Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Arma 3: Roleplaying, 20 Years in the Future

This is a fun one, watch "Combat Mission" starring DarkgarX and myself over on Twitch:

Watch live video from DarkgarX on Twitch

Fun? Yes this is awesome fun. This is Arma3 using the Zeus RP server functionality built into the game. I am the dungeon master for these sessions, and I am also the voice of all the NPCs. I use some special software to do the radio voices, so it is fun playing the NPCs on the good guys side while watching the star of the show do his stuff. For everything I put him through, DarkgarX is a good sport and enjoys the heck out of our broadcasts.

I have control of the NPCs, I can jump into any one of them at any time, but they run on AI otherwise. It makes for some pretty silly situations as I play things straight when the AI has trouble pathing or run people over, but it's all in fun. I try to play this fair without making the enemies know everything, but that's just my DM skills coming into play.

This is awesome, and it shows what happens when game companies are brave enough to provide full dungeon mastering capabilities in multi-player games. This, this is roleplaying meeting online gaming, and it is incredibly fun and cool. Those who used to DM the old Neverwinter Nights game know what I'm talking about, and this is the more modern military open-world version of that game.

We have this technology now, and I can only imagine the fun that could be had with a swords-and-sorcery version of a game like this. Having an interactive world where multiple players can log into with AI opponents is one thing, that gets you to the MMO level, but having a real-living DM come in and play the enemies, layout the missions, and control the scenes is just so cool it's beyond words.

We're so stuck in this money-grabbing progression-dependent MMO world that people have forgotten about immersion, player input, creativity, and fun. This game, this one is a special one, and I enjoy the heck out of playing a DM in a modern-military sim in an online multi-player environment. Now only if the rest of the gaming industry would catch on with this idea, we would be having some serious fun online.

"Combat Mission" new episodes weekly over on Twitch TV, staring DarkgarX and myself.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Numbers Game

I've always felt there's just way too much math and calculations in pen-and-paper games. The world of mobile and casual video game development and pen-and-paper games is about as far apart as I have ever seen them.

One one side, we have pen-and-paper, where calculating a basic to-hit can send you down a rabbit-hole of modifiers, situational considerations, character feats interrupting your train of thought, AC considerations, special defenses for monsters, and a whole lot of other "no wait!" thought-process stoppages before we can all agree on the number that needs to be thrown. Seriously, it makes me wish for a non-AC non-feat based system where that character has a flat chance to hit anything, and then when we hit we figure things out.

Feats are a huge problem. I love them, but they are used way too much to interrupt combat's mental flow. If I have "enhanced shield use" I get a +2 bonus to AC versus flanking opponents type stuff. It get maddening for high level play, and feat bloat and the rising complexity of the mental process needed to run high level characters is the number one reason my group dislikes high-level play in both D&D 4 and Pathfinder. I can't understand why no one has seen this and address this through design, it's the multi-feat elephant in the room, and when you get monsters with special defenses and feat-like abilities involved, the whole system just grinds to a halt for our group at high levels.

Let's go back to mobile and casual games. They almost purposefully hide numbers from you, and there are times when I wish I could see the math. It's an extreme comparison, but it's a good one. If casual games are getting rid of math to streamline games, I feel it's a valid consideration for pen-and-paper.

Let's examine the true purpose of a to-hit. It does two things, it reduces character DPS, and creates uncertainty when an attack is made. Assume another game says "characters always hit" unless a monster purposefully activates a special defense (dodge) and makes a special save, or some other external force is applied to the attack. This is just one example, there are probably plenty of other ways to do this.

It feels like a legacy of not asking questions why, and accepting further complexity as the answer for everything. It feels like one of the weaknesses of 3.x D&D, a system built upon a thousand interactions of factors X and Y, and that only gets more complicated as more books are added. I feel this is one area where D&D 5 may also fall to, as the base system is simple, as the calls for more flexibility rise, the inevitable (but welcome) add-ons will make the system the same heavy complex behemoth as previous editions.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Classic RPGs: Traveller

I've always had a soft spot for Traveller. It's one of those games I always loved to think about, but never played. It was so hard to put together a group for this one too, elves and dwarves make easier sells than hard sci-fi any day.

