Monday, June 25, 2012

Legends and Lore Playtest Update

Wow, it's been a long time since I've updated.  What can I say, the field season is a busy time.  It's also proving pretty difficult to organize an online game with my group(s) from home while I'm out of state.  So far I've only gotten to run a single (short) session with some non-gamers, but it seems like this round of playtesting will last longer that initially expected anyways, so there's still time. 

Here is today's Legends and Lore article where Mike Mearls gives an update on how the feedback from the first playtest packet is shaping the ongoing design of the game. 

It's no surprise that a lot of people are clamoring for more combat options for Fighters (and martial characters in general).  "I hit with my sword" Fighters have their place (given how many non-gamers I've introduced to D&D I can definitely appreciate them!), but the 4E Fighter was by far the most engaging incarnation of the class, and it'll be nice to see some meaningful choices to make during combat.  I'm hoping that they'll be simple (quick to resolve), redundancy will be avoided (no more "it's a different power because now it's 2[W]+mods and prone!"), and flexible enough for further improvisation.  I like that complexity will be catered to in both a tactical rules module and a narrative rules module, and I'm sure I'll be using both in my games depending on the situation.

In addition to maneuvers in general, it's looking like the Fighter will be more than just "I have better stats."  Which is definitely a good thing.  After all, of the 4 core classes it's pretty obvious that the Fighter should be the best at Fighting, but what about when the Barbarian, Ranger, and Paladin come out?  All of these classes should also have very competitive damage, HD, etc., and they also have a bunch of "extras."  Giving the Fighter some "extras" as baseline opens up the opportunity for the other warrior classes to actually have competitive combat stats.  Otherwise where would a Ranger fall compared with a Rogue vs Fighter, for example? 

I'm glad that a lot of people commented on not liking the Surprise rules, because there wasn't very much discussion about them online.  Personally I think that it should at least grant advantage to the attackers, if not an extra turn.  An initiative bonus is not quite exciting enough.

I'm NOT thrilled about the new skills system they're tinkering with.  It's sloppy design if two different characters roll 2 different types of checks just because one is trained and one isn't.  Furthermore, why should training make everyone exactly equal?  Why should an 8 Int Rogue be just as good at disarming traps that require logic and/or knowledge as a 15 Int Rogue just because both are trained?  After all, just because a whole class of students is exposed to the same material doesn't mean they're all equally proficient and knowledgeable.  Some get As, some get Ds.  I vastly prefer the +3 bonus that you add onto an ability check.  It makes different characters approach the same skill in different ways.  An 8 Str Gnome Wizard will be far more successful threatening someone with a force of magic using Cha to Intimidate, whereas an 18 Str Minotaur Fighter can punch a hole in the wall and threaten to do the same to your face, adding Intimidate to a Str check.  With an "Intimidate check" replacing the ability score check the Gnome could say that he's punching a hole in the wall and it would be fine mechanically, despite the fact that he's a spindly little guy even by Gnome standards.  I certainly wouldn't feel threatened if he flexed his muscles at me. 

The article concludes with healing and resting.  I'm honestly not sure what kind of system I'd prefer, but I definitely do NOT want a healbot to be required (and that includes wands of CLW).  I do like the idea of making the healing rules modular, with options for high-action, quick-recovery games as well as grittier, more deadly games.  Hopefully there's also some middle ground.

Anyways, it also seems like the next round is put off until later in the summer (as opposed to early July).  Given that I haven't messed around with this first playtest all that much, I can't complain.  I'd like to make some minor tweaks to the system while it's still in a very bare-bones state, without getting distracted by all of the shiny new modules.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

D&D Pronunciation

Found this Pronunciation Guide on EN World (which I now know how to pronounce, lol).  Nifty stuff.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

DM rolls

I had a random thought the other day after reading a discussion about the lack of passive perception in the D&D Next playtest.  The way I see it, the advantage of passive Perception is that it speeds up task resolution, but more importantly it allows the DM to gauge the party's awareness by not alerting them to the fact that something's up (which is obvious when the DM asks you to "make a Perception check"). 

The disadvantage, of course, is that "assuming the average" can get pretty boring since you know you'll always succeed at a given DC.  Does this realistically represent awareness?  You can assume that the adventurers are always "on alert" and cautious, but nobody can spend 100% of their day completely focused on every little aspect of their environment.  Trust me, I do bird surveys for a living and it's tough to keep track of every individual singing and calling around you even for just 10 minutes.  To suggest that an adventurer is constantly equally aware (unless they're "actively searching," in which case they can do worse) is, quite simply, pretty absurd.  Minds wander, people daydream, sometimes people are talking with each other and other times they're silent, and perhaps most importantly sometimes people focus on the wrong thing.  You can't give everything equal attention, so why assume that you're always focusing equally on The Thing That Matters regardless of what it might be?

