Tag Archives: 5e

D&D 5e Basic Rules First Thoughts

The “free version” of the new fifth edition D&D rules are out – 110 pages of pdf, available at Wizards of the Coast.

My initial reaction is that I like it.  Background: I’ve played D&D from the original BECMI “Red Box” Basic through 1e AD&D, 2e, 3e, 3.5e, hated 4e, play Pathfinder. (Plus many other games of course).

Things I think it does right:

1. As a free PDF, it will really help draw in new/casual players. Game stores can have a couple copies laying around. You can forward a copy to a friend who has expressed interest in the game. It’s not as nice for future in-play use as the free hyperlinked SRD approach of Pathfinder, but it’ll be very accessible to new players.

2. The three pillars of adventure are listed as exploration, social interaction, and combat.  They list combat last and try hard in this PDF at least to not give it primary billing, which may result in less pure hack and slash than in the future. The Combat section itself is only 9 pages! (Obviously there’s rules affecting combat everywhere else, but that was nice.)

3. Clear call-outs to GM discretion.  GM describes, you say what you want to do, GM narrates the results. That gives me hope that we won’t see the return of the rules that cater to the over-legalistic players, which leads us to…

4. Light rules.  Now, we’ll see how much of this is because of the short format and how much they’ll run over this once the PHB is out, but this is pleasingly not all legalistic and rules heavy.  There’s already people fretting over the “Rules of Hidden Club” and other “rules as written” minutia as they have in past editions, even though the Basic rules say clearly “you know, GM discretion whether you can sneak up on someone, man.”  The spell descriptions take a couple steps back towards being sane in length, with type, casting time, range, components, and duration being the only “required fields.” I’ve written before on the relative sizes and bloat across the editions – using the Knock spell as a benchmark, this one is 132 words, shorter than 3.5e’s 206 words but longer than BECMI’s 122. Replacing 100 fiddly bonuses with advantage/disadvantage – seems fun, we’ll see how it works out (I imagine smart min-maxers will find a way to have enough advantage that it’ll always cancel out any disadvantage).

5. Inclusivity.  They totally even one-up Paizo on this, by openly saying in the Sex section “You don’t need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender. The elf god Corellon Larethian is often seen as androgynous or hermaphroditic, for example, and some elves in the multiverse are made in Corellon’s image. You could also play a female character who presents herself as a man, a man who feels trapped in a female body, or a bearded female dwarf who hates being mistaken for a male. Likewise, your character’s sexual orientation is yours to decide.” It’s just a short statement saying “Yes, you all can play too, and play characters like that if you want.” If backed up with art and more diverse characters in stories, then maybe we’ll get more women, people of color, people of differing sexualities, etc. into gaming, which I think is fine and dandy.

6. Hits the high points that made D&D such a classic in the first place.  It doesn’t try to sell “some new thing we made up just for this edition” like Dragonborn, it is the big 4 classes and big 4 races. Not sure of the need for the subraces, especially the dwarven ones (“the hillbillies and the mountainbillies are fighting again,” said no one ever), but perhaps that’s more included just to show that it’s possible.

The negatives:

1. The art. First of all, there’s not any.  It’s not that we’re “entitled” to it and sure, “it’s free what do you expect” – but this is being put out to try to be a thread to draw people into the game, and it would benefit from a freaking cover with a picture on it. We all know that blog posts, articles, etc. of all descriptions convert readers a lot more when there’s media in them. Same goes for when you forward a PDF to an RPG-curious friend. Second of all, the one piece is in the back and it’s from the Basic set cover; I’ve seen some of the other cover art online. What’s with the art style, it all looks like you’re viewing it through static? It’s not like the pop-off-the-shelf Elmore stylized colors of the 1980s, and it looks like every other damn fantasy cover out there.  I think they’d be better served going a little more of a modern direction on it, some anime influence, at least some more vivid colors and lines.

2. They jacked with the PDF so you can’t cut and paste out of it.  Really, Wizards? That just makes me *want* to pull it up an Acrobat and fix that little problem and re-disseminate it.  I had to retype in even the small quotes in this review. Weak. [Edit: Apparently you can cut and paste out of the "printer friendly" version. Thanks waxeagle.]

