Monday, October 5, 2015

After the Delve (4E)

Okay, it appears I am done with my sojourn into the realm of 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. I reread the DMG2 and didn't find anything really worth mentioning (not in a positive light, anyway)...a lot of it just feels like "filler."

[oh, and I did find a PDF copy of the MM2 and had a chance to read it. Eh]

Here's the complete series for folks who want the links in one place:

Delving 4E (Part 1)

After spending a week or so on 4E, reading it, analyzing it, thinking about it, I feel...I feel...I don't know how I feel about it. Well, not enough to put it succinctly.

First, I think there is some neat ideas in the 4E system...ideas and concepts I think are interesting and even exciting. Things I'd like to use or play with. And that's surprising to me (though it shouldn't be). It isn't a total cesspool when it comes to design elements...and I think that might have been my base assumption prior to actually reading the thing.

I was also surprised that...well, honestly I forgot how long ago 4E hit the shelves. It's first print date was June 2008. I only started this blog in June of entire year after 4E had been distributed, demonstrated, played by D&D fans all over the world. And somehow I got by for years blogging about out-o-print editions and badmouthing 4E with (effectively) zero experience with the system. No wonder I lack credibility in some (many) circles...the readership I've managed to maintain has been incredibly forgiving in this regard.

That being said, 4E is still a train wreck, and most of the things I wrote about it (even without reading it) still seem pretty fair assessments. A lot of time, money, and effort went in to making a game that alienated a large portion of a long-time fan base, lacked staying power, and (in the final analysis) failed in meeting some of the basic objectives of the designers. Whether or not this was the reason many of 4E's designers have parted ways with WotC (as opposed to the simple economic fluctuations of the industry and corporate politics)...who can say? But for all the work put into the game, from publication to the announcement of 5E (in January 2012), the 4th edition lasted all of three-and-a-half years. Which I suppose is the same length of time that 3E lasted before 3.5 was published...but 3E and 3.5 were the same system and mostly compatible with each other, whereas 4E exists in its own bubble.

Sometime back (years ago), I pondered whether or not someone will...20 years from now...pine over their days of playing 4th Edition D&D, the same way OSR folks reminisce about B/X or OD&D or AD&D or BECMI. Will there be people still playing 4E, continuously, for the next two or three decades, in the same way people have been playing older editions of D&D since the 70s and 80s? While I have a hard time saying 'yes,' I recognize there are a lot of folks who've invested a substantial amount of money in books and minis and battle mats. I'm sure someone will enjoy setting up an encounter for a free-wheeling wrecking crew 15-25 years from now.

But will they remember how to play? Will they be able to find people interested in learning (or relearning) such a complex system just for the sake of rolling dice and knocking down miniatures? That's a lot of mental energy for so little (imaginative) return.

And perhaps the most surprising thing of all is I feel a little sorry about this. There's a part of me that wants to like 4E, would like to see it succeed, even though I know it's already when you re-watch a film, knowing the ending, but want the ending to be different because of your sympathy for the characters in the story. There's some interesting stuff in 4E, and it talks a good game, even if it's setup to play poorly.

I'm sure most of the folks who read this blog are familiar with the movie The Princess Bride. When I was a youth, my buddy Rob excitedly explained that the film was based on an abridged novel, "The Good Parts Version," of an older, longer, very boring novel by S. Morgenstern. My friend (an aspiring writer) really wanted to find a copy of the original book, just to see the differences and what had been "cut out," and spent a good long time looking for a copy. Myself, I thought it was interesting anecdotally, but I was satisfied with the movie and never in a great rush to read either book (I had many other books to finish).

It was only a week ago (in reading about the novel family just watched the film) that I discovered the "abridgment" was nothing more than a literary device of the actual author, William Goldman...that there never was an "S. Morgenstern" or any earlier work to be abridged. I wonder if Rob ever discovered this and (if not) how long he continued his search before giving it up.

I bring this up because, after doing this series, I can't help but think the 4th edition could benefit from an abridgment, a "good parts version" of its own. Something easier to run, easier to play, easy to do while boozing it up...a Dungeons & Flagons kind of game. Something less serious, less prone to dramatization. Something easily accessible (even with a buzz). A dungeon crawl, funhouse-type game, without any sort of endgame or world-shaker ambitions. That's what 4E is really calling out to be, in my opinion.

D&D with more grog.

ANYway...that's about all I want to say about 4E. However, I'd very much like to hear the thoughts of people who have played or run 4E...your thoughts, your feelings, your retrospective perception of an edition that's currently on the scrap heap. Please feel free to comment on this post, or any of the other posts in this series (if there's a specific issue you want to address). I'd really be interested in getting the opinion of folks who actually had a chance to experience this particular style of D&D.

: )

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Delving 4E (Part 5)

It's only fitting that this fifth post be the last installment in this series, seeing as how there's only five editions of Dungeons & Dragons. What - there's more than five editions? Well, the most recent one appears to be something called "fifth edition" and Wizards of the Coast (current holders of the brand name) has an official forum for "Fifth Edition" D&D, so I'll defer to them as the experts on the matter.

Point is, I think I can finish up this series on 4E in one more post. Yes, it will include my (positive) thoughts on the DMG and MM. Maybe some of the less than positive ones, too.

First, the combat/adventuring system found in the PHB: meh. Compared to the other sections I've discussed, there's not a lot here that I find all that cool, interesting, or portable (other than things I might have mentioned in earlier posts). I've seen tactical rules like this before...3E had plenty...but while my impression is that 4E is a simpler system, it sure appears to be complex (talking about presentation here).

I'll reiterate again that I'm kind of intrigued by the way 3E "saving throws" have been rolled into "defenses" and how the actual 4th Edition "save" works. It allows for some interesting effects (like catching hold of something when knocked off a cliff...that's neat). The whole defining action thing (standard, move, and minor) and the currency between them is pretty tidy, if only necessary due to the general excessiveness of combat (appropriate, mind you, due to the emphasis of the game). I like the "shift" action as an evolution of the fighting withdrawal (used to move without provoking an attack of opportunity). Opportunity attacks seem a little simpler than 3E, but it's been a while since I read the 3rd edition...

