Monday, November 10, 2014

Fantasy Grounds vs. Tabletop Simulator, part 1

I have been looking at a number of virtual tabletops, and two grab my interest:

Fantasy Grounds has it all, robust rules support, downloadable modules, a UI written for roleplaying, character sheets, and a bunch of other great pen-and-paper features. The downsides? This is still a mostly 2d presentation, so watching people play this could be like watching a sheet of notebook paper. The game and rules would likely have to be pretty exciting to keep interest high in a game if you streamed this online for people to enjoy.

Tabletop Simulator is less pen-and-paper focused, and it is fully 3d. You don't have character sheets, dynamic drawable maps, portraits, and other focused assets to help play - but you do have a ton of 3d tabletop pieces that are fun to play with and look at. This is more for sim-ing board games where you have many small pieces, like Axis & Allies, Monopoly, card games, or other token and board games people play together on a tabletop.

The question for me is, which does a better job showcasing a game for an audience on Youtube? While Tabletop Simulator (TTS) has a great 3d look and is very watchable as everything moves around in 3d, Fantasy Grounds (FG) is made to do the pen-and-paper job and would be ultimately less frustrating when playing and explaining things.

It feels like a battle between looks and functionality.

You can't do a live character sheet in TTS, nor can you really do a great draw-as-you-go map. They recently added whiteboard style drawing support into TTS, but it is limited and very low-resolution. You would have to make a lot of comprimises to make things work in TTS, and there may be a problem with having much at all on the 3d board resemble what you are playing with, such as genres like sci-fi, modern, and other eras are not well-represented by the included 3d assets. You do have dungeon tiles and a lot to look at, but it is centered around fantasy and there is limited expansion possibilities without being a full 3d modeler.

With FG, a lot of that is solved, but your assets are all 2d and flat. I suppose this comes down to having a great DM and explaining things as they go. To keep attention, you need great assets and a constantly changing board, which FG can do. I love the 3d look of TTS though, but I have this feeling it isn't there yet when it comes to quality pen-and-paper support.

There is another alternative, Roll20, and I want to include this in on the discussion since it is free, but it falls into the same area as Fantasy Grounds since it is also a 2d tabletop. My thoughts are more of a 2d vs. 3d tabletop comparison, so I will probably include FG and R20 on the same side of this comparison (with your preference deciding which you use).

So for game demos and streaming, which do you prefer? Do you think the market is going to a more 3d presentation, or is sticking to what works in 2d the way to go forward? It is an interesting question, and one I want to check out. More on this soon.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Minetest: The Great Fire

We have moved over to playing Minetest as our weekly streaming show for now. Minetest is a great Minecraft alternative, and the ease of modding this game is just something you have to see to beleive. It is a great game, and check out all the fun over on DarkgarX's Youtube channel here:

For fun, check out our massive server forest fire at the 10:00 mark on this video:

And then the aftermath with the special coverage as the massive fire spreads across several biomes in this playlist:

The fire is still burning on our server, and we are strategizing about how to put it all out - or if our Minetest world is a total loss. It is incredible fun, addictive, and just a blast to play. We have put several mods together for the fun of it, and the unexpected interactions are just too cool to describe.

We don't have a public server for this yet, as we are still working on mods, settings, and keeping the server speed acceptable. This is just an experiment for us, but a very fun and fascinating one we wanted to share.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

ArcheAge and Theme Parks

DarkgarX and I have been playing around in the Archage MMO lately and I walked away a little disappointed.

It is a game that promised unlimited freedom trading, building, and PvP - with a huge sandbox world. Our experience has been a typical level-based grind through a series of camp-to-camp quests that seemingly have no end. The PvP is endgame content at 50, and most all of the run up to that feels like a traditional MMO quest-based themepark grind.

It is important to understand the difference between a sandbox and a themepark setup for a game world. Themeparks are tightly controlled settings with clear quest lines, progression, and typically feature strong player protection versus any interference to leveling. The fact that our pair of characters is near level 30 out of 50 and we have not seen or had one PvP battle is depressing.

In old World of Warcraft, the PvP fun started at 20. In the old Warhammer MMO, it started at level 10. Both were a blast to play, and you learned your PvP role quickly. Both of those were still themeparks, but at least they made a conscious effort to start you with PvP early.

In Archage, I feel like PvP is held away, your character is auto-protected, and there is no war of big conflict I have any connection to. The game is beautiful and has wonderful technology with placable houses, farms, mounts, vehicles, ships, and all sorts of other really cool stuff, but I am not feeling the conflict or fight affect my character in much of a way.

Most of the house and farm building is locked up behind quests, and you can live and farm in a protected zone, so there is nothing much at risk for your placable structures.

In a sandbox world, everything is on the table. You can be ganked by level 50's in the starting zone, and even by people supposedly on your same side. There is no sides, it's everyone for themselves. If you want to team up for mutual protection, you are free to do so. If you want to form a guild that protects your new players, go ahead. It's up to the community to create groups and environments based on their desires, play styles, and wants. Yes of course there are problem players, but in these games community and social order usually creates safe havens to get started in.

EVE Online is a great example of minimal protection to start, and then letting people fly free and do whatever they want ion 0.0 space. It has a tiny themepark to get people started, and then cuts you loose in a universe-sized sandbox. It's a great experience.
Sidebar note here, on themeparks in MMOs and roleplaying games. I am becoming tired of them. They feel like engineered experiences that are boring and predictable. They are filled with the by-the-numbers lands and content. I don't need a Disneyland-style  "Egypt Land", "Future World", "Ravenloft Land", or a "Norse Land" in my games, nor does it make sense to me in these worlds. How would you feel if Lord of the Rings had these places added in by Hollywood types?  
For some people, okay, fine; but really, every world I play in doesn't need token tip-of-the-hats to every Earth culture to fill up some development and marketing bucket list. It's just, no, I feel it's just lazy and unimaginative. Plus, everyone's doing it.
If I want an Ancient Egypt fantasy game, I will set it in the original Ancient Egypt and paint D&D rules and monsters all over it. It's fine, you don't need to create a pseudo-Eygpt for me and fit it in some other world somewhere. Maybe now that you don't need to create this place, you can build something original and put it where you were going to put this.
To it's credit, Archage doesn't have these silly places, but it does have the same themepark structure as many other MMOs. The camp-to-camp grind is hard to want to play through, the "chosen one" plot line is the same for thousands of players, and it just feels like it tried to go in a bold new direction, but it fell back on the traditional MMO themepark-isms. We will likely play through our time and see what happens, but I am feeling a little down about the game.

What do I want? I want that free and open game where the actions of the community and players matters. It's tough, you get a lot of hype and pre-release journalism from everywhere, and your expectations are probably way off base than what the game finally ends up being.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

OGL & d20 SRD vs. Android & Linux

I am feeling unhappy about the OGL and d20 SRD today. There are so many limitations, there's product identity, no electronic gaming or software, no character creation, and all sorts of other 'so you have to buy the base book' limitations in these licenses you wonder if it isn't time to scrap the whole load and start over again.

There is a lot in the d20 SRD that is open and free public-domain content, and the D&D game mixes in copyrighted 'product identity' (mind flayers, beholders, etc) with that to create a unique game. It's their right, and they do an incredible job - I have no problem with that and I am a fan. But there are certain monsters and fantasy races that belong to humanity, and anyone can make a game with them - such as orcs or elves.

There are times where I just want to throw it all away, and start over with the original public-domain monsters and races that humanity owns, and create something the whole world can share. Yes, this means writing books, selling videogames, and everything else you can do with a true open source and open license product. It is for the good of the world, not for the good of the creators.

I feel the Creative Commons is a better, more creator-friendly license to work under instead of the OGL and d20 SRD. These two licenses created for D&D 3 are great, and at their time they were revolutionary, but they aren't free and open enough nowadays. They will also never change, and be stuck in the year 2000 when they were created and to some extents, abandoned.

A lot would have to be rebuilt in such an effort, and there would need to be a conscious effort to make things different enough from other fantasy games to keep the idea open and free.

It just feels like a moment in the open source movement where a project existed, and the creators realized it was being built on copyrighted or proprietary code - and a desire comes forth that 'we just need to rebuild.' Consider Linux/Unix, without that, there would be no Android OS (or to an extent, no OSX on the Mac). There had to be that base there that gave the creators of Android the freedom to build something cool and benefit humanity. There is no profit in the base system, but if you put in the effort and build a cool phone or tablet - that's where customers can say 'good job' and buy your stuff.

But the pen-and-paper industry seems stuck back in the days where you had to buy your operating system. Imagine if you had to buy the next version of Android when it came out - it would be silly and a mess. It's what you do with it that matters, it is the device and the functionality and ease of use. I could care less about rules, I care more about having a great time. As long as my device runs the current version and can be upgraded, I'm cool with it.

Presentation, device quality, functionality, and ease of use - that's what I look for in an Android product.

Presentation, book quality, functionality, and ease of use - that's what I look for in a pen-and-paper game.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Everyone Needs to Play This!