So this is the Mongoose rules edition, and I've heard some complaining about this one, but Mongoose has done a great job of putting together a classic Traveller experience. I guess with every edition you'll never make everyone happy and there will always be people that say "the next version" will be the one they will play. Yet when it comes out the cycle repeats again.

I have a rule: play what people can buy or reasonably get their hands on via downloadable PDF.

So the question remains, what makes this game any fun? As I said, it's a hard sell for most groups I have been around, especially younger players who know D&D and Pathfinder (or had some experience with fantasy), if given a choice many players I have been around will say "fantasy - anything" over sci-fi.

Part of it is player empowerment and fantasy fulfillment. In a Pathfinder-style game, there are a number of paths a player can take a character up for incredible power and legendary ability. You start out the game as someone who can do a couple cool things, and you are waiting to get to the incredibly cool stuff. It's like unlocking powers in the Diablo 2 skill tree and building your character. There's that sense of "I can't wait" and "I'm going to build a character who...."

With sci-fi, it's typically not that way. The only game that I saw recently that did character builds was Fantasy Flight's Edge of the Empire Star Wars game, and that game had deep skill and talent trees for cool character builds. Traveller, on the other hand, is almost 'anti character build' with its career system giving you what you need with a random system, and then you are good to go.

So the motivation is not personal power. It really has to be story. Great stories require great storytellers, and those are rare. Especially in the semi-defined world laid out in the Traveller rulebook, where you make your own subsectors and stories, or the all-consuming Third Imperium setting of this game. The Imperium is cool, but it is also really large and overbearing for some of the groups I played with. Some would much rather be playing in one sector with a homeworld and a bunch of unexplored systems with cool alien races, and not have the heavy Imperium zeitgeist floating out there.

It feels like the difference between a game with open oceans and pirates, with unexplored land waiting over the horizon and treasures to be found and something more cosmopolitan. The Third Imperium sometimes feels like a giant roadmap of Europe, of course you're a Traveller, you're traveling between all of the dots on the map, aren't you? Groups I've played with wanted something more like Expllorer, where they are the ones doing the mapping and discovering and cool brave new worlds stuff.

Of course, nothing is stopping you from doing that with Traveller or even the Third Imperium setting, but you will have to go a long way to get to "your part of the map". You still have that overbearing feeling of Imperial zeitgeist though, like the things you are doing matter little in a galaxy so huge and impersonal. It feels anti-heroic to me in a way, and it is something that throwing out the default setting and starting fresh with a small subsector gives you. That is a tough thing to do with Traveller die-hards, since the Third Imperium is so entrenched and powerful to the faithful. It's a cool setting, but I can see how it scares new players away - especially those coming from fantasy who want their heroics to matter.

I still love the game though, and even if I only 'play' it by reading it and imagining the stories I could tell, it's still a part of my sci-fi roleplaying experience. Still a classic to me, and I love all the support and things Mongoose publishes for the setting.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

D&D 5: Waiting and Seeing

All right, well, our playtest with the D&D Starter Set is over. Thoughts?

We will wait.

It's just too early to make heads or tails of the system. Here's the issue, the number range is kinked very tight. So tight that in order to get a feel for the full range of character options, magic item upgrades, combat options, and upgrades we need the full three books to make up our minds about this. I don't know what a max-ed out character does, or the power of the high level monsters. What upgrade paths are there? How many build and character options will there be? What magic items and power upgrades will be available, and how rare are they?

Granted, a lot of this will be answered when the PHB and the MM come out, but those are a long wait. I want to see the DMG too, since the encounter creation and rewards sections will be critical for my feel for the pace of rewards and building challenging encounters. The complete three-book package is what I want, and that won't happen until the end of November.

To be fair, this needs a better and more complete review. It's just way too early to say if this is a good system or not because the things they released are clearly not complete. It would be unfair to make that judgement call.

What they have released hasn't really excited our group, to be honest. the free PDF is incomplete and only covers one path per class. It gives you a good mechanical feel for the rules, but you know, rules systems are just that - rules. They are streamlined and cleaned up, but that PDF doesn't do a great job organizing them and presenting them in a simple and new-player friendly way.

