Saturday, May 31, 2014

What Do I Want from D&D Next?

It's always a question you ask when a new edition comes out, "What do I want from this game?"

For me, one of the obvious answers is "a community", as discussed earlier. For me, this is the number one thing, will there be a cool community of creative people who like to tell stories, create worlds, and share tales of adventure with? Will there be creative people allowed to play in the sandbox and share their ideas with the community as well?

Admittedly, I am a writer and a game designer myself, so I admit creative bias here. If a publisher creates a platform, I expect to be able to take part in that, and others to have that freedom as well. D&D 3.0 set the bar here, and I feel there's no going back to a closed model again.

That aside, why do I need a new game, especially a version that replaces my shelf-and-a-half of 4th Edition books? Kudos to Wizards for making the right decision to continue supporting all editions so I don't feel forced to, but part of 4th Ed's problem was needing a character builder, and that is now still a subscriber benefit for D&D Insider subscribers. How long will the 4th Edition character builder be supported? It gets tricky when part of the game is a piece of software, and I have never seen a piece of software that was supported for more than a couple years at best. Time will tell, and 4th Edition will likely devolve into an errata-free or limited play style only supported by "what's in the books."

I liked the original 4th Edition enough I can't see that as a bad thing.

Still, what does 5th Edition have to offer? A return to the classic feel, at least that is the vibe I am getting. I also see some 'cute' mechanics like the 2d20 throws instead of modifiers and advantage dice. They are cute because I have seen these before in other games, and while novel, some of these mechanics don't stand the test of time when the novelty wears off. It's like the old color-coded charts from the old Marvel Superheroes game and how those were novel back then, and today they seem oddly strange and clunky. We will see, and I trust the designers have thought about these things, so it's fair to give them a chance and see what happens.

Yes, I am still a bit skeptical, because what a new edition needs is a reason to replace the old one. My old car is fine, why do I need a new one! It's that type of feeling, and I hear the game is streamlined and simplified, so that should be a good thing.

It's also back to classic settings with Faerun and the Forgotten Realms. Honestly, I can't see why they chose Greyhawk for 3rd Edition, the Realms is a huge license, with the cultural familiarity to hold up an entire brand. They took on a lot of animosity with the 4th Edition Realms 'destroying everything' approach, and I feel it is still overdue for a Batman-style reboot with new writers and plots for our beloved characters. While I like classic Greyhawk, sidelining the classic Realms as your premiere setting for two editions feels like a huge mistake over the last 15 years.

Be brave and reboot this property in my lifetime, please! Then we can forget about all this post-spellplague and 2nd Edition induced god-shuffle madness and get back to the original gritty, almost Warhammer-y world. Remember that? That one says "for the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons game" on the cover. The one where there weren't any god characters walking around and supposedly solving everyone's problems? I never believed in this urban legend about the Realms anyways, because I didn't run the world that way, nor did I know any who did.

But yes, the Realms started back in AD&D as well. How soon we forget this unexplored little world and it's mysteries.

I can't help but look back at the subtle covers of the old TSR material, and then look at today's 'action movie' covers of unbelievably posed and "in the middle of battle" scenes. They appeal to a different audience I suppose, and they have a different feel to me. When D&D Next holds up the past and says they are returning to that, it is not the past I remember. I suppose that is the problem of a new edition and using the past to sell things.

It is also a problem a reboot solves. Coloring the things we are used to with a new set of glasses is one thing. Saying "we are rebooting everything" makes a change like this a little more acceptable, at least to me. It's like the new Star Trek reboot; they acknowledge the reboot, and we want to see what they do with it. It's harder to do a retrofit and retcon to continue the story, especially if the story has devolved into a mess. Sooner or later, it's time to turn your world into a comic-book like franchise, and evergreen it every once and a while. Classic characters and worlds should never die.

I suppose I didn't answer the question I asked about what I want from 5th Edition, but I feel the answer is in there somewhere.

Friday, May 30, 2014

D&D Starter Set

Well, I went ahead and pre-ordered the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set from Amazon today, and that will be coming in about two weeks. I'm guessing this won't be too fundamentally different than the play-test packets, though it will be the "official" release with all the nuts and bolts in place.

