Friday, October 5, 2012

Lingering Innovations: Magic Systems

Looking at this recent Legends & Lore column, it seems like we might get Spells & Magic style magic systems again in D&D Next.

This is a little disappointing to me. Primarily because the article seems to trumpet this as some major innovation: the DM gets to control the magic system. Magic systems are not really something new in D&D. We even see some similar ideas in the third edition Unearthed Arcana and SRD: both recharge magic and spell points.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Where's the writing on the wall?

So, I just got back from a tiny excursion to Rome. My head is bursting with ideas. But one of the big things I'm taking back from visiting those monuments is the use of writing in a D&D game. So often we ignore that list of languages and some skills like history or religion on a character sheet, when they could be constantly used for hints.

VENUSTUS
First off, if literacy is common in a game, there will be graffiti. Whoever made it to a fancy overlook or a cave mouth or a ruined monument is likely to at least write their name on the walls or door. Its really no different from how things work today. Most of it will be useless stuff (think: Thomas was here) but some of it could be warnings etched in stone or scribbled on scraps of parchment or broken pottery. A lack of graffiti is also a key sign that you're not in terra incognita. But being able to distinguish between graffiti written by the original inhabitants of a dwarven city and the orcish invaders might be a key hint as to what's up ahead, where treasure may or may not lie, etc.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Rule of Law: Importing Eastern Ideas

Translating ideas from one culture to another can be difficult. Things don't match exactly, whether you're talking about words or institutions. But I think this can be done, and its one of my goals for the Rule of Law setting. To that end, I've been thinking about how a number of institutions from East Asian (mostly Japanese) culture could be imported into a western setting. I'm not looking to just add Samurai into a western setting, or to say that a game that uses Samurai and Ninja classes is bad. The goal of the Chinese Rome ideal is to translate concepts from a game I'm interested in playing into a language and milieu that some of my friends would be willing to do.

These are a few of the ideas that I think could fit:

Swords are restricted

One interesting and rather iconic era of Japanese history had strict arms control. That is, swords and other weapons were restricted to the higher casts. This would be an interesting import, as only citizens of the Empire or certain races might be allowed to use "real" weapons. Swords are restricted to nobles and warrior-caste types. Or, perhaps put otherwise, some races are banned from using swords: Elves, Gnomes, Halflings, Goblins, Orcs, etc. Dwarves might use axes and picks because they are their tools. Halflings would use sickles and staves because they're practical.  This restriction saw the rise of all types of non-weapon implements used as weapons in Japan. We don't need to import non-western weapons though. Rope weapons, sickles, scythes, flails... there are plenty of options in D&D without needing to borrow heavily from iconic eastern weapons.

Friday, September 28, 2012

The marriage of rules and setting

Reading some of the recent D&D Next articles, I'm struck with the endeavor to (re)define classic parts of the game without admitting they're creating a new setting. Take the recent article on Minotaurs, for example.

Minotaurism is now a curse (or at least dark pact?) relating to Baphomet. Or it could be, depending on who wins the concept battle. But what does this buy us for the game?

Without a setting, they're designing for nothing. A nice take on the Minotaur, possibly, but where does it fit in the grant scheme of things? Well, there's not a grand scheme for it to fit.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Episodic Games, not Epics

As a teacher, one of the hard things to learn is to tell a complete story in a lecture. You don't want to just keep plodding through the material in the book, but make sure each day starts with an introduction and ends with a conclusion. I think an RPG session should be very much the same.

This can be hard, because you want to plot out a nice epic. You have a vision of the end. Its one of your best ideas and showcases all your creative genius. But ultimately, I think this view of an RPG is somewhat flawed.

I'm guilty of this sin too. In the Dark Sun game I finished running a year or so ago, I had a great plot which answered a question for me about why a wooden spear killed a sorcerer king. I decided that the other sorcerer kings orchestrated it. The Heartwood spear wasn't a holy primal artifact, but dragon-forged. Everyone knew what Kalak was attempting with his ziggurat. But the other sorcerer-kings knew that they would be in danger if they acted together. Like a big game of chicken, no one would be willing to expose themselves by making the first move. So they set up mortals to do it.

A nice plot, but that doesn't help with each individual game session. I tried to plan things about the one piece of the puzzle that I wanted to reveal each game. Early on I planted the seeds so they would know that the sorcerer-kings each hated a different race and even tried to exterminate their enemies. I had a race by the different factions to find the Orbs of Kalid-Ma, the artifact that Kalak was using to attempt full dragon transformation, and also the Heartwood Spear which disappeared (confusing people to no end with talk of spheres and spears). Some games, however, fell short of that mark, I'm sure.

Part of the problem, I've come to believe, is 4e's emphasis on the encounter. I found myself plotting encounters much more than stories. The plot was in the background while encounters took more planning. It was easy, but that's one thing that left me feeling dissatisfied with the game. This is why the one-hour game session goal of D&D Next is so appealing.

So I've come to believe more and more than an RPG session needs to be treated more like a short story. Like a good episode of a TV show. Each revelation of the larger plot can be a shard in each adventure, but a session should, in general, have a beginning, a middle, and an end. That can be really hard with 4e, where you're more likely to plot the 3 encounters you'll have time to run.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Rule of Law: Regional Focus

One of my favorite RPG settings is Fading Suns. I routinely forget about it for a year or so here and there, but I keep coming back to it. One of the things I admire about it is the way the just about every story you can think of can be told with the setting. High fantasy world-saving stories, alien prophecies, zombie apocalypses, mythic quests, gritty and dirty politics... It's got it all.

But what does having that much room buy us? And alternately, what is the risk in breadth? And can we avoid some of those risks?

A game with a narrow focus is likely to be able to have better key mechanics. I slightly yearn to play Trail of Cthulhu for a good investigation game (with rules designed for investigation games!).  This type of game, however, is probably no good for anything other than they're designed for though, whereas Fading Suns can handle a lot.

With the Rule of Law, one of the things that I envision is the Chinese Rome notion, where all roads lead to the Empire. The Empire is a melting pot of cultures, but is still threatened by barbaric hoards and the diabolical (maybe even literally devil-bound) Elven Kingdom. I like the freedom to tell and retell the great myths and stories of human history. I worry that the game/setting might lack focus, however. In a game with everything, what's to stop the players from rolling up a paladin, infernal warlock, shaman, and inquisitor? How do you fit characters from the Arabian, Chinese, Incan, and Iroquois cultures in the game together?

That's why I'm interested in building a small number of possible regions for a focus, and using alignment for the party.

Monday, September 17, 2012

How many systems does a game like D&D need?

I've written before about unique class systems in D&D, but how many should there be? Clearly older editions, like Second Edition, had a bloat of independent systems. Third edition did wonders to try to unify many of these with the d20 mechanic (pick up a d20, roll high). Fourth edition rolled back some of these systems, or at least rolled them higher into the game's math. The early classes from the first two players' handbooks (and some from the third) followed the same template of at-will, encounter, and daily powers. But each class had its own unique (and often lengthy) list. Also, systems like feats and action points had every class participate, though feats might be restricted.

I think spells are one great system where powers can be shared. Even if there is a distinction between Arcane and Divine (And Primal? And Psionic?) magic, allowing classes like the sorcerer, warlock, and wizard to share spells means that no one class will get all the support (I'm looking at you, 4e Wizard/Mage/Witch/Sha`ir/Bladesinger especially compared to the artificer, swordmage, runepriest, and seeker). I think 4e discovered this in the essentials run, but it would have been great if there were more power-source based powers that all martial or arcane classes could share.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Rule of Law: Halfbreeds, Quadroons, and Octoroons in D&D

D&D has had half-elves for much of its life, and the archetype has a history in fantasy literature. But I'm also interested in adding some more variability in terms of race into my games.  I'm curious about how best to implement some similar racial options. So following some earlier thoughts I have on race and racism, I'm still thinking of this. I'm not talking about half-dwarves, half-goblins, and half-halflings. I'm talking about what happens to the children of half-breeds: the quadroons and octoroons.