And that's pretty much all I need to say, with the exception of healing (surges) and the art of dying. Man, it is hard to die in this game...or, rather, it should be hard given the system. I'll admit that I'm not a fan of the three-step death process with saves and whatnot...a (for my money) overly complex system for a pretty faulty concept. Just take death off the table, if that's what you want: PCs reduced to 0 hit points or less are simply knocked out or incapacitated, not killed.

OR (if you want to retain the slim chance of death), simply have an incapacitated PC roll a D20: on a result of 1 or 2 the character dies. That is a fair representation of the character's chance of dying using the 4E system. As it is, you need to fail an unmodified "death save" three times (rolling less than 10 on a D20) in order to give up the ghost...45%x45%x45% equals 9%, the equivalent of rolling a 1 or 2 on the D20. Hey, designers: it doesn't have to be so hard.

The healing surges are another matter. Yes, there are probably too many of them, especially considering how they interact with the short rest and long rest systems. BUT the 4E designers have really just run with the whole concept of abstract hit points, an idea I can get behind. Keeping HPs an abstract measurement of PCs' "staying power" (as opposed to actual measurement of health) allows you do do all sorts of neat tricks: like allowing a PC to gain a few bonus HPs from quaffing a vial of holy water (presuming they're not Chaotic), or granting a PC an extra D4 hit points from downing a jug of wine ("Dutch courage"). It allows my warlord character to give flagging companions a boost by righteously pounding the crap out of someone, and it allows fatigued individuals a chance to recover their second wind in the middle of a fight.

For the record, I like the second wind concept (the ability to expend a healing surge once per encounter to recover one-quarter your HPs mid-combat). I think using it in conjunction with an abstract vision of HPs is about the only way to model someone gaining a "second wind" in the midst of strenuous activity (fighting, in this case). However, as executed, it's many times can one really "dig down" for that extra resolve? I'd say once per day with the exception of some fairly unique individuals (modeled with an appropriate feat, perhaps).

No player character in 4E begins with fewer than six healing surges, a number I'm sure is based on the game's paradigm of "two encounters per session." At that rate, even the weakest (in terms of healing) party member can count on two second winds per session (one per encounter), plus as many as four between the encounters to heal HPs back to full for encounter #2 (since each healing surge heals a character one-quarter its HPs). If the final encounter of the day depletes the character of all HPs (and surges), they can still count on ending the session with a long rest to recover all lost resources (HPs, surges, and powers) setting a "fresh slate" for the next get together.

There's not a lot of risk there.

But there's another point to such "safety mechanics" besides simple survivability. Perhaps, they exist to allow longer, deeper delves...bigger adventures without the need for constant retreat and recovery. I mean, that's a positive thing to shoot for, yeah?

Except the 4E DMG belies that presumption with the basic setup of adventures and encounters. Things are built with an eye towards balancing encounters against each other and against the player characters in a manner that provides a steady rate of mechanical challenge at an estimated pace of one hour per encounter. Maybe that's a conservative estimate...especially at low levels when opponents should be fewer, smaller, and possessed of lesser special abilities...but I can also see the possibility of encounters taking longer, especially in situations where PCs have expended their "finishing moves" earlier (or ineffectively) or due to higher numbers of adversaries (on either side) or higher complexity in the numbers of creature roles.

Complexity. Man, that is a key word, here. I've now read the DMG a couple times and I've got to wonder again at the design choices, especially in light of what I know of the designers' objectives. Here's the specific quote I'm thinking about from 4E designer Andy Collins:
People today, the young kids today, are coming into exposure from D&D after having playing games that have very similar themes, often have very similar mechanics ... they understand the concepts of the game. So in some ways they are much more advanced as potential game players. But in other ways, they are also coming from a background that is short attention span, perhaps, less likely interested in reading the rules of the game before playing.   
And I'm not just talking about younger players now, but anybody. I know when I jump into a new console game, for instance, the last thing I want to do is read the book. I want to start playing. And that's a relatively new development in game playing and game learning. And we've been working to adapt to that, the changing expectations of the new gamer.
First of all, I realize there are people like Mr. brother, for instance...who can't be bothered to read the instructions on their video games. I'm not one of them. And because I prefer to read the instructions first, I tend have an easier time and excel faster then the dudes that just "jump right in." But, okay, whatever...say stodgy old me isn't their target demographic. Say their game (4E) was designed for the impatient, energy-drink-swilling, short-attention-span kid. How the holy fuck could they expect such a person to digest and run a game of the complexity that is 4E? How are they going to put together adventures and interesting encounters just "off the cuff" with the careful balancing act required for the gig?

It's taken me quite a bit of brain power to parse out the (adventure) design structure presented in the DMG, to the point that I think I could put something together, and I'm no rank novice when it comes to D&D or DMing in general. And I think the 4E DMG is pretty well-written...some of the stuff in here on running the game, designing campaigns, and advice on being a DM is quite good, perhaps the best I've seen in any edition of D&D. I especially like the section on the D&D world and the "core assumptions" of the goes a long way towards creating a coherent gestalt of the kitchen sink fantasy elements that have crammed the game's pages since the beginning.

Could a complete newbie to tabletop role-playing just sit down, open up the 4E DMG and MM and craft/run an adventure for a few friends? I guess anything's possible, but it's hard for me to see it. In my estimation 4E requires a greater degree of sophistication than earlier editions. I had no problem DMing B/X as a nine-year old, nor AD&D as an 12-13 year old...but 4E is a very different animal. I think it is safe to say it's built to emulate (in many ways) MMORPGs like World of Warcraft. The difference, though, is that WoW has a host of programmers building a world for exploration and adventure for the people that pay to play, while D&D's "world" is supposed to be built and run by the same people that put their money down for the books. With the level of complexity 4E presents, the level of study required to make it accessible, I just can't see how this meets the designers objective of appealing to "the new gamer."

[maybe the idea was to sell a lot of pre-written adventures?]

