Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Simplicity is Underrated

I picked up my hardcover copy of Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game 3rd Edition the other day and I am still impressed by this game. The simplicity and streamlined approach just makes me want to play. This is something that game designers, and especially the ones Nintendo and other companies get, the fact a game can have depth, but it must be infinitely easy and simple to get into.

You push the stick around and the guy moves on the screen. You push a button and he jumps. You hold another button down and he picks something up. You let that button go and he throws it. Maybe you have a running move, and possibly a slide after running. That's it.

Past that setup, a million things can happen. The difficulty can be easy or hard. You can combo together moves for advanced strategies. the level determines how you need to use your simple and easy to use collection of powers, but how and when you use them makes the difference between a novice and an expert. This is the beauty of a well-designed Mario game or level. Simplicity, but a wealth of depth in the situations presented to you and how you choose to use your iconic set of powers.

But more is better! Or is more, really better? Does wading through a thousand pages of rules make a game better? I am not convinced, really, and while I love the work and craftsmanship put into games like Pathfinder and others, the simple games keep calling to me. Just because a game fills up a shelf does not mean it is a great game.

We had this problem with Fantasy Flight's Star Wars RPG, we bought all the expansion books, and the game fell apart on us. The expansion classes felt like reshuffles of the original book's iconic classes. Too much was added, and the game sat there. We ended up saying if we just stuck to the original three books we would have probably had a better time with the game. Granted, the original three books are a large enough affair, but at least things worked well, and once you understood one book the rest were just options. The later Star Wars books felt like they added more basic choices without adding depth, and the game felt heavy for us.

Pathfinder feels similar in a way, but later books do add a true sense of depth and options. I admit the game does feel and play better with some of the fixes introduced in the later books as well. Dealing with the game though requires a good knowledge of a library of books, a tablet and PDFs for on-the-go-play, and a lot of time and brainpower to manage.

And then, that copy of Basic Fantasy sits on my table, and those Mario thoughts hit me again. One button to jump. One to run. Another to pick things up. How you use a limited set of abilities is your key to success. The game takes about a minute to toss some dice and build a character, with no computer program needed. You are playing the moment you sit down and the referee beings to describe the room you are in.

The game is simple for both players and referees. Ascending AC. A good set of monsters. Treasure tables. Classic classes. An old-school design more focused on the interaction between the referee and players than the players and the rules. There is not much there compared to other games, but what is there is the good stuff. The best of dungeon-game play.

It's that Mario feeling again.

Yes, I love my big-box rules, and I am bought in and love Pathfinder and other games. I love the options in big-box games. It feels like playing Skyrim with 100's of mods, or even Fallout 4. Anything can happen. I have the freedom to build any character I want. The world is my sandbox, and I do not know what to expect. this is why we play big-box games.

But big-box computer games have their price of requiring a beefy computer to play them in all their glory, and big-box tabletop RPGs need a lot of books and mental effort to get going. Modding Skyrim and getting everything to work together is almost as complicated as game programming. Creating an adventure for a thirty-book system is just as involved, but it is just as rewarding as that finely-tuned set of Skyrim mods.

Part of the appeal of D&D 5 to me was the reset of that complexity. I could have a Pathfinder-like experience with less books. I ended up appreciating Pathfinder's design and richness afterwards, while still appreciating what Wizards did with D&D and that move towards simplicity. In the end, for us at least, we still like the Skyrim style mess and pile of wonderful big-box options that is Pathfinder than we do D&D 5's reboot. It's a good reboot, but one we find in the middle of a bunch of other games and limited time to play them all. It is also a game with a middling complexity for us, so we find ourselves drawn to the simpler games, or the more complex - since the payouts for time to fun feel better with the extremes rather than the middle.

But I have simple moods at other times. Mario games are not Skyrim, yet I still appreciate their simplicity and design. They still call to me, and I still am a fan of that infinite playground mentality. The promise of a few simple pieces adding up to unlimited fun. The promise the game doesn't take all that much effort to get into, and the rewards for playing feel like a big-box game. That sense of accomplishment for having excelled at my creativity with my moves and actions rather than my knowledge of the rules and ability to wade through complexity.

It is that simplicity thing and finding a game that fits that mood for you.

Friday, January 15, 2016

DarkgarX: Why Do We Need Another OGL SRD?

