Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Kickstarter News: Five Moons RPG

Here's an interesting piece of news, Sean K Reynolds, of recently retired Pathfinder and Paizo fame, is starting a Kickstarter campaign for his Five Moons RPG idea. He wants to simplify fantasy gaming down to the Pathfinder Beginner Box level of complexity, and make fantasy gaming a more social experience. He is also breaking with the OGL and d20 SRD for this one, and will develop his own license.

It's interesting he wants to do a fresh take on pen-and-paper gaming, and he's trying to iron out the complex systems in Pathfinder and create something simple and cool. Over on the Five Moons Blog you can find more of his ideas on the game, balance, magic systems, and his other ideas.

Of note as well is designers are moving away from d20 SRD and the OGL in particular. We are far enough away from 3.5 and compatibility (and Pathfinder has it covered pretty well) that this doesn't seem to be as hot as it was in the past, so that is also an interesting development.

It seems the industry is letting Pathfinder rule the roost with complex and deep rules, while there is a clear fight on for the casual pen-and-paper gamer. D&D 5 has put its foot down in one corner, and it looks like Five Moons is the challenger with a pretty impressive designer and pedigree behind the project.

But how big is the casual pen-and-paper market? Is there such a thing? Are casual pen-and-paper gamers more of the iPhone/Android mobile gaming or online MMO crowds with much interest in pen-and-paper games? It can be argued the pen-and-paper market nowadays has grown considerably hard-core, with a clear need for new players and especially dungeon masters. Will simple hardcover games alone be enough, or is an online or electronic component necessary to draw interest from the casual players?

There are a lot of questions here, and not many good answers until we gauge the success of D&D 5 at pulling in new players. Converting older players from one game to another is not enough, these games need to cause a buzz outside of the traditional RPG community and draw in the next generation of tabletop fantasy gamers. New players are the clear measure of success for any game.

I suppose the battle has been joined, and this shall be an interesting time for fantasy tabletop gaming.

Fun With D&D 5 Magic: Plane Shift and Gate

Mage: "Hey guys, I have a great idea! Let's use my gate spell and go beat up Zeus, lord of thunder!""

Party: "Yeah!"

Zeus: "No you don't the gate spell says gods can disallow such tomfoolery! Gate denied! Do not annoy me again! ZEUS HAS SPOKEN!!!"

*thunder rolls*

Mage: "No problem, I'll just use plane shift instead, and it's only 7th level. Everyone hold hands!"

Party: "Hello Zeus!"

Monday, September 29, 2014

Micro Feats and Character Design

One of D&D 3.x's legacies on game design is an extreme granularity in character design choices. To design a character, we need to be able to choose from dozens of classes (with paths and options in each class), multi-class (with all of the choices in each class applying again), and then choose from thousands of feats as we level up to further design our character. At times it feels like creating a mobile out of coat hangers, and having one slide out of place and turning the entire system of classes with choices, multiclassing, and micro-feat choices into a mess of hanging wires.

I call them micro-feats because the feats that exist in D&D 3.x and Pathfinder are very specific and often contain small bonuses, like a +1 to some action. Because of System Mastery there are "bad and mediocre choices" sprinkled throughout the feat lists, and also there are a couple really great ones certain classes must take in order to do well - with prerequisites (power attack, cleave, great cleave). Part of me wants less, more powerful feats to simplify the mess.

It gets horrible when you toss a new monster on the table and you are sitting there cross-referencing the monster's feat list to make sure you are playing the monster right and to the monster's as-designed ability. Some of those feats are special attacks (feat), others are passives, some are defenses, and yet others are situational modifiers. I really don't like the complexity of the entire D&D 3.x legacy of character design and power distribution through class and micro-feat choices.

Look at it this way. You are designing a superhero, and put all your classes, spells, and feats in a bucket and call them equal. When you design a fantasy character, you want to make choices that matter. Clutter and tiny bonuses mean nothing, or at least they should. I want to make important choices each level, and I want my choices to be among a set of equal and great options. I should feel bad for not taking the others, and I should be saying, "Well, this was the best choice for the role I play."

Old-school games? Of course, they didn't inherit the D&D 3.x complexity for a reason, and over the years it became a huge mess as expansion after expansion unbalanced things and kept trying to right the boat with balance and options. You see that in Pathfinder in the Advanced Class Guide with the "Striker" rogue mix-class being an answer to the common complain that straight basic-book rogues can't do enough damage. Well, to patch it, let's add a new class instead of making the rogue good. Or let's add some rogue feats that let them do more damage. Or let's just do everything and let players sort it out.

You can never balance a complex granular system. You can only make it better through iterations, and that requires you to throw out everything you've done previously. Rogue 3.0 sucks? Well, let's improve him in 4.0. Or let's try again in 3.75. Or make another sub-class that does what we want the rogue to do. Or let's do it again in 5.0. It feels like why we are going through multiple D&D versions right now, and why they chose to hit the reset button in D&D 5. It feels like a reset and new starting point though, and I hope they don't go back to class and feat bloat like they did in the 3.x years.

I think bloat is one of the big threats to D&D 5. If they don't print as much junk, make all options equal and good choices, the game will last longer and be seen as a stable point in the game's history.

Why care? Well, the average person who plays casual games doesn't care for a game with around two or three thousand feat choices, some good, many bad, and they need to study forums and class build guides like a PhD to get their character right. Hardcore gamers? We eat that stuff up. There's a divide there, and yes, I am on one side, but I can see the other and I know the pain casual gamers have with our hobby. You can't be blinded by your own preferences and likes to not see other's pain and discomfort.

Plus it feels like we are throwing a lot of work out. I like to buy games that stick around a while, and I hate versioning everything up. Yes, if you count backwards compatibility, D&D 3 is still sticking around in Pathfinder, but it keeps the same problems that a granular system mastery based designed game comes with.

So where do you go if you like simple, equal choices? D&D 5 is a tenuous 'we shall see' option, and in an oblique way the Pathfinder Beginner Box is another option (but not really an answer). The old-school games like Labyrinth Lord or Basic Fantasy are always an option, and they kind of dodge the question by making all the choices for you.

I still like Pathfinder a lot, but when I am shuffling through pages of print outs to play three or four NPCs and monsters on one side of a battle I don't like it, and I know I'm missing applying several feats and abilities I know they have, but I can't because I need to keep this game running fast and fun for the players. Some of this you learn, but it all seems so heavy just to play what should be a simple fantasy game. It's a beautifully wonderful complex game I love, but its complexity kills it from being played in casual settings for me as a DM. For new players, I'll pick an old-school game or something simple and just focus on having fun.

D&D 5? I can't say, I need all three books before I can truly say the game's complexity, balance, and ease-of-play lives up to the hype. Without the complete monster list, I can't say how complex they are to run overall, and there's the fight-length and balance issue. Without the DMG, I can't say much about recommended encounter balance, rewards, and the optional complexity introduced there. We will know more in about two months.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Review: The Emerald Spire

The Emerald Spire Super Dungeon is Paizo's entry into the 'super dungeon' genre of adventure modules. What's interesting about this one is that each level is designed by a different superstar designer with the likes of the Paizo staff, Ed Greenwood, Frank Mentzer and a cast of others each taking a level and going with it. It's like an all-star Christmas album of dungeon design over sixteen interconnected levels.

The back story is interesting, and it accounts for the difference and variety in the interconnected lairs. Some of the levels have a related boss monster or story, so that is a cool thing - they are not all so different it seems disjointed. The dungeon levels are full flip-mat sized (they also sell flip-mats for all 16 levels), so this is a unique product in that it provides a series of battle-mat sized exploration missions. It is a great product for a regular gaming group that wants to play across a series of tabletop battles.

It's is an interesting break from other super-dungeon products that require you to map it yourself or play it by ear. This is a very nice "complete product" should you buy the maps. The flip-mat limitation puts a cap on the size of the dungeon levels, so if you like big and expansive dungeons this is probably not your thing.

The dungeon levels are well-put together, but they feel on the shorter side to me. They are your typical 3.x D&D style dungeons, with that tighter less creatures focus and deadly traps sort of thing, along with a fair amount of puzzles and other things to figure out. The shortness in the book for each level is a bit bothering, a couple of the levels feel like they could have been fuller, but a good game master can always improvise and add details on their own (as you should with any published module).

There is a 'fast transport system' in the dungeon that I am not sure I like, it feels like it was invented for expediency in an MMO-style nod. Back in my days, if the entrance to a dungeon was a mile underground we walked there dangnabbit! We took pack animals, carried supplies, and camped out in dangerous places with people standing guard. We hired retainers by the month, and good ones too, not these generic level 1 man-at-arms things you see so many of nowadays. Our wizards took bags of components with them too, because walking back to town was out of the question.

Or with high-level enough parties, we picked a secret teleport spot somewhere down there, and prayed each time we came back there weren't monsters in the room or someone waiting for us. There was a disadvantage in old-school adventuring to teleport happy explorers, party wipes from prepared bad guys waiting underground for magic-item and spell-book rich adventurer groups to return to their favorite port-in spots.

I am guessing because of the flip-mat "let's play level X tonight!" style setup the emerald magi-elevator was needed, but it is certainly a more modern design element, and one my old-school party would look at twice and decide to hoof it anyways. Besides, if we can use this thing like an elevator, who says the dungeon's big boss hasn't figured out a way to send us anywhere he would like? Old-school dungeoning paranoia saves lives and character sheets, my friend.

It's a fun adventure, but one side note. There's a sample town included, Fort Inevitable, probably one of the most strange fantasy town names I have come across in a while. Down the road from Fort Certain Thing and Fort For Certain, for sure. Or Fort For Sure, sorry. Anyways, it's a happy little adventuring base and hometown run by...a large garrison of lawful evil Hellknights. My player's first order of business? Clearing the town. I know, but you got this big dungeon up on the hill and...oh stop it, really? You attack?