What would help? More player options, and I know, those are coming in the PHB. It's very hard to get a feel for the system until both characters and monsters are in place, since you need both to see what happens when party X fights encounter Y. I will argue you need the DMG's encounter-creation formulas too to have a realistic view based on encounter design. Still, I feel options are going to make-or-break this for my group, they need enough options to satisfy their Pathfinder design choices.

I feel the Starter Set is average at best. I would have paid more for a more complete experience, and to not have to rely on the PDF. I wanted maps and pogs, the back of the box looks like it has a large dungeon and overland map in it, but it is really just a starter module with some pregens. Character creation, monsters, level-up options, treasure - we just wanted more to get a better feel for it all. Due to the limited options, this didn't really catch on with our group. That I can't really help, at least we tried.

Only then can this be compared to Pathfinder and other games. Right now, it's too early to go around and make final judgments. The best outcome in my feelings? It becomes a cool and simple option for quick pick up games, giving Pathfinder some competition. The worst? We start another system war over this and the community gets more fractured and belligerent.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

D&D 5: Adventure Prep Time

The prep-time for D&D self-made adventures has went up. The one thing I loved about D&D 4 was that you could throw together encounters pretty quickly, in general, X level Y creatures would match a party pretty evenly. Get +/- 4 levels away, and you started running into trouble. You could swap one creature out for 3-5 minions of the same level and be fine, and if you wanted to up difficulty, make some of those minions ranged attackers.

I tried winging a D&D 5 adventure, and it of course failed spectacularly. Either my encounters were too easy, or too hard. My roleplaying sections felt flat and didn't have much of interest to the players in them. I realized more prep-time would have solved this, and then I had this uncomfortable feeling that yes, I needed to commit more to prep-time to make D&D 5 work.

Granted, for games like Pathfinder this is similar, although I know Pathfinder's CR system to be able to put an encounter together in my head and have it be a the challenge level I desire. D&D 5's challenge rating system is skewed when it comes to lower-level creatures, so things aren't as easy to judge.

I am finding myself missing the advances D&D 4 brought to the table with prep-time and making the DM's life easier. I am also finding myself missing the tactical focus of D&D 4, and to some extent Pathfinder's. I miss that motivation of the board being the place where everything is decided, and that players could specialize in things the do on the table to succeed. It's that fiddly Warhammer 40K feel where the choices you make with your character matter on the board that I miss, the tight tactical game and interesting situations that develop on the tabletop.

I heard D&D 5 was going to get a tactical play book, and I am slowly feeling my group would enjoy something like this very much. Now, I am stuck waiting for it, of course....

Monday, July 21, 2014

D&D 5: Starter Set, Falling Damage

Okay Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set, where is the falling damage?

After about an hour of reading, I see what you did, you hid those rules from me inside the adventure in one of the encounters. I had to fall back to the PDF to find the official rule, but I was determined to find it somewhere in the Starter Set, refusing to believe they left rules for falling damage out. Sure enough, there was a 20' fall referenced in one of the encounters, and the corresponding 2d6 damage to let you figure things out from.

Arrgh! This set has been one headache after another for me running it. I am not sure about other groups, but our group hasn't been having the best of times with this set. I am going to try a reboot of our D&D 5 experience and run this again, knowing what I know now. We were severely hindered by not knowing the rules, having to constantly reference the Basic Rules PDF on a laptop (which slowed play), some issues with the very-tightly designed rules, and some of the background/trait rules led to a couple very-stiff feeling roleplay encounters.
As an aside, we also ran into a severe player motivation issue. With little or no magic items or other upgrades to collect, the driving force in my game became levels. With magic items also limited (due to the numbers being tightened up and also their lack of availability in the Starter Set/Basic Rules), my players felt really limited in the "sideways upgrades" they could gain. 
It's like this, in Pathfinder or D&D 3.x, if you were stuck at level 4, there are plenty of ways to still improve your character by going out and collecting gear. Even finding a 'utility items' such as an 8-charge wand of darkness could be a cool upgrade, and there's always another set of +1 chain to get, or perhaps you quest to find your party's rogue a +2 dagger. In D&D 5, a set of +1 armor or a +1 weapon is a game-changer since the numbers in the system are so tight, and I'm a lot less likely to hand those out early. 
So experience became our group's motivator, and then the inevitable "which monsters give us the most XP?' thing started...I know, story should be the motivator, but there always is this player-centric desire for upgrades and improvements at my table.
I want a reset, and another try at this to see if we can get the D&D 5 feeling going again. We will have another shot at this again soon, so I'm looking forward to running a group through this that experiences the new-game feel I read in the books, but haven't experienced yet on the tabletop. This system is turning out to a bit fiddly and requiring more prep-time on my part than D&D 4, which is also interesting. More on that later.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

