Thursday, June 5, 2014

Cage Match: D&D Next Dungeon Masters Guide

"You obviously can't expect to win this one, sit-on-your-throne Pathfinder referee! You can't even call yourself a dungeon master since that's our product identity!" The 5E Lich screams. "I am the image of power incarnate! I am the true image of what all fantasy game referees wish to be! It is I who they aspire to become, master of the game, and feared scion of doom for all players!"

"Casting raise dead on your game again?" The Pathfinder GM smirks.

CAGE MATCH: Dungeon Masters Guides begins!

Right of the bat, 5E comes on strong with a beautiful piece of art, great use of negative space, gorgeous color, and a strong composition. The only short falling here is the zombie - it should be better separated from the lich, either through fog or moving it away from the lich. Otherwise it blends in to the shape and it is hard to see. The spell too, should be more dramatic, it looks like raise dead with cigarette smoke. I like the horror tone to this, but I dislike the casting of the DM as a wicked entity. It places the DM in an adversarial position, when I feel it is more of a storyteller role. Of all the D&D Next pieces, I like this one the best, despite the issues mentioned.

Pathfinder's is a bit laid back, with our god-like being sitting on his throne and contemplating the universe. He has power, treasure, a dragon, some cool lamps, and great composition. He's not doing anything though, probably because he's subscribed to an adventure path and he doesn't have to do much work except wait for the next one to come in the mail. It is definitely a different tone with D&D Next it paints an adversarial active referee, while Pathfinder paints a storytelling scheming passive one working behind the scenes. Art-wise, these are both great and almost equal, though the Pathfinder one speaks to my diabolical and scheming ego as dungeon master a little more than the D&D Next cover.

Setting these two against each other, Pathfinder's blue dragon lays into the army of dead raised by the 5E Lich, forked lightning going everywhere. The blue dragon and the lich fight each other to a standstill, the lich raising as fast as the dragon can kill them. The Pathfinder GM could intervene, of course, but since he's painted as a casual observer, chooses not to, and watches to see how things develop.

"Correct." The Pathfinder GM observes. "A good GM doesn't need to lift a finger for players to fear him. They should know better. Besides, I'm the player's friend sometimes, so painting me as a mere monster is counterproductive."

"Well, I'm a monster!" The 4E Dragon DM shouts at the top of his lungs. "I'm a dragon, grr, grr, grr! I watch the heroes on my crystal ball and growl loudly!"

"Since all you do is run monsters for the players," The Pathfinder GM says, "I think that's an accurate portrayal of your role."

The 4E Red Dragon growls and joins in the fight, and it's still a draw with flame and lightning going everywhere, piles of burning undead filling the dank halls. The 5E Lich keeps raising them as fast as they go down.

"What's this, a fight with dragons?" Elminster laughs as he shows up with the damned most beautiful painting of a dragon and mage fight most have ever seen, with color and flame and magic going everywhere. The crew from 2E enter the fight, and all hell breaks loose.

"You're supposed to be a dungeon master!" The 5E Lich hisses. "What are you doing fighting one of your monsters?"

"He's Elminster!" The 4E Dragon snarls. "No dungeon master can deal with him! Seriously, they destroyed his setting several times and banned all high-level NPCs from the game because of him!"

"I have no problem with high level NPCs. I have iconics everywhere and a book full of them around here somewhere." The Pathfinder GM coolly observes. "Seriously, you guys have a problem with that?"

"I signify out of control player power!" Elminster laughs fighting with glee against everything on the board. "I humbly suggest you stop fighting each other and attempt to even deal with me!"

The giant AD&D Efreet Lord stumbles in, chainmail bikini Amazon in his hand. "Yo? Party going on here? Dude, I am so there. Ordering pizza now. Chill all, putting on some Van Halen on the stereo."

"They cut your left hand Amazon off the reissue cover? Seriously?" The Pathfinder GM notices. "I would have put her out there for fun, there's space to even. I mean, I know some great artists that do our covers that would be more than happy to paint her back on there."

"Thanks dude." The AD&D Efreet Lord smiles, smoke wafting in the air around him. "Don't know what I'd do without my babe."