Roll initiative.

But yeah, for a garrison of Hellknight cavalry with an open rebellion problem, I'm guessing this place shouldn't be such a great adventuring home base. But there are armor and weapons shops selling openly, and I'm sitting here thinking these would be the first places they would close down under an oppressive regime with that much firepower to throw around. The first rule of dictators is to disarm the population, it feels like an oversight, and I like my worlds based in a bit of realism gleaned from the events of actual history.

A bunch of adventurers setting up shop and snooping around the dungeon up on the hill? I bet the Hellknight commander lets them live until level five or when they pull up that first big treasure haul and then the adventurers are executed for heresy, treason, crimes against the state, insurrection, hoarding state resources, or some other trumped up charge so the Hellknights can take the party's loot and laugh up how great it is to be lawful evil. Besides, they wouldn't want a bunch of upstarts getting too powerful around here, would they?

It's like new school designers forgot what lawful evil means when it comes to kingdom politics and adventurer relations. Think of this happening in King's Landing in Game of Thrones. Yeah, not gonna happen without tons of bribes.

So no, Fort Inevitable isn't such a great base for adventuring after all, at least not for my group. It was a fun place to tear apart though, and it did take the focus off of the dungeon initially. My players aren't that naive, and I don't blame them because I like to run things hardcore and by the old-school spirit.

So in short, it's a fun adventure with a great flip-mat focus, and a little problem with the included home base should you decide to use it as-is.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

D&D 5: Class Motivation is Motivation

One of the big problems our group has with D&D 5 is the characteristic system. This is a psychological profile that puts mechanical rules on roleplaying. Your character has five mental characteristics (two personality traits, an ideal, a bond to the world, and a flaw). If you roleplay according to these mental characteristics you earn a one-use, one-maximum "fate point" which allows you to get an advantage on any roll. Once spent, you have to earn another.

Now, you can roll random roleplaying characteristics, or choose your own. Now, most of my group are pretty good roleplayers, and here is what we chose for ideals:
Fighter: "I am brave and selfless!"
Cleric: "I believe in helping the sick."
Thief: "I take things as I see fit."
Wizard: "I believe magic solves every problem."
Paladin: "I shall destroy evil!" 
Those seem like great ideals, and they are fun for players to roleplay and try and live up to. But notice one thing about them - they are the class' default motivation. Of course the fighter is going to be brave and selfless, that's his job. Every time the fighter smites an orc he can ask the DM for a roleplaying bonus. Of course the thief takes things, and every time he takes loot from a monster lair he is going to ask for a roleplaying award. Every time the cleric heals, and every time the paladin vanquishes an evil monster, the sort of token roleplay comes out, and a bonus is asked for.

These bonuses are huge, they are instant advantage on any roll. The more you earn them, the better you do. Now, of course, you want people to be roleplaying and having fun and living up to character ideals, right? Of course.

The problem comes with ideals that are not so easily applied. There was a thief character in the starter set with a motivation like, "Does not want her aunt to know she is a thief." I'm sorry, that isn't that likely to come up during play, as a DM, really, you would be lucky if it came up once. If you are 50 miles away from home in the middle of a dungeon, I guarantee it may not come up at all unless another player is using it to blackmail your character. And the big boss of the dungeon isn't going to stand there cackling and threatening to tell on you to your aunt either because he saw you swipe that gold necklace. Maybe in a Disney flick, okay, but not in my dungeon.

Players who pick more generic and easily applied personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws will do better than others with more specific and harder-to-apply during the game choices. They will earn inspiration more often on roleplaying, use it more frequently, and be able to replace it faster.

I know if I were designing a character I would pick my characteristics so I could get maximum return on my roleplaying, and they would mesh up with what my class does naturally in the game. I would love to be the paladin who "loves to destroy evil" because I could ham it up in every encounter and recharge my inspiration point for the next battle. I would never pick, "Wants to rise to the top of my paladin order," because that isn't as easily roleplayed or have opportunities to use that motivation.

We don't use this entire character motivation system, to be honest. I find it to be one of those "mouse maze" player behavioral control sort of rules frameworks that turns what players should be creative and having fun with (roleplaying) into a structured "does this apply to me?" rules system. We skip it and use this house rule:

If you roleplay an action well, the DM may give you an advantage on the roll.

It's simple, it works, and it rewards creativity at the table and during play. There's no bennie points to game the system with, earn, and track. Better players who have fun, swing from chandeliers, slide across tables to attack multiple foes, or do other silly and action movie stuff get advantage in my games. If we are playing dark and serious Gothic horror, if players act like they were in a horror movie in the game, they get advantage for the roll they roleplay that well - we don't need a new motivation set telling us we are playing horror-type characters now. It also puts the player in control of how they want to roleplay their character, and the DM as the judge of that effort.

We don't need formal "king's rules" on how to roleplay and reward it. Combat, loot, character creation, build options, magic, treasure, monsters, and all that other good stuff? Give me more of that please.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Design Room: Player Behavior Control

Game designers get into a mentality of designing 'control systems' - which are rules that control a player's or referee's actions. The rules are in place to set down a controlled path of behavior. This runs counter to the game design theory in sandboxing, which assumes a lack of control and focuses on rules made to control how the world reacts to player chaos.

World of Warcraft is about the best modern example of a sandbox system degenerating down into a series of controlled paths for players to follow. In the beginning, there were limited opportunities to raid and get good gear, so what did the players do? Raid the hell out of each other's towns and sides. World PvP was king, and the world was dangerous and alive - there were places you could not go without an escort and other players on your side.

Later on, World of Warcraft adopted a strict, hierarchical system of 'raid finders' and 'dungeon finders' and organized arena PvP. They did not want sandbox PvP anymore, so they organized the reward system to punish free PvP and highly reward organized PvP. As a result, the main game world turned into a waiting room style lobby where you sat around waiting for the next fight or instance.

In short, they designed a rules system to control player behavior, and they are still at that today. They even get into designing rules systems to emulate old-style open world PvP in some zones, but it isn't the same. Those areas are just like any other instance, and the desire to be in them is in constant competition with the other systems they designed that give better rewards faster.

Eve Online is a counter example. There, they designed a 'game world' that has a base set of rules of how it reacts to PvP, and gradually phase away any control in the most desirable star systems. Uncontrolled psace is the most dangerous, because anybody and attack anybody. It's up to the players how they react to each other, and the world's 'rules of engagement' are designed to get out of the way after a while.

Part of the danger in game design is getting too cute with controlling player actions, and as you design, you are creating 'virtual mouse mazes' of rules for your players to navigate through for no other reason than to control their behavior. Mostly these 'player behavior control' systems are a waste of space and time in pen-and-paper games that could have been spent on higher value content.

Why? Players know how to play role playing games. It's like coming up with behavior control in Monopoly with rules of how to pick up the dice one at a time, formalizing the turn structure with negotiation phases and trading phases, having a property upkeep phase, and also formalizing an end-turn accounting phase for each player. For some players, yes, these steps may be a help to them playing, and it may "clean up play" in a game designer's eyes. But people know how to play, they figure out the ways they like to play, and it takes away the freedom of playing the game your own way.

Now some games are so complicated they need 'mouse mazes' to control behavior with formalized turn structures, and most of the time those games can benefit from simplifying things. If you find yourself developing behavior control systems for complicated rules, you may want to look at rules complexity first rather than making the game more structured.

Other games that are simple also put mouse mazes in place for areas they think players need help understanding, they create structure around concepts and force players down preset paths. It's like D&D 5's characteristics system for our group that instructs you what mechanical benefits you get from roleplaying your character correctly. For us, we know how to roleplay, and our DM knows how to reward good and creative roleplaying, so we don't need a system that forces people down a maze of behavior controlling statements for character motivation. For some, yes, it may help, but we know how to do this and we don't need such a large and formalized system of behavior control for the referee and players.

For us at least, I would have loved seeing rules that promote character freedom and options rather than limited random charts of a couple basic and limiting motivations - characters will make the ones they want up anyways, so other than new player help, these charts seem of limited use for experienced players. There is a danger in this character motivation system too we will examine later, as it is an easily exploitable system that can be marginalized with a couple simple choices.

So think twice about making 'mouse mazes' for players to run through in your rules. As game designers, we can come up with all sorts of cute systems and make players jump through all sorts of hoops. That time is better spent supporting player options and freedom, because mouse mazes limit freedom and choices, so it's often better to support player choice than it is to direct it down limited paths.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Old-School is the New "Organic"

DarkgarX said the above line, and there is some truth to it. He contends D&D 5 is not an old-school game, it is a modern design and lacks the certain clunky and vague areas of a true old-school game. Those are typically all the places designers left something important (or tangentially so) out of the rules and the referee was told to "make it up."

D&D 5 is a very streamlined design, and I agree, it is more of a modern game that wears the old-school clothing and supports old-school settings. You see a lot of D&D 4 innovations in D&D 5, and some of those design goals are kept here. The thought that "casters should always be able to contribute" from turn-to-turn is a more modern theory. In the past, it was wands and darts, nowadays, they get infinite ranged attack spells like something out of an MMO. Ritual magic is in, and the concept of bounding to-hits and defenses is another more modern theory.

On the whole, D&D 5 is a very modern game indeed. It has an old-school inspiration, and I would humorously compare it to calling Olive Garden and Italian restaurant. Yes, Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant, but it gives you a feeling of an Italian-inspired establishment that overdoes it in some places, and isn't true to the cuisine in others. It's a good place (most of the time lol) that I'd return to, but I accept it is not authentic.

