Saturday, July 26, 2014

Know your Audience

So. Last night was a surprise birthday D&D Dungeon Crawl. The game was obviously well thought out, and the DM even recruited an adjunct DM to help manage the massive table. It tested out some new ideas, and afterwards I overheard the two of them talking about what to cut for the next night. 100% respect there.

However, if I can criticize one thing (and I will, obviously, but it's important to point out the massive strengths as well as weaknesses), it's that the DM didn't know his audience. Because it's through criticizing things, reviewing them constantly, and reflecting on how to do things differently that we learn and improve.

First off, I didn't realize it right away but a few turns in it became apparent that about half the players had played 0-1 games with the DM's house rules and setting (setting wasn't so relevant, house rules were a bit) but more than that, I think at least 2 of the players hadn't played 4th edition before, and some weren't a fan of the edition at all. Moreover, we used the full set of 4e rules, meaning when selecting characters we had Deva and Invokers and the like: even if you're coming from another edition of D&D you wouldn't know what you're choosing. I tried to help the person sitting next to me with her powers, but she wasn't the one who needed much help really, and its hard to do the assist to someone sitting 2-4 people away (it was a huge group).

Another issue is that some of these people were casual players (mostly the same subset of folk). That's odd to me, since I've almost always run games for people who own the books these days, though a decade ago I was probably running things for people who might borrow the book for a night, or we'd lend that short-story collection out so people could get a better grip on the setting. But some of these are people who would do much better with an earlier edition of D&D or perhaps the new edition. Its like how I feel about Pathfinder: I can't be fucked to learn all these feats and archetypes and stuff. Ok, I can read through stuff a bit, and I'll know the options on my sheet, but reading through a huge list of feats or spells or powers... Boring. Give me a few options so my character's theme or personality comes out. So I can really play an Enchanter or a Necromancer. Some people don't like having that obscene set of powers, or even any at all. It's enough to just hit things with a sword (ok, maybe the choice of sword vs glaive vs bow is enough choice). 4e is not the best system for casual players.

I tried to get a little bit of info myself about what the table would be like. At the beginning, during the character draft, I picked up the tone that the game would have lots of intra-party conflict. Something about rolling for alignment randomly, and being handed a goal slip which had me fill out the name of the PC that needed to die. I did ask about the general bawdiness levels at the table, but didn't get to whimsiness or anything since it seemed apparent. I was told that table didn't let anyone make fun of folk with cognitive or developmental impairments, which it totally fine. But I thought it odd that many people joined the chorus of "obviously", but it isn't at all obvious to me what's going to happen when someone is portraying a character with a low wisdom or intelligence (which, I think, would be the D&D equivalent). But I'm a linguist and a pragmatist, so that's a thought for another day. Also probably something for a less bawdy/whimsical game.

So, what's the answer? I've been thinking of a game constitution lately. It came up again when I talked about vampire games with folk at the amusement park this week. In a collaborative storytelling game, it's nice to set a few limits. I'm still bitter about how the old Giovanni LARP got turned into a Sabbat LARP, and a game constitution might say how things like new staff/gamemaster ought to happen. It might lay out things like the general levels of whimsy/gonzo, sensitive topics, general house rules (floor dice don't count, etc.), and the like. A general criticism of many of the old WoD LARPs is they used too many crazy/whimsical plots and cross-overs (constantly fighting werewolves, rare clans, hunters, etc) or generally ignored the morality stat (killing should cause degeneration for most vampires, no?). But that can be written in: there are certain types of antagonists allowed, certain types of PCs that fit with the setting/mode/theme/tone/etc. I also think those games need a staff member dedicated to focusing on new players if they want to retain folk at all. Maybe what I'm suggesting is more of a charter than a constitution. Or a set of a few guidelines. It at least lets the players know what to expect, but I suppose it doesn't do the reverse for the judge. But it's one step in knowing your audience: putting yourself and your game out there. And it might be the thing that is more doable for a one-shot.

