Wednesday, February 25, 2015


I am in a process of simplifying the number of games I play, and the amount of books I want to play with. Going back in the box are games we never play, and on our shelves will be only the basics.

I mean "just the books you need to play" and nothing more.

Pathfinder is now just the main book and the Bestiary 1, and possibly the Gamemastery Guide. D&D 4 is just the first three books. D&D 5 is just the first three as well. D&D 3.5 is that nice foil-covered collector's set.

Legend is up on the shelf because we like the game, but my PDF printouts are seeing more use than the main book so go figure. Our World of Darkness collection is up there too in its madness and glory, along with Exalted.

The rest of the books? Away from the core books and in another room, but on a shelf in case we need them. I don't want them out, I don't want them creating a wall of "play me" and intimidating us with their weight and presence.

Games have gotten way to fat nowadays, super-sized and written primarily for the collector's market. Who plays these things anyways? Even with the basic three books, many of the big-name fantasy games are pushing 1,000 pages of rules and content, and you wonder where that simple game went, the one we started this hobby with.

Game designers love to hear themselves talk, I guess.

But seriously, simplification is a good thing. Without a ton of books weighing you down, you are free to improvise and use your imagination. That's the point of this hobby, to make stuff up and have fun, no matter what game you play.

I like to collect, but I would never play with my collection - even just a single game. I like simple games, ones where we make up what happens next, and we don't have to navigate down a path of rules, treasure, or options to find something 'legal' and 'by the rules' to add to the night's festivities.

This is why Legend is so interesting for us right now. It is sort of a Traveller take on fantasy, and there isn't much in there. We are free to make most of the stuff up, and we are having a blast. With an active imagination, it is a great little game, and open for many possibilities. I don't want to sort through a thousand pages of monsters, spells, and magic items just to provide a sea of meaningless options to a game we have an idea for and want to keep it focused.

It is pretty hard to focus a D&D game on a single topic, say pirates, because there is so much stuff in the game that says "not pirates" to us. When the Drow crawl out of a cave, wizards start using teleport to skip ahead to the next port, and someone pulls out a flying carpet the players who want the focused pirates-on-the-seven-seas-experience are sitting there saying, "well...yar, I guess." Yes you can focus the game, but then you get into a game of "yes or no" on 95% of the content in the books.

So simplify.

Put away books you bought only to collect.

Focus your fun on the things that you enjoy.

You may find yourself a little happier and actually playing those games on your shelf.

Friday, February 13, 2015

D&D 5: A Cultural Icon?

From yesterday:

Why one of D&D's biggest video game devs thinks that tabletop game has lost its way

I read this, and it is an interesting read. My first thought, of course he wants to push Pathfinder, he's making a game with Paizo. That's not a surprise. But he is connected to the D&D community, the creators there, and he has a long history with the brand.

He wonders if D&D can survive in such a big corporate structure. Now, Disney is also pretty huge, but they also own other huge things and they are good at running big things, like Marvel, Pixar, the Muppets, and now Star Wars. Big companies can run big things. But can they run small things? Or do these small things need to become big?

He wonders if D&D will never be as big as an evergreen and always profitable Monopoly, and thinks if the game was run by a smaller, TSR-like entity things would be better. Part of me wonders if this isn't some frustration over the electronic gaming for the brand (which has always been locked up in one way of another), but I do feel there is a genuine feeling of concern here.

Monopoly is a different game than D&D. It's more a collection of ideas under a common theme. You can argue it is more marketing and a pop-culture phenomenon than it is a game. It's like Pokemon in a way, Pokemon can be a lot of things, and it is a product that can be turned into a million different products since it is a strong brand with identifiable pop-culture icons. Same thing with Monopoly, the Monopoly guy, the car, the board, the look, the colors, the way it's played, the shoe, chance cards, and the dog. All those pieces can be reshuffled and remixed into a billion Monopoly products.


Now D&D.

What is it? If you strike out all the things that are not in the public domain or SRD (and thus in Pathfinder), it is the unique collection of sort-of copyrightable product identity. Beholders. Mind flayers. Owlbears. Drow. And basically anything unique to the game that can't appear anywhere else, such as the game worlds and other trademarked pieces. I don't feel those are a unique and identifiable set of cultural icons, they are just funny-shaped monsters and a couple worlds that once dominated the NYT fiction charts.

