You Say You Want a New Edition

Okay, so I’m probably the last to weigh in even though I woke up just as the news broke and followed the story all day today. And if you’re getting the news from me, you seriously need to expand your blog reading. Anyway, yesterday, Wizards of the Coast announced a “new iteration” of Dungeons and Dragons was in development and that they planned an open playtest. Despite all the “news” coming out, this is pretty much the only information there is. Everything else is speculation or extrapolation from obfuscating quotes from designers.

So here’s what I’d like to see in a new edition of D&D:

  • No Vancian magic. For you newbies out there, this was the old magic system used in Dungeons and Dragons up until 4th Edition, where spellcasters prepared their spells every day after resting and once a spell was cast, it was “burned” from their memory. Based on the novels of Jack Vance, this magic system isn’t a lot of fun and ruins anything approaching flexibility for spellcasters, something desperately wanted if the number of class features and feats that allow Wizards and Clerics to change their prepared spells. I’m just not a fan. Also, I always hated it when the wizard was sitting in the back firing a crossbow because they cast their one spell for the day and had nothing to do until the rest of the group rests – both as a player and as a DM.
  • Keep class balance. If Vancian magic is kept out of the game, this will do a lot to help as one of the big problems was that, as a caster class levels, it gets more spells and more powerful ones. Meanwhile, fighters are stuck with “I hit it with my pointy stick.” This Linear Warriors/Quadratic Wizards problem has its own page on TV Tropes (which I will not link to save your ability to be productive for the next week). One of 4e’s strengths is that no class is really much more complicated than any other to learn for a player, and no one ever feels like they’re left behind.
  • Make magic magical again. There’s two ways this is a problem in 4e, one of which I’ve talked about before. The first is that magic items no longer feel magical when they’re expected. As part of the character advancement in 4e, a PC is expected to get a full “set” of magic items (weapon/implement, armor, and amulet) and it’s part of the game balance. It takes a lot of the fun and mystery out of magic items when they’re treated this way. The other way to bring back the magic is to bring back the more utilitarian nature of spellcasting. In previous editions, only a handful of spells did direct damage to enemies, such as the classics Fireball, Lightning Bolt, and Magic Missile. The rest were less obvious direct attacks, with spells like Web, Sleep, and various illusion spells. This in turn helped…
  • Encourage player creativity. Since the casters couldn’t do as much direct damage, they had to think outside the box and use their abilities in ways the DM didn’t plan for. I can’t tell you how many times seemingly pointless spells like Create Water foiled very (at least in my opinion) ingenious traps. But it was more than that in previous editions. Exploration held a lot of weight in the game, with players fiddling with everything in a room to find secret doors and traps. Sometimes I’d throw things at my players with no specific idea in mind as to how they’d accomplish the task just to see how they’d do it. Players can be devious little buggers, and I like it when they’re playing their characters more and their power card list less.
  • No save-or-die effects or squishy first level characters. When I ran 3rd Edition games and, to a lesser extent, when I run Pathfinder games, it was an effort on my part as DM to keep the players alive in combat for the first couple of levels. Casters had no punch to them and dropped if you breathed on them funny (I once lost a wizard to a friggin’ housecat as a player), and even heavily-armored fighters would drop with one good hit from an orc. This and the save-or-die effects bothered me as a DM because it boils down to the same thing: PCs dying because of a single die roll that wasn’t in their favor. 4e fixed both of these problems brilliantly by making 1st level characters able to take a couple of hits before dropping as well as removing any save-or-die effects (the worst offenders still giving players three saving throws before killing them instantly). While it adds to the lethality of the game and thus the excitement, it’s no fun having to sit out half of a session because the DM happened to crit on the first attack and killed you outright. It encouraged players to not get attached to their characters as they could die at any moment, and made any sort of long-term storytelling difficult at best.