But other than that, I like where they’re going with it.  If only there will be restraint such that the rules stay light (more content is fine – having more classes is great, having more rules for everyone to keep in mind and follow isn’t) then I’ll be tempted to use it because I am so tired of spending hours rules-wrangling on Pathfinder.

Theater of the Mind

With D&D Next coming out soon, I’ve seen some questions from newer gamers who only have experience with 4e and maybe 3.5e about how to make combat work without using a tactical map or grid and miniatures, sometimes referred to as “Theater of the Mind” combat because all the description and positioning is happening in the participants’ imagination and not on a game board.  So I thought I’d take a moment to explain Theater of the Mind combat and how to make it a successful technique.

 I run theater of the mind combat preferentially. I can’t always get away with it in 3.5/Pathfinder, but in Basic and 2e days I did this exclusively, and most other RPGs assume it as the default and only option. We are even doing this more in Pathfinder nowadays as we grow increasingly bored with tactical tabletop combat and how long it takes. D&D Next/5e is fairly similar to 2e in metaphor so I believe most of these techniques will port well.

Theater of the mind provides quicker and, frankly, more interesting combat scenes – but the primary risk that comes with it is players feeling hosed, that too much of the power is in the GM’s hands, and that they keep getting told “No” arbitrarily when they want to reach someone in combat or whatever. This is why D&D had been moving more and more to minis and defined rules in the name of “player empowerment.” And of course with more feats and powers that have ranges on them, it’s unclear how to adjudicate flanking, range, etc. without a tactical map to rely on. Here’s how to do theater of the mind combat without reducing player agency.

Put information in your players’ hands.

Be clear with your descriptions. For this to work, you have to be clear and the players have to pay attention, or else you get a lot of “Well I wouldn’t have charged if I had heard there was a chasm between us and then…” Describe the most important elements (obstacles, opponents, how those opponents are armed) and don’t be afraid to reiterate it each round. Similarly, players should be detailed and repeat themselves – “And then I use my move action to move 30′ away from the rest of the group so that if they decide to area effect us I’m farther away, right, you heard me right GM?”

Even if not using a tactical map, putting a quickie room sketch on a whiteboard or whatever can help a lot – in our Pathfinder games nowadays, “mapping” is just the GM continuing to draw the map on the whiteboard, and rather than use a tactical map we just refer to that and say “I run over near that altar thing…” If pressed we add some X’s and O’s, football play board style, to show relative force dispositions.

In general, give the players the benefit of the doubt. Be generous in your interpretations; they are badass adventurers and you can fairly assume they’re making badass decisions. You’ll want to be fair and have a clear “take-back” policy for the table in case of mishearing – but it’s OK to not be too generous there, as it will encourage people to pay attention.

Put decisions in your players’ hands.

Firstly, let the players have some discretionary input into the narration. I learned my lesson on this playing Feng Shui, where I learned if the PCs are fighting in a pizza parlor and someone wants to pick up a pizza cutter and slash someone, getting out of the way of that as the GM and letting them declare there’s a pizza cutter nearby and use it without getting all up in their business has a lot of upsides – players who add to the environment are invested in the environment. After playing Feng Shui I was so much better as a D&D DM. Let them riff off the environment, only vetoing clear abuse.

You also want to encourage players to explain both what they want to do and “why” – their intent and stakes. “I want to move 15 feet” tells no one anything. “I want to get into flanking around the orc leader with Jethro, and I’m willing to risk an AoO to get there,” for example. Similarly, you as the GM want to state options and stakes to them – “You can do that, but there’s a chance that you’ll fall in that pit.” Some quick negotiation and being very specific help here. “I want to swing on the chandelier, and I’m willing to risk a fall,” says the player, envisioning a max of 2d6 damage based on the room description they heard, but the GM is thinking 10d6… If you wait till after the slip and fall to have that discussion the player gets irate; if you set the stakes up front everyone’s on the same page.

Put outcomes in your players’ hands.

Put the outcome in the PC’s hands, ideally via a die roll from some attribute of their character. So if they want to know how many creatures they can catch in their Burning Hands spell, you could respond “Two, but you can roll Spellcraft (or Int, or whatever) to try to get three, with the downside that if you fumble you’ll burn one of your buddies in melee with them.” I use this in naval combat in our current Pathfinder game – when a PC fireballs the other ship, how the heck do I know where every one of the 30 enemy crewmen are? I say “Roll Spellcraft,” and based on the result is how many pirates got fried. We have generalized the assist mechanic to be “success at 10, and then +1 for every 5 above that,” and it’s easy to quickly map effects onto success margins in that manner.