D&D 5: Cantrip Blasters and New Worlds

Mages and to a lesser extent clerics come with built-in blasters in D&D 5. Cantrips are cast-all-day at-will powers for both clerics and mages in this edition, and they have some pretty hefty 1d8 ranged damaging spells in there to choose from.

Pathfinder limits it's mage-blaster type spells to X per day, so there's a point where the powerclip runs dry. With D&D 5, it is an infinite reserve of magic with cantrips, and I'm feeling the number and variety of cantrips is only going to increase.

It feels like an odd choice, almost like 4E's at-wills, but only for mages and clerics. The martial classes just seem 'better' at melee, and get a collection of daily-type abilities, but I'm not seeing anything on the power level of this. Some of the mage cantrips scale up to 4d10 damage at 17th level, so that's a free 4d10 fireblast every turn for our mage-type classes that never runs out.

They also have multiclassing, so you can take one level of mage and have an infinite-cast cantrip blaster ready at all times. I'll be honest and I'll think twice about allowing that at my table just as a min-max build.

It feels like a balance issue for DPS at higher levels, and I admit, the math in this game is really tight. What mages lack in constant DPS that fighters have (with multi-attacks), they make up for with steady always-on magic-based DPS. This seems like a numbers-based design decision, and I hope fighters and rogues at high level are just as interesting.

In 4E, every class was a caster, and I do think the moving classes back to mechanically different play styles in a wise choice. But I can't help feel mages and clerics have it really good here in terms of resource management. It almost feels video-game inspired, where mages in games like DoTA and LoL have these magic-shot powers that can always fling something downrange.

This is a different style of world, almost video-game like and comic-book that the traditional D&D resource management scheme of things. These casters are almost like superheroes with their energy bolts blasting away at enemies than the casters I normally recognize as the traditional resource managers of 3.x or Pathfinder.

Granted, this is also probably motivated by a desire to get away from "magic item" blasters like wands of magic missiles and the like that characters depend on for DPS. Magic items are de-linked from character leveling and power level, and that is also a good thing. We shall also see if they are de-linked from the character DPS curve, and I can't help to feel this is also a good thing. Whipping out a wand of fireballs for item-based DPS seems less heroic than having that power inside of yourself.

It is different, and it is a new feel.

Which is why I don't feel this meshes with any of the established D&D worlds well at all, this feels like a new take on the fantasy experience. If I were to play this, it would be a new world entirely that supports this design and philosophy. In a way, each version of D&D has its showcase world which highlights its strengths and ideals. AD&D had Greyhawk, 2E had the Forgotten Realms, 3E had a mix of settings rebooted, 4E had Points of Light, and 5E I feel deserves something new and fresh. I likely won't be playing in the Realms with this, it doesn't feel like my version of the Realms, so I'm not going to force it upon this world in another "re-think" of the world mechanics.

I think this is one of the most contentious things about new D&D editions, they force a rethink of the world and another huge set of changes. I rather prefer to do a new world with each version and let players explore how things work with the new rules, rather than have those memories of how things used to be under the old rules. It's partially why Points of Light worked so well, new system, new world, and a fresh set of places to explore for 4E.

If I buy in, it will be with a new world that works the way things work now. I still want my Realms reboot, and possibly re-imagined with rules like these, but that can wait. I am in the mood for something fresh and new with a new system.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

D&D 5: Six at Twenty?

This one hit me by surprise, D&D 5 has a notion of bounded accuracy, and click on the link for the original design information. I will spare you the details, go read the article.

What this means is your to-hit from level adjustments starts at +2 at 1st level, and only goes up to +6 at 20th level. It's kinda like saying D&D 5 is a five level game spread over twenty levels. I know, major change time here. This reminds me of the D&D 3.5 E6 variant, where levels are capped at six, and the CR 7-12 monsters are the epic monsters.

