Tag Archives: dungeons dragons

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.

De Ludos Maleficus – On Evil Campaigns

As inspired by an RPG Stack Exchange question on how to run evil campaigns.

I’ve run a variety of tones of campaigns over time and some could be considered “evil”; in fact currently I’m running a three-year long Pathfinder campaign where the PCs are pirates, Reavers on the Seas of Fate.  Not all of them are technically evilly aligned, but murder, torture, rape, slavery, etc. have all come up in the game. Here’s how you make it work.

Why Do It?

Why would you run an “evil campaign?” Sounds like hassle!  And dubious morally, I mean, it has “evil” right there in the title.  There’s a couple reasons to run an evil campaign and the measure of success is different per type.

  1. I want to freak out and kill everyone! Not a real mature campaign type, but often behind more immature groups who want to play an “evil campaign.” Tell your players “go play Call of Duty and teabag noobs if that’s what you want.” There is no meaningful success metric here.
  2. I want freedom! Much of the time people want an ‘evil campaign’ it’s because they feel constrained/manipulated by their GM and/or other players based on an overly restrictive interpretation of alignment (or whatever similar concept your game has). They’re tired of “you can’t do that” and “Your character wouldn’t do that!” and want to cut loose. If that’s the case, consider running an evil campaign once, use it to demonstrate that criminals generally enjoy effectively less freedom than good folks per the above reasons, and then take the hint and run ‘good campaigns’ with more meaningful character choices and letting the PCs be proactive and diverse in their belief. Success is measured by whether you all learn how to do that from the game.
  3. I want to explore the darker side of human nature! This is why I run evil games. I actually have stronger beliefs on goodness than most folks in real life. I like confronting people with the consequences and ramifications of their actions in games to make them think. Is trading off part of your soul or good name or humanity worth it for that goal? How about long after you’ve achieved the goal but you’re still marked by the act? Success here is fuzzier, since games that actually uptake more roleplaying have less clearcut “win conditions” in general. But it’s successful if it’s enjoyable and if it causes people to grapple with moral questions.

But What’s It Really About?

“Evil” is not really a campaign concept (well, not one that passes muster past the 9th grade level). You need a campaign concept and one that will generally keep the PCs acting together instead of being at each others’ throats unless you’re looking for a very short, PvP campaign, which is legitimate. In fact, there’s plenty of short form indie games that facilitate that (Fiasco is probably the most notable). If you are more going fora longer campaign, however, it needs to have as much in teh way of concrete goals as any other campaign. Smart PCs know they need other mighty people to achieve their goals, good or evil.

Heck most “normal” campaign setups work as well or better with evil groups – just because you’re evil, you don’t really want where you live and work taken over by zombies or whatever, that interferes with your cashflow. Often times players want to “play evil” because they feel like the GM has been using “goodness” to manipulate them into being passive and they want to be proactive and smart in confronting threats. Squinting too hard at many campaign concepts passed off as “good” reveals them to be a sequence of home invasion, murder, and robbery anyway.

The main trap you’re trying to avoid is the PCs just self destructing by going nuts on each other and everyone in the world in general – at least, if they’d be unhappy with being hunted down and slain a couple sessions in.

Decide on Limits, Within Limits

Some people, when they say “evil campaign,” just mean “I want to kill lippy villagers like they’re orcs,” not that they want to really delve into the darker aspects of human nature. You may want to establish an agreement on tone/content with your players up front – you are not required to run (and the players aren’t required to participate) in anything they feel like is over their boundaries. I’ve been known to have players vote on approximate levels of sex, violence, etc. in a game ahead of time, and where they want it to “fade to black.”

However, a lot of that will be emergent. In my current pirate campaign, no one really thought about torture until they caught an assassin who was trying to kill the crime-boss they were aligned with. The PC halfling rogue decided he’d torture her extensively to find out who sent her. This definitely put off the other PCs – but not enough that they stopped him. Boundary established (well, lack of one).