Personally, I'm more interested in what they are doing with the D&D universe for the most part. Will this be a reboot? Will we jump ahead in time another 50-100 years? I have no idea, but personally I'd love a reboot along the lines of what Hollywood is doing with remakes.

That cover is so dark. Look at the amount of black used, and it is markedly different than most of what we saw in the 4th Edition (comic book-ish), and 3rd Edition (tomes of power). This is dark, it is black, and it feels a lot less heroic than 4th Edition. That hero, he is nearly a wad of black paint. It's almost Noir. This is a major style change, and I wonder if it reflected in the rules and world designs coming up.

Still, there is a lot of contrast in the cover, as there are pure white areas, and I wonder if that "good versus evil" or "black versus white" feeling is present in the worlds and rules too. Seriously, it looks like a fantasy painting in Photoshop with the contrast filter turned up to eleven. I'm wondering if this isn't another subtle style hint in the cover that we will see in the game.

It's an interesting cover, and also markedly different than the Pathfinder style of fantasy artwork we're used to. It feels less heroic, more dangerous, less four-color comic book, and darker themed. Is this just cover art and a theme not reflected in the game, or do they carry through the cover's philosophy to the design?

We'll see in two weeks.

You're Selling a Community

Roleplaying game launches, and heck, even video game launches and television share one thing in common - you are paying to be in a community. It's the same sort of thinking that goes into "water cooler shows" on TV and HBO on Sunday nights, if you want to be a part of the "in" crowd on Monday morning, you need to pay for HBO and have watched last night's show. In that case, you are paying to be part of the community of viewers, and that gives you membership and the right to be a fan, voice an opinion, or be just as shocked as everyone else when the show kills off another major character or throws a major plot twist down.

Same thing with Pathfinder and D&D Next - you buy the game not for the game, but to be a part of the community. You log on the forums, find games at hobby stores, talk with other players about the rules, get excited with everyone else about the next book, and grow your personal identity within a community of players and DMs. Some people collect the books and that's great, but the heavy users are the ones involved with the community, participate in games, and vocalize their thoughts online.

It's the "network effect" in full play here, as laid out by the D&D 3.0 designers. D&D Next has tried to kickstart the "network effect" by doing a long play test session before launch. Pathfinder owns D&D 3.0's network, and has built its own powerhouse of players and community, so they have a huge head start. Pathfinder also has a huge "buy in" from existing players, the more books you own and tighter you are tied to one community, the harder it is to jump ship to another. There are always exceptions, and those looking to make a name for themselves in a new community, so naturally there is an attraction to switching. There is also system fatigue and the "new game" effect, and that is also a draw away from an established community.

This is really never 100% about the games, the games prove themselves and stand and fall on their own merits. If it's popular, the community builds. If there's strife and turbulence (D&D 4.0 in the later days), the community looks for alternatives. How successful a game is can be thought of as the multiplier for shifts in the movement of players to a particular community. Like a sandwich shop, you're either net growing in customers or net losing them. Each sandwich you put out, how clean the shop is, how your employees treat customers - those are the 'rules' of the game, and they influence if someone is coming back.

But really, you're selling a community, and when I buy a game, that's what I look for. Even single-player games on Steam have a community, and it's always fun to participate in them. Like an old TV show, I can go back and play a game without an active community and enjoy it, but it's always fun to be a part of the "in" crowd and talk about what you love with others.

A community isn't just players, it's people that make stuff for your game as well. D&D 3.0 shared the wealth and owned the market with the OGL, and it still does to this day through Pathfinder. Again, it's the "network effect" coming into play, the more people making stuff for your game, the more popular it is going to be. If the shelves are full of your game and third-party support, what are people going to check out? It worked with D&D 3.0, it works with video games, operating systems, and it's still working today.