  • Fix the 5 Minute Workday problem. This is another previous edition problem that was fixed in 4e (but that caused others, see below) where, especially at lower levels, players would explore around, get into a fight, blow all their biggest spells to end the encounter quickly, and immediately camp and rest for the day to get all their spells back. The At-Will/Encounter/Daily power structure prevented this problem because players got most of their powerful attacks back at the end of the encounter and just saved their Dailies for the “big boss”.
  • Fix the Encounter-Heavy design.When 4e fixed the 5 Minute Workday problem, they shifted almost all of the resource management of the party to an encounter-basis rather than a daily-basis. This means that, between encounters, players can spend healing surges to get themselves back to full HP and recover almost all of their powers they used except Daily Powers. What this means is that, as a DM, each and every encounter has to be unique, interesting, and dangerous. In previous editions, you could have one or two goblins lurking in the tunnels taking potshots at the characters to whittle down their HP, but in 4e that just isn’t possible because they’d just kill the goblin in question with an encounter power and be done with it. This also makes traps ineffective because what’s the point of fiddling around with a bunch of skill checks when you can just walk into the trap, take the damage, spend a healing surge, and move on? The way 4e is set up makes it challenging for me as a DM to create an interesting adventure and encourages burnout because I have to constantly come up with new and creative encounters for the players.
  • Keep the ease of encounter design from 4e. Yes, I know that’s kind of the opposite of what I said above, but starting a Pathfinder game this week really made me appreciate how simple it is to design an adventure for 4e. The most challenging part is just coming up with something fun and new, while in previous editions up to and including Pathfinder, the bulk of the time is spent generating monsters/NPCs. Since monsters in previous editions could take class levels and you only had one stat block for any one monster, any variation between say Random Orc Grunt #5 and Grand Clanmaster Oog was that the latter had class levels, which meant you had to make a friggin’ character for every important NPC including feat choices, attributes, skills, etc. Sure, it wasn’t as big of a headache as making a PC because you could bend the rules, give an extra feat or boost an attribute if you want. But it’s still time consuming. It takes in my estimation twice as long for me to design a Pathfinder session than a 4e one, even though 4e has more combat and thus more monsters. Because everything in 4e is balanced, I can just thumb through the Monster Manual/Vault books and drop in whatever I need. Aside from writing the story, I spend probably 80% of my prep time as a DM in 4e tweaking encounters, terrain, and maps so that each encounter is interesting and only 20% of the time futzing with picking monsters and fiddling with their stats. In Pathfinder and 3rd Edition, flip those. What this means is that in previous editions, the NPCs may have been more well-developed, but encounters were boring because I just didn’t have the time or energy to make them more interesting after having to fiddle with pretty much every single creature in the game so that there was a bit of variety in the enemies.
  • Keep Minions. I’m trying to figure out a way to use minions in Pathfinder, but it’s just not working for me (I don’t have the math skills to do deep game design like that). But I friggin’ love minions. Players love them because they get to mow through bad guys and it makes them feel powerful. I love them because I get to put a crapload of minis on the board and cackle without actually risking a TPK in every encounter, and it’s a crapload of creatures on the board where I as DM don’t have to keep track of a damn thing. No HP, no damage rolls, no nothing. They’re hit, they’re dead. They hit, they do X damage and we move on to the next one. Brilliant and simple. I love them and want more of them. Don’t get rid of minions!
  • Backwards compatibility. One of the rumors floating around based on a quote from one of the designers is that you’ll be able to use products from every edition of D&D with the “new iteration”. While 1st and 2nd Editions weren’t too different from each other, 3rd Edition was a big leap in design philosophy. I know this first-hand because I’m currently bastardizing a bunch of old 1st Edition modules for Pathfinder since direct conversions just aren’t possible. And if 2nd to 3rd was a leap, then 3.5 to 4th was a three-stage rocket. I just can’t see how I’ll be able to use material from each edition. I’d love to be able to pull out Keep on the Borderlands or the old GDQ modules and run them as-is with a new and updated version of the rules yet still keep all the push/pull/slide effects that make 4e combat so much fun.