D&D 4e Half Elves
Why bring up these antiquated terms? Well, its not like the quarter-breeds or eighthbreeds are a mysterious concept these days. I'd like to think that the world cares less about one's parentage than they did 50 years ago, but there's probably places where it is still quite important, and not just for acceptance in certain religious or cultural communities. As far as the terms go, there's really no 100% politically correct or even 100% unoffensive term to describe people of mixed origins like this. I'm going to use these two because they seem relatively inoffensive (You don't imagine that's the last word anyone hears as they're being murdered) and are somewhat descriptive such that someone, given the context, could reasonably guess what a quadroon or octoroon is.

I think these "races" also bring up issues of family history, potentially more than just the regular half-elves and half-orcs. Sure, you can spin a great tale about someone never knew his orc father, or the illicit love-child of an elven princess. But what about their children? What prejudices will they face? Not every character needs to deal with issues of racism, but I like the fact that it could be there and the game might address it, if not including rules for it. It also expands these niche races a bit. If the elfborn include not just those with an elven parent but also an elven grandparent... well, now you have more options that are mechanically distinct. You have another option for playing a character with elven heritage than the standard half-elf. And it keeps the racial mixing, unlike the reimagining of half-orcs that we see in D&D 4e.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Creating Characters: Lifepaths, Carrots, and Flaws

I've been speaking with some friends about creating characters lately, and my thoughts on the matter are changing a little.

I've definitely been in games where people portray rather flat characters. And I've seen a variety of mechanics in different games (Vampire and the other WoD games, Fading Suns, D&D, etc); none of them completely eliminates PCs who are bankrupt of all personality.

What would help this though? Well, some players are probably beyond help. Or, they're at least more than a simple trick or two away from a character with goals and motivation and personality. I've also seen people improve after playing for a while with different groups. It can happen.

Let's assume there are some remedies for flatcharacteritis. What are they? We can see some in character creation. Some games, like Fading Suns and Burning Wheel, have life paths. So you actually grow a character from cradle to the first adventure. Were you poor or wealthy? A city boy or a country kid? The priest who ministers to a flock will have different abilities than the monk in the abbey. Reign does this with a random roll system, so you have important events but you have to structure them into a story. But its all the same sort of approach: building a background and giving mechanics for it. This approach is nice because you get it all done right away

Monday, September 10, 2012

Necromancy and Necromancers in Heoric D&D

Necromancy has always been a popular subject in RPGs and fantasy fiction. Usually, necromancers and undead are the villains. So when I look at the Necromancer theme/specialty in the new playtest, I'm a bit unsettled.

First, its great that they include it. 4e went far too long without a good mechanical way to support this archetype. Reflavoring can only take one so far, though the Shaman did relatively well as a necromancer type. It doesn't even take much searching to find a small host of third party OGL necromancy products, so the necromancer is probably popular/iconic enough to warrant some treatment in the basic D&D rules.

3.5/OGL products:
  • Hollowfaust: City of Necromancers (Sword and Sorcery Studios)
  • Necromancy: Beyond the Grave (Mongoose)
  • Encyclopaedia Arcane Necromancy (Mongoose)
  • Secret College of Necromancy (Green Ronin)
  • The Dread Codex (Adamant)
  • The Dread Codex 2: The Necromancer's Tome (Adamant)
  • Necromancer's Legacy: Gar'Udok's Necromantic Artes (EN)
So why does this new necromancer theme grind my gears? Simply put, its not a necromancer.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Rule of Law: Race

One of my goals with the Rule of Law setting is to be able to explore some complex social, moral, and philosophical issues. So tying these questions into the basics of the fantasy world is a high priority to me. Race is one pretty clear way to bring up some of these issues, particularly social class and racism. But some philosophical issues also come to the fore.

First, the game is art. And art is one way that we not only try to express ourselves, but to explore how we feel. RPGs are a different kind of art, and they let us explore things differently than more physical forms like painting or sculpture. An RPG is also entertainment. But good literature or poetry both is an attempt to express the human condition and a type of entertainment. An RPG need not be any different in that respect. So when I write that I think racism is an interesting topic to explore, I mean that we can use RPGs to explore these all-too human feelings.

But racism exists in this world, and to assume it doesn't exist in a fantasy world ignores the sorrow that exists here and now. Portraying non-humans in an RPG, or at lest in the Rule of Law, should give one a sense of how marginalized people might feel, or how easy it is to hate someone just because they're different.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Classes for D&D Revisited

I've posted about class lists before, but my ever changing thoughts on the matter are here again. Since my big document o' thoughts has things listed differently, I thought I'd take the time to think about the changes that I've made any why. I should also note that this list is somewhat setting-specific. There's no need for some of these in a setting based on the Incas or Celts, for example. I think that these fit a really broad setting that incorporates traditional western fantasy but also some non western (specifically East Asian and Southeast Asian) fantasy elements.

I currently have six class groups: Warrior, Knight, Scoundrel, Magician, Priest, and Ascetic.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Rule of Law: A Chinese Rome

One of my beefs with a lot of the fantasy worlds floating around these days is that they're pretty euro-centric. That's not necessarily bad, but it leaves out a lot of concepts and archetypes that I'm interested in exploring.
Could this represent a Druid too?
One of may favorite aspects of Fading Suns is that you can use the setting to tell so many stories. Sure, at heart its a sci-fantasy space opera game, but you can tell stories of zombie plagues, dirt-farmers who barely leave their hometowns, or spaceship odysseys. The setting is so broad that its hard to find a concept that can't fit with a little modification. From intergalactic hobos to alien freedom fighters, its got just about everything.

So that's where I'd like to take the Rule of Law setting that I originally developed with some friends a few years back. The term that I'm using is Chinese Rome. And the idea behind that is things are familiar, but also new. Crucially, grounding things in the familiar is important for me.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Party Coherence

I've been reflecting a lot on D&D lately (I partly blame Antagonist Relations), specifically on the history and rules. But the game is really in the playing. A ruleset is a tool, better for some tasks than others. But any rule set will generally get the job done. What we don't really see rules for in RPGs, however, is party coherence.

I'm not sure why that is, but I suspect it stems from the general lack of social rules and cooperative attitude that games like D&D engender. What is party coherence though? My ideas on this are colored by my old LARP experience.

See, I used to play LARPs at conventions. These weren't long-term things, just one four-hour game. But the social interaction there required a skeleton of player knowledge. This was generally done by a lengthy list of the characters in the game and a short description of your relationship to each one. So-and-so was your brother in the Mafia family, or in your delegation at the peace conference. So-and-so was your rival, the person you wanted to take down. Without this basic background info, you were lost in this type of political intrigue game.

Some of the people who ran those games also ran D&D games at convention I used to frequent. And you see the same sort of thing in a convention game. My favorite one had my friend JG as my daughter, and I suspected that this other guy that I knew was playing my son that I put up for adoption. Instantly I had connection to the rest of the party. It was awesome.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

When the Story was in the Stars

I was just recently reminded of a quite amazing Fading Suns game that I ran/played in a number of years back. I didn't document it as much as I might have liked now, but we tried. It was a great little game though, which lasted about two years. The original idea was for a character-focused drama, in the line of Outlaw Star and Cowboy Bebop. I even went so far as to post Tv-guide style summaries of some of the sessions, and title the arcs. I'm sure I might have more in my lost notes on some old backup CD somewhere. The best, of course, being the Revenge is a Big Fat Wealthy Bitch arc, where the party got revenve on a Scraver casino owner who had busted their balls in the Maltese Gargoyle incident in her casino earlier.

When I read the title of one of the episodes of that arc, Follow That Bitch!, I laughed out loud.
I'd like to get back into Fading Suns, or a similar game, eventually. Its really some of the character-driven stuff that I miss (along with playing in general). I think D&D makes some longer-term things easier, but some of the stricter party structure can make it harder to improvise or deal with missing characters. Even when you're not playing 4e, you know its going to be hard if you're missing one PC.
I've always said (or at least often remarked) that D&D is about 3 parts combat, two parts puzzles, and one part roleplaying. That's not necessarily true, but its what the rules lead one to believe. Its well-suited for busting into ancient tombs and finding treasure, but not always my tool of choice for doing more character-centered stuff. Right tool for the job and all that.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Second Wind + Rampage = a Heroic Moment? or Action Points revised.