Same thing with movement. I have all my players convert their movement into an actual “Move bonus”, +2 per 5′ of movement, so a 30′ move is a +12, for example. (Side rant, the conception of movement as fixed when everything else in the system is a variable is one of the greatest missed opportunities in D&D design and all the other games that blindly inherit their metaphor from it.) “I want to get around that orc and flank him with Billy!” “OK, roll Move. You’re not even inside the door yet and there’s a bunch of other orcs, so I’ll call that DC 20, fail means you get to melee but not in flank, fail by 5 means someone AoOs you on the way.”

I also used a house ruled Luck stat in 2e to help determine other elements like “Who’s standing on the trapdoor?” Because if a player is rolling for it and/or making risk/reward decisions, then they feel that the outcome is in their hands and not yours.

One last thought – make character options that a PC has paid for worth it. Some options are hard to quantify if not on a battlemat (like the Lunge feat from Pathfinder). As the GM, you basically want to keep stuff like that in mind and give them a benefit for it from time to time. If, for example, you’re telling people they can’t reach opponents a good bit in battle, and someone has the Lunge feat, turn it into “you reached them!” automatically once every combat when they plead “but… Lunge!” Basically whatever the option is allegedly for, let it do that.

D&D Next Might Be OGL?

In an ENWorld thread about their Amethyst Kickstarter, Chris Dias of DiasExMachina claims to have it “on good authority” that D&D Next/5e will be released under an open license, possibly the OGL.

If true this would be huge, and possibly bring D&D back into the living mainstream of gaming from the weird blind alley it’s been coursing down.  I’ve been reading the next playtest docs and it’s OK – but not OK enough for me to bother with if it’s not open with a SRD and third party support (especially for adventures). If it is actually open, and distinguishes itself enough from Pathfinder (ideally by being way more simple and D&D Basic like), then it might just have a place at my gaming table after all.

When I got my copy of Third Edition at Gen Con 2000, it was the Green Ronin Freeport module that was the first thing we ran, and their (and other 3pp’s) rapid adventure support after that was what kept us in avid 3e gaming goodness for quite a while. If Next can pull off the same thing, then it could light WotC’s D&D back up!

 

D&D Next Early Thoughts – It Works But It’s Boring

DD-Next-Image-660x499As I’m sure you know, the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons, branded as “D&D Next,”  is in open playtest. I brought you stunning coverage of the 4e debacle and resulting edition wars, so surely I need to chime in here! Here’s my take on Next.

I liked and have played Basic, 1e, 2e, 3e, 3.5e, and Pathfinder in their turn. I hate 4e and eschew it. I said earlier what I’d like to see in 5e – moving back to a really stripped down core more at 2e levels of complexity. And it sounds like they’re doing that.

The D&D Next rules seem fine to me. I welcome a more light approach and removing a lot of the minmax frenzy from 3e+.  When 3e came out I was really excited and migrated from 2e but now in retrospect the rule bloat, christmas tree syndrome, legalism, and min-maxing made me sad and I like what I see in the D&D Next rules per se. Not everything is how I’d design it, but it’s well within the scope of “rules that will work for D&D.”

However, they are committing the cardinal sin of game design – it’s boring.

I can barely make myself read through the playtest packets. I think they’ve miscalculated badly in having no art, no layout, no fluff in there. I’m sure they’d say that’s by design (ignoring how much of a positive impact that had with the Pathfinder playtest – to this day Paizo makes sure to put all playtest docs through layout). But even without that, the text just has no voice.  It could – Savage Worlds, for example, presents a ruleset about the same size with some flair and savoir faire – but reading the Next playtests is like reading a really boring car manual.

Maybe that’ll all be in there when it launches – maybe.  Maybe Aleena the cleric gets whacked by Bargle again and gives us a hate hard-on for him and pulls us into the action. Maybe the art will be inspired and not just aping Pathfinder or using the current “I airbrushed this on my van” art style they seem to like. But even just the writing style does not say “Adventure!” to me, it says “Technical manual!”

