaigns of world saving champions, sometimes groups will just want to play Cthulu cultists trying to bring about the end days for a couple sessions.
Related to the above, sometimes you just want to play a noble misguided orc, a party of manic goblins, a pack of kobolds defending their warren from adventurers, or some unusual race. It’s always fun to run a couple sessions as a reverse dungeon crawl, where the players build, and manage their dungeon then have to defend it against marauding humans.
Monster PC races are a must!
After writing this blog for over two and a half years (three come August) I've really learned that there is very little common ground between what I want from a game and what many other gamers want from a game. I'll write something about "the best thing ever" (!) and someone will fire of a "meh" reply, which cannot be because it's "the best thing ever" (!!) So many gamers play a very different game.
I'm sure there any many examples above that people will read and say "ewwww, I don't want that at my table. I don't even want that touching my game." And that's fine. Because it's optional and they don't need it! They can just ignore that module/ section/ chapter/ book/ five-volume series. Because someone will see that exact same rule and say "OMMFGOAFB that is the 'best thing ever' (!!!), I cannot give WotC my money fast enough!"
More than anything else, the idea of rule modules gets me excited for 5th Edition. I'm a big Paizo fan – being a fan of the company's attitude and relationship with its fans more than the actual products – and when I first started hearing the rumours of 5e my early thoughts were "well, I guess this might be the edition where I stop buy D&D books". But, so far, WotC has me hooked. I'm psyched.
< Insert your preferred "Philip J. Fry holding cash" GIF here. >
Saturday, June 16, 2012, 7:08 AM
There was a lot of responses to my piece of sexism in D&D art, published last week. People responded in the comments, my inbox, and on twitter.
One of the more frequent counterpoints was that cheesecake art was a part of the history of the game and a convention of the genre, that D&D has always had the cheesecake art and underlying tone of sex. Which implies the two are one and the same, that you cannot have D&D without the thin piecrust of sexism and objectification lurking underneath. Or that by making D&D sexless you’d be removing some subtle or ineffable part of the game.
I disagree. Completely.
Condemn Not Condone
The American South had a long history of oppression and racism. Plantations and humans as property were such a large part of the culture and it was difficult to even imagine the cotton industry surviving without slavery, as the picking cotton sucked so much you needed to force people to do so. Slavery just was.
The job sucked so much that Johnny Cash sang (read: covered) a song espousing not having to done so, establishing it as the low-point and how a short life of crime culminating in death at the end of a knotted rope was preferable to having picked cotton even once. Makes it hard to picture that as the primary economy in a State without slavery. It was such a part of the culture they went to war to preserve it as a way of life, they killed 365,000 of their contrymen and sent 260,000 sons to their death.
But that does NOT make slavery acceptable, nor does it make slavery or human servitude justifiable or any less absolutely monstrous. Saying "it's part of the culture" does not make it right and is a pretty darn shoddy excuse, if even an excuse at all.
Your creepy racist grandpa spouting off things that are creepy and racist is not okay just because "that's how he was raised" or "that's how the world was when he was young." It's still creepy and racist, and by not slapping grandpa upside the head and saying "times have changed, stop living like it's 1890" you're condoning it, saying it's acceptable to be creepy and racist. If he keeps saying it you just walk away and stop listening.
Likewise, if an industry keeps objectifying women and publishing embarrassingly bad art, you just walk way and stop buying, before it gets creepy and sexist.
Is this censorship? Yes. But in the same way it's censorship not to draw black people like Jim Crow minstrels. What's considered acceptable changes over time. That's just a fact of life. You adapt and move on or you become someone’s creepy grandpa.
For example, check out this Superman video on youtube. It's one of the later episodes of the original Superman movie serieals that coined the phrase "faster than a speeding bullet" but became propaganda pieces when the war started. It was just a different time, and there was a war: you could get away with blatant, flagrant racism and caricatures.
Couple Quick Examples
Has everyone heard about this year’s E3? How it was reputedly a cavalcade of flesh as half-naked women were used to sell video games.
Treating video games and gaming like a car show is rather silly, given that over 40% of video game players are female. And even sillier given how Nintendo is currently devastating its competition by focusing on non-traditional audiences (read: non-gamers) such as families, younger children, social gatherings, seniors, and the like. The Wii is almost outselling 360s and PS3s combined and the DS eclipses even the Wii in sales. And, as the Wii is very hardware-lite, it probably has a much nicer profit margin than the 360 and PS3 systems.
Targeting men with models seems like a desperate ploy to attract attention, a frantic way to stand out in a field of superior competition. The final flailing attempt to grab someone's focus when the game itself cannot. But, with everyone doing the same thing, it falls flat and just becomes background noise.
D&D doesn’t need to do this, as its strongest competitor is an older version of itself. WotC doesn’t need to rely on tawdry images to stand out from the competition, it just needs to be better. If the edition is good, people will buy it.
And, because it topical, check out this hilarious image of Catwoman from DC comic’s New 52 line.
Stop and look for a moment. Think about the position of her body. Imagine having to pose like that. Stop and try. Unless your name is “Forrest Gump” you should not have a spine that can do that.
That’s the cover to the opcoming #0 issue of Catwoman coming out shortly, likely after the Dark Knight Rises hits theatres. If female fans of Catwoman from that movie venture into a comic store after seeing that movie, that’s the image that will confront them.
More than likely they will walk away and never buy a comic book again.\
Okay, onto actual D&D art.
Classic Art Versus New
The argument was put forth that D&D has always been sexy, and that sexist art has been a long part of the game.
Okay, so let’s look at some.
Here are some pictures from my first edition books.
Oh yeah, that just oozes sexual tension. Baggy clothing, long sleeves and hemline. It sure is emphasising the relationship between D&D and sex.
Yep, she’s naked. But she’s a mermaid. It’s more classical than cheesecake. It's very archtypal of mermaid art.
That’s about it. There’s not a lot of non-comedic art in the 1e books, and the vast majority is masculine characters. If there’s sexism present it’s the omission of females. And, with their absence, females could not be presented as sex symbols. You cannot objectify something that is not there.
There’s a little more nudity in the Monster Manual but that’s fairly appropriate: being the embodiment of seduction of men, succubi should probably be naked and cheesecake.
And now here are some pictures from my 2e books.
This is the first picture in the PHB. An adventuring party, with 2/5ths women and everyone covered. There’s a female fighter who looks like she can handle herself, and she’s in reasonable armour. No one is posing and the clothing looks realistic and functional.
And this is by Larry Elmore, who is infamous for his cheesecake art.
I love this picture personally: it’s a great shot of a low-level adventuring party celebrating and initial success. Much better than the actual cover. If WotC wants a retro-cover for inspiration for the D&D Next PHB cover they’d be hard pressed to find a better piece.
A meeting of dwarves and an elf/halfling. Not a great piece as there’s no sense of story or tone. Just people hanging around. But no implied sex.
A fallen warrior shown in a pose of respect. She has some badass armour here, and, by her tomb, was likely held in respect. There is some story here. Is she a hero? Maybe, but that helmet looks pretty evil.
And, again, not a lot of sex and the armour strikes me as reasonable.
This is how the DMG starts. There’s an obvious different culture at work here, which is fun. And while the woman is scantily dressed, it’s arguably appropriate for the culture and one of the men has a lot of exposed skin as well. My wife pointed out her mouth is suggestive, but her male companion is equally gaping and surprised.
Personally, I like the picture for the implied story at work. It’s a fun counterpart to the successful adventurers in the PHB.