The reverse would be having the players put this sort of info out there. Obviously if this constitution is collaborative, people will agree on a level of whimsy, jokes allowed, etc. But any kind of informal survey might help this as well. Asking how many of the participants had played the edition before might give you the info necessary to give them simpler pre-gens or even those companion characters which aren't full-fledged PCs with a full set of crazy heroic powers. I know I ran into this problem when I tried a rando game in Arizona. After a couple players bonded over their medications (super awkward) we ended up being railroaded into taking a quest from the quest board at the in for the Housewives' Guild, then I kept failing my skill check to "go to my happy place" because I was a fighter who didn't have the right skills. If I knew the game was going to be whimsical, I'da done things rather different.

The last major aspect of the audience for last night's game was that I was expecting a surprise birthday dungeon crawl (nevermind the mix-up that led to the birthday boy prepping to run some other game that night). We didn't get to a dungeon. And nothing screamed "birthday". There was a character draft (snake, but the second round of picking seemed unnecessary) and the birthday boy didn't get anything special. Characters were drafted and lots of randomness was added (a couple random bonuses, random alignment) which lead to obvious conflict as evil characters and good ones existed in the same party. I was expecting a birthday plot, like we're all escorting the birthday boy through dangerous territory, or the Birthday boy is our professor X leading us all out of the wilderness.

Would I have done it differently? Obviously, though hindsight is 20/20. It was a huge group though: asking the more casual players to play a companion character (Panthor and Screeech to someone's Skeletor) might have helped. A special role for the Birthday Boy. A set of rules familiar to all the players (though honestly, some had probably only done 4e and would have been equally lost with 5th or something more old-school). Running a one-shot for a group that ballooned up (everyone invited was attending, and even when one person couldn't make it another joined in) is an impossible and thankless task, especially when its not only a birthday game but a surprise game.

I was once told that I gave the wrong talk at a conference: I focused on the details rather than the theory. The advice was spot on: I should have focused on the aspects most relevant to the audience. So I think this holds equally well for running games: know your audience. New or casual players need something different than experienced players, either in terms of plots or rules. Light-hearted or whimsical games are great for some groups/players, terrible for others. And special events might deserve special rules or plots or roles. Bringing it all together is hard, but knowing who you're running with and why you're doing it should help. I haven't dealt with this much lately, but its something to keep in mind for whatever else I might run in the near or distant future.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014


I've noticed, while there are reviews of some modules (notably on RPGnet, tenfootpole, and rpggeek), few of them are really actual play reviews. Which is a slight problem, because one thing I'd really love is estimates of play-time.

Sure, there are some one-night stands by Frog God Games and some old tournament modules with fixed times... But aside from those it's hard to tell if you've got enough time to run a module or not. I ran Arachnophobia in one big shot (about 8 hours, iirc) but I'm sure I cut a little bit and fastforwarded through some of the town aspects of the module.

I ran Against the Cult of the Reptile God last summer with the playtest rules, and I think it took us 5 week nights (only about 2-3 hours of actual game time per night), but could have easily taken another night or two to complete that little gem.

I'm going to try to continue to review modules I run (and possibly those I play), but I think giving that amount of time needed based on actual play would be really helpful. I wonder if one of the old school forums would be a great place to try to get some additional info on the modules from the 70s and 80s.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

XP, Levels, and Alternate Rewards

So 5th edition has the same XP problem of the previous two editions: everyone advances the same.

This has one massive benefit: you can simply have everyone level up every other game or so, and you've got a nice rate of advancement and no one is really left behind. There's no need to crunch the math at all. But there's a crucial drawback too: individual awards are gone as well as XP penalties or costs.

Now, third edition and Pathfinder might be slight exceptions: you can play a level-adjusted race and be a level or so behind the other PCs, but that's a little problematic because the benefits of being a Drow might be worth about a level at lower levels, but not higher levels. Also, item creation gets mucked up: if a wizard is going to be a level below the other PCs because he made one scroll, you better believe he ought to make a whole tone of them to get that missing levels worth.