Within moments, Elminster has Pathfinder's Blue Dragon, 5E's Lich, 4E's Red Dragon, and the 2E Fire Dragon all subdued.

"I have won again!" Elminster declares. "The battle is mine! The rest of you, surrender at your leisure."

"Save versus this, bitch." The AD&D Efreet Lord lays a smackdown on Elminster, and the achmage goes down on the mat unconscious, and the three count passes without a twitch. The bell rings and AD&D is declared the winner.

"How, how did you do that?" The 4E Red Dragon blinks, flabbergasted.

The Efreet smiles. "Dude, dungeon masters in my day were OG. We didn't need rules to do anything."

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Cage Match: D&D Next Monster Manual

"I want a rematch!" 4th Edition Orcus says. "Where are those Pathfinder non-product identity wussies? And bring on the 5E beholder and I'll dribble him around the ring like a basketball!"

It's 4E Orcus, and he's demanding a rematch. Who am I to fight with Orcus, Prince of Undeath? Let's have at it!

Orcus owns the middle of the ring in this match, and dares all comers to beat him. He's big, he's bad, he's epic, and he has what appears to be a title belt on. A cover of a monster manual can get no more "in your face" than this, although Orcus went down like a wussie himself in his own module by all reports. Still, he's a great piece of art, with a nice background, bold charge, and glowing skull rod.

Pathfinder's motley crew are first out in the ring and they are roundly beaten by Orcus. The cover is just as cool, but it focuses on the lower-level beasties rather than an end-game godlike being. Stylistically, Pathfinder's crew is more relate-able, and Orcus never does land a blow on those Pathfinder goblins because they are too fast. Really, we can't tell because the goblins keep replacing themselves, running under the mat, hiding under the announcer's table, and setting the turnbuckles on fire.

Pathfinder's naga files a complaint with the referee complaining Orcus has changed too much from his half-goat satyr-type fat man-demon version in AD&D, and wants to know if this is the same Orcus we are talking about, or an impostor. The referee disqualifies Orcus for being an impostor, but is banished to the Plane of Hades.

4E Orcus remains in the ring.

The crowd boos, and the naga sits outside the ring for the whole match, hissing and throwing a fit like her background painted self.

D&D Next's noir beholder shows up, and everybody is wondering, "who cast that lightning bolt?" Voted the cover with the best use of perspective, the beholder rapidly blasts 4E Orcus to no effect, because Orcus' saving throws and base AC are too high to describe. Orcus punts the beholder into the arena's rafters, with several of the Pathfinder goblins hanging tight onto the eye stalks.

The two fleeing heroes try to put up a stand, but again can't hit 4E Orcus because level is added to to-hit in 4E, and even slamming a hammer on Orcus' big toe doesn't even manage to land a blow. The 5E heroes flee again in dramatic fashion, and for the record are the only heroes to appear on a primary monster manual cover. Seriously, we could have done without them, the beholder is frightening enough without having to show us generic adventurers fleeing for their lives. Pathfinder's goblins laugh at the silly hat.

The 3rd Edition Monster Manual is disqualified for not having a cool monster on the cover, though it is a cool cover. The eye on the cover blinks and watches. The announcers remark how much like the Game of Thrones intro this cover looks like.

The eye blinks, and continues to watch.

The crew from the AD&D 2nd Edition Monster Manual step in the ring, and the crowd laughs at the beholder the size of a large beach ball. Even 5E beholder laughs from the rafters. The Minotaur complains he was painted without feet, along with the dragon's missing wings.

4E Orcus lands a blow that makes the 2nd Edition crew explode is a thousand loose-leaf binder pages. The whole version is disqualified for not being a real book, and for cutting off the red dragon's wings when they had the space to paint them.

The motley assortment from AD&D's Monster Manual show up. Pathfinder's goblins ride the centaur and unicorn, and attach the roper to the giant eye on the 3E cover. The goblins laugh as the roper gimbles about. The pixies on the back cover mess with the graphics on the television screen.

The AD&D red dragon complains about how short his neck is painted, and about his succubi wings. Somewhere backstage, Pathfinder's Core Rulebook chicken-like red dragon laughs and downs several buckets of KFC.