Monster surprising an adventurer, turning her into a victim or damsel. This is a litte worse, but she is armed, and not unreasonably dressed (excluding the unfunctional breastplate with individual cups). And there are no tentacles. But she’s not necessarily helpless, and might be able to rescue herself still. And no overt sexuality.
This is pretty bad, one of three unfortunate pieces in the DMG. It’s arguably the worst. A female warrior with heeled boots, posing with one leg raised for no particular reason (likely making her off balance) and a tonne of exposed flesh. There’s the sexual suggestion of domination as well, but that’s more subtext or the result of the audience bringing that to the piece rather than inherent to the work.
But, as bad as this is, she’s kicked some butt: disarming and defeating an ogre thing twice her size. And she’s ripped, being very muscular and less of the standard male fantasy.
( There are a couple others my scanner didn't like, so I'm not showing them for that reasons. I think my son borked my scanner in a fit of random button pressing.
There's one with a wizard summoning, well, something, which is vaguely sexual. The male wizard is in a position of power over the tiny-sized topless female slave. But it’s not needlessly T&A or cheesecake, just kinda sleazy. And the man looks like an old letch, so it's not being painted in a positive light.
There's also one with a young, blonde bikini-clad female wizard performing some ritual on her knees Yeah... this one is pretty bad. While pretty much every male magician has been, well, Gandalf, the female equivalent is sexy and young and half-dressed. Needless and insulting. Vaguely sexual but not overly so, and lacks the implant-esque breasts of the women in most modern art. )
This is the cover of the third book in Dragonlance‘s introductory trilogy (Chronicles). This series got me into fantasy fiction but hard, and was heavily responsible for my seeking out D&D and falling in love with the game.
Tika, the female character on the cover, was added to the story because the artists at TSR wanted “a babe” to draw, rather than the entirely leather-clad cleric and armour clad elven princess. And yet... she’s not in entirely inappropriate armour, being equivalently covered with the male warrior, and her neckline is surprisingly modest. There’s quite a lot of sex in the Dragonlance books, but none of it seems like needless titillation, and most happening between chapters and during breaks. Dragonlance has its problems with its female characters (heroic females are virgins and the evil female is promiscuous) but it wasn’t needlessly sensual.
Now let’s move onto the current edition.
Alright, this is the cover of the PHB. We have two heroes not really doing anything. They just stopped in the middle of cave and posed. And the scantily clad female wizards with implants is striking a spine-shattering pose. Try this one out at home.
Yep, that there’s a reptile with breasts.
Well dwarves are busty, that sure is a lot of cleavage. Most images of dwarves have them covered in armour from chin to toes. It really stands out from other images.
This one is here as a counterpoint. They’re not all bad. She does look like she's turning her head at weird angle, so she can twist her body into a shape revealing profile, but it's really not that bad.
“I live in an enchanted wood, and I exposed my midrift because I enjoy cuts and scratches from brambles and branches.” Why the exposed navel? It’s just so needless.
While adventures and accessories have slipped in the cheesecake, the core rules were fairly tame until recently. It’s unfair to say flagrant objectification is a part of the game because it really wasn't. Women were ignored at the beginning: the game was asexual. It focused on a male audience playing male protagonists.
This isn’t to say there was nothing sexual in D&D. You get a group of geeky teenaged boys together in a basement and unleash their imaginations and sex is going to come up. Hormones be funny like that. But that’s not a part of the game, that’s something brought to the game, something seen in the game by the players. It’s a Rorschach test of the audience .
But, again, even if original D&D was rife with objectifying art and cheesecake - which it wasn't - but if it was, that does not make it acceptable now.
That age has ended, the time of cheesecake has passed. It is time for the chainkini and peek-a-boo-plate and plunging armoured necklines to get on the ship and sail off into the West, to the Undying Lands with all the other images of women and minorities that stopped being acceptable.
Wednesday, June 6, 2012, 3:42 PM
Here I go: throwing my hat into a ring that I probably shouldn’t; this blog was inspired by the continued debates over stat limits set by biological sex and art in the D&D books.
I hesitated over this blog for a long, long time and have delayed it five or six times, to really think and rethink what I want to say. On the one hand, I’m not exactly a discriminated minority being a straight white male with no physical or mental handicaps, aside from being slightly overweight and my propensity to sit in a basement with likeminded friends rolling plastic polyhedrons while pretending to be a wizard. And while some might argue that the “overweight nerd” is an oppressed minority throughout high school, I do not think this even remotely compares.
I almost trashed this blog and left it to my betters, like Sarah Darkmagic, women fighters in reasonable armour”, go make me a sandwich (and also here). It’s also been covered on a number of podcasts, most recently 3.5 Private Sanctuary but also an old DM’s Round Table, and it came up during a Reddit “Ask me anything” with the Paizo staff.
I opted to write this because the more voices on the subject are good, and you can’t have a full prism of diversity without a pale, flabby shade of white. And because it was a change of pace from continual D&D Next discussion...
Is It Sexist?
The art blog on the D&D website (Dragon's Eye View) wrote a piece here on whether or not certain art was “sexist”. So that’s as good a starting point as any. You need to define terms. I hit a few online resources for a definition. One. Two. Three.
And sexism is defined:
1: prejudice or discrimination based on sex; especially : discrimination against women
2: behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex
Okay, this is where the common mistake is made. Cheesecake (or, for men, beefcake) is, by definition, not sexist. You could make an argument that cheesecake art is fostering and limiting women to the stereotypical role as sexual objects. And it’s most certainly objectifying women. But I’m not sure that’s the exact same thing as sexism, and not in the same ballpark as limiting rights, the glass ceiling, or denial of jobs.
Cheesecake art and sexism are certainly interrelated, but not one and the same. In the same way all poodles are dogs but not all dogs are poodles. You’re not being prejudice or discriminatory to have the female warrior in a chainmail bikini, and there are no real stereotypes of social role being fostered as the presented character is fulfilling the same role (both mechanically in the game and fictionally in the narrative) as the male counterpart.
So it’s not sexist. Technically speaking. But I’m not going to stop referring to them as such.
Sexual Dimorphic Mechanics
I think it’s fair to say that on average men and woman are equal. However, some sexual dimorphism exists.
Women can be physically weaker than men, as shown by such things as Olympic weight lifting records where men not only have much higher weight range but out-perform women in similar weight ranges. And the sexual hormones in the human body have a huge effect on both biology and behaviour, so men and women simply do not think the same; the psychological changes seen in both menopause and andropause make that very apparent, as do the results of artificial hormone changes (‘roid rage for example).
Not having gender rules does make sex a non-issue, a cosmetic and non-existent part of the game. As men and women are mechanically identical, everyone might as well be playing genderless eunuchs. Gender is something every human being has, even the estimated 1% of people who identify as asexual. It’s a part of the human condition.
For example, look at Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, which emphasises the differences in male magic and female magic (and thus masculinity and femininity) as a key theme and plot of the narrative. The female characters are very different from the male characters, but are no less important or strong and no less rounded, conflicted characters.
With this in mind, should the game reflect this? Such as by adding caps to ability scores or penalties or bonuses based on biological sex. Some way of emphasising gender and the diversity of humanity.
Not even as an optional rules module.
Design like that only limits player choice, forcing them to play characters or builds they’d rather not play, and implies an inequality or disparity. And adventurers, by definition, are not normal and are always exceptional. Having male characters and female character functionally equal may not be reality-real but it is narratively-real. There should be very, very few mechanics that limit a player’s ability to play what they want.
Plus it’s kinda silly and more than a little petty.
