Tag Archives: 2e

Pathfinder 2e Playtest First Impressions

I was in my FLGS (Friendly Local Gaming Store) the other day and saw the printed copy of the Pathfinder 2e playtest.  Paul had been talking about running a one-shot for us so I decided to go ahead and pick it up.

I’m a long time Pathfinder player (as long as you can get, I migrated from Dragon/Dungeon to Paizo APs in 3.5 to Pathfinder Beta to Pathfinder as it happened).  I’ve been a superscriber for all that time so I have every Player’s Companion and rulebook and everything.

As a result I wasn’t chomping at the bit to look at 2e – I have more Pathfinder stuff than I can probably use in my lifetime, and my gaming group is mainly playing other games nowadays, but this prompted me to pick it up and read through it.

Overall it’s good. It’s different than Pathfinder/3.5e.  I’m not sure how many of the changes are really better or worse instead of just being different, however.  More on that after the details.

The book is beautiful, it’s full color and pro layout and no typos; better than most non-playtest RPGs (and definitely levelled up over the initial printed Pathfinder Beta I still have a copy of).

Overview

Intro

It starts with the usual RPG intro, which is fine.  They go a little overboard on the nearly page worth of SJW-speak in the beginning.  I want gaming to be inclusive and fun for all too, but they drone on about “safe space” and how GMs should be “pay[ing] careful attention to players’ body language” to police anyone being “uncomfortable.” Yes, job #1 of a GM is to carefully monitor everyone’s emotional state and make sure everything’s light and non-challenging in 2018 I guess. But, whatever, the book’s 432 pages long already why not pad it out.

Basic Concepts

The basic concepts are the usual, and you’ll generally get AC, HP, and so on. You get 3 actions (and a reaction) per round from general inflation, I wish it was more like 1e/2e – do one thing and the action will get back to you quickly, instead of doing 4 things and then waiting an hour for your next turn. Though there’s one real problem I had  – the new icons to indicate action types.  It smacks of trying to IP-protect your trade dress for the sake of it, and they are not more concise than just using a letter or whatever.  For 2 actions I need two little baseball diamonds instead of a 2?  Making a character sheet or spell cards gets to be a non-plaintext exercise now?  Boo.

Anyway, then important concept, Proficiency Modifier!  Like D&D, you have a proficiency modifier that applies to everything (weapons, skills, etc.) that is based on your level. It can be slightly less than your level or slightly more than your level if you are untrained or master or legendary.

In the book, untrained is level-2 and legendary is level+3.  That is terrible and let me explain why.  It means there’s only a 5 point spread, on a d20 roll, between the most hapless and the most skilled of a given level.  This means that when faced with the nearly ubiquitous adventure option of “do some skill challenge, or fight them,” it’s a sucker bet to try to beat them at the skill challenge because a 5 point spread on d20 is very, very failable, where if you differ enough levels you’re basically guaranteed to beat them in the fight because of how many things stack onto making you better and it’s effectively a complex skill check of many many rolls and not just one.

But all is not lost!  Paizo listens to their playtesters, and in the current rule update, they change this so unskilled is level -4.  It still means “trained” and “legendary” is only a 3 point spread though, which isn’t great, but it’s nice to see it iterating in the right direction.  It does mean “mommy taught me the guitar” can beat Robert Johnson 34% of the time in a straight roll-off, which kinda sucks. At least untrained at -4 only beats him… 20% of the time?  That’s not excellent.

Character Creation

Then you get a summary of character creation. It’s straightforward, though they hide how you determine hit points in the middle of a long “Apply Your Class” section and I went past it and it took me a while to find it – I’d think that would at least merit some bold or a header or a sidebar or something; it’s more complicated than previous because you have an ancestry set of hit points and then a class set of hit points you add together.  (And it’s here instead of in the definition of Hit Points with a header in the previous section why?) There’s a lot of formulas like that that are only explained in this section (AC calculation too) that really should be set out to look like

AC = 10 + Dex modifier (up to armor cap) + armor proficiency modifier + armor item bonus to AC + other bonuses/penalties

instead of just being text inline which is what they are.  You’re Mathfinder, own it.

Alignment is skimmed over pretty much in passing.

Ability Scores

Next we do ability score generation.  It’s the usual 6 D&D stats, but the generation is a little tricky. You start with 10 and then do a bunch of iterations of adding ancestry ability boosts (boost = +2), two background ability boosts, four free ones, a class one…  But you can’t double up in a given iteration, but you can stack them across iterations. OK, fair enough, though I suspect we’ll always be seeing the same Backgrounds for the same classes since it’s the only way to min-max your stats to 18. Or you can roll if you’re a real man.