The reasoning is to-hit should never be something that modifies DPS - level-based DPS should be the modifier. To-hits in the game stay the same while damage goes up. Similarly, DCs should always remain the same and hover around what first level characters can deal with.
One thing about the above linked article just rubs me the wrong way, the assumption that the DC of a locked door needs to go up just because the characters are now higher level. Um, it doesn't, we all live in a 20th level world, and the DCs of doors should be what they should be. 
That super-strong door at low level should be a piece of paper to a high-level character. 
I dislike it when referees arbitrarily scale difficulty based on character level because it removes the accomplishment of having those high scores and levels in the first place. It's a problem with adventure design and the ratings of doors in the game, not the system. The world does not 'level up or down' with you, not mine, at least - let heroes be heroes.
There is a problem with this in risk versus reward as pointed here on the Neuroglyph Games site blog - a great post you need to read. Low-level creatures are still a threat, but their experience point reward is not matching that threat. The CRs for anything below party or character level are not reflective of their true threat.

It feels like a breaking of the CR system as we know it, and it changes things considerably. Lokiare over on RPGNet did some math and found encounters could be thrown out of whack by the simple addition of a low-level creature or two, this is the difference of going from a win to a TPK. A group of mid-level character can take out the toughest creatures, and a group of 100 townspeople can likely take out anything.

There's also a lower-level tangible reward thing going on here with players fighting large groups of low-level creatures and not being properly rewarded for the challenge presented. There's another great post over on the RPGSite that hints it may be very easy to get ahead of the curve by min-maxing the few AC and defense options you have available. It highlights a potential exploit when a system is designed so tightly.

To-hits have been tightly reined in, ability scores capped, and modifiers limited to a tightly-allowed range. Granted, damage is where they are scaling things for pure player power, and that hasn't changed. The whole system feels very tight, the numbers reigned in, and it's probably a natural progression of things.

There's a feeling thing going on here too. I like my Godzillas to be invulnerable behemoths that stomp villages. I like my characters to be the Godzilla stoppers that they should be. There is a clear power-level difference between this game and other incantations of D&D, here this is a lower-powered world where level 1 goblins could be a threat to level 20 characters. A level 20 D&D 5 character is going to splat anything he or she touches, but invulnerable defenses against low-level creatures are a thing of the past here.

It is another huge change to consider when converting over worlds and campaigns to this system, or even developing new ones. If the toughest dragon in the world is all of a sudden vulnerable to any king's army - that changes things. I can't write a story that contradicts the rules as written, so it's important to understand the power level and feeling of a game's systems to be able to adjudicate current and past events, and write a believable history as the characters would experience things when they play.

If you're thinking you can start playing with the same set of Pathfinder, D&D4, or D&D3 assumptions about monster power and threat levels you will be surprised at the changes here. You need to understand these in order to start getting a feel for how D&D 5 worlds work, how high-level villains operate (likely secretly with large groups of lower level creatures), and what happens when that dragon walks up to that town.

Friday, July 18, 2014

D&D 5: Inspiration, Fiat, and Roleplaying

D&D 5 has an interesting Inspiration system which attempts to put mechanical rules on top of a roleplay system. This isn't "roleplaying" this is "roleplay" - the fiddly and conversation-based in-character social interaction parts between a DM and player.

The basically have four ratings you rate your character on, personality traits (2), ideals (many), bonds (1), and flaws (1). If you roleplay right and according to these traits, the DM may toggle Inspiration on your character, which is basically a fate point style mechanic which gives you advantage on one roll, and then you are back to the uninspired (?) state.

Advantage is a strong and desirable state, one which lets you roll two d20's and take the higher result for a roll. I can see players always trying to keep that inspiration bit flipped as a just-in-case option for a roll.

Compare this with the GM Fiat Rule (D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder, and many other games), if you describe something that is unlikely to succeed or particularly entertaining, the GM applies a modifier as the GM sees fit - and this includes roleplaying. Do something entertaining, and the GM applies a modifier on-the-spot as a reward. There is no mechanical system of defining traits and giving bonuses only if those traits are followed.