Fantasy art in general – and D&D in specific – has a long history of cheesecake art, with chainmail bikinis, maidens chained to alters, topless deities, skyclad nymphs, and the like. It’s part of the history of the game, noteworthy at a time when the game is looking backwards as much as it is looking forwards.
Removing the female fighters in peek-a-boo platemail does detract from the enjoyment of the product for a certain segment of the fanbase. While the inclusion of such art is viewed negatively, this is only by a minority of players. So, obviously, we have to keep the cheesecake. Mens like da sexy women in little clothing, and it’s part of the history of the game.
Except... sexy sexist illustrations – while not inherently detrimental to fun – are detrimental to perceptions of the game, and thus perceptions of the people who play it. (The exact same principle applies to obvious satanic imagery or graphic violence.) The game does not exist in a societal vacuum, and bears the opinions and stigmas of two generations of negative assumptions and stereotypes. As such, mature elements (such as sex, violence, drug use, etc) should be included tastefully and with extreme caution. We don’t need D&D turning into FATAL.
Additionally, at the end of the day, cheesecake art (and some mature topics) makes some people uncomfortable. The exclusion of said content does not make any people uncomfortable. Including inappropriate content would be saying that the entertainment of a certain percentage of the fanbase is more important than the comfort of another percentage of the fanbase. Even if the former is a larger percentage than the later, it is still unfair and unacceptable.
The lengths the game goes to add sex to characters is pretty astonishing. We have dragonborn with boobs. Reptilian humanoids that lay eggs with an exclusively mammalian sexual characteristic. WTF? Give the males a dewlap or something if you want to differentiate. This is less strange than the asexual shardminds who opted to both have breasts and cover them with a bikini top. WotC artists gave a rock monster cleavage!
Plus, most cheesecake art kinda silly. A large portion of the cheesecake factor of art is the poses: hips and chest thrust out, back arched, and often a leg raised as if standing on something. I think we’ve all see the Avengers poster where someone drew the male Avengers in the same kind of pose Black Widow (and other female action characters) was placed in.
This isn’t the worst offender as posters go, and is certainly one of the least silly poses I’ve seen Black Widow forced into. It’s just one example and I’ve seen many others of male characters dressed or posed like women, and it is always incredulously silly.
For example, the cover below features Wonder Woman in a pose which quickly prompted parody, which follows.
Why is this accepted for women?!
My favourite example of poor design choices is the current Thundercats cartoon, a reboot of an ‘80s cartoon. When designing the characters, the creators mocked the design of Lion-O in the original, as he had an exposed midriff (hilarious in retrospect) and they purposely removed it and increased his armour. When updating Tigra, once the philosopher of the group, they dumped his colour scheme and slapped him in generic armour as well (and gave his personality a 180).But, for Cheetara, once covered from neck to toe save an exposed arm, they exposed her midriff and gave her a cleavage-revealing bikini top. The very same people who mocked Lion-O’s exposed midriff gave one to the sole female character and reduced her clothing by 30%. The
Cheesecake art pokes at my sense of realism. It’s so impractical. While it doesn’t hurt my sense of realism to have a female paladin who is just as strong as the male fighter, it just seems silly to have said pally in a chainkini or peek-a-boo-plate. Silly like the dragons with giant potbellies and the requirement that all wizards be 65 with long beards and impractical robes... only worse.
Even plate with obvious bust seems impractical as the breastplate should be a single rounded piece to withstand blows and direct strikes away from the centre of mass. An obvious bust just means a hit will be directed to the lower ribs or, in the case of a bust with individual cup, the sternum and heart. (Last-minute addition: I’ve also been told a distinct bust can direct blows to the neck and face, which is last place you want blows directed.) I find masculine armour mimicking a male chest problematic for the same reason. The Geeks and Romans stopped designing their breastplates like the Spartans’ for a reason.
Some of this goes hand-in-hand with the more exaggerated art style common in the most recent editions. The fantasy art inspired by anime, Wuxia, and video games, with form and function being more inspired by what looks cool than what works. There’s certainly a time for the Dungeon Punk aesthetic, and a little exaggeration in art in terms of armour design, weapon size, and the like. But that’s not what I would call a core assumption of the game. It’s the art equivalent of a rules module. And after two editions of pushing away from historical or high fantasy in favour of super-heroic fantasy it might be nice to tone things back. But that’s tangential to the topic at hand.
The main offender, both of exaggerated armour and impractical armour, is World of Warcraft. Some of that is technical. When playing the game zoomed out, one of the few features easily noticeable is the shoulder armour, which changes the silhouette of the characters. So making them stand out was a design decision to make the avatars distinguishable from one another. But, more on-topic, is how armour changes between male and female characters. I played a female character for a while, and quickly noticed how armour that was full armoured trousers on my friend’s character became panties and leggings on my gnome. At some point, the decision was made that all their female characters had to be sexy.
Related to the push for realistic armour and dress is a call for greater diversity. Humanity is varied and shouldn’t this be reflected in the game?
This is a little tricky for a couple reasons. Portraying real world ethnicities mean suggesting those ethnicities exist in the game, which brings along a host of issues relating to cultural stereotypes. Drawing someone with a keffiyeh, even if meant practically as a way of keeping sand away from the face, has a wealth of cultural associations and stereotypes. And if the character drawn in one was female, it could be mistaken as a hijab with all the related debates and baggage. A recent issue of Dragon drew some flak for what was perceived as a stereotypical portrayal of Oriental culture in an article on Kara-Tur. It’s hard to create a fantasy equivalent of a real culture without invoking the associated tropes or exaggerating some features.
There’s also the question of how much ethnic diversity there should be in a game based on fantasy Europe. The inclusion of the monk as a class already causes problems with the implication of an Eastern Asia analogue. It forces every campaign world to have a Southeast Asian analogue, or explain some East-meets-West contact. That toes the line of mandating the inclusion of certain nations or cultures in a DM’s homebrew world.
It’s probably worth the risks, but said risks should be known and acknowledged, while the art should be approached tastefully and cautiously.
Other diversity gets a little trickier in my mind. This would be “age” and “body type”. Adventuring strikes me as “a young person’s game”. You don’t see middle-aged overweight people on the box of Wheaties, and neither should you see them dangling from a rope in some goblin-infested abandoned mine. Well, at least at low levels. There is the clichéd grizzled fighter who seems to gets more badass proportionately to his age and/or number of scars. It’d be interesting to play a middle-aged character who took up adventuring as a mid-life crisis. But even then, those types of characters are hardly the norm and are very much the exception: there are no old orc warriors and no old rookie adventurers. While all adventurers are exceptional, the art cannot reflect every single fringe character type or unique individual.
On the other hand, wizards are regularly presented as well past middle age. It would be nice to see the female equivalent of the robed ‘n’ bearded wizard: a Matriarch figure or Professor McGonagall of sorts. (After writing that, I’m totally tempted to base my next magic user character off Maggie Smith.) But wizards are one of the few classes where the flavour supports advanced age, with magic being unlocked after years of study and practice.
But even in the above situations I can’t imagine those characters being particularly overweight; even the wizard, who is the most acceptable class to have low physical fitness, is unlikely to be overly rotund. With the exception of Lost characters, it’s hard to maintain a level of blubber when exploring a tropical island, let alone a fortnight in the underdark or exploring forgotten ruins. Dieting isn’t so much a concern as keeping all their teeth and staving off scurvy. I can imagine a retired adventurer putting on a few pounds, or the scholarly wizard who is mostly confined to their tower, but the heroes out trying to save the world from the machinations of a dark god are likely to be counting calories. No one wants to fail in saving the villiage/ kingdom/ world/ Prime Material Plane because they had seconds and a large dessert and couldn’t make a jump.