Not every “evil” person is 100% evil and on board with everything “evil,” though. The ship took two elven women prisoner and one was claimed as a slave by a vicious half-orc pirate. The PC captain didn’t really like that but felt somewhat constrained by the expectations of the crew (mutiny is always a threat if the crew doesn’t think they’re getting their due) so he allowed it. The PCs and that half-orc were having dinner in the captain’s cabin, and the halfing from the anecdote above suddenly stabbed the half-orc to death on the dinner table (he’s an assassin now – successful death attack). He explained to the shocked command staff that he wouldn’t have any slaves on board or associate with slavers. Boundary established.

If you have real characters really roleplaying and thinking through their motivations, you’ll still have limits, whether it’s “no women, no kids” or the Mafioso that are patriotic and still want neighborhoods to be “family places.” Try to depict other “evil” people as complex in that way as well so that they will understand that evil isn’t just a race to maximum depravity. With that halfling, torture of captives is OK but slavery and rape is a killin’ offense. There’s no “Evil Checklist” you have to adhere to and say every crime ever considered is OK – in fact most evil people really are just into one and consider the others to be as bad as other folks do.  Realistic motivations and roleplaying are what will make the campaign something real and not goofy.

However – some people make too much of setting boundaries for their games. If you came up to me and asked me “Do you want to see some chick saw her cheeks off?” I’d say “No! What are you talking about?” But I just went to see the movie Evil Dead, where that exact thing happened as part of the overall horror movie experience. “Boundary pushing” can be good and desirable and allowed based on initial buyin to the general campaign premise. Sure, there’s a very slight majority of people so traumatized by something that if it comes up in game it’s going to truly trip them out, and there you have outs just like any other kind of media – “press stop,” say “I can’t deal with this” – but most gaming groups don’t really need to do more than establish the general MPAA-rating (e.g. “Hey guys I’m active in my church and I don’t really want to go past PG-13 with this game”) and then mess around in that area. Worrying too much about what exact things might disturb your players is overthinking it IMO. If you go see Evil Dead, you’d better expect that if you have a fear of/complex about anything, there’s a nonzero chance it’s going to come up in lurid color. All the buyin we required for the pirates game was “people can be evil if they want, and expect HBO Original Series level depravity, the pirate world is not a gentle one.”

Actions Have Consequences

Review How do I get my PCs to not be a bunch of murderous cretins? – there are a lot of reasons people don’t perform unrestrained evil deeds all the time, from “I don’t want to” to “I will get in trouble for it.” Sometimes my players complain that the pirate-friendly port city they frequent is “too lawful” just because they can’t get away with any heinous crime or breach of the peace they can come up with – but all societies need some kind of stability and will crack down on those affecting that too much. On the other hand, they have become used to not going out into the city alone; traveling in groups is mandatory to not be victimized themselves.

Many evil societies are like this – see how lawful Drow society looks from the outside. Our pirate PCs have to fear their pirates mutinying, the law/navy hunting them down, the bigger pirates in port deciding they’re too big for their britches or have so much loot that they’re a tempting target in turn. Criminals “hide out” for a reason – they are not free to operate within larger society, and therefore end up having less freedom than good people (something good to play up as the GM). The law, higher level “good” adventurers, etc. are always looking to wipe you out with a clear conscience.

A mechanical option here is keeping track of “infamy points” – I have my own homebrew system I use, but there’s a lot of extant reputation-tracking mechanics in the world. People have heard of the big bad people and will react like people do – avoid, confront, narc them out, victimize them, etc. Remember that many victims of crime are doing something bad themselves – criminals, or at least the dishonest, make the best marks for cons and crimes because they have little legal recourse. The pirate PCs can’t go just anywhere as their infamy becomes known; honest ports reject them, and other evil folks are generally not the best allies because they like to turn on you when you blink.

So that’s my take on evil campaigns.  Our current one is turning out very well, with complex characters. Sindawe the captain is reluctant to do much “really bad” stuff himself except the occasional act of violence – but he’s happy to let/order others to do them. Serpent is concerned with getting married and having a kid, and even surreptitiously tried to let some of the elven women escape, but he’s even more murder happy than the more measured and Lawful Sindawe. Wogan tries to not do much evil himself but he doesn’t speak against it either. Tommy tortures and worships lust demons, but will do anything to free some slaves. HBO Original Series achieved!