That above headline was Darkgar X's response when I talked about D&D 5 SRD going OGL to him. He has a valid point, the D&D 3 SRD is a pretty complete document, and it nearly a complete and playable game in its own right with a couple tweaks.

Sometimes we argue about these things and it gets silly, but he brings up some good points. I took the position where the D&D 5 game is a streamlined experience where-

And then he cut me off.

"Streamline the 3.0 SRD if you want that. There's more there to start with, and you are not adding anything that will be incompatible with the product identity of the 5.0 SRD to fill in the missing parts."

And I had no real great answer to that, and a lot of great games do just that, such as Basic Fantasy. It really begs the question, do you really have to be playing D&D 5 to get the D&D experience? I took the position where I said the D&D 5 experience-

Yeah, he cut me off again.

"The 3.0 SRD, and the Pathfinder SRD are out there, well used and understood, insanely supported, and people play with those all the time. Is this something that people really need?"

Well, um yes, and he has another good point. The 5.0 SRD feels more suited for game designers than players this time around, and if you are developing a 5.0 compatible module or game, it will be of some use. It's not 100% usable since a lot of feats and spells are missing, so if you wanted to put a monster with Warlock powers (and feats) in your creation you would need to create clones of what you wanted and not really-really be 100% the D&D 5 experience.

Interesting stuff, and DarkgarX is a tough guy to argue anything with. He is firm in his game preferences and makes some great points all the time.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

D&D 5 Goes OGL Update

Check this out:

This is a fascinating discussion of the D&D 5 OGL release, and I encourage you to check it out and participate. Some of the posters brought up some interesting facts about the 5E SRD, namely it is missing a bunch of feats, spells, backgrounds, and other content. Some of this was an oversight (and will be corrected, thank you Wizards again), and other parts are because the items in question are product identity.

It brings up an interesting question about usability and forking.

Without everything in an SRD, designers may clone the missing parts to make a functional game from the SRD. This happened with the 3.0 SRD, and we have a forked product (see any of the retro clones, Pathfinder, and so on). It reminds me of the current OpenOffice and LibreOffice relationship in a way if you are familiar with that, you have one that is controlled by an entity, and another that is controlled by a community.

Will Wizards find a way to license the missing pieces so they can be used in a convenient way? I am sure their new PDF sales site is a way around all this, while delivering a OGL version gives indie designers enough to work with to create games from the main rules. It is a good solution to open up the parts you want to make compatible and the generic systems without giving away the farm, so Wizards still deserves a heap of praise for being so open and bringing back the OGL for 5E.

You can still build a 5E-like game with this SRD. Getting an open-source "plays like D&D" version out of this with all the mechanical parts, but it feels a little less possible than the 3E SRD version. You can get there, but it is going to require a lot of new content that will be under the OGL. It won't exactly be D&D with all the cool powers though.

It is partly because 5E is a very tightly-tuned game, with lots of stuff in it that is custom to the Wizards settings. It's a good thing and a bad thing I suppose, since I like rules that are closer to the source material, but that makes the system a little less generic. An OGL "5E compatible" game will play like D&D, but it won't be D&D down to the spells, classes, feats, and other parts.

The forking issue is an interesting question. Will a fan-supported version of the game pop up with 100% open content? The forking question is interesting, because something supported by a community feels like it has more energy and community impetus behind it. I don't know. I would love to see a retro-clone based on 5E style play, or wait, isn't that 5E itself? Then again, any fork has to compete with the official game, so there is that issue. The 3.0 SRD is out there and also well-understood and used, so there is another angle here worth thinking about.

It is a problem which time may fix as Wizards revises the document and comes up with other ways of licensing things. I would love to have an additional "product identity" license and open-ish reference source for the missing material, but then again, I would like them under the OGL. But then again, I understand why they aren't there. Another part of me says, "why are they worrying about all this? They are D&D!" It is an interesting conflict and set of conundrums around this release, and I am sure it will all get worked out in some way.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

This is Huge: D&D 5.0 Goes OGL

Wow, check this out:

Yes, D&D 5 just went OGL. Amazing stuff, brave, and they deserve a huge round of applause for this (if all the OGL necessities are in place, I haven't read everything yet). They also have this site:

...a place where fan-produced Forgotten Realms content can be sold and published. Very nice, and this I didn't expect. Kudos for the openness and publishing model for this locked-up setting (I understand why they want to keep this setting closer to them and have approval of products), and this is cool. Kudos again.