As someone ten-kilograms overweight who is hitting the gym in an attempt to shed a few, it would not be easy adventuring. Chin-ups are impossible, not only as my muscle mass is lower but because I’m trying to lift an extra 20 pounds of flab.
Here’s the rub: what about characters where sexy clothing would be appropriate?
I’m going to go with Pathfinder as my example for this. Seoni is the iconic sorcerer for that game. She’s also one of the two characters on the cover of the core rulebook. And she’s dressed like a stripper. A stripper in a steamy southern town during a heat wave in a club with terrible insulation and broken A/C. However, Seoni is a sorcerer, which is defined by not having spell components or a reliance on gear, and her class uses Charisma as its primary stat, so the argument can been made that she’s mechanically sexy.
Is it unacceptable to have any cheesecake in the game?
This is a hard question and there are a number of factors. In theory, sexy characters are valid and a part of diversity. Diversity is not about eliminating something, but increasing variety and options. For example, seeking ethnic diversity in art does not mean no white people, just white people and black and brown and all the assorted hues of humanity.
However, sexy at the sake of realism (peek-a-boo plate and chainmail bikinis) is still unacceptable: it’s adding sexy where sexy does not need to be. Likewise, sexy characters should be portrayed equally realistically, without crazy distorted poses and twisted into shapes suggesting a rubber spine and the absence of ribs. And there should still be some practicality in mind. Seoni may not need armour, but the long skirt is likely a tripping hazard, the long hair a liability and easily grabbed, and the plunging neckline cold (not to mention awkward as she’s likely to be regularly “popping out” in mid-battle).
Until art can be done properly, cheesecake should probably be avoided. Until the game can show and prove it can portray realistic & reasonable armour and poses capable of a non-yoga instructor and gender & ethnic diversity then the art should hold back on the cheesecake. Cheesecake is the dessert, and the artists have to finish the main course first and earn their treat.
Setting an Example
As mentioned earlier with the Avengers example, suggestive clothing and poses is not limited to fantasy art. It’s certainly more prevalent in fantasy art, starting from the pulp era onward, but much of the rest of Western culture is also guilty of objectify women: comic books, video games, movie posters, and magazines. It’s hard to justify changing role-playing games – still a predominantly male hobby – when magazines and catalogues aimed exclusively at women can be just as bad. They may not be painting women in spine-cracking poses, but they sure are photoshopping them beyond the realm of possibility.
Why should gaming and D&D change when the rest of the world isn’t?
Because we can. Because we can be better.
No other reason is needed. But here’s another: we should eliminate sexist art because the hobby is struggling to survive and needs to grow beyond its initial limits. It needs to be more inclusive and accepting. This goes back to my earlier blog on being a better gamer, where I argued that we need to set an example and demonstrate every single day that the stereotypes related to gaming and gamers are unfounded, both in person and online. Ever. Single. Day.
Cheesecake makes people uncomfortable. It reflects poorly on the game and the people who play. It’s unrealistic and impractical. It does not encourage people to join the hobby. It enables the objectification of women and reinforces the negative role of women solely as sexual objects. And it’s silly. That’s a long list of disadvantages when the only
advantage is “mens like da sexy women in little clothing.”
Thursday, May 31, 2012, 3:32 PM
We have our first open look at 5th Edition. Have we all absorbed the rules? Good. Has everyone had themselves to position themselves staunchly in a “for” or “against” faction? Okay then. Let’s get started with another review ‘n’ assessment. Be warned, it's a long one. Grandpa Jester likes to ramble, he does.
Definition of Terms
I’ll be using “5th Edition” and “5e” in this blog for a couple reasons. Mostly because 5e is 2 characters and “D&D Next” is 7 (and a space). And while “D&D Next” is a good temporary name it is a terrible official name: what happens when they need to release another edition? Or – heaven forbid – an update or revision?
They can’t just call it “Dungeons & Dragons” because we already have a game called “Dungeons & Dragons”. It was published by this dude named Ernest back in ’74. And even then, we already call OD&D to differentiate it from the Basic line, which is also technically called “Dungeons & Dragons”.
If D&D Next it’s not officially called 5e it will be called 5e by, well, everyone, just to differentiate it in conversation. And confusion for the uninitiated.
Let’s start with the download snafu. They sent out e-mails with a bad URL. WotC putting out web content with dead link?! I am shocked. They offered a few ways to correct (re-petitioning for access to the playtest, through links on forums, or a number of links WotC tweeted or Facebooked), but the onrush of fans quickly overwhelmed the server.
This wasn’t exactly unexpected or unprecedented. A week prior three-thousand geeks cried in anguish and frustration at GenCon’s servers while events sold out. And a week before that, similar things happened to Blizzard with the launch of Diablo 3. All understandable as no company wants to spend $3000 for a server they need for a single day. But it couldn’t have been unexpected as WotC could just look at the number of e-mails pre-registered for the package.
Was it necessary? Not really. WotC could have made the document a password protected ZIP file and provided the password via e-mail, then hosted the ZIP as a torrent on their site (and/or a few choice torrent sites). That’s the strength of torrent programs: the more people who download the file, the faster it downloads and the less load on the official server.
The hoops needed to find the file were also annoying. There’s no download link on the Next site, instead an e-mail redirects you to the file. Because that’s ostensibly more secure. Which is meaningless, as the file was instantly available on file sharing websites. And with the official servers continually down, many people turned to download mirrors set-up by fans to get documents they were entitled to. After ninety straight minutes of struggling to get the files from the legitimate, official source I gave up and took 5-minutes grabbing them off some dude’s dropbox.
A brief note here on the Licence you need to sign before downloading.
This is the big reason WotC didn't throw the documents up on mirrors or just let it be distributed via torrents. This is also why they're not letting you play unofficial games at conventions, or online such as through online tabletops (including theirs) ‘n’ Skype. Because they cannot guarantee someone will or will not have signed the Online Play Agreement.
How is this a big deal? Because, as a litigious company, WotC is terrified of people using the law against them. Such as how the company’s policy dictates that the first response to any breach of IP or copyright is a Cease & Desist sent to the offender and their Internet Provider.
WotC is collecting feedback. So they need the proviso that anything you submit regarding the work is owned by Wizards, so you cannot sue if they use your idea. But, if someone doesn't sign, and suggests an amazing fix, WotC cannot use it.
Likewise, because the game has not been published yet, its place in US copyright is nebulous. They need someone in case someone pushes out a quick game in the next year before WotC publishes, so they can say that the copier either violated the licence or stole it illegally.
Pretty much what you'd expect from a company with likely as many lawyers as full-time writers.
Annoying but understandable, as it’s designed much more to protect themselves than as something to be used against the fans. I have some friends wary of signing because of WotC’s legal reputation, but I remind them that as long as you play fair and don’t do anything outrageously stupid they’ll leave you alone.
Okay... that all said, let’s get onto my evaluation and musings.
Curiously, this was the first thing I noticed.
5th Edition uses “feet” for sizing, movement, and range. While preferable to “squares”... c’mon!
There are three countries that do not use the Metric System: Liberia, Burma/Myanmar, and the United States. This is a collective population of approximately 372,320,001 folk who still use pre-1799 measurements, and both Burma and Liberia are trying to move towards the Metric of their trade partners.
This is fine if WotC is happy with D&D being considered “an American game”, and centered on national sales rather than international. If WotC is content selling to the 5% of the world (population-wise) that isn’t Metric then it’s fine if they keep “feet”. It just means they’re giving up on selling to the millions of foreign English-speakers, not to mention the 14% of the US population born abroad.