Part of a playtest should be to whip up enthusiasm, but like many of my friends, I downloaded and eagerly read packet #1, I downloaded and skimmed #2, I downloaded and didn’t bother opening #3, I didn’t bother downloading #4 at all… It’s not the rules’ fault, and I’m sure if I playtested it my group of good roleplayers would have a grand old time. We know how to add “zazz” on top of any system you put before us.  But if I gave it to some 12 year olds who haven’t played an RPG before? Are they going to bother to finish reading even the reasonable and short page count? Will their imaginations be fired up by what they read – because mine’s not being?

Guys – lean doesn’t have to mean boring.  Someone at WotC, please force the Next design team into a room at gunpoint and tell them they can’t come out until they can tell you the most badass D&D story ever, and then make them write the rules around that story.

Why I’m Worried About The D&D Next Playtest

I’ve been participating in the D&D Next playtest. So far, I think what I’ve seen is OK.  But I’m not sure it’s totally valid.  Here’s why.

Playtesting a subset of a rule system is deceptive.  I thought the core mechanic in 4e was just fine, it was more all the junk they ladled on top of it that was a dealkiller.

One of the main things I want out of D&D Next is to make the core rules slimmer and simpler – more like Basic/Red Box or 2e than these 300, 400, 500+ page legal tomes we’re saddled with as Player’s Handbooks nowadays. Simplifying D&D is how you’ll get the next generation on board. The initial playtest packet *seems* nicely streamlined – but is that just because they’re only giving us a small subset?

I’m getting concerned about whether they’ll be showing enough restraint that Next won’t turn into the same bloated mess.  Already they are adding on more and more stuff to the core rules because ‘someone wanted it.’ I don’t believe we need a wizard and a sorcerer and a warlock in the core rules.  I believe we need a wizard, and the others can be added on in optional supplements later. Sure, someone wants them – someone wants everything.  That’s why design by committee is a Godawful way of doing things. “Next will be maximally inclusive” looks like it may be code for that. We have opportunity attacks back too, and fighter powers.  Nice frosting but not must haves.

I don’t mind adding things on – but not in the core rules.  Everyone feels entitled to have access to everything in the core rules. Everyone pretty much has to read and understand everything in the core rules. The core rules need to be the true core of the game – fighter, wizard, cleric, thief; dwarf, elf, halfling, human; exploration rules and some weapons and some spells, go. We had plenty of fun with just that from the Red Box. That’s Dungeons & Dragons.

Mike Mearls, pay attention – if you cannot make the Player’s Handbook no more than 128 pages long, you will have failed. Take all those two years with of “but we want this other thing too” comments and pack them the hell away for future product releases. (Naturally if you are putting DM info, magic items, monsters etc. into the book so it’s a core rulebook not just a player’s handbook you get a little slack here, but you probably shouldn’t do that.)

I already have a 500 page D&D game that works fine.  I’m not interested in another.  The only way you lure me away is with a leaner, finer machine. Do it.  Stop now and ship 5e if you can’t resist adding more junk back in.

All You Hit Points Belong To Us?

One of the most contentious topics out of the day-old D&D Next playtest is the rule that resting overnight gets you all your hit points back without fail.  There are multiple Wizards and ENWorld threads arguing about it already.

I think it’s a terrible idea.

The common arguments for it and their obvious refutations are:

1. Well, hit points are just luck and near misses and stuff! Why shouldn’t they all come back?

Because there’s no other mechanic for actually getting wounded.  If this were a game with “wound points and vitality points” or some other way of having a way to reflect persistent wounds while still regaining your “near miss points” that would be fine.  But there’s not.  And being wounded, persistently wounded, is not just realistic, it’s a major part of all fantasy fiction from Lancelot to Harry Dresden. Leaving that out is shitty from a storytelling point of view.

Besides, hit points have always been described that way and have always come back slowly, so saying it’s a necessary consequence is ignoring the mechanic’s history.

2. But it sucks to be injured when you’re headed out to adventure!

“I want my videogame character to be at max!”  I mean, I understand that from a certain gamist perspective. But this is the kind of player entitlement that leads to the kind of childproofed gaming that 4e got to with its rust monster. If you just want a big “I Win” button or have a 5 minute attention span, there’s other games to play.  RPGs allow you to be concerned about resource usage over the long haul, not just the 30 minutes.

