The wrong direction for the presumed 5e

Posted in Uncategorized on July 6, 2011 by Atlemar

Mike Mearls is saying interesting things about the mechanics of D&D, which is leading a lot of people (including me) to believe we’re facing a coming Fifth Edition. I think Newbie DM was right when he noted it’ll probably be a 40th Anniversary Edition.

But based on Mearls’ columns, I think he’s going the wrong direction. Bashers say they hate 4e’s mechanics, but I think what they really hate is the presentation.

I think the best argument against 4e is that it discourages thinking outside the power card and the tactical encounter. An old-schooler would talk about how, back in the day, the PCs would set traps to lure monsters into, pepper the lair with arrows from range, and do other creative things to avoid combat. They don’t see that in 4e. Having DMd 4e, I can tell you those things are there, but they have to come from the player. The books are weak on telling the players those options exist.

Remember the AD&D 1e PHB? It was like 50 percent spells. And the 4e PHB is like 50 percent powers. But spells were a chapter in the back, while powers are pretty well up front. Crack a PHB open to a random-but-near-the-front page and odds are you’ll see a big pile of powers. And any particular class entry is mostly powers.

If the 4e PHB were reorganized so that the how-to-play chapters, the two big chapters on adventuring and combat, were more to the middle of the book, that would help. But the chapters also need stronger sections on improvising actions.

Also missing are more rules for talking before or during combat. The tactical encounters are set up for roll-initiative-and-fight. There are some rules allowing use of Intimidate to force bloodied monsters to surrender, but I’d like to see more explicit statements to the players that you can bluff, intimidate, cajole, wheedle and parlay your way out of a battle, too.

It’s little things like this that would return D&D to its perceived former glory. 4e is the best D&D ever, and 3e was pretty great too. The mechanical innovations that created these systems shouldn’t be discarded, but I think that’s where Mearls is heading — a mechanical solution to a perception problem, which is to say it won’t really solve the problem at all.

(We should totally go back to the classic alignments, though.)

The Platinum Badge

Posted in Uncategorized on April 28, 2011 by Atlemar

Justice, as we know it, is a modern conceit, no? The idea of innocent until being proven guilty, that it’s better to let a guilty man go free than to punish an innocent, and that there are procedures to follow to make sure rights are preserved — all these are from the last few centuries, and have little place in a game whose roots are in medieval Europe, amirite?

The local constabulary in a D&D campaign may have magical tools to ferret out the guilty, but the ethic, most likely, is older. If someone purloins a jewel from the duke and drops it in a peasant’s pocket, that peasant is screwed, condemned by weight of evidence right away. Justice is swift, because that’s the philosophy of the medieval era.

But there are reasons that the philosophy of law-enforcement, even the mundane, classless and magicless town guard, would uphold modern standards of justice. And those reasons are named Bahamut and Tiamat.

Platinum and chromatic, good and evil, male and female; split from Io, in the 4e cosmology, and utterly opposed. But their domains are two sides of the same coin: Bahamut is the god of justice. Tiamat is the god of revenge.

In the real world, justice and revenge operate on a continuum. One act, one decision, can be both. Our jail system is pulled between impulses to rehabilitate and punish. Felons might pay their debt to society, but they’ll forever lose some rights. We seek an eye for an eye, yet hope we won’t all end up blind.

But D&D isn’t the real world. Justice and revenge can’t be one and the same — at least, not in the eyes of servants of Bahamut.

So it makes sense that some who serve Bahamut — perhaps paladins, perhaps classless — would focus on this part of his domain, his philosophy, and set forth to preach and to teach. Their targets would be those local town guards, magistrates and constabularies. They would preach the virtues of justice without revenge, how it brings an orderly society while revenge brings only pain. And they would teach methods of logic, deduction, investigation and, yes, even the notion that the accused have rights.

This order of the church, which I’m calling the Order of the Platinum Badge, provides a logical reason for DMs to have your local NPC law-enforcement types act in a way that you might first think is anachronistic. It’s a good reason the sheriff might want your party to investigate a murder or robbery — really investigate in a detective-show way — rather than just pulling a usual suspect out of the alley between the warehouses by the river.

I’m totally using it next session. I just can’t tell you why. My players might read this.

Reconsidering the Essentials Classes

Posted in Uncategorized on March 30, 2011 by Atlemar

I’ve been an avowed opponent of the Essentials classes. But something has been happening to me — I have softened.

Part of it is that I had a misconception: that since feats are not listed on the level tables, players don’t get to choose them. You’d think the erroneousness of that conception would have sunk in when I leveled up Sola during the last season of Encounters, but no.

A big part was that I was focusing on the fighter builds. Essentials takes all the options available to fighters and distills them down to two, and I hate that. I also don’t see how “pick two stances” is easier than “pick two attack powers,” but whatever.

The real break came today. Driving home for lunch, I let someone in at a stoplight. A few seconds of thought later and I had a character concept — a good rogue who sees herself as out to avenge injustice, with a crossbow she named “Karma.” I’m borrowing the HotF* books, so I grabbed it to see if the rogue in that could pull it off.

