Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Gapping a generation

So, I recently stumbled across an interesting post entitled "4E Plays Like A Video Game, and Thats [sic] Awesome". It's an older piece (from November 2010) and #DnDNext wasn't even a thing. I think I spotted in on someone's Twitter feed or something, but that's neither here nor there.

The reason I mention it is because it's quite well written and thoughtful and has some excellent points.

It also made me want to rage-barf!

The essence of his argument, as I understand it, is that the elements of 4E that drew the lion's share of criticism didn't deserve it because they made the game fun.

The spamming of At-Will powers while the Encounter and Daily powers were 'fire and forget' were okay because they were just like the cool down timers in video games. The hand waving healing where everyone takes a breather and is at full health again was all right because it kept the game moving. Any nod to realism was unnecessary because it was a game and games should be fun.

I hate every one of his arguments, but I can't really dispute them either. If that sort of stuff makes for a fun game for him and his friends, then... great! Good for them. Sincerely.

At the time, he was twenty six years old. I was thirty eight. Twelve years but it might as well have been a hundred and twelve. He grew up playing RPGs on the Xbox and computer. I played them on graph paper.

For me, the hand wave healing and powers were a break from the immersion. To me, immersing myself in my character and playing a role is the biggest draw in DnD and any other tabletop RPG. I have dozens of board games and video games that are all fun and all vying for my precious free time. A few are easy enough to lose myself in (Skyrim, Mass Effect, Deus Ex to name a few) but most are fun and carefree diversions.

I don't care how realistic the physics are in the Need For Speed series. I just wanna drive a ridiculously cool car at ridiculously stupid speeds.

I don't care if the Madden games portray injuries accurately. I just want to run a clock killing 80 yard drive.

I don't care if my Ultra-Marine is instantly healed whenever the bullets stop flying. I just wanna saw some Orks in half.

However, I do care if my carefully planned and conceived DnD character has to worry about cool down timers.

Yet Monte Cook and the WotC design team want to bring everyone together under one unified edition. A game with a foundation that will allow the old codgers like myself to sit at the same table as the twenty-something Gazebos of the world. I hope they can pull it off because that would be awesome.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Balancing Act

It's the classic mystery novel setting. A dark and stormy night rages outside the country manor. Inside 4th Edition D&D lies dead.

I've gathered all the suspects in the study. By the fire is General Roles, puffing on a pipe and looking indignant. Mrs. Powers is pacing and railing about her dignity and good name. Professor Healing-Surges nonchalantly thumbs through a musty old tomb. There are others in the room but I haven't bothered to learn their names.

I also haven't bothered to truly investigate the murder. Diligently hunting down clues and gathering ironclad evidence is for pussies. I'm all about baseless accusations and finger pointing. So, once the dramatic tension has peaked, I point my finger squarely at...


The butler ... Balance.


Or maybe everyone shrugs and says that they figured that out way back in chapter six.

Regardless; the quest to balance all the classes was above all else, the thing that killed 4E for me. I probably could have adapted to the card game/tabletop miniatures emphasis of the game over time. But there was no getting past the fact that all the classes under each role felt alike. They had different names and flavor text but at the end of the day we were playing Controllers, Strikers, Leaders, and... that other one. Tanks?

Everyone had healing surges and At-Will powers and lots of Hit Points. Everyone was self-sufficient and independent. Everyone was great but no one ever stood out. All because of balance.

Now, balance has its place. It's good to have in computer games and MMOs. It's nice to have when crossing the Grand Canyon on the back of a bear riding a unicycle across a tightwire. It has no place in a tabletop RPG.

Why? Because balanced characters are no fun. In fact, it's downright boring.

There were exactly two times in our several months of playing 4E where I remember being excited. One was when someone chained together a series of power cards in a really cool way. The other time was when we started dying off after a grueling gauntlet of encounters. Otherwise, the only thing I liked was the role-playing portions, and those had nothing to do with the rules.

I suppose the video-game-ification of 4E required that the classes be balanced. No one wants to login to their D&D based MMO and have one player run around and kill everything before you even hit the key to draw your sword or cast your first spell. That sucks.

But in a tabletop game that's simply not a factor.