Ancestries and Backgrounds

Next we do the races, except it’s racist to call them races so they’re Ancestries I guess?  You get the venerable Dwarf/Elf/Gnome/Halfling/Human and can do half-orcs and half-elves as variant humans. All pretty cool, and instead of a standard set of abilities there’s “ancestry feats” you can choose from both at start and then you get more every 4 levels. Not sure how you explain “suddenly I can do that thing that I learned growing up I guess” story wise, but eh, everyone likes more powers.

Only humans have ethnicities, which is weird because in Golarion there’s elf ethnicities and stuff.

And the big bad in this chapter is goblins as a playable race.

Look man, I’ve played all the goblin modules too and I love them.  The goblins are some of Pathfinder’s most recognizable IP. But in Golarion, goblins are crazed spazzes that are in no way compatible with other people.  And people already use gnomes and sometimes halflings if they want to play a little spaz.  By them being a core race instead of just in some later race guide, that means 1/6 of characters, especially in Pathfinder Society play, get to be disruptive illiterate arsonists.  Great. Needs to be pulled and put into some later more optional thing, even if it’s the first AP, with some warning text.

Backgrounds

Then we have two pages of Backgrounds, which give ability boosts and skills usually. Acolyte, Criminal, Warrior, and so on.  (I wonder which map to which classes?) There’s not that many but I assume they’ll get the shit splatbooked out of them eventually.

Languages

The next chapter is Languages, which generally works like you’d expect except for a weirdly complicated full half page on sign language (every language you choose normal or signed and if signed you get the Read Lips feat for free and blah blah see page 301)…  It also weirdly assumes that every language/race has sign language and that they’re tied to languages?  So gnoll sign language is different from celestial sign language?  Plus IRL sign language wasn’t developed until post-Renaissance so it’s all just kind of weird and overwrought. Like, the sign language section is larger than the entire alignment section.

Classes

Classes.  The first class is Alchemist because they’re alphabetical and it really threw me, I started reading it and my reaction was “what the hell is this?!?”  I had to start looking up bunches of other game concepts (“Resonance?”) and it was super confusing. I punted and went forward to Fighter to figure out the game.  Turns out they published a massive revision to the Alchemist in the errata because I guess that was a common reaction.

Anyway, the classes go to a pick-and-choose set of feats, you know, like every video game skill tree. I approve.  So many archetypes in 1e were just to basically move around things you didn’t really want for things you did, so going to “pick a class feat” is more elegant.

But I speak too soon.  While most items are turned into class feats, there is still a level advancement table with some things built in (Barbarian gets rage and totem at level 1, “juggernaut” at level 7, and so on). It’s not clear why these aren’t just class feats with that level as their level restriction, so you could take some other thing at 7 and then juggernaut at 8 if that floated your boat.

It’s the normal core classes plus alchemist, a solid list with no surprises.  Without actually playtesting them it’s hard to tell, but they seem to generally do what they did in previous editions.

Skills

They combined skills into a semi short list of 17 skills. They are still complicated because they basically pasted the rules for each more granular skill under them, so in Acrobatics you get a long ass thing about Balance, Escape, and the 5 other uses each of which has its own ruleset.

You don’t have skill points any more, it’s just those untrained/trained/expert/master/legendary levels. Everyone gets skill advances that boost your skill ranks pretty frequently.  Even the wizard, which starts with 2 + INT skills, gets one skill every 2 levels so can have 11/17 of the skills (barring mastery, but each level of mastery only gets you +1, so they’re a poor investment).

Each skill, like many of the feats in the class section, have these little “Traits” associated with them.  Some are defined here, like Secret.  Some are off in Appendix 1 in the back; I’m not sure how you’re supposed to know that.

The organization of this book starts to fall down about this point.  There’s a lot of inconsistency.  Take classes and their class feats.  OK, those are described under the class entries, not lumped into the general feats chapter.  But then “powers”, like the monk’s ki strike, aren’t in the class section, they are lumped into the Spells section!

I know in a complex game you can’t always have it where you read the definition of something before you have rules using that something, but at least have a consistent design philosophy of where you’re going to squirrel things away.  Do class things go under the class or sorted into other categories? Do traits and such get defined in the relevant section or in the back?  On p.144 it explains what a Secret skill check is.  Secret is in the traits section in the back but there it just says see p.293. Where it has the exact same text as on p.144 duplicated.  What?!?

Anyway, organizational gripes aside – they’re skills.  They let you do the normal panoply of stuff you want to do in D&D/Pathfinder.

