Thursday, June 10, 2010, 11:07 AM
I spent last weekend at the North Texas RPG Con conferring, conversing, and otherwise hobnobbing with my brother wizards Tim Kask, Paul Jaquays, Rob Kuntz, and Dennis Sustare.* NTRPG is a retro-D&D convention in Dallas. It's a small show (fewer than a hundred people), but this was only its second year, so growth is inevitable. There were lots of games of AD&D, a few of OD&D and Basic D&D, and plenty of retro-clones such as Swords & Wizardry and Castles & Crusades. People were actually asking for my autograph and posing with me for photo-ops, and I'd be lying if I claimed that isn't a whole heap o' head-swelling fun. I had a great time and intend to go back in 2011.
Retro-gaming seems to be on a growing wave of popularity. To some extent, I find that immensely gratifying, because it seems to validate what we were doing at TSR in the early '80s. OTOH, I'm not one of those people who believes that RPG-ing was somehow 'better' back in the day. It certainly was different -- a different feel for players and a different approach by DMs -- but modern games have a lot to offer. The truth of that statement becomes especially clear when one really examines the retro-clones. Although they steep themselves in old-school charm, they also incorporate a lot of new-game tech such as simple, ascending math and few tables. In other words, they exhibit much more sophisticated game design principles than the older games they evoke ever did.
The problem is, I'm a bit conflicted on whether an RPG can really qualify as 'old school' if it has clear and coherent rules ... and the fact that my brain can frame that question at all is somewhat confusing and bothersome.
I can say that I had a delightful time writing (and DMing) the adventure that I ran for Basic/Expert D&D, "The Dark Abbot of Kos." In those 1981 rules, you need to know just four things about most monsters: their AC, HD, damage, and maybe one special ability. A tremendous freedom of thought arises when you don't need to think about special monster powers and can instead concentrate almost entirely on the story and the situation. Again, I'm not claiming that's necessarily better -- I'm a big fan of the tactical richness that comes along with 4e's level of detail -- but there's no denying that a vastly simpler approach also has its charms.
* Along with special guests Matt Finch, Kyrinn Eis, and Jason Braun, and many other luminaries in the retro-gaming community.
Thursday, May 20, 2010, 10:08 AM
Somewhat overshadowed by the very sad loss of Frank Frazetta was the recent death of Ronnie James Dio. Fantasy RPGs and heavy metal have long been intertwined in mystical ways. James Maliszewski, writer of the terrific gaming blog Grognardia, reflects beautifully on that relationship in his eulogy to Mr. Dio. I point you there ...
Wednesday, May 19, 2010, 10:00 AM
A few thoughts on what makes for an exciting adventure …
There's been some discussion in the forum about the recent adventure The Tyrant's Oath. Part of it focused on the fact that the ultimate villain is a very tough nut for the characters to crack. Far from being a bug in the adventure, I consider that a positive feature.
This isn't the type of cult leader who goes down with the ship. When his cult and temple are destroyed, he looks for a way out that doesn't involve blazing glory. Just as importantly, being a smart guy, he's planned in advance for this moment.
The upshot is, the players need to be smart at the end of this adventure. They need to think fast on their feet. This villain isn't going to fall into their lap or their trap. He won't play fair or by the heroes' rules. He's smart, tough, and tricky.
I like that sort of thing. Some people call it old-school; I just call it a challenging adventure. And I aim to deliver more challenges every month.
Gamers always have opinions and seldom are shy about sharing them. I'd like to hear your thoughts on this, too.
Tuesday, May 4, 2010, 12:38 PM
A few additional thoughts on teleportation:
I don't care for the idea that the answer to these puzzles can be situational; momentum is conserved today but not tomorrow based on the DM's sense of theatrics. I'm sure that works for some folk, but as a player, I prefer that the world is not so capricious. Teleporting is consistent in all other ways, so it should be regarding momentum, too.
An illuminating thought experiment is to compare power-based teleporting to using a portal. If you throw a stone through a portal, it comes out the exit still flying through the air. I can't imagine anyone saying that the stone just drops to the ground with all of its momentum somehow absorbed by the portal. (If that were the case, you couldn't even step through. Force is force.) The same thing applies if you leap through; you come out the far end mid-leap.