As I see it, the idea behind balancing all the classes is to ultimately prevent any one player from min/maxing their character and dominating the spotlight. The fallacy there is that it's up to WoTC to police everyone who plays the game. The reality is that every gaming table is different. We all have our inside jokes and our unspoken policies on what is okay and what is not. All without any heavy handed help from WoTC, thank you very much.

In a good tabletop game with my friends, I want the spotlight. I want my character to shine and show off every now and then. I revel in those moments when I cast my biggest hardest hitting splashiest spell at the big bad guy, and have all the dice fall the right way and have it fall in glorious defeat. Those moments where it all comes together are the best.

At the same time, I want the spotlight to shine on the other characters too. I want to cheer when the rogue disarms that trap or lands that brutal sneak attack. I want to clap when the paladin executes a devastating cleave, or when the cleric vaporizes a room full of undead, or when the druid hits the vampire lord with a sunbeam spell.

Those moments are exciting and thrilling and memorable. Those are the moments that make the game fun. Those are the moments that are lost when every character can do a bit of everything and where all the classes are balanced.

So, leave the talk of balance for the computer games and let the players deal with any spotlight hogging munchkins that show up at their table.

Monday, March 12, 2012


I, for one, love high-level play, and I made sure to tell WotC_Bruce on his blogpost about it.

I haven't had much experience from the player point-of-view, though I'd love to; I think I could do the higher levels of any class proud, bringing the pain down on the greatest foes, the darkest demons and the craziest gods. As a DM, though, I have taken numerous characters, of players past and present, through the upper reaches of power. Granted, I've also stymied many a party from reaching those vaulted heights, and sometimes, we, as a group, have had to labour to get there (such as going through four? parties to eventually see the 3rd edition eight-part official campaign to its conclusion).

As a DM, the high levels are a way to break through some of the humdrum that can occur when facing simple mortal enemies. It allows planar travel to become a little more common (and survivable), providing whole new realms to explore. It provides for greater setbacks in the party, greater wrongs to right. And it provides the opportunity to stand toe-to-toe with evil incarnate, or to dance with the gods.

As hinted at the end of Cordell's post, players have often found issues with higher-level play, some a little more obvious than others. He uses the term "broken". I can't say that I've ever found it broken, but there were points where room for improvement could have been made.

In 3rd edition, for instance, epic characters, whether fighter or wizard, had multiple attacks, and the effectiveness and purpose of them could be questioned. And as might be expected, epic level combats were of epic length; one combat would be an entire evening's event. But what can be done about that? You don't want to just scale up the hitpoints and the damage dealt at the same pace, do you? Won't players see through dealing 50 damage to a 400 hitpoint target as just the same as dealing 5 damage each hit to a 40 hitpoint target? I believe so, and I believe the 3rd edition designers did, too; thus hitpoints rose faster than damage, and SR and saving throws required some effort to keep pace as well, much to Griff's chagrin.

We never did get a chance to try the 4e epic levels, which is a shame. I'd have liked to see how 21st level and above worked out. Having played with the character creator quite a bit, back in our 4e days, I did make quite a few characters (or rather, notable NPCs) all the way to 30th level, and surveyed their advances and "snapshots" at various points. Unfortunately, I never did compare then to like opponents at those levels, to get a sense of how an encounter might ave played out. Anyone have any info about epic 4e?

I think regardless of the poll taken on the blogpost, epic levels are an obvious must. There's no reason to exclude them -- players who detest them can just start a new party when they tire of their advancement to godhood -- and there's every reason to include them, because who hasn't wanted to take on Orcus or Demogorgon at least once? Perhaps this next incarnation can get them right for those opposed, without alienating those like myself who had had little to complain about.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Multiple Attacks

I realized as I read Evil_Reverend's post on multiple attacks, with a slight surprise, that I was actually of mixed-opinion about them. I had always thought that I was someone in favour of them, because they did much as he stated: kept the fighter effective at later levels when faced with armies of enemies. But as I read, I realized that as a DM, and less so as a player, I really did have a deep-seated dislike for how they were implemented.

I had forgotten about the 3/2 system of multiple attacks in the early D&D versions, and since I didn't play fighters back then, I'm not surprised. The 3rd edition system, though, is still fresh in my mind...