So Inspiration is a one-time-and-saved reward, where Fiat applies all the time with every action. Now, there's nothing that says you can't use Fiat in D&D 5, but there's nothing that says you can. I am going by the Starter Set and PDF here, so we may not have a complete picture yet. I am imagining the trait system of D&D 5 is the official way to handle fiat and the mechanical side of roleplaying bonuses, since it is there, pretty important and on the front side of character sheets, and why should there be another system in place covering these mechanics?
Another issue is an elimination of most arbitrary dice roll modifiers from D&D 5 other than ability score ones, as giving a +/- 4 on a roll isn't really the thing you are supposed to do, as advantage and disadvantage are supposed to handle most negative and positive modifiers. The game is streamlined, so we don't worry about modifying dice like that anymore. I'm sure it's within your power to rule "this roll has advantage" in a fun and entertaining situation, but that takes away from the point of Inspiration mechanic, doesn't it?
So roleplay has been mechanic-ized in a way with this system, and players are going to be constantly trying to regenerate that point by using their traits. Once the point is stored up, players are free to ignore their traits and flaws. Is this what we want as referees? It feels like an answer to officially sanctioned play where good and entertaining roleplayers will be getting Fiat bonuses left and right by innovative and entertaining play, and players that aren't used to roleplaying or are less than expressive don't get them.

Inspiration feels like a way to make roleplaying fair for less experienced roleplayers, but in a way it feels like an overly limiting system overall. It's nice to have the random charts and specific motivations for new players, but the groups I play with don't really need this sort of structure for roleplay. Let the players roleplay are my feelings on this, and I can't see using this system too much for my players.

GM Fiat is a tried-and-true system that encourages constant improvisation and participation, and it encourages imaginative play. Whatever you can do to make people laugh, be cool, or have a great time deserves a die roll bonus - even the gods of fate enjoy a laugh or two once and a while. From a fun perspective, I like GM Fiat, it gives me a tool to say, "You played that in character well, here's a bonus." without having to award fate-points and introduce another system of record-keeping, even if it is a single-point toggle.

I will play with Inspiration though to get a feel for it and see how it works, but I can see myself laughing along with the players and handing out instant advantage as GM Fiat as a table-reward for fun and creative play. While the system is nice and attempts to put mechanics on roleplay and backgrounds, good players are still good players, and I feel they really have little need for these types of systems for character traits and backgrounds they know what to do with - and play I know how to reward.
UPDATE: We tried this system last night and we were surprised how little it came into play. Some situations do not trigger many opportunities for these per-character specific character traits to come into play, and our players ended up ignoring them and focusing on the action. 
When we did see it, I'm surprised how must more tedious this system is compared to GM Fiat, since everyone has to mentally keep track of these traits and determine if something triggers them. With Fiat, a players stays in character, I know what that character is, and I reward them if they play in character and it's entertaining. 
With this system of X defined traits, I have to ask players what their traits are in when they ask me if something was Inspiration-worthy, and make that judgement call. I need to know these traits ahead of time and potentially present situations that may trigger them. Sometimes there was a back-and-forth about how the trait applied and how they reacted. 
Also, since GM Fiat is not mentioned in D&D 5, I am not applying it to keep in line with the spirit of the Inspiration system (and to make Inspiration more desirable to push players). My hands feel tied running things this way, like my ways of rewarding good play are very limited.
It feels like a lot of record-keeping, player-DM conferences, and personality trait tracking for what we used to call roleplay and reward with on-the-spot bennies. If a player wants to roleplay and make us laugh, great, here's a bonus. If not, and the player wants to earn bennies through smart tactical play, that's cool too.
Otherwise, it feels like a system aimed at beginners that is a bit heavy and somewhat restrictive for what our group likes to do.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

D&D 5: Basic Rules Character Creation

I am slightly disappointed by the free PDF for the D&D Basic rules when it comes to character creation. There are all sorts of things wrong with this one, including a "how to create a character" section that keeps referring you to other parts of the document when the information could have been presented there as options on a chart. We were generating characters in it last night and it was just a mess, honestly.

What is the AC on "no armor"? Well, if you didn't catch the one reference to it in the character creation steps under Choose Equipment, you won't find it in combat or the equipment section. Seriously, put "clothes/no armor" in the equipment section as an option and let us find the rule there too. You get the impression that everyone in this world wears leather armor.