D&D 4e introduced a lot of interesting elements to the game. Despite its focus on math and balance, I think some of these features are really good, because the add to the narration as well as being viable in combat. Some of these disparate features could be linked, however, and I've got an inkling of how to do it.

Second wind allows PCs to spend one of their own healing surges in combat, so its basically a self heal. The concept doesn't quite match the mechanic though, because one doesn't necessarily control a second wind in real life. It does, however, capture that heroic moment when the protagonist manages to shake off their pain, stand up again, and whump whump whump. So over all, I think its a good mechanic, though it might be better with a little tweaking. Depending on how HP works, it may be divorced from surges. I'd also be interested in seeing how it might work as slightly random. It also might be a good candidate for an actual daily power, as it makes some sense that you might not be able to catch a second wind multiple times a day.

This brings me to a random class feature: the Barbarian's Rampage. When he scores a critical hit, the barbarian can make a free charge attack. This is a neat feature, but I don't know that I really saw it come into play. Its also not really modifiable, except by what boosts critical hits. So barbarians with Rampage get an extra benefit from their critical hits, meaning they ought to get things to boost those.

As I was thinking about this, these two mechanics seem like they do the same sort of thing. They represent that heroic moment when someone pushes through the pain and tries to pull off a minor hail mary.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Days and time in RPGs

There's a lot of hullabaloo going around these days about daily powers in RPGs. Now, of course, this is focused on D&D Next, but it really has a broader impact than that. Its hard to say if the hatred for daily powers is even a matter of play style or simulation versus narration, because what does a daily power represent? This is the whole five minute work day issue, but also ties into the quadratic wizards, linear fighters issue. I'll try to focus here on the five-minute workday though. I think the issue is slightly odd day-based game-design in a game where days aren't the right time frame. I've talked about this before, but mostly in the context of healing. I want to focus on daily powers here.

First, Daily powers have a long history in D&D. The magic system, of course, has daily re-charges. But the paladin, monk, and many classes from Oriental Adventures all use the game day as a unit of rest. Daily power refreshing is a stable of D&D, but does it have to be? Does a daily refresh lead to a five-minute workday?

Even in the early days of D&D, spells weren't quite "daily". There was an extensive spell memorization requirement. It took 15 minutes per spell level to memorize a spell. So a low level magic user might study her spell book for an hour or two, but a high level magic user might literally take days to memorize her full allotment of spells. To be precise, that's six hours for a seventh level magic user to memorize all her spells, sixteen and a half hours for a 12th level magic user, and almost 35 hours of study for a 20th level magic user. Surely if you followed these rules in first edition, a party can't just "go nova", rest for a day, and then return to cast its way through the next level of the dungeon. Five minute work day? Not exactly.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

What makes a tabletop RPG "videogamey"?

One vague criticism that's often leveled against D&D in the past decade is that it's "videogamey", whether it was third edition being like Diablo or 4th edition being like World of Warcraft. But what does this criticism mean?
On the surface, it seems to be an emotional way of saying "I don't like it." But I think it goes a little deeper than that. I think it all comes down to creativity at a personal level.
First, of course D&D (or any tabletop RPG) is going to be like a videogame, because many aspects of RPG videogames were derived from D&D in the first place. In fact, if you go back to the 80s and 90s you'll find D&D video games. Surely those were videogamey? Let's move beyond that though.
  • A tabletop RPG relies on gamemaster creativity, a video game does not.
This gets at one of the core grognard complaints, that third and fourth edition reduce the role of the DM to a glorified calculator, with concepts like wealth-by-level, XP budgets, and the like. I don't mean to imply that earlier editions of the game didn't have crazy subsystems or nit-picky rules for things like falling damage, but the trend towards balanced encounters and treasure parceling is one way in which D&D might feel videogamey.
  • A tabletop RPG relies on player creativity, a video games does not.
I distinctly remember playing a intro 4e game with some friends, and crushing one of their souls as the DM when he wanted to charge an enemy and push him through the window of a cottage. Sure, it can be done in 4e, but if you want to follow the rules its hard to see how that desired action should be implemented. Conversely, when all your options are laying out in front of you in the form of power cards, you tend to think in terms of those categories, rather than going outside the box. So the proliferation of fixed powers is one way that makes recent editions of D&D feel videogamey.
  • A videogame is repetitive, D&D is not.
This criticism goes along with the criticism of the powers system from 4e and some of the class features of third edition. Video games tend to have either unlimited magic attacks or a spell point system, so that you blast away repeatedly with your best attacks. You kill the same set of enemies over and over again in the hopes that they drop better items. You wander around the same maze, searching for fruit and using your power-ups to defeat your ghostly enemies each level. Tabletop RPGs do repetitive things, but in more creative ways. Crucially, in a tabletop RPG, player creativity lessens repetitiveness, or at least it has the potential to do so.

The criticism of videogameyness, then, is really a criticism for having too many spelled out rules. Or at least that's one reasonable and logical component of the criticism. Going back to those old D&D video games, you see it there too. Focusing on the mechanical level, attacks--both magical and mundane--have only one fixed effect. Unless the programmers code it, you can't hide up on that crumbling wall and rain down death on the kobolds from above. Any computer adaptation of D&D loses a lot of spontaneous creativity on the part of the player and DM. It gains some vital benefits: video games do not require a troop of friends and a parent's basement (or other suitable playspace).

Now, as a DM, I loved the encounter building in 4e. It was, by and large, easy. Especially with the online tools, you could easily sort through things and find a slew of appropriate monsters, traps, and hazards with ease. The d20srd has some searchability, so third edition and pathfinder have some of the same options, though I don't find the searching or encounter building to be quite as nice as 4e.
Is there a solution to this problem? I think so. Consider the hypothetical fighter. People complain that he has a lack of options, but I think their complaint is that its not clear what a fighter should be able to do besides swing his sword. Learning distinct maneuvers to disarm, bullrush, knock someone down, etc. is tedious, and distinct mechanisms for that will lead to accusations of videogaminess. It also shouldn't be required that people constantly push their enemies with their basic attacks, which is one fault of 4e. But listing options and plausible effects of those options (e.g. pushing someone in combat might knock them back five feet under normal conditions) will spark some creativity. And adding one more option, along the lines of "Preform some other awesome feat" in addition to "Disarm", "Trip", "Bullrush", and the like might just help remind people to think outside the box, while at the same time giving them some notion of the size and shape of the box.

If this approach is adopted, the problems people see with the magic of 4e (and to a lesser extend 3.5) might rectify themselves as well. In 4e, a wizard might use scorching burst all day long and never start his opponent's hair on fire or damage their priceless tome implement. Some of that good immersive verisimilitude gets lost in those mechanical descriptions. But some general advice for keywords (spells with the fire keyword might start fires), and creative uses for these spells may return en masse. This is the sort of spontaneous creativity that people play RPGs for, and why a computer game--at least in the foreseeable future--just can't compete. When rules systems are seen as emulating computer games in this way (e.g. fixed and exhaustively defined options which may be divorced from any secondary effects), the criticism of videogaminess is probably valid.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Does each class need a unique mechanic to "play" differently?

This is a topic I'm still a little undecided on. But the direction of 4e and the discussions of the new edition of D&D lead me to suspect that the design team wants each new class to "play" differently, which might mean a new core mechanic for each class.

The problem is, this hasn't really been true for D&D. From the basic D&D days, Dwarves and Halflings were variant fighters, while Elves were fighter/mages. Unique, maybe, but they certainly didn't have a unique set of mechanics. Clerics and magic-users both cast spells, though from different lists.

By the time we move to third edition, we begin to see a proliferation of classes. Sure, second edition AD&D had kits galore, but few new classes. Specific campaigns like Dark Sun and later Ravenloft saw new and variant classes (Gladiator, Templar, Avenger, Gypsy) to replace banned/unused ones (often Paladins), and but few new classes like the barbarian, shaman, and ninja were really presented outside the core books in the generic materials.

Third edition saw a real proliferation of classes, yet they were by-and-large variants of one another. Archivists were scholarly divine casters that functioned like wizards, favored souls, spirit shamans, and such were divine casters that functioned more like sorcerers. The Samurai, Hexblade, and Swashbuckler were basically fighter variants, while the ninja, scout, and spellthief were rogues, more or less. There were some innovative classes, like the warlock and marshal, but even these got later variants (Dragonfire Adept and Dragon Shaman). There were some late innovative classes too, like the martial adepts from Tome of Battle, new magic-users from Tome of Magic, and the whole Incarnum stuff I never got into. But even these presented classes as variations on the theme mechanics.