Yeah, that above line. That's what you want to hear. It's like the days when World of Warcraft was hot because that's what everyone at work played, and you had to too so you could be a part of the water-cooler discussions.

Pathfinder? D&D 5?

We're not there yet or the boat never got here.

Pen-and-paper games are terribly niche. It feels easier to sell a boxed board game in Barnes & Noble such as Arkham Horror or Risk than it does to sell a "concept" like "pen and paper roleplaying" to people. This is not for the faithful, this more applies to new players, you know, the next generation of players.

What would it take for fantasy roleplaying to go mainstream again?

You are platform building, like an operating system. Computer companies know how to get market share, and it typically goes like this:
  1. Release an OS that is easy to pirate or get for free
  2. Support lots of pirated and free software
  3. When you control the market, lock things down because the party's over
It's a cynical view, but there's a truth to this. If your game or OS is everywhere, you will control the users, even if you are not making any money doing it. That's more important when you launch, because you can worry about locking in that user base later and monetizing them after they have built up a substantial investment in software or gaming books that it would be too painful to go anywhere else.

It was this way with D&D 3 and the OGL and d20 SRD. Paizo kept supporting those games, and took many of the locked in users with them. If D&D 4 was the "upgraded Windows 7 version" of D&D 3's "Windows XP," things would have been different. But D&D 4 went Windows 8 instead, and you got a split in the market where some people liked the concept, and some long-time users didn't.

So Windows 10 and D&D 5 feel like the "what did we do last night?" hangover games and OS's returning to the familiar way of doing things. They feel like iterative "return to the normal" experiences that you have to use rather than a breakout experience that causes a market hysteria and rush of new users and players. If you want to keep using a PC, yeah, you will probably need to use Windows 10 some day. If you want to be a part of the hobby store crowd, yeah, you will have to pick up D&D 5 and learn how to play. Pathfinder is always there for the D&D 3 crowd as well, existing like a Android or Chrome OS for those fans.

I'm reminded of Apple's new OSX Yosemite upgrade and how nothing really changed much but some backend stuff, the UI, and some icons. It still feels like the same solid design, and they didn't go all iPad on us desktop users and force a new way of doing things on us. There was no major change in the way things were done, there is no "hangover version" of the OS, and things still work the way they did. Apple is conservative, because it know not to mess with the way users know and love how to do things, unless a major-major change is needed and they have no good options (Final Cut, etc).

In a way, roleplaying is already mainstream, it's just online games and communities have taken the torch from pen and paper games and people "roleplay" in a million different ways in a million different programs everyday. D&D has to become relevant to those roleplaying fans again, a platform for people to express themselves in fantasy settings and worlds. They are split off roleplaying in World of Warcraft to Second Life, often roleplaying in games that don't even have basic support for meaningful player interaction or dungeon mastering.

Those are your users.

I feel we are three of four generations of D&D style games away from this point because we just don't have the vision and willpower to make this a reality. D&D does not need a new set of paper rules to get to the mainstream conversation again, it needs a vision of what the product can be.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Specific Worlds vs. Semi-Generic Games

There's always been a conflict in pen-and-paper gaming between specific worlds and "semi-" generic games.

Lord of the Rings vs. D&D
Star Wars vs. Traveller
[cool movie they borrow from] vs. Shadowrun

That last one is a bit humorous, but it's true, Shadowrun typically borrowed cool idea after cool idea from various fictional and cinematic sources and stitched them together in a narrative. Think about that. It's essentially the D&D model as well. "It's the best of everything!" tends to be the rallying cry of generic fantasy gaming systems, Pathfinder among them, and D&D was born out of this belief.

Purists, of course, like to play in specific worlds. How many times have you tried to play generic sci-fi with a group  and heard "It's not Star Wars" or Star Wars did not come up at least once during the gaming session. You cannot get away from the big pop-culture franchises no matter how you try with some groups, and that is all some groups will play.

Same thing with Lord of the Rings and gamers who prefer the original source material to D&D's odd menagerie of things pulled in from everywhere, plus what Lord of the Rings has. D&D's odd mix is a genre to itself nowadays, so repeated and used repeatedly it has became a specific game world in itself, a copy of the copies of the copies - that people copy.

Copying isn't bad, but it does create strange bedfellows, and often requires a lot of hand-waving to explain. The more you add to D&D or any game for that fact, the less believable it gets, and the less playable it gets. It's the "Universal Rule of Game Gluttony" - generic games expand until the point that they die of over-expansion.

The more books you buy, the worse it typically gets.

Contrast this with specific worlds, and no, Expanded Universe Star Wars does not count (and even Disney got rid of it likely because of the Universal Game Gluttony rule). With specific worlds, the cannon is already set in stone, and that's what you have to play with. With some, you can even choose to play with a subset of content (everything in Star Wars and Empire for this game, the rest is out).
Side-note, I like games that are smaller and more specific, expand-ability usually isn't a big selling point for me or my groups. It's always nice to have new stuff, but we are at the point today where desktop and web-publishing models can easily super-size a game to a degree where no one can collect or play it all. More is not better.
Some games try to create their own universes and have you play in those. These are often difficult to find an audience for, either you have a big commercial property that everyone knows, or you have a generic game that can ape along with the times. Finding a group excited about a niche world developed by a role-playing game company is always a tough thing and a hard sell to new players.

It is tough to sell a new world in today's climate, because the licensed players are bigger, make more noise, and have legions of fans with instant communication 24/7. Even if you did make noise, it is still a challenge being heard unless you are a known designer or have something really, really unique.

In a way, it's why we have the semi-generic games we do. They get around the licensed property hurdles by leaving up what people want to borrow from pop-culture to the individual group, and the fact these games are built to do so gives people that avenue.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Adventure Design, Then and Now

I remember when adventure design was creating a dungeon map and stocking it. You didn't really need a reason to go down there, playing AD&D was like a game of Diablo where you smashed the monsters and grabbed the loot.

There was a point soon after where adventures became stories. Railroading became a common complaint as player freedom was removed for the grandeur of the adventure writer's brilliance. It's a great story, but a lousy dungeon. We needed reasons to go places, we needed to develop stories for tabletop gaming, and smashing monsters and taking loot was seen as a lesser form of play.

It's just hack and slash!

Point taken, but some people play the game for exactly that. We don't need to call why they enjoy things as a lesser form of play, or design games to discourage it.

So we get closer to today, and we went through a phase of "storytelling games" like Vampire the Gathering and others which engineered the experience for playing stories than playing dungeons. In a sense, these were purer expressions of the story-telling ideal, and they worked very well for that purpose.

And then in the 2000's, the "games to be all games" appeared with D&D 3 and others. You can actually trace this sort of "system game" back to GURPS and Champions, the original "big box" games, but d20 and its spawns tried to be everything to everybody, just like World of Warcraft and other all-inclusive fantasy experiences are today.

Adventures could be stories! Adventures could be dungeons! Adventures could be flowcharts, randomly created things, relationship maps, or any other construction.

It worked, and it still works with Pathfinder and other games, but we do see some "experience engineering" coming back into fashion with D&D 5. With the new D&D, we start with an assumption of "it's about the story" again, and map play and hack-and-slash feel like they are being pushed away.

For storytelling gamers, this is great, finally a version of D&D that appeals to our inner storyteller! For D&D 4 players, the battle-chess hack-and-slash game is gone, and feels like they are left by the wayside. Of course, D&D 4 can still be played, and Pathfinder has a strong map-based system, so there are things still left to play.

Two things. It's hard to be everything to everybody. It's true even in the 'real world' of work and life. Another thing, if feels like we are caught between this endless cycle of hack-and-slash versus storytelling again and again. Is it seen that hack-and-slash players prefer computer gaming to tabletop? Is it seen that tabletop players are more interested in stories?

The times dictate the games we play. But you do have a choice in your preferences, and the types of games that appeal to you. It is always hard to cut through the "dessert topping as a floor wax" style of marketing today that tries to paint something as everything to everybody, so you have to be informed and most importantly, comfortable in your own decisions and feelings about what you like to play.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Game Size Keeps RPGs Niche?

I just have this feeling that the size of pen-and-paper games keeps RPGs out of the mainstream.

Here we are in a tablet and cell-phone world, with our desktop dinosaur operating systems soldiering on as niche gaming and content creation platforms, when the majority of the world is moving on to lightweight, mobile, and simple "lightweight" experiences. This is an Android and iOS world now, the majority of computing devices from now on will not be desktop towers, and they will not run a "full" desktop OS.

Mind you, I need my tower for gaming, and I will need updates for it. It is absolutely needed for me, but computing and the role of computers in peoples' lives is changing. I am feeling tower-based computing and gaming is becoming a niche hobby compared to the size of the mobile and tablet user-base that keeps growing and growing. Tower usage feels stagnant or in a slow decline, while mobile usage is growing incredibly fast.

Now, compare this with the primary offerings for roleplaying today, D&D 5 and Pathfinder. Both are very heavy games in just book size alone, with D&D 5 being 992 pages for the PHB-DMG-MM combo, and Pathfinder clocking in at 896 pages for the Core Rulebook and Bestiary 1 combo.