OKAY. Things, I liked. Much of the writing, non-specific to the mechanics (just advice information on running a D&D game) was "good stuff." I like the core world assumptions. I like how they handle artifacts in 4E, and the idea of concordance, though I initially liked BECMI's universal method of handling artifacts also (as a repository of power points) and in practice found it pretty boring...artifacts should break some rules.

I think that the direction 4E went with monsters and monster scaling is actually more versatile and less complicated than 3rd edition...which, all things considered, is pretty impressive. Even so, the monster roles are pretty bland, even if they're descriptive of the way creatures are used in play. The idea of elites (double power monsters) and solos (quintuple power monsters) is a concept I recognize from MMORPGs, of course, but I wonder if it isn't something that couldn't be adapted to good effect. It's certainly easier (and more sensical, IMO) than "adding levels" to monsters. It reminds me a bit of the rules for gargantuan monsters (Mentzer's Companion set) and paragon monsters (Mentzer's Immortal set).

I do like the D6 die roll for recharging monster powers...makes it easier for DMs to be objective when it comes to hosing players with an adversary's best powers.
; )

If only I could grok his stat block.
Oh, yeah...I quite like the way 4E has taken Orcus and made him a focus, arch-antagonist of the setting. But that's something (along with the 4E cosmology) that I want to talk about in a "non-4E" post.

And that's about it.  I'll check the DMG2 later to see if there's anything else I'd like to note. Expect a follow-up addendum to this series.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Delving 4E (Part 4)

Over the years of writing this blog, I've posted many times about the Vancian magic system of Dungeons & Dragons, usually regarding some dissatisfaction with it. It doesn't scale well, for example, being too weak at lower levels, too strong at higher levels. Or (more commonly) it's not "magical" enough for my taste, failing to model the fictional magic systems of fantasy literature.

I've delved into the origins of the system, reviewed Gygax's inspirations and reasonings, perused Arneson's own system, studied the original base of Chainmail (even adapting Chainmail's system to my own Five Ancient Kingdoms), mused and analyzed its development over editions, and postulated ideas on "how to make it work better." Hell, when I wrote The Complete B/X Adventurer, I included several new spellcasting classes and gave each one different, new mechanics to distinguish them from the standard magic-user/cleric paradigm. I've written many new spells for the B/X game (both in TCBXA and my B/X Companion) and adapted spells from other books to the B/X (Vancian) system.

That being said, I have precious little experience actually playing magic-users, in any edition of D&D. Other games, sure (Ars Magica, WW's Mage, FATE's Dresden Files, Shadowrun, a couple others here or there)...but none of those use the magic system of D&D, even the close analogies (like DragonQuest and Palladium). There's nothing out there like D&D's Vance-based system that combines auto-effects (no dice roll is required to succeed) with resource management (limited spell quiver). At least, not that I'm remembering at the moment. It is (as I've written before) one of the key elements that identifies that D&D system. Love it or hate it, Vancian magic IS Dungeons & Dragons.

Or, at least it was Dungeons & Dragons. That, of course, changed with 4E. All protestations to the contrary (that magic is still limited by daily and encounter allotments), if you're allowing mages to create magical effects at will (and all spell-users get two to three such "at will" powers, in addition to unlimited use cantrips) then you've stepped outside of the Vancian paradigm. And I think it's fair to argue that the requirement of making D20 rolls for any attack spell (versus a target's appropriate defense), would also negate any claim to the traditional Vancian system.

But then, I did write (earlier in this series) that 4E's "not really D&D." You can argue the issue, fine. My point is not to look at the system as it's own thing, nor spend a bunch of time bashing it (for not being "real D&D"), but rather talking about my thoughts/feelings on its various aspects as points of interest...things I like that I might adapt ("steal") for my own D&D (or D&Dish) game. Now, regarding that magic system...

Not sure if I've told you this story that I heard (2nd hand) from an American couple that've been living down here the last seven years. It seems that a couple years ago, there was a yoga fad that swept Asuncion (as fads sometimes do in communities), with yoga studios popping up all over the nicer neighborhoods. A yoga guru (non-Paraguayan) was invited down here and was making the rounds, visiting places, giving talks, and generally enjoying a little local celebrity. Then at a seminar he was giving, he had the audacity to suggest that, in other parts of the world, people felt that eating a little less red meat might be a good thing for one's personal health and fitness. Not becoming a vegetarian, mind you, just going a little easy on the beef that is such a staple of the Paraguayan asado culture.

He was booed off the stage and run out of town. The fad has faded to only a couple-three remaining studios since then. first thoughts on seeing the magic system in 4E is: I don't totally hate it. In fact, there are some things I kind of dig here, at least conceptually, if not the actual execution. Here's the bullet point list (for the sake of expedience):

  • I like the split between spells that are known/cast-able at a moment's notice (the character's "powers," whether arcane or divine) and ritual magic. There's a bit of an extension of the 3E "wizards-can-take-feats-to-master-favorite-spells-but-otherwise-have-them-in-their-books."
  • Ritual magic, in general: I like how any person with the correct feat and skill can learn some ritual magic without a need to multiclass. To me, this is very "fantasy literature-esque."
  • I like the limitations imposed by the daily/encounter restrictions. Rather than allowing MUs to stockpile bunches of lightning bolts (for example) there's a need to diversify the actual spells used in play, making the wizard's spell-throwing more interesting, and adding back that challenge of deciding when to use that dispel magic and when to look for another option.
  • At the same time, I like there's an epic feat that allows wizards to recast daily spells. An "epic wizard" should be able to toss around multiple fireballs, unlike lesser magicians.
  • I like the idea of implements and how specialization allows minor bonuses without penalizing the caster for losing an implement (gives flavor and encourages style with one swift stroke). 
  • I like immediate interrupt spells, like shield, giving a kind of counterspell feel without some clunky mechanic.
  • I like the at will cantrips. I've always liked the idea of magicians performing such minor, inconsequential magics without limit, both because it allows magicians to always remain "magical" even when they're not throwing prismatic sprays AND because creative players can figure out ways to make such spells effective and consequential when they're regular "quiver of spells" are exhausted.
  • While "at will" attack spells (which will be used over-and-over again, especially at low levels when a character's number of dailies and encounter attacks are expended) have the potential to make the game feel LESS magical (because the magic becomes so common) in a high magic setting I can see it a little. Better than the magic-user with the bandolier of knives, after all. Still, you run the risk of looking like a cartoon action hour sorcerer or comic book character shooting lasers out of your hands. I'd rather these were all limited use of daggers, by the way, is an awesome spell that should have been an encounter attack and definitely needs to be 'ported into the B/X game.
  • I already mentioned previously that I like the warlock class. Again, not thrilled about eldritch blast being "at will," but if you're going to go with at will attack magic, that one's an awesomely appropriate class feature.
  • The cleric's prayers are closer to the non-spellcasters' power sets than the arcane dudes (and definitely non-Vancian). However, I will say I prefer the deity-specific channel divinity feats to 3E's endless lists of bonus "domain" spells. Oh, yeah...and godsmite is uber-cool on just about every level. Who wouldn't want to hit some cretin with that?