In fourth edition, we start to see some more notions that classes need distinct mechanics, not just powers. While all the defender classes used marks early on, they accessed them in different ways and felt "different", and later essentials defenders used defending auras which were a variant on the mark. Striker classes mostly got distinct damage mechanisms (Extra dice of damage for warlocks, rogues, and rangers though with different conditional restrictions, etc). Even leaders had the same healing word mechanic with subtle tweaks. Controllers never really had their own unified mechanics, which might be one reason why people consider the invoker to just be a divine wizard.

Which is better though? Should fighters have some unique mechanic that only they can access, such as stances or maneuver dice? Is it enough for wizards, warlocks, and sorcerers to have differential access to arcane magic (along with Bards and certain other classes?), or do they need their own set of spells and powers? Is a paladin really just a dude with limited access to cleric and fighter powers, or is he defined by his auras, challenges, smites, or ability to lay on hands?

Monday, July 30, 2012

Fixing the D&D Fighter

I've never been particularly fond of playing fighters in D&D. I've done it a number of times, but usually for one-shot games. I'm a bit of a caster at heart, but there are ways to play a warrior with a little magic that satisfies my cravings. Except the fighter class is rather dull. I think we find some of the insight to fixing the fighter in the 4e essentials line, the Book of Nine Swords, and also back in the Complete Ninja's Handbook.

Simple is good, don't get me wrong. But there aren't a lot of options one could opt into. My real beef, mostly, is that fighter options tend to force them into being one-trick ponies. And even Pathfinder really didn't do much to fix the lack of real options for the fighter. Some of these ideas are there, but they're overshadowed by a focus on weapons and armor.

Look at weapon specialization, for example. In earlier editions of the game, it is just plain superior to some basic magic weapons. Meaning its better to just keep using your longsword (or upgrade to a magic +1 longsword) than that +2 battle axe that you found. In some iterations of the game/class, you might focus on all axes, rather than just the battle axe, but the effect is the same: every fighter becomes the kensai or weapon specialist.

These specialist feats say: use the flail for bonus x. Use the spear for bonus y. Use the axe for bonus z. In and of itself, this isn't bad. Except there's multiple feats or options for each weapon. So you stack them all up until your fighter really isn't nearly as awesome without his specialized weapon.

Now, some of this comes about from all weapons being functionally equal as well. In 4e, there's no difference between slashing, piercing, and bludgeoning weapons. In third edition there is, but I'm not sure if it ever came up in play for me, except maybe with skeletons. At any rate, the fighter should be able to switch weapons as needed and still be pretty awesome, unless he consciously chooses an option to be the kensai.

What does that leave for fighters to specialize in? Fighting styles. And I don't mean styles that emulate weapon specialization like a spear and shield, rapier & main-gauche, or sword & board type specializations. I'm talking about martial arts.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Spellcasters, Spellslots, and Quadratic Wizards

Archmages don't bother with puny magic missiles.
One of the thing that irks me about D&D Next is the bizarre spell slot system. Not that it exists, because it seemed to function just fine in earlier editions of D&D. No, what grinds my gears is the idea of applying the Heightened Spell feat (in some way) to every caster class.

See, in the beforetimes, a wizard could memorize a number of magic missile spells, a number of fireballs, and so forth. Even with Spells and Magic, a wizard had a sort of finite spell memory.

The idea of Heightened Spell is using spell slots of higher level to cast more potent lower level spells. But what's missing is the theory for why a wizard can memorize Magic Missile as a third level spell for greater effect.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Overcoming the D&D 15-minute workday

The Heroes of the Lance didn't have a 15-minute workday.
One of the often cited problems of the magic system in D&D (along with many class powers) is that it suggests that adventurers should use all their powers to solve their problems, wait a day to regain them, and do it again. In my experience with D&D, we rarely had this sort of problem, though occasionally there were discussions about waiting another day to regain spells and such. This is generally a problem of thinking about the resources over the story, but I can see how it could really be a major problem for certain players.

A further complication with this problem is that it means some types of adventures (i.e. journeys) might be played completely differently than short delves or investigations. Part of this, in 3.5 and 4e where map-and-mini combats are the norm, means that DMs are less inclined to have many encounters a day during wilderness treks (or just star-wipe to the dungeon's entrance and skip the journey altogether) because of the set-up involved. But adventures based on longer units of time will have this issue.

I think there are a few ways to alleviate this problem, but not all of them are equally good:

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The trouble with themes

When I read about themes in D&D Next, I can't help but cringe a little. I'm not opposed to the idea in principle, but they seem quite nebulous at the moment. And ultimately, I'm not sure that they'll do much for the game.

First, what are themes? The latest news from the playtests is they are a feat delivery mechanism. So, your wizard can be a guardian or a slayer or a thief or a healer by choosing the right theme, which is presumably a list of pre-determined, thematic feat choices.

So here's the first concern. What makes for a good theme and how many will there be? Its presumably anything you want, from Archer to Zymergist, with stops at demonologist and knight along the way. Nice to be able to customize a character, but I can't help but feel that themes are going to be the new prestige class, paragon path, or kit. There'll be an overwhelming number of them scattered throughout a bunch of books. Assuming each theme might come with 3 feats, that's either a lot of feat permutations (how many will grant cantrip access or two-weapon fighting?) or a lot of new feats (let's face it, there's going to be hundreds of themes eventually, right? There's 93 currently in the character builder for 4e and 574 paragon paths...).

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The history of divine magic in D&D

In D&D, when a cleric casts a spell, what really happens? The rules are pretty clear on the mechanics of bless or cure light wounds but what about the story? Are the deities aloof, or do they intervene in the world? D&D has taken a number of positions on this issue.

The earliest position is that clerical spells are similar to wizard spells, but a cleric prays for each spell on a regular basis. His deity grants that spell to him, and when he wants to cast it again, he must pray again the next day. Acting against the tenets of the religion may interfere with a cleric's spellcasting powers at the DM's discretion. This is the basic position of the earliest editions through early second edition.

One alternative that is generally presented in early D&D is that a cleric may worship a philosophy or force (i.e. goodness) instead of a deity. Who 'grants' the cleric spells isn't really defined in this alternative system. This system, however, seems to be targeted at groups who want to portray clerics but don't want to get into the details of developing and portraying a fictional religion.

Over the course of second edition, a few alternative perspectives arose. Al-Qadim developed a religion of enlightened gods who represented ideals (bravery, adventure, wisdom, etc.) and let their churches and priests be differentiated based on cultural aspects (the Pantheonists only admitted 5 enlightened gods, while the Temple of 10,000 Gods admitted them all). The Dark Sun setting, instead, split clerics into elemental worshippers and those who gained their power by serving neigh-omnipotent sorcerer-kings. Elemental priests got their spells from a nebulous somewhere, whereas the templars clearly got their spells from an active agent in the world.

Third edition presents clerics much as before, though they have ways of channeling their deity's power without spells. Third edition clerics are still at the mercy of the DM if they act against the wishes of their deities.

Finally, fourth edition frees clerics from the tyranny of the DM by making the gods aloof in the world. Clerical magic (same for Paladins and Avengers, though not Invokers or Runepriests) is granted by an ordination ceremony, which allows the Cleric to channel the powers of the astral sea. They technically don't need to worship the deity for a second after that ceremony, and can continue casting spells all day long. This also differentiates divine magic from arcane magic, as divine magic arises from the astral sea. One strange effect here, however, is that all clerics draw upon the same pool of powers, so clerics of evil deities, sea deities, or darkness are also liable to be slaying their foes with holy radiance. Divorcing clerical magic from worship of the deities may seem odd, but it also means that a cleric cannot lose spellcasting powers if he does something against his faith. Given the edition's power system, this is important as any character who loses access to his powers is crippled.

Two of the more curious systems arose in the second edition Spells and Magic book. While tied to a complex spell-point system, divine magic was presented with two interesting options that DMs could use. The first is ritual prayer, and the second is conditional magic.

