Monday, June 30, 2014

Oriental Adventures (also) got it wrong (But Al-Qadim got it right)

Though I just posted about how Oriental Adventures did classes right, it also has some failures we can learn from. Chief among these are the broader compatibility and conceptual familiarity (or exoticism).

First, on the compatibility issue. While it is refreshing that OA doesn't need a generic fighter or thief, it isn't entirely clear why everything "western" was excluded. That isn't to say that you couldn't have an eastern adventurer in a western setting or vice versa, but why are there no indigenous thieves? Is the idea of a thief too foreign to the world of Oriental Adventures? And what is the point of the Wu Jen? They're just a magic-user basically with a slightly different flavor. As a part of the broader D&D world, it isn't clear why a few things couldn't have been recycled. Put it another way, why did OA have to be so different? (I realize this may contradict my previous post a little, but there's something to be said for simple design and it is simpler to use what you've already got.)

This brings up the issue of conceptual familiarity or exoticism. While most people probably knew what a Samurai and Ninja were, every other class gets an exotic name as well. Shukenja, Sohei, Bushi, Kensai, Yakuza, Wu Jen... It feels like its starting to get a little much, when Weaponmaster or Magic-User/Wizard/Sorcerer might have helped a little. I think we see a better balance in Al-Qadim (i.e. Arabian Adventures) where we see some of the subclasses (i.e. kits) have transparent names (Desert Rider, Corsair, Elemental Mage, Sorcerer, Mystic, Beggar-Thief, Merchant-Rogue, Barber, Holy Slayer, Mercenary Barbarian, Pragmatist, Ethoist, Moralist) and only a few have Arabian names (Askar, Faris, Hakima, Matrud, Sha'ir, Mamluk, Rawun, Kahin, Sa'luk). Its about half-and-half, and then you can add in their "outlander" kits (Outland Warrior, Outland Priest, and Ajami; ajami is the wizard while outland rogues are sa`louk). While it is considerably more options than OA/Kara-Tur, half of the AA/Al-Qadim are named in a relatively transparent and familiar way. There's no additional work to figure out what a Barber or Desert Rider are, and relatively little to figure out Corsairs or Pragmatists.

Another thing Oriental Adventures got wrong is the races. Gone are the Elves, Dwarves, and Hobbits we know and love. In are spirit folk, animalistic spirit-folk with strange names, and some sort of dwarf-like creature. Al-Qadim took a different approach: the setting is inclusive, racial hatreds are gone, but things are still human-focused. This lets people play elves or dwarves. Or goblins, kobolds, ogres, etc. in the City of Delights boxed set; if Al-Qadim had been released after the Complete Book of Humanoids, that little bit would probably have been included in the main book itself.

Oriental Adventures loses out on the familiar races because of this, and doesn't get much to make up for it. Dark Sun, according to legend, originally would have been bereft of the standard D&D races too. I think Dark Sun is more powerful for including the basic races and turning their archetypes around, plus they still included a few new/crazy things (Half-Giants, Thri-kreen, and later Aarakocra and Pterrans and Dray). In a fantasy Japan or China (or Mongolia or Tibet or India or...), is there no room for the elves and dwarves?

I suspect that Tolkien and later fantasy gives us an idea what elves and dwarves and hobbits and orcs are. And that may be one reason why Gnomes have been a strange addition to D&D: they're not clearly portrayed in some of the canonical fantasy fiction. So a stronger OA would have, perhaps, found a place for Elves and Dwarves in a fantasy Asia. This is what OA got wrong, perhaps. It is too different from normal D&D, both in terms of some of the mechanical aspects which perhaps didn't need to be changed, and some conceptual elements which were excised or exoticized rather than form a natural bridge.

Friday, June 27, 2014

On the much maligned AD&D 2nd Edition

I apparently started this long ago, but finishing a PhD and moving to the Middle East left me unblogging for quite some time. I'll leave this as is and try to finish what I started. 

With the new D&D Next playtest packet, I've been avoiding the forums and what I presume is the vast amounts of nerdrage over the new packet. My first thought was disappointment because of the loss of options: Clerics and Rogues really lost a lot of options and there was no sexy new bard to make up for it (though the druid and barbarian may have decent updates). Anyway, I did some reading about 2nd edition, and came to a few conclusions.

1) Second edition is maligned because it is transitional and unfairly gets criticisms that should (also) go with other editions.
2) Second edition is misremembered: things that people complain about in third edition didn't apply in second edition (and earlier).
3) Second edition is really three distinct versions: core, complete, and options.

I'm going to focus on the first and third aspect here, but mostly the third.

The grognards hate second edition because they feel their particular version (original, b/x, becmi, AD&D 1st) achieved perfection in the 70s and nothing that happened once TSR's mid-80s problems hit is valid. Let's face it: grognards don't even like things like Oriental Adventures (see the comments here and here) or Unearthed Arcana by-and-large, and the modules from the late 70s and early 80s are considered the best. Grognards forget that adventures changed midway through AD&D 1st edition. So any grognard criticism is largely going to be that 2nd edition isn't their edition of the game. But it is a legitimate continuation of what was happening in that version of the game. It is pretty obvious that you can convert second edition materials easily to earlier editions of the game than third or fourth edition stuff.