I feel the same with D&D 5, it is a great story RPG with old-school inspirations, simplified and streamlined, but sometimes I prefer the original old-school games with their boardgame feel and simple motivations. We can enjoy different games, so I don't subscribe to system domination or one replacing the other - games are like books, meant to be read, played, and enjoyed.

Granted, there are some things about old-school that I don't miss, like the ambiguities, the omission of critical rules systems, how easily the games go out of balance, uneven complexity, and some other aspects old-school games have in common with each other.

So yes, I am a little wary of calling anything "old school" just because it subscribes to the feeling or design elements of the era. It's like new films calling themselves "Noir" and all the flak that critics give that designation nowadays. There can be no more true Noir films since that era has ended, so everything made in the Noir style nowadays is a tribute, neo-Noir, imitation, in the style of, or even parody of the genre. It's why you see paintings called "Renaissance style" instead of "Renaissance" - the art world has already went through this and worked out how they name things inspired by one era or the other.

I have no problem with calling D&D 5 or other games "old school inspired" or "old school style" in regards to the simplicity, world support, and design goals. There are some very modern elements of D&D 5 that do not fall into that category, so we need to be careful just throwing words around because they make us feel good or support our arguments. It's like a Noir film created today where they use a 3d camera that didn't exist in the era, while visually striking, true to the genre, and possibly cool - it can't be called true Noir because of how the movie was made did not exist back then.

Otherwise, it's like the "organic" quandary some food producers get into calling some foods "organic" just because of some of the modern chemicals and additives they put in them are "organic" as well. Pretty soon, everything is called "organic" and the word loses its "wholesome and natural" meaning.

So yeah, there is a difference between old-school and D&D 5. The new D&D has a number of optimizations and streamlining that clearly make it a newer game, and it is an interesting set of design decisions and goals, some of which I agree with and others I don't. Like all games in a way, they have good and bad points, so you keep an open mind, mod them, play them, and discuss them without wasting time on silly system wars or advocacy.

Mod them? Now there's an idea.

Darn it Wizards, get your community publishing license out and done already. Walled gardens do not let us play, and there are always other games out there to mod and bring new ideas into.

Or I'll just end up writing my own.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

D&D 5: Personality Characteristics

D&D 5 introduces a system of personality characteristics, of which you start with five:
2 Personality Traits
1 Ideal
1 Bond
1 Flaw
Before we get into talking about them, let's discuss them. Traits are quirks or unique Trivial Pursuit facts about your character. Ideals are core beliefs, while flaws are shortcomings in your personality. Bonds link you to the world in some way. I'm not seeing the system as optional, so it is needed to play and has mechanical considerations.

What do you do with these? Well, during roleplaying, if you act true to your personality, you get a one-use Inspiration point (non stacking, only one at a time) you can use to get "advantage" to any roll you choose. It's like a "reroll fate point" sort of thing, a reward for staying true to your character's personality.

My group found this system heavy and a bit distracting in the Starter Set. If felt like it focused on the character a bit much, and put a "does my trait apply?" layer between our characters and the story. I am not sold on the system because I really don't need it - this is what good roleplayers do (and more), and we don't need it so spelled out for us.

I suppose it would be helpful to teach new players how to play Game of Thrones style characters, okay, but my group found it limiting. There is a lot of mental characteristics to consider, and it felt like creating an extra statistic for something players naturally do, and puts what feels like an extra rules system between a player and their character.

Seriously, if a player just wants to play "drunken dwarf" they don't need this system, just let them play and let them have fun without having to check five mental characteristics in every roleplaying situation.

Yes, a character's mental state should probably affect how they relate to the story, but is such a codified and structured system needed for that? It feels like it takes the focus away from the shared story with a series of per-character quirks. They aren't "character story" traits either, just how you react to events. It reminds me of older roleplaying games that put mental characteristics as actual ability scores, with scores such as Bravery or Determination forcing the player to make rolls for what should be player-determined roleplaying traits.

I suppose they are taking the question of "how do you reward good roleplaying" out of the game with this system. Certain players, just by the nature of their personality type, can get all sorts of bonuses from a receptive dungeon master by acting in character, having fun, telling jokes, and being the life of the party. More passive players don't get these rewards because they hold back. With this system, everyone gets rewarded for "good roleplaying" equally with a single Inspiration point. Once you have roleplayed "good" you cannot earn extra roleplaying bonuses until you have spent that point.

Okay, I have problems with this. I want everyone to ham it up, have fun, try and outdo each other, and act crazy at my table. I shall reward them time and time again if they make us laugh and everyone gets a kick out of a player's antics. I want the passive players to step up and act just as silly as the outgoing ones. I shall reward your in-character-ness, silliness, stupidity, bad jokes, or heroic feats of derring-do as much as I want and as many times as my players keep the party going.

It's called having fun.

We really don't need a system that tells us how to roleplay or reward us for doing it "right". I don't want a system that limits rewards and possibly keeps my outgoing players from trying something else silly once they have earned their Inspiration point. As the dungeon master, I am the one who knocks, and I am the one who says, "You get advantage on that roll" because a player did something cool, acted within character, or made us all laugh. I know, you want a system in place that gives players guidelines for rewards, but I don't feel it is really needed, and it is a throwback to the old systems that told you how to roleplay your character.

Besides, I award good roleplaying with extra experience points, not Inspiration points. If a player did something the hard way, played something true to character which made it harder on them, or otherwise played things "true to character" that is worth an experience point award, not a temporary die roll bennie. You took the hard road, so that is worth real bonus XP.

I can't see us using this system much, and I am replacing it with the tried-and-true "I give advantage or disadvantage" bonus system that I decide at the table during play. Players can write all this stuff down, sure if it helps them, but I find the "fate point" style Inspiration point thing limiting, and a bit silly since it does not reward the action directly - it only gives you a freebie to be used later. Okay, so your drunken dwarf drank a lot at the inn and you got an Inspiration point which you use...the next day when you are smashing an orc's face? And you have no reason to play in character further because you have your point stored and you're waiting to use it?

Hmm. If it were me, I'd reward the roleplaying with a small xp reward and skip the Inspiration mechanic. That way, there is no limit to the bonuses I can award you, and you can keep making us laugh with your drunken dwarf antics all the way to the dungeon. If you manage to smack that orc in his face with your ale-filled tankard, I may just award you advantage on that roll.

The inspiration? It comes from everybody at the table, and we really don't need points to track it.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

D&D 5 vs. Pathfinder: Magic Systems

As I read through D&D 5's magic spells I am struck by one thing, and I have saw this in our "Fun With D&D 5 Magic" series. D&D 5's spells all seem very version 1.0, they can be exploited with combos or special tricks, have huge area of effects, infinite-cast cantrips give immunity to all forms of melee damage, and there are just a lot of ways to abuse these spells. They require a different way of thinking about magic and powers, and they do have a D&D 4 magic rethink feeling to them.

D&D 5 puts the dungeon master squarely back in control of the rules though, so a lot of these exploits are "to be denied" by the dungeon master when they come up. It puts a burden on the referee, but it gives the game a more old-school and freewheeling feel.
DarkgarX has an issue with calling these "old school" style spells, and he fought me on this point. He's partially right, but I still think they are old-school inspired. His reasoning is that these are spells designed with more modern design techniques and considerations.
In comparison, the majority of the spells for Pathfinder were created under the OGL in the year 2000 when D&D 3 came out. These spells were revised and balanced under D&D 3.5, and then again for Pathfinder. So the D&D 3.x to Pathfinder line of spells have been balanced, used, and playtested for about fourteen years. These were the original spells created by the Magic the Gathering type team at Wizards, so they were crafted with a new level of balance and usability in mind.

D&D split from D&D back in the 3.0 days with AD&D 2.0 being the last faithful version, and it turned into a highly tuned Magic the Gathering style roleplaying game. Pathfinder is that MtG RPG nowadays, and true D&D continues on with D&D 5 and also the retro-clones like Labyrinth Lord and Basic Fantasy RPG.

It is an interesting lineage, and the Pathfinder spells are clearly better designed, streamlined, and balanced. If you read Pathfinder spells and compare them to their D&D 5 counterparts (reverse gravity, etc), I feel the Pathfinder spells are just a better designed and working set of magic powers as a whole. The D&D 5 spells are simple and easier to use in a more casual setting, but the Pathfinder magic spell set has been beat up, used, and exploited for a long, long time, so they feel like they have been through the battle and they work very well.

Yes, in both these games casters are very powerful, but that's just the world we live in. The point is, they are powerful enough, giving them a set of spells that feel like a step backwards before D&D 3.0 in balance with exploits makes these wizards even more powerful. Magic has always been a headache for referees, and I prefer a set of spells that have been used for the last 14 years and most of the bugs worked out. They just feel like better working spells to me.

Part of me would like to see D&D 5 errata that corrects some of this, but then again, part of me doesn't. I am tired of errata, and D&D 4 has soured me to the entire concept where I would rather play a semi-broken "rules as written" game from my books than have error-filled books and pages of printouts with corrections to cross reference. With D&D 4, there was so much errata if felt like the game kept changing, and there was a version in there we liked, but it was patched and fixed to a point where we didn't recognize the game after a point and we just quit.

Pathfinder has errata, yes, but at least I can keep my PDFs and Hero Lab up to date, and that is what I play with anyways. I love my books, but I play with the most up-to-date electronic copies. There is a clear benefit to Paizo's PDF-centric business model for players and referees, and I support it because it makes my gaming life easy.

So I will take the D&D 5 spells in all their sort of silly, unbalanced, and exploitable forms as they are, and just chalk it up to "this is how this world works." The books I buy for this game are it for my group, and I am not buying into errata or character generators that are different to what I have on paper. I'm not interested in a D&D 5.5 later on either.