Granted, you don't have to read the nearly 1,000 pages for each game to get started, and a lot of that is value-added options and extra content type of stuff. But it is still nearly 1,000 pages of rules, spells, monsters, options, character builds, combat rules, referee advice, magic items, and other options to at least have a basic working knowledge of before you can get going with the system without being in the start-and-stop phase.

Compare this with the TSR boxed games which included a 64-page rule-book for a complete game. Granted, those games did not have as many options as today's games, but they were simple, lightweight, and could be read and digested within the first hour of opening the box and setting up. There is always a place for complete, 1,000 page games in my life, just like there is a gaming tower, but the pen-and-paper gaming hobby feels like it is missing lightweight, casual games intended for a large audience.

There feels like two problems here. One, intro sets and beginners boxes do not count as lightweight, casual gaming - they are intros to the full set of books and do not count as complete standalone games. Intro sets are not complete experiences.

The second problem is the center-stage 1,000 page RPGs compete with any smaller and lightweight games. There isn't any room for them in the hobby other than very small and even more niche audiences. The big rule-book sets push everything else out because that is what a majority of players play. It is the dark side of the network effect, because the "most popular" game is large and complex, it keeps new players out of the hobby because there is no room for casual "market entry" games supported by the big players in gaming.

Then again, we need a casual pen-and-paper gaming market that can exist on its own, support the release of new games, and maintain interest from casual game to casual game to keep that side of the market happy and playing. It is not a "we lose D&D players" sort of thing, because some of these players would never play D&D anyways because of its size and (fairly or not) perceived complexity. The person who buys iPad games but doesn't get into PC gaming is the type of gamer I'm thinking about here, someone who would play casual game after game for the experience, but doesn't have the time, resources, or mental commitment for a full desktop gaming rig.
As an aside, it is a huge design challenge to make an RPG small and keep it to a 64-page target. It is a lot harder than you think because RPGs are supposed to provide options and enough content to maintain interest. Some dicing systems (D&D d20, 3d6 GURPS) as designed tend to fill pages faster than other systems, so there are some 'hard' dicing and system choices that can hurt you in page count before you even begin the project.
I love my big games like I love my gaming rig. I also feel the need for smaller casual - yet complete - games for the market to satisfy that market segment. I think a lot of the "big game companies" have stuck to the "game as OS" revenue stream model, and not the "game as commodity" model where complete, no-update-needed boxed games are sold on the shelves like Monopoly or Risk. Sure, you can theme, make minor improvements, or change up those games for new flavors and experiences, but the core game is still sold alongside and remains a stable product for generations.

Somewhere along the way it feels the word "roleplaying game" became synonymous with "revenue stream" and we went down this path with pen-and-paper games with open-ended systems. We need to understand some of the reasons why interest in our hobby feels difficult to push higher, and I wonder if game size has something to do with it, and not addressing a casual market with complete, supported, and purpose-built commodity products.

Monday, October 13, 2014

D&D 5: Life After the DMG?

So, the next obvious question to living without the DMG is, what is needed after the DMG?

For one, more player options. Second, more monsters. Third, more magic items. Fourth, more spells!

Fifth, no more of any of that.

I want more, but do I really need more? Pathfinder has gotten so heavy with a shelf-and-a-half full of books I can't wrap my mind around the game and its options anymore. I want more, but I don't want more.

I have a shelf full of D&D 4 books, and now a shelf full of Pathfinder books, and I am not looking forward to a third shelf for another collection. Just leave me at my basic three books, thank you, and we will part ways here.

What ever happened to those eighty's 64-page games that had everything? You know, the ones where everything and a sample adventure could fit in one softcover book?

You can pick the books you want to play with, yes. But you always need that one more book, because adding another book to your collection will make the game that much more awesome! It feels like the super-sizing of roleplaying games, endless streams of books to buy and collect, while no thought is paid to what we actually need and can support.

Simplicity and design are discarded in favor of rules systems that can expand infinitely.

I don't blame game companies, after all, these are niche products selling to a smaller audience. They need to ship and sell books to survive. But I feel after a while, the nasty specter of sustainability raises its head. At this point, the game can continue on in a bloated and heavy state, or a new edition is announced to "fix" the old bloated system once and for all.

DarkgarX and I have this joke, "It's not a real game until it's out of print. That way, you can finally play it by the rules."

But no one is forcing you to buy books! Correct, but the problem is, the game is designed to. If character options are limited in the first book, you will eventually need another book with more options to make the game 'complete.' You can design a game that is mostly complete out of the box, or leave things for expansions. There is a strong tendency to leave things for future books in the gaming industry.

Pathfinder did a good job with its basic book, it's huge, but it is mostly complete. They did a wonderfully terrible job with the metric ton of expansion books, I love them, but taken together, they are way too much for me to love as a single game. There's at least six games on my Pathfinder shelf I swear.

So after the D&D 5 DMG, what do I want? What could I absolutely stand for, and what would I despise?

First off, no new classes and core content in a worldbook, like D&D 4 did with the swordmage and the Forgotten Realms guide. Core material goes in core books.

I would tolerate another Monster Manual, there are too many classics and fun monsters missing. I would say no to a DMG 2, because you know right off they would have put the rest of the missing magic items from the DMG 1 in there and you will need it anyways for those lists. The rest of DMG 2 would likely be fluff, kingdom management, more world creation stuff, or tangential material to support the lists we didn't get in DMG 1. The DMG 1 must be complete!

I am up in the air about a PHB 2. In some ways I want it to support more character builds, but in others I know it will cause class, spell, and feat bloat.

A tabletop play book would be appreciated, and I know they have said things about this in the past about "an add-on supporting tabletop and figure play." If you can combine that with the missing character-build options you would have put in PHB 2, we may be onto something, and now the book has two uses. A better value, and two things I would like to see in one book. That is a sale.

New worldbooks for Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms? I can do without them and use my old ones, really, plus any changes they make are bound to anger someone - unless it is a reboot. If they reboot the settings back to 1.0 with a fresh start, NPCs, and a new take on things, then I am in.

But the question of a DMG 2 comes up again. Where would you put magic item expansions, or at least the ones the left out? I don't like DMG 2's by principle, I like my game master options to be in one book, with a single focus. Possibly in a Manual of the Planes book? Or a book on Adventure Design? I don't know.

Now I've committed to buying six books instead of three. Oh, roleplaying games, I do not have enough shelves to love you with. Perhaps I'll just stick with these three and call it good.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

d100 vs. d20

In the older roll-under d100 systems, there was this one-to-one relationship between an ability score and the target number. The target number WAS your ability score, and if you raised your score, life got better.

Things flipped and became more dice-centric with d20 based games. Rolling high became the new thing, with the only exception being the older game Aftermath, a d20 roll-under system that worked a lot like the percentile systems. With the new d20 paradigm, rolling a natural 20 became the cool thing to do, and bang, that was it, you've made it in life.

Except when D&D 3 came along, and you had to confirm that crit.


It's funny the new versions of Car Wars followed GURPS and became a roll-under system too, because the math was easier than an open-ended roll. I still prefer GURPS as roll-under and Car Wars as roll-over though, there's no arguing with a 9+ to-hit on a heavy rocket and rolling double-sixes for a massive crit.

The original SBRPG was a 3d6 roll-over system.

For some things, I like roll-under and for others, roll-over. Percentile systems are classically roll-under, because the focus is different. I do not think all games have to be the same. One of the traps in being a game designer is taking your personal preferences and shoehorning them onto every other game you design or redesign.

A lot of D&D 3 came from the Magic the Gathering game. D&D 4's designers ported in some ideas from Iron Heroes and other games. D&D 5 borrows from yet others. It's not wrong to expand upon a good idea, but you need to weigh any addition against how it would fit within the original game.

One point being "healing surges" in D&D 4. D&D has classically been a game where a cleric can heal someone for X points of damage with the expenditure of a spell. In D&D 4, a cleric's healing ability used one of the target character's healing surges to heal them. If the target character was "all healed out" for the day, guess what, no heals for you. How does this make any sense with how clerics worked in the history of the game? It felt too alien, ported in from something else, and it wasn't how clerics felt their magic should work.

Porting in ideas doesn't always work or feel right within an established context. Nor does changing things too much to where things feel alien and strange given what came before. Just ask the Windows 8 team.

Can people "get" that they have to roll under a target number to succeed at an action? Yes. Does it feel good? Let me answer that with another question. How important is that feel-good of rolling high matter to your game, or does it just matter to you? Here's another thing to think about, rolling high invites open-ended dicing systems, because there are always larger positive and negative modifiers to throw around. Let's make our target number 913% and add +850% to the d100 roll!

With roll-under, you literally have 0% as your floor, and you do not want to go into negative numbers. You also get into this with d100, a 913% target number makes little sense other than being some obscenely high number you have to number-stack to reach. It means nothing percentage-wise. A 15% roll-under chance to-hit is simple, straightforward, and easily understood from anybody with a basic understanding of probability. A +10% chance to-hit modifier is also easily understandable.