Razor Coast Kickstarter

Bethany Razor Works It

Bethany Razor Works It

Razor Coast, the mega-adventure by Paizo fan favorite author Nick Logue, has had a long and checkered past. But Frog God Games has it now and is running a Kickstarter to get it out the door finally! It’s in Pathfinder, but they also have Frank Mentzer (Red Box, fools!) himself working on delivering it for Swords & Wizardry too at the same time.

Razor Coast is set on an untamed coastline, with home base being a colonial power’s city and it surrounding plantations. Just on the land you have slavery, hostile natives, crocodile men, volcanoes, and monster-infested jungle to contend with. But Razor Coast, like Skull & Shackles, has a strong nautical component too.  Ply the waves and fight pirates, or be a pirate and fight the navy – plus weresharks and sahuagin and other demented denizens of the deep! (You can get a sneak preview of the maps for RC on Sean MacDonald’s site!) It wouldn’t be Nick Logue if it didn’t reveal the worst side of human nature and end up in various shrieking bloodbaths.

Pele, Goddess of Fire and Wrack

Pele, Goddess of Fire and Wrack

The good news is that the content is pretty much all done.  I was a volunteer editor originally and still am; this adventure (and all the related Indulgences and extras and whatnot) are in the can and just being fine-tuned.  I just finished another round of editing the various Indulgences to make them even better. So there’s not much standing between this and release, unlike other Kickstarters that are being done completely from scratch.

Yes, it’s pricey.  The hardback level is $110, but you are getting a huge tome and a lot of extras for that.  Lou Agresta explains the value and all what you get on the Paizo boards if you’re interested. FGG uses a very high quality textbook printer, made in the USA, so you are paying more but get a book that won’t fall apart and whose binding isn’t mixed with the tears of child laborers. Check out the higher Kickstarter levels too, they have sweet ship models and other cool swag. They’re 2/3 of their way to goal with 19 days left, now’s the time to get in on it! If you preordered back in the day from Sinister, they’ll honor that preorder, so no worries there. You can pledge some to get other bennies though.

Dajobas, Devourer of Worlds

Dajobas, Devourer of Worlds

I’m going to be running Razor Coast as part of my Pathfinder pirate campaign (“Reavers on the Seas of Fate“) soon! Actually, I already ran one of the Indulgences that were available back originally to kick off the campaign, and you can read the extended session summary here to get a feel for the kind of adventure we’re looking at!  (Well… I did zazz it up a bit myself.) I’ll be setting it south of the Shackles with Port Shaw as a Sargavan expansion port.

Do note that you don’t have to be  a pirate for Razor Coast, unlike with Skull & Shackles – it works for good parties as well. In fact, it starts at level 5 (and goes up through 12+), you could capture and impress your PCs with the first chapter of Skull & Shackles and if they end up being goody-goody and don’t want to go pirate, they could flee to Port Shaw and slot right into Razor Coast!  I actually used the first two chapters of Second Darkness to start my Reavers campaign and went pirate from there, out to Azlant and now to the Razor!

Maybe my PCs will see you there… Kickstart now to become on of their many victims!

Reaper Kickstarter Or OSR Manifesto?

In an interesting move that’s almost a political statement, the Reaper minis kickstarter that’s going crazy ($2.5M, 13,590 backers) is giving away a Swords & Wizardry PDF with the big set of rewards now.

The weird thing about that is that the Swords & Wizardry PDF is already available for free.  So this is less a giveaway and more a promotion.  And it’s likely to be a successful promotion; I don’t know how many people have downloaded Swords & Wizardry ever but I think another 13,500 is a very significant percentage of that number.

I think it’s interesting that a minis company would push something like that basically for no real business benefit (they are selling Pathfinder branded minis, so some giveaway there wouldn’t have been as much of a surprise – or heck, it’s 3e/4e that have pushed miniature use in general a lot more than earlier D&D did, but the financial give-back from any OSR promotion is likely to be in the “maybe it’ll buy a latte” range).  I know some of it’s just personal interest, here in central/north Texas there’s a lot of OSR going on, but one can’t help but reflect during the D&D Next playtest what the implications of a lot of new blood getting their hands on the old rules might mean.  Positive things I hope; Next is starting to bloat during playtest from Basic to 4e very quickly, perhaps people will get a taste of a more stripped down ruleset and realize they don’t need all those layers of rules for fun.