So were a lot of my desires contradictory? Of course they were! So are most of everyone else’s, to be honest. I believe that @TheAngryDM summed it up best yesterday on Twitter: “Feedback says players want: simple games with tactical combat and a high degree of customization but not too many choices…”

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Published in: on January 10, 2012 at 10:15 AM  Comments (3)  
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Why Roleplaying Games Are Good

So now that I’ve explained what you need to get to start roleplaying, let’s talk about why you should start gaming. Roleplaying games are good. I’m not even talking about for children/teenagers either, but for people in general. Here’s a list of reasons for adults to play more tabletop games.

  • It’s a social activity. Unlike many other hobbies these days, a roleplaying game requires social interaction with others. Video games are typically played alone or with people online, more and more people are watching movies at home instead of going out, but roleplaying games require you sitting at a table with your friends.
  • It helps keep the mind sharp. Have you at any point in your adult life tried to use algebra or write an essay? It’s very hard if you’re not doing it on a daily basis like you were in school. Roleplaying games require some level of math and a lot of creativity.
  • It supports small businesses. With only a couple of exceptions, every roleplaying game or tabletop game company is a small, independently owned business. They have a handful of employees who work tirelessly, giving money to their local economy. Most of those companies are also American companies who subcontract out localization to other small, local companies when publishing in other countries and languages. Many independent publishers print and manufacture in the United States as well, and others try their best to do so within the limits of financial feasibility.
  • Reminds you to be a good host and guest. Games typically take place in a private home. If you’re hosting the game, you have to make sure your house is clean and you have food and drink for everyone. If you’re visiting, you should always bring something like a snack or some soft drinks/beer/bottle of wine for everyone to enjoy. Many gaming sessions I’ve played or attended ended up being potluck dinner parties that included polyhedral dice.
  • Low overhead investment to get started. Most hobbies have large initial cost outlay. You want to start a musical instrument or home improvement or carpentry, you have to buy hundreds or thousands in tools and raw materials. As I stated in my last post, you can start gaming for around $100-150 and be set. And that cost can be spread amongst the entire group.
  • No demands of your time. You can spend as much or as little time as you like gaming, from a couple of hours every few weeks to marathon all-day-long sessions every weekend. You can go months without gaming and pick it up again right away. Your character’s stats won’t suffer from being away so long and you won’t be incredibly far behind even if you spend years away from the hobby (unless a new edition comes out, of course).
  • Escapism. Sometimes, life just sucks. Roleplaying is an escape for a few hours, letting you slip into the life of someone else or running a game engaging in collaborative storytelling. It lets you get out of the cubicle¬† mindset for an evening and fight an epic battle against evil.
  • Learn all sorts of new things. Many of the terms that are common in roleplaying games are collegiate-level vocabulary. The monsters and races in fantasy games draw from the mythologies of many different cultures. A lot of adventures are based on classic works of literature. While a lot of the knowledge you gain may not be useful in the “real world”, knowing different types of medieval polearms might just make the difference between winning or losing on Jeopardy someday.

So if you need any further encouragement, there you are. Best to go out and buy one of those starter boxed sets, join your local gaming store’s D&D Encounters session, or look around online for a local group you can join.

Published in: on January 4, 2012 at 12:01 AM  Leave a Comment  

Would You Like to Play a Game?

I’ve seen a lot of posts around from new players who have never played a roleplaying game before not sure where to start or what they need. The last version of this post I wrote was a long time ago, so I’m going to help you out to pick which fantasy D20 game is right for you and tell you what you need to get started. I have provided links to Amazon for your convenience, but I do not get any money if you purchase through these links and I encourage you to spend your hard-earned money at your friendly local gaming store. Almost all such stores are independently owned small businesses, and they support the gaming community by offering a place to play, product advice, and a focus point for the local community allowing you to more easily find other gamers.

Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition vs. Pathfinder

I’m going to draw controversy right off the bat and say that neither one of these systems is any better or worse than the other. Each one has strengths and weaknesses, and each one is suited to a different style of game. Anyone who tells you that one system is categorically and objectively better than the other is lying and/or trolling.

If you want to star in a fantasy action movie, you want Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition. The game is built for combat, with most of the rules focusing on actions in the middle of a fight. You can still have a fulfilling game without ever having a combat encounter, but the system is really built for combat encounters strung together with non-combat encounters to move the story. The system is also easier to learn for new players, as it draws inspiration from more modern gaming design and especially video games. If you want to jump right in and start slaughtering orcs and zombies on your way to whatever the MacGuffin, this is the game system for you.

Pathfinder, on the other hand, shows its roots much more clearly. It’s basically the second major revision of the third edition of the Dungeons and Dragons rules (some people call it D&D 3.75, but I like to think of it more like “D&D 3rd Edition, Service Pack 2”, probably because of my IT background). This ruleset lends itself far more to exploration and adventure, crawling through tombs and trying to discover its secrets. There’s a lot of combat focus here, but not nearly as much as 4e. The rules, however, can be far more complicated for new players, especially ones who have never played any d20 style game before and who hasn’t dealt with a Vancian style magic system. The learning curve is much steeper, but not insurmountable. If you want to play Indiana Jones or National Treasure, exploring a tomb and putting together clues until you find the band of orcs and zombies to slaughter, this is the game system for you.

Where to Start – Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition

The first thing you should buy in my opinion is the Red Box starter set. It’s available for under $20 and has everything you need to run a game. You have a pre-generated character, tokens, a set of dice, rulebooks, an adventure to run (plus another you can download), and a poster map. You can buy this to try out the game and see if it’s for you and your friends. If you like it, you can start expanding with a solid base to start with.

The next thing you want to get is the Rules Compendium, Heroes of the Fallen Lands, Monster Vault, more dice, and a reusable mat. The Rules Compendium is all the rules for the game updated with errata so you’re using the most up-to-date version of the rules. Heroes of the Fallen Lands gives you more options for characters, with new classes, new builds, new feats, and new powers. Monster Vault gives you not only a book full of monsters you can use to write adventures, but more tokens, another poster map, and an adventure you can run.

After you’ve run the Red Box adventure, you’ll surely realize that you’re going to need more dice, since sharing the single set becomes a problem. You can pick them up in sets for $5-8 each at your local gaming store or online, or you can buy dice individually for $.10-$1.50 each at most gaming stores in their dice bucket, or you can order the Chessex Pound ‘O Dice and get more dice than you could ever need (though you’ll always want more). The reusable mat can be anything from the Paizo laminated poster maps for around $12 each or one of the nicer vinyl mats from Chessex for around $20 for the medium size and $30 for the large one (which can also double as a tablecloth). You can also pick up the Dungeonmaster’s Kit as well for two more adventures, two more poster maps, more tokens, and a book with lots of information and advice on how to run a game, but I personally don’t think it’s as necessary as the other books.

From this point, you have everything you need to run an ongoing campaign. After you’ve been playing for a while using these, you’ll know enough about the game to know what of the other books available will work well for you and your game. Your total investment to start out will be somewhere in the $100-150 range for all the books, dice, and maps you’ll need. At this point, you may also wish to sign up for a membership to Dungeons and Dragons Insider, which is an online subscription service for around $10 a month with Wizards of the Coast. It gives you access to the Character Builder software (so you get nice professional looking character sheets with all the power cards and everything, plus no more math), PDF issues of Dungeon Magazine (tips on running a game and several adventures you can run each month) and Dragon Magazine (articles on playing the game, various settings, fiction, comic strips, and new character options like powers, feats, themes, backgrounds, magic items, and more), and access to the Compendium (a searchable database of magic items, feats, traps, monsters, etc. which makes writing an adventure far easier).