So 5th edition gives us one alternate reward at least: inspiration. Inspiration is like action-points-lite from 4e and later third edition: advantage on a check (presumably cancelling disadvantage as well). It seems ok, but I'm not sure if its quite enough to really be a reward like bonus XP.

Planescape in 2nd Edition had Belief points in the Planewalker's Handbook. They could be spent for an auto-success on a roll (similar to advantage) and also a more story-oriented type of intuitive clue. That makes for a nice additional use of inspiration.

Another option for rewarding awesomeness at the table is to give story-based awards. In a Planescape game, for example, most characters are members of factions. Those who consistently are acting in line with their faction's goals might be up for promotions. Not every game has such factions, but you can imagine rewarding someone in a 13th Age game with bonus to Icon relationships, or using other factions or non-adventuring followers in a a more traditional D&D game (Thieves' guilds, Druidic Circles, Bardic Colleges...).

This is all very different in a non level-based game. I'm getting ready to run a Vampire game online (set in Alexandria around 360 AD). There I plan on using XP as a reward for accomplishing goals because XP simply improves your character's stats and allows you to learn new disciplines. There's no need to worry about level advancement since there is none: XP does it all. I like that. I wonder if you couldn't add an aspect of this back into D&D.

Take the Planescape factions, if you will. Or otherwise the concept of the Theme from 4e or the Prestige Class or Paragon Path. As you gain power within your factions (whether they're the formal Factions of Planescape or something more nebulous) you gain some game mechanics. You could track it with a rough system like Renown in Werewolf: 5-10 points and you've got a new level or "rank". Each rank comes with mechanical benefits, though they could be mostly story-based benefits rather than combat ones.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Filling Party Roles

As I've been thinking about filling party roles (here and here), I've been also wondering about how I might "fix" an old school D&D game up a bit. But now my requirement is minimal tinkering with the rules. I'd love to somehow turn thief skills into the feats or skills of older D&D, but that's a lot of work.

You know what isn't a lot of work though? Handing out a couple additional "thief" skills.

I'm now of the opinion that classes like Paladin, Ranger, and Druid are successes not only because they do seem to have a nice, narrow, and (by now) traditional archetype. They also can ape their "base" classes quite well, though they're no longer really subclasses in more recent editions. Illusionist and Assassin failed as subclasses because they could never quite do what their base class did: Assassins were down two levels on thief skills, and Illusionists just didn't have access to the same slate of skills as Magic Users.

So while one solution is to ditch the big four classes in favor of slightly specialized classes (e.g. fighter is out and soldier, weaponmaster, and berserker are in; wizard/magic-user is out and enchanter, necromancer, conjurer, and elementalist are in, etc.) another simple solution is to augment the list of thief skills a bit and pass them around. I really heart the idea of the first suggestion though, particularly for mages where the generalist is removed in favor of a couple thematic specialists. But the latter option is quite implementable in an old school game.

If we look at 2nd Edition, we can take the Bard's Legend Lore ability, plus additional Thief skills from Skills and Powers: Bribe, Detect Magic, Detect Illusion, Escape Bonds, Tunneling). We might even be able to nab a few Druid and Ranger powers (ID plants/animals, Tracking) or the Assassin's disguise ability. Then we can give a few additional powers out so that the lame classes can still participate.

Now the illusionist can have a few powers that legitimately might be in their domain (Detect Illusion, Move Silently, Hide in Shadows, Pick Pockets) and they can fill in as needed. Wizards might get Detect Magic and the bard's History ability so they can actually function as someone who has studies magic extensively. Assassins might only have a subset of the Thief skills (i.e. no pick pockets) but actually be able to use some of their abilities.

It could go beyond class too. Race might allow some characters to help fill in some missing roles. Dwarves and/or Gnomes might have find/remove trap and open lock skills, Halflings might have scouting skills, while Elves might have scouting, nature, or magic detection skills.

It would mean that, since trapfinding and opening locks is such a vital role in a party, a smaller party (or really any party) could get by without a thief character (because assassin just doesn't cut it). Likewise a couple characters might be able to take the scouting role a thief has. Clerics of a knowledge or magic deity might be able to legitimately provide the Encyclopedia support that a wizard could.