Besides, old-school magic is supposed to be and exploitable and rules-less Wild West to an extent, and those referee headaches are part of the fun for players. It does turn the game into a "gotcha" sort of simulator, where the referee makes monsters use the same magic spell exploits on the characters, but coming from Basic Fantasy RPG and Labyrinth Lord, I am used to that. There is a sort of freewheeling fun to it, so it is not a problem for me because I understand where it's coming from. D&D 5 is more of a casual RPG, and a lot is left to the referee. It's cool and I actually have a place at my table for that sort of game.

If I am playing seriously, like in a tournament or a setting where rules disagreements could affect the outcome of a competitive game? I feel I will stick with Pathfinder. In these settings and organized play, I want rules and powers that have been beat up a little bit and have all the problems worked out. There are still problems with balance in many spells, yes, but overall, Pathfinder may be a little more complex, but this complexity came out of the years of using the system. There is also a fairness in having rules for everything that protects organized play that I appreciate, and this design mentality goes all the way back to Pathfinder's sort of Magic the Gathering roots.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Pathfinder: Mundane Monsters Into Awesome Monsters

One of the most important things to remember in Pathfinder and other 3.x fantasy games is that humanoid traces such as goblins, orcs, gnolls, kobolds, and others do not possess racial hit dice - they are full characters. The monsters in Pathfinder Bestiary 1 are typically "warrior level one" versions of the monster, and using them straight does a disservice to the challenge level and interest of your game.

To be fair, you need to include a range of levels and classes in your encounter, and this includes specialists, support classes, and casters. If you have Hero Lab it takes just a couple minutes to create a kobold shaman and kit him out with a basic spell list. An encounter with six kobolds is one thing, but three kobold warriors, a kobold shaman, and two kobold rangers is quite another, and in fact, much more interesting and memorable.

Let's give those kobold rangers masterwork shortbows and weak-poison tipped arrows? Great idea. Let's give the warriors caltrops and have them toss those under the character's feet? Even better. Have the shaman try to blind characters and have them step on the spikes? Fun. Even if those special attacks and pieces of gear never amount to anything, when the players remember back to those crafty kobolds that tried all sorts of silly tricks as something cool and memorable.

The six by-the-book kobolds with no armor and shortswords? Bland and uninteresting, and a disservice to your masterpiece of an adventure. The care you put into encounter creation shows your attention to detail and crafting your adventure. I know it takes a bit of work, and there is probably a need for pregens, but if you give yourself a rule "never use a monster straight from the book" - you will be in a lot better place when you are at the table with players.

Plus, from my experience, players love that attention to detail. Anybody can defeat stock by-the-book monsters, and in fact, many-many people do every day. That's what everybody does, so why follow the crowd? This is your game, the time your players are spending with you is special, so show them some love and customize your humanoid monsters with all the equipment, classes, feats, and spells that players use. Pull out your bag of "dirty tricks" and come up with some memorable attack combos for each encounter.

You could go even further, and customize most every monster, especially the intelligent ones. This is very fun, and it gives your campaign world a sense of difference and wonder where a wyrmling green dragon can have a couple ranger levels, adding a natural weapon feat for the claws to up damage, a favored terrain of the forest for stealth and tracking, some ranger powers and possibly an animal companion, and you have turned a stock monster into something very cool and interesting. Again, the capability of makes Hero Lab an incredible tool and worth investing in to increase your enjoyment of the game.

It turns the mundane monsters into the awesome, and gives you a whole new perspective on Pathfinder's character builds and flexibility. Yes, you can and should use class levels for monsters, and doing so customizes and "powers up" your game. It lets you put incredible creativity into your game, and makes every one of your encounters memorable and cool for your players.

Don't be by-the-book, be awesome.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Fun with D&D 5 Magic: Lightning Bolt

Okay, old-school storm chaser dungeon masters, listen up. Today we light things up with lightning bolt.

We get a 100-foot long bolt of lightning that is five feet wide. I'm assuming the actual lighting bolt is just an inch wide, and the rest of that width is a conductive danger area that forks out along the main bolt.

The line must be 100-feet long. Because lighting is the way it is, it won't bounce off of living tissue, it will pass straight through in a line to the next thing. The silly "carried or worn items will not be ignited" anti-player-complaint gear-protection rule is back here again, and I summarily ignore it because old-school is cool. Nope, you get toasted by a lightning bolt and all bets are off for your gear, just like fireball.

"DMs can improvise," page 5, PHB, so don't complain about your broken magic items. That stuff was paid for when you found it.

They say that you get a DEX save to take half damage? If you are wearing metal armor, you get disadvantage on that roll, lighting rod. I may even up the distance from the bolt where you can be hit to 10 feet, especially if there are other objects nearby that can get hit and transfer the shock to you. That candlestick near the bolt took a strike, and it jumped all the way over to you. It may up the power of the spell, but this is the sort of freedom you get with old-school rules that is cool and gives the referee the flexibility to adapt to situations.

Lesson? Don't stand next to an iron golem if the mage casts a lightning bolt at it, I just may rule it jumps to every adjacent target in melee, especially characters hitting it with metal weapons.

When this bolt hits a solid object, things get interesting. You could rule one of two things. In old-school versions of D&D, lighting is wonderfully bouncy, and it would reflect in random directions all over the map until it expended its length. In the real world, the wall or ground behind the lightning hit would absorb the electricity, but act as a conductor and spread the electric shock out to a 20-foot radius sphere through the walls and floors.

Since I am an evil DM, I will roll a d6 on each impact, on a 1-3 it bounces, and on a 4-6 it grounds and causes area damage. I love bouncing lighting, but causing it to ground and fry everyone nearby helps you understand why you shouldn't stand near trees during a storm, so it is in. If the dungeon is made of metal or water, I would rule bounces produce grounding damage as well.

To be fair, it is all one jolt with one voltage, so you can't take damage twice from any combinations of direct strikes or grounding. You are either connected to the current or not during the millisecond flash, and you take that damage once no matter how many times you are hit.

If lighting hits water, everything within a 100-foot radius of the strike in the water takes damage. Stay out of the pool during a dungeon exploration for your own safety, please.

The lightning may bounce back and hit your friends, so be careful where you cast it. To be fair, bounce direction should be random, you can't really predict the angle of whatever it hits on the map, so just come up with a random direction based on a d6 roll, and bounce away until it grounds and stops. No, you can't predict lighting and do a cool bounce shot, you are unleashing the cruel forces of nature.

Noise? What, I can't hear you because this stuff is loud. It is probably safe to assume the entire map has heard your little experiment in voltage transfer, so monsters are likely on their way (or running). Enemy mages can use lightning bolt as well, and I toss those scrolls into magic wielders with enough frequency to make my players' eyes twitch anytime they see a caster. DM's, you are not old school unless you regularly fling the same spells back at the party at least a couple times during the adventure. What fries the geese can fry the gander.

The only way to truly balance powerful magic is give it the chance to kill the caster, break magic items, and wipe out the party. Then, the caster thinks twice before summoning unholy power, and the party's thief loses all thoughts of backstabbing the careless mage before trigger-happy Gandalf gets them all killed.

This is the old school. The DMs are evil and turn the party's own tricks back onto them with alarming frequency and maniacal glee, either through stupid mistakes, random chance, or by a monster's own hands. If you want your game to capture that OG flavor, you pull no punches. Magic spells this powerful does not come with warning stickers and safety caps.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Fun with D&D 5 Magic: Fireball

You know where this is going, so let's start off with a bang.

Fireball creates a 20-foot radius flaming explosion that "spreads around corners." Let's assume for a moment this is the old-school fireball, and it fills a volume. A 20-foot radius sphere is 33,510 cubic feet of fireball, or about 34 ten-foot cubes of 1,000 cubic feet each.

Let's cast this into a 20x20 room with a 10-foot ceiling. That's just 4 of our 34 cubes used up. The rest of those thirty squares of fireball have to go somewhere, right? Let's assume there are three ten foot wide and high halls coming out of this room, doors or not those will likely get blown off so let's treat them all equally. Three halls among our thirty remaining cubes of fire equal ten cubes each, so we can assume each one of those hallways is getting a 100-foot long fireball racing down their length.

Boom, I hope you weren't casually throwing that fireball into the room from 60-feet down the hall, otherwise, you and your party are getting too close to the grill today.

Now, the one strange part of the spell is that it says it ignites flammable objects in the area that aren't being "worn or carried" - so if you are carrying vials of oil, flammable parchment, bundles of dry moss, firecrackers, TNT, or open containers of gasoline, you are safe. In this game, not in real life, so don't try this at home!

Geeze, people.

Wow, this is a major pull back from AD&D 1st Edition, where if you were following the rules, you started making saving throws for every exposed piece of gear, magic items, armor, and weapon in your party You could lose your backpacks and have that treasure go all over hell, your scrolls could burn up, you could lose that +3 longsword, the cloak of elven-kind was probably toast-ed-kind, and you were sitting there making saves for rings when all was said and done.

To me? D&D 5 brought this old-school wraith upon itself, and I am forcing spell DC saving throws for all exposed gear. Go cry in your D&D 4 books, retro is cool nowadays. Stuff that is resistant to fire (metal, gems, asbestos) gets advantage on the roll, while fragile and flammable stuff (scrolls, glass, gunpowder, cloth) is getting disadvantage. Ignitable items that fail saves are getting burned up like smores dropped into a bonfire, and explosives are going boom-boom for full rolled damage to those stupid enough to carry gunpowder with a trigger happy fire mage in the party.