In the ritual prayer system, the cleric's deity isn't invested in the cleric's prior actions, but just the act of completing the ritual properly:

"In this system, the deity or power is concerned more with the priest’s show of devotion and observance of the proper form, and considers the priest’s actual situation to be irrelevant—after all, martyrs are made every day."

Here, we get a solid system for clerical magic in which the deities are aloof and seem to take no part in the affairs of the world. Clerical magic is ritualized, and rushing the ritual is likely to reduce the power of the spell. Conversely, ritual prayer made by a ritually pure priest (observant, not necessarily pious) with the proper offerings ad the proper place and conducted with care can produce spectacular effects. With the right casting conditions, even previously expended spells can be cast again! Its all about the motions, however. In this way, the ritual prayer system can be seen as a precursor to the 4e system. Moreover, it links the cosmology (aloof deities) to the magic of clerics.

These aloof deities make divine magic feel much more like the magic in the D20 Conan game and Conan universe in general. While independent sorcerers exist, many are trained in the priesthoods of these aloof and alien deities. Whether or not the god even exists is not important: it is the ritual training of the priests that give them sorcerous abilities.

The inverse system is also presented as Conditional Magic. In this system, the gods carefully answer each prayer based not necessarily on the urgency of the petitioner but on the probability to influence the world in a way the deity prefers. When a cleric casts a spell, you tally up the total of positive and negative conditions. If it is skewed heavily positive (casting a spell to smite the deity's enemies in a holy place, etc.) the spell is cast at a higher caster level or reduced in cost. If it is skewed negatively, the spell is more costly or weaker.

The conditional magic system presents interventionist deities, and their tools are their clerics. The mechanics explicitly reward clerics for advancing their deity's agenda and penalties for working against it. This codifies some of the DM fiat where by the DM may simply neuter a cleric by taking away all his spells.

The idea of interventionist deities can be clearly seen in the Dark Sun novel Rise and Fall of a Dragon King:

"O Mighty Hamanu! Lion-King, Lord, and Master, hear me!"A distant voice echoed in Hamanu's mind. The totality of his awareness raced backward, along a silver thread of consciousness through the Unseen netherworld, to the source.
"Armor! I crave invincible armor and earthquake!
"The Gray was charged with acid needles, and Hamanu's vision, when he opened his sulphur eyes above the desperate templar, was streaked with lurid colors. There was powerful magic—someone else's powerful magic—in the vicinity.
"O Mighty Hamanu! Hammer of the World! Grant me invincible armor and earthquake!
"Squinting through the magic, Hamanu made out chaos and bloodshed: a full cohort of his own templars outnumbered by ragtag brigands. Or, not brigands. Another moment's study discerned a well-armed, well-drilled force disguised for brigandage. In the midst of the Urikites' impending defeat, a militant, a human man with tears of panic streaming down his face, raised his bronze medallion and entreated the Lion-King for the third time:
"O Mighty Lion, grant me invincible armor and earthquake, lest I die!
"A wise invocation—in its way. An earthquake, if Hamanu empowered the spell to create one, would swallow everything on the battlefield, friend and foe alike, except for the invincibly armored militant. Though sacrifice was necessary in battle, the Lion-King of Urik was not in the habit of rewarding militants who'd save themselves and doom the lesser ranks and mercenaries they led. He'd have considered granting the earthquake while withholding the invincible armor—and savored the militant's death—if the netherworld turbulence wouldn't have negated any spell he granted.

If you want to portray deities like that, the basic D&D cleric system of divine magic doesn't quite cut it, though using the conditional magic system definitely helps.

These two systems nicely define and differentiate two distinct types of deities: aloof vs interventionist. It is even somewhat easy to imagine distinct classes using different systems, such as a Dark Sun game where the elemental clerics use ritual prayer while templars (and druids?) use conditional magic.

These two systems are but a small part of the magic of the cleric class (and related classes). The new edition of D&D will probably present a generic system as D&D has historically done, which can be modified somewhat to suit different worlds. I do hope, however, they they make it easy for these distinct visions of divinity to be mechanically bound to the setting.

Certain classes are even linked to the role of the deities in the game. The 4e Invoker class is essentially a prophet compared to the cleric's priest. I use these in the sense of the Hebrew bible and the ancient near east, where the priests worked the temple and prophets were charismatic leaders who claimed to speak directly for their deity, often leading small bands of devoted followers. If the deities are all interventionist and use their churches and clerics to intervene, there isn't much space for a distinct prophet class. Conversely, in a game where deities are largely aloof, a prophet who is called to reform the church, lead the chosen to safety, or combat the deity's enemies becomes very different and viable class from the ritual-prayer priest.

Ultimately, the state of divine magic in D&D is a prime case for wedding the rules to the system. I hope the designers of the new edition keep this in mind.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Classes for D&D Next

I've discussed what makes a class, and some class options here before, but when I lay my ideas out, they don't look too bad. This is the latest version of my list of the best classes to include in D&D Next, or any retroclone. I've put the list together here and broken it down into four categories: basic, intermediate, advanced, and later-on. These could have just as easily been basic, expert, master, optional, or common, uncommon, rare, unique. The labels for the four classes aren't particularly important, they just show a ranking of what is probably core to every D&D game, moves onto traditional classes, then some less-traditional or non-western classes, and some others that could be added.

There are lots of classes out there for various versions of D&D. Some are well done (thematic and make balanced or at least useful party members), others less so. Many are designed for PCs, while others are for NPCs. I've tried to narrow the list down to the classes that I think offer broad coverage of character archetypes and are appropriate for PC use. Each of these probably can be built with a customizable "build" option, so fighters might have fighting styles, rogues have their talents, clerics their domains and deities, and wizards their specialty schools. Likewise, druids might venerate specific forces, sorcerers might have their bloodlines, warlocks their pacts, ans so forth.

Just about every game will have the four basic classes. The intermediate classes add some more options, but don't really stray from the realm of standard (A)D&D fantasy. Advanced classes do dip into some non-western options, and options that might provide more moral dilemmas and may not be appropriate for every heroic game. Finally, I have a few concepts that are probably class-worthy, but might be better added in specific campaign settings. This simply follows some of the class ideas laid out by the D&D Next designers, its not my innovation at all.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Getting D&D cantrips right

I gave my opinion of the wizard class and cantrips before, and I'm still more or less of that mind. So the first playtest with boring at-will attack cantrips was a bit disappointing to me. Thankfully, Mike Mearls has indicated they are or have been considering a different approach to cantrips and that cantrips might be a little strong as they're currently implemented. The whole and most relevant quote goes like this:

mepstein73: Hello! Just wondering why the wizard's cantrips are so strong. Ray of Frost can end combat pretty quickly, and Magic Missile is very powerful if it's unlimited/day. 
Mearls: I think that for at-will abilities, we might have made them a little overpowered a bit in terms of math and feel. For instance, does it feel OK that magic missile does auto damage every round? The speed thing on ray of frost is tricky, because it can vary from being very powerful to being useless. I think getting the minor spells right will take a few iterations. 
Jeremy Crawford: When we playtest things, we prefer to start powerful and tone things down, rather than starting weak and beefing things up, hence the spells' potency.

Some friends reports and forum posts have suggested that the at-will cantrips and the auto-hitting magic missile specifically make the playtest wizard boring. The wizard isn't even rolling to hit with magic missile, whereas the sun cleric at least needs to hit with his lazers.

I really hope they tone down the cantrips in D&D Next. Hopefully in the next version of the play test. I think that these cantrips need to be really carefully crafted, as well as numerous. There should be clear low-level effects and/or guidelines in the DMG for adjudicating the low-level effects of cantrips. Low-level effects, or example, should be seen in the light spell. The light cantrip shouldn't be better than a torch. Call it torchlight, floating lantern, or whatever. Light, as a first level spell, used to double as a blinding spell (target your enemies eyes!), so that seems about right for a first level spell. Plus there's that creative use of spells, right? A sorcerer would almost never take light as a first-level spell, but creative uses makes these spells useful.

There should also be two or more cantrips per school of magic (just like at each spell level). This is both in general for variety, but also assuming that specialty wizards will reappear. I love abjurers, but if you only have one abjuration cantrip option, that's not too thematic.