I’m exaggerating for comedic effect but this has actually slowed down my game more than some rule debates. Where the game grinds to a halt and everyone pulls out iPhones to google how many feet are in a yard, or how many yard/feet are in a mile. And the information never sticks; I still have no clue.
Personal peeve, I know. I’m petty.
The first place I jumped was to the monsters.
First, I love the return of flavour and the habitat/society paragraph. Sorely missed. While I liked the “only-the-necessary” monster descriptions in the Monster Vault but it’s nice knowing exactly where to look and having consistency to the entries.
Consistency is important, which is something Paizo has done but WotC has not. The monsters are fairly 3e in design, but with most monsters have a 4e-esque defining power. However, a couple of these powers seem fairly similar to player powers. The bugbear pretty much has a racial sneak attack with a different name. It would be easy to just call it “sneak attack” and have it follow the already well-known rules for the rogue’s sneak attack. This is something Pathfinder does well with its universal monster rules, where there is a collection of standardized powers with similar rules. For common combat powers it is annoying looking- up traits, so I prefer the 4e/5e version of including it with the monster. But for lengthy powers, situational powers, out-of-combat powers, and some spells including quick rules in the monster and expanded text in the back would be acceptable. Once a DM reads a power and uses an ability a few times they don’t need to consult the book, it just becomes second nature.
It’s an Ocam’s Razor thing: don’t reinvent the wheel for the bug bear and every other lurker, just go with the Name class feature.
There are a few monsters that use spells yet, which is something 4e moved away from. I like spells. Spells are standardized and you do not need to repeat information, especially if the spell is iconic & recognisable, especially ones the party uses: everyone knows what a fireball does. The problem with spells was not having to reference a second book, but having to repeatedly and continually reference a second book. A product (or Character Builder feature) that produces spell cards would certainly help, as would limiting monsters with spells to no more than 2 or 3 combat spells (as non-combat spells can be looked up at the DM’s leisure when building encounters).
The formatting of monster stablocks needs work, as the information is scattered. Late in 3e they divided monster statblocks into information you needed on the player’s turn (defensive), info you needed on the DM’s turn (movement and offence) and everything else. It might be good to divide monster traits into offensive, defensive, and interaction, and group the information accordingly. Start with interaction information first (languages, social traits, perception bonuses & senses, statistics): this is needed first, when the party is deciding to pick a fight or not.
Some information seems redundant. I don’t need spacing for monsters, as it says in their size. Likewise, reach should only be included if non-standard (different than their spacing). Although, reach for non-medium creatures as a reminder would be acceptable.
I was a little disappointed by kobolds, specifically how their racial power is very much a monster power. We know people will ask for player race kobolds. They’re such a fan favourite and their non-PC friendly power in 4e delayed their race write-up until this month. Even then, the lure of the scrappy underdog kobold kept them heavily requested. The 5e kobold has a very monsterific power which becomes overpowered in the hands of a PC race, as adventuring parties regularly outnumbers monsters. It seems like poor forethought. While the big Name monstrous humanoids (kobolds, goblins, orcs, gnolls, and hobgoblins) should definitely be written as monsters first and foremost, a glance should be made at keeping them – at the very least – not inappropriate as a PC race.
I adore the return to natural English to spell descriptions. It reads better, being less gamist and overtly mechanical, while encouraging thinking of the spells as more than discrete packets of combat powers. It is simply not enough to not discourage role-playing and creative thought, it must be encouraged, and nurtured, and enabled.
Yes, it increases the chance of misinterpreting a spell’s text. But the terse powers of 4e did not eliminate DM adjudication of powers or prevent munchkins from taking the intent of the power and twisting & distorting the language like Gumby at a yoga class into some unnatural yet literal abomination.
And yes, it slows down finding the mechanics of a power. But this can be solved through power cards, either official ones from a Character Builder or a couple minutes with a sharpie and a stack of index cards. No big deal.
I like the idea of spells being usable as rituals without having them be prepared that day, but this is still pricey are very limited. There’s only a single example and it is cost prohibitive at low levels. If this was more open, using spells for creative effects outside of combat would be more encouraged. Why can’t the wizard use grease as a ritual by spending 10 minutes and a gold piece? There is any number of creative uses for a “conjure lube” spell, and most are thankfully rated-PG.
Classes on a Waffle Cone
I’m not going to rant much about specific powers and numbers, as that’s not what’s being tested.
Instead, let’s jump to the contentious point: the fighter just hits things with his sword. No big deal. We’ve been told ad nauseum that the fighter will have manoeuvres (read: powers) they can learn if they want. This particular fighter does not, because this particular playtest is meant to appeal to older fans. It’s the bridge building playtest, the “5e is not necessarily 4e” playtest. If the fighter had 4e powers, 5e would have been instantly dismissed as “4e: take two” and many fans of older editions would never have given it a second chance.
Besides, some players like simple classes. That’s the point of having multiple different classes: to appeal to different types of player. And simple classes make it easy to learn the game. But the strength of 5e might be its ability to start with simple classes and then add complexity to that class without completely rebuilding the character. Something every prior edition has failed at.
Likewise, I like the return of Vancian casting. Does everyone? Nope. But I’m confident there’ll be a non-Vancian spellcasting class they’ll like and I’ll probably be indifferent to. I shouldn’t have to sacrifice classes I like to accommodate and win over people who hate that class, instead there should be more options added to accommodate them. You don’t change vanilla ice cream to sell more cones to people who don’t like vanilla; you add chocolate to the menu!
Ability scores are king. I dig that. And I love skills being tied to ability scores as it allows a DM to change scores when necessary (intimidate via strength if acting tough, perception via intelligence if searching logically), although this could be emphasised a little more. It also keeps the math flatter, so characters don’t get 5% better and jumping or researching or unlocking doors every level or two. This means the 15 ft. chasm is a challenge for longer, and that the fighter doesn’t break Olympic records at level 5.
And I like ability scores being saves. While you really only need the big three (Con, Dex, Wis aka Fort, Ref, Will) it is neat being able to call for a Strength save to escape grappling tentacles or sticky glue, or an Intelligence save to realize the inconsistencies of an illusion. I can totally see Madness working as a Charisma save, as something threatens your sense of self.
The problem with skills was that it was this static list, which acted as a crutch as players scoured their character sheets for what gave the largest bonus. However, amalgamating skills with other rules for interacting with the world doesn’t really get rid of skills. They’re still technically there, so players will still try and go with actions where they have a bonus. And instead of selling skills for actions, players will instead try and sell ability scores, seeing how many different ways they can use their best stat for interacting with the world.
It might be interesting to have rules for using alternate ability scores but with Disadvantage. Want to use Dexterity to jump agilely? Sure, but you have to take the lowest of two.
The only other problem I’ve really run across was how Disarming Traps didn’t really have an associated skill. Finding them was Wisdom (again, an argument could be made for Intelligence) but does disarming them use that same stat? I ruled it used Dexterity based on older editions, but I suppose Int would work as well.
The advantage and disadvantage mechanic is slick. A simple way of reducing the bloat of static math in the game. While there should still be +2s and -2s when needed, multiple rolls work very well. And as Mr. Mearls has said repeatedly, it’s easily added after the fact, as you don’t need to remember what you had rolled prior, you just roll again.
It’s a very potent mechanic. Ostensibly it only adds a +3-4 to a roll, but since it adds multiple die rolls to the game it turns the flat hit percentage into a bell curve. The chance of critting or whiffing with a “1” isn’t much higher, but the chance of just hitting (a 9-11) jumps to 75% making Advantage a +5 bonus. The Oneline DM discussed this and goes over the math here.