3. In 3.x, isn’t it lame that everyone has to spend on wands of cure light wounds that just do this anyway?

No one has actually said this that I’ve seen but me, but this is the one valid argument that does occur to me.  Yes, it is lame to just pay thousands of gold to get disposables to do the same thing. But there’s probably a different fix to that problem than “here you go, heal up whenever you want!”.

 

D&D Next Playtest Readthrough: Eh, It’s OK

I’ve read through the D&D Next (aka 5e) playtest doc and my general opinion is… It’s OK.

Background: I have played D&D Basic (BECMI), AD&D 1e, 2e, 3e, 3.5e, and Pathfinder, but hated 4e at first play.  I like Pathfinder but it’s wearing on me due to the sheer mass of rules; I hanker for a more Basic/2e approach with less… junk.  I don’t really like the retro-clones because I don’t like retro for the sake of retro, I’d like modern and streamlined but just lighter. Anyone who can say with a straight face “Want to play a game with us? OK, read this 576 page book first” deserves a punch in the mouth.

The playtest rules say I can’t quote rules directly, but I can discuss them generally, so here goes.

The core rules are pretty D&D-like.  Interesting main points are:

  • Ability checks vs DCs replace skills and are used for saves. Good.
  • New thing: “Advantage” lets you roll 2d20 take best, “Disadvantage” is take lowest, this replaces the host of annoying little modifiers.  Good.
  • Individual initiative 3e style. Fine.
  • You can take an action and optionally move – so far the rules are gratifyingly free of the host of Magic: The Gathering-esque action types that invaded 3e+. Good.
  • Rests and semi-healing surges like 4e… You take a long rest and regain *all* of your hit points?  WTF? Bad.
  • Conditions like in 3e, which is on the line between helpfully streamlined and annoyingly legalistic. Fine.
  • Armor is simpler, AC, all/half/none of your DEX mod, and speed mod.  Good.
  • Weapons are about the same with lots of categories and bludgeoning/piercing/etc… Well, a little simpler I guess.  A weapon might be a “heavy” weapon doing 1d10 bludgeoning and having a couple “special” attributes like Reach; at least no weapon speeds and crit mods and all that.  Good.
  • There’s not the annoying “types” of bonus, but dangerously, the stacking rule is that only the same exact spell doesn’t stack, so we can look forward to super min-maxed stuff that 3e at least tried to mitigate somewhat with the “different e.g. enhancement bonuses don’t stack” thing. Good for sentence 1, bad for sentence 2.
  • Spells require either a hit roll or a save; more than 3.x require hit rolls using your spellcasting stat bonus. Some people hate this, I don’t know why, I used to do this in 2e as a house rule so that magic wasn’t 100% reliable. Heck, they should do it more (like for placing fireballs I used the usual grenade weapon rules and splash diagram). Good.
  • Spells do not appear to scale at all with level – not durations, not cure light hp healed, etc. Magic missile seems to be an odd exception. Maybe as a “sacred cow?”
  • The base rules as they put them out seem fine, but then again that’s what I thought about the basic mechanic of 4e in my 4e PHB readthrough. So I’m nervous.
  • The core rules as they printed them here seem to focus more on exploration than 4e, which was purely tactical combat, but that’s hard to tell from a 31 page draft.
  • The DM guidelines are fine if not innovative. It does put the DM back in the driver’s seat.
  • Since there’s no skills, DCs don’t scale as much, with a DC of 20 being “Extreme.” That’s very good. The swinginess of 3.5e “DC 40″ checks was lame. It also seems to stress flexibility and roleplay in how to go about making a check.  Good.

So that’s all pretty good, the only “Danger Will Robinson” moment is the thing where you heal up completely overnight automatically. Avoids the “CureLight Wounds wand” syndrome but isn’t very realistic, I’d like to see some persistent wounds on top of that maybe.

The Characters

Then I read the character sheets, which scared me a little more. A first level halfling rogue seems to have a lot of crap. Race and class and background and theme turn into like 11 specials to remember. I start seeing what are basically skills, just hardcoded, and feats. It seems like too much.  Although in the examples, background seems to only give skill bumps and themes give a feat. Maybe background *or* theme… Especially on the wizard the difference between the two is pretty thin and confusing. Themes are like 2e kits, kinda. But so are the backgrounds.

On the plus side, all the powers so far seem to make sense- the fighter’s powers aren’t weird pseudo arcane stuff like in 4e.