Whatever the model D&D Next uses, I hope it is community focused. This has to be a 100% commitment across websites, fan sites, hobby stores, demo games, downloadable materials, online tools, support of the Youtube streaming video personalities, and even third-party support. You're not really building just the rules, that's the easy part, you are building a community.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

7 Days to Die (alpha) server Live

SBRPG's 7 Days to Die (alpha) game server is live, and we are currently playing around in this fascinating open-world zombie sandbox survival crafting game. We will have more details later, and we may open this one up to the public to come adventure with us. It is a great game, like Minecraft, but very difficult and highly enjoyable - check it out!

Pathfinder vs. D&D Next

With the new edition of D&D coming out, I have a couple thoughts.

I wish D&D well, and I want them to succeed. I also wish Pathfinder a long and successful existence, and it is well on its way there. There is also a lot of noise about "D&D Next vs. Pathfinder!", and that's the silly stuff to be expected. I don't want to talk about any of that, what I want to explore is why I would want to play D&D Next and Pathfinder.

For me, it comes down to the IP, and I think that's what Wizards understands. This is the stuff Wizards calls "Product Identity" and this is all the non-OGL stuff like copyrighted monsters, the worlds, the gods, and the unique bits that only something from a licensed D&D can provide. Pathfinder has IP and Product Identity too with their world, adventure paths, monsters and other bits they keep out of the OGL play close to their chest.

It is very analogous to Disney buying Marvel, and they are doing a good job at shepherding the copyrighted superheroes and stories of the Marvel line in their movies. If Wizards does a good job presenting stories and worlds leveraging their IP, then great, color me interested.

Both games have all the OGL stuff, so that really isn't a factor in me deciding.

Both games have different levels of simplicity and complexity, and that is a choice of personal preference rather than "which is better?" Which is better is always a question for YOU, not everybody else, and I think this is where flame wars start. D&D Next is streamlined and simplified, Pathfinder has rich complex builds, and both are great reasons to play.

I like the Pathfinder philosophy of continuing the open and free market of ideas that the OGL and D&D 3.0 started. It allows me to buy non-Paizo world books, adventures, and rules expansions. I did not like D&D 4's GSL and I hope that does not continue. A "free to play" model I've heard of for Next is a step in the right direction, and I hope other companies are "free to play" in the D&D Next market.

It really comes down to entertainment. What is being presented and showcased is the Wizard's IP. Any negative factor is a distraction, like 4E's locked-in character builders, pay-to-access websites, GSL, constant rules errata, and changing nature of the game. The original IP in 4E was entertaining, and it still is in 5E. Those distractions in 4E made them harder to enjoy, like a stuttering film in the projector showing that Avengers movie. I hope they get these things in 5E, and it's fair to have an open mind and give them a chance.

Pathfinder's team comes from industry veterans, and they consciously try to limit the distractions between you and your game. It doesn't make them better, it makes them an example to live up to (in my feelings). I like this philosophy, they keep their world focused, they let others play in their market, and they do not make silly mistakes like pushing 'system lock in' or 'vendor exclusivity' or other silliness. They compete on consistency, quality, and entertainment value and do a damn good job. Kudos to them, and I hope they stay focused and continue.

But again, it's the Wizard's IP that matters. If they craft a compelling world with that IP, you can't get that anywhere else. If they water it down, lose focus, or start introducing silly stuff it loses its power and draw upon me. Think about World of Warcraft nowadays, if you go there expecting the classic "Orcs vs. Humans" Warcraft experience, you will be sorely disappointed with pandas, goblins, werewolves, and whatever running around and muddling things up. I want that classic D&D IP experience, and that is their strongest card to play.

The point comes up, do you need the Wizard's IP at all to have fun? You don't, and Pathfinder proves that in spades. This again is another personal choice, Marvel vs. DC - both superheroes, you can like either or both. But no, you don't need Faerun or a mind flayer to have fun. What matters is how the Wizards team treats the IP, presents it, and crafts a compelling experience to entertain the players. IP only matters as a vehicle and a "language" to the audience to deliver the entertainment experience.

To me, rules ultimately do not matter, they are just presentation and a personal choice. Distractions from any source make a big impact in enjoyment. Enjoyment also depends on personal preferences, some people like simplicity, others detail - action movies versus drama, both are great and enjoyable genres. New does not mean better or fun, new means a "fresh start".

But in the end, for me, entertainment is what matters most.