Now, one problem with fantasy literature, TV, and film is that the wizard often has a role of an aloof mentor or as a bumbling fool. In terms of He-Man, the wizards are the Sorceress and Orko for the good guys. The PC wizard needs to be something a little in-between. When used creatively, and in the right situation, wizard spells should make an encounter dramatically easier for the PCs.

So I'm going to try my hand here at two possible cantrips:

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Lingering Innovations: The Runepriest and Runecaster

Runes have been a source of inspiration in D&D, probably since the beginning. Nordic rune magic can be seen in the old spell lists, but the journey from a few spells to the recent runepriest class isn't strait forward.

I've been pretty critical of the runepriest class in the past. I just don't like how it was implemented. For example, why strength as the key ability score? Constitution, at least, would make some sense given the lore of sacrifice to gain the power of runes. Wisdom as well, since runes have a tradition of insight about them, rather than intellectual cunning per se. What is interesting is the choice to make rune magic a type of divine magic, and labeling its wielders priests. There is a precedent for this, however. I'm going to stick just to the D&D examples of runes here though, rather than going afield into other RPGs.

Basic D&D

The first systematic predecessor to the runepriest that I've found so far comes in 1988. The Northern Reaches (GAZ7) for the basic D&D system doesn't present a specific class of rune-users, but instead gives northern priests access to a system of rune magic. I actually think its quite ingenious for the time. Rather than introducing a new runecaster class (see below), clerics gain access to a small series of second- and third-level rune spells (2 interpret, 2 bless, 3 know, and 3 inscribe rune), which they uses to access a system of runes.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The new pace of healing in D&D

While I'm generally happy with what I've seen in the D&D Next playtest, one thing that I'm still a bit unhappy about is the rate of healing. Now, I've written on healing here before, but I think this warrents a new post. Basically, I think they've got the rate of healing wrong for the timeline.

I'd like to spell out first why the daily healing mechanic found in the D&D Next playest (and 4e) is wrong, and suggest one possible solution for this.

Recall that the adventure is the new encounter. This means that the standard of balance is adventure-based, and the adventure is the timing unit that designers are supposed to be thinking about. So fighters might do more in combat but less during exploration and interaction, and that's fine. A fighter's background and theme and race may play more of a role in the other areas to make up for his class not doing that.

But the rate of healing, along with the rate of spell recovery, is daily. The day and the adventure are not the same. So I'm really opposed to daily healing, meaning a PC recovers all or most of his health (hit points, surges, hit dice, whatever) each day.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Lingering Innovations: The D&D Shaman

Its no secret that I like the idea of having a shaman class in D&D. But I will reveal another secret: I've been updating the wikipedia page on the Shaman.

Now, its not perfect. My update probably still violates a lot of wikipedia good form and such, but the information is significantly improved. I'm trying not to go overboard with including shaman information everywhere since many of the other class pages (the whole section in general) needs some significant revision. But when I finish, it should be much more useful to people. Its hard to do this type of research though when you're not in the US with access to large piles of D&D books though. Feel free to join in on the work. Wikipedia is always a collaborative effort.

I should also note, maybe, that the shaman was listed as one of the 15 or so core D&D classes before I started messing with it. But I think wikipedia had that one right. The shaman has a long and interesting history in D&D, and I've learned a few quite interesting things thus far about the Shaman.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Flatter Math

Yesterday's Legends and Lore column rocks.

I was concerned about the flattening of the math from the playtest because the ability score modifiers are the same as in 4e and 3e. But now I think I like what they're doing with the math here. Dumping a stat completely (which often happened in 4e, maybe less-so in 3e) becomes more of a risk when each ability score does something useful for your character. So that 18 starting intelligence might make your wizard more potent, but it will probably limit your chracter in other ways.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Weapons, armor, and fighting-men

Fighters have always been the "simple" class in D&D. I don't want to argue that simple classes are bad: after playing different RPGs with different people, its pretty clear to me that some people would do better with a "simple" class while others prefer more options that a complex class offers. This doesn't mean that a fighter should only be simple, however. I think the D&D Next authors know this.

Why, however, do weapons and armor get just a few pages allocated in the rules when spells get significantly more? Though I can't find a reference anywhere, I think I read somewhere that the D&D sorcerer was developed as a second Arcane class because such a large portion of the third edition players handbook was devoted to arcane spells (i.e. the wizard). Similarly, why is such a small portion devoted to martial characters fighting implements?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Thoughts on the D&D Next Playtest

After reading through the playtest materials (delayed because I couldn't get the stuff to download for days), I have to say I'm overall optimistic. It seems a little high-fantasy for my taste with hit dice and at-will attack cantrips, but I'll try to reserve judgment about some of that for now. Some of the explanations in this week's Legends and Lore column help to understand some of the playtest too.

I don't like how the ability scores are, once again, king. That is to say, everything happens based on your ability scores, but the math makes it look like starting with that 18 or 20 in your most relevant stat is going to be huge. Granted that'll make your other stats crap, but its a min-maxers paradise potentially. I've been contemplating a much flatter bonus system where an 18 is only +2, but I'm not sure that would work well yet. I love the Con modifier as minimum HP roll though. I had been contemplating something along the lines of half was the minimum roll, but basing it off Con is brilliant.

Advantage/disadvantage is, however, a pretty brilliant system. A re-roll is pretty important when you have a low bonus, so the math makes it more potent for your crap-stats instead of on your good rolls for a min-maxer. I'm not sure if that is a good or bad thing, but it potentially means min-maxing on your stats is going to be much better for some classes/skills, if you can get most of your important skills off with advantage via good descriptive roleplaying (Charisma and Intelligence?). I did notice that the prone condition still gives a -2 to attack rolls, which might be a typo since they said advantage is supposed to help eliminate some at-the-table math. I'm glad that they don't seem to have decided on the idea of using 1d4 or 1d6 for a bonus at least. Something like the thief's skill mastery might be doable with this mechanism as well. I'm also wondering what it would look like, mathematically, if the second die rolled were 1d12 instead of 1d20. You'd be more likely to "roll" a score in the 8-9 range probably, but still have the potential of catastrophic failure. Just less-so. Maybe that average roll isn't quite high enough to make a difference if you're not pretty maxed out though.

I though they were going to do more with silver pieces, so the equipment section's prices baffled me a bit.

Hit dice seem ok, but I might like a limit that one can only spend so many per short rest. For extended rests, it'd be interesting if one only recovered hit dice and not any HP perhaps. I'm still a little uncertain. Also the once/level thing seems a bit... low? Or low at first and high later on maybe.

I'm also a little unsure of some of the scaling math. The rogue seems to gain a die of sneak attack at every level, which is pretty potent.  I'll have to reserve judgment till we can see more than a 3-level playtest. Same as the class features, really. This playtest is about the basic mechanics.

I feel similar about themes. They seem... silly maybe. But if they're just granting feats, its just extra wording on my sheet. I don't mind if a fighter could take a feat and gain some minor spellcasting powers, that's pretty cool. But how that fits in with multiclassing and what annoying pages of fluff are going to be given to these feat-delivery packages remains to be seen. The backgrounds are nice, but I still think some classes or races should have innate skills as well.

Overall, I like the magic system except for the "minor" spells (cantrips/orisons). For example, I like how the grease spell states a bunch of different possible uses and its possible effects. The attack minor spells though seem... lackluster. They're generally a replacement for a weapon, and do damage just like a weapon. Ray of Frost might be a much more interesting spell if it did one thing, though I suppose it should since I could easily do this with the rules. So, one effect when targeting the ground (creating a slippery surface), another when targeting a small fire (extinguishing it), another when aimed at the target's eyes, etc. Maybe that's too much for one spell, but as a player I'd expect to potentially be able to do this. That makes the at-will spells really potent potentially. If the cantrips were once per encounter, I wouldn't mind this level of flexibility. If they're really at-will though, I think they should potentially do much less. Maybe the class or theme would let one cantrip be mastered completely, while the others are just per encounter? But really, the shocking grasp can no longer be used when attacking with metal weapons? Wizards can take Magic Missile to always be able to damage an enemy with no attack roll every turn? And eventually it grows stronger so you can make multiple attacks with it? Radiant Lance gives any cleric a "magic" crossbow? Meh. A bit too high-fantasy in my book, so hopefully the 'tone it down' options won't devastate the casting classes. Or maybe there'll just be alternative magician and votary classes?