And whither the thief? Well, if we just added the 2nd Edition bonus thief skills (Yes, they're in Skills and Powers but some of them are also seen in Dark Sun) that should up the power of the thief class slightly (already a weak class to begin with). Additionally, I think the 2nd Edition system where thieves assign points per level is rather nice compared to the older editions where each thief has the same chances (modulo dex and racial modifiers).

To some extent, this is actually what we see after 2nd Edition: any class can take cross-class skill ranks in third edition to (crappily) ape most rogue skill and 4th edition explicitly links the "Thievery" skill with other classes (warlock and artificer come to mind). This does make me enjoy 5th Edition a bit more now since it seems like its going to follow these advancements.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Review: Fighter's Challenge (HHQ1, no spoilers)

HHQ1 Fighter's Challenge
AD&D 2nd Edition
by John Terra (1992)

Fighter's Challenge is a neat little module, nominally designed for 1 warrior PC (Single or multiclassed) of levels 2-4. It includes a town with enough details to use as a home base, a minimally railroaded plot (just one scene to get the PC involved), and several side-quests related to the town and major plot. There's a little bit of mystery, some town and site-based interaction, plus some combat. The mood is one of heroic fantasy, but it could easily fit more mercenary style of play. It isn't full-on whimsical, but it does have some fairy-tale and/or humorous elements to it (not wierd fantasy or sword-and-sorcery really). It is low on the magic-ren-fair scale, but there are a number of magic items and magical beasts to fight.

The module's strengths are its relatively coherent main plot, and you can actually run it as the cover seems to intend: a single player of level 2-4, though if I ran it a second time I'd give the player enough XP to be 4th level as a single-class fighter rather than third (my player ended up as a gnome fighter/illusionist 2/2). This module could easily be run with a normal party of adventurers as well.

When I say it isn't too railroady, I mean it does have a number of set encounters along many of the paths the PCs will take, but there are certainly multiple paths to take to get to the end and I like it. There are even some factions among enemies which can be manipulated, though the breadth of enemies which can be encountered is reminiscent of the Mos Eisely Cantina: lots of big names and maybe too varied to might tight narrative sense.

On the coherent main plot, there is a backstory but it isn't too laborious. It does include a needless element that has a really cool scene at the end (page 22), and is a little cheesy, but it makes sense in a light-hearted D&D game where you're looting for treasure: not spectacular but I've seen worse.

As with all things, the module has a few weaknesses. In order to support a fighter-style for a one-on-one adventuer, there are a lot of possible hirelings. The town description flat-out gives four would-be adventurers, a couple other possible adjunct adventurers are encountered during the main plot (two for sure, possibly 3-4 others), as well as in the side quests (another 3, if my tally is near accurate). And the player will need them. There are a few creatures with less than a hit die, but there are a number of them with 5+ hit dice (some with dangerously low AC). Ditch a few of the potential hirelings if you have more than one PC (though I'd keep Coryn). I'm not a big fan of hirelings, so the adventure fails in the sense that one PC can do it alone. My PC lost 2 hirelings and went down himself a couple times.

Another weakness is the lack of a good overview. Sure, its a second-edition module so you start with a page or two of backstory, but a few of the encounters/subquests--5, 10, 11, and 12 on the map--just don't seem to have much to connect them to the story. 5 is at least in the realm of (the PC could accidentally get here), but 10-12 need some additional hook. The lair of one key antagonist isn't clearly marked on a map, nor is an escape tunnel's location marked or clearly described, which makes it a little hard to imagine where these most logically go. One of them (page 22) fixes a potentially major plot hole (of the: just go around type) and this should have been pointed out. Grognards might point out that its the DM's job to fill in these gaps, but you expect a little more when the module has a backstory. The major side quests do fit the main plot line, but you wouldn't know it cause they're just labeled as side quests. Then there's a few elements which tie together marvelously but it isn't spelled out as clearly as possible (I'm thinking the enemy on page 15 hilariously fits with one piece of information you learn from an NPC on page 11, towards the top of page 19 is a nifty assist on getting out, etc.).