Smoke? Yes smoke, if fires are set or dungeon furniture was burned up. Too bad there are no rules for smoke or choking in the rules, so it's DM fiat time. In every square affected for the next 10 to 30 minutes, CON Save or take 1d6 damage, plus heavy obscurement and blindness if the smoke is acrid enough. If the dungeon is small enough and there's enough to burn, I will just fill the whole place with smoke and start to up the damage as the oxygen depletes to a d12 on a failed save or something.

Locked doors may be destroyed, and the treasure and furniture of the room will need saving throws, so there may not be much left in there after you nuke it from orbit. Traps may also be destroyed, so have those makes saves too. If a door makes a save, save those squares of fireball and have them go somewhere else! That door is also probably stuck beyond repair too having survived an explosion like that.

If I am feeling particularly nasty, structural damage may come into play. If this is an old and structurally unsound dungeon, tomb, or cave, I may have affected areas make spell DC saves or collapse. Don't forget localized damage to door frames, arches, statues, stairs, fountains, levers, mechanical devices, or other items character may have needed to use to solve the adventure.

Oh, and if you think that an explosion in a small space that if outdoors would be heard for miles isn't going to wake the dead, rest assured the entire map is going to hear this and start sending monsters to check out the carnage. They could also send others to investigate, and you better pray to one of the pantheon of deities they don't have a fireball to shock-and-awe you to return the favor. What's good for the monsters is good for the party, and my monsters don't pull punches.

Sooty the Owlbear says, only you...would be so stupid to cast a fireball in an exposed space.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Fun with D&D 5 Magic: Plastic Surgery for Free

"Quick, okay, get the thief in here."

"Okay, we need you to impersonate the King."

"But I look nothing like him!"

"We can fix that, okay, mage, Flesh to Stone, now!"

"Great, okay, druid, hit him with Stone Shape. Make him look like the King. Sweet. Now let's wait a minute."

"Nice, okay, welcome back thief."

"What did you do to me???!"

"Flesh to stone keeps deformities after the spell ends, and stoneshape is of permanent instantaneous duration."

"Hey guys, we need to impersonate the Queen, not the King."

"Hey thief, where did you go?"

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Fun with D&D 5 Magic: Reverse Gravity

Wow, this has to be one of the most destructive magic spells known to fantasy gaming. And that makes it one of the most fun.

The spell reverses gravity in a 50-foot radius area 100 feet high. If you strike something while falling, you take normal impact damage. If you don't hit anything, you kinda float at the top of the cylinder up there according to the spell description. You should either splatter or fly off into space, because at the end of a fall like that, your body will be moving at 55mph after a 2.5 second fall - "normal falling damage" typically means this is physics-by-the-book. It must decelerate you for safety's sake, but that is a heck of a stop.

Since the spell is concentration, if you cancel it just before the target hits the top, the target's velocity alone should throw them another 100 feet in the air before they stop and begin to fall back down - a total of a 200' rise and fall. This spell would be so cool to fling people up 200-foot cliffs because they would be in freefall at the apex of the fall.

If you cast it on a house, the effect would be to take the whole house and turn it upside down for up to a minute. Given the fact that most houses, stone walls, fences, or other constructions aren't built to allow for gravity being reversed, the house would most likely fly to pieces and be utterly destroyed.

If you cast it on half of a ship it would either rip in half or flip, and most likely both. Many things do not take well to gravity being turned on its head.

If you cast it on a body of water I'm not certain what would happen. The cylinder would likely fill up with water completely since nothing can go past the top, but when you released it the whole 22,138 metric tons of water would come down in a devastating local tidal wave.

Volcanoes. Volcanoes are fun, but since this magic spell only has a 100 foot range I wouldn't recommend it unless you had fire resistance.

If you had two mages, with that range you could cast one on top of the other for double the fun. Though I'm thinking a second reverse gravity would reverse the original if it was cast on top of one another, so you'd have to stack. If you got enough mages together you could build towers of any height just by raising 100' blocks up and having them chain cast. You'd need a giant or two to push them into place, but hey, we're in a fantasy world, remember?

With more than one mage, it's possible to get things flying upwards at terminal velocity if the last one cancels the spell at the right time. Neat.

If you cast it on a forest fire, the smoke would go down and possibly smother the fire. The heat would also go down, creating a superheated area at the base of the tower that would likely explode and flash violently when the spell stops, since it's only a minute maximum - not really enough time to smother a huge forest fire. Thermodynamics and gravity are cool. Or hot. There's a lot here to think about, especially with heat and gas reactions to flipped gravity.

The spell is centered at a vague "point within range", so presumably that point could be up to 100 feet underground. That would be great for digging up earthworms or backing up a city block's sewer system into the surrounding neighborhood. The spell also goes directly through any material, so you could give a 100' deep and wide area of a dungeon a pretty powerful love tap before you got started for the day.

Good morning dungeon! I hope all of you like the fresh smell of ceiling this morning. And the floor. Double falling damage for you all and we'll be down to collect your loot in a moment.

Don't cast it on the king's castle if you don't want to piss him off at you. Did you know most all giant castle or temple stones aren't mortared or 'glued' into place, this thing called, um, gravity holds them down? Yeah, that's going to really piss him off.

Warning: Do not cast this spell on piles of boulders, jetties, cliffs, large statues, or on huge piles of logs.

Even reasonably rocky or forested areas would see tons of debris flying into the air, logs, stones, leaves, yard waste, animals, trees with roots that can't support their weight, and anything else not tied down would go - up. Letting that crap go would turn the entire area into a hailstorm of death and flying debris.

Caution: Do not use on objects in motion that would leave the area of effect! Avoid casting near freeways, rivers, or rockslides.

The rest of the creative, silly, and destructive ways this wonderful magic spell can be used is left up to the fantasy gamer's imagination. A smart DM would probably rule against all of the above and make the spell work as-intended, but where's the fun in that? Science! It's made for fun and a classic part of old-school role-playing craziness, check it out.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Fun with D&D 5 Magic: Detect Glibness

D&D 5 has the spell Glibness, an 8th level transmutation spell. This spell makes "magic that would determine if you are telling the truth" indicate that "you are being truthful."
Okay, fire up that "detect lies" spell again and get that mage back in my throneroom. 
Mage, repeat this back to me word-for-word, "I am the king of this land."
It's a funny difference and oversight in the D&D 5 spell compared to the Pathfinder version, which works a little better with a "no discernible lie" qualifier. Sometimes when you rewrite a spell for simplicity, you lose the language that made it clear and work correctly in the first place. This is the reason why the 3.x line of D&D spells just bloats with special cases, exploits, and other silliness.

It really is a question of "how much do you want the referee to rule against cheese?" versus "how much do you want to handle special cases?" - and ultimately an ease-of-use thing. With too many special cases, it's likely time to rewrite the spell than spend a half-column of page space explaining something that's broken.

With D&D5's spell of Glibness, it's not broken, it's just poorly worded in that if you take this literally, there's always a way to detect it by forcing someone to tell you something you know is a lie. A good DM would call this BS and disallow it, but rules-as-written it's pretty hilarious.

I might allow it once if a player came up with this clever tactic on his or her own, and then disallow the spell and lie detection method because it's been posted to the Internet and now everyone does it.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Design Room: System Mastery

System Mastery is a game design philosophy which basically holds these truths as the most important goals in the design:
  • Players should be able to 'master' the game system
  • The following choices should be supported in every game system:
    • Good choices
    • Neutral (bad) choices
    • Bad choices
It sounds great on paper, right? Who wouldn't want to 'master' a game system by learning it and doing really well within the choices presented? This happens in a degree with all game designs, but System Mastery seeks to empower experiences players by giving them optimal paths through a game's rules.

Don't confuse this with learning a game and doing well at it, because System Mastery requires that non-optimal paths be present in every game system, rules systems, equipment, spells, powers, feats, and every other piece in the game presenting a player choice. These non-optimal paths are designed in on purpose to be 'weak choices' and are often presented as cool and useful options. There is an element of deception and a shell game going on by the game designer, because part of the game design theory is to present every option as equal and optimal, yet purposefully designing some options as less optimal.

What does this do? It typically triples the amount of options you need in every system in your game, because you are deliberately designing in bad choices and cruft. You need more spells, more feats, more equipment, more powers, and more of everything in order to have the room for bad choices to exist. It can be argued neutral and semi-useful choices can be lumped into the bad ones because they are on non-optimal paths. The worst result of designing System Mastery into your game is it triples the amount of rules you need to support actions, because you need to design non-optimal paths through every action supported by the rules, combat, movement, melee systems, and every other action that can be taken by a character in a rules system needs good, neutral, and bad paths through it.

It is interesting to note that games such as World of Warcraft have abandoned System Mastery in some aspects. WoW's talent system went from a system mastery style setup of optimal paths to one that gives equal and valid choices. For World of Warcraft's old talent system, the optimal paths would be figured out by the Internet within hours of the changes and the best paths published for everyone to see. This eliminates the design goal of System Mastery because in an ecosystem where everyone can make the same choices freely, everyone shares knowledge and copies each other. The new system is a lot better and eliminates bad choices (it is limited, though).

It is important to highlight that - shared knowledge invalidates the major design goals of System Mastery. The best builds will be calculated instantly, the "scripts" for everyone to follow will be published online, choices will be limited, and there is no discovery. This happens in all games to an extent, but in games with the "best paths" designed in? Those get found and shared instantly, and the best build becomes the only build.

System Mastery is present in the original and current designs of Magic the Gathering, and it influenced the design of D&D 3.0 and continues in Pathfinder. It works a lot better in Magic the Gathering than it does in pen-and-paper games because there is an element of scarcity in MtG that does not exist in pen-and-paper and online games. If the supply of a great and optimal card is limited and the card is very rare, its value increases, and it can be an optimal choice because there aren't that many of them in the world to choose from. You can go out and pay a lot of money for that option, or you can deal with a sea of less optimal choices within your budget.