A quick list of positives: Ritually casting spells, a reasonable movement system, skills in general, simplified turn mechanics, and hazards on skill checks. Also, just about everything else, really.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Religion and divine beings in D&D

D&D religion has a few different incarnations, but is essentially based on Christianity and western paganism. Perhaps because of the accusations that D&D was a satanic recruitment tool in the 80s, the game has steered away from real-life religious traditions and stuck with what it developed in terms of a fantastic paganism.

This situation leaves a number of non-western religious ideas on the wayside, though 4e has added some aspects of that back with the idea of primal spirits and the primal power source which complements the divine and arcane.

But what I think is still missing is, to some extent, that sense of wonder and mystery religion holds. When the gods are active in the world and granting their followers spells and tending their souls, only that certain kind of religion can be portrayed in the game. Mystery cults, Buddhist enlightenment, or mystical union seem to be a farce of some kind, and the system end up far from some of the Appendix N source material (Conan comes to mind immediately) where the truth of the gods is largely unknown.

Its that sense of cosmic truth that can help make D&D what it is: monsters are evil and must be slain so their treasures and lairs can be reclaimed for the sake of goodness. But that sense of cosmic truth can also break the game. Souls can always be resurrected or reincarnated, deities can be fought and killed, and there is at best one shade of grey in the moral landscape.

While I do like a game where the forces of law, chaos, good, evil, and balance are vying for supremacy, I wonder what we might gain by having some of these aspects of ultimate reality undefined. Is there an afterlife? Is there a soul for magic to affect?

Clearly laying out the outer planes and rules for deities or immortals takes away some mystery from the game. In a world where gods clearly exist (and they exist as antagonists for PCs to potentially slay), certain metaphysical real-world conundrums are suddenly solved in favor of some religious views over others (i.e. there is little place for a Buddhist notion of no-soul in a world with souls). In this respect, I slightly prefer the system of Immortals from the basic D&D game.

Some of the old settings like Dark Sun, Al-Qadim, and Planescape do a decent job of handling religion. In Dark Sun, the elements are the object of worship, and there are no clearly defined deities, though the immortal sorcerer-kings also grant spells. Al-Qadim gives us aloof and uncaring deities who represent virtues, all ruled over by fate itself. Religion there is surprisingly undefined for AD&D. Planescape goes the other direction, and defines things clearly but in a way so systematic that I think works well. For that setting, at least.

I'd like a little more mystery in D&D religion, and perhaps the whole of the magic system, class system, and cosmology needs to change a bit for that to happen. But a more-inclusive world with a heavenly over-deity, gods, Buddhas, immortals, devils, demons, and the like would be a refreshing change of pace. Perhaps a change too big for the generic D&D game though.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Wizards and Versatility in D&D

Last week's Legends and Lore column details some design goals of the new wizard class in D&D Next, and the D&D Next chat mentions at-will magic. I like some of what I see, but I'm a little concerned about other things. These items made me rethink a few things about wizards though which are worth noting.

What slightly disturbs me about the new wizard class design goals is the at-will cantrip types of powers and the lack of oodles of spells. Now, I've surely considered reducing the number/power of wizard spells before, but I think that takes away from some of the fun of playing a wizard: Sorcerers or warlocks should be able to blast their enemies all day long. Wizards, however, should probably be relying on more of their utility spells. Because that's what wizards have: oodles of various spells.


Thursday, May 17, 2012

Psionics in D&D

Psionics in D&D has gotten a bit of a bad rap. Which is strange to me, not just because I like it. Psionics clearly wasn't implemented well in the original first-edition DMG, but there's no reason that D&D has to be purely tolkien fantasy, particularly when Gary Gygax included some of the Tolkien-ish elements to give the game a broader appeal. In that sense, why not allow psionics? Furthermore, ideas of mind-reading, sight-beyond-sight, and the like are all good fantasy tropes. They just tend to live more in the realm of pseudoscience than pure fantasy.

One major issue with psionics in D&D is whether or not it represents an additional type of magic, or an alternate system of magic. Thus far, only in the Dark Sun setting has psionics really been mainstreamed. If done well, psionics surely has as much of a place in the game as dwarves and dragons. As pcs, psionicists need their place in the world clarified, not just tacked on as an optional sub-system. This can be done well via the class system.
For using psionincs in the game, I see three solidclass archetypes:
  • Philosopher/Ardent
  • Monk
  • Ascetic/Psion

Monday, May 14, 2012

Race and Cognition in D&D

In D&D, races have always represented a combination of species and culture. I'll ignore any ideas of racism per se, here, but it is 100% conceivable that a non-human sentient race would have different mental, physical, and cultural characteristics when compared to humans.

So should elves have a bonus to using longswords or bows? Should dwarves all speak dwarven? Should all half-orcs be poor leaders? I'd like to argue that this is an option that one should consider.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Races for different flavors of fantasy

D&D has always emulated Tolkien's fantasy, for the most part. Elves (of many different sub-species), dwarves, hobbits halflings and men fight against goblins and orcs and trolls. Tolkien emulation isn't bad in and of itself: there's probably a reason that this stuff is so iconic.

But it does get tiring after a while. One can only reimagine elves so many times. So I'd like to see some early options for the new D&D, as a generic game, to fill more aspects of fantasy. Humans should still probably be the most commonly played races, but most fantasy settings these days have some diversity in terms of sentient species. In terms of races, having a broad variety that can accomodate many distinct fantasy worlds is going to require quite a few additions.


The Men of D&D 3.5.
Assume that the basic game has your standard selection of races:

Dwarf, Elf, Gnome, Half Elf, Halfling, Half Orc, and Human.

Add in a couple more that seem to have become basic races:
Dragonborn, Drow/Dark Elves, Eladrin/High Elves, Tieflings

Now we've got 11 races already and we still need more in order to satisfy returning D&D players! We need a number of races need to be added from some of the basic campaign settings that people might expect to be able to portray. I'll try to keep the list focused and assume that some reflavoring can be done so that Planescape Tieflings can be largely identical to the generic ones, just like Dark Sun elves can resemble regular elves.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Healing in D&D

While each edition has brought changes to hit points and healing, Fourth edition's changes have been the most radical. Theses primarily involve: off-action healing, non-clerical healing, healing surges, and self-healing.

From the beginning through 3.5, healing has consumed the cleric's turn (ok, except for the book of 9 swords Crusader, but that's a direct precursor to 4e). You made a conscious choice to spend your turn casting a healing spell instead of doing something else (like attacking or casting another spell).

While paladins have had the ability to lay on hands, and bards gained access to healing spells in third edition, the cleric (and druid or specialty priests as sub-types of cleric or divine casters) have held a monopoly on healing. This is less true in third edition where anyone could take the use magical device to use a wand of cure light wounds (its like 50 healing potions for a pretty low price!). So some other classes had access to healing, everyone knew that a bard, druid, dragon shaman, or whatever just wasn't as great at it. So there is a reason that someone always had to play a cleric, and this is is. 4e finally made it explicitly clear with roles: warlords, bards, shamen, ardents, artificers, runepriests, warpriests, sentinel druids could all fill this role.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Class features for interaction and exploration?

Mike Mearls has recently discussed the three pillars of the game: combat, exploration, and interaction. I've been thinking about what distinct classes bring to these different areas. Classes clearly come with built-in combat powers, no question.  Since its difficult to build a class that might have a clear role in each area of the game, I'm not sure its worth it to balance everything out. Its also probably not possible to divide each of these areas up, such that classes represent one (i.e. combat) while backgrounds, themes, races, kits, or whathaveyou represent another. But it wouldn't be a bad idea to call out what classes might bring to each situation.

Let's look at the traditional cleric and ranger.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Distinguishing spellcasting classes

The more I look over some D&D editions and their retroclones, the more I think about altering the magic mechanics to suit the game better. But why?