None of which is to say there isn't some serious ugliness within the system. I read somewhere that the placement of magical items in the PHB equipment lists encourages 4E games to feature setting with the dreaded cheesiness of "magic shops," in order to turn hard-earned treasure into enchanted gear commensurate with their level. Personally, I see no reason anyone would do such a thing when a 175gp buys anyone the enchant item ritual which any arcane skilled character of 4th+ level can use to create any/all magic items...for the same price as their listed cost (in other words, the party is pretty much presumed to be its own "magic shop"). Talk about taking the magic out of the game and making it mundane.

And, of course, the game suffers from its basic design of a skirmish-level war-game. Nearly all the spells are combat oriented, making the wizards' "fighting style" nothing more than "choose-your-flavor-of-ranged-damage-this-round." But that's beating the proverbial dead horse, yeah? We don't have to keep flogging the overall design choice (when 4E has already "failed" and been replaced with the latest-shiniest). Still, it's worth pointing out that this may be the least "magical" of all the D&D systems I've seen (note: I still haven't read the 5E books). My own magic designs have tried to move away from "wizards as damage dealers" and this opposite approach...well, it just makes the magical ordinary.

Gone are the spells one might use outside of a combat situation or dungeon environment...things like rope trick and weather control and cacodaemon. Or even wall of am I supposed to magically construct my tower of sorcery?  Heck, there isn't even a charm person spell...that's got to be a first for any tabletop RPG. Too much imagination required, I suppose.

[the 29th level bard power spellbind is the closest thing I find, though I admit I'm not looking terribly hard; fast friends (another bard power in the PHB2) is pretty weak sauce compared to the traditional charm person]

Which reminds me: the level assignments for powers are a little jarring. Mirror image at level 10, fly at 16, Evard's black tentacles at 19? Yeah, throwing a 4th level spell like EBT into the experience tier where 1E magic-users usually expect a 9th level spell is odd...but not as odd as seeing confusion (another traditional 4th level spell) as a 27th level epic spell. Hell, timestop becomes available at level 22!

[confusion is also incredibly watered targets a single creature, and forces it to make a single basic attack against its nearest ally. All that an average of 15 damage (+INT bonus). That's what a 27th level wizard can do? Blast of cold (level 15) would appear to be more effective. The scaling here is really strange]

But all that's besides the point. 4E may be too strange a beast for me to play, but there's is some interesting ideas buried here. All right....that's enough for tonight.

"I need a long rest..."

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Delving 4E: An Interlude

AKA "Delving 4E Part 3.5"

In my last post, I gave my thoughts about the classes and builds of 4th Edition, specifically some of the stuff I liked with regard to conceptualizations (is that a word? spellcheck says yes). The post only addressed classes in 4E PHB, and long-time players of D&D will notice the conspicuous absent of a couple-three loooooong time classes of the D&D game: the druid and the bard.

The druid is the real glaring absence...available as a player character class since the days of OD&D (it first appeared in Supplement 3: Eldritch Wizardry), the druid is a standard class in both AD&D 1 and 2, D&D 3 (and 3.5), and even makes it into BECMI as a "proto-prestige class" of cleric (see the Mentzer Companion set). It provides a natural (as in "nature") counterpoint to the cleric's more organized worship and is a bit of a bridge between the magic-user and cleric archetypes, gaining some of the spells and benefits of each, as well as hybrid selection of weapons and armor.

It is also the favorite class of my buddy +Heron.

The bard's history is a little shorter, only first appearing in an appendix of the original AD&D PHB, and never in any of the "basic" games (the one in my B/X Companion doesn't count). Unlike the druid, the bard has undergone several significant revisions over the years, beginning first with its jump from 1E to 2E (where it went from a more martial class to more "trickster" as rogue subclass) and from there to 3E where it became a hybrid support class with an emphasized arcane (wizardry) flavor, and a favored class of gnomes (by 3.5).

The bard was my favorite class back in my 1E days. But that's a post for another time.

I should probably also mention the assassin, which first appeared in OD&D's Supplement 2 (Blackmoor) before the 1E PHB. While 2nd edition initially axed the class, it later appeared in the Al-Qadim setting book as a religious-zealot reimagining, as well as a "monster class" (the Headsman/Thug) in the BECMI Master set. As of 3E, it still wasn't a core class, though it makes and appearance in the 3E DMG as a prestige class. As it's been MIA for so many years, its absence from 4E isn't nearly as surprising as the lack of druid and bard options.

Welp, the fourth edition's PHB2 does contain both the bard and the druid, along with updated versions of 3E's barbarian and sorcerer class, and something called an assassin rewrite of serious religious overtones (something reminiscent of video games like that bald Hitman guy with the numbers on his scalp or the white-hooded Guild dudes).

[for the record, I draw a very severe distinction between the raging berserker of 3E and the flavor/skill-heavy barbarian that appeared in the 1E Unearthed Arcana]

The PHB2 also adds three completely new (to D&D) classes in the invoker, shaman, and warden, as well as additional race options in the deva, gnome, half-orc, and shifter. As I said in my earlier post, I'm not a fan of 4E's races (especially the new ones), though I have to admit the gnome tickles me a bit with its "fade away" power (would have been a useful ability for my old gnome assassin, Shoon Grinblade).