I don't feel the 'product identity' pieces of D&D will ever achieve cultural icon status. Pathfinder didn't need them, and it is hard to get excited about a monster you are supposed to hate. A beholder is no Pikachu. D&D's problem is that the 'cultural icons' are the player characters, each one is player created, unique, and it is hard to market an icon that every player creates a unique instance of. If you were playing Elminster or Ash Ketchum, fine, but D&D for every player is a unique player character.

And these player characters exist in every roleplaying game, Pathfinder, GURPS, Legend, Traveller, and so on.

D&D is not every fantasy adventure. It tries to be because it is so generic and malleable, but the same experience exists in a million other games. It exists in World of Warcraft. It exists in Game of Thrones. Assassins Creed. Any dungeon crawling game on Steam. Any Final Fantasy. You can get that D&D experience anywhere, because fantasy roleplaying is not defined by having a beholder and drows or any other piece of product identity attacking the player characters.

Those are just monsters, and they can be any monster in any world, because it doesn't matter anymore. People don't care that the creature in the next room is an 'official' D&D brand displacer beast. Again, Pathfinder proved you can create a whole new mythos to replace D&D's and people will accept it and be excited by it. They are just monsters, they are infinitely replaceable by a new shape with a scowl, fangs and horns.

The worlds are something else. Those are fiction. Those are stories. To me, they feel like a complete mess since 4th Edition, and their futures are unclear, except as being legacy supported settings with little real future support. They need a reboot badly. They need their timelines wiped out. They need a creative team to recreate them for this generation. Like Batman, they need to become cultural properties of their own, and reset from time to time to keep them relevant and fresh.

The worlds and unique NPC characters are likely the best path out of this quandary, but those exist often as a force hostile to player characters. Nobody wants powerful GM-NPCs competing with their player characters. Nobody wants railroad-like modules that force a story on a party.

Roleplaying and D&D is like a box of art supplies. You create what you want to create with it, and one crayon is as replacable than the next. It doesn't matter to your picture if your red crayon came from a box of non-Crayola brand colors. It's a crayon. You roleplay. In a fantasy world. With a set of rules. Specifics do not matter. It's a hobby.

To some, it matters that they are all Crayola crayons. Fine, if that is how you want to color your picture, it's cool. If you want to play D&D and your group enjoys the experience, very cool and more power to you. It is a good game and enjoy it. But for the huge population of players enjoying fantasy gaming and roleplaying, it is a larger community with many diverse options where everything can be played and enjoyed. As a company trying to make something in this environment "big" like Monopoly "big", I don't see how you do it since everything is so replaceable and individual-player creator-focused.

Maybe D&D has lost its way, or maybe it is still relevant and on the path, but in another way. It inspired a million other games and worlds, and on this fertile ground a garden of options and opportunities grew. As a large cultural phenomenon I can get excited about, like a Star Wars?

No. I don't feel it.

As an interesting set of rules that gives me a new option to play with others? I can handle that, along with all the other games I enjoy. "Monopoly big" really doesn't matter to me.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

D&D 5: Thoughts by Feargus Urquhart on the Game

Check out this story over on Polygon about D&D 5, it is a good one by Brian Crecente interviewing Feargus Urquhart:

Why one of D&D's biggest video game devs thinks that tabletop game has lost its way

Great stuff to think about, and it is an interesting take.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

D&D 5: The Past Ain't Really Better

One small thing that bothers me about how D&D 5 is being sold is the over reliance on nostalgia. Yes, I like old-school gaming. But there is a nostalgia that dungeons such as the venerable Tomb of Horrors or the Temple of Elemental Evil were somehow great dungeons that stand up to the test of time. I also like the classic settings like Grayhawk and Faerun, but another part of me feels these settings just don't hold up very well today. Do they have any cultural impact or relevance today? Are they places that speak to today's fantasy stories, or just yesterday's?

It is the danger of nostalgia. We have strong feelings about it, since this is what we grew up with. Of course the Tomb of Horrors is great, because it was great. Right? Does it speak to anyone today? Is it something the thousandth play through is as exciting as Skyrim or Minecraft is to today's game players?