My feelings about D&D 5 have just went up very much. I liked the system, but I always had that question of a locked-up D&D 4 type game, or some variant of a closed-up license, but this is an amazing turn of events.

Thank you Wizards. You deserve a huge round of applause and accolades for bringing the OGL back to D&D. It's the year 2000 all over again, and we are about to see some amazing stuff from third party publishers.

Well played, and you guys rock.

UPDATE: Here is a site describing what you can and can't do, and where certain materials should be published. It is pretty nice of them to provide a marketplace and lay things out so clearly:

Friday, January 1, 2016

Your 15 Minutes of Adventure Are Up

D&D 3E introduced us to this wonderful concept of the 15-minute adventuring day. It goes something like this:
"Hey guys, I used all my spells in that last encounter. Let's go back to town and rest."
Now, this existed before 3E to be fair, and this issue has really been seen more with D&D than other role playing games. Part of the problem is D&D itself, adventures are designed around a series of encounters with CRs that are supposed to balance play and use up resources at a predictable rate. This does not always work, and I feel CR misleads us in a number of ways:
  • Randomness leads to greater or lesser resource usage
  • The CR system is too simplistic to deal with the complexity of the game's classes and powers
  • Players don't care about balanced fights and "burn down" every encounter
The first one is interesting, and yes, a series of bad rolls will double or use up your entire excursion's resources (spells, potions, powers) and you are stuck. Since the rest of the encounters in the dungeon were carefully balanced around you having some resources to deal with it, it's game over man, time to bug out. One encounter drops your party resources to zero, and if this is a "one time only" dungeon with an objective (like most should be), you have lost. That's it. Bad dice have let the bad guy get away with the princess, and that's the knocks of a story-based game.

Yes, the d20 with its wide variance is partially to blame here, it isn't the best die to use if you want a strong average, but with D&D it's what we got.

Another side note. D&D 4E tried to solve this problem with at-wills and encounter powers. the designers of D&D 4 were trying to solve a lot of problems, and this one they did a pretty good job at (tactical miniatures wise, not role playing wise). They introduced the concept of regenerating powers and healing surges, and that kept the party going into the next part of the story. For story-gaming, D&D 4 had a lot of nice improvements over D&D 1-3 and D&D 5. Mind you, the design of D&D 4 did not lend itself to roleplaying all that well, but as a tactical miniatures game where you played stories, it was interesting (counting the first 3 books or so before everything started going to the lower planes).

The second point is also interesting. In some ways I feel the CR system is overly simplistic and it does not take a lot of factors into account. One the other side, if it did the CR calculation system would be something as complex as calculus to figure out encounter balance. With Pathfinder, I have seen reports that modules designed against earlier versions of the game are now too easy with the power creep introduced in later books, and that encounters need to be toughened up to be a challenge again. Old CR does not equal the new CR, and the rating slips as time goes on.

Burn downs. This I have been waiting to talk about, because every player coming from an MMO knows about this one, and this is how most videogames train players nowadays. When you are in a MMO, in each encounter you 100% burn down all your powers and abilities in order to beat it. It does not matter if it is a hall fight or a boss fight, you keep pressing every button, keep hitting every power as its timer comes up, and maximize your damage output to 100% in every fight. In the old Everquest, this wasn't the case and you had to practice careful resource management through a zone. Past that, most modern MMOs make you burn down as fast as possible in order to get through a fight.

The reason? It's flashy! It's more exciting! It solves players from complaining the dungeon is too hard and filling up your customer service system with too many tickets.

So many videogame and MMO players are trained to burn down.

Now, many players get it when they begin playing pen-and-paper. They get the careful resource management game. The games fight this though, and try to make things easier on players by giving them infinite-use attack cantrips (D&D 5), or multi-shot built-in class attack powers (Pathfinder). D&D 4 had infinite-use at-will powers and auto-recharging encounter powers. Even 3E had a plethora of multi-use wands, scrolls, and other items that let you blast away with rechargable wands of magic missiles and fireball staffs. You see the burn-down starting to creep back in.