Even the cover art is bad.
Here's the thing: with one possible exception, all these classes leave me ice-cold. Or worse, they just plain irritate me...both in conception and execution, most of the stuff in the PHB2 is a big bucket of crap. In my opinion, of course...perhaps other people have found these options to be fun, interesting, and exciting. For me? No, sorry.

I mean the druid...the druid, what the f---! The druid is some sort of lycanthrope from the get go (though only a fight-worthy one...the PHB2 suffers A LOT from the basic premise of fourth edition...). The warden appears to simply be "the other druid" for people who don't want some sort of were-priest. Maybe they had too many options for druids and split it up over two or three classes? But then, you've already got this shifter race, and... I don't get it. What's with cranking the animalism up to 11 in this book?

When Heron told me druids were his favorite class and was waxing eloquent on their virtues, never once did he mention the way their dire wolverine attributes matured with level progression.

[ child just saw the PDF images of the gnomes on my computer and asked, "Are those gelflings?" We just watched The Dark Crystal the other night]

[it's funny because they don't really look like gnomes]

Anyway...aside from the gnome and the concept of a shapeshifter race (I'm a fan of Roberson's Cheysuli books, and I think the archetype is pretty good "fantasy;" I've used it to good effect with, for example, DragonQuest in the past), the only thing I really liked in the PHB2 was the bard, and its optional martial build, which reminds me very much of my "glory days" playing 1E AD&D. It would be tempting (for me) to play such a character...but then, I suspect, that even the most martially oriented bard would look pretty tame next to other class-builds (and not just the fighter). Maybe.

So, yeah; that's it for the PHB2. There's nothing else here that I really want to comment on. Not in a positive, constructive fashion anyway.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Delving 4E (Part 3)

My plan is to post my thoughts on the classes and powers in the 4E PHB (I've got a copy of the PHB2 as well but...well, we'll see if I get to it), specifically what I like. As I wrote in my last post, this isn't about lauding 4E as its own game, nor about bashing it for "how it ain't D&D." This is more about what I find interesting, neat, or intriguing as a design choice and possible addition to an actual (D&D) RPG.

Oh, yeah...since this is an attempt to stay positive, I will stay away from the subject of how 4E handles the races in D&D, except to say that I dislike them immensely. Sorry. My distaste is such it might even stop me from playing in a 4E game, knowing I'd probably be adventuring alongside "dragonborn" and "tieflings."

But here's what I like:

With a couple exceptions, I like all classes and "builds" presented in the PHB, at least conceptually, if not their actual execution; this includes the two new classes, warlocks and warlords (more on these in a moment). The ones I don't like (for the curious) are the ranger and paladin, especially the former. In fact, may I just say for the record that I haven't seen a ranger class that I've liked as a whole since (probably) 1st Edition. And let me further add that when I played a ranger character in 1st edition he did wield two weapons (using the rule in the 1E DMG) and you'd think I'd be ecstatic over the class's morphing into a dual-fisted expert over the years. No. Zero (as my four year old would say).

For those who don't know, "builds" are diverging specializations classes are required to take (do you want to be a "battle cleric" or a "devoted cleric," for example). I was actually working with a similar concept in one of my recent (now scratched) heartbreaker designs, so I'm somewhat partial to the idea. However, my motives were different: I provided specializations to help distinguish otherwise simple (B/Xish) classes from their like adventurers and give them a little extra "zing" the fighter who specialized in archery (and thus got an extra bonus with a bow). Builds in 4E seem bent on limiting choices. Well, that's a little harsh...most powers of a class are open to any member of the class, regardless of build. But builds do appear to provide some direction when it comes to choosing one's powers, as well as a clear road to "optimization"...which I hate.

[4E's design choice in this regard seems a direct descendent of World of Warcraft's talent trees, though again it's not nearly as restrictive (which is a good thing)]

However, it doesn't HAVE to be this way. There's a lot of shit 4E gets wrong, as far as role-playing games go, and the main one is its emphasis on combat encounters. Such an emphasis encourages optimization, as good play should (in theory) lead to shorter fights allowing the party to proceed to the next encounter faster in order to fight and continue having "fun." But that's just 4E's game. If you can get past the idea that D&D is just about combat (and structure your power options to be more than just combat options), then builds become a bit less static as characters are concerned with more than just fighting. Maybe.

Anyway, leaving aside (for the moment) the actual powers presented and the gameplay of 4th edition, I find (as said) that I like the majority of these classes and builds as concepts. Let me just run through them quickly:

  • The fighter's builds (two-handed weapon or sword-and-board) are simplistic but, hey, he's a fighter. On second pass, a large part of my objection to the ranger is that its builds...the archer and the dual-wielder...are not just BORING, but they should also, IMO, fall under the purview of the fighter, being combat styles. Can't the ranger have, like, a "woodsy/druid" build and a "scouty/guerilla" build?
  • For me, the cleric's "battle cleric" versus "devotional/saintlike" build represents a perfect duality, as does the rogue's "brawny" versus "trickster." In fact, the brawny rogue is an excellent example of the Conan as thief archetype found in S&S literature (see also Fafhrd). It is really unfortunate that, even for the "brawny" build, all the rogue attack powers require the use of a "light blade" (dagger, rapier, or short sword) in melee. Poor execution and a missed opportunity (let's make all our thugs fight with the same three weapons)...but I'm digressing.
  • The wizard's builds ("war" or "control") are no great shakes, but the concept and direction of the wizard as a whole is pretty cool/interesting...though it needs to sit next to the warlock to really appreciate it.

The warlock is one of the two new classes presented in the 4E PHB, and while initially turned off by the presentation (probably the tiefling illustration) upon reading the entry I was far more impressed. This is the classic sorcerer of fantasy literature (which, BTW, is nothing like 3rd Edition's "sorcerer" class). I suppose they needed a new name because they (WotC) intended to bring back the weak-sauce version in the PHB2 (which they did). A shame. Anyway, the warlock is great and, in addition to its two builds ("deceptive" and "scourge") we get a choice of three pacts (sorcerous bargains with supernatural powers) to color the character: fey, infernal, and star (fairy, hell, and Cthulhu!).