How do you fill in Saving Throw boxes? You're not even told until the end of chapter 7, the Ability Scores chapter, four paragraphs in that you add your Proficiency Bonus to your class' chosen Saving Throws. The DC for spells is mentioned in this section, but it isn't actually calculated until way later in the final Spellcasting section.

Don't hide things from me when I have players waiting!

The Inspiration checkbox is added to this set of rules (and it's absent from the Starter Set sheets, though the motivations it depends on are still there), yet there is no mention of how this is used. We were searching through the book trying to figure out what this box was used for and how it's used before we could get going - which we never did because it was midnight and we had to quit. Some in my group gave up and photocopied the Starter Set characters.

We're not the type of group that can just throw things together and play without understanding things. I kinda like to know about the new rules and changes before we get playing so our group can have the 'full experience' when we start playing, as do my players. So yes, it does take us longer to get started, but we aren't having any of that 'oh, we were playing it wrong' nonsense later. New game, new experience, and we want the full monty on the first hit.

There's also no table of contents and no index for this 110-page document. To the designers and those familiar with the game, it's no problem using this document for reference. For new players, using this booklet is a nightmare when learning the game. It is much harder than it needs to be, and if you are depending on this document to be the source of information for new players, it is not an ideal experience. We ended up using PDF search to find phrases and mentions of different terms and rules in order to piece together how things worked.

So we didn't have a great experience with character creation here, and DarkgarX fired up the free version of Hero Builder and created his same character with the Pathfinder Beginner Box ruleset and was happier with the results. I told him "don't bring Pathfinder into this!" yet he did. Still, the Hero Builder sheet was glorious and simple, with boxes telling you how every number was calculated and there was nothing to search a book for. For a new player, give them Hero Builder and let them have fun.

The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Beginner Box is a AAA quality experience which is higher-priced. But really, it's not too much higher, PBB is selling for $24 on Amazon, where the D&D Starter Set is selling for $12. That extra $12 you pay for PBB? A map, heavy-stock paper figures (both characters and monsters), two gloriously full-color books with simple and sane character creation rules, an extensive monster list, tons of magic items, a full gamemastering section, and character folios that are great for beginners. Things only go up to level 5, but that's okay for players just starting out. The presentation and explanation in the PBB are also top-notch. You get a LOT for that extra $12, and a full rules set that works with published adventures if you want to go that route. It is a complete game in itself and a lot of work was put into it - and it shows.

In comparison, the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set feels like more of a budget introductory module with pregens than it is a full rules set. It depends on a less-than-beginner-friendly downloaded PDF for continuing adventures, and a lot of the core content is still missing, such as magic items, gamemastering rules, and a full monster list. It looks like a full starter box, but it's not 100% there. Yes, the PDF goes up to level 20, but without monsters and magic items up to that point (and only one option per class), it's kind of an incomplete experience. I am guessing the easy-to-use character creation rules are coming in a month or so in the Player's Handbook, I hope.

What I would have paid for something that takes you through character creation step-by-step, with all the options and information presented right there. A book like that would have helps us a great deal, and I would have loved a "what is different" section for players of older editions. Last night's character creation session felt a bit too decidedly 'old school' for me, where it took hours to figure things out and we were left wondering if we did things right.

So not a great experience in character creation last night for us unfortunately, but I'm still positive and hopeful about the D&D 5 system and worlds, so I am calling this one a miss and waiting for the Player's Handbook to sort things out. We are still forging ahead and playing the game, it just feels like a small setback for us on the first night when we wanted an experience that rocked us and gave us a great start with the new rules.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

D&D 5: Basic Rules PDF

Just a note, the Basic Rules for D&D Next/5E are up on the Wizard's site and available for download. This covers the basic races and  four classes from 1-20 and is a good companion to the Starter Box we reviewed the other day.

Thoughts? Well, I wanted monsters in here, characters up to 20 aren't much without foes and loot, so this is just for characters and basic spells. It is a good addition if you are playing with the basic box set and needing more, so I recommend this.