The issue that Evil_Reverend brings up was one most of our group had noticed -- that at higher levels, when fighters (and the other classes) had multiple attacks, they really weren't worth bothering with. Sure, there was always a chance of rolling a 20, and yes, if you paid attention, you could save your weaker attacks for weaker opponents that were within reach. But everyone knew they were just rolling those dice to go through the motions, and that the third and fourth attacks weren't contributing to combat. But it wasn't the ineffectiveness of them that bothered me the most. It was the problem of using them, and here, the monk's flurry of blows also comes into play.

On the other end of the timeline, 4e did indeed have ways for the fighter to have his or her multiple attacks, which wasn't bad. However, I did like the 3rd edition idea of every class, not mainly fighters, eventually getting multiple attacks -- some just faster than others. I liked adding together these progressions on multiclassed characters, to nicely represent how the hybrid character is advancing with his or her mixed training and their individual contributions to melee combat. However, this isn't a "requirement" for me, in a new version of D&D; if the fighter (or fighter-types) are the sole owners of multiple attacks, I can accept that in the name of design or balance.

But, 3rd edition, bless it's heart, had the whole Full Action and Standard Action setup. System. Fiasco. How many times did a monk have to struggle with whether they were doing a flurry or not? Or how many times did any character with multiple attacks have to stop and wonder if some special attack was a Standard Action that they could do as part of a multiple attack set, or a Full Action that they now realize they couldn't do as a second attack? How many times have players realized that they should have five-foot-stepped before starting their multi-attack (when they don't have a feat that allows it), after felling the one opponent within reach with the first roll?

I realize that the reason for Full Action/Standard Action was to ensure that very powerful actions were capped out at one per turn, or that they represented extra effort to perform. I understand that the monk had to decide ahead of time whether he was taking that -2 penalty for every attack, even though it sucked when it was revealed that, had the monk just hit with his best shot, he would have delivered that final blow six rounds ago. I understand that it was largely because of balance.

But it interfered with gameplay. And while this is contrary to much of what I say about D&D: balance be damned. If the rules that exist for the sake of balance are causing players and DMs to curse while stumbling through them, they don't belong there. It goes back to why we're there.

It's too bad that the Wizards' post was focused on the fighter class, instead of discussing the 3rd edition's way of allowing them for everyone, or the monk... I get the sense that at that time, fighters were what they were working on that week. I was non-committal on the polls; I think balance comes into play again, and that it makes sense for the fighter to have multiple attacks done this way or that way, if it's to ensure that they're not too over- or under-powered. But even if they keep multi-attack solely in the realm of the fighter, I feel, as I think the designers do, that they're a required feature for that class: when a thousand orcs come along, it's the fighter that's going to wade through them, not some little ranger.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Ding! Dong!

4E is dead!

Maybe. Sorta. Kinda.

Probably a little more dead than 3rd edition is. At least 3rd has the OGL going for it. All 4th has is a badly watered down version. Nice thinking there WoTC/Hasbro. Maybe you can recoup some cash in the video game licensing that was pretty clearly the driving principle of 4E's design.

Still, 4E wasn't all the crappiness, so the announcement of the 5th edition was bitter sweet for me.

On the one hand, there was the rush of excitement over the next new thing. The promise of gaming perfection that lies before us.

Then I remember that we've had this feeling before.

Ultimately, I'm not sure that I'm ready for another edition of my beloved game. Our mountain of 3rd edition books are hardly crumbling to dust while the 4th edition books are collecting dust. Plus, I've acquired more than a few of the Pathfinder books and that's been just fine in my opinion. Why should I break open the piggy bank for yet another rpg?

True. The concept of a modular plug'n'play core is pretty cool. Having Monte Cook involved is also reason for optimism.

I'm just concerned that we'll buy in and get a bunch of shiny new books and modules all to end up playing 3.5 or Pathfinder again.

Not that 3.5/Pathfinder are blemish free. The higher level play is an exercise in huge numbers and fancy gear. Spell Resistance always pissed me off. Not the concept of SR (I like that!) but the math behind it. I always felt like no matter what I did to stack my odds of beating SR, the high CR monsters were always just a little too high.

Plus, encounter design was clunky and by tenth level all the old favorites from the monster manual were all but obsolete. Unless the DM spends hours leveling up those orcs, kobolds, and gnolls (but see the previous clunkiness comment).