The githyanki warrior on the cover of the Fiend Folio shows up and everyone cheers, being the coolest damn thing ever. Even 4E Orcus doesn't know what the heck it is and stays away. Strange Middle Eastern music plays, and githyanki just points at Orcus. It disappears just as mysteriously in a cloud of flame and smoke and the crowd cheers.

4E Orcus stands there confused, asking, "Who was that guy?"

Cthulhu eats 4E Orcus.

Cthulhu reaches up into the rafters and eats 5E beholder.

The AD&D Centaur complains that no monster manual sequel covers should be in the cage match.

Cthulhu eats AD&D Centaur.

AD&D Orcus appears, throws down his scepter, and complains about Cthulhu once having been in the DDG.

Cthulhu eats AD&D Orcus.

Fiend Folio guy appears from nowhere again, points at Cthulhu, and challenges Cthulhu for the title belt.

Cthulhu agrees and the fight is set for the pay-per-view next Sunday.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Cage Match: D&D Next Player's Handbook

Let's check out the D&D Next Player's Handbook's art style and see what that tells us about the game. It isn't as oppressingly black and Noir as the other books in the series, but it still is relatively dark. This one bothers me the most of them all, we have our brave knight down there at lower right doing nothing, and a mage who has to face-jump a giant to get her spell in range. It's a beautiful cover, I'm just having trouble with it from an at the table perspective. I know, we want to be close to the action for the drama, and most RPG action covers fall into this "in your face" artwork style, and Pathfinder and many similar games are no different.

I know, for fun let's pit these covers against each other in a cage match.

The spell casting on the 5th Edition cover feels like a stupid move, sort of a jumping from the top ropes onto his boot thing. Brave and heroic? Possibly, but a kinda silly "I jump up and cast shocking grasp on the frost giant's face" sort of thing that is an invitation to a dungeon master stupid idea character smackdown. It's a last ditch move sort of feel, but one that leaves me cold - there's no way a spell that looks that weak and less awesome is going to work against that giant wall of oil paint. What is she casting, a light spell?

I'm going to have to give this round of the cover battle to Valeros on the Pathfinder cover. He's out in front, sword swinging hard, protecting his sorceress lady friend from the giant chicken-like red dragon there on the cover. Even Seoni's spell, while weak looking and non-awesome as well, is making an effect bigger than her head - it might do something. If you are fighting monsters like these, I rule the only spell that will have an effect is something that fills the other half of the cover with lightning bolts.

While speaking about doing nothing, the wallflower award in this battle goes to 5E's fighter, played by that guy who never speaks up and sits at the game playing with his phone.

Squint your eyes. One is still a cool fight with a dragon. The other is someone putting a light in a giant head's mouth. This round goes to the crew from Golarion for looking cool, holding their ground, use of negative space, and bringing the sex appeal. Even Pathfinder's fonts are sexy and cool, and don't make the mistake of putting a red font on an orange and brown background. Fonts and design go to Pathfinder in this round as well.

The monsters on these covers are equally powerful-looking, but I'm feeling that red dragon could run circles around 5E's frost giant. The frost giant is so large and has so many hit points he will never die to any of the dragon's attacks, of course, because he has something like 1,500 hit points and I'm not sitting here while you halflings wail out multiple 1d4+2 dagger attacks and I'll be rolling about fifty of those pyramid-shaped little bastards tonight. My verdict, the dragon chews on the frost giant's head for a couple hours, while the frost giant can never get a hold on the red dragon because it is covered by chicken grease. Draw.

The 4th Edition heroes enter the ring, pose, and spend half the fight missing their combat rolls. Who ever thought whiffing on your daily power would be so fun? At least our dragonborn fighter there looks like the Predator, and that gets us style points. Our female mage continues the "hot hand" trend of all three books, and I'm wondering if there is some rule saying female mages only left-handed cast. Still, her spell looks the weakest of the three, and I'm wondering if it isn't some sort of summon citrus spell.

There's no monster on the cover either, because we are still stuck in character generation with the guy who refuses to use Character Builder and wants to flip through the books. The 4E heroes spend the night wailing on the frost giant, use up all their healing surges, and the fight drags on for hours. Verdict? The fight ends and they are still wailing away and doing 5-foot shifts after everyone has left the arena. The guy who spun up his character by hand shows up the next day and calls the dungeon master asking where everyone is and if the game is happening today.