Let's flip this around, and do this in a d20 roll-over system. Target number 21, and your modifier is a +3. What is your probability of success? Sure, rolling high is great now, but you have taken most people's understanding of odds and straightforward success and risk calculations out of the game. At least the average player's without some mental arithmetic. You get a further +2 to-hit, now what is your chance?

Hint: both examples are the same.

So as a game designer you ask yourself the question, do I want the "roll high" thrill, or do I want people to be immediately aware of their odds with roll-under? For certain types of games your answers will be different. For a hard-science sci-fi game, we may want percentage roll-under, because this game is supposed to be about science, odds, and the raw hard-probability chance of success. For a competitive game, like a PvP Car Wars game, roll-high is cool, since players around the table are now competing for the best and highest rolls.

If you choose roll-over, you are now opening yourself up to the unbalancing aspects of open-ended rolls. If you choose roll-under, your maximum ability scores and success chances are capped at or near 100%. There are trade offs to both approaches.

You tailor your game design decisions based on the types of behavior and feelings you want to promote at the table. One size or dice does not fit all, and roll-under or over is really a per-game decision. Never accept game design zeitgeist, and you make the right decisions for your game based on math, feel, and user experience.

Friday, October 10, 2014

TSR Box Games: RPG's iPad Apps

These are the games I miss. The classic TSR box games of the 1980's when you could make a roleplaying game about anything, toss a quick percentage system on it, and get playing right when you got home. Yes, often the first thing you did was have a shootout with space aliens, gangsters, mutants, secret agents, or cowboys - but that was the fun! It was the roleplaying equivalent of being able to run around the playground, point your fingers at each other and pretend they were space blasters, and go pew-pew-pew! They wersn't meant to be much more than quick character and combat simulators, and they were flavorful and fun in their own self-contained worlds.

We evolved out of these games, and into more generic systems like GURPS or Champions, after all, what good is a game that simulated just one world when you can have them all? The one game to rule them all syndrome hit, and we left these games behind. To me, it makes as much sense as forcing every game you play to use Monopoly rules, but the argument continues on today as a part of the "system mastery" marketing concept that says a roleplaying game has to be complicated so it takes up all your time and mental effort, and you don't have the time or energy to play anything else. We still have the "one game" thing with us today with d20 and its spin-offs.

We've given up simplicity to fill our shelves with roleplaying games that feel like their primary audience are book collectors. Why can't I buy a self-contained game, enjoy it for everything it is, and not have the thing expanded and super-sized until the point where only a new edition can save us by hitting the 'reset' button - only to have the same thing happen again? To me, these original box-set games are like classic editions of Risk or Parcheesi - self-contained worlds of fun in a single box with no need for a stack of "Monopoly expansion" boxes to pull out of the closet to have a complete game. These were worlds of adventure wrapped up in a single box full of promise and wonder.

They were also excellent examples of focused and tight game design to fit everything in a 64 to 128 page book. Compared with today's games, these were incredible, tight, and focused designs that did a lot in a very tiny space. Think about this the next time you play a game that goes on for 64 pages or more of character design rules.

Sure you had to learn a new set of rules - but that was a part of the fun! They were not that complicated anyways, and you could roll some dice and be playing in 15 minutes if you were familiar with how one of them worked. The generic games that supposedly did "all this and more" were about a hundred times more complicated with all of their options and settings, so there was a beauty to a game designed to do one thing and that one thing well. With a generic game, you had to sift through skills, equipment, powers, optional magic systems, and equipment lists meant to cover every era in history. Generic games did not feel like these focused and specific settings anyways, so you were often using the generic game and these games to get the full experience - which defeated the point in the first place.

They were, in a way, the first "casual RPGs" like iPad apps and games are today. Small, tight, focused designs meant to provide a singular experience and tiny world for you to lose yourself in. They weren't a political statement about what generic game you put your beliefs in, nor were they one game to rule them all that covered everything. They were designed to be fun, simple, focused experiences meant to get you lost in a specific place for an evening, and let you play a cowboy, gangster, space adventurer, mutant survivor, or secret agent. Being an involved, complicated game with a lot of options ran against their nature, and in fact would have made them less fun - these were roleplaying's first "casual games" and they still stand out today as high-water marks for tight and focused game design. They weren't perfect, of course, but nothing has came close to these masterpieces since they went out of print.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

D&D 5: Rolling Over & Feels Good

There always was an interesting shift between d20 and d100 for skill and task resolution. With d20 it has always been roll-over, and rolling high was a satisfying thing. With d100 it has almost always been roll-under, and rolling low was the goal.

Roll-over proponents point to the fact that rolling high is inherently satisfying, and they have a point. There is a disconnect on the target numbers that tends to blow out the dice's natural range with roll over, or a disassociation with the target numbers where the number you are trying to beat goes down.

Let's say you are doing open-ended roll-over, where you add some number to your roll, and you have to beat an ever-increasing target number. This is the system in D&D 3, where AC or DC was the target, and some monsters had AC values in the 40's and above. Think about that, you need a +20 to-hit to be able to have a chance at hitting these monsters, and all of a sudden, your original promise of a system based on 1-20 target numbers fell by the wayside.

In these systems, AC is always 10+some number, since they are basing the entire system on a 50% chance to hit. D&D 5 continues the roll over system, but it constrains the numbers tightly so nothing can really leave the +10 to hit range, instead of D&D 3 and Pathfinder's +30 and beyond.

The second roll-over system puts an ever-decreasing target number in place and tries to constrain positive numbers. You saw this in AD&D and AD&D 2, where the best to-hit in the world you could get was a 2+ on a 1d20 roll, and again, the plus to-hit was strictly limited to magic item bonuses and  ability scores.

D&D 3 introduced the concept of "level bonus" to to-hit to the d20 landscape, and this has really been with us for the last 15 years as an accepted norm of the system. D&D 4 enshrined this concept, with levels going up to 30 and to-hit bonuses going up to +12 or higher, with positive modifiers being up to +42 or higher.

With such high to-hit modifiers, the original 1-20 range of the die means nothing. There is little random chance, it's just if the designer or DM wants to make the encounter a challenge or not that is the question.

With higher levels, random chance is slowly taken out of the game.

D&D 5 tries to put the genie back in the bottle by limiting math, but this creates a system that has tenuous balance - later feats, combat moves, and items in expansion material could throw the system out of balance quickly - especially a book of high-level magic items with +3 or higher modifiers to-hit. Pretty soon, these will be highly sought-after, and soon enough, required for high-level builds because the designers are now balancing for +3 items.

There is an important game-design point hiding in here. In early editions of D&D, better to-hits were a way to increase a class' damage potential. You did not have any way to do more damage except a better to-hit. In later editions, this was also true, but class' also had built-in ways to do more damage through level-bonuses and special powers, so it meant less and it stacked upon that built-in power curve. In D&D 4, "basic attacks" sucked and were actually looked down upon as "what you did if you couldn't use a power." Yes, D&D 4 was a strange superhero game.

It is all an interesting experiment, and blowing out the d20 dice range is something D&D has been wrestling with ever since level-based increasing to-hit was introduced back in D&D 3. You can design a game where the to-hits are static and do not change, but level just brings increasing power to the table. Adding a "higher-level is a better to-hit" mechanic stacks upon that system, and once you put in a second variable like this, things become very difficult to balance.

You do need to ask yourself the serious question, what do better to-hits do in my game? Are they just for damage capability? Do they stack with other powers to increase their effect even more? Good balance comes from careful consideration.

A lot of game design is pure math, but we have been experiencing another area of "feels good" design in recent years that add powers and abilities on top of that math, which often leads to breakage of the system. "Feel good" designs come primarily from MMOs, where better and better abilities need to be given to players to keep them playing, and eventually nerfed naturally and 'expected' as players level past them, only to have another gee-whiz ability added later to keep the play-addiction cycle going.

There is actually a lot involved, which explains why MMOs constantly wrestle with balance and numbers, and D&D has been so tumultuous over the last three (four if you count D&D 3.5, and five if you count Pathfinder) editions when it came to the subject of balance, math, and keeping random chance meaningful in the game. It's not just the +to-hit, it's multi-attacks, spells, feats, powers, class abilities, and special level-added powers adding to the equation.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

D&D 5: Moving Slow w/o the DMG

Our D&D 5 experience seems dead in the water without the Dungeon Master's Guide. I tried spicing some things up with monsters, but the game just does not feel complete without encounter design and magic items. It's strange, if feels more playable with just the Player's Handbook than it does with the PHB & MM combo.

I suppose part of it is monsters do not exist alone. Monsters are the challenge that guards the treasures of the dungeon - a traditional threat and reward relationship. There is also the encounter design thing, and the reward and advancement thing we are missing, so things seem incomplete.

With just the PHB, it feels easy to run just an intelligent PC race style 'no monsters' world. With the MM, we have a bunch of creatures that need better gear to battle, and we also need the rules on how to put together encounters and place rewards.

I am concerned about the magic item power of the DMG, since D&D 5's power curve is so tight, I am expecting magic items in this game to be severely limited in power and scope. While that may be a good thing for some, I would love to know the total power curve in this game before I start designing challenges and distributing rewards. We shall see how this pans out in another two months or so, and that is a long time to wait with players ready to play the full game now.