Where to Start –Pathfinder

The first thing you should buy in my opinion is the Pathfinder Beginner’s Box. It’s available for about $25 and has everything you need to run a game. You have a pre-generated character, stand-up tokens, a set of dice, rulebooks, an adventure to run, and a laminated poster map you can reuse with dry or wet erase markers. You can buy this to try out the game and see if it’s for you and your friends. If you like it, you can start expanding with a solid base to start with.

The next thing you want to get is the Pathfinder Core Rulebook and more dice. This book has all the rules you need to run the game, from making characters to running combat to magic items to all the rules for playing. It’s a beast of a book, but it has everything you need to expand on the Beginner’s Box. The next purcahse you should make is the Pathfinder Beastiary, which gives you more monsters to use in your adventures. There are currently three volumes available, and I personally think you should start with the first volume. However, any of the three works well for expanding your options for adversaries for your group. Finally, the Pathfinder Advanced Player’s Guide drastically expands your options for games, adding in backgrounds, more classes, more spells, more weapons, and just more for your characters (both PCs and NPCs) to use.

After you’ve run the Beginner’s Box adventure, you’ll surely realize that you’re going to need more dice, since sharing the single set becomes a problem. You can pick them up in sets for $5-8 each at your local gaming store or online, or you can buy dice individually for $.10-$1.50 each at most gaming stores in their dice bucket, or you can order the Chessex Pound ‘O Dice and get more dice than you could ever need (though you’ll always want more). The reusable mat you got in your Beginner’s Box is the same as the Paizo laminated poster maps for around $12 each and are great, but you may want to upgrade to one of the nicer vinyl mats from Chessex for around $20 for the medium size and $30 for the large one (which can also double as a tablecloth).

From this point, you have everything you need to run an ongoing campaign. After you’ve been playing for a while using these, you’ll know enough about the game to know what of the other books available will work well for you and your game. Your total investment to start out will be somewhere in the $100-150 range for all the books, dice, and maps you’ll need. You may also want to get a copy of Hero Lab, a character creation and tracking program available for a $20 license (with additional fees to get data sets from other sourcebooks). The software is powerful, easy to use, and cuts down on character creation time both for PCs and NPCs by a significant amount. If you want to try it out, there is a free demo version (you can’t save or print unfortunately) and a completely free version that only has the rules and options from the Pathfinder Beginner’s Box.

That’s Really It

I talk a lot on this blog about miniatures, dungeon tiles, special combat trackers, and everything else. Gaming is a passion of mine and I like to spend my money on good products for it. Others feel the same way, so they also brag about their collections. It can be very intimidating to see someone’s Dwarven Forge set-up or my 7 foot tall, 8 shelf bookshelf that is crammed with gaming books and products, thinking that it’s necessary to buy all that to get into gaming. But roleplaying games have probably one of the lowest investment-to-time ratios. With either system above, the purchases I listed are enough to run the game with plenty of options. You don’t need anything else to play for years, and it’s one of the great things about gaming as a hobby.

Another thing I should point out is that you don’t need to buy everything all at once. Take your time and spread out your purchases. Pick up the starter set box from either edition and start playing. If you like it, get the Heroes of the Fallen Lands or Pathfinder Core Rulebook books. A few weeks later, spend another $20-30 on the next book listed. My collection of gaming books, boxed sets, miniatures, and dice may look impressive, but it’s a collection that I’ve slowly built over the last twenty years of my life. I’d buy a book here, a box of miniatures there, a dice set as an impulse buy when I stopped by the comic store for the Sandman hardback. Take your time and buy at your own speed and budget. You’ve got a whole lifetime of gaming left to buy everything.

Published in: on January 2, 2012 at 12:01 AM  Comments (2)  
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