My solution - the random number table!  No, really!  A DM can simply roll up a list of random numbers between 1 and 20 (easy enough to do in Excel), crossing off each number as it gets "used."  You'd also need a reference sheet with all of your player's modifiers (which is no different than keeping note of their passive perception scores, really).  I'm constantly scribbling things down when I DM, so the players would be none the wiser that I just "used up" a perception roll for them.  If you work from a laptop you could even use an electronic dice roller without your players knowing. 

I haven't tested this idea in play yet, but theoretically it combines the advantages of passive perception (fluid play and not cluing your players in that something's up) with the advantages of rolling (simulating random chance in a variable task).  Win, win, if you ask me.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Tenents of Old School Gaming

The other day I came across A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming on a thread on Enworld.  Given that one of the goals of D&D Next is to allow for a wide range of play experiences with the same rules set, it occurred to me that I should look deeper into what a more "old school" style has to offer.  The most salient points are organized into what the author calls the four "zen moments."

First Zen Moment:  Rulings, Not Rules

This is an interesting point, and even if it's one that's widely known it's not necessarily one that's widely understood.  The assumption that many people make is that the first TTRPG systems lacked a plethora of rules because the hobby hadn't evolved that refinement yet.  This may be true to some extent, but it doesn't explain the recent proliferation of retro-clones.  I personally appreciate a simple, streamlined system with only a few core concepts that can be applied to a wide variety of situations.  The reason why I haven't embraced Basic D&D, AD&D, etc. is because after looking through the books I find the rules that do exist to be clunky.  There are a lot of tables (some that need to be regularly consulted in-game), situational subsystems, and that's not to mention the utter lack of balance and non-intuitive systems like THAC0 (the system whereby lower AC is better).  4E may have suffered from supplement glut, confusing errata, and a few math errors here and there, but the core system was very solid and intuitive. 

Here is where D&D Next has an interesting opportunity to realize a more old-school style of play while using modern rules to do it.  Not only that, but players can toggle anywhere they like on the spectrum, and in some cases the more complex modules can inform rulings using the more simple core.  To illustrate what I mean by this, let's use the Fighter as an example.  The Fighter is going to have the option for maneuvers-based, 4E-style builds that will presumably be as balanced against competing options as possible (that's what a whole team of game designers, as well as a slew of playtesters who in some cases are competent in game design themselves, are tasked with accomplishing).  Even if you're not interested in using those tactical modules or that complex Fighter build, it pays to be familiar with it because those maneuvers can serve as extremely useful reference points.  In a purely old-school game using a non-modular system the GM can make rulings for improvised actions, but they'll always be a shot in the dark.  The easiest methods are to substitute an attack for an improvised maneuver (like a Dex vs Dex contest to trip a foe), which if past experience is any measure is almost never going to be used because it's usually underpowered, or to simply allow the Fighter to attempt things like this in addition to attacking, which is obviously overpowered (and will result in players fishing for improvised actions every single turn, which will bog down gameplay).  The middle ground is much more interesting, where maneuvers and attacks can be combined with a drawback in some sort of middle ground, with the end result being tactically powerful but not automatically the obvious choice all the time. 

Improvisation and creativity can be maintained alongside balance, instead of "you need a feat/power/etc. for that" for the sake of balance.  Ultimately I do think that rewarding creativity and improvisation is important because that's the biggest strength of tabletop gaming.  You can attempt anything you come up with instead of being railroaded by computer codes like in video games.  In a way, some modern game rules bring that "coded" element too far into the foreground, and that's just not playing to the advantage of the medium.

Second Zen Moment:  Player Skill, not Character Abilities

This one's a little more contentious in my opinion, but the beauty of delving into this old-school toolkit is that everything doesn't come pre-packaged; groups can choose different elements to suit their tastes.  Aside from the fact that simply testing player skill can bog things down (i.e. requiring players to specify searching every corner of a room instead of simply rolling a search check), it also breaks the immersion of roleplaying a character who is different from you. 

The biggest sticking point to me comes into play during social challenges, and there are two issues here.  The first is simply that different players have different levels of comfort and interest getting into character and actually acting.  The classic example is a shy player who wants to play a smooth-talking Bard.  Requiring such a player to come up with the actual speech he uses to change the king's mind is simply not good gaming if the player would rather just give a short, general description and roll a Diplomacy check.  The rules shouldn't restrict personal style too much, and besides that it's easier to give roll-players what they want and allow roleplayers to ignore it than it is to force rollplayers to invent their own mechanics.  Second, there's a disconnect with a clever player controlling a stupid character, or a smooth-talking player controlling a character who dumped Cha, etc.  The idea is that Int, Cha, or whatever can be dumped but the character won't really suffer the drawbacks of doing so.  In other words, the player's skill gives the character a free ability.  Why should the Fighter be able to out-Charisma the Bard when the Bard class specifically gives up some combat expertise in order to have more of a social presence? 