Monday, October 6, 2014

"It's What the Cool Kids Play"

Let's go back in the day, when red-box Basic D&D was considered the simpler game for kids, and every teenager that wanted to be 'cool' played AD&D and had Rubik's Cube stickers stuck on their shirts. AD&D was more complex, it had more to it, it was arcane, it had so many rules, but it was cool because it was a lot more difficult to understand and required good players to invest in the game to do well.

Let's fast-forward to today, when D&D 5 is the simple game intended for casual players, and there is a group out there who like Pathfinder because it fills that AD&D role again. Pathfinder has Hero Lab, and you can literally spend an entire afternoon fiddling and playing with numbers designing the perfect character. Pathfinder keeps the Magic the Gathering vibe of card-like character design, and it has a strong D&D influenced focus on maps and tactical play. Pathfinder is today's AD&D as D&D 5's is to the old D&D Basic Set.

But are the cool kids playing it?

Nah, the cool kids are playing computer games. They are often playing them on Youtube and becoming social media stars.

It's not 1980. The Atari 2600 was an easy device to compete against in the theater of the mind, and pen-and-paper games could be anything and attract an audience. Today, a lot of people have moved on, and let's face it, electronic gaming is easy, it's on-demand fun. What don't computer games have?

One thing that pen-and-paper games do very well is this thing I have a scientific name for called, "tricking the bastard." When the DM is sitting there all smug with deathtrap in hand, it is so satisfying to be the play who figures it out and "tricks the bastard." Because let's face it, the dungeon master is the bastard who could get the entire killed at a whim, and figuring things out when his finger is on the doom-switch is just so gratifying.

In computer games, this is called "exploiting the system." It is not as satisfying, but it is the same gratification and pleasure at finding a way to cheat the system, rocket ahead, and beat the computer game because no one has tested or thought of what you are doing yet. In a sense, the bastard here is the programmer and QA team, and you just beat them at their own game.

Roleplaying games have institutionalized "tricking the bastard" - especially old-school games. The closer you get to modern designs, the more wargaming and figure battle you get, because somebody somewhere on a whiteboard said, "these games need figures to buy!" With figures comes balanced play, rules revisions, and the like. You won't find many board games that allow one player to say, "All the other Monopoly pieces fell into a pit and are dead. Game over."

No, that is the power a DM needs to be the bastard, and why it is so fun tricking him into letting you win. The DM needs to be able to separate The Bastard out from himself, Sports Referee, Shakespeare Guy, and Uncle Moneybags, but that is another article on being a good DM.

Part of what makes pen-and-paper games so difficult to sell is partly this reason. There are two types of people that say no to pen-and-paper because of this, people who don't like someone having that much control over them, and people who don't buy the whole concept of a dungeon master in the first place. A computer is so much more impartial and fair, right? I I do something, some person is not going to take away what I did because they are messing with me - it has to be that way because the rules say so, right?

Computers are so much more fair. Right?

If you only knew the business and programmer stuff that went behind the games you play. I would rather trust a DM, at least there's someone you can understand the motivations of directly, To their face. And you don't have a marketer, someone from corporate, or some addiction specialist programming a system to make the game more desirable for you to stay logged into. Or a programmer rushed for a deadline and he doesn't really care what he puts in there. Or a system that keeps people apart intentionally (World of Warcraft and other MMOs).

It's social interaction, something our corporate-ized society pushes us away from because they want an electronic layer between us because the variables are easier to control. Why would you ever want a company controlling your free speech? Oh, yeah, that Facebook thing, I hear that's really popular.

Computers are a lot less fair than a living, breathing person you trust.

It's what us cool kids know.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

D&D 4: The "Windows 8" RPG

Windows 8 was not a great moment for our friends at Microsoft. There are a lot of reasons the OS failed to catch on, but one of the bigger reasons was that it changed too much of the familiar desktop paradigms for user interaction.

It happens with roleplaying games as well.

Take D&D 4 for instance, it changed the paradigm for D&D so much that there was a backlash against it. A lot of people liked it, but the hardcore types said "not D&D" and moved on to Pathfinder or old-school OGR games. D&D 4 had a number of great innovations, but it changed what the game was to a lot of people and they did not like it.

D&D 5 is a lot like the upcoming Windows 10 in that regard, it keeps some of the previous version's innovations, but goes back to the familiar user paradigms of the 'classic OS'.

Now, DarkgarX and I liked D&D 4, it was a fun system for "battle chess" like combats with a D&D flavor. One could say that D&D 4 was the best version of D&D Miniatures ever made, and it actually combined both games into one RPG. It did change a lot, but the changes were focused on tabletop play and balance. It's like Windows 8 forcing the tablet paradigm on everybody, some people did not like it, so they felt things had changed too much.

To be honest, we still don't like Windows 8.

The lesson here is that you can change things, but you can't change people's perceptions of how the game is played. If D&D were introduce a system where a character is built only out of collectible cards, yes for some players it would be a revolution, but for the majority of us it would be so radically different it wouldn't feel like D&D at all.

You heard this with both Windows 8 and D&D 4 - "if it were a new OS or game I could accept it, but calling it Windows/D&D does not feel right to me."

"Does not feel right to me."

Think about that line. When you get systems engineers involved in a project, UI engineers, and other technical types, they are all too happy to blow away everything and start fresh. The old was the problem, and what we need is fresh thinking! Everyone wants to start with a clean slate, even designers. You could develop the easiest, most intuitive system or game in the world, and then relabel it as something else, and instantly you've lost it all. All those innovations are wasted, because now what people are going to do is compare you to the old way of doing things.

I knew how to do this in the old system! Too much has changed! I'm not changing from what works! I've invested too much in my old software or books, I'm not buying new stuff.

It's familiar, and while yes, things need to change, things also need to be familiar and focus on improving rather than replacing. Designers can't be 'tone deaf' to the current user base, and any new version of the game has to feel like the old one in play and focus. You can make improvements, streamline, and improve - you just can't rip out so much the game feels like a different experience.

D&D 5 does do some major changes, and it especially breaks away from D&D 3's complexity curve. Players may feel like they don't have many options under the new system. There is a danger here that D&D 3 and Pathfinder have gotten so entrenched in the "idea" of what people know D&D as that something different than it will still be seen as not D&D. From most of what I heard, the OGR crowd is a little more receptive of the changes to D&D 5 than the D&D 4 players are - we still miss our "D&D battle chess" game and nothing will replace it.

We feel Wizards majorly screwed D&D 4 up too with D&D Essentials, which was the D&D 5 preview anyways in spirit with the art and focus on thematic builds, The original game for D&D 4, the first three unpatched books, those still are the definitive version of the game for us.

Don't get me started on D&D 4's "floating strike zone" when it came to monster balance, another article, and another day.

D&D 5 is also more roleplaying focused, although I feel the changes they made in that area feel forced and limiting for player fun, so I am not using them in my games and sticking with the basic rules. I need to make a FAQ on the way we play and share that, and then wait for the community licence Wizards promised and publish that as a third-party mod to the rules.

But yes, it's a lesson on being too revolutionary but taking the safe route and calling your revolution "the next great new version of what you loved or hated!" Either people disliked your previous version and will start out with a negative view of you, or people used to the old ways will feel things changed too much for their liking. If you make major changes, they always have to be for the better and build upon what works. Most importantly, things have to feel the same for people, so they can drop in their previous experiences and be right at home.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Fun With D&D 5 Magic: Silent Image

Goblins: "Greeah!"

Mage: "Run!"

Fighter: "Run?"

Mage: "Just run! Down to the corner, here, let's wait for them out of sight."

Fighter: "Care to tell me-"

Mage: "Silent image, right there on the wall where the hallway turns, now it looks like a straight hallway. And there we are, running right down it, isn't it cool? Now be quiet."

Fighter: "I have no idea-"

Goblins: *run into the wall at full speed*

Friday, October 3, 2014

Fun With D&D 5 Magic: Telepathy

Cleric: "But it that reef shark willing?"

Mage: "Sure he's willing, he's willing to bite me, so he's willing to listen to reason. And he's familiar too! Look, he's swimming around right there."

Cleric: "I don't know, don't ask me to rez you should this go wrong."

Mage: "Don't worry about it! Lookie here casting telepathy! Bang, he has an INT of at least one, so now it works. Oh, wow, I am hungry now. All I feel like doing is swimming and eating."

Cleric: "I told you, hey! Stop biting me!"

Mage: "Sorry, old habits. Now, suggestion!"

Cleric: "Did it work?"

Mage: "I'm Aquaman! I'm Aquaman!"

D&D 5: Openness and Campaign Worlds

There's a quote in the new D&D 5 Monster Manual that says the monsters in the book are "yours to do with as you wish" and mentions making minotaur shipbuilders and pirates. Or anything in the book anything you want. There is also a "do what you want" support for classic settings and campaign worlds, allowing you to roll things back to the setting you loved.

