Sunday, April 28, 2013

Early Thoughts on D&D Next

So, I've skimmed through Next and wanted to share my initial impressions. These are subject to change. I should have a more in-depth perspective next weekend. If we get to playtest today, that is.

I had the entire thing printed at OfficeDepot. It clocked it at well over 300 pages, including the Caves of Chaos playtest adventure. For the $30 pricetag I got a pretty damn complete game. Characters that can advance to 20th level, in a variety of classes. Spells of up to 9th level for clerics, druids, and wizards, along with abbreviated lists for paladins and rangers. A full range of monsters is in the bestiary, including demons, devils, and dragons. Finally, there is a decent assortment of magic items. An experienced DM could get a lot of mileage out of this playtest packet as-is.

Some of the things I am happy with (in no particular order)

Skills and Backgrounds

I like when skills exist to define a character. I want them to mean that a character is better at something than a character who isn't skilled at that same something. I do not like it when skills exclude characters from certain activities. For example, if my guy has the Ride skill, it just means he is particularly apt at riding. If he doesn't, he can still ride, but might encounter problems if he is forced to charge into battle.

The Skill Die is a pretty cool idea. It opens the door for someone to really knock a skill check out of the park, but doesn't remove the possibility of catastrophic failure. It also avoids the pitfall of the escalating DC in lock-step with the improving skill ability.

Backgrounds are ok. They provide a logical framework to hang skills on, as well as providing a minor game effect, mostly tied to role playing. They don't provide any sort of bonus or mechanical interface, which I like. They exist only to tie the character to the setting. Since they aren't mechanical in nature, it would also be easy enough to ignore them altogether.

Feats and Specialties

One of the things that turned me off 3.x was Feats. Not in principle, because I actually like the idea. They were too vital in 3.x, though. And not just in and of themselves, but the right combinations were crucial to player enjoyment. In this playtest packet they are more in line with my desire for them. Like skills, they add a dimension to the character. In fact, I'm not so sure that some of them shouldn't be skills. I think I get why they're not, but I want to wait until I have a firmer grasp before I comment further.

For now, the list is mercifully short, and there are no complicated "feat trees". In fact, there are only seven with other feats as prerequisites, and none of those have other feats as prereqs. Mostly, the prereqs are either a certain level (class not specified), a stat minimum, and/or a certain class ability.

The feats are broken out into four categories: General, Expert, Magic, and Martial. The categories do not seem to exist as "barriers", but moreso to direct class-based bonus feats. For example, any class can take martial feats, but fighters get bonus martial feats at certain levels.

Specialties are pretty much the feat equivalent of backgrounds related skills. They don't provide any benefits whatsoever (beyond what an individual DM or player may read into them). They suggest a list of feats at each "feat level", but it is strictly a suggestion. Specialties would be even easier to ignore than backgrounds. They seem to exist as a "jumping off point" to help a player get into character. As such, they seem to be something new players would benefit from more than experienced players.


  • There are only 12 Conditions
  • Classes get a +1 to any stat, although it is highly recommended that the bonus be taken in a class relevant stat.

I know there were some other odds and ends I noted, but they slip my mind right now. I'll be back with more later.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

More Changes on the Wind

Grab onto something, I'm making a radical course change. Again.

So, I played the included adventure in the Beginner Box with my kids last weekend. I didn't have time to post about it afterwards. We had fun. They enjoyed it more than the previous, old-school style, game. They felt more engaged with the game and that held their interest better. So, I forged on ahead with reading the Gamesmaster's book and ran into a snag. Two, actually.

The first was magic items. It quickly became obvious that the system is designed from the ground up for magic items to be vitally necessary for character success. When there is a base assumption that characters can purchase magic items of all sorts (not just scrolls and potions), that is a red flag. It really smacked of computer games to me, which was a turn-off. I'm completely fine with magic items, but if the system's inherent assumption, and therefore balance, relies on them as part of who the characters are, that's too much for me.

The other thing that put me off was the number of conditions. That was a huge down-side to 4E for me as well. I'm fine with the idea of clearly defined conditions, all collected in one place for easy reference. But, there are twenty-five separate conditions. That is too many for me to track, especially when there is overlap, either in similar names, similar effects, or both.

The "thing" that led me the Beginner Box in the first place was realizing that I want something more "gamey" than the traditional old school experience. I'm fine with skills, as long as they are more for definition than limitation. I'm actually fine with feats, IF they don't lead directly to agonizing hours of min-maxing during character creation. I also don't want endless lists that require a Cray mainframe to handle character creation.

So, I revisited D&D Next. An all-new playtest pack was released on March 20th. I haven't read all of it yet, but I'm liking what I see. I initially liked Next, then it seemed to drift more toward 4E and it lost me. Then, I was in my serious old-school swing and Next seemed too rules-heavy. Now, I am in a place where I can appreciate it on its own merit. I am just looking at it as a game, and not as the successor to my go-to. I'm looking at it just to see if it does what I want it to do.