My verdict – ballsy, interesting, good on you guys!

Pathfinder Preview – The Sorceress

Paizo’s put out their third preview for the final Pathfinder rules, and this time it showcases the famous iconic sorcerer, Seoni, at level 10!   Let’s take a look.  Yep, she’s still built like a brick shithouse.  I need to figure out which Golarion country is the source of her quite-advanced cosmetic surgery.

In 3.x, I didn’t like the sorcerer that much.  It was too similar to the wizard.  A mechanical difference (spontaneous casting vs prepared casting) didn’t seem like something to bother basing a PHB core class on.  Its main niche, really, was as an NPC class, so that hideous goopy monsters could cast spells without having a spell book around. In our gaming group, it was mainly used as a dip class for someone that needed just a little arcane casting.

Pathfinder’s helped that out some with the full-scale adoption of the bloodline concept.  3.x hinted at a “draconic bloodline” in sorcerers that gave them their power.  In Pathfinder, they take that a big step farther and have a wide variety of bloodlines a sorcerer can take, that give unique powers and have different feels to them.  Seoni has the “arcane” (aka lamest) bloodline.  I wish they had showed off a more flavorful one.  In our Curse of the Crimson Throne campaign, our sorcerer Valash has the air elemental bloodline.  Check his level 13 build here.  He can do electric at-will zappies, a big blast once per day, has electricity resistance, etc.

The other bloodlines in the beta were abyssal, aberrant, celestial, destined, draconic, elemental, fey, infernal, and undead.  Bloodlines are not overwhelmingly powerful, but a nice addition that adds as much flavor as “kewl powerz.”  It justifies sorcerer more as a separate class in my mind rather than a variant wizard class option (“Spontaneous Casting: Get two more spells per level per day and you don’t have to prepare them but you can only know X/level!”  Look, there’s an entire class writeup.)

To me, that’s the big deal.  The smaller changes and tweaks (d6 HD, specific spells, etc.) are fine but not terribly interesting except to the number-wonks.

Pathfinder Fighter vs. Ice Devil?

There’s been some smack talk about the Pathfinder preview of Valeros the 14th level fighter.   It spins off into the usual “fighters are worthless in D&D 3.x” hate speech.  In particular, there’s comparisons with an ice devil. “The fighter is totally outclassed by the CR 13 ice devil!” they cry.  “Casters are the only worthwhile classes!”

Well, I can’t speak for Valeros’ build, but our Pathfinder Beta based Curse of the Crimson Throne game is coincidentally at level 14.  We have a fighter, a ranger, a cleric (me), a new bard, and an occasional sorcerer.  And I’m afraid we don’t find the fighter “weak.”  Let’s look at our level 14 fighter and how he’d fare.

Malcolm, our fighter, carries a modest +1 heavy flail of transmuting (which, after hitting a creature, gains the properties needed to bypass its DR).  Sure, he needs buffing – but with his usual loadout (he always drinks a potion of Enlarge Person, which he has scads of, when in a dungeon, and then either Righteous Wrath of the Faithful from me or Inspire Courage and Haste from the bard, either gives +3/+3 and an extra attack) – he can kill the devil in three rounds on average.

First round, he closes and gets one shot at +28 for 2d8+17 damage (not even counting it as a charge).  With Improved Critical (17-20) and Devastating Blow that’s 36 damage (minus 10 for the devil’s DR).  He does have to contend with the devil’s fear aura, and it’s true that even with Bravery he has a good chance of failing that save (45% for Malcolm) but that’s what friendly casters are for – resurgence or anti-fear stuff, of which we have a variety.  And for the flying problem – he has potions and other items that give short flying, or again one of us can help out there.

Then in round 2 with a full attack (and extra one for haste), the transmuted weapon bypassing DR, and Backswing –  107 points of damage on average in that round.  Devil’s down to 14 hp.  Even if it gets a slow hit in and Malcolm somehow fails a Fort save (unlikely!), it’s nap time on round 3 from a single attack.  Malcolm has AC 28 and 197 hit points; there’s nothing the devil can do to pour enough damage into him to kill him inside 8 rounds.  Its cone of cold only does 25 hp damage to him on average, and its full attack is only a little better.  Even without caster buffs, Malcolm can do it in four rounds (though the fear and fly problems are more of a problem without caster support, although there’s a variety of cheap Magic Item Compendium items that counteract those problems).