There is a new-found openness in D&D 5 that I find refreshing. I would love for them to back this up with a community license that lets 3rd party companies play and publish, but we shall see. D&D 4 had this in it's "build your own" campaign world setting, but it feels the Nerrath-centric model has been rolled back in favor of classic settings in this edition. One sore point with D&D 4 was the sloppy retconning and treatment of the iconic game worlds where so much was changed it hurt longtime fans' perception of the brand. We need to see the D&D 5 DMG to see how far the new-found openness goes, and the game's assumptions of world-building and how far they want you to change things.

It feels like there are limits though. The numbers are tight, the magic item power is low, and the game has a particular low-fantasy feel. You are not going to do a typical MMO with gear-flation and massive item power with D&D 5, because you will break the game.

It is interesting to compare this openness with Pathfinder, where the default Golarion world feels like a sticky ball that prevents you from making a new world because there's room for everything in the default campaign world. Of course, nothing really prevents you, and the Paizo Gammastery Guide is a great resource for world building, but it is just too easy to stay in Golarion since "why go anywhere else?"

It's like the Walmart effect on small local businesses, Paizo's Golarion has a tendency to crush any other third-party game world around it with a single and focused specialty. Why create a "Ravenloft" style Pathfinder world when Golarion has a dedicated area just for that? Oh, and you can go get shoes, hardware, and frozen foods while you are there too. To compete with that, you need to be a big player, like Midgard or any of the other "big box" game worlds. The barrier to creating a third-party world players care about is high, since the default world covers everything and is so well-known to players.

It almost feels like the Forgotten Realms back in the day, that setting was so big in players' minds that it crushed anything around it. The difference was the Realms had this "author protection" effect where different areas would be "owned" by different book series, and the world had to go farther and father out to find spots that were unexplored and open for adventure. And then the fiction caught up, and farther out still you had to go. The Realms also was not as heavily "theme parked" as Golarion is nowadays, with spots for everything, a giant Sphinx, an Eiffel Tower, some pyramids, a Caesar's Palace, oh wait...that's the Las Vegas Strip.

I get that and Golarion confused sometimes.

You know I kid, but there is a little truth to that. I love Pathfinder and Golarion and The Strip, it just feels sometimes the weight of Paizo's single-world business model limits my creativity, or more importantly, the willingness for players I play with to want to play in anything else but the default setting. In contrast, D&D 5's dowhatchawant sort of relaxed focus on settings and creativity appeals to my creative side, Wizards is trying to repair a lot of customer animosity after the D&D 4 schism, so there is room here to mend fences. It remains to be seen what Wizards ultimately does with campaign settings and how heavy-handed they will be when it comes time to release campaign guides, but I am getting positive vibes now. I am hopeful.

At least the community seems tired of the system wars this time around, and everyone is free to play what they want. Thank goodness somebody's wish was heard. Go forth, playwhatchawant, build your worlds, and keep role-playing alive and well.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

D&D 5: In Favor of Role Playing Rules

D&D 5 adds mechanical rules for role-playing to the game. Through a system of five defined personality traits that the DM uses to grant a one-use, rechargeable, Inspiration Point, which can be saved and gives the play advantage on a roll (or used for other player's rolls).

I'm not too positive on this system, since I believe it limits the rewards DMs can give to players for good roleplaying, and it is also slightly exploitable. Unless there are other systems in the DMG that are added, I feel a little limited by this system and I find it isn't needed during the sessions we play.

However, let me think of the reasons why you may want to use this system.

Perhaps this is intended for new players and DMs who don't understand the concept of rewarding good roleplaying with in-game bonuses. If you are coming in from another more structured fame environment, how is a new DM supposed to judge and reward play that adheres to a character's personality limitation or belief system? It is an interesting thought, one that makes me think D&D 5 is actually aimed at people outside the hobby.

Think about it, if you never played a pen-and-paper game, and you don't know anyone who does - how are you supposed to know how to reward roleplaying?

This reasoning may also be behind why things are so simplified, like not including map-based combat rules. Nothing intimidates new players more than a map with figures, I have seen people freeze up, not want to touch things, and ask constantly, "Can I do this?" or "Is this okay?" It is part of learning yes, but it can be overwhelming to a new player.

It extends to the Monster Manual as well, with the simplified statistics, lower amounts of special attacks and abilities, and simplified and graphical presentation. Things feel simple because they are intended to be that way for new players.

I see some of that in the Player's Handbook too, there aren't many detailed character build options because those are intimidating, the number range is tighter because it is supposed to work across many levels, and the role of magic items has been reduced to make character builds and gear less important.

It is interesting to think of D&D 5 as a level 1 through 20 version of the Pathfinder Beginner Box, and this may be really what the game is the closest to in spirit.

Another reason why you may want to use the roleplaying rules is in organized play. As a DM, you may want to wash your hands of favoritism accusations from troublesome players or people you don't know, and use the system as a safeguard to make sure everything appears fair. It takes away some of the dynamic and social aspects of the game, but it is sort of a 'protection system' where a DM can coldly award inspiration if action X fulfills motivation Y.

You are never giving advantage to rolls that are fun or entertaining here, but in a public session with people you don't know, you don't want to appear to be playing favorites with certain outgoing players and have some people turned off by that. Removing the DM's role from some of the more interpretative parts of the game has been a theme since D&D 4, and it's possible some people are turned off by a creative and involved DM.

"Well, I can't be that entertaining or creative, and that DM is playing favorites with certain players, so I don't want to play that game."

"I would never play that. I don't even know how to act or what good that does."

You may laugh, but I have seen these feelings out there among people. It's odd, in order for the game to be more socially acceptable, the creative and interpretative parts are being ruled down into strict "yes or no" paths. To us old-schoolers where we want everyone to be involved and we don't think twice about rewarding creative play, it may seem strange to us. But to outsiders in the hobby, having these types of rules is actually "protection" for them and it is seen as something that ensures their contributions to the game will be rewarded.

Part of me feels sad roleplaying has fallen so far out of the mainstream this needs to be taught or enforced with defined rules. I guess it is like remembering the days of computing before antivirus programs were needed for everything, and picking and possibly paying for one was a requirement to get online and doing anything. I suppose I may use those rules with newer players in public settings, but then again, I will abandon them is a group feels like they are limiting their fun and we are all comfortable with my 'reward good play' DM-ing style.

Ultimately, you will play the way you want to play, but I find it very helpful to know why these systems were put in place, and knowing when they can help a group of players.

Fun With D&D 5 Magic: Fire Safety

Party: "Oncoming orcs coming through the woods! Mage!"

Mage: "I got them, watch out, fireball-"

Mage: *gets clocked by a giant bear paw*

Party: "What the? Mage is down!"

Sooty the Owlbear: "Remember, the only fire spell you should use in the wilderness is fire storm. Only that spell specifically has an exemption that does not affect plant life."

Cleric: "But what about dead leaves, or firewood, fallen branches, or twigs? They aren't plant life anymore since they are not alive, are they? Otherwise it wouldn't affect a house made of wood."

Thief: "What is that, an exemption druids lobbied for? All I'd have to do is wear cotton."

Fighter: "What about the orcs, if we set them on fire, won't they fall over and set the plants on fire?"

*the rest of the party gets clocked*

Sooty the Owlbear: "Don't get smart with me! I'm not your dungeon master."

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Fun With D&D 5 Magic: With Friends Like These

Shopkeeper: "And my whole store is 50% off, just for you guys!"

Party: "Yay!"

Mage: "Guys, let's just get in and out, okay? This shouldn't take long, right?"

Party: "What's the rush? We have just got here, and it's all 50% off!"


Party: "???"

Mage: *casts friends cantrip again*

Shopkeeper: "Gotcha, didn't I? Aw, guys, don't mind me, go ahead and keep shopping, it's all 50% off today, just for you guys!"

Mage: "Don't worry about him, he just has a nervous tick, that's all. Stress. That's it. Stress. We're best buds, me and my shopkeeper pal here. What a kidder, I tell ya."

D&D 5: Monster Manual, First Impressions

So guess what came in the mail today? The D&D 5 Monster Manual, and now my players playing my monster-less Forgotten Realms campaign can breath a sigh of relief, right?

Nah, I think I'll keep it that way, intelligent NPCs with character classes are all the monster I need in that game. It's a fun take on a D&D world where the world has been "farmed clean" of most of the standard evil critters (they are rare or in legend only), and the intelligent races turn on each other with backstabbing, dark gods, and political intrigue. It also keeps the world different from my other creations, and lets us start a fresh game somewhere else.

This book really opens up Greyhawk and other worlds, where monsters are a must. So let me flip through this book and pull a HP Lovecraft on the World of Greyhawk, and see what we come up with. I can't do a full review of this book yet, so today's article will just be first impressions, reactions, and thoughts as I flip through the book.

The art is amazing, spectacular at points. Wow, I am impressed. Just as a D&D monsters coffee-table book this is an impressive looking work. All the stops were pulled out in the art department, and it shows. Nice job, Wizards, this is one of the best-looking books you have ever made.