System Mastery in MtG is supported by the free market and scarcity, and it works better under this model since your choices are dictated by what you have and what you can get within your means. With pen-and-paper games and also MMOs, the model doesn't work as well. There are infinite amounts of feats, spells, and other items to use to create "best builds" with.

In MMOs and role playing games, bad choices get used rarely - everyone knows the non-optimal builds, and players choosing those options are seen as weaker and are thus less desirable players. The goal of System Mastery becomes a false goal because optimal paths are figured out and the best performing players choose the best builds. Because the best builds are the top performers, the game's content is often balanced around the highest DPS and most effective builds, further marginalizing players who do not make the same choices - they can't play at high levels because they aren't following the best performing designs.

This is the negative feedback effect of System Mastery. Since the best players are using the best builds - the game gets balanced for those. You get into that MMO situation where "any other build" is non-optimal and will not be able to participate in high-level content.

It's a funny symptom of games following System Mastery as a design goal, they tend to profess infinite choice, but they actually have very few real choices if you want your character to perform and be able to participate in the toughest end-game content. This is more true in MMOs than pen-and-paper games, of course, but pen-and-paper balance has been a hot topic recently, and the concept of "game breaking builds" is a subject of discussion nowadays.

Game breaking builds are more of a problem in System Mastery games because it isn't always possible to test every conceivable combination of optimal paths across all your game's systems. Like World of Warcraft, when you have System Mastery, you tend to get a lot of game design churn with patches, OP builds being nerfed, "why bother" builds, and other problems that come as a result of deliberately designing in optimal paths. The churn in these games is high as errata and patches are issued, and then a new build is discovered and quickly becomes OP. It is an endless cycle, because all of your optimal paths are identified and the process starts over again because of relative power between the optimal and non-optimal paths.

With pen-and-paper games, patching and errata becomes a source of pain quickly. D&D 4's endless errata to balance the system invalidated the printed books within weeks of release, once the inevitable patch came out to remove exploits your hardcopy was worthless compared to the online info in Character Builder. Many players we knew avoided buying the books, and instead just subscribed to Character Builder to play because the investment in the books was devalued once the game was patched. In other games where they don't patch as much, the OP builds are left to sit out there, and it is up to the referee to disallow them.

In old-school OGR games, System Mastery was often, "Let's not do anything stupid to get the party killed." Many choices were equal and optimal, and you were limited by a depleting supply of resources (and often a rapidly shrinking carrying capacity as you collected loot). If you were smart enough to figure out the chess piece puzzle, you took hints in the room description and avoided the poison gas trap, or realized your party's resources were low and you shouldn't push it - that was smart play. System Mastery in old-school games came from the cleverness of the players and their ability to manage the resources they were given.

Modern games took the concept of System Mastery are embedded that into the rules with the concept of "optimal paths." The Internet for the most part has eliminated the goals of System Mastery, because the choices System Mastery presents are not choices anymore - there are no paths because everyone does the math and publishes them, and then the best choices within each class become the only ones to play and what the highest level content is balanced against.

"Equal but valid choices based on play style" is the more modern design philosophy in games (Play Style Focused), and it's a good thing to see because it support diverse builds, play styles, and it simplifies the game. You don't have to support bad choices anymore, because every choice is valid and supported given a play style. You don't need rules paths that lead to less-optimal results, and your spells and powers can be simplified and focused towards being optimal choices for play styles rather than a huge pot of choices with good and bad choices fore "general" play. You do less with more, and every choice is a good one.

It is often better to define and support diverse play styles (PvP, PvE, leveling, role playing, etc) than it is to support one play style (DPS focused, usually). System Mastery typically is focused on "beating the content" and usually does not have room to support more than that because of the complexity and choice-set needed to support the system.

It is a fascinating theory in game design, one which works well in systems with limited resources and physical scarcity, but one that often has difficulty in systems with infinite choices and resources. It is also a legacy of D&D 3 upon modern roleplaying games and also some MMOs, and it is interesting to see some games (WoW) abandon the design theory for more sustainable game design theories for their game model, while some continue on because the model works because of other factors (MtG).

Monday, September 15, 2014

D&D 5's Launch Hits & Misses

Back when we used to work for DAZ 3D, we used to have these "post-op" meetings after a product launch to figure out what went well, what went wrong, and what we could do better next time. Well, D&D 5's launch has got me thinking along those lines, so here is my independent assessment of the hits, misses, and do better next times of the game's launch. Mind you, the Monster Manual and DMG are not out yet, so this story is not over.

The Misses

#1 - No Day One PDFs: We are in the age where players have their complete set of roleplaying books on their phone or tablet. Why you wouldn't want kids to read the rule book at school on their phones and electronic devices is beyond me.  I have my complete Pathfinder set on my tablet, and in fact, I shop for tablets on how well they work at the gaming table with this collection. PDFs are far easier to use and carry around, and I love being able to do text searches on the book. Unless I totally missed where the PDF was at, I feel not having this out on day one was a huge miss.

#2 - Staggered Release: I know releasing three books over three months keeps the hype going, but D&D is a game where you really need all three books to play. It's painful waiting for them, I can't enjoy the full game and I am bought in now, so I must wait. Or feel forced to buy modules that I am not really excited about. We live in an age of instant gratification, so I am expecting to be gratified and have my books for my gaming group's enjoyment. We want to play!

#3 - Weak Third Party Support: Back at DAZ 3D, when we did a major figure launch, we had forty to fifty add-on products (clothing, hairs, skins, accessories, etc) from third party publishers and artists ready to go and in the store on launch day. Yes, we ensured the success of our figures by working with partners ahead of time, getting them pre-release figures, taking QA issues all the way up to launch day, and helping them make their products the best they could be. Think of it this way, D&D 5 had the chance to line up an army of third-party support with other publishers way ahead of time, and it didn't happen. Also, work cannot begin on products until the community has a license, so if this is coming next year, great 3rd party products will probably come out the year after that, in 2016. That is a long wait.

#4 - No Hero Lab Support: With Lone Wolf's Hero Lab character creation program, you have a large market of roleplaying gamers that are willing to pay extra for a character creator to manage their games. These customers are already gamers, and have expressed interest in your game. They are by definition "heavy users" and many of them probably run a game with other players, making them a group with a powerful influence on what games are played. I feel excluding this group from having a D&D 5 character creation rules module is a mistake. I know Wizards is working on their own system, but their online tools have always been hit-or-miss,but having Hero Lab users in the game with your system on day one would have been a great thing and created a lot of buzz.

#5 - No Third Party License: Promising to release a 3rd party publishing license next year is not good enough. This should have been done before launch, with the license printed in the book, and it should have been OGL-style with less restrictions than D&D 4th Edition's GSL. You cannot ignore the OGL and hope it goes away. Plus, the health of the gaming ecosystem depends on third parties being able to play and create products for your game system. I think this is the biggest threat to the long-term popularity of the game, at least for me. I like third party worlds, class books, spells, and supplements. I like supporting the creative community of third party publishers. D&D 5 could be the king of the hill and control the gaming narrative like D&D 3.x, or it could end up a walled garden with little third party interest like D&D 4. I feel the quality and support of the 3rd party license will determine the future of this game.

The Hits

#1 - Great Player's Handbook: A great product forgives a lot of sins, and Wizards did an incredible job with the Player's Handbook. It is well put together, compete, easy to use, and just darn pretty. Full color art on nearly every page? Wow. If they can keep up batting these books out of the park, they will sell and attract interest. It is a super hard job to put together a book with this quality and consistent content that pays homage to every edition, and they did a great job.

#2 - Playtest Crowd Excited: The playtesters were out on day one with their wall of 5-star reviews for anything D&D, so this was a hit. Getting your base pumped up and out there is also a notoriously difficult thing, so the D&D playtest team deserves huge credit for running a massive effort and getting people pumped up about a product far ahead of release day. This type of pre-launch testing costs a lot of money just paying employees to be there and do their jobs with no product on the shelves bringing revenue in, so Hasbro deserves props too for having faith in that team and supporting the playtesters.

#3 - Support of All Settings: D&D 5's team adopted a "big tent" approach and supported all of D&D's previous settings and timelines. Did you like the original Forgotten Realms pre-spellplague? It's supported and fine to play in, you don't need to feel like a time-travelling pariah if your group chooses to play there. Like the original Mystara? Fine, we support that too. Birthright or Dark Sun? In and in. I love this big tent support, and also the support of your favorite setting and era. It is good stuff, and kudos to the team for taking this direction instead of rebooting and disrupting every setting again for 5th Edition.

#4 - Previous Edition PDFs: dndclassics.com is where you can go and buy all that previous edition material, so you don't have to buy it off of ebay or used. This was an incredibly great move by Wizards, and they partnered with another PDF seller (DriveThruRPG) to get this done. This is an amazing and positive development for the fans of every previous edition, and it keeps the classic settings alive and the source material for 5th Edition out there and available to new generations. This collaboration gives me hope the 3rd party support license thing can be worked out, and it also is a huge boon for the fans who loved and supported D&D throughout the 40 years of the game. It also plays beautifully into the "support any setting and era" strategy of the above. Support this site, it is just amazing.