A three round kill on the devil is as good as a caster would do on average.  Between the SR 25 and +15 saves (+19 with unholy aura up), even the spiffiest save-or-dies from a level 14 caster only have about a 20-25% chance per round of working.  That’s three to four round survivability once you do the math.  And the fighter can keep it up for a long time.  The Pathfinder rules tweaks have helped him out a lot – the weapon training, armor training, bravery, and additional feats like Backswing and Devastating Blow boost Malcolm’s worth in this fight was above a level 14 3.5e core fighter.

Besides, adventuring isn’t about one on one.  It’s about a party, over 5 or so encounters in a day.  The fighter needs healing, buffing, and anti-mind-affecting support from someone.  But that’s worth it – it’s like someone with a heavy machine gun needs someone to feed ammo.  The two people together are doing more than they could with a rifle apiece.  Getting and keeping Malcolm on a target when it means 100+ damage easily in a round is so worth it.  As a cleric, I can at best toss 25% success chance save or dies (of which I have a very limited number), or cast a variety of 14d6ey anti-evil-outsider stuff, which is only 49 damage even before SR and save which makes them average a net 15-20 damage.    I’m definitely better off optimizing our fighter.

These caster queens also complain that fighters are “boring” and support roles are “boring” (apparently only save-or-dies are “exciting”).   To them I say – you’re doing it wrong!

Some Thoughts On 2e and 3e’s Legacy

I was following the thread on SOB about the various editions of D&D over the years, and my white-hot hatred of 4e has caused me to reflect some on the good and bad things about 3e.

I played and enjoyed a lot of 2e.  When 3e came out, I was really impressed at the improvements and uptook it.  Improved and streamlined basic mechanics, better multiclassing, more interesting monster builds, more flexibility.  With many years of retrospective, however, I do think that there are some directions it took the game that ended up with (to me) undesired and probably unintended results.  So here’s some bad things that 3e introduced or exacerbated.

Rules vs Rulings

I think there were and are two kinds of players/GMs/groups. Those who felt limited by the rules and those that didn’t.  This was true in every edition back to 1e – the “old school D&D is about rulings, not rules” statement is revisionist.  I played in plenty of “the rules as written are sacred” 1e games.  Anyway, let’s say a fighter decides he needs to throw his two-handed sword at someone.  There were definitely people in earlier eds. that would say “no, there’s no rules for that” and also people that would say “Uhhh…  -4 to hit and don’t try doing this all the time.  Roll!”  3e codified a lot of that, which for some folks was helpful.  Here’s a feat allowing you to throw a melee weapon and a standard rule for if you do it without any special ability to do so.  Which is nice.  But with all the huge amount of rules, though, they varied from this optimal formula, and you got a lot of “you can’t do this without the feat” stuff.  Or with things like skills, at higher levels (and DCs) you suck *so* bad at doing things untrained that it’s about the same thing.  So it helped the “I need rules” crowd while limiting the “I am comfortable making it up and my players don’t spend all night arguing about my calls” crowd.


In general I don’t believe that “having rules for something is bad,” which old schoolers sometimes use to say any skill system etc. is bad (with no answer for why combat rules should not be similarly abstract – they certainly are in some games and it works there).    But the implementation has implications.  The problem with 3e skills is the same as with 3e combat – the scaling.  With the raw numbers and also the various feats and whatnot, levels mean a lot more.  It used to be that a fifth level versus a tenth level fighter wasn’t that huge of a functional gap.  You hit more, and maybe did a couple more points of damage.  Now, damage scaling is to the point where our 13th level 3.5e fighters easily dump out 100 points of damage a round.  In 1e or 2e, you’d expect more like 30.  That degree of scaling ends up requiring min-maxing so that you are competitive at a given level.

The corollary to this is the difficulty/prep in creating high level PCs or opponents, but it’s more wide reaching than that.  A small amount of randomness has huge effects. Some randomness is desirable – the people who wanted all save-or-dies removed are clearly pussies – but too much them makes people force standardization (and 4e’s the epitome of this) in order to compensate.  Hence the new slavish adherence to “appropriate CR/ELs”.  A necessary obsession with balance also spawned more focus on game-breaking and the rules as a good unto themselves in general.