I will take Skyrim and Minecraft over a deathtrap dungeon that has seen its better days in older versions of the game. The new games speak to me. They provide new challenges, force me to look at the world in different ways, and in the case of Minecraft, give me unbounded shared creativity with others. They are relevant, and they are the canvases where stories that mean things to people are told today.

Now yes, you make your own stories with D&D 5. You don't have to use the old settings and modules, and that is great. There was also a classic sense of 'role balance' in the older versions of the game that is brought up-to-date in the current edition. There is a lot of good stuff and great ideas there, and the new creative team tried to update that while still keeping a sense of creative continuity in the game's feeling. It's good, and a nod to the popularity of the OGR games that kept the faith and the original spirit of D&D alive.

So why am I restless? I guess because I want something that speaks to me. I want a new campaign setting like Planescape that shakes up how I think of D&D, and the stories I can tell with it. I want a creative team that challenges my preconceived notion of D&D being a game that is the best way to re-play nostalgia like a classic 80's arcade game collection, to something that speaks to me as a fantasy gamer today.

There's a line in the new DMG that says Game of Thrones is an inspiration, but to me, the world of Westeros isn't D&D. It just doesn't feel like it, not in this version which feels more like Pathfinder light and a greatest hits of D&D 1-4 to me - and both of those are good things, mind you. But Game of Thrones isn't everything I think a new D&D could be. It is so much more.

I feel that D&D 5 is a good game without a great setting. It is missing something, a sense of place and adventure unique to the rules and built by a creative team that challenges our assumptions of what D&D can be, and what it can mean to us.

Take a look at computer games. There was sandbox gaming and fantasy roleplaying before Minecraft and Skyrim, and sandbox and fantasy roleplaying after those games. They made such a huge impact they changed their genres forever, everything before and after will be compared to them. This is cultural impact. This is what I want in a fantasy setting.

I feel it isn't enough to redefine the past with a new set of rules and a new coat of paint on classic modules and settings. I want a game and setting that defines the future and how we speak about fantasy gaming for years to come.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Legend: Play Test Report #2

I love the random tables in this game. It harkens back to an age where roleplaying games were sort of trippy, "what happens next" sort of shared storytelling activities. We were playing around withe the excellent Pirates of Legend supplement and had a unique and entertaining ship journey full of strange encounters with other boats, storms at sea, meetings with rowboats filled with cheap wine, and fun little "the tables did what?" moments that gave us a great time.

Who cares that it didn't make much sense? It was fun.

The book actually tells you to ignore the charts if they ruined your game or didn't make much sense. This gave me the opportunity (like a great game master) to ignore the advice the book gives you and just run with it. If it didn't make sense, all the better. Our game world is now  full of strange little encounters on the open sea, meetings with ships that could possibly be pirates, and other nationalities sailing about and a sense of "what could happen next?" when the players take a trip by ship to anywhere. It was quirky and silly and my players loved it.

The game-mastering section for this game is short and almost inconsequential. This game really needs a better game master guide. It is so short I wonder why it was even put in, I feel this is one of those "if you can't do it correctly, don't do it" type of things.  The game is unique in that it should focus on community, family, and social bonds (and in some way for us it does), but the short section at the end of the book isn't long or detailed enough to drive that point home and show us how it should be played.

We are having more fun with Legend as a "Traveller random chart fantasy adventure" type of game honestly. Contrast this with most adventure modules written for D&D 5 or Pathfinder. They are heavily story-based and expect you to 'play along' with the adventure writer's vision. You get into issues like player motivation, interest in finishing it, and railroading with strict story-based adventures.

With the game run by random event charts, the world feels like a sandbox. My players are motivated enough to find their own way through the world, and they are already taking sides, aligning themselves with factions, making allies and enemies, and planning for the future. With the lack of a story, my players are creating one themselves. Yes, I have great players, but this also highlights that giving players a little freedom lets them do the things that interest them.

If they want to go off and be pirates, go ahead. If they want to go off and hunt pirates, that's fine by me too. Get in good graces with the island governors on the British, Spanish, French, or other sides? You go guys, run with it. I don't have a story to run on you, and you are free to explore this strange and wonderful world as far as your sails will take you.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Legend: Play Test Report #1

We had some fun with the Legend system over the weekend, and I wanted to share our experiences.