That was the first time I really looked at the way the thief is built. And I like it. It builds on the progress from the monk and makes the thief more different from the ranger.

And then I looked at the mage some more. I’d been resistant, mainly because I got hung up on a character concept for a multi-implement caster, a dwarf (or dwarf-like human) with a staff in one hand, an orb in the other, and festooned with wands, rods, gems and staves — an arcane Swiss Army knife. But let’s face it, schools of magic are cool, and the way it’s being built in Essentials is a good thing. (I say being built because three schools aren’t enough, but they keep adding outside the HotF* books.)

And then I looked at the druid. I *love* the wild shape druid of PHB2, but the sentinel — with its healing and either defending or attacking animal companion — is pretty awesome too.

Then, today, the revised Warlord came out. It doesn’t close out the builds in Martial Power 1 or 2, which is good. But more importantly was the description in the intro text about the fighter — there’s a knight, there’s a slayer, and there’s a weapon master, who is trained in exploits. This gives me hope that the PHB fighter, with all its build options and its martial dailies, is not being cast aside, but brought into the fold and embraced.

I’m not entirely happy with it still, especially with the fact that pregens and Encounters will still be Essentials-only (and Encounters is the only organized play where I live). I’m especially unhappy with the warpriest. But I now see a lot more gold than I did before, alongside the crap.

Religious people vs. D&D

Posted in Uncategorized on February 10, 2011 by Atlemar

Every so often I see things like “Read an RPG Book in Public Week,” which I take to be aimed at demarginalizing RPGs. It’s a geek hobby even in a culture in which geeks supposedly rule, so let’s show those other people that we’re here!

And so, at least in my mind, the (and I know there must be a better word for this, but) opposition has been some sort of melding of jock and straight. Now that we’re adults, it’s the people in ties whose hobbies are more normal, watching baseball and fishing and really just watching TV. And I figured D&D was just really considered geeky and weird, by the same people who don’t play modern board games because they’re too hard.

But I’ve had two incidents recently that reminded me, rather shockingly, that D&D is still considered *bad* by people.

The first episode was sparked by my third-grader, who wants me to run a D&D game for him and his friends. I called one friend’s parents to ask if the friend could come. The mom called back and said no, one boundary they’ve drawn for their kid was that he couldn’t play Dungeons and Dragons, “because of the murders 10 years ago.”

There was some irony to this, because she had invited my kid to see a movie — Green Hornet — and we said no because of the language and nudity that are reportedly in the movie. She was nice about it, and we kind of laughed about it. I didn’t argue with her; I think that would have been the wrong thing, because even though she is basing her boundaries on incorrect information, I have to base this on parent-to-parent etiquette and what’s best for my kid.

Then, just yesterday, there was some conversation about religion at work. I needed a Bible quote for a particular situation, so I asked a colleague who’s married to a pastor if she knew of one. Sometime later, I was asked if I’m Catholic. I’m not sure why. Anyway, I told them I was raised Catholic but left, or rather just stopped going, in high school. I’m not religious; I’m not really anti-religious either, I just get nothing out of it. Minutes later, the conversation shifted to that we were annoyed that we had to work a late meeting on a Wednesday; I was missing D&D Encounters for the second week in a row, and my colleague was missing her Bible study. And she made a comment along the lines of, Dungeons and Dragons, that’s why you’ve got a problem.

I didn’t respond. We were already on the way to the meeting, and it wasn’t time to get into it.

So, the point: Apparently religious people (and the first mom, by the way, is from a churchgoing family; my wife, kid and I are not) are still thinking about, talking about, Dungeons and Dragons as a threat. If that mom is the same age as me, then she was in grade school when the hysteria in the ’80s ran, so she’s had plenty of time to let it fade and become only geeky. And “10 years ago?” Where did that come from? No doubt from the fact that people around her are STILL discussing it.

So how come I never hear us geeks talking about this?

Running a game for kids

Posted in Uncategorized on February 4, 2011 by Atlemar

I have a game coming up that I’m running for third-graders — my kid, a couple of his friends, and one friend’s older brother and dad.

I’ve decided on a few things:

I’m going to simplify combat. No opportunity attacks or shifting; no FRW. For characters that have attacks that target FRW, I’ll just put a +2 on their sheets to make up for the higher defense. (Well, maybe +2. I’m going to look closely at the monsters I’m using first, to make sure that’s a good number.) I’m also eliminating healing surges as a limited resource — characters will have a heal value, but won’t have to keep track of surges used. (And the adventure won’t require them to get anywhere near using them all.) And temporary hit points will just be added to normal hit points.

I’m making pre-gen characters and allowing them to choose. The characters will match figures. The dad will get less choice; he’ll have to cover unpicked roles (so probably end up with the cleric). All the powers will be the simple ones; high-damage, simple effects.

I’m making my own character sheets. Page one will have their skills. Page two will have their at-will attacks, AC and hit points.

They’ll receive their encounter powers on cards at the beginning of the first fight, and turn the cards in when they use them. In the second fight, they’ll get their encounter and daily powers on cards.