The Monsters

The monsters in the bestiary are OK, except for being a little too complex and legalistic full 3e stat block style – and with fixed hit points, but that might be just for the playtest.

I am concerned with the treatment of NPCs as monsters and not real characters 4e style, so for example there’s an evil cultist entry with three “types” as if they’re Left4Dead zombies as opposed to being real people – “What, there’s no such thing as a second level evil cleric?” I see more of this in the adventure, with arbitrary “specials” on the orcs and goblins.  And several of these powers (gnoll packlord, I’m looking at you ) go over the line to breaking simulation (no in game world justification, just “a power”). Meh.

The Adventure

Caves of Chaos.  A good choice as it is very nonlinear. I like the format for rooms that leads off with sensory input, very short boxed text, then gets to it.  Not just three 4 hour long setpiece battles like 4e does, but a proper module, looks like it’ll play like any other D&D at first glance.

The Summary

It’s like a simplified 3e, corrupted with only small 4e-isms.  The ongoing meme is that it’s somehow more like OSR stuff but I don’t see that – there’s a little simplification but not even down to 2e levels, let alone earlier levels. Removal of the obsessive focus on the tactical map is what’s making people say that, I guess. “It’s not pure 4e, so it must be OSR?” The simplification is welcome to my eyes.  I’m not sure if this quite reaches the level of being compelling, though. I worry especially from the character sheets that there’s a bunch more junk they just haven’t shown us yet that’ll take it to 3.5e levels of law degree gaming.

One of the big things that’ll sway me is if they go open.  I suspect they won’t just because even the playtest is laden with legalese junk. If they do, it might make it.  If they don’t, they won’t pull anyone from their current games of choice, is my prediction (and all my 4e/5e predictions are coming true with regularity now…).

Trouble Downloading Your D&D Next Playtest?

I did initially too, but a cursory look around revealed this customer service post with a link to a direct download.

Random D&D News

There’s a Design Your Own D&D T-Shirt contest going on courtesy of Topless Robot on WeLoveFine.com. Go check out the designs and submit your own!

Also, I just got the email about the D&D Next (aka D&D 5e) playtest being open, and I should be getting an email with the stuff in it soon.  Though I’m a Pathfinder fan, if they can make something simpler – like 2e with cleaned up mechanics, or Rules Cyclopedia Basic – I may be in!

However, I’ve been listening to some actual play podcasts lately – mainly the Major Spoilers podcast is relevant here – and have been realizing how Goddamn boring D&D 4e combat is.  “I shift two squares and hit it.” I want that crap to go away fast. The podcast is engaging till combat hits and then it’s excruciatingly boring (for like an hour!). Hint, that’s how the game has gotten too!

Note the ENWorld discussion forum for D&D Next as well as the WotC D&D Next page.

Monte Cook Leaves Wizards/D&D 5e Design Team

In surprising news on his Livejournal, Monte Cook has announced he’s leaving the D&D Next design team. He says it’s not a disagreement with his fellow designers, but with the company.

This is bad news, very bad news, for D&D Next.  Monte was providing external credibility, as someone who had worked on Pathfinder and has been outside the WotC/Hasbro echo chamber, to the process. Mike Mearls has been talking all old school but he’s been in charge of 4e for a long time and many of its missteps belong directly at his feet. I was willing to believe the combined team, I’m not so sure I’m willing to believe “Now it’ll be even better!’ backpedaling/spin from the same old characters.

I wonder what ‘corporate disagreement’ is in this case. Did they not want to pay him enough?  Or did he see the business plan and think “this is crap on toast?” The Examiner has some speculation. Mearls’ post does have a little bit of a lightly disguised slap-back in it so I’m not sure the “company not the designers” thing is entirely forthcoming.

I guess we’ll see; Wizards took the opportunity to announce that the 5e playtest will start on May 24. Maybe we’ll see something good… But the person with the most experience working with actual players and getting playtest information on products just left. And I’m worried that they’ll just show off some core mechanic that will seem fine…  When I did my initial 4e PHB readthrough, the core mechanic itself seemed fine, it was what they did on top of it that (IMNSHO) ruined the game.

Well, good luck to Monte, and good luck to the 5e team.  (The latter needs it!)