The combat system is fun to play and run, it has this 'medieval armor simulation' thing going on, and it also allows for way more player involvement than your standard D&D or Pathfinder combat. It does feel like combat is very old-school with hit locations and sectional hit points, but we were amazed at the constant choices the game gave you when it came to offensive and defensive special moves.

Players had choice in how they wanted a blow to land, or what special way they wanted to put an enemy at a disadvantage. Enemies had this choice as well, which makes the game very deadly and tactical. It all depends on skill and being able to get a roll good enough to start pushing the combat the way you wanted it to go, with the possibility out there of a lucky hit sending your entire plan into the garbage bin.

My players preferred it instantly to D&D and Pathfinder's combat system, and had a lot more fun with it the first couple fights.

I can see this system not surviving players used to D&D on the first night, it is shocking to see your "average Joe" go down in one hit. It is also very satisfying to dispatch an goblin with a bonk to the head with a club, knocking the monster out. It is a system that takes time to learn and get good at, and there is a point where you know how it works but not how to be great in it that could lead you down the path of frustration.

As a simulation-ist combat system, it is a blast and incredibly fun to play and learn. It also is an eye-opener for players used to the "hit it and forget it" style of D&D, where atomic rolls happen and have little lasting impact other than taking the enemy's hit points down by a couple points.

And then we hit a small snag.

We had an issue where a player reported he felt he needed armor to survive, and felt the game forced him down that path. This was a tough one to deal with, because of the simulation-ist nature of the game, of course you need armor. It was true then in combat, and it is true today. But it didn't fit his character concept of an Assassin's Creed style character to start dolling up in plate armor. But this character got taken down in a single blow because he wasn't wearing armor. But isn't that realistic? But is that fun? But that's how this game works, and to be honest, D&D forces you to wear the best armor as well. But I don't like feeling forced to wear plate armor for a game benefit. But soldiers need armor and helmets! But I feel something is wrong, and I am being forced into this. But your character is an average low-level guy. But it still feels wrong.

You can see where this went.

Stealthy lightly-armored assassins are possible in this game, but I got the feeling this type of character only opens up at higher levels of play. You are not going to start out a ninja in this game, and you will be lucky to survive your first encounter with rats. If you are fighting anything intelligent with weapons and smarts, be prepared for a 50-50 fight if you are matched in numbers. This is very much a "medieval weapon simulator" at low levels, and you need to don the ye olde armored vest and helm in order to survive. It feels a lot like Warhammer Fantasy in that regards.

Part of it feels like a collision between not knowing the combat options well enough to be able to survive, and having a lower-level character in play who frankly can't survive being hit with a wet rat on a stick. This is one of those common points when learning a roleplaying game where you understand the dicing and game systems, but not much about how the rules can help you survive. It is that 'deadly phase' where you do all sorts of stupid stuff later on you would laugh at (if you are still playing the game and didn't get discouraged), and this takes real effort to get over and achieve that golden chalice of 'system mastery'.

This is also the time where players flee back to other games and go with what they know and feels right. It is the danger of unfamiliarity, and wanting to play a game that gives that immediate gratification and supports notions of character concepts as seen in video games, TV, and movies. If a game supports the notion of the Assassin's Creed character better and easier (at low level) than this game does, then that game is a better game. Right?

There's a danger in fantasy that caters to fantasy, where the fantasy is so divorced from reality that some player's notion of what's real becomes the fantasy.

For a game that is more focused on delivering a semi-realistic experience such as Legend, it is a problem. Expectations are all out of whack, and players come into the game expecting what they see in video games and in the movies to be the 'game reality'. This applies to in-game choices, such as an expectation of all armor choices to be of equal value, even 'no armor' versus plate. Video games give us this option and put clear benefits behind wearing no armor, such as increased movement, dodge rates, and a package of other benefits making the 'no armor' choice equally attractive when compared to 'full armor'. If it is this way in Call of Duty then it should work the same way in tabletop games, right?