The art is really prominent, to the point where I am concerned that there isn't enough mechanical crunch to the monsters. This version of D&D feels decidedly anti-crunch, and lets the DM make a lot up as they go along. This is both good and bad. It's good in that an experienced DM will know what these monsters can do from previous editions, and have a bag of "dirty tricks" for combat tactics in mind during play. Less-experienced DMs will run these monsters as-is with less powers and tactics, and the 'play experience' between an experienced DM and an inexperienced on may be vastly different.

It's a worry I have, and you saw them try to address this in the "combat scripts" in the 3E and Pathfinder bestiaries. In those games, monsters are list after list of feats, special abilities, special defenses, and attacks - it feels like the DM is turned into a C++ compiler trying to figure out what a monster can do from turn-to-turn. I hate running monsters in 3E and Pathfinder, especially high level ones, because they are  so darn complicated you can only really have one or two before mental gridlock sets in and you are fudging most of it anyways.

This is a step in the right direction for complexity, but in some of these monsters I feel a little is missing. I feel there is this danger of them turning into 'easy mode' bags of hit points without special ways to fight back against clever and resourceful players. I am not feeling that low-level OGR old-school danger, especially with higher-end monsters. This is just a first feeling, I will need to play with these monsters and report back on our group's experiences.

Hit points are lower than 4E, but still above the OGR games by about twice.

I am not seeing how to apply class levels to monsters, Unless I am missing something, this part feels like an omission and something I need to run challenging humanoid monsters with class levels. There is a blurb saying "monster modification will be in the DMG," so I hope we get full humanoid class support very soon. Of course, I could just take a set of class abilities and apply it over the top of a monster, but I want to see the official ruling on this along with challenge level adjustments.

In their current forms, most humanoid monsters are the basic level one versions, and while this may be great starting out, I never want my players to dismiss an orc just because they are presented as a low-level monster in the MM. All races, even monster races, have equal opportunity to level up in classes and cause trouble in my game worlds. This is a requirement of how I play, and I like things to be dangerous in my worlds.

Azeroth's loveable orcs have come home to D&D! Wow, even the shoulder-pads on these guys look familiar. I take back all that stuff about D&D 5 feeling like Lord of the Rings in this regard. If there is a misstep in the art, I think this is it. Maybe it is intentional, maybe because of World of Warcraft's cultural influence it is hard for anyone to see orcs as anything different than their zug-zug, lok-tar, angst-filled warmongering emo selves.

Then again, I shall point you towards an excellent game, Shadows of Mordor, and say Middle Earth's orcs still can kick ass, look unique and awesome, and have fight in them yet. I will even go as far to say Shadows of Mordor's orcs look cooler and could kick more ass than Blizzard's orcs. Check the game out, they are just cool enemies, true to the original, and full of character and bile with a unique and eye-catching sense of design.

Could Wizards have taken a different 'take' on orcs? I don't know, D&D has always sat at the crossroads of pop-culture, so it is not immune to popular influences of the day. This applies to all the monsters really, they are all pulled in from different fantasy sources, pop-culture, Lord of the Rings, and any other fantasy influence de jour. D&D is an agglomeration, a crossroads, and it can't escape the gravitational pull of pop culture. The only parts that are immune to this force are the D&D trademark iconic monsters and features, mind flayers, beholders, drows/Lolth and the like. Wizards sets the cultural direction on these, and it is the brand's strength.

Wow. World of Warcraft orcs. Now I have a headache on how I am going to play these. Of course, I don't have to play them this way, but um, I can't get them out of my head looking at those images. Okay, Greyhawk is out, that is too old-school in my head to zug-zug with like that. I can't do straight Azeroth as well, too many damn pandas. An old-school Warcraft I-III inspired world where some crazy god tried to mix D&D with an RTS, of which I shall call Shadows of Dangeroth? Okay, that I can do.

Damn, the nightmare is impossible to ride without getting a flame full of face. Maybe I'll rule that to be 'orange hair' instead of something the NTSB will issue a recall over.

Page 206, Frank Castle versus the werewolf.

Pager 50, one of the best, most evocative pieces in the book.

Overall? Not a bad purchase, and great as an inspiration book. I would recommend this, but keep an eye out for monsters the MM says are weak, and be prepared to house-rule, add powers, and mod them as you see fit. They feel a bit on the weak and under-cooked side overall, so be ready to spice them up on your own, and put your own finishing touches on each one. I cannot see myself using them straight out of the book, I shall tweak, I shall mod, and my players will never know what hit them.

More later, but those are my first feelings on the D&D 5E Monster Manual.

The Casual Pen-and-Paper Gamer

This is the new battleground. The casual pen-and-paper gamer.

They are by definition exclusively new players too, drawn in from the world of video games, MMOs, cell phone games, Youtube, tablets, and other places. Forget the hardcore - they are already playing and bought-in, the profits and future customers of the roleplaying depend on new players.

Every industry chases 'the new player' and you even see legacy MMOs in decline trying to reinvent themselves to attract a new player base. This is where World of Warcraft is right now, a declining (but mature) hobby struggling to reinvent itself for that large group of casual players out there with little time to invest and who frankly aren't sold on the idea of logging to a faction grind in every day.

World of Warcraft's problem is essentially Zynga's with Farmville and Mafia Wars - how do you make a game interesting to play when it is essentially a game of "who gets bigger numbers?" Granted in each those 'numbers' turn out to be little pieces of gear, new critters for the farm, or a bigger number to bonk other players over the head with - but they are numbers hidden by 3d graphics, achievements, pets, or other virtual representations. Sometimes they are just numbers, like stamina or the endless faction reputation values in WoW.

Numbers are not cool.

Social, right? Our game is a social experience! World of Warcraft was like that for a while, you played because that's where everybody else was, but social is never a reason to play something when no one is playing, it's fire without fuel. Social can amplify a game's popularity, but you can't sell people on social in a barren desert. Unless you are Las Vegas, but that's only been done once.

So the casual player, that incredibly large mass of players out there with nothing else better to do than wait to play your game. Right? You have to answer the question, why should they? D&D 5, Pathfinder Beginner Box, or Five Moons, why play? What makes this as 'pick up and play' as the next Angry Birds? What makes this game so cool I will sit and watch people play it endlessly on Youtube? Look at your game. Is it really that casual? Is it really that fun? What screams at people and engages them? What makes this game so fun that you have to play it, or even watch people play it?

If your answer is "we have better numbers" you are not thinking it right.

There is a question, how many casuals pen-and-paper gamers are out there? While I love Pathfinder or even D&D 5 I know plenty of people that play casual games who's eyes would water just looking at the books and dismiss them as 'not for them'. Of course the hard-core players love these games, and we system wars ourselves to incredible lengths over them - that's just who we are. But those casuals. Who are they? What are they doing now? How do you entice them?

How do you get them to say, "This is cool! I wanna be doing this!"

Or most importantly, "I want to be seen doing this."

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Kickstarter News: Five Moons RPG

Here's an interesting piece of news, Sean K Reynolds, of recently retired Pathfinder and Paizo fame, is starting a Kickstarter campaign for his Five Moons RPG idea. He wants to simplify fantasy gaming down to the Pathfinder Beginner Box level of complexity, and make fantasy gaming a more social experience. He is also breaking with the OGL and d20 SRD for this one, and will develop his own license.

It's interesting he wants to do a fresh take on pen-and-paper gaming, and he's trying to iron out the complex systems in Pathfinder and create something simple and cool. Over on the Five Moons Blog you can find more of his ideas on the game, balance, magic systems, and his other ideas.

Of note as well is designers are moving away from d20 SRD and the OGL in particular. We are far enough away from 3.5 and compatibility (and Pathfinder has it covered pretty well) that this doesn't seem to be as hot as it was in the past, so that is also an interesting development.

It seems the industry is letting Pathfinder rule the roost with complex and deep rules, while there is a clear fight on for the casual pen-and-paper gamer. D&D 5 has put its foot down in one corner, and it looks like Five Moons is the challenger with a pretty impressive designer and pedigree behind the project.

But how big is the casual pen-and-paper market? Is there such a thing? Are casual pen-and-paper gamers more of the iPhone/Android mobile gaming or online MMO crowds with much interest in pen-and-paper games? It can be argued the pen-and-paper market nowadays has grown considerably hard-core, with a clear need for new players and especially dungeon masters. Will simple hardcover games alone be enough, or is an online or electronic component necessary to draw interest from the casual players?

There are a lot of questions here, and not many good answers until we gauge the success of D&D 5 at pulling in new players. Converting older players from one game to another is not enough, these games need to cause a buzz outside of the traditional RPG community and draw in the next generation of tabletop fantasy gamers. New players are the clear measure of success for any game.

I suppose the battle has been joined, and this shall be an interesting time for fantasy tabletop gaming.

Fun With D&D 5 Magic: Plane Shift and Gate

Mage: "Hey guys, I have a great idea! Let's use my gate spell and go beat up Zeus, lord of thunder!""

Party: "Yeah!"

Zeus: "No you don't the gate spell says gods can disallow such tomfoolery! Gate denied! Do not annoy me again! ZEUS HAS SPOKEN!!!"