There are a few typos but only one I noticed was confusing  (a reference to a trio and a duo in the same box on page 29). The maps give a vague impression of what's where, but their scale doesn't quite mesh with some text in the adventure. This is apparent from a few other slight railroady elements (it takes X amount of time to get to a location on page 29 regardless of how the PCs do it?) but if you play it a little loose that isn't the worst.

Not a criticism specific to this module, but the stat blocks in older editions can be maddening: for the hirelings things like strength and dexterity bonuses aren't noted, nor is weapon damage. For antagonists, special attacks aren't spelled out. If you're new to running older adventures, throw some post-its in those pages of the Monstrous Manual.

There is a lot of magic treasure to be found, some of it generic. I have no idea how a single-classed warrior PC is supposed to really find and identify mode of it (ok, there is a bard hireling but identify spells are also expensive, not to mention detecting magic in the first place.). Much of the non-magic treasure is pleasantly unique, or at least described.

Overall, I was impressed with this module. It has a few really good encounters and ideas, some of them gonzo enough for the grognard crowd, but they'll think the magic-ren-fair level is too high. My player did every reasonable side-quest, and it took us about 16 hours of play. If you're prepping the module, you'll want enough time to make a list of all the possible hirelings and their combat stats for reference during play, consider making a quick flowchart of how the side quests and main path fit together, and look up the antagonists in the Monstrous Manual as needed (particularly special attacks, weaknesses, and powers).

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

One-on-One D&D: I did it.

So. After waking up the other day with a yearning for some D&D and a willing friend, I made the one-on-one D&D happen. I'm going to save the review-type comments on Fighter's Challenge for a latter post (or repeat the ones I make here), but I do want to reflect on how it went: both running AD&D 2nd edition, one-on-one, and the specific module. So here's my list of things that I just thought about while reflecting on the game I ran. Its a spew reflection, not a well-thought Colonel Gentleman list.

First, I did something I'm not usually that comfortable with, because the module kinda demanded it. I did the voices. And doing this almost always pulls me away from the more grimdark mood that I tend to yearn for. But I think it worked. Light-hearted D&D is usually how things turn out anyway, since I used to play with someone known for naming his characters after brand-names of condoms or boner drugs. There were too many NPCs in the module for my taste and many stuck around, but I think it worked well overall and probably enhanced the game. But I decided right away that I'd do voices and try to make the NPCs distinct, so I think it worked. The module was light-hearted itself, so matching my tone with the module and the player definitely helped.

Second, one-on-one D&D is tiring. I definitely took the opportunity to refresh my drink a few times just so I could get a little break. When I ran a 4e Dark Sun game, I had enough time during the player turns to look through my massive pile of printed out monsters and traps to adjust the current and upcoming encounters on the fly, but one-on-one you don't have any of that group discussion time or PC turn downtime. You're everything the one player interacts with the whole time. Plan for some breaks. I even let us go off on a few tangents during the game about D&D rules or work and such. I suppose playing three nights in a row (about 16 hours!) didn't help me feeling a little exhausted. I know I star-wiped or montaged through a couple scenes the last night.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

On Simpler Games

Sometimes, I've wondered what kind of person really prefers a simpler game with few character options? I think I've met two of those people in the past two days. One is my friend S. This is the third AD&D character I've seen him make. Since it was for a one-on-one game, I figured there'd be no problem bringing out all the crazy supposedly overpowered Skills & Powers nonsense. He chose a by-the-book Gnome Fighter/Illusionist. I even have the Wizard's Spell Compendium with me (4 volulmes) and he just took spells from the Player's Handbook. I suppose they were familiar options, and enough options for him.

Crazy thing is, the second person who might prefer a simpler game with fewer character options is me.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Module Formatting: Can we have a Y2K update please?