More Kids in Gaming Thoughts, The Future, and 5e

I ranted a bit about the myopic approach of WotC and the rest of the gaming industry to RPGs in My Little Pony: The RPG. Well, I am part of the large peer group of gamers with ~10 year old kids now (a 9 year old girl in my case).  I was out at the Broken Spoke last night with my friend Kevin, who has been getting his 11 year old boy into gaming, and as we talked I had some realizations that 5e needs some major direction change to not just be for the 40 year old grognards.

Simplicity

His observation is that both 4e and Pathfinder are too damn complicated.  It turns the kids off. Even with their basic boxes, the problem is that you run out of adventures and content very quickly. They are seen as very limited time intros whose goal is to convince you that you certainly want to read a 575 page rulebook now. Not! Basic D&D (BECMI) had loads of support but was 600% simpler than any of these current versions.

Weren’t around then or your fond memories clouding facts? Here’s a basic D&D stat block.

Giant Centipedes (8): AC 9; HD 1/2; hp 4, 4, 3, 3, 2, 2, 1, 1; MV 60′ (20′); #AT 1; D poison; Save NM; ML 7; AL N. (Courtesy B5, The Horror On The Hill)

Here’s an AD&D stat block.

Four normal crocodiles: AC 5; MV 6″//12″; HD 3; hp 13 each; #AT 2; D2-8/1-12 (Courtesy U3, The Final Enemy)

Here’s a Pathfinder stat block. After I remove many of the extraneous parts.

CENTIPEDE, GIANT    CR 1
Male Centipede, Giant
NN Medium Vermin
Init +2; Senses Darkvision (60 feet); Perception +4
DEFENSE
AC 14, touch 12, flat-footed 12   (+2 Dex, +2 natural)
hp 5 (1d8+1)
Fort +3, Ref +2, Will +0
Immune mind-affecting
OFFENSE
Spd 40 ft., Climbing (40 feet)
Melee Bite (Centipede, Giant) +2 (1d6-1/20/x2) and
Unarmed Strike +2 (1d3-1/20/x2)
Special Attacks Poison: Bite – injury (DC 13)
STATISTICS
Str 9,  Dex 15,  Con 12,  Int -,  Wis 10,  Cha 2
Base Atk +0; CMB -1; CMD 11 (can’t be Tripped)
Feats Weapon Finesse
Skills Climb +10, Perception +4, Stealth +10, Swim +2
(Courtesy Hero Lab, because who has the patience for modern stat blocks?)

I like Pathfinder; I play Pathfinder.  How much *more* fun is Pathfinder than Basic and AD&D were?  0%.  How much more complex is it? Uh, about 600%, roughly.

The line they’re laying down for 5e is that it’ll be simple and there can be “rules modules” on top to make it more complex.  Which will be fine, as long as they start at REAL SIMPLE.  As in Mentzer Basic simple. You can always layer stuff on to make it more complicated, but making something simpler is very hard. Many relevant lessons from the software industry come to mind here. Everyone says they want something with every feature – but then when they see something that achieves the core feature that is easy to use, they forget about all that.  It’s why e.g. Dropbox is kicking the ass of all the other more complex file sharing methods out there. Microsoft Office is collapsing under its weight as people realize “I don’t use 99% of the crap in here, but I’m paying for it and having to load it on my hard drive and making my simple doc editing a lot slower because of it…” Take a hint.

Support

So that naturally segues into the next topic, game support. Basic D&D was a whole game line unto itself, not necessarily a limited time “intro”.  Kev’s busily trying to hunt down all the adventures (which lucky for me I still have) – for Basic, the B and X series (and the less well conceived CM and M series), and for Advanced the many wonderful series (A, T, GDQ, I, etc…).  Because really all you need is the basic set and then a bunch of stuff to do.

Paizo has made their millions tuning in to the simple truth of what it is that made 1e and Basic the high point of D&D play.  It’s the adventures, stupid! 2e and 3e and 4e kept doing “Silver anniversary of the return to the return to the Keep on the Borderlands” because all the good adventure content was from the 1e and Basic versions.  That’s what catapulted third party companies like Green Ronin to real companyhood with the OGL in 3e – for them it was their Death in Freeport modules. At Gen Con 2000 I bought the 3e PHB and then every single module (we called them modules back in the day) I could get my hands on.