*thunder rolls*

Mage: "No problem, I'll just use plane shift instead, and it's only 7th level. Everyone hold hands!"

Party: "Hello Zeus!"

Monday, September 29, 2014

Micro Feats and Character Design

One of D&D 3.x's legacies on game design is an extreme granularity in character design choices. To design a character, we need to be able to choose from dozens of classes (with paths and options in each class), multi-class (with all of the choices in each class applying again), and then choose from thousands of feats as we level up to further design our character. At times it feels like creating a mobile out of coat hangers, and having one slide out of place and turning the entire system of classes with choices, multiclassing, and micro-feat choices into a mess of hanging wires.

I call them micro-feats because the feats that exist in D&D 3.x and Pathfinder are very specific and often contain small bonuses, like a +1 to some action. Because of System Mastery there are "bad and mediocre choices" sprinkled throughout the feat lists, and also there are a couple really great ones certain classes must take in order to do well - with prerequisites (power attack, cleave, great cleave). Part of me wants less, more powerful feats to simplify the mess.

It gets horrible when you toss a new monster on the table and you are sitting there cross-referencing the monster's feat list to make sure you are playing the monster right and to the monster's as-designed ability. Some of those feats are special attacks (feat), others are passives, some are defenses, and yet others are situational modifiers. I really don't like the complexity of the entire D&D 3.x legacy of character design and power distribution through class and micro-feat choices.

Look at it this way. You are designing a superhero, and put all your classes, spells, and feats in a bucket and call them equal. When you design a fantasy character, you want to make choices that matter. Clutter and tiny bonuses mean nothing, or at least they should. I want to make important choices each level, and I want my choices to be among a set of equal and great options. I should feel bad for not taking the others, and I should be saying, "Well, this was the best choice for the role I play."

Old-school games? Of course, they didn't inherit the D&D 3.x complexity for a reason, and over the years it became a huge mess as expansion after expansion unbalanced things and kept trying to right the boat with balance and options. You see that in Pathfinder in the Advanced Class Guide with the "Striker" rogue mix-class being an answer to the common complain that straight basic-book rogues can't do enough damage. Well, to patch it, let's add a new class instead of making the rogue good. Or let's add some rogue feats that let them do more damage. Or let's just do everything and let players sort it out.

You can never balance a complex granular system. You can only make it better through iterations, and that requires you to throw out everything you've done previously. Rogue 3.0 sucks? Well, let's improve him in 4.0. Or let's try again in 3.75. Or make another sub-class that does what we want the rogue to do. Or let's do it again in 5.0. It feels like why we are going through multiple D&D versions right now, and why they chose to hit the reset button in D&D 5. It feels like a reset and new starting point though, and I hope they don't go back to class and feat bloat like they did in the 3.x years.

I think bloat is one of the big threats to D&D 5. If they don't print as much junk, make all options equal and good choices, the game will last longer and be seen as a stable point in the game's history.

Why care? Well, the average person who plays casual games doesn't care for a game with around two or three thousand feat choices, some good, many bad, and they need to study forums and class build guides like a PhD to get their character right. Hardcore gamers? We eat that stuff up. There's a divide there, and yes, I am on one side, but I can see the other and I know the pain casual gamers have with our hobby. You can't be blinded by your own preferences and likes to not see other's pain and discomfort.

Plus it feels like we are throwing a lot of work out. I like to buy games that stick around a while, and I hate versioning everything up. Yes, if you count backwards compatibility, D&D 3 is still sticking around in Pathfinder, but it keeps the same problems that a granular system mastery based designed game comes with.

So where do you go if you like simple, equal choices? D&D 5 is a tenuous 'we shall see' option, and in an oblique way the Pathfinder Beginner Box is another option (but not really an answer). The old-school games like Labyrinth Lord or Basic Fantasy are always an option, and they kind of dodge the question by making all the choices for you.

I still like Pathfinder a lot, but when I am shuffling through pages of print outs to play three or four NPCs and monsters on one side of a battle I don't like it, and I know I'm missing applying several feats and abilities I know they have, but I can't because I need to keep this game running fast and fun for the players. Some of this you learn, but it all seems so heavy just to play what should be a simple fantasy game. It's a beautifully wonderful complex game I love, but its complexity kills it from being played in casual settings for me as a DM. For new players, I'll pick an old-school game or something simple and just focus on having fun.

D&D 5? I can't say, I need all three books before I can truly say the game's complexity, balance, and ease-of-play lives up to the hype. Without the complete monster list, I can't say how complex they are to run overall, and there's the fight-length and balance issue. Without the DMG, I can't say much about recommended encounter balance, rewards, and the optional complexity introduced there. We will know more in about two months.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Review: The Emerald Spire

The Emerald Spire Super Dungeon is Paizo's entry into the 'super dungeon' genre of adventure modules. What's interesting about this one is that each level is designed by a different superstar designer with the likes of the Paizo staff, Ed Greenwood, Frank Mentzer and a cast of others each taking a level and going with it. It's like an all-star Christmas album of dungeon design over sixteen interconnected levels.

The back story is interesting, and it accounts for the difference and variety in the interconnected lairs. Some of the levels have a related boss monster or story, so that is a cool thing - they are not all so different it seems disjointed. The dungeon levels are full flip-mat sized (they also sell flip-mats for all 16 levels), so this is a unique product in that it provides a series of battle-mat sized exploration missions. It is a great product for a regular gaming group that wants to play across a series of tabletop battles.

It's is an interesting break from other super-dungeon products that require you to map it yourself or play it by ear. This is a very nice "complete product" should you buy the maps. The flip-mat limitation puts a cap on the size of the dungeon levels, so if you like big and expansive dungeons this is probably not your thing.

The dungeon levels are well-put together, but they feel on the shorter side to me. They are your typical 3.x D&D style dungeons, with that tighter less creatures focus and deadly traps sort of thing, along with a fair amount of puzzles and other things to figure out. The shortness in the book for each level is a bit bothering, a couple of the levels feel like they could have been fuller, but a good game master can always improvise and add details on their own (as you should with any published module).

There is a 'fast transport system' in the dungeon that I am not sure I like, it feels like it was invented for expediency in an MMO-style nod. Back in my days, if the entrance to a dungeon was a mile underground we walked there dangnabbit! We took pack animals, carried supplies, and camped out in dangerous places with people standing guard. We hired retainers by the month, and good ones too, not these generic level 1 man-at-arms things you see so many of nowadays. Our wizards took bags of components with them too, because walking back to town was out of the question.

Or with high-level enough parties, we picked a secret teleport spot somewhere down there, and prayed each time we came back there weren't monsters in the room or someone waiting for us. There was a disadvantage in old-school adventuring to teleport happy explorers, party wipes from prepared bad guys waiting underground for magic-item and spell-book rich adventurer groups to return to their favorite port-in spots.

I am guessing because of the flip-mat "let's play level X tonight!" style setup the emerald magi-elevator was needed, but it is certainly a more modern design element, and one my old-school party would look at twice and decide to hoof it anyways. Besides, if we can use this thing like an elevator, who says the dungeon's big boss hasn't figured out a way to send us anywhere he would like? Old-school dungeoning paranoia saves lives and character sheets, my friend.

It's a fun adventure, but one side note. There's a sample town included, Fort Inevitable, probably one of the most strange fantasy town names I have come across in a while. Down the road from Fort Certain Thing and Fort For Certain, for sure. Or Fort For Sure, sorry. Anyways, it's a happy little adventuring base and hometown run by...a large garrison of lawful evil Hellknights. My player's first order of business? Clearing the town. I know, but you got this big dungeon up on the hill and...oh stop it, really? You attack?

Roll initiative.

But yeah, for a garrison of Hellknight cavalry with an open rebellion problem, I'm guessing this place shouldn't be such a great adventuring home base. But there are armor and weapons shops selling openly, and I'm sitting here thinking these would be the first places they would close down under an oppressive regime with that much firepower to throw around. The first rule of dictators is to disarm the population, it feels like an oversight, and I like my worlds based in a bit of realism gleaned from the events of actual history.

A bunch of adventurers setting up shop and snooping around the dungeon up on the hill? I bet the Hellknight commander lets them live until level five or when they pull up that first big treasure haul and then the adventurers are executed for heresy, treason, crimes against the state, insurrection, hoarding state resources, or some other trumped up charge so the Hellknights can take the party's loot and laugh up how great it is to be lawful evil. Besides, they wouldn't want a bunch of upstarts getting too powerful around here, would they?

It's like new school designers forgot what lawful evil means when it comes to kingdom politics and adventurer relations. Think of this happening in King's Landing in Game of Thrones. Yeah, not gonna happen without tons of bribes.

So no, Fort Inevitable isn't such a great base for adventuring after all, at least not for my group. It was a fun place to tear apart though, and it did take the focus off of the dungeon initially. My players aren't that naive, and I don't blame them because I like to run things hardcore and by the old-school spirit.

So in short, it's a fun adventure with a great flip-mat focus, and a little problem with the included home base should you decide to use it as-is.