#5 - The Rules: The jury is still out technically on the D&D 5 rules, but they chose simplicity over complexity, and this won a lot of fans over. They did a good job on the basic rules, but I want to see more options and spells for builds. To have a complete view of magic items, encounter builds, and monsters, we need all three books. Still, the rules are tight and the math is under control, so they did a good job on game design here. I'm hoping we get a lot more options, and also we shall see how this tighter system holds up to exploits and min-maxers. I like the less-heroic focus and more realistic feel of D&D 5, but I also like the crazy high-magic of Pathfinder, so both games have a place at my table. It was a good decision to go a separate path here and make both games different in focus and feeling.


This is an interesting list, and four of the five misses could be remedied at a later date. The slower launch and the huge delay in 3rd party products hurt the most, at least for me. I want to see publishers come up with new worlds to play in, new classes to try, and new spells designed along the 5th Edition paradigms. It's why I feel the 3rd party license is so critical for the game.

On the flip side, it won't take much simplification, cleaning up, and paring down to make a possible Pathfinder 2.0 into something similar (if simple is the new thing and Paizo decides to go that way) - and I bet you the OGL or something better and more open will be in place for that game as well. Even if Pathfinder doesn't change, it is still an incredibly robust and community supported system that I can't see its popularity declining.

I want D&D 5 to have a vibrant, thriving ecosystem that's open and free to publish for, and I think most gamers do as well. I don't want to see a repeat of 4th Edition, where you have a game with potential and popularity among the fans, but the third party support lacked because of the restrictive license. I have hope though, based on dndclassics.com and some of the other things they have been doing. It's all tea-leaf reading until something is announced, of course, but I am hopeful for a surprise here with community support.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Railroading: D&D 5 vs. GTA 5


I've been hearing a lot of criticisms of the D&D 5th Edition modules for railroading players into situations, to force them to make choices, and to put them in situations they had to go into or the module would dead end. To be fair, I've seen this in Pathfinder adventure paths as well, along with dead-ends where even the referee is sitting there wondering how to move the group to the next area without making it look obvious.

To the wargamer, or even the casual 4th Edition player, railroading isn't as much of a problem, I mean, just get us to the next battle and let's have at it. I've seen 4th Edition modules just list combat encounter after combat encouter with as little as possible holding them together and you know, so what? They were fun fights, and the addiction of the chess-piece battles more than made up for the click-clack of the rails underneath the party's feet.

It's not an excuse, no, but D&D 4 is so different on narrative style it is a special case. It is battle chess, and while freedom is appreciated in choice of direction, there better be a fun series of tabletop battles when we get where we are going.

But D&D 5 is more of a story game, and Pathfinder also dips into the story-solving motivation. When you play a game more driven by narrative, you are going to get railroading eventually. Even in the strongest sandbox computer games, like Grand Theft Auto 5, you are going to get scripted story missions every once and a while that are fun, memorable, and more importantly - welcomed by the sandbox player.

What makes the railroad parts of GTA 5 fun then? It's not because they are railroads, those scripted missions are very specific on what it takes to win, where you should go, and deviated from the path and it's "mission failed" real quick. They are just as railroad as their pen-and-paper counterparts.

There's a difference here, and I think it's important. GTA 5 offers and supports a huge and very involved sandbox experience, and the railroad parts are a welcome diversion from all the freedom, like a special challenge mode the player gets to solve every once and a while. The game is a sandbox first and foremost, and has scripted missions you take at your own pace that advance the plot.

With pen-and-paper games, the sandbox or 'open experience' is a secondary concern, it's the module writer's story that comes first, and that means the missions need to be built and scripted. Sandboxes in RPG modules feel like secondary concerns, thrown in as a map if there is enough page count, and the referee is told to "fill it out" on his own. Leaving it up to the referee is not sandboxing, it is lazy adventure design.

Referees can make up anything, anywhere, even in the dusty corner of your scripted room encounter the referee could throw in a rabbit hole to Alice in Wonderland. It's a given and a fact of being the referee running the game. A sandbox needs support for factions, encounters, things that happen if the players cause trouble, a populace, traffic patterns, special areas, and all sorts of other details the referee can use to make the setting come alive. A good sandbox takes a lot of work, which is why you don't see many good ones in modules.

You occasionally get the "you choose the next path" branching structure in a part of an adventure, and that is a step in the right direction. You could rescue the princess, or go retrieve the magic staff, you choose what you do next. Still, this isn't sandboxing if the map your branching scenarios are placed on is dead and doesn't have anything to it.

Also, tutorials by their nature are railroads, because you never want to throw new players into a situation where they have no direction. Module writers often make the mistake of writing a tutorial scripted part to kick the adventure off, and require the party to play through it as a prologue. Right off, most players will smell what's cooking and say "railroad" without giving the rest of the adventure a chance. Tutorial sections should be labeled as such, and players who don't want to play these parts shouldn't have to - tutorials should be optional. The party should have the chance of starting on the sandbox after an intro is read to them, and let them decide how to chase down the next part.

The princess has been captured by the Black Knight, and the royal staff thrown into the Evil Gorge? Some players may want to go straight to the Dark Castle and knock on the door, while others may want to go to the princess' castle. Some may go straight for the gorge, while others may want to watch as the situation develops, and then the Black Knight sends his army to the town to capture it. Things are happening, there is a timeline and a schedule for major events, and players can choose where to go next. There's room for all sorts of scripted parts to this adventure, but there is enough open-world content to keep the adventurers happy and busy.

There was a tutorial battle in the beginning of the module we could have played, but we skipped it to get to the action. It looked fun, but we just wanted to cut to the action. We decided to go to the gorge, and we got involved in this fun river raft ride where goblins kept running alongside and attacking us. Sure, that part was a little railroad-y, but we made the choice to go there, and we will make the choice of where to go next, so it wasn't as bad as the whole adventure being on rails. Plus, it was fun.

Great modules give you that balance of freedom and scripted action, and they give you the illusion of complete freedom while still having action-movie set-piece battles and situations.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Pathfinder NWP: Building a New World

If I could ever redo the Pathfinder world, publish my own, the entire goal of the world would be to make sense of the shelf full of books that I have. What do I consider core? The following, with the additional five add-on books in italics:

  • Pathfinder Core Rulebook
  • Ultimate Magic
  • Ultimate Combat
  • Ultimate Equipment
  • Ultimate Campaign
  • Mythic Adventures
  • Advanced Race Guide
  • Advanced Player's Guide
  • Advanced Class Guide
  • Pathfinder Bestiary 1 thru 4
  • Gamemastery Guide
  • Tome of Horrors Complete
  • Deep Magic
  • 1001 Spells
  • Secrets of Adventuring
  • New Paths Compendium

It's a huge list, and just sitting there trying to make sense of it in one world is a giant headache. So the goal of the New World Project (NWP) is to stratify and organize the core books to start, and present optional add-on areas for the optional third party content. Why? Because the two magic books are so damn cool, and Tome of Horrors rocks in an old-school Greyhawk style that I can't escape from. I would probably leave room in the add-on area for mega-dungeons like Rappan Athuk and the other incredibly fun places published for the game.

The goal is to make the world unique, and as borrow-friendly as possible - but keeping each area organized and with a unique flavor and feeling. Do we need a new world? Yes, we need a new world because it's fun. The flavor and design of this world will also be very different than what you'd expect, and have some interesting twists. First off, we need some factions!

How cool would it be to play in a world divided into two main camps, the Alliance of Order, and the Horde of Chaos? For short, we will call the sides The Order and Chaos, and separate the races of the world into two main camps. The major races of each side would be something like this:

The Order
  • Humans
  • Dwarves
  • High Elves/Half Elves
  • Halflings/Gnomes
  • Orcs
  • Drow
  • Vampires/Dhampirs
  • Goblins/Hobgoblins
I like how this is looking. Let's keep every race as a playable PC race, just for fun. This is sort of your classic MMO style division, with two major factions, and plenty of strange alliances on the Chaos side to make things interesting. I dare say Chaos looks more fun to play at this point, so let's keep each side away from an inherent "evil" or "good" leaning, and make each side see itself as "right."

There can be evil factions of humans and elves for more good-oriented Chaos players to fight, along with evil factions on the Chaos side for the Alliance to battle. You can pick either side, be good, and have plenty of evil forces to fight. Of course, each side is at war with itself, and the evil and good factions constantly battle for control, so there is plenty of internal politics and treachery to have fun with.

It's sort of a Pathfinder meets World of Warcraft feeling (the original, cool and violent Warcraft world, not the nightmare from Farmville), and I can see the vampires and their half-human ilk being a blast to play here. Standing alongside the drow in the same army? Priceless. It has this addictive anime feeling of dark forces united that just gives me chills, and I love it.

The orcs would be their normal warlike selves, but we will have to find a place for the goblins and hobgoblins to fit in without being a copy of the orcs. The goblins can be their usual zany selves, and let's keep the hobgoblins their Bestiary 1 selves (smart, reproduce fast, attack in mass, use siege engines). It's a step up for hobgoblins in the Pathfinder scheme of things, so this is a change. Since Pathfinder orcs have light sensitivity, they prefer to fight at night with the fewer drow and vampire forces, while the hobgoblins and goblins fight during the day. Orcs and hobgoblins fight for overall army control, so there is tension there, with the orcs gaining the upper hand since they are more diplomatic and "big" thinkers.

I will also make the orcs use necromancy as their preferred arcane art, and hobgoblins will use demonology. This will create an even bigger rift as undead lord and demon prince fight for control of the largest army in the world. Of course this will also place the vampires on the orc's side more often than not, and the drow get along with demons better so they frequently side with the hobgoblins. It's not set in stone, but there is enough internal tension there to create some awesome infighting.

On the Order's side, let's make the humans tend towards divine magic, and the elves arcane. Evil humans shall trend necromancy and demonology with equal skill, though dark dwarven demonologists driven by greed and mining deeper could be an interesting subfaction. Gnomes give us a link to the fey and are naturally closer to elves, while halflings are steadfast friends of humans.