Magic Items

The new approach to magic item crafting was also problematic.  It was nice to have one; the “it’s pretty much impossible – but they’re everywhere!” approach of 1e/2e damaged immersion.  The ability to fine tune your loadout instead of largely being constrained to a couple things you’ve found was a huge game changer.  This leads to the “Christmas tree syndrome” and the virtual elimination of many non-boost items from the game.

Tactical Combat

Then, of course, the minis focus was harmful.  With the maneuver/AoO rules they are pretty much necessary, and you can’t help but spend more and more time on that part of the game than the others.  I can’t help but recall the GM advice in the cinematic game Feng Shui  by Robin Laws – “Don’t use a map!  At most do a rough sketch of an area if it’s unclear but for God’s sake don’t use a tactical setup.”  And the game was mainly all about combat, not an Amber-esque RP-fest, its’ just that Laws saw correctly the effects that tactical combat have on an RPG.

2e Today

I recently had a friend want me to run her on an adventure with her old 2e character she loved.  I had done that before with a 3e-updated version, but I couldn’t find it and so just pulled the 2e stuff and ran with it.  And it was refreshing.  The lack of minis promoted face-to-face interaction.  Less rule complexity made things run faster. She innovated more in combat.

It’s funny – when we played 3e initially, with our older ed assumptions firmly in place, and before the many splatbooks offered all the abusive choices, it *was* a better system.  Our first 3e campaigns were some of the most fun we’d had.  But over time, as these effects started to manipulate our default expectation, it got worse.  I’ve noticed a tendency in our groups now to play other games “like we play 3.5e”.  Mini-heavy combat in particular, which naturally tends to damage RP (the more time you spend on one part of the game, the less you spend on others).   I’ve noticed that when our gaming group runs other games, we seem to add a lot more lame ass minis combat in than they necessarily prescribe.

Responses – 4e, Pathfinder, Old School

Ironically, 4e, which I hate, tries to address these issues while Pathfinder, which I strongly prefer, ignores them.

4e addresses the scaling with the huge hit point boost and class standardization.   Unfortunately this is the lamer “balance solution” to the problem and turns combat into slogs.  It addresses magic items semi-successfully by removing the usual boost items, but is left with really lame and underpowered items.   On the tactical combat issue – no, it embraces tactical combat and gives it tongue kisses.  And on rulings vs rules, it’s still clearly rules based.  Confused people count removing a meaningful skill system as “more ruling based because then you can make it up.”  But with the overall rules-are-God emphasis, it’ll just end up promoting the “you can’t do that” camp.  There’s other things I dislike about 4e, but on this topic at least, it makes an effort to address some of these issues.

Pathfinder pretty much ignores these four problems, which is a shame.  I’ve already played one Pathfinder campaign, and though it’s definitely a better, more fun version of 3.5, and IMO better than 4e, it does nothing about these, which are at the core of the problems with 3.5e play.

I’m not ready to go back to 2e either, 3e definitely on the balance had great innovations.  But the real Holy Grail is to keep those while fixing these four issues.  Maybe with a second version of Pathfinder they’ll feel more comfortable in deviating from the 3.5e core enough to address them.  So for my D&D fix I’m going with Pathfinder – but it’s definitely an “in the meantime” kind of thing.

I’ve played some of the old school games – like Castles & Crusades, which makes the wise decision to update the core mechanics to be more civilized than 1e’s.  But they just aren’t enough for me.  I do want some character flexibility and cool powers – sure, I can write all the backstory I want with a 1e/Basic/OD&D character but the “they’re all so damn the same” factor is still there for me.  If I want totally rules light, then I want something like Spirit of th Century where I can define my own abilities without as much constraint.  But if I’m going to hassle with classes and levels, I want some “zazz” to them.

I haven’t done much houseruling in a while – something 3.5e,. with its huge rules setup, kinda works against – but maybe I’ll take a cut at what a new ed should look like.  I like feats and skills and multiclassing and prestige classes, so this wouldn’t be a retro-clone, but there are things that if cut or significantly changed from 3e would make a big different while still retaining that “D&D feel” 4e lost for me.