Player power has increased dramatically over the last 15 years of D&D to keep up with the MMO arms and expectation race.

Personally? I find burn downs boring and resource management more compelling. I like story-based play (a separate topic entirely), but I appreciate games that force you to make hard choices.

In old-school gaming like Basic Fantasy or Labyrinth Lord, giving a magic user infinite ranged attack cantrips would be unthinkable. Today, shooty and flashy are the new thing and the new norms. In the past, you didn't doll up with magic items and carry around enough rechargable magic items to blow through days of content. If your DM was stingy, you pulled the "go back to town" thing. If he wasn't, you loaded up for bear with enough magic to blow a hole in the side of White Plume Mountain.

In older editions of D&D and today's OGR games, the magic item economy is sparse, and you don't get into it as much. A wand of magic missiles is rare and special. A +1 sword is Excalibur. You survive on your wits and a player's ability to coax room descriptions out of the DM's head to avoid the trap of doom in the next room. Then again, the story in old-school games was a lot like today's 'sandbox" games. Do you survive? What do you do? Old-school games focused on the stories of the characters in that personal survival story, and not the DM's or module writer's story.

I blame Vampire: The Masquerade back in AD&D 2E days for this "module as story" stuff really. Vampire showed us a wonderful roleplaying game focused on personal stories, and AD&D had to follow suite and try to make dungeoning "story gaming" as well. Vampire did story gaming elegantly. AD&D had a lot more trouble making that leap because of the abstraction and resource management, and that theme of "story dungeoning" has stayed with us ever since, even across 3E's magic-card-if-i-cation of the rules.

So this pesky resource management game is getting in the way of completing tonight's story dungeon! Let's punt, take a mulligan, and head back to town to ignore this archaic D&D resource management system and continue on, shall we? If you are going to be in any way realistic about this dungeon master and reset the encounters, make us roll for wilderness encounters, or make us 'lose' the story for taking a break in the middle, then I guess you are a horrible dungeon master who hates well-told stories and famous module designers, right?

I am being sarcastic, but I have had those feelings come up at my table before so they are there.

There is an internal struggle here that I feel D&D has never gotten over. There is a simulation side to old-school D&D with the resource game, and if you have never played an old-school game, I recommend you do to see what I am talking about. It is a different game. Health does not auto-recharge. What you take in is it for possibly 100 rooms. The game is simple and deadly. Characters die frequently. You struggle. There is a mental game going on where you pry descriptions out of the DM, be clever, avoid fights, and survive.

3E and Pathfinder? Stuck in the middle of storytelling and resource management. Deck-building RPGs at heart.

4E and D&D 5E? Storytelling games at their heart and trying hard to shed old-school D&D's resource management game. Heavily MMO-influenced with recharging and infinite-use powers, with D&D 4 being the more MMO game, but D&D 5 shooting for the feel of 2E's story-dungeoning feel.

None of them are bad, and players love each for different reasons. This is not an argument one is better than another. You play what you love. But, you need to understand what each one brings, and where the conflicts are. If I ran D&D 5, I would go for more story than resource management, because that's what that game does best. I would adjust the story if players felt their party needed to take five, and advance the story in a logical way that reflects them having to take a breather. The show would go on. There wouldn't be a 15-minute adventuring day because the story reacts.

In old-school games? Yes, you can bet I would come down like a ton of bricks on a party that wasted its resources in wasteful burn-downs and had to retreat to town. Old school games are the Old Testament of resource management sims. Roll for wilderness encounters to and from the dungeon. Roll for wandering monsters all the way down to the point you left off. The dungeon's residents react and adapt to the last incursion, setting up traps, moving to rooms deeper (or to ones you thought you cleared), clearing out, or calling for reinforcements. You take a 15-minute day, and I will make you regret it for the next 15 days, but that is the old-school dungeon master's job.

The trouble comes when the game's designers try to please everybody, and tell you that the game is good for all types of play. It's cool marketing speak, but it isn't true. Some games do things better than others, and that's okay. Another problem arises when the game's designers put in systems geared to resource management when the game shines in story-based play. I can't blame them, the marketers said 'make it appeal to everybody' so sometimes you get systems in games better ignored than used. It happens, and game design isn't a perfect science.

Know what you like. Know what your players like. Most importantly, know what you expect from a game, and how a game shapes that experience.