Well, there's the start of my new world, and I hope it is interesting to you. I certainly want to develop it further, and I feel this one is different enough and unique enough that it captures your imagination. It is also different enough from the main Pathfinder setting to be different enough that there really isn't a place for this large of an idea in the default Golarion world.

Who know, maybe at this time next year we will have a book to sell with this cool new world laid out for you to play in? We shall see. If you want to see something like this, let us know.

Friday, September 12, 2014

XP Awards, Challenge, Story, and Role Playing

XP for "good roleplaying" and the "story award" started in AD&D 2nd Edition, and this is when original D&D and AD&D "XP for GP" was buried and put out to pasture. XP were given for HD of monster defeated, plus the vague concepts of roleplaying and story awards pushed characters along to higher levels almost automatically.

While my groups like "XP for good roleplaying" awards, really the system is vaguely written enough to be specific, whatever that means. What it is telling dungeon masters is "just level characters as you see fit" and it throws the entire old-school very defined and specific XP system out in the bin.

How I feel about it is this, don't make a soft system that doesn't really mean anything. Either we are going to give hard XP for definite actions and awards, or just dump the soft system and say "give a level every three adventures" and be done with it. Why invent soft XP rewards and have everyoje track them when what you really want to do anyways is level everyone up after a fixed number of adventures.

Some of the old D&D Expert sets (red box era) had this chart where the DM calculated how many adventures you wanted the players to play before they leveled up, and it did all the math for you. It seems kind of silly to do all that math when you if all you wanted was "players level up in three adventures" then um, just level them up in three adventures. You could even level them up in one or two if the adventure was worthy.

D&D has always had a strange attachment to legacy cruft, and then some systems they keep reinventing and never really getting right. The CR system in 3rd Edition's D&D comes to mind, where you do a whole lot of math trying to figure out if the monsters you are fighting should give you XP or not. It pains me when the players make their characters do this math by roleplaying it out, "Oh wow, kobolds? Gee guys, they are not really worth fighting for a party as powerful as us, right?"

Get in there and be heroes. Please.

Besides, CR doesn't really tell you how hard a fight was, it is only a guess before the fight begins. If the party ambushes the other side and TPKs the enemies in one turn, should that really award full CR XP? Again, there are guidelines for this, but it really feels like they are trying to patch something that just needs a complete rethink.

My feelings? If a single fight is good, give each participating member 10% advancement to the next level. If it was easy you could halve it to 5%. If the fight was a total blow-out, you get 0% advancement. If the fight was a near TPK, you could double it to 20%. At 100% advancement, you get a level and the counter goes back to zero.

You can optionally include "story awards" in this system of 5-20% for the completion of a mission, or if you want your progression to be "lessons learned in danger" you could skip this. Skill rolls done under pressure with a real chance of failure (and significant risk) could award 1% per successful skill roll, to like a maximum of 10% per adventure for skill roll xp. Safe or repeated skill rolls with no consequence of failure give 0%, always.

There, it's simple enough for a referee to tweak based on how fast they want progression to be by just adjusting the base "per fight" and optional "story xp" awards (and the 10% skill and rolepaly caps). It also doesn't worry about scaling progression based on monster difficulty versus PC power. What I like about it is that you determine XP after a fight by this one simple question, "Was the fight challenging?" If so, give the party a full reward. If not, reduce it. You don't need to do the CR calculations and then have them be wrong because somebody in the party used a sleep spell to nullify the encounter and turn it into a cakewalk.

Fine, 0% XP, as that was no challenge.

You could give a tiny reward for blowouts that still were dangerous but had consequences if they were left unchecked, like the group of kobolds, like 1% and still feel you have given a reward.
Oh, and you can also award creative problem solving and good roleplaying if you wish, just keep the awards low like 1% to 2% per major interaction and cap it to 10% for the adventure, just like skills.

You could also optionally slow progression as the party's level climb.

To me, pre-calculating CR math that doesn't take the party's power and creativity into account doesn't make much sense, and at least in my experience, it's wrong most of the time anyways. Going the other way and doing the math that will get you a level in X adventures and awarding XP on that scale is also a lot of math for a predetermined outcome that you should just "say happens."

For me, I like the 100% XP system. It is simple, fast, lets me control progression rate, and it caps silly exploits. It can be "only combat XP" if you choose, if all you want is lessons learned in the school of hard knocks. Most importantly, it is calculated after the fight is over based on how difficult the fight was for the characters - so it scales with level. A difficult fight at level 1 is going to be different than a difficult fight at level 8, but to the party and their abilities, you will know and have a good feeling of how it went after each of those fights.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Faerun: No Monsters Edition

So we had a D&D 5 play session last Sunday, and armed with my new Player's Handbook, DarkgarX and I settled down to play in the Forgotten Realms setting.

Lacking a Monster Manual or module, the ground rules were as follows: there are no monsters in the world. To keep true to the spirit of the game, dragons and other creatures were 'legends' often talked about but never really seen. Oh, and the short monster appendix in the back of the book? Those are in, and that makes skeletons and zombies available for use.

I know, for all you Baldur's Gate and other D&D video-game players, this borders on the unthinkable. With no monsters, no orcs, no gnolls, no goblins, no beholders, no giant beetles, or anything else creepy crawly, what is there to do?

The answer came quickly, and the game took a pleasingly dark turn. Humans and other intelligent races quickly filled the gap the monsters left, and there were all sorts of thieves, maniacs, bandits, evil merchant guilds, dark elves, demonic cults, secretive necromancers, criminals, and other intelligent opponents you could shake a stick at. They started coming out of the woodwork, and nobody knew who you could trust or who has some sort of evil agenda.

On the positive side, there were plenty of distressed merchants, temples needing assistance, town guards trying to keep order, haughty royals, crowds of onlookers, and many other neutral and good NPCs who played a part in the action. It was interesting to see the factions and other groups in the world come alive and actually matter.

For the Realms, this was perfect. I've always imagined the Realms to be very strong on characters, factions, and personalities, and this strange turn of events made the role-playing and story systems in D&D 5 actually see some use at our table. The over-nerfing and elimination of strong and powerful NPCs in the Realms role-playing supplements (especially 4th Edition) just felt so wrong to me, and this is why. The Realms thrives on its powerful NPCs, and the good ones are just as important as the evil ones, because you should never assume glowingly good and pure PC motivations.

Oh, the "PCs are always of good alignment" assumptions of world designers, please go away. Saying "high level NPCs will always come in and save the day" makes no more sense than it would in this world, and it is a unrealistic and silly assumption about how a real world works.

You can't roleplay with most monsters, but you can with intelligent humans, so we had a blast. Players were forced to make serious decisions about moral quandaries, it wasn't assumed every hole in the wilderness was some dungeon filled with XPs, and adventuring meant involving yourself with the factions and people in the various locations in the world. We had a chaotic good thief PC agonizing about stealing from 'good' townspeople to get by, which was just pure role-playing gold.

The wilderness felt empty, but who cares? We spent the majority of our time in Arabel, and nobody really cared about getting lost in the woods. Factions of evil NPCs started coming to light, the average townperson's problems mattered, and the temples of the various Faerun gods saw some use. It surprised me how little we missed the monsters, and how well evil factions of humans and other intelligent races filled in for them.

Part of me gets this 'baby food' feeling with some monsters, that some are designed for low-level play, and they go on up from there. It's one of the things I liked and didn't like about D&D 4 was the video-game progression of the monster types. With character races as enemies, players did not know what level they were, and they had to judge fights and be a little careful not to get in over their heads. Beautiful stuff, that careful thinking ahead and judging a fight. It was a pleasure not hearing "goblins are wimps, no problem" for once at the table.

It's always been true in D&D that character classes made the ultimate enemy, and to have a world 100% devoted to that was fun and challenging.

The bad parts? The outside world felt empty and a lot less dangerous. There was really no reason to go exploring or adventuring in the traditional sense, and I could also feel the world grow a little less fantastic. There was also a reservation that the simple motivation of "bash the monsters" was gone, and players longed for places where they could just smash things based on shapes rather than have to roleplay motivations and worry about stories and justification for the guards. We switched to Pathfinder the other day, and when the monsters appeared in that setting, it felt like a relief.

It highlights the over-reliance of "monsters as motivation" for some games, and this is likely a byproduct of "monsters as XP source" in many games. Monsters, they are just so easy to use to get the players moving, aren't they? It's a problem, and a crutch too easily used in place of real stories and conflicts.

Still, without a Monster Manual in hand, this was a fun experiment, and it actually fit my feelings of how the Realms works better than a lot of the 4th Edition material did. I am tempted to keep the Realms this way for my 5th Edition games in it, and just make this world about evil and the dark hearts of man. If this world sees monsters, they would be legends encountered sparingly, demons would need a pact to be summoned (and not walk around freely), and single dragons would live in caves far away from the world of man. The monsters are needed to fill the role of legends, but putting evil characters in the spotlight made this world come alive for me.

I could never fill a dungeon full of orcs in this world ever again without feeling like I am taking a shortcut. This experiment has made me rethink of the notion of what a monster is, and if they ever reappear in this setting, they will definitely be more fantastic, out of the normal, and special than they were before. Don't let the "defeat thousands of 3d shapes" assembly-line mentality of MMOs make you discount what one monster can do or be in your game.

It's a "monster", after all, there has to be something to that word other than "XP with a funny shape."

But still, there is something far more satisfying and real about the inhabitants of the world taking up the torch as "monsters." You do not need a Monster Manual to play, nor do you need modules. Just crack open the Player's Handbook and say, "That's all there is in this world, everything else lives in legend."