I think first and foremost that magic mechanics are one of the main ways that setting and rules need to be in sync. Second edition Dark Sun, for example, never really got the defiling mechanics right until Spells and Magic. Or, at least, the defiling mechanics didn't match the Prism Pentad novels, which I think were what the designers had in mind all along. Not only was it defiling magic that was somewhat out of sync, but even the templar, elemental priest, and druidic magic as well. Looking back on it, templar magic seems much more like the cleric or warlock type (4e might have gotten that right) but the part about memorizing spells doesn't seem quite right. Its not necessarily out of place per se. And it was about the only D&D magic mechanic at the time, so it didn't seem quite as odd back then.

Now that we have spellcasters who cast spells in different ways, it seems like the mechanics should reflect different play styles for that.

  1. Wizard - Arcane study. Its hard to keep all those spells in mind, so wizards are constantly refreshing their memories and preparing spells to be used.
  2. Sorcerer - Intuitive arcana. Sorcerers channel magic through their blood. They've got large reserves of power, but less variety.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

On Collecting and customizablilty in D&D

A year or two ago, you probably could have heard me say the one of the only reasons I'd consider playing a D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder game was to play an abjurer. Its not just that the fourth edition doesn't have a great abjurer character (ok, maybe a shielding cleric or a hybrid artificer|swordmage of some kind) because neither 3.5 nor pathfinder really built an abjurer that I was most interested in playing (the late 3.5 Abjurant Champion as closer, but I mostly wanted a cloth caster with a bunch of swift defensive spells). One of the draws of an earlier edition for me was the ability to collect spells and to customize my character. 4e does a decent job with customization, but the options are so class specific it can be hard to find the right feats/powers/themes/classes to reflavor at times. Earlier editions of D&D tend to have an emphasis on collecting. Later editions focus more on customizeablilty. I'm torn, because I like both these elements.

I didn't really play much classic D&D or early AD&D. My D&D started in the early 1990s. But some of the fun with those basic games and even second edtion was the collecting aspect. Earlier edditions were all about collecting treasure and magic items. You went into dungeons and came back with treasure. That was, ultimately, the goal of adventuring. Of course, you could throw a lot of story onto it, but you gain XP by defeating monsters and collecting treasure. Pretty simple, right? This condinued into second edition where alternate XP rewards gained more traction in the rules, and the products were more about settings than adventures.

Third edition demolished treasure collection with wealth-by-level. In third edition, there were guidelines for how much treasure to give out for each level so that the math was on-track with the monster challenge rating system. It got worse in fourth edition. Treasure was parceled out in an even stricter wealth-by-level scheme. Players are encouraged to provide the DM with treasure "wishlists" that the DM can build treasure parcels out of. Sure, you might quest to obtain some holy relic or eldritch artifact, but the basic goal of finding treasure and collecting magic items became tied up with the math. Later in 4e we got inherent bonuses and random treasure tables, which were nice, but didn't do a lot of searching for the right swag.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

What is a class

When discussing how many classes the new edition of D&D ought to have, I think its important to also consider what a class is. Because the two are interrelated. When you definition of class is broad, you tend to think you should have fewer classes, while a narrower definition leads to many classes. I think the traditional definition of class in D&D is the type that will give us a list of around 15-20 classes, but I'd like to focus here on what a class is.

Other than the very first sets of rules, where the game was still being worked out, we find four basic classes plus a few more. Fighter, Magic User, Thief, and Cleric are the basic four, but Elf, Dwarf, and Halfling were quickly added to that mix. So saying that there should only be four classes is really going back pretty far, and one could go further back to just fighting-man and magic user if you really wanted.


Monday, April 30, 2012

Filling the grid: races, classes, and roles

The fourth edition of D&D really cemented the old D&D roles by explicitly labeling them and putting them front and center in the game. No longer did a party require a cleric, since a warlord could fulfill the same party role, albeit in a slightly different way. Though, in third edition, a regular supply of wands of cure light wounds also provided plenty of healing if someone had the Use Magic Device skill.

Now, these combat roles have been around since the dawn of the game, and they were even explicitly discussed in the third edition of the game to some extent, though they were also mixed with non-combat roles. They can be broader or narrower, but here's one stab at the list:

Combat: Defense, Offence, Healing, Buffing, Battlefield Control
Exploration: Perception, traps, doors, scouting/stealth, tracking, orienteering, nighttime watches, nature lore
Interaction: Lies and knavery, Diplomacy, Intimidation, Information Gathering, setting lore

Friday, April 27, 2012

Rule of Law: Church of the Wisdom Kings

The best D&D world I've played in is, of course, the homebrew one I made with two good friend a few years ago. I don't want to catalogue all of its greatness here, but the way we created the setting was amazingly good. I'll use the Church of the Wisdom Kings as the best example of our collective world building.

Originally, we wanted a morally clear orc-killing game. Knowing me and my friends, we drifted from the original goal a bit, but were all pretty happy with where we ended up. The way we did it though was pretty fun and ensured that everyone could have a say in the setting. That's because we made it all up.

The basic rule: whatever you introduce, you get to define.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

More problems for D&D Next?

The D&D Next design team just lost Monte Cook. Enworld has a bit of coverage here.

I'm not sure how well this bodes for things to come. We can only speculate, but it makes me a little fearful for the hobby.

If D&D goes down the drain, RPGs will still survive. But the flagship brings new people in, and if sales for the new edition go poorly, I'm not sure that Hasbro/Wizards will release the brand into anyone else's hands, which could mean D&D would go dormant (or just die). That'd be quite a blow.

That said, I'm still optimistic for some of the new developments they've mentioned, and the upcoming playtest.

I just can't quite shake the feeling that some of this 'modular' discussion for the new edition is going to be some crazy marketing ploy. Hard to fault a company for wanting to make money. And at least with the third edition OGL (and the ability to hoard some rule books), the game will never really be dead and gone.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Forgotten Innovations: Character Points

AD&D character points were the last in the line of extravagant excess that TSR unleashed before Wizards of the Coast took control of the game.

In my forced exile from gaming, I've been known to read a few forums now and then. I used to enjoy reading some of the speculationa about D&D Next, but now they mostly seem pretty similar. And a lot of people are requesting innovations that showed up much earlier in the life of the game.
One of these forgotten innovations is character points from 2nd Edition. Now, second edition is often maligned as the dark ages of D&D. TSR went broke, and the game suffered from an excess of options. This is particularly true with the Player's Option line (including the Dungeon Master's Option: High Level Campaigns).
Man, wouldn't it be sweet if feats were broken down according to usefulness and quality so that each one could just be bought with a pool of points?
Anonymous forum poster that I'm paraphrasing, you've stumbled upon one of the so-called excessive options of 2nd Edition. Each class and race had options that could be purchased with character points. Want to be able to get weapon specialization as a Ranger? Want to access some wizard spells as a cleric? Want a signature spell as a wizard? All of this (and more) was available with character points.
Now, this was probably somewhat broken because they can be combined in an astounding array of bad ways. This sort of imbalance could be alleviated now with a large playtest of dedicated nerds, the type of thing the internet currently allows and Wizards of the Coast is trying for. The modern CharOp boards would have a field day finding all the brokenness that character points allowed. Heck, I found some awesome combinations back in the day.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Martial Archetypes and Classes in D&D

Martial classes have never really been my favorite in D&D. If I'm playing a fantasy game, I'd prefer to be slightly more fantastic than a simple warrior. But that's just me. In recent memory, I've played a "lazy" warlord in a "hobbit" game (Frondo Maggins, a do-nothing hobbit with a heart of gold), and a half-orc assassin in service to the wizards' guild in a more serious game. I'm not sure why these classes, as a whole, don't appeal to me that much. I guess I just prefer casters.

I'm not sure how dull it was to play fighters in earlier editions. I understand the criticism that fighters just whump things, but in earlier editions there were still rules (and house rules) for disarming, overbearing, grappling, and other maneuvers. Once you hit Combat and Tactics in second edition there were plenty of martial options to use, and compared to wizards they were probably relatively balanced. Maybe I'll give it a try once I get back to civilization.

As I read over some old and new iterations of the game (just bought a copy of Adventurer Conqueror King recently, I'll review that later), I'm struck by the recent discussions of how difficult it is to make a fighter class. This is because the fighter is a really broad archetype. In a game with many different classes though (instead of just one customizeable Warrior class), I think we could use about four warriors and four(ish) experts. I've got a clearer picture of the martial warriors than the experts though.