The Player's Handbook 3.5 Edition guys show up, and wait, no, there are no characters on the cover. Still, of them all this is very original and cool, and has that Greyhawk phonebook look to it. We need to disqualify 3rd Edition in this fight for not "bringing it" and also due to the fact that everybody who plays this has moved onto Pathfinder anyways. A cool cover still, but ineligible to participate in the cage match.

A mounted 2nd Edition jumps through the ring on his horse, and everyone wonders how many times mounted combat was really used in a dungeon game. He's revised, easy to reference, free from objectionable content, but the frost giant clotheslines him off his horse. While this doesn't faze our brave fighter, it does pop his ring-bound monster manual open and papers go flying everywhere. Of all the covers, this is the one the crowd roots for since it is the most heroic and family friendly, but he goes down in a mess of late-game rules expansions that unbalance the game. He does, finally, get that hardcover Monster Manual he was wishing for, and the crowd cheers as he falls to the mat unconscious with a smile on his face.

Elminster, still left-hand casting, shows up from a special AD&D cover, and promptly tries to wish everyone dead. Only the 5th Edition fighter fails, but nobody notices or cares. Pathfinder's dragon grabs Elminster's beard and flails the mage around the ring like a pinata. Everyone rejoices when Elminster's contingency spell auto-casts and sends him back to Shadowdale to go solve somebody else's adventure for them. The imps on the cover are splattered like mosquitoes by 5th Edition's frost giant. A ring-out for old Elms, and the original crew of AD&D shows up to save the day.

Hark, is that our band of 1st Edition AD&D heroes entering the ring? No, that's them sitting on the outside of the ring meticulously planning their entrance. The two guys on the statue, who are only good for climbing and picking pockets anyways, manage to pry the frost giant's right eye out. The two with the map spend the night searching the ring for traps, and the guy cleaning his sword - obviously a roleplayer because you don't need to clean swords in this version of the game - spends the match endlessly trying to hook up with Pathfinder's female iconic sorceress.

The victor? Pathfinder's player characters win this one on style alone. D&D Next makes a strong showing and comes in second, only for it's now one-eyed frost giant. Everywhere else, it's a draw, massive beat down, or disqualification.

Elminster later shows up and uses another wish spell to win the match.

Monday, June 2, 2014

D&D Next's Monsters versus Pathfinder's

It's kind of horrific, in a way. Here we are with the cover of the D&D Next Monster Manual, and wow, the heavy use of black continues. Are you sure we're not playing World of Darkness here?

Let's talk monsters and from what we see, how these covers tell the story of them in the D&D Next game. For comparison, we'll bring in the other 600-page gorilla into the room and check out the Pathfinder bestiaries as well. We have lightning, gleaming blades out of horror movies, an iconic monster proudly displayed (nice job), and someone fleeing for their life there in horror.

Every inch of this cover is filled with something, it's typical of the "busy" covers of Pathfinder and also comic books. I feel sorry for artists that like the use of negative space or even blank space. The Pathfinder covers typically use a method of foreground (bold elements), middle ground (faded), and background (highly faded), which looks something like the following image. With the three-layer approach, you still get definite large shapes to piece together into images. Most all the D&D Next books are exclusively foreground heavy images (DMG is an exception, but it is still foreground heavy). It's an interesting choice stylistically, heavy black with busy flattened images almost like black shapes from a Noir film.

The tone and message feels different too. In Pathfinder, it looks to be saying a "these are creatures that want to kick your butt" sort of thing. In D&D Next, it says "you will be running for your lives". I hope the game lives up to this and we get generally scary and tough creatures. In 4th Edition, a lot of the creatures felt like chess-game pieces rather than actually frightening beasts and true "monsters". You know, to be a monster, you kind of have to live up to that word. Pathfinder's look scary too, although it is more of a comic-book scary rather than something out of a horror movie. They both have that "imposing" thing going on, with Pathfinder winning on brutality and D&D Next winning on horror.