I worry that the mechanic will become overused. Anything and everything granted Combat Advantage in 4e. Rogues built right with an accommodating party could have CA in every round. It would be very easy to end up rolling twice for every single attack or save or check.
For example, let’s go back to kobolds. They get advantage when they outnumber heroes. Okay, rare in a base party of 5 but increasingly nasty with smaller groups. It also means if the DM is running a large group of kobolds as opponent for a higher level party they’re rolling twice for most of the encounter. Yuck.
The design should explicitly try and limit what grants “advantage” whenever possible, perhaps limiting it to situational modifiers and conditions, dynamic events that change or are imposed or created. Situations that might chance from round to round, or action to action. Spells, class features, powers, and the like should seldom grant advantage or disadvantage. Instead, it’s easy enough to have them grant static numerical bonuses.
Static bonus have gained a bad rap. They’re perceived as easily forgotten and a hassle. They were poorly handled in 3e (specifically 3.5e) and manhandled in 4e. The problem is that they last too long. They were fine in 3.0 where they were designed to last for multiple combats (durations of minutes or tens of minutes) so the changes and math could be written on the character sheet and thus not forgotten. The durations got slashed to rounds and minutes, and 4e went farther, deciding that tracking mid-combat durations was annoying, and instead made most powers last for a turn so there were four or five separate penalties or bonuses that may or may not be in play until the start or end of a turn.
For the above reasons, I hope to see a return to a longer duration for buff spells.
So far I’m optimistic. Flatter math means challenges, both environmental and monstrous, remain relevant for longer. There’s no Red Queen’s Race with the illusion of advancement, where all your decisions are set or you lose efficiency.
I like that classes feel different and the focus on ability scores for interacting with the world and as an avoidance mechanic. I love the return of said avoidance mechanic as pit traps making attack rolls never sat right with me.
While there’s some balance issues at the moment, these are easily correctable in the nine months we have left. Which does lead to my final concern:
In the chat interviews, Mearls and Crawford suggest that a lot of content (i.e. monsters) is still being worked on. Which is fair, as you don’t want to re-write the entire Monster Manual every time you tweak the rules. But there does seem to be a lot that hasn’t been written yet. Which was one of the problems with the 4e MM: they were still tweaking mechanics and having new ideas while writing, but didn’t have enough time to revise existing monsters.
Given they’re working on a fairly unforgiving deadline (GenCon next year, give or take a month, but prior to Christmas: no way they’re missing the holiday shopping season) they have a lot of content to generate, while also absorbing feedback and balancing class content.
It’s going to be tight.
Thursday, May 24, 2012, 4:18 PM
We know the four big classes: fighter, wizard, rogue, and cleric. Each one has an archetypal role in the classic D&D party and is a staple of the fantasy genre. They’re shoe-ins for inclusion in the next edition, as it would not be D&D – let alone a fantasy TTRPG – with those four.
The Big Four should be the baseline; they should set the bar for all the other classes. The barbarian might hit harder than the fighter while raging, but be (slightly) less effective the rest of the time, such as being easier to hit or less skilled with armour. The druid might be able to offer some utility and interesting spell effects when needed, but nothing close to the versatility of the wizard. And so on.
With all the fuss over what is unique to the paladin – what separates a pally from a multiclassed cleric-fighter – I started wondering about all the classes. And decided it was a good filler blog while I digested the 5e playtest for a while.
Archetypes and Alternates
I tend to alternate between the term “archetype” and “build”. Archetypes are the term Pathdfinder uses for a class’ build, basically combinations of alternate class features. The difference between in archetype and an alternate class is that the former replaces a few class features and is generally much smaller, taking-up a page or less. Conversely, an alternate class is a revision of a class with almost all the powers being revised or replaced. The advantage of alternate classes being you cannot take match levels of an alternate class with its base, such as combining levels of a ninja and a rogue.
The unique features of the paladin are its tie to mounted combat, its ability to smite evil, and its alignment restriction. Mounted combat is tricky and is a nice side benefit, but the latter two provide a good class framework. Paladins get better when they oppose evil (or their opposite number, be it evil or goodness or tyranny). They’re defenders but also holy warriors.
The iconic paladin is Lawful Good, and I think this important. That’s a huge differentiation from other classes or combinations of classes: the baked-in moral element. Why play a paladin without the moral quandaries or behaviour restrictions? That’s the point of being a paladin. It’s not meant to be easy. The anti-LG camp really strikes me as people who chaff under restrictions and being told how to play their character, so maybe, just maybe, the paladin isn’t the class for them.
An important design consideration for 5e is: not every class has to appeal to every player. They can’t. The tastes of players simply vary too much. Instead, there should be a couple classes for everyone.
That said, limiting the paladin to just Lawful Good is a tad, well, limited. There should be paladins of other gods or causes. So while the LG pally could be the baseline, there could be alternate builds with different alignments. Different builds of paladins could be defined by their codes. This is a lovely pre-build flavourful rules element: different paladin orders with different restrictions and guidelines. With penalties for violation. So instead of the weird loss of paladin powers reducing a paladin into a warrior (or fighter without bonus feats) there could be class and order based penalties and complications with related means of removal. If a paladin of virtue (or something else LG) commits an evil deed they might have to perform a series of good deeds as atonement, possibly with some restriction (good deeds performed without their weapon, without using their ability to smite, etc), while a paladin of freedom (chaotic or chaotic good) who forces his will upon another might have to supplicate himself and follow the dictates of the church for a set period of time.
Paladins are defined by their Codes of Conduct. Done.
Warlocks are tricky. They’re a fun, flavourful class, but at their core they’re wizards who gain spells or magic through a pact instead of studying. That’s not so much a class as a back-story. Warlocks could easily be subsumed by a build or sub-class of the wizard. Warlocks could work well as a wizard alternative class.
But warlocks should stay as there’s a nice amount of built-in versatility & variety to the class, via the source of their pact. And they can be designed to appeal to a different kind of player than the standard wizard fan. More at-will powers would help the warlock in this respect, as would limiting their Vancian magic. This helps provide an alternate spellcaster choice for people who don’t like Vancian classes. This makes the class a little more 4e: fewer spells and more powers ‘n’ abilities. It might also be fun to add some classical warlock/witch flavour to the class, emphasising curses, hexes, and maybe even a dash of the evil eye.
There needs to be a quasi-magical element to the monk. Otherwise what separates a monk from a fighter who uses his fists? There should be a nice mix of realism and Wuxia with monks, so players can pick their preferred amount of crazy Chi action.
Because there’s such a long tradition of mystic warriors there’s a lot of variety and diversity to monks. There are classic unarmed monks, there are monks with Eastern weapons, there are monks with chi powers who are able to shoot fireballs, and there are monks that use Western weapons (swords, quarterstaffs) in very different styles. This makes them an excellent class to include in the game.
They’re a very easy class to find a niche for; monks just need to be carefully balanced so we don’t end up with a repeat of 3e.
I love the warlord. It’s such an interesting class with a great role. They do a lot of very fun things.
But they don’t need to exist.
What is a warlord? Well, they’re a martial class that has heavy armour, uses weapons, and directs the battlefield. That pretty much also defines a fighter with leader abilities. All the flavour of a warlord can be applied with minimal effort to the fighter, there is only minor mechanical differences. Whenever I’ve seen someone look for an example of a warlords from the fiction of an earlier edition (Tanis Half-Elven, Roy Greenhilt from the 4e version of the OotS) they’re always fighters until updated. And when you start thinking of what a warlord would look like as a DPS or tank it ends up identical to the fighter.