The story is, the PCs are students at the Baldur’s Gate Academy for Defenders of the City — basically, adventurer’s school. The school’s mascot, an animated statue of a hedgehog, has been stolen, and they have to find it.

I’m threading a needle between making it awesomely violent for the kids, and keeping the violence down to suit my wife. I want them to use their skills to investigate first, to figure out where it went. I’m thinking right now the first fight will be against a flock of rats and stirges in a cave tunnel, and the second will be the goblins from the Chaos Scar adventure “Eyes in the Forest.” The goblins will have captured the thieves — kids from the rival Neverwinter School of Sword and Sorcery — but the PCs will have orders to bring the thieves back alive.

A lot of the action will be choose-your-own-adventure type; my kid has played D&D before, but the others haven’t. I’m still brainstorming ideas for how to give the PCs leads — I want to have at least two things for most skills, but I suspect it’s going to be a matter of fast thinking on my feet to reward a successful use of just about any skill. You rolled Arcana? Sure, you can detect echoes of the magic they used to get past the defenses. Um, streetwise? Sure, you see the kid across the yard, I bet he knows something. (If you have any ideas, I’d love them.)

It’s going to be a nerve-wracking experience.

Why I hate Essentials

Posted in Uncategorized on January 3, 2011 by Atlemar

I don’t, really. Except parts of it. Starting with the name.

There’s nothing Essential about Heroes of the Starts-With-F Geographical-Unit books. They contain limited and limiting builds. There’s a good reason for these builds, but they are not in any way the core of the game. If they had put together basic builds that were actually based off the PHB classes — a sword-and-shield fighter with pre-chosen feats and powers — then yes. But these are Essentially Different. The cleric’s turn undead is a melee attack! That is crazy. The warpriest is a good specialized build, but it’s not a good generic build.

I hate that Essentials, overall, was a poorly done rush job. It shows in the Rules Compendium, which has all the weapon rules except several it leaves out — brutal, for example. What happens when a PC is below zero, gets healing that lets him spend a surge, but is out of surges? The Rules Compendium and Heroes of the F* contradict each other on that.

I hate the 6×9 books. Yes, they fit better on a crowded game table. But they don’t stay open, they’re going to come apart, the covers bend when you stick them in a bag. And the real reason I hate them is I love the look of the 30 4e hardcovers I already have, and these books don’t match. We’ve had hardcovers since 1e, and they’ve been great. I want more of them, and don’t expect to get any more.


Two things wrong with That Post on Woot

Posted in Uncategorized on January 2, 2011 by Atlemar

I could say a lot about that post on Woot bashing 4e. Like most 4e-bashing, it bashes the edition in a lot of nonsensical ways. (You know, there are lots of reasons someone could not like 4e. It turns the power level way up, and creates a different tone than the grittier, slower original. It’s like the difference between glossy full-color pages and plain black-and-white pages illustrated by hand drawings. Hm. But no, they always come up with crap like “there’s no role-playing.”)

Here are two things I’ll say:

Our DM explained that this was the best of all possible versions for numerous reasons that I pretended to listen to because honestly, I did not care.

Let’s be honest. The real reason people play the old school game is that it’s what they played when they were in school. They’re used to it, it’s comforting. It’s just not better. In fact, in Irony #1, Randall (the author of the post) cites the “Myopic Genius Factor” as a reason 4e sucks; the truth is that same factor is why old-school gamers are deluding themselves. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson invented a game; they didn’t perfect it. Just as novels have gotten better since the Victorian era, just as the screenwriting in old Doctor Who is often not as good as more recent versions, just as video games have gotten better since Pac-Man, just as board games have gotten better since Monopoly, role-playing games have gotten better since then. By damning new technology like a skills system that works and ACs that go up instead of down, old-school gamers like Luke of the Woot post damn themselves to the RPG version of a world without game consoles and cell phones. They’re the Amish of D&D.

Irony #2:

“It actually takes EFFORT to enjoy it.”

Are you kidding me? He just spent all this time complaining about how he died in the B/X game, and now he’s damning effort to enjoy something? Look, Randall, a first-level wizard in B/X is lucky to have 4 hit points. Once a day, he gets to cast a spell, and otherwise he’s throwing daggers. It can be enjoyed, but you have to put some effort into it.

On the other hand, a 4e character has enough hit points to survive a round, and enough spells that he can do something interesting every round. The first time I played 4e, the very first time, I loved it. Why? Because I had choices. I could make one of four different attacks, based on what I wanted to do. That’s because 4e has the technology to make every character different, not just in the drawing but in combat. Dwarves have rules that make them tougher, elves that make them better attackers. Sword-and-shield fighters have different effects on their opponents than one-big-axe fighters.

Seriously, Randall, don’t let Luke push you around. D&D in the 21st Century is really better than it was back in the day. Try a game of 4e, and try a game of Pathfinder. But old-school, man, those people are crazy.

And by crazy, I mean often in denial. They go on about the lack of role-playing rules in 4e, as if 1e was full of them. They damn dungeon crawls, as if Tomb of Horrors and Keep on the Borderlands weren’t. They’re remembering the fun they had with a great game 20 years ago and thinking it came from the system and not from their own heads. Crazy.


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