People like to say “Oh, but that’s why D&D failed; I heard it’s that adventures aren’t lucrative…”  No it’s not.  D&D in the 1980s was bigger than 4e + Pathfinder added together and multiplied by 10. And it’s hard to disprove when you look at Paizo and Green Ronin and all those other 3pps – they all bootstrapped themselves as startups on adventures, to where they can now put out multiple game lines and whatnot as proper companies.

My content observation is that kids love manga nowadays.  My daughter and all her friends are all into Full Metal Alchemist, D.Grey Man, and a bunch of stuff like that. Guardians of Order kinda tried to do this back in the day, but a RPG with the same light mechanics coming out for each one of those would be a big seller (and potentially internationally!).  Japan loved D&D too.

IMO this approach could scale down to even very young kids.  I conceived of a Dora the Explorer game when my daughter was much younger, where you adopt their simple quest structure and your “explorers” have to surmount 3 obstacles, which are minigames or arts and crafts assignments or whatever, to proceed. Probably dice aren’t even required.

Here’s where, though, I’m w0rried about the 5e “ultimate toolkit” approach.  How do you make adventures for that? It was easy enough to juggle Basic and Advanced back in the ’80’s, that was a simple strata that made sense.  Now, you’re writing something for a group that may or may not be using big hunks of the rules?  It worries me that the adventures will be a big ol’ mess of “if/then” wasted page count.

Anyway, in my opinion simplicity and support are the keys to making a good base game that will be adopted by a new generation. And if the game’s adopted by a new generation, then money will be thrown into it and I can feel safe knowing there will also be fringe products catering to an old guy like me – just 10% of a large healthy market instead of 90% of an old dying one.

Morale in D&D

The D&D 5e design team is talking about morale in D&D. I miss morale.  For those not familiar with morale, it was a mechanic that told you when foes were likely to break and run or give up instead of just fighting to the death like killbots. (Yes, I know, hard to believe.) It was in Basic and 2e if I recall correctly, and you’d roll 2d6 against it and apply penalties in various circumstances. For examples from my 2e MM, Kobolds were unsteady (7) and Kuo-toa were Elite (13).

To forestall the inevitable poorly thought through complaints, you can ignore it just like you can any other piece of a stat block or monster writeup as a DM, you don’t have to be beholden to it.  (“It says they appear in mountainous terrain and it’s not mountains!  NOOOOOO!”)  But it helps define more specifically how vicious/cowardly a monster or NPC (or PC ally) is. I have this problem right now in our Reavers campaign – the PCs have a bunch of pirate allies, and I’m continually having to make 6 judgment calls a round as to which keep fighting and which fall back; I’d rather have a mechanic for it.

In fact, I think morale can be improved. Back in my Animals in D&D article I proposed to split morale into two factors – one which determines how likely something is to attack in the first place, an aggression value – and one which determines how likely something is to keep fighting. This is especially great for animals – unlike in computer games, animals usually don’t just attack for grins.  And some will flee if they get hit once, while others won’t.  Heck, it’s good for NPCs too – I remember as a new GM back in AD&D 1e days being confused in T1 the Village of Hommlett as to whether the berserkers in the gatehouse were just going to attack anyone they saw, or what? They’re berserkers, but on the other hand they seem to just be chilling in a building with other kinds of creature around…

Sure, if you plan out every single encounter and what is “supposed” to happen you might not need the aggression. But many of us use random encounters, and also have just stuff out there people can wander across – is that owlbear feeling very irate, or just standoffish today?

So I’m definitely in favor of morale coming back.  Let’s say convert it to a d20 roll as is more traditional now. First value, roll over to attack, second value, roll over to keep attacking. And you get a bunch of more interesting behaviors quickly defined…

  • Morale DC 20/10: isn’t going to attack unprovoked, will bail about half the time if it’s in a fight that’s not going well (most animals might fit in here.)
  • Morale DC 10/0: Somewhat likely to attack you, but once the fight starts there’s no going back! Maybe a good value for those berserkers in T1.
  • Morale DC 20/20: Not gonna fight, always gonna run, like a peasant or small herbivore or my dog.
  • Morale DC 10/0: Going to attack half the time, will never flee or surrender
  • Morale DC 7/15: Likely to attack, but not likely to stick with it (many ambush predator types fit into this category, like my cat)
  • Morale DC 5/5: Aggressive and elite critter
  • Morale DC 0/0: Stone golem, crush them!

Etc.  Thoughts?