Warlords are the the Leader build of the fighter, an alternate branch of the class designed around helping allies instead of laying a smack down or taking hits.
Warlord needs to go away. The fighter kills him and takes his stuff.
One of the more disputed classes has been the ranger. They share a place with the paladin as combo-classes that are less interesting with solid multiclassing rules. They’re a bit of a fighter-druid with dashes of the rogue. They’re not well defined in fiction, being easily amalgamated into the fighter.
But rangers have been around since 1st edition, so they’re harder to remove now. Like the paladin they get a legacy reprieve.
Fighters are a distinctly melee beast, as rogues have been excluding 3e. While rogues can (and should) be able to use some bows they’re not pure ranged combatants. As such, rangers work nicely as the masters of ranged combat.
Since 3e, there’s been the fight to divide rangers into weapon-based camps. “Is your ranger a two-weapon ranger or a bow ranger?” That might be something to jettison and make all rangers great with a bow and able to dual wield. They might specialize, but they can always switch. Drizzt regularly broke out a bow when it suited him and was written as being skilled with it.
The rest comes easy with some primal nature magic, an ability to track, animal companions, and other wilderness based talents.
There’s so much druids can do that it’s easy to define them. Like monks, the shapeshifting druid with animal and primal magic has become archetypal of the genre.
The problem with druids has not been finding something “uniquely druid” so much as limiting it to a playable amount of options. They control weather and plants through magic, they wild shape into animals, they have animal companions, they can summon allies, and they can heal. Phew.
As there’s so much players want a druid to be able to do, it might be an idea to give them some flexibility in low-level class features, giving players the choice of starting as pet druid with an animal companion, a shifter druid with the ability to wild shape, or delaying those options to focus on spellcasting. Spells can also be focused and specialized through daily spell selection or possibly the equivalent of domains or spheres or something. It’d be interesting to have druids picking a “circle” and gaining spells related to plants or weather or summoning.
This shouldn’t be an either/or choice. Higher level druids should be able to do it all. Instead, it’s letting players define the class from first level rather than deferring what they want to do until higher level.
I love the bard and adored playing one in 3e. I like support characters. I was happy standing back and making everyone else cool.
The bard is another hybrid class that doesn’t really need to exist in a system with flexible multiclassing. They’re rogue-wizards or rogue-sorcerers. Possibly with a dash of cleric or fighter.
The best idea for a bard “class” I saw was in the 3e Unearthed Arcana where the bard (and I believe the paladin) were 15 level Prestige Classes, so the player worked into the class after playing other classes for 4-6 levels. This is slightly similar to the 1e bard that was a unique result of humans dual-classing.
(As much the idea of making the combo classes into specialty classes you needed to multiclass into would be a very fun and interesting optional Rules Module, it shouldn’t be the baseline.)
The problem with this approach is that it makes it impossible to play a bard from first level. How do you make the bard unique from first level onward? Songs would be my hook. A while back I though an Essentials-style bard where they mixed-and-matched song elements into unique effects would be fun. This would still work and be fun. A nice list of possible song options with the character knowing so many and learning more as they gained levels. You basically build small spell effects through rhythms and choruses and refrains. This might be on top of limited spellcasting and other traditional bard perks.
Like the warlord, I don’t really see the need for the sorcerer.
Sorcerers were created solely to be a class that used the wizard spell list, so all that content would be used by only a single class. That’s not really a solid reason for a class. The flavour of a sorcerer is even weaker than the warlock. They’re not a class, they’re a character idea.
Provide an optional rules module for the wizard that replaces Vancian spellcasting with AEDU and you’ve got yourself a sorcerer. Add a couple sorcerer-like builds for the wizard and you’re good to go.
But, in the likely event WotC is playing it safe and releasing a separate sorcerer class there’s a few things they could to differentiate the sorcerer. After all, the need of a second class to use the wizard’s spell list still exists.
Really removing Vancian magic from the sorcerer seems to be the way to go. They would work nicely as an 4e-style AEDU class or something similar. There’s lots of ways you can mechanically make a sorcerer different, such as letting their magic be a little wilder and less controlled, allowing them to empower spells.
The sorcerer could fill the niche of the wild mage: a spellcaster powered by chaos or barely in control of their power. This might work better in 5e which seems more forgiving in terms of damage spikes. Sorcerers couldn't out-damage other strikers in 4e (and, as their extra damage was static, they were more reliable than rangers or rogues) but in a D&D Next – where the focus is on adventure balance and not encounter balance – it's permissible for one character to "own" a fight, so the sorcerer has more room for wild swings of power.
As a support class, I want to like the artificer. It takes a combination of an Enchanter/Abjurer-speciality wizard and turns that up to 11. They’re a wizard that focuses on buffing allies.
Again, like the warlord and sorcerer, I just don’t think this is a full class so much as a build for an existing class. Again, when you start thinking about what alternate builds of an artificer, or alternate roles in combat, it seems very similar to a wizard with a focus on enchantment.
I’m reluctant to suggest killing a class that’s been around for two editions (like the sorcerer) but as long as there was a solid option provided with the same name it should satisfy fans of the class. Something WotC can point to and say “this is the artificer build, play it and it will feel familiar even if your character sheet says “wizard”.
There was a lot of reimagining when updating 3e characters to 4e (Playing a finesse fighter? Congrats, you’re now a rogue.), so the same would apply to 5e.
It’s a paladin. Or a rogue multiclassed with a cleric (or paladin). Or a fighter multiclassed with a cleric (or paladin). Come up with a multiclass-only sub-class (an "Advanced Class" or "Combo Class" ) an "Avenger" might work, but it doesn’t deserve to be a class on its own. It’s a neat character concept not a class. A re-roll mechanic and a restriction on armour does not make for a class.
I’m dismissive of most combo-classes but the idea of “bladesingers” or “spell-swords” or gish have been around a long time. There are examples from Elric to Garion to Geran. Every OD&D elves was a fighter/mage. There does need to be a solid “Gish” class that combines arcane magic with weaponry, and the swordmage chassis is as a good framework 'n' name as any.
The swordmage should be toned down at lower levels to be a little less magical. Teleporting around like a caffeinated Nightcrawler hurts my image of “low magic”. They should be lesser mages and never the equal of the wizard in spellcasting. Unlike the wizard – who shouldn’t have to fall back on hitting something with a weapon – a swordmage can and should be hitting things with his sword. As such, a 5e swordmaghe could work as a Vancian class with no at-will magical powers. An occasional magic user.
Tying the classical Vancian magic system to the swordmage makes it a much more interesting class. You can build an offensive swordmage that enchants his sword for offence, or buffs himself for defence, or defends others, or swap out the option depending on the needs of that day.
As a classic 1e character the psionicist is here to stay. Psionics are a great example of a potential optional rules module with an extra class or two. Psionics hasn’t always worked well in the past, but with a more balanced system most of the problems vanish. And the only remaining complaint (too sci-fi or unwanted in a game) also goes away if it’s an optional rules module (or is mitigated if psionics is continued to be tied into the Far Realms).
I've thought psionicists need level 1-9 powers like other spellcasters. Instead of a full power point system (which leads to potent math at mid to high levels) they could have standard spells and augment via power points. Instead of the 4e system where every power had its own list of augments, there could be a pre-built list of augments allowing a psionicst to modify power on the fly. Which feels mechanically very different than the sorcerer and wizard.