[gosh, I can't believe this was published in 2008 and I never saw it. In retrospect, my books with similar the Summoner in TCBXA...look like complete knock-offs. Hell, that Conan post was from 2009, even...]

Positioned in opposition to the sorcerous warlock, the wizard begins to take on the look of the classic enchanters of legend: Merlin, Vainamoinen...heck, even Gandalf (who's basis is in those old fairy tales). The sorcerer curses and hexes and summons, while the enchanter manipulates the environment with magical effect. Very nice bookends of the arcane spectrum...much cooler than simply "this guy reads books and this dude has 'dragon blood' in his veins."

The warlord, despite its stupid illustration (a dwarf? that's the last guy you want to be a warlord, ESPECIALLY if you're trying to optimize! Jeez) was not one I had to steel myself to read. In fact, it was the first class I read, and definitely my favorite concept in the entire book. This is the class I'd be playing if I sat down at a 4E table. But then, I've always played my characters like warlords (whether they be clerics, fighters, or bards): jumping into battle, barking orders, thinking tactically. I told you people I like war-games...there's more than a bit of the "armchair general" in me. This class alone could get me to play at least a few sessions of 4E.

[though never as a dragonborn; human only, please, and "inspiring," not "tactical" build]

A warlord surveys the battlefield.
It's a shame that the warlord's concept is so much a part of the 4E premise...I'm not sure it would work in an old style D&D game where actual maneuver in combat is profoundly de-emphasized. Might as well just use a fighter (or a heavy-hitter cleric if you want to still use the inspirational "buffs" on your party). You don't really need a "combat brain" when all people are doing is rolling a D20 to hit when it's their turn in initiative.

But that's the problem...D&D (at least in the traditional, pre-4E sense) has so many other elements, aspects, and scenarios that don't involve combat. And the power selection for the 4E classes are almost entirely combat related. Of the 17 powers gained during the course of a 30 level career, only 7 are "utility" powers; the rest are straight up attacks. And the majority of "utility" powers are still designed to be used in combat (conferring bonuses, healing party members, etc.), they're just not direct attacks. Even liking these class/build concepts, they'd need a lot of modification to make them less combat-focused.

Which should be a good time to discuss tiers. If I'm remembering correctly (this is many years ago) I already swiped the idea of tiers from 4E back when the book first came, wait, now that I'm thinking about it, maybe not. Um, let me back up...the last version of D20 Star Wars (Saga) was in some ways a precursor to 4E. It was also a direct inspiration (and impetus) for me starting up a B/X version of Star Wars lo those many years ago. One of the things I came up with was the use of "tiers" as an added measure of character power/effectiveness...but I cannot for the life of me remember if I was influenced by the 4E books (something I browsed? something someone told me?) or if it was just a logical step based on my reinterpreting of Saga. Regardless, my tiers work quite differently from 4E (I use them to help compact the range of "levels," getting more bang for one's buck).

However, my point is that I LIKE the idea of "tiers." Now, do I like their implementation in 4E? Mmmm, maybe. They're a little hit-and-miss for me. The wizard and warlock paragon classes are perhaps the most interesting, having strong color/fluff associated with their choices. Many of the the rogue's...simply reinforce class stereotypes, rather than offer truly interesting choices. Many of them (especially those in the PHB2) simply seem to be re-hashings of the 3rd Edition prestige classes, just shave to fit the round hole of 4E. Which is good for some of them (there were a lot of otherwise weird and "semi-useless" prestige class floated out in the days of D20 splat books, and here they become more pertinent), but I'm just not sure I'm totally down with the idea.

Actually, the concept of high level characters becoming paragons, gaining an exponential boost in power over low level heroes, and being required to further specialize IS a concept I can buy into. Again, it's mainly the execution that leaves me a little cold.

Similarly with the epic destinies tier. Here the constraints of the 4E system really start to show themselves...what, no conquerer/king destiny for the warrior class? No founding a religion for clerics? Fourth edition really is about kicking ass from encounter to encounter, not about role-playing or world immersion or whatnot, and the destinies appear designed to fulfill that goal up to 30th level. It's singular destination (immortality) is very reminiscent of the old BECMI quest for immortality, but with fewer (and less interesting) paths, and no real options besides such a quest.

Then again, maybe that's only logical (from an in-game point of view)...anyone who spent so much time getting to the top has got nowhere else to go but ascension, if they're still driven by ambition. At least 4E provides an endgame scenario of sorts. I can't remember if 3E's Epic Level Handbook provided such an outlet for characters...I think they just continued on ad infinitum. It's not bad, it's a nice option. I'd just like more options here.

Mmmm...this is getting long (again). I told you folks I had a lot of thoughts about 4E. And I still haven't written about the non-Vancian take on magic, spell rituals, and the combat system in general. That's all going to have to come in a follow-up post, I'm afraid.


Monday, September 28, 2015

Delving 4E (Part 2)

Since last Thursday, I've been trying to figure out how I wanted to approach the follow-up to my Part 1 post on 4th Edition D&D. In the end, it's a fairly silly question any way you slice it. Most folks ain't playing 4E these days and it is (currently) an unsupported and unpopular line. In other words, "who cares?" Write however you want as most folks have moved on to something different (5E, Pathfinder, S&W, etc.) anyway.

Mmm. I care, I guess. At least enough to keep me somewhat focused on a particular path of discussion.

I want to first start with an admission or two. I dig on war-games. I've played war games (mostly Warhammer 40K) and I dig on the maneuver of forces and the crushing of enemies. I like (fantasy) combat in general. Many of my old RPG designs get started when I think of some new, interesting, or innovative way to run combats. This is, perhaps, the stupidest way to originate a new RPG, by the way (since RPGs are, or should be, about more than "fighting stuff"), but I know I'm not the only designer that gets the buzzing bonnet from a single element of game mechanic/system. My particular interests tend towards the violent. Don't ask me why...I can only explain it in terms of astrology.

