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?