Ultimately, there's not "right answer" and fortunately it seems like D&D Next will support both playstyles well. 

Third Zen Moment:  Heroic, Not Superhero

I'm not sure that this one's all that important, but perhaps old-school grognards would disagree.  The premise is that starting out as Joe Normal is requisite for the experience, and I don't necessarily buy that.  More adept individuals have just as much of a need to survive using their wits as every day people, because the simple fact is that every day people don't run around doing the sorts of things that adventurers tend to do!  It's really a question of how deep into the "origin story" you want to go ("I just picked up a sword for the first time" vs "I've already demonstrated my skill and potential in the field").  Where your character eventually ends up isn't necessarily an old school vs modern element, either.  I would argue, in fact, that old school Magic Users are indeed superheroic; the goal of modern games is simply to allow the non-magic guys to do the same.

Fourth Zen Moment:  Forget "Game Balance"

Isn't this an interesting point!  As someone who was attracted to 4E specifically because the classes are all balanced against each other, you might think I'd wholeheartedly take issue with this.  True, I don't want to repeat my 3rd edition experience where the casters are all but useless in the first few levels, and by the high levels the situation is flip-flopped.  However, one component of the argument is that not every encounter should be assumed to be "fair," and I've come to realize that this is a very good point.  Of course a modern game like 4E gives you to tools to finely craft a balanced encounter, but that doesn't necessarily mean you need to adhere to them!  Admittedly it's easier in a more streamlined system to gauge threat level more quickly (in real time), but I think this is generally good advice for GMs in any system to keep in mind, as it grounds the players into the game world (which feels more dynamic and realistic by being inhabited by all manners of creatures, and not just those that are an "appropriate challenge"). 

Player Advice

It takes the effort of everyone in the group to run a game more old-style, and it's helpful for players to know the basic assumptions of what they should be doing.  Mapping is emphasized (even if it's just a flowchart), as the player needs to keep in mind where things are to use the environment and terrain to not only their advantage, but to avoid getting flanked by reinforcements or trapped.  Dungeons tend to be tests of attrition, with the end goal being the monsters near the end with the big loot pile.  Fighting everything means you'll never make it far enough, so scouting ahead is important (see also using the environment to your advantage).  Asking a lot of question is important, both to clarify what you may be facing and any details of the environment that may be important.  As a side note, this is valuable in any game from the GM's perspective because having to think about such details can provide a spark of inspiration (which can lead to an interesting scenario, or just help to more fully flesh out the world). 

Other tips include using hirelings, protecting the Magic User, keeping in mind that not all monsters will be within the party's skill to defeat, and gathering information about a dungeon beforehand.  This means doing your research and talking to people in-game before heading out.  Ultimately, it's about preparation and careful thought.  

DM Advice

Spicing things up outside of the standard procedure is required.  Otherwise things turn into "I attack," "Monster Attacks," "I attack again," etc.  Yes, you can spice things up in any system, but you arguably have more time for it when combat options are simple and fights end quickly.  Coming up with random consequences for bad rolls (and benefits for good rolls!) is encouraged, as long as you play fair and don't favor either the monsters or the players.  You need to give players a reason to trust your judgement.

Colorful descriptions and improvised actions are often easier without the constraint of a grid and minis.  Even if you use a grid, go with what makes sense in the game world rather than just what makes sense on the table in front of you.  Resource management is important to consider, and make sure you can think of ways to counter the 5 minute workday.  Apparently a lot of old-school gamers consider this stuff a feature and not a bug (personally I'd rather not be bothered with tracking rations, arrows, etc., let alone being locked into a spellcasting system that assumes this is important to you). 

The closing statements are "You are the rulebook.  There is no other rulebook." and "Make it fast, make it colorful, and make it full of decisions for the players."  At the very least it speaks to my aversion for 3rd edition's "you need to have complicated rules for everything, which then must be remembered or referenced" philosophy. 

As a final thought I'll simply state that there's some valuable stuff in the old-school philosophy, as well as things that are eschewed by modern games for a reason.  One thing that this reading has emphasized for me is the value of keeping in mind the strength of TTRPGs, which is maintaining the sense that truly anything is possible.  The more I think about it, the more I've come to the conclusion that a simple core that can handle a wide variety of situations is an admirable quality in game design.  D&D 3E had too many complicated sub-systems, whereas 4E probably had too many specific "exceptions" such that they became hard-wired pieces.  That's not to say that either are bad games (even if I despise 3rd edition personally), but rather that they don't play to the main strength of the TTRPG.  Third Edition's major goal is simulationism and system mastery, whereas Fourth Edition's is tactical combat that borderlines on being a miniatures war(mini)game.  Both are valid experiences, but they give up some of the open-endedness that makes roleplaying games great.  I sincerely hope that Fifth Edition's modularity really can allow groups to switch as the situation dictates (namely for me, being able to bust out a tactical combat for major battles but otherwise have a simple core).