But you get on a real-life IRL battlefield a thousand years ago or today, and the notion of 'no armor' being a equal and valid choice to adequate protection starts to seem pretty silly. Yes, some soldiers are lighter armored than others on every battlefield, but the ones up on the front lines (in every age) typically wore good stuff. To be fair, Legend has some benefits for the 'no armor' choice, but still, armor is generally a good thing to have, and this comes from real life medieval warfare simulation and history.

But it is a fantasy game!

But this game is supposed to be realistic.

But games are supposed to be fun! Realism does not equal fun.

I like realistic combat simulators, in both RPGs and computer games. There is a tactical challenge you are trying to overcome, an impossible world you are trying to survive in, and a set of behaviors you are bleeding through in order to beat the system and come out on top. I am reminded of classic games like X-Com, Jagged Alliance, and others that gave you those tough and deadly choices to make, and many hard lessons to learn. Easier games may give you that 'feels good' easy-mode story and action focused experience with the same weapons and scenarios, but this doesn't 'feel right' to me.

I like story-based and action-based games for lighthearted fun and movie-like entertainment as well. But I like hard-core tactical realism also.

It is a problem I don't feel we are going to get past with this game. I hope we do, because I like the system a lot. I just see other games being easier for players to get their 'expected fantasy experience' from, and Legend becoming an interesting experiment.

Maybe it's me as a referee, maybe I am playing this too hard-core. Maybe I should be fudging dice rolls, or handing out tons of hero points to spend for cinematic action. A hero point can take the place of a helmet in this game, so maybe players should have that many to throw around.

And so it goes. I think the real issue here is my expectations as a referee versus my player's expectations as fantasy gamers.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

D&D: The Spiderman Syndrome

It's an odd choice of words, but this is a thought I haven't been able to get out of my head. I feel D&D, and most commercial properties, suffer from this sort of repetitive "Spiderman Syndrome" problem.

When you think about Spiderman the last few years, the movies around the character and "legend" can't seem to break out of the typical "origin story plus headline villain" cycle. The character feels like he is stuck in the Green Goblin, Gwen Stacy, Jonah Jameson, Doctor Octopus cycle of retelling that story over and over again. You could really say this applies to all superheroes, with Batman's origin story and the Joker, Superman and Lex Luthor, and you could go on and on. I feel Spiderman highlights this the best because the character has been rebooted the most recently, with the largest visible cultural impact (or lack thereof).

It's the curse of being a superhero, I guess. You are doomed to forever be rebooted, and having the same story told about you again and again in slightly different ways. It is the fairy tale curse in a way, the Three Little Pigs gets told over and over again, and the story may have a new style this time, but the legend and story never really changes.

With D&D, it's different. D&D is a game you tell your own stories with, so there are some similarities to the "retelling of a legend" thing I have been thinking about. But you have to realize the only thing that makes D&D, well D&D, is the collection of "product identity" that goes along with the game, such as:

  • Beholders
  • Lolth and the Drow
  • Mind Flayers
  • Owlbears
  • Displacer Beasts
  • The game worlds like Faerun and Grayhawk, along with signature adventures
  • Original characters like Drizzt and Elminster
  • Signature magic items unique to the game

...and so on. If you ever wondered why these monsters are featured so prominently on products, this is the reason why. It is brand identity, and I have no problem with that being highlighted, since that is what makes the game, well, the game.

Planescape too figures into this as well, being the de facto setting of the game since 3rd Edition. You may pick and choose a starting world, but every edition since 3rd has you plane-hopping after a while since of course this was popular in Planescape, and they kind of grandfathered the setting into every edition since. It solves the "what world are you starting on" problem easy since in the end, it doesn't really matter, you will be plane-hopping early in your career and the books tend to assume it. I have a big problem with this being an assumption of the default world setting, but that is for another discussion.

So Spiderman? We come back to this default mythos, and yes the setting plays into this. If you try to create other stories with Spiderman for a while, yes it works, Spiderman versus the Nazis, killer robots, mercenaries, or any other villain of the moment fits here, but the character isn't really the character unless he goes back to his roots. Eventually the story needs to be told again, with all the original elements and enemies in place, and here we go again.

With D&D, it feels like that again, at least for me. Here we are with a version that plays more to nostalgia than something new. I love nostalgia, and I love seeing stories rebooted, but there is a part of me wondering questions like, "What will be the next Planescape style setting that will shake things up?" With catering to the past, we give up on the future in a small way. I guess the answer is there will not be a Planescape for our generation, and we will be listening to the "classic rock" of Faerun, Grayhawk, and the other greatest hits of the last 40 years of roleplaying.