Yes, I brought up 4th Edition, and here we have WWE Orcus on the cover. It's sad 4th Edition could never get monsters "right" they had to be revised something like three times during the game's history (MM1, revised some in MM2 and 3, and completely redone in the Essentials books). It's a problem of making these things so stat and ability-card heavy. If they play like "magic cards" people are going to find cheats and rules exploits, and it will be hard to ever balance them or get them working or feeling right. Overall, they felt like "magic cards" and not "monsters" to me, and you would sit there wondering why an unmovable 20th level plant creature would have a reflex saving throw so high he would dodge any incoming attack.

It can't move for crying out loud, how did it dodge my attack?

How do I like my monsters? Well, DarkgarX likes his to be tactically challenging, and actually prefers the 4th Edition "playing piece" monsters. He would say "it plays like a game, and it is fun" and leave it at that. In Pathfinder and most editions of D&D, monsters are kinda what they are, some are horribly unbalanced (but have weaknesses), and they fight as hard as their often lengthy stat blocks let them. It takes a lot of time and experience setting up enocouters in other versions of D&D to get them to be a "good fight" but sometimes you really don't want a "good fight".

I still like the 10 Hit Die dragon sleeping in the middle of the room with the band of 1st level characters sneaking around it to steal its treasure. If that dragon wakes up, they'll be running for their lives, and also having the time of their lives as well. It's the "sheer terror" thing the D&D Next cover hints at, and I appreciate that. If it doesn't play out that way in the game, and we are concerned about things like "encounter balance" and "adventure fairness" it will quickly melt away. 4th Edition felt that way, every encounter was a chess match, and they for the most part were meant to be beaten.

I like the scary and horrible old-school monsters, with a nod towards D&D3 and Pathfinder's. I do not like "encounter balance" for the most part, the scenarios and adventures I write are realistic, and it's up to the players to figure out how they want to tackle them. Are they strong enough to fight? Do they avoid fighting them? Is there a way to divide and conquer? Is there magic available that gives us an edge? Monsters are the core of a "difficult problem" that the characters need to figure out how to solve given limited resources - just like any other trick, trap, or challenge in a dungeon or adventure setting.

It remains to be seen what path D&D Next take, and how the art and imagery "sell" the experience versus how it actually comes out on the table.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Dungeon Mastering in D&D Next

This guy is the lich from the old Tomb of Horrors module, the big bad of that dungeon re-imagined in sort of a movie-like glow. This is also the cover of the Dungeon Master's guide of D&D Next, and this book is painfully coming out in November. I know, it's a long time to wait to have a DMG, and I dislike the staged releases here:

Starter Set = June 15
Player's Handbook = August 19
Monster Manual = September 30
DMG = November 18

Wow, that's a long time to wait. There's supposed to be a free PDF coming out covering play from levels 1-20, but you know, if I'm investing in the core books because I want to play, it's hard to wait until the near beginning of December to have a complete set. I suppose it's being done to create a six-month long buzz for the game, but dammit, if I'm mentally buying in, I want the complete set now.

That guy the lich is casting raise dead on there on the cover? Yeah, he died while waiting for this book to be released.

Enough about sales strategy, and it's going to be tough waiting until December to have a complete picture of this version of the game. Still, what does this cover tell us? That dungeon masters are akin to menacing lich kings who hurl death and terror at the players? Make no mistake, this cover art is about two concepts, control and fear. Raise dead implies servitude and control, and the art style is straight out of a horror movie.

Contrast this with Paizo's Gamemastery Guide, to the right. The art here says a lot of things too about the role of the referee. This guy is a cold, calculating bastard, with enough magic, treasure, and firepower to back his decisions up. He has a blue dragon at his command, and he sits there, plotting, scheming, and considering the player's fate.

Both of them are in the vein of "hostile to players" and they play to the GM fantasy of total control, power over lives, and absolute jurisdiction. There is a difference though, in Pathfinder this guy looks like a god, and he has a near invincible air to him. He doesn't even have to get up to lay the smack down on your party, a blink of his eye and you would be all utterly destroyed, no saving throw. It's a broad interpretation, but hey, most of the other Pathfinder cover art has heroes in battle scenes with a chance of pulling it out - this one is different for a reason. There's not going to be a battle, he's that powerful.