I think the same thing should happen in a situation where you, say, need to jump 40 feet (8 squares). Your intent is to jump 10 feet and teleport 30. But instead of doing one and then the other, you decide to teleport mid-jump—jump, travel 5 feet, teleport 30 feet ahead, and then your jump momentum carries you the last 5 feet.
Now, some people will argue that this can't work in D&D because you're interrupting your own move action with another move action, and the rules don't allow it. I'm not interested in that; it's not the point. If you ignore the artificial time segmentation of D&D, would it work this way? It certainly would in a movie, and I think most people would agree that's how they imagine it happening.
This type of teleportation, then, is intuitively correct—which means momentum is conserved. If the world is consistent, then it needs to behave this way all the time. How does that affect the tactical uses of teleportation in 4E?
Tuesday, April 20, 2010, 11:51 AM
I have a lot of fun parsing rules down to the point where they collapse into degenerate matter, but I don't consider myself a rules lawyer. When it comes to actually playing a game, especially an RPG, my interest in the rules as written is largely academic.
For 30 years, my chief job has been finding the right words and images to bridge the gap between how a game designer wants something to work, how he wrote it, and what will actually work. In a technical document as complex as an RPG, that's a big job, and there's very little room for error. Compare the situation to software, for example. If a user does something wrong with software, he probably gets an error code. As frustrating as those can be, they do an excellent job of letting you know that you did something wrong. D&D has no such backstop. If the user makes a mistake, he'll probably just keep on making it until it sets off an argument at the table—an analog error code.
In discussing rules, people talk a lot about 'designer intent'. It's important because what the designer meant to say is very often not what got printed. What you see in the rulebook is what the designer, the developer, and the editor wrote … but it may not be what they intended.
Or, maybe it is. Sometimes you just don't know.
The original printing of the PHB and DMG omitted a key piece of information about teleporting when a character is restrained. It didn't make it into the revised, deluxe printing, either, but it is in the errata and updates document. Here's what it states:
"If a target teleports away from a physical restraint, a monster’s grasp, or some other immobilizing effect that is located in a specific space, the target is no longer immobilized or restrained. Otherwise, the target teleports but is still immobilized or restrained when it reaches the destination space."
That seems straightforward enough. But is it?
First, there's the punctuation question. Is the sentence referring to:
- a physical restraint, OR
- a monster’s grasp, OR
- some other immobilizing effect that is located in a specific space;
Or is it referring to:
- a physical restraint, a monster’s grasp, or some other immobilizing effect which is
- "located" in a specific space.
The case for the first reading is stronger, but that doesn't mean it's correct.* If there's room for doubt, there will be different interpretations. For example:
- Bob is chained to a wall. Regardless of which interpretation you favor, he can teleport away, because he's held by a physical restraint and it's located in a specific space; i.e., it has a material form.
- Bob is wrapped in chains and dumped on the floor. The chains aren't attached to anything but Bob. If you favor reading A, then Bob can teleport away from the chains; his case falls into category 1, "physical restraint." If you favor reading B, however, Bob can teleport but he won't escape from the chains by doing so; the chains are a physical restraint but they aren't "located" (i.e., anchored) to a specific location; they satisfy condition 1 but not condition 2. In reading B, both are necessary.
Most people will get the intent of this rule right away. Others who have some initial doubt will get it after a bit of reflection. But some minority—perhaps not an insignificant one—will truly, honestly believe that the second version is what the writers meant.
The only way to prevent this type of confusion is to spend too much time writing too many words for every rule. Instead, as a designer, developer, or editor, you strive to make the rule as clear as possible while still being stingy with words. Things will still be vague, misinterpreted (sometimes willingly), and overlooked (by both the pros, who are blinded by knowing what the rule is supposed to say, and by players who skim the rules rather than reading or who get the rules verbally without ever reading them at all).
And that's why we can have fun picking them apart.
*For the record—it's correct.