[for the curious: a 5th house Mars in Ares, un-aspected, save for a direct opposition to Uranus. Make what jokes you must]

Well that and my dad used to watch a lot of old John Wayne movies on the TV (back in the non-cable days of three or four channels). The Battle of the Bulge, Davy Crocket, etc. Who knows how that might have warped me in my formative years.

So, in case it's not terribly obvious, any objections I have to 4E ain't necessarily regarding its conceptualization as an encounter-based game of combat on the small (skirmish) scale. It's not D&D (unless, I suppose, you are one of those unfortunate few introduced to the brand with the 4th Edition, and thus have no other frame of reference), but that doesn't mean it ain't an enjoyable, playable tabletop game.

That being said, the point of this post is NOT to laud it "as a game" unrelated to D&D. Neither is the point of this post meant to bash it for all the ways 4E "isn't D&D." No, the point of this post (and maybe the point of this series) is to talk about the elements I find within 4E that I like, appreciate, find interesting, and/or wouldn't mind adapting to the Dungeons & Dragons game. That is to say, to something I consider a "real" (i.e. traditional) edition of D&D...or perhaps another fantasy heartbreaker.

[what's a "real" edition? See this old post where I listed the identifiable common elements of D&D. While my perspective may have evolved in the last five years, that's a good enough place to start]

As the song says, these are a few of my favorite things. Just starting with the 4E Players Handbook [*takes moment to pour wine*]:

Let's start with Chapter 1 (no, I'm not going to discuss the art/look of the thing. The 4E books are pretty to look at, and fairly inclusive gender-wise, if pretty underrepresented of human-like "people" of color). The first seven pages are the best introduction to any edition of D&D ever. It's a bit of a flimflam (having a DM doesn't make the D&D game "unique" in 2008, and there's a lot left unsaid about how much of the D&D experience the game intends to shortcut), but man if it doesn't make one excited to be cracking the book. In fact, it's actually pretty darn inspiring right up until the section in Page 9 marked How to Play, where it all falls apart. Since I'm trying to be positive (i.e. constructive) I'm going to skip most of the rest of this.

The idea of a Core Mechanic is not a terrible one. D&D nearly made the jump to this with 3rd Edition, and it certainly cuts down on the "search and handling" time. While it's fun to have a bunch of different, arcane systems (surprise versus initiative versus reaction versus attacks versus saves versus spells) to represent different elements of Old School play, there's something to be said for tightening things up...especially if its in aid of easier mechanical play to allow more time in imaginative "free play." However, that doesn't appear to be the reason for the streamlining...certainly not the main reason.

NOW, before I get to "Making Characters" I need to have an aside. I LOVE tactics. I'm GOOD AT playing tactically. BUT I'm pretty f'ing terrible at strategy. Or rather, strategy (in war games and RPGs) is definitely a secondary consideration for me (in addition to being a weak suit). My primary priority, especially in games, is playing something I think is "cool" or "interesting" and then making it work to the best of its ability. Optimizing army/character builds isn't what I do: I play themes and fluff. I like creating unique (often "sub-optimal") forces and then trying to win with them. This makes me absolutely hopeless when it comes to being munchkin-y...and yet my "compete level" is a little too high for non-munchkin players.

SO, for example, I like point buy attributes (as long as its quick math) because they allow me to create characters of my own concept, but I hate min-maxing strategies (in both myself and others). I like the amount of customization 4E gives, and the fact that is limited in scope (you get a choice from three or four options every level), but I hate that most often the people to whom this game appeals are going to be taking optimal choices, that the game encourages hardcore gamism so as not to be left out of the loop of shining your own light in the encounters which define the arena for (pretty much) all play in 4E. Yes, I could make the baddest-ass dracoform warlord in the game, but I don't want to. But if I don't (or at least make something comparable) I face potential ridicule (or deprotagonism) unless I'm playing with folks who have the same weird sensibilities as myself. And if we all have those sensibilities 4E is set up to penalize us for not possessing the right mix of abilities. Subject to a lot of DM fiat and adjustment, of course. in theory I like the tact 4E takes. I like the limiting of options and builds. I like the easy core mechanic (half level + adjustments added to D20 roll). For the most part, I like most of the classes and "builds" that are on display (the same cannot be said for the races or handling of the races...for the most part, I really dislike these). But I'm going to have to talk about specific classes in another post, or this will get too long.

I like how 4E takes (what had been) 3E's "saving throws" and simply makes them passive defenses (the same as armor class), though I'd be tempted to alter the exact list. I've written before about chopping saves (all of last September, in fact), and while 4E does it a different trail, it's headed to the same destination (getting rid of an extra random die roll). 4E's actual "saving throw" (a D20 roll made to see if a sustained effect wears off, checked at the end of a turn) isn't a bad idea, and I find its implementation "realistic" (i.e. level does nothing to improve the chance, but something like "dwarves resistance to poison" does). Oh Just By The Way...just regarding defenses, I really like how the applicable ability modifier is your choice of two (higher of INT or DEX for reflex defense, for example)...all the ability scores have their usefulness, and this either/or mechanic both makes sense AND stops penalizing players for a particular choice (and cuts down on min-maxing benefits).

I actually dig 4E's five-fold alignment quite well. Thank you, thank you for getting rid of "Chaotic Good" and "Lawful Evil" and all the various "neutrals." Unaligned makes so much more sense as does having only two extremes (Lawful Good and Chaotic Evil). Not that it yet provides any mechanical benefit, but if you're going to have the arbitrary ethical description, this isn't a bad way to present it, IMO.

I really like the way 4E handles multiple languages (everyone starts with 2 or 3, depending on race, and then more can be added through a Linguist feat). Besides Ugly Americans like myself, it's fairly common for people to speak two languages, and has been throughout human history, regardless of "intelligence." On the flip side, having a high intelligence is no guarantee of speaking multiple languages, as such is really a matter of training (emphasis) and practice. Too bad 4E's not really about communication...

[yeah, all that stuff about social interaction, mannerisms, and backgrounds seems out-o-place for this game]

"Retraining" is a nice mechanic, but only necessary given the extreme customization that occurs over the course of a character's career. [Hmm, running low on wine here...]