In the D&D Next, this is a big boss of a module, and he was defeated many times. He took a lot of character lives over the centuries, of course, but there is the possibility of defeating him, no matter how menacing he looks. He was a monster statted out in the Tomb of Horrors (and yes, this is likely the fake boss of that dungeon, the real one was hidden away in some wall near that room inside a gem). Still, no matter how powerful the boss on the DMG looks, the message is clear, he can be defeated.

I suppose it gives the player's hope, but in both cases I dislike the concept of the adversarial relationship. In Pathfinder, this is more of an omniscient god thing, so it isn't overtly hostile and innately adversarial. In D&D Next, it paints the dungeon master as a boss monster to be defeated. I'm probably sitting here and reading a lot into this, but hey, tone and presentation matter. If Disney marketed the Avengers as some sort of buddy comedy movie, you can be sure people's perceptions of it would be different today.

Personally? I like the dungeon master as storyteller role. I'm not sure either speak to this concept, possibly Pathfinder's a bit more since is speaks to my contemplative side better. It is overly manipulative in a "mob boss" style of way, but I'll take the thoughtful and constructive role of game master over an adversarial one.

I'm supposing these covers speak to the target markets of the game as well. The D&D Next one looks cool, and it speaks to the theme of "Hey, want to be a cool and powerful tyrant that terrorizes your friends in a cool game?" It says "you play the boss monsters" and it speaks to that fantasy well. It also speaks to terror and horror, which I hope are elements added to the game. I long for the time that dungeons were supposed to be scary places, full of tricks and traps, with death around every corner. So there is a theme here I appreciate being brought back with the D&D Next DMG.

There was a shift in 4th Edition where a dungeon became a series of tactical battles to master. Every dungeon was a series of chess games to play out, and there was a clear chance for you to beat them all. It was more a tactical minigame than a roleplaying game. Back in AD&D, the focus was different, dungeons were hell-holes, and you actively sought to minimize the time you spent in them to get to the goal or treasure, loot and scoot, and get the hell out. In AD&D, battles drained your party's resources, and every battle skipped was a battle won.

Yes, you used cheese-ball tactics to skip fights, because the alternative (fighting) was often the worst outcome, and one that used up the most resources. Please put aside the lame and unheroic "15 minute adventuring day" that developed during 3rd Edition D&D, where a party would fight a single encounter, and then head back to town to rest up 100%. It's an urban legend about D&D I suspect is more from video games than actual play; but whatever, if my players pulled crap like that with me, I'd put a worse encounter back in the room they just cleared the day before and tell them, "Those critters in the dungeon aren't stupid, you know."

And if they did the "back to town" too many times, the big baddie of the dungeon would wise up and pull out - mission failed. Or destroy the town when the heroes make the next dungeon run. Seriously? These aren't video game monsters you're fighting, and I'm not a computer here to just run the combats in the module, people.

To be fair, Pathfinder has it's share of cheese-ball tactics, and this continues the spirit of the original game. If played right, the resource game and "dungeons are hell holes" idea is alive and well in Pathfinder, and it's not all min-max character builds versus perfectly tuned CR encounters as people would have you believe.
DarkgarX differs from me on this, he does not like the cheese-ball tactics, and actually prefers the "tactical game" presented in 4th Edition. In a way, he feels the direct cheese in 3rd Edition invalidates the game's tactical elements. I feel differently, those "cheese" elements (sleep, teleport, passwall, ESP, etc) are part of the resource game and therefore valid. If you run 3rd Edition/Pathfinder with some sensible limits and imagination, you can have a great time. I may write a book outlining how I play someday and share that.
I hope there that focus on terror and problem solving is present here in D&D Next, I like that aspect of the game, and it gives players a real sense of accomplishment to beat the impossible situations I throw them in. Like that cold, calculating bastard on the front of the Pathfinder book, even if the players manage to beat my devious deathtrap that I carefully planned out for them, a little smile curls up from the edge of my mouth, however imperceptible, at the clever way the party managed to avoid certain doom.

And then I go back to designing the next challenge, which will almost certainly destroy them this time....