So, I suppose 5E could allow a blending of 3rd's character rules with 4th's encounter rules. Sprinkle in some armor acting as DR and a defensive stat akin to the BAB, and we might have something going. Make race a little more relevant. Fix SR. Rein in the number creep that came with level progression and so on.

In other words, be perfect.

Or we might be back here in 2017, blogging about #dndnextagain

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Rolling of the dice

I'm glad this blog post came up, because it is an issue that I have -- surprise, surprise -- an opinion on, and it's something that we've discussed quite a bit at our game table.

For those that are too lazy to click the link above, the general gist is that over the years, melee combat has given the deciding factor -- the die roll -- to the player, rolling to-hit to overcome AC - THAC0, BAB or whatever system you like. Spellcasters and the like instead had to combat Saving Throws, but it was the DM's lucky dice that determined the outcome of that, not the players'. This gave all the drama (good and bad) to the melee characters, and the rest just had to sit back and be told whether their idea worked out.

We tried a few different solutions to this, including systems found in various other games, such as Oriental Adventures, Pathfinder, 3rd edition and 4e. Some of my players and I had come to the same conclusion as Monte Cook did, that they were getting gypped, and I must say, I liked the idea that the spellcaster had that variable in their spell's strength, combatting against their target's innate ability to resist it. We even toyed with moving the randomness of an NPC's attack against the party into the players' hands, turning AC into a defensive roll against a very static attack value that the enemy had. It sure made things easier on my side of the table, but in the end it felt a little unbalanced -- the players shouldn't really have that much "control" over their fate, and having the DM (whether deceptively or honestly) widening his eyes at a roll just made behind the DM shield can add to the suspense of the story as it unfolds. Not knowing if the goblin keeps missing because of low rolls by the DM or because the goblin isn't a threat is fun to leave to speculation; seeing that the goblin didn't hit you when you rolled a 6 on a defense roll tells you right out that you can turn your back on the goblin and focus on the hobgoblin captain instead.

That being said, I'm not vehemently opposed to any one method. They all work, and it was fun to dabble with different systems to stir things up. My voting in the polls that followed the blogpost weren't weighted to either extreme; I might have a preference for the players' fates being more in their own hands, but if the game design can keep the spellcasters engaged without it, I'll be fine with that too.

The Future of Fighters

Forgive me the next handful of posts, as I catch up to news almost a month old.

Over on the D&D Next blog, Evil_Reverend had a poll asking about players' opinion about the role of the fighter in D&D, whether they should be the preeminent melee fighter, or if mastery of ranged weapons also fell within their purview; if they should be openly versatile in their style and methods, or if they should be restricted to a defined purpose.

We've opined before about the 4e way of doing things, I think the 4e fighter would have only gotten one try from me, just to say that I had. To me, the fighter has been, over years, quite frankly, boring. Boring for the very reasons that Evil_Reverend lists: "generic warrior", "reliance on weapons and armor", "particular niche".

However, the 3rd edition fighter had me break out of my anti-fighter shell, a few times in fact. And that's because of the feat structure of 3rd edition. I could be the heavy-plated tank that waded into battle, fearless. I could be the nimble, tumbling, quickstriking dervish, quick like a rogue but trading thieves' tools for a little more skill in combat. I could be the specialist fighter, tripping and disarming without penalty, effortlessly, from a distance. I could be that sniper in the back of the pack, nowhere near as comfortable in nature as the ranger, but good and ready to take the fight up close if, against all odds, my foes could get close enough.

And I did. I played all of these fighters, and they were completely different characters to me. This is why I liked the tone that Evil_Reverend had in his post, that he liked the versatility of 3rd edition, of the feats. He also argues for the "identity" of the fighter, that, I admit, was a bit lost in 3rd edition if you didn't play stereotypically. I just hope the attempts to accommodate the identity doesn't prevent me from completely abandoning it if I choose.

You can guess how I voted in the poll.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Going back to the soul of the game

All the talk about supporting all the past versions of D&D (or rather, the players from past versions) has brought up, in many forums, blogs and tweets, the discussion about the actual gameplay, the flow of the game.