I like classic roleplaying, and I like my classic rock. But I also like the new stuff, new stories, and new music. I like it when a movie studio resists he urge to do another reboot of an origin story, and give us something new with a superhero. Something we haven't seen before.

It's just I can't feel like I can tell compelling stories with the above list of product identity anymore. I have done that for the last 40 years, and heavily with 4th Edition. I have had my legends with Drows and Githyanki space pirates, Mind Flayer cults and Beholder fortresses. With a new generation of players who hasn't seen all this before, I mean, it's great to be them. Play on and discover this anew, more power to you.

For me, it feels like watching another Spiderman reboot, and looking at my watch and counting the minutes until the Green Goblin shows up again.

With commercial properties, there is that "brand stagnation" but occasionally, something magical happens and we get the Planescapes or the Venom or the Bane, and the familiar is now something new, while still retaining that sense of familiarity and tradition. The problem comes when that good horse is rode until dead, and that which made the brand new and fresh becomes another trope in the mythology.

And then we need something new. Something to make the familiar "this generation's" version of the game, or the hero. When it doesn't come, we feel slightly let down since that process of renewal hasn't happened this time. Sometimes you need to completely throw out the old to do this, and it takes a lot of bravery and creative vision. It happened a little with D&D 4 with the new cosmology and breaking with tradition, but it quickly went back to the familiar when the shortcomings of the rules weighted down the setting - when the two were independent ideas.

So in a way, our myths are our prisons. The safety of the familiar is what keeps us coming back. We go back into Plato's cave, but it may have new carpets and a fresh coat of paint this time, but it is still the same cave. To be honest, I am waiting for that next Planescape or that next Eberron for D&D, something to shake things up and fire me up (for or against it, either way).

But it needs to be new. It needs to be fresh. And it needs to change things while keeping a tiny handhold on the familiar, just for nostalgia's sake. But if nostalgia gets in the way, it needs to go. Right now I am finding myself attracted to other games and the new experiences there. It is a natural cycle, but it also highlights the curse of the familiar.

And I just switched my station from classic rock to what is this? It is something new and cool and I have never experienced before, and while someday I may return back to Classic Rock 99.9 and relive those days; but for this moment, I am hearing something I have never heard before and life begins anew.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Review: Legend (Mongoose)

Are you looking for a 100% OGL percentile fantasy system? Are you looking for one where the PDF only costs $1? Do you like the percentile system in games like Runequest or Call of Cthulhu?

Then Legend is worth your time.

It is a remarkable little gem of a game that gives you the best of a Runequest II style rule-set in an OGL package. You can write your own game using these rules if you would like, or come out with a game based on them. The books are digest-sized, which instantly gives them a Traveller sort of feel to me, and the rules are not all that complicated at all.

This sort of OGL effort is what will make our games last forever, and will plant the seeds for generations to come so that they may enjoy the games we did. Like Labyrinth Lord, Basic Fantasy, Mutant Future, and many others, these games will keep delivering enjoyment forever and will also be opportunities for others to share the creations of their dreams and visions. In an age where companies lock things up and where sharing is rare, having a commitment to OGL at launch is highly laudable and worthy of praise. Mongoose is doing the right thing here.

So what do you get?

You get a basic set of rules covering character creation, combat, spells, and skills all in a tight little package that puts many of today's bloated encyclopedia games to shame. Role-playing does not need to be complicated, and we have a concise set of core rules here that proves it can be done. What do we lose? Options, such as page after page of spell lists and volumes of magic items. I am sure someone in the community has made these by now, and if they haven't, I am free to do this myself and sell them to the community or share them for free. I don't need approval, I just add an OGL on my work and it is legit and ready to distribute.

How soon we forget about the OGL and how cool it was.

I know there is a setting-neutral Runquest 6th Edition out there and I have yet to check that out, but that one is 450+ pages and this one is the smaller of the two. In my feeling, if you are going to go a couple of hundred pages with the Runequest name, I want some world and setting info along with the generic game. Plus I am taking a break from the huge book collection hobby for a while past D&D 5 and Pathfinder's latest releases.