On a lark, I've purchased HHQ1 Fighter's Challenge. This is a one-on-one adventure that I convinced my friend S. to play. Well, I asked him which of the four classes he'd be more interested in, and selected the module based on his "Fighter. Maybe wizard." response.

I should give the module a proper review here once I'm done with it, but it is actually much better than I expected. But what gets me a bit is the format of things, and these formats haven't changed all that much since the dawn of time (ok, 4e stuff did change the formats a bit). I've been looking at a lot of different modules in the past year, a few older than I am, a few from my time with AD&D 2nd Edition, and a few more recent. But they all seem to have similar problems which technology could help with.

My first complaint (because we love complaining) is the maps. Maps are always made for the DM, but it'd be great to be able to share them with the PCs (or PC, in this case). First, there's almost always just one version of the map, which is complete with things like "--> to wererat's lair" or the like. You really don't want to risk showing a map with secret doors or whatnot to the PCs. My friend S used to blow the maps up for his 4e games so you could actually put minis on them. He said there was the expected loss of resolution, but some maps if he couldn't easily photoshop some words or secret door symbols... he just had to wing it and presumably draw the map instead or otherwise claim there wasn't a good map for the encounter.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Alignment in 5th Edition: Throwing out the 4e baby with the bathwater?

Now that we have the Basic D&D rules online, I see they have the familiar old alignment system, though alignment doesn't seem to have any mechanical effects. I think this is a little mistake, though I'm going to call it a missed opportunity rather than a tragedy.

See, the 4e notion of unaligned is missing, replaced with boring neutrality. There's no real benefit to being aligned with any cosmic force, and now effects like protection from evil will only really affect undead and demons.

So what might have been the better solution? Keep unaligned and make aligned creatures rarer.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Solo and Lone Hero D&D Adventures? A party of one...

I woke up this morning wondering if there were many solo D&D adventures. I'm talking about one-on-one or head-to-head style one player and the DM type adventures. Turns out there were, though finding them wasn't the easiest. There are also apparently a number of solo-as-in-D&D-solitaire adventures: I suspect the first 7-ish on the list are really D&D solitaire, and the others are head-to-head, one-on-one, or lone-hero ones. But here's the list I've found:

Actual solo/solitaire D&D modules:
  • Ghost of Lion Castle (BSOLO)
  • Mystery of the Snow Pearls (CM5, red viewer)*
  • Blizzard Pass (MSOL1, invisible ink)*
  • Maze of the Riddling Minotaur (MSOL2, Invisible Ink)*
  • Midnight on Dagger Alley (MV1, red viewer)*
  • Lathan's Gold (XSOLO)
  • Thunderdelve Mountain (XS2)
One player + DM modules:
  • The Gem and the Staff (O1, Thief 8)
  • Blade of Vengeance (O2, Elf 7)
  • Eye of the Serpent (UK5, Ranger/Druid/Monk + 3NPCs)
  • Fighter's Challenge (HHQ1)
  • Wizard's Challenge (HHQ2)
  • Thief's Challenge (HHQ3)
  • Cleric's Challenge (HHQ4)
  • Fighter's Challenge II (HHQ5)
  • Wizard's Challenge II (HHQ6)
  • Thief's Challenge II: Beacon Point (HHQ7)
  • Cleric's Challenge II (HHQ8)
The ones marked with an asterisk look like bad options: they use either a gimmicky red plasic "magic viewer" or an invisible-ink revealing marker, and also aren't on Not all the others are on D&D Classics either: the modules in italics do seem to be available in pdf format though. So not all of these are really out there as options, but maybe the BSOLO and XSOLOs will show up eventually, though I suspect these are really solitaire adventures (Cover images are easy to find online, but not the back cover or first page where you'd find this info). The gimmicky ones might be harder to track down and/or missing the vital gimmicky component on the second hand market. Obvious potential problems if things are already revealed or marked up or just plain inaccessible.

Some of these predictably use a pre-generated character (not uncommon for older D&D modules, especially coming from tournament play), or a small set of classes (e.g. Wizard's Challenge, etc.). 