I also took the time to really figure out what Bounded Accuracy really means. I had written it off as nothing more than a smoke screen to try and trick people into thinking Next would be a real innovation. I was mistaken. In fact, Bounded Accuracy answers a lot of my issues with D&D. I've talked before about not liking how classes improve in a fairly generic fashion. Stat bonuses aside, all characters of a given class/level are pretty much the same, simply because the benefits that accrue with each new level are largely static and pre-determined. With Bounded Accuracy, the player has more leeway to determine in which areas his character improves as he advances in levels.

So, that's where things stand as of now. We are going to playtest Caves of Chaos tomorrow, so hopefully I can give you all an update on how that goes. In the meantime, I can honestly recommend giving this latest playtest packet a look. Pretend it's not even D&D and just look at it as a new RPG. I'm glad I did.

Incidentally, I really am getting a little tired of all the crap I read from detractors about how "(Game X) came out with (rule y) a long time ago. D&D Next is just a bunch of other games' ideas." How many other games followed D&D's lead, all the way back to Runequest and Tunnels & Trolls? Even games that went in the opposite direction owe a nod of thanks to D&D for showing them a way to go. So, if D&D Next "got" advantage/disadvantage from Barbarians of Lemuria, then just look at it as repaying a debt, because without D&D there may not even be BoL.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Pathfinder Beginner Box Revisited and Some Hard Truth

Over the last couple of weeks I have managed to have two sessions with my two teen kids. They have both played off-and-on for a few years now. They've played enough to understand the basics and have a feel for how the game actually plays.

The first session was a quick and dirty dungeon I put together for a Delving Deeper session. It was basic, as in it had the traditional elements of old-school play. Secret doors, pit traps, a teleporting trap, and twisty corridors. We did 3d6 stat rolls, and played it by the book. I told them all about "How we did it back in the day" and how tedious mapping and all weapons doing d6 damage are part of the experience. I told them that they had to rely on description and imagination because the dice couldn't save them. I was really anticipating a game like it used to be.

I was disappointed. Not with DD, which is very well-done. My disappointment was with old-school play. Blasphemous as that may be, there it is. I missed features such as Perception checks, variable damage, and multiple classes to choose from. The lack of tactical options left me flat, as well. It just wasn't very satisfying. I realized that, for me, engagement with the system depends a lot on the dice. Some people are all about role-playing and determine the quality of the experience based on not picking up the dice. I'm not one of them. I do like rolling the dice, as player and referee. Perception checks, trap checks, DEX checks, whatever. Description is great, and I will always encourage it. Rather than it being the only interface with the game, though, I prefer to have it be supplemental, granting a slight bonus if the description is on-point.

Nor am I a dice machine, or a rules hound. As referee I still want to be captain of my game. I don't want the rules to be a cage, or a bludgeon that the players use on me to get their way. I just don't want to have to develop consistent ruling for all these "blind spots". Especially when it's already been done umpteen times.

I will always have fond memories of my old-school beginnings, and I will have occasional urges to play that way for the rest of my gaming life. The Hard Truth, though, is that nostalgia for a particular set of rules belongs with the past that bore it. However, the style of those games, the fast-and-loose feeling, the sandboxy vibe, and the simple joy of playing. Rules that will guarantee me an experience like that from my past is nothing more than a Questing Beast. That sense of joy and plain ol' fun comes not from the rules, but from the play.

In exploring my feelings on all this, I came to realize that some of my fondest memories were played out using rules I didn't particularly like. My best friend for many years was the primary DM for games in which I played. His game was an eclectic mix of 1E, 2E, and his own brew. He also allowed pretty much anything from Dragon magazine. He had an extensive list of Non-Weapon Proficiencies. Too extensive to my mind, because I could never link the character in my mind with the mechanics of his NWPs. There were never enough points to make it work with all the sub-categories.

BUT . . . when the dice started rolling, I had a great time. He knew his world like his own neighborhood and was masterful at immersing us in it.

Which brings us to the second session I mentioned. This one was with the Pathfinder Beginner Box. It was a blast. It was a simple enough little thing, only taking us about an hour to play through. It was the solo adventure from the Hero's Handbook. I tweaked it slightly for an extra player. I loved feeling more engaged with the system. It is one thing to play with a set of rules that "gets out of the way", it is another thing entirely to play with a rules-set that is so nebulous that I feel unsupported.

I posted a while back about using the Beginner Box as an E6-style game. Now I realize just how great of an experience that might be for me. In fact, I've taken the thought a step further. Back in the day, those of us that remember "the day" played using the mechanics from whatever "basic" set we grew up on, whether LBBs, B/X, or Holmes. To that simple engine we bolted whatever bits and parts from 1E that suited us most.