Is it worth playing over D&D 5 or Pathfinder? You will be running straight into that "new game" smell with D&D 5, and Pathfinder is entrenched with its players with a huge buy-in and support. If you have players that like trying new things out, and want a more realistic and gritty combat system with hit locations and fun wounding rules, this is a good place to start. I liked the combat rules here, and they feel realistic without abstract concepts like hit points and armor class. They aren't that difficult either. They may be a little roll and counter happy, but the rolls and calculations are straightforward and on the character sheet.

Legend does gritty fantasy really well. If you are looking for a Game of Thrones style feel where someone can get their lightly-armored leg stuck with a spear and hobble around while making a heroic stand against multiple foes, I feel you will get much better results with Legend than you will either of the D&D style games out there today.

There's no level or class either, and character grow naturally into their roles. This is a plus, as you can be a sword-swinging whoosit for a while, discover an ancient order of sorcerers, and join to start learning magic and become a castit for a while without losing your sword-swinging whoosit abilities. You don't have to suffer with multi-classing or worrying that taking a couple levels of wizard will screw up your final character build. You learn as you go, and your character grows in a natural and organic-feeling way. I like character progression in this game very much.

Legend also does a way better job at tying your character to a background, society, and even family within your game world than other games. This is critical for games where family and faction relations matter. These are instant adventure hooks, and there are plenty of fun rules in this book for cults, factions, and other groups that can either aid or harm the characters (or even join, if you choose). I prefer Legend's more world, occupation, faction, and family based method of story seeding than I do D&D 5's random trait table based method by far.

Monsters are an add-on book, as are some other subject you may want to check out. I kind of like not having an official set of monsters to trow around, or an official set of magic items. In my Legend worlds, players won't know what to expect. The monsters book does have some great "Chaos creature" tables and a list of monster traits that will be useful should you roll your own, so I recommend at least getting that book as well if you are playing more traditional fantasy.

There are add-on books for equipment and pirates (ship combat), and two available for different magic systems. To be fair, once you start buying, the price does go up for all of them, but the basic book is playable enough. Since most every book is OGL the information should be available somewhere in reference format. This reminds me a lot of the way the original Traveller was written, a basic set with everything, and add-on books going into more depth should you want (or need) the material.

Legend also scales well. With a little work, you could use these rules for modern or sci-fi settings without too much work (maybe add a couple skills and pieces of gear). Creating a new game from these rules would not be hard, and guess what? There's a door open to publishing it.

This game is also mostly cross compatible with other Runequest II, BRP, Call of Cthulhu, and any other system developed for a similar system. This is much like the D&D 3.5 OGL, and it is nice to see many games flourishing under a separate but equal banner and similar rule set.

The question to ask yourself is this: can your group play without D&D 5 or Pathfinder? In my experience, it is hard to get a group interested in something that isn't new or popular, so knowing your players and getting them to try something new will be important. Both of the big fantasy games have the advantage of those 'instant familiarity' tropes common to fantasy gaming, and thus are more accessible. If you want to look deeper and have background and character matter more than the same-old class-level-loot combo, then other games are worthy of your attention, including Legend.

Monday, February 2, 2015

D&D 5: Dungeon Master's Guide

So my next-gen set is complete with the D&D 5 Dungeon Master's Guide. Thoughts?

It is a nicely put-together book, with so much art inside it almost feels like one of those coffee table art books you used to buy around Christmas time. Part of me feel like this is a tribute book to the original AD&D DMG, as many of the familiar elements are present, the sample dungeon, the random tables, the structure of the book, and even random dungeon generation.

As a DMG, it works and delivers the information you need to play the game. Surprisingly, higher-level magic items are present (to around a +3), and this continues the strict control of numbers and roll ranges the game is based upon.

The create-a-monster system is back from 4th Edition, and this is a good thing. I like being able to come up with challenges on-the-fly for anything in my world, so a quick-stat system is essential for how I play. There are sections for NPCs and the like as well, which helps as well.

I liked most of the art, and I think this is the book's greatest strength, inspiring dungeon masters. They do a good job here.