We're skipping classes for the moment...SKILLS. I'm not a fan of skill systems for D&D (sorry), but if you really want one, this is the best I've seen. A limited selection with some "blanket skills" (like Athletics and Thievery), and a simple one-time bonus of +5 for being trained in a particular skill (the equivalent of adding 10 levels of adventuring experience). I have some quibbles: opposed checks seem silly given that you could use the same core mechanic for skills against a "defense value," for example, and I dislike things like Perception and Insight being learned "skills" (this isn't Sherlock they're kind of the same thing, no? Just make them a defense called Perception with an either/or of INT/WIS!). But I certainly like these better than both 3E's version and the "non-weapon proficiencies" of earlier editions.

Oh, yeah...and can Intimidate be used on bloodied PCs to force them to surrender?! From everything I read, the answer would seem to be "yes" which is both awesome and de-protagonizing at the same time. It's the first time I've seen an edition of D&D apply capitulation mechanics to player characters (outside of a failed save versus fear magic or the equivalent). While most people probably ignore this kind of thing, intimidation/morale mechanics is something I love working with (in my own designs)...fights just shouldn't be "to the death" all that often (intelligent beings surrender and unintelligent ones flee).

[by the way, I would love to run 4E in an uber-antagonistic way that aims for TPKs in the "fairest" way possible. More on that if I get around to discussing the DMG]

Feats are a nice, short list, limited further in that many feats are class or race specific. Considering 4E's reputation for super heroic action, I found these surprisingly restrained (compared to 3E). Limits and restraints are "good things" when it comes to skills. I also think I prefer this version of multi-classing; I'd have to see how it works in-play. While it appears a little clunky, I suspect that's more based on unfamiliarity (compared to 3E's mechanics, with which I am very familiar but which I dislike). But it looks to bring some sanity back to the concept of the adventuring archetype that "picks up a little bit of X" for their repertoire.

Not much to say in an equipment section surprisingly light on 10' poles and hemp rope (there ain't none), except perhaps that a lot of creativity is on display in this book with all these different enchantment types (though to me, much of the magic rings as hollow as a game of Diablo).

I'll have to deal with combat in a later post (if at all), but with regard to the chapter on Adventuring, I've got a couple thoughts. Action points are kind of interesting, but being tied to milestones (which for 4E is dependent on the whole encounter structure of the system) makes for a bit of a "no go" for me...trying to play 4E in a true D&D style would necessitate creating a different system for awarding action points, probably along the lines of X number per session dependent on PC's level of experience, or the anticipated number of encounters in a session (however, their emphasis on increased combat effectiveness might mean they should get the axe entirely).

I actually like the whole idea of "short rests" and "long rests," though I don't see why short rests have been cut down to five minutes in length (in B/X and other old editions, characters are presumed to spend time resting after an encounter, though always for a minimum of one turn, i.e. ten minutes...failure results in characters becoming fatigued). Actually, counting the time spent resting can lead to old school-type resource management, regarding food and light sources and whatnot...though it's pretty clear that no self-respecting 4E party should hit the Underdark without a wizard and his/her unlimited Light cantrip. "Keeping Watch" is another example of where a simple Perception defense would be appropriate.

Rituals also add an element of time/resource management that I like...but I'll talk about those in a later post, as this is already waaaay loooong.

Film Stuff's a holiday in Paraguay today and, well, I've been a little busier than I thought I would be. Currently doing a tad more research before I write up the new 4E post. Hopefully, this afternoon. However, while you're waiting for that (those who are), here's a couple film things to chew on.

Had a chance to watch a couple superhero movies over the weekend, including Kick-Ass 2 and Super, both of which provide some (if not ample) fodder for one of my game designs. You may not have heard of Super (I hadn't)'s a Rainn Wilson vehicle and quite dark in its comedy. It's good (left an impression...I was thinking about it for a while after), if a little derivative. And not just derivative in the standard "vigilante film" way. A lot of people might draw comparisons between Super and, say, Kick-Ass or (more appropriately) Taxi Driver. However, I think the main inspiration for the film comes from Tarantino's violent "fairy tale" feature, True Romance. Nearly every element of the film, along with the whimsical fairy tale tone/plot has a direct correlation with the earlier film, though characters and plot elements are mixed in a different fashion (unlike the way, say, White House Down is nearly the exact same film as Die Hard). Despite the derivative elements, it IS it's own movie, and a good entry into the genre...if a bit of a dark and weird one.

The other film thing I wanted to mention is I got an email from Spencer Estabrooks, maker of the (clearly) D&D-inspired web series One Hit Die. Appears they've managed to put together enough scratch to fund a second season of ten episodes (the first season consisted of a four season prologue and a two-part Crushmas Special). Honestly, I'd forgotten all about the OHD folks, I'm afraid...lots on my mind the last two years...and I was very happy to be reminded of their presence. The dramatic arts (acting, writing, directing, costuming, designing, etc.) is, in many ways, its own reward...which is a good thing, because it seldom pays enough to allow folks to use it as their sole income. That the OHD people are able to generate enough support to continue a sustained creative effort like this is a testament to their will, talent, and work ethic.

They're back...and the gaming table's bigger.
And they ARE funny: I again found myself chuckling as I watched the preview for Season 2: Legend of the Lich Lord. The additional "party members" look fun, the new special effects look good, and it was nice to see Phil Burke back after his conspicuous absence from the Crushmas Special. On the other hand, it appears Larissa Thompson ("Gwen the Healer") is not a part of season two, and as her character was a balancing voice of sanity (and naiveté) it will be interesting to see how the show will go without her presence. Asked about her, Estabrooks tells me:
"She's not in this quest, but she's still alive in the realm. :)"
So perhaps she'll be returning in a future show. Oh,'s the link to the Season 2 preview. Perhaps whoever's doing the new D&D movie (now that their legal wranglings are over) would do well to check out the OHD folks and not take the thing so seriously (to its own disadvantage). I'm not saying that such a film needs to be made in the OHD "mockumentary" style. Maybe something along the same tone as Ice Pirates, though. Just a thought.

[um...reminds me I still need to get my hands on a copy of Dark Dungeons]

Okay...children asre crying and screaming so it's nap time for everyone. Later.