Given the HHQ series in AD&D 2nd Edition, there's actually a reasonable looking array of these adventures on paper. Unfortunately, the reviews of these things are sparse and nonexistent, and most people who are even proficient reviewers for old school modules might not have much experience with solo adventures.

As far as I can tell this is a comprehensive list of published TSR adventures. Since the wikipedia List of Dungeons and Dragons Modules doesn't go past the year 2000, there may be 3rd or 4th edition stuff. I know there was one truly solo 4e adventure in the D&D Insider nonsense: as in one player without a DM. The 4e Red Box apparently had a couple "solo" adventures which seem to be to get the DM to learn the rules, and there's a Dragon magazine followup solo adventure to those ones. But there could be some later edition stuff or Dungeon adventures that I missed.

Expeditious Retreat Press published a number of 3.5/Pathfinder one-on-one adventures. It looks like the compendium updated the 3.5 adventures to Pathfinder, and they seem like the next reasonable place to look for one-PC D&D.

Also, there may be some modules/adventures like Beyond the Crystal Cave which have very little emphasis on combat: this type of module could essentially be a solo module too, but I'd have to look into it in detail.

[Update: a bit more info in part 2. Also check out the comments below.]

Friday, July 4, 2014

Revisiting D&D Schools of Magic

As I've been thinking that a D&D style game is hindered by overly generic classes (the exception being a game with only a small number of classes: maybe 3-5), and doing away with the generic Wizard or Magic-User might open up a few more doors. Replacing the generic class with the specialty versions prevents one class from stealing the thunder of its subclasses, and allows multiple of those types of characters to coexist a little better in play, I think. The natural D&D thing to replace the standard Wizard with is thematic specialist Wizards. But a few seem a bit off.

One issue, in Second and Third edition, the schools are somewhat poorly defined. Transmutation is a heinously powerful school, and Abjuration is horribly ignored. There's no contesting that an Abjurer has a terrible selection of generally useless spells (they don't even get all the defensive ones!) and Transmutation has a strange abundance where things like Burning Hands could just as well be evocation. Conjuration, too, in 3rd edition gets a strange set of ranged touch attack spells which could easily fit into evocation. This didn't matter so much in first edition where schools were largely story-based (until Dragonlance Adventures came along and divvied them up between the different orders of High Sorcery).

Another issue is reversible spells: spells that summon things are clearly conjuration/summoning, but spells to dismiss them are abjuration. Two sides of the same coin should be maybe combined into one school, no? I suppose this is just another instance of schools being poorly defined.

Yet another issue is schools are only slightly relevant. Pathfinder almost neuters the idea of an opposition school for specialists by just forcing the wizard to learn the spell as one level higher. The Illusionist can still cast Animate Dead, it just is harder. So the specialty goes from a meaningful choice to a thematic choice. Any wizard can basically cast any spell. First edition Illusionists simply cast a slightly different set of spells that normal Magic-Users had, and while not exactly weaker, they were overshadowed by the generalist Magic-User.

So what would the fix look like for a game with a healthy set of classes but without a generic ones? I think you could still use a generic Wizard (who's intelligence and prolonged study grants magical mastery) but require a specialty: no generalists allowed. Second, give a smaller set of coherent specialists. For example, a Binder or Conjurer would focus on various protection-from-X spells, wards, summon monster spells, and a few others like maybe Charm Person and Hold Person. A thematic and coherent set. An Enchanter or Beguiler might focus on charms, illusions, and people-based transmutations (think Bulls Strength or Polymorph Other).  A Necromancer would have their traditional suite of spells (death spells, animating and controlling and destroying undead, fear and some curses). An Elementalist could take the role of the war wizard and evoker throwing around fireballs and lightning bolts. An artificer or alchemist would enchant items, change and create physical items, and other genuine transmutation spells.