Today my mind turned to doing the same with Pathfinder. Take the stripped-down engine from the Beginner Box, and add the more advanced features from the Core rulebook a la carte fashion. A rules buffet, as it were. Extra classes, monsters, and spells for the most part. Probably still keep it E6, so it could end up being the simpler Pathfinder engine from the Beginner Box. Add to that the full range of classes, some of the spells and feats, and of course, monsters, all from Core. A grittier E6-style game running on top of the Beginner Box engine sounds like a pretty sweet arrangement to me.

PS> None of that is meant as a criticism of Delving Deeper. I love that rules-set and still contend that it is an excellent implementation of the LBBs.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

A D6 Follow-on Question

This is specifically for anyone that knows both D6 and Burning Wheel.

Instead of setting a TN and adding up all the d6's, what about a system like that in Burning Wheel? A static target number and each d6 that rolls over is a success, with a certain number of successes being needed to complete the task at hand. I like this premise, because it scales between normal "human" capacities, to more heroic capabilities, and up to god-like capabilities. If you're familiar with Burning Wheel, this makes sense, if not, it is beyond the scope of this post to fully explain the system.

I know there are some variations that are similar to this, but I want to hear from people that are experienced with this sort of house rule.

My Restlessness Led Me Here

Unfortunately, this post will be of little real substance. It is more of a solicitation, really. I am very interested to know any opinions and/or experiences with this game. So, if any of you have such, please share.

As much as I love OD&D, and it's "clones", it is definitely a love driven by nostalgia. That is not to imply that the love is not genuine; it certainly is. There is a subtle elegance to those rules that has yet to be matched. OD&D is like that old story of the grandmother baking cookies. She gives her curious grandchildren a taste of all the ingredients individually as they go in, and they agree it tastes pretty bad. Then, the finished cookies are delicious. OD&D is like that to me. Start mucking about with the subsystems and it gets a little sketchy, but taken together it is a thing of beauty.

Anyway, from time to time I do have a desire for a game that is more about what a character can do and less about what they are. I run down the usual suspects, and eventually end up searching new territories. Thus, we come to D6. So, if any of you have any thoughts on this system, I would love to read them. My windows for posting are few and narrow, but if my interest in this system holds, I'll post something more substantive soon.

Until then, here is a link to download the D6 Core Set Bundle, which includes Adventure, Fantasy, and Space. There are also several supplements, all free to download.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Magical Efficacy

This idea can be used with any flavor of OD&D.

I've pontificated at length about options for fighters. I'm a fighter guy. However, I also desire some tactical flexibility for magic-users. Not only as a referee, but also as a player. Straight-up OD&D magic is fairly dull. The only tactical decisions to be made are which spells to memorize and which one to use in a given situation. Pretty static choices, with little room for "seat of the pants" magic. Here is a propositionto allow a little more "situational thinking" to enter into things.

The idea is really simple. If a magic-user has memorized the same spell twice, he can cast the spell double. That is, he uses both memorizations of the spell in a single casting. The results are thus:

  • Range/Duration/Area of Effect/Number Affected are all increased by 50%
  • Damage is increased by +1 per spell level
  • Saving Throw is made at -2
If a given spell does not have a particular listed above, then, obviously, there is no benefit to that parameter. In other words, a spell that is Instantaneous doesn't suddenly have a duration, or one with a range of Touch can't suddenly be hurled across the room.

At first glance this may seem over-powered, modifying all the parameters. I haven't playtested this idea, but I don't think it will prove overpowered for a couple of reason:
  • Very few OD&D spells have all of the parameters listed, so it will be a truly rare occurrence that all of the modifiers will be in effect.
  • There is an inherent synergy in OD&D that will cause on to carefully consider double-casting. Think about wanting to hurl a doubled Fireball so you can ramp up the damage. The blast radius also increases, though, so you have to carefully consider the volume of space you're in and the proximity of allies. Also consider that any allies that do get caught in the blast will be saving at -2.
  • There is also . . .
The Risk

A wise man once said "Pimpin' ain't easy" and neither is commanding the fickle forces of magic. If a caster wishes to double-cast, the player must make a d20 roll. He must roll under his current level + INT bonus. This roll is modified by adding the spell's level. For example:
An 8th level magic-user, with an INT 16, wishes to double-cast the ubiquitous Fireball. He must roll 6 or less (8 (Caster level) + 1 (INT bonus) - 3 (Spell Level) on d20.
If the roll is failed, the spell is still cast. The hazard is that in releasing that much magical energy in a single burst, the caster will be injured. If the roll is failed, the caster suffers damage equal to the d20 roll minus what was needed, divided by 2 (round up).
Let's suppose the caster from our example had rolled a 13. The spell still goes off, but he is injured during the casting. He will suffer 4 points of damage (13 (d20 roll) - 6 (target number) = 7 divided by 2 = 3.5 (round up)).
And there you have it. An on-the-fly tactical option that makes magic users a little more unpredictable and dangerous, but not without potential consequences.