The D&D cosmology of the planes is back and one of the first things in the book, and I don't know, I am tired of the typical D&D plane-hopping focus by now. They tore up the planar structure with 4th Edition, and in 5th Edition they try to present alternatives while still keeping in the basic D&D wheel framework. To me, I am growing out of the need for "star hopping" planar adventures, and they do not really attract or excite me anymore.

I need to explain this further, yes, but to me, having a billion planes to visit takes away so much focus from the game world it makes the primary world feel unimportant and small. D&D 4 was bad enough that they assumed you started plane hopping at 10th level. With fantasy being inspired by Game of Thrones and other "single world" epics, being able to hop around to entirely different worlds just removes the tension and 'cage match' feel for the original world. Who cares about never having a safe haven in the game world when you could just leave the world and live somewhere else? What does it matter the orcs have setup a war camp in the next valley over when you are off on some plane-hopping excursion?

To me, either you go all planes or no planes, with none being my preference since I like strong and important game worlds. To be fair, they allow for this option, but I dislike the familiar D&D planar structure and it's been so well trodden and it is built to open the door to rampant god-meddling (by both players and gods) that I am really looking for something different in my fantasy experience nowadays.

There are rumors of the OGL returning to this edition, but we haven't heard much more on this yet, but nothing concrete. This would be another good step, but I want to see something official before making a commitment and heaping praise. Promises are not action, and a full and unrestricted OGL is something that needs to happen in D&D 5.

There are also rumors that Wizards is trying to keep the yearly flood of books to a manageable level. Pathfinder and 4th Edition both tired me out with that constant arms race of desktop publishing creations, and I am frankly not in the collector's market mood of buying books to never use them much more nowadays. This is another good move to recognize you can over-publish your system into un-play-ability, and they deserve some kudos for this intention of self-control. Books being sales and revenue, we will see how well this works out, but I like the plan.

We also have a major old-school focus and vibe with this version of D&D, and this is likely a reaction to the old-school resurgence of games like Labyrinth Lord, Basic Fantasy, and others. Those games are still free in their complete forms and widely available, so rather than dropping $100 to $150 dollars on this set of books (while nice and pretty and new), the OGR/OSR games are still a widely better value and still worthy of play and support. I know this is probably heresy to say because this edition is nice and giving us a lot of what we wanted; but really, I still support the free and open old-school games out there as a matter of principle, and they still occupy proud and prominent positions on my shelves.

So D&D 5 is a throwback game inspired by the classics while still retaining some modern design sensibilities. It isn't as map-focused as I'd like, since one thing I liked about D&D 4 was it could sit right beside Warmachine and Warhammer as a respected and tactical tabletop experience. You could say D&D 4 was a better version of D&D Miniatures. This is different, it is back to the story telling roots of the hobby, and that isn't a bad thing. If you are just getting started with D&D, this is a good option along with the OGR games.

To me, I battle with my exhaustion with the D&D cosmos. I've been at this since the first books, and I have had to restart my D&D experience and outlook with every major revision. Third, fourth and now fifth have all been major revisions, and it is getting hard to get excited about starting all over again, only this time with more of the same. It is the classic "get there from here" syndrome. For my group, the old-school games fill the niche of the 'classic D&D' experience. D&D 5 going back to its roots is a good thing, but I have been playing the old-school for a while now with some of the games that have kept the old-school torch burning, and aren't loaded up with the plane-hopping focus I am a bit weary of now.

So in short, a good job and a solid book to finish the series. I like the classic focus of D&D 5, but I am in a position where I want something new and compelling to excite me. It feels like a reboot movie in a way, while I like to see a new team's take on a classic franchise, they still haven't convinced me that I should pour myself into the experience and buy in yet. A lot of the elements are there, but I need that extra something else to get excited about. It's ultimately like an operating system or game console to me, while it is a cool piece of hardware, it's the games on it that matter.

And yes, I know we make the games, but I would love to see something new and exciting come out of the 5E team - something to make D&D their own, like a new world or mythos to pull their design together. Eberron had it for 3.5E, Faerun had it for 2E, and even Grayhawk had it for AD&D. I know this isn't likely, but for a new direction and take on the game, I always love to see something new and fresh come from the creative team behind the game.

I'm still waiting for that AAA experience here, but good job on the base system.