To recap, in the early days, it was all about imagination, storytelling, and dialogue between the DM and the players. The DM told a story, but allowed the players to steer that story, and it was all a back-and-forth collaboration. The game was about orally telling an epic tale around the dining room table, instead of around a fire like the players' ancestors did. The DM was the ultimate rule of law in how the story went, though, and could nix attempts that the players made to steer it away from his or her overall plans, if necessary. And, once in a while, the DM might have the players roll some dice to add some mystery and chance into the mix.

As versions progressed, and players become more seasoned, the Player's Rights seemed to spring into being, where they had a right to dictate how to story went, even if against the DM's wishes. The checks-and-balances, then, became the ruleset and a more frequent use of the dice: if the player wanted to slay the dragon, the DM didn't have to argue with them that "no, you're level 3 fighter really has no chance of taking on that elder wyrm, no matter how brave, valiant, honourable and lucky his is"; he could just cede to the roll of the dice, knowing full well that there was no way that the player would pull that off (or, if the rules allowed critical hits and vorpal weapon rolls and the like, then the DM would accept that this was indeed an epic turn to his or her adventure.)

And then the game progressed further, and players evolved further, and came from another realm, a world where the story was "told" by machines (the world of computer RPGs), and thus their training was steeped in the art of Min/Maxing, and the game designers had to accommodate for this: they had to protect the poor DM from the unbalancing problem of every fighter taking weapon X and every wizard taking spell Y, and so the fool's errand of balancing the game was introduced, and along with more rules to aid in this balancing, the game became more number-oriented, more dice-oriented, and less imaginative - it became more of a wargame than a storytelling game, from the player's point-of-view anyway.

And now... they want to be able to support all of these players?

As a DM, since 3rd edition, I've always tried (and I stress the "try" part) to be a DM somewhere in the middle - a DM that allows the players to come up with solutions that aren't listed in their Skill list or Feat list, or covered in a table in the Player's Handbook or DM's Guide. I do, however, try to quickly find a way to make the request relevant to the representation of the character on the character sheet - that is, to find a way to use an ability score, or skill check, to give the player that way of "attempting" their idea with their dice and some modifier.

Sometimes, if I think that there should be no way of failing, I'll ask the player what their score in such-and-such ability is, and make a show of nodding and thoughtfully, deciding that yes, that's an adequately high-enough score to succeed at what they're trying, or that yes, that number of ranks along with their racial bonus makes that obscure skill-like idea possible. Other times, I'll ask them to roll, completely planning on telling them succeed regardless of the outcome (just to give them that worry that they might fail, and their best-laid plans are going to cause more trouble than they're already in), only to have to scramble when they roll a 1 -- I can't fess up at that point that I really wanted them to succeed all along, can I? So quick-thinking is required to have them actually fail, but for that failure to not be as bad as it should be.

But sometimes the math is good to have. Sometimes I'm not sure how easily this rag-tag group of characters should be able to dispatch this group of monsters, especially if they foolishly raced ahead after the last battle without so much as a healing spell from the cleric. In the old, storytelling days, the DM might "punish" the party for their foolhardiness by having one or two party members severely wounded (and then allowing a retreat if the party smartens up); but perhaps allowing the party to advance and persevere with a non-stop onslaught against the enemy is worthy of some future bard's song. Myself, I'd rather let the (somewhat) balanced numbers -- and the wildly karma-affected rolls of the dice -- make that decision for me.

But I will admit (but never to my players' faces), that sometimes I will fudge the numbers (more on my side of the DM screen than their own) if I think the dice are to blame, and not the players, for what would otherwise be a dismal outcome. If the players should have rightfully been able to defeat a simple group of guards, but the paladin's dice were completely against her, I'm not opposed to "cheating" -- and that *is* how some people see it, that "the rules say..."

Sticking to the numbers can be good! It's a way of keeping the campaign's story somewhat realistic (perhaps ironically, for a fantasy game), ensuring that incredible feats are possible (as they should be, because the players are all heroes), but also keeping a rein on something too fantastic, too out there, that the story becomes uninteresting to the players and to any third-party observers that might hear or read about it.

Because while my players will possibly disagree, given the sheer number of Total Party Kills they've had over the years, for me it *is* still about the story. It should be the source of tales around future dining room tables, and should be believable -- fantastically believable -- and not stories of Monty Hauls and DMs that are pandering to their players with vorpal weapons just to keep them playing.