Now, the core 2nd edition books (the big 3 plus Tome of Magic and Legends and Lore) actually make a pretty coherent little system, and in that respect they're just a clean-up of the first edition AD&D rules, with a bit of sanitization to help avoid the Satanism stigma. So gone were assassins and half-orcs and devils and demons. But in were the specialty priests, specialist wizards, playable bards, and such. Interestingly, also gone was the rule that gp=xp. I think this falls in the realm of sanitization too, because xp for treasure induces the murderhobo style of play, rather than heroic parties. Though xp for gp was an optional rule. But by and large, 2nd edition started out as a cleaned up and sanitized version of the game. You can criticize it for lacking Gary's tone, but I think even Gary would have bowed to sanitization and ditched monks, assassins, renamed devils/demons, etc. He wouldn't have been happy, be he probably would have done it (and done it somewhat tongue-in-cheek). When I go back and look at the early edition stuff, I wish it had as much variety as is presented here. Specialist wizards and a couple priest variants would really help tempt me to play a real old-school game.

Next, comes second edition complete, with all the complete handbooks. This is the start of the splat-bloat, but this is nothing that other games and companies weren't doing either. From a business stand point, TSR needed people to buy more products, so calling them T$R is just a naïve lamentation about capitalism. This started to have more "broken" shit, but a lot of it was still solid. I think some of the problem is when new complete books came out, you could only integrate that material with new characters. Unlike third or 4th edition where you could take some feats/powers/spells, the new stuff in second edition generally required a new/redesigned character.

Finally the option books came out with character-points, spell points, proficiency points, and all other kinds of points. I think Combat & Tactics and Spells & Magic were fairly solid. But people forget that these are collections of optional rules. You didn't need subabilities or to use those point-based character creation methods. You could just use the new schools of magic, new priest classes, or critical hit charts. So while those books may have some crazy shit in them, you weren't instructed to use all of that.

When people hear 2nd edition, they start thinking of the end of the run, 1995+ rather than the beginning, which is the opposite of 1st edition. When people think of first edition, they're actively excluding Unearthed Arcana, Oriental Adventures, Dragonlance Adventures, and the like. Third and 4th edition have the same splat-bloat as second did, so there's really no grounds for criticism there: the bladesinger from Complete book of Elves can't be much worse than the junk that came out in 3.5 or twinstrike for the 4e ranger.

In Essenece, I think second edition gets the flack for a number of things that were happening in RPGs at the time.  First, a trend towards story and heroism that started in the mid to late 80s. We certainly see it with Vampire but it seems the trend is apparent in dragon magazine. Second, the addition of options and rules to the game, which started with first edition AD&D (Many OSR folk don't like races distinct from classes, monks and other sub classes, or Psionics) and continued with Unearthed Arcana.  These two really do go together: a more complex story demands more character options, in a sense. You see this trend in the Options books where they tried to revitalize the game with insights from other games (point-based design). 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Oriental Adventures got it right

Now that D&D 5th Edition is about to come out, I've been musing a bit more about what would make a better game. I just bought the PDFs of Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperboria (AS&SH) and it kind of hit me that there are a number of different classes in the original game and retroclones, but Oriental Adventures hit on a core rightness that other versions of the game haven't. Maybe it was a comment that veteran players tend to prefer the basic 4 classes and get a deeper experience from them, but since the addition of the Paladin and Ranger and so forth, something is off. Here's the quote itself:
Utilizing only the four principal character classes is recommended when introducing young or inexperienced players to AS&SH. A game with but these four classes is also easier for a novice referee to manage. Furthermore, veteran gamers oft deem the four principal classes as more gratifying compared with a dozen or more subclasses; indeed, the classes of fighter, magician, cleric, and thief suitably cover the gamut of archetypes portrayed by such literary sword-and-sorcery masters as R. E. Howard and F. Leiber.  (AS&SH p16)
They're all redundant classes, other than the basic four. An illusionist is a focused but lesser magic-user in the same way that an assassin is a lesser thief and the paladin/ranger are fighters with a little something different. The paladin and ranger seem to be more iconic because they actually do something a little different than the fighter, whereas illusionist and assassin are more focused (and possibly lesser) versions of the basic class. Druids are apparently distinct enough from clerics to have caught on.

The subclasses of older editions have been copied and recopied in retroclones, but there's very little that distinguishes them from their basic versions at times. I've particularly noticed this in the magic-using classes and fighter. AS&SH has illusionists, necromancers, and pyromancers but they're basically just magic-users with a specialization. Third Edition added the sorcerer, which was a nice change. Maybe this is why I like the Wizard-Sorcerer-Warlock trio for magician classes since they actually cast spells differently, and can support their own sub-classes or specialties (based on school specialization, bloodline, or pact). They feel like classes, not just like variant wizards (as necromancers or illusionists do).