It is good they are putting the basic rules out there, I would love to see a SRD or license to publish add-on content with, along with more in terms of monsters and loot. This is a good move, so they deserve some thanks for getting this out and in a free format. Part of me thinks this should have been in the Starter Box, or at least a complete version of this from levels 1-5.

So if you have the Starter Box and need more, go check this out!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

D&D Starter Set Arrives!

So we got the D&D Next Starter Set in the mail today.

Color me a little underwhelmed, my expectations were admittedly higher for this release. First off, this is one of those "big box with a divider making it look like more than it actually is" type of products. It's two booklets, some laser-printer-looking character sheets, a bag of dice, and a waxy flyer for D&D Encounters. With the exception of the dice, most of this could have fit in a thick module. A smaller box would have been nice, as I am not a fan of packaging that feels like it's designed to take up shelf space and look big. It's wasteful, and it is a disappointment to see most of the box taken up by a spacer.

I remember the old TSR Boxed games that were almost packed solid with cool stuff, like Gangbusters or Star Frontiers.

What was I expecting? Well, the 4th Edition starter set came with a nice poster map and some pogs, and those are always welcome for helping new players visualize things. The map and movement rules in this game are light, which feels right, but I do miss the map based focus of previous editions. The question then becomes, is this set a good introduction to the 5th Edition rules?

I don't want to confuse this review with the review of 5th Edition D&D - this is not that game.

It does make me sad to see so many 5-star reviews for this set, it is really a middling product in the terms of quality and what you get, and in some ways less than other sets for D&D that came before it. For me, it is hard to give this one a perfect score since it doesn't feel like the best introduction to this game that I felt it could have been.

People coming into the game expecting a 5-star introduction are going to be missing things like races, classes, character generation, and all the other fun bits of the game that could have hooked them in. There's information on the character sheets for religion, classes, races, and advancement that should have been in the main book. The information on monsters and magic items is very limited. Oh, and the dice are non-standard too, on some of them the sides do not add up to the same number as proper dice should.

Oh, and for a game that uses advantage and disadvantage paired d20 rolls so frequently, please, please, please include two d20 dice in the set. Otherwise beginners are going to see these rules as having to roll one die twice when the intention is to save time by throwing two at once and take the higher or lower as needed. As something that introduces this new gaming concept to make things simple, I feel this is a huge mistake since it makes things more tedious if you just live with one dice set (as a beginner would).

But part of me thinks pure value and low cost  shouldn't have been a consideration here, I would have paid more for a better introduction and sandbox experience. This is, after all, 5th Edition D&D. It's a big enough name to attract attention no matter how much the beginner box costs.

A game that could change things this much needs an incredible introduction that blows new players away. I don't feel that here, and it's possibly due to cost concerns and to get this out as widely as possible. Still, I feel there's a lot more that could have been done, and yes, that means including basic character creation, races, and class choices. This needs to be more of a playset that gets people creating their own characters and little worlds, toys and pieces to start building level 1-5 characters with to get those seeds of adventure planted in a fresh and fun sandbox.

So we get a 32-page main book and a generous 64-page adventure. Back in the days, designers often wrote complete roleplaying games in a single 64-page book, so I feel more could have been done here to provide a more complete level 1-5 world. So the focus is less on the rules and more on the adventure. We even get a campaign map of Neverwinter that I feel isn't up to the adventure potential of the 4th Edition sample setting, the included map is too sparse and focused on one city to support a balanced exploration and points of interest outside of Neverwinter. I would have liked a great map of Neverwinter as well, so that feels like an omission since the city is so central to the sample campaign.

Still, the adventure is nice, and includes full-color maps, art, a starting town, and all sorts of locations to explore. It looks fun, so that is a positive. I want to playtest this and get a feel for the rules and the introductory experience, and cover that in a later post. The rules themselves and the beginner experience deserve another post, so another post they shall get.

And I'm not going to go all out and compare this to the Pathfinder Beginner Box, that type of flame-tastic battle is worthy of a humorous and nonsensical Cage Match. I may just include some surprise contenders in there to mix things up.

To me, this doesn't feel like the best it could have been. Something this big, the 5th Edition of the D&D rules, deserves a better introduction, something epic, something stand-up, take notice, and to be cool by owning. Really, this is for completeists only.

Like myself.