Ardent, Warden, Shaman, Seeker, Runepriest
I have no patience for overly narrow classes. Classes should be big, all encompassing tents. Too many needless classes has led to bloat in every single edition. And more often than not, new classes take the focus away from the Core books, which must always be the key books. Once you can build a character without using the PHB you’ve cost WotC money.
The above classes are the definition of grid fillers. In a revised edition without classes being limited to a single role or power source, all of the above have no reason to exist.
The ardent is just a psion that heals. The warden is just a tanking druid. The seeker is a ranger. The shaman is a leader druid with a spirit for a pet. The runepriest... well they’re a very specialized cleric even in 4e.
They all need to go away. Join the incarnate, healer, archivist, dragon shaman, beguiler, warmage, and swashbuckler in obscurity in the special limbo for classes that were never updated between editions.
There’s nothing salvageable about the battlemind. It has all the problems of the other grid-filler classes but even less flavour. It’s such an inconsistent class. While there's some flavour, but it doesn’t mesh with most of the builds and powers and each build is radically different with no common element (save a propensity for attacking when it's not their turn). There’s no solid justification for why its primary attack stat is Constitution, or how that works. Someone just liked a defender hitting off Con. It feels like they had some other ideas for a psionic defender that never worked and this was the best they could come up with on an inflexible deadline.
But... the idea of a psionic gish is not a bad one. There was the psionic warrior and soul knife in 3e for a reason and lots of melee builds for psionicists in 2e. And there should be multiple classes that use psionic powers like there are multiple classes that use arcane or divine. An armoured melee character is the opposite of the robe-wearing psion – which is often hard to build effectively – so there’s conceptual design space for the battlemind. It just needs a better hook, better implementation, and more consistent design.
Honestly... working off the 3e soul knife might be fun. Separating the two by letting the psion focus on altering the world via psioics while the “battlemind” alters themselves through buff spells, psionically augmented weaponry, self-healing (biofeedback), and the like.
Friday, May 18, 2012, 10:12 AM
Old news: the D&D 5th Edition Playtest starts on May 24th, as mentioned here. Exciting. Kinda.
Except when you delve into the specifics.
We're not playtesting the edition: we're playtesting a very specific and limited bit of the edition. As mentioned here we get pre-generated heroes of the big four classes and races: fighter, cleric, wizard, and rogue, with the human, elf, dwarf, and halfling. They’re limited to first level and likely only a handful of monsters, if not pre-written adventures.
Assuming a return to the level 1-20 range that’s testing 5% of those classes. And if there’s the expected sizable number of classes on release (likely 11-12) that means we’re testing 1.666% of the game. Excluding multiple builds, different class/race combos, and the like.
This is not really earth shattering news and more than a little disappointing. It's hard to tell the stress points of a game at 1st level with pre-gens and a limited scope. 4e seems fine at 1st level and many of its problems don't appear until late in the Heroic tier, especially when you’re working with pre-gens designed to test the average play experience and not be finessed and optimized.
Will this work?
The point is NOT to test the classes and optimization and balance of specific options. At this time, the point is to test the core rules. The game itself, divorced from class and race and theme and background. Does the game work?
This is so vital. If you were to strip out all the familiar options and remove all the baggage and preconceptions, would the game still play? If all the class options were balanced and perfect, would flaws in the base game cause problems?
If the playtest was broader the attention would be equally broad and people would spend more time looking at individual options and combinations and not things like: Does it have the appropriate feel? How are the damage numbers? Does the skill system work as intended? Are the DCs right?
This is more important for 5e than for 4e, where the base game and core rules were a tweaked version of the 3e ruleset. It truly sounds like 5e is going to be different, with its focus on ability scores. It might be the end of “d20 + ability modifier + modifier vs. DC”.
Is This Important?
What’s the most broken element of 4th Edition?
Classes are fine, as even the most broken power can be errated. Monsters are fine for the same reason and problems with the math (defences, hitpoints) can be adjusted through future monsters. Feat taxes, while unpopular, can fix other problem and can be awarded for free by liberal DMs.
Then what is the most broken mechanic? It’s skills. The initial system is broken, and even adjusting the DCs twice cannot fix 4e’s skill system with its huge disparity between someone skilled and someone unskilled. 4e accidentally fixed the “lucky amateur and clumsy expert” problem by making the disparity so great that it quickly becomes impossibly for the clumsiest of experts to fail or the luckiest of amateurs to succeed.
The problem with skills was quickly noticed, as shown by the quickly updated DC chart and skill challenge rules. But the underlying problems went unnoticed for some time, because there was so much else going on, so much else attracting the attention and distracting away from the math.
Please sir, can I have some more?
When should WotC up the stakes and release some additional content?
This is hard; the trick is to release new content at a slow rate to allow for play and re-play, and not overwhelm the fanbase. But not so slow that the momentum and interest is lost. And there should be some sense of continuity between pre-gens and characters, because players do better with emotional investment, when there’s the extra drive and incentive to keep the character alive.
Monthly updates might work nicely. Some groups play weekly and my group tries for bi-weekly but others can only get together every month or two. If WotC releases weekly or even bi-weekly content it will be hard to keep up.
At the start it’s imperative to keep as many people looking at the same content for as long as possible. Likewise, WotC should hold off on feedback for a few levels, even if obvious errors are spotted. Keep the material consistent so the players can learn and push the system and really get a feel for the game. The first 2-3 sessions will be learning experiences and people will be caught up in the hype-fuelled play experience – the honeymoon phase of a new game – and not really catching nuances or subtle flaws.
Realistically, there shouldn’t be any rule changes until after GenCon (class changes are likely fine). The adventures and material for the convection season is likely already written and produced. It makes the convention slots run more smoothly if the rules are known; rushing changes through – even responses to feedback from May through July – will make for an uneven play experience. When they’ve had time to digest all the play experience of three full months after GenCon, then would be the time to re-write and release an update.
In democratic governments it’s unusual to have a single house of representatives. Even in countries as different as the States and Canada, both nations have a Senate. Because a sombre second option is always a good idea. It’s far, far too easy to jump to a quick, rash response.
Look at the paladin in 4e. There was a funky loophole in its mark that encouraged kiting, where the defender marked and then ran. It was silly from a flavour perspective but a sound tactic. But to mesh the flavour with the mechanic they tacked on a restriction at the last second, which had unintended side effects. Or look at the changes to items with the Healing keyword to wrangle a cleric build, which dramatically hurt the effectiveness of the artificer.
There’s a laundry list of small changes in 4e, reactions to abuse, that have had secondary fallout. Changes where the initial change went too far and needed to be dialled back to a middle ground, if the effort was ever made to fix the nerfing.
Playtesting a whole new edition will lead to similar problems. There will be tension points and proud nails that need to be examined and tweaked lightly. Solutions need to be slept on. Changes should be proposed and examined before being implemented, to see if they go too far or if a rollback is needed.
Putting the “test” in “playtest”
It’s a little disappointing that we’re not getting full rules, and that we’re not going to be able to switch from existing 4e campaigns to 5e. At least not for six months, if not longer.
Like every video game tester has painfully discovered, "playtesting" does not equate with "playing the game early for free".
A more broad release might have led to more testing as people testing the edition in actual play. But there’s still time for that later. There’s plenty of time, even if they’re shooting for a GenCon 2013 date (which is likely because eighteen months of D.O.A. 4e books is already hurting their bottom line, let alone expanding that to two and a half years). If they plan on allowing people to test the other classes (which they should) it might be a little tight, and testing the full range of levels could be tricky. As much of the game needs to be tested as possible; we do NOT need a repeat of 4e's epic tier, with bad monster math and questionably design choices.