This set-up just did away with the abjurer (mostly by giving his spells to the conjurer) and the illusionist (by folding him into the Enchanter). I'd also throw tighten up some of the definitions and probably allow some subschools to be shared (people-based transmutations could belong to an Enchanter or an Alchemist, Fear or Curses could be had by an Enchanter or Necromancer, etc.). By properly subsetting schools into more thematic lists, a given wizard could slowly grow in mastery of his own specialty and possibly sacrificing a little depth for the breadth of choosing spells from outside his specialty list. I think it'll work as long as each class has 3-4 clearly thematic subschools.

So what would this look like? Assume you chose Enchanter:

Thursday, July 3, 2014

13 True Ways (13th Age)

When I got 13th Age last year, I thought it was pretty slick: a combo of 3rd and 4th edition which seems quite playable, easier than either of its parent editions, and has some neat notions (gimmicks?) to help things along (Icons and PC relationships with them, the escalation die, simplified and story-based backgrounds).

But I just preordered 13 True Ways and got the PDF. Now there's more than one class that appeals to me. For the record, its: Wizard from the first book, Battle Captain, Monk, Necromancer, Druid, and Occultist from 13 True Ways). By the by, I still think "Occultist" is kind of a stupid name and wasn't expecting much from the class, but its a class designed for one character which I totally like. As in: there's one crazy chosen-by-fate psychic/karma weaver out there, and you're it.

Some of the story-elements of 13 True Ways didn't look compelling for my first read-through, but I could be more easily convinced to play this baby: either as a player or behind the screen.

Interestingly, I think the set of classes also has now reached my "sweet spot" of 12-20 (15 to be exact). There's something about this level of granularity that speaks to me: certainly more complex than it needs to be, but enough distinct options that I feel I have a crucial choice to make in terms of class. With just the base game... maybe I could consider a Bard or Barbarian? Or Sorcerer? Maybe... But a few more options and I'm considering things that aren't casters (Battle Captain and Monk). This is good. 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Themes in RPGs

Since I've been thinking about Oriental Adventures lately (particularly this post), I'm mulling over how different OSR type games and different RPGs in general handle different genres of fiction.

Recent D&D, since around the time of Dragonlance in the latter days of AD&D 1st Edition, has been very focused on High Fantasy: dirt-farmers becoming heroes that save the kingdom or even the world. The grognards will tell you that older D&D was Sword and Sorcery: you're mostly in it for gold and glory things are more Conan-style with the strange weirdness of Lovecraft and Clark thrown in. Though few OSR games capture that sort of feeling for me except Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperboria or the Conan d20 game. A Song of Fire and Ice / Game of Thrones, thus far, began a bit more in the Sword and Sorcery realm, but is turning more High Fantasy. But we don't really have the Wuxia or Chambara sorts of elements in many fantasy games.

One of the things I yearned for after reading Oriental Adventures was to implement the Honor system in lieu of alignment for a D&D game. OA Honor reminds me to an extent of the World of Darkness morality type system (Station in Al-Qadim pales in comparison), and that seems eminently usable and easier for players to grasp than a nebulous alignment system. Of course, the themes of duty vs conscience and preserving face are ripe with conflicted story possibilities.

On the Wuxia end of things, I like the idea of a corrupt and/or distant bureaucracy, where past tragedies call out for revenge and justice can only be found in the acts of individual heroes.

I have a hankering to run an Al-Qadim game still, based on the Ruined Kingdoms where the characters are trying to found a new city, and have been reading the Arabian Nights now. I have an actual enjoyable translation rather than the old drivel of the Victorian era. And I hope to distil some of that into sets of recurrent themes and tropes that could be put into a game similar to some of the ideas of Wuxia, Sword and Sorcery, and Chambara.

I don't necessarily see all these as incompatible, but it is too much, perhaps, to roll into one game. Which is a damned shame if true. But I'll be damned if I don't consider adding this into whatever games I may run next. Furthermore, I think this is one of those areas where players can and should be consulted. There's nothing to say that my Al-Qadim game couldn't be influenced by Wuxia themes rather than Arabian Nights ones. But I think the idea of having a few stylistic guidelines for your campaign (and changing them up for the next one) can really help in personalizing a module or crafting the next adventure.