Feats

Feats feats feats!  Only 13 pages of them. They are almost all skill feats and then some general feats, there’s no like metamagic or combat feats, which are just in the classes I reckon.

Equipment

They go to the silver standard, which I like. Gold is just for magic items and super expensive stuff, normal folks use silver for conventional expenses.

Armor is mostly like armor used to be, although with AC and touch AC (TAC) stats.  Shields are weirder and more complicated, you have to use an action to get their AC bonus.

Weapons, predictably, are like they used to be except we love traits now so every single weapon has 1-6 traits on it. Axes sweep, mauls shove, bows are deadly and propulsive… Entertainingly they define all the traits but not any of the weapons, I guess if you don’t know what a main-gauche or guisarme is, your hapless noob ass can google it? Maybe that’ll be added in the final book.

Gear is gear, but encumbrance has changed to a more abstract Bulk system instead of weight, with all the complicated junk about well this is negligible and this is Light so 10 of those become 1 Bulk and so on. Not that anyone uses encumbrance anyway.

There’s item qualities, like “masterwork” was but they can go up to +3 if you spend about x10 more money for each increment.

Spells

We’ll pick this up next time in a Part 2!  I’ll discuss spells and then the actual gameplay rules, which are hidden behind everything else. And then GMing and treasure if I reach it.

Advertisements

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.

Rule Zero Over The Years

A recent question on RPG Stack Exchange had me researching the attitudes of Dungeons & Dragons towards rule interpretation over the years and I thought I’d expand it into a post here.

The allowed scope of DM rulings has absolutely changed over time in D&D.  The balance between Dungeon Master’s discretion versus reign of the rules versus player empowerment has always been debated in D&D circles but there’s a clear evolution of thinking across the span of versions.  The attitude towards rulings vs. rules in the game shows up

  •  directly and explicitly in the rules text
  •  implicitly in the text and detectable via textual analysis
  •  in the surrounding publications considered semi-canonical (Dragon magazine, nowadays forums and designer blogs), and
  •  the culture of gamers surrounding it.

Let’s stick mostly to the first two in the interest of space.

Original Dungeons & Dragons (0e, OD&D)

In the origins of the game, Chainmail, there was no concept of straying from the rules – it was a wargame.  You could (and often did) mod the rules prior to play, but the whole thing about wargaming is that, like board gaming, the rules are considered inviolate during an instance of play as a core assumption. Some wargames didn’t have a “referee” role, and those that did, the role was very much like a sports referee – to determine if some violation of the rules had occurred.

But in the very first version of Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson open the OD&D Men & Magic book with this admonishment to the “referee”:

These rules are as complete as possible within the limitations imposed by the space of three booklets. That is, they cover the major aspects of fantasy campaigns but still remain flexible. As with any other set of miniatures rules they are guidelines to follow in designing your own fantastic-medieval campaign. They provide the framework around which you will build a game of simplicity or tremendous complexity — your time and imagination are about the only limiting factors, and the fact that you have purchased these rules tends to indicate that there is no lack of imagination — the fascination of the game will tend to make participants find more and more time. We advise, however, that a campaign be begun slowly, following the steps outlined herein, so as to avoid becoming too bogged down with unfamiliar details at first. That way your campaign will build naturally, at the pace best suited to the referee and players, smoothing the way for all concerned. New details can be added and old “laws” altered so as to provide continually new and different situations. In addition, the players themselves will interact in such a way as to make the campaign variable and unique, and this is quite desirable.

– Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, Dungeons & Dragons Volume 1, Men & Magic (1974), p.4

This is supported by textual analysis as well – the game rules’ intent (medieval people having adventures!) versus the relative paucity of the rules basically required large degrees of interpolation and discretion just to run a game.  The gap between the mode of play and the written rules is so wide that reading the rules as an all-encompassing legal text on how to play is infeasible. Still, the metaphor is of the referee changing the rules as you proceed, with little discussion about ad hoc rulings.

Later supplements continued this theme.  In Swords & Spells, the mass combat add-on, they note:

The second thing to remember is that these rules deal with fantasy. If something is unclear as to how or why it works that way, remember that it is all fantasy.  Fantasy is not bound to rigid rules and rationales.  Fantasy is imaginative. If you feel that your fantasy is better that this in some aspect, that’s fine. After all, it’s your fantasy.  Be warned, however, that unless certain balances are maintained, the game soon becomes very lopsided and very little fun. BALANCE is to be maintained at all times.”

– Tim Kask, Dungeons & Dragons Swords & Spells (1976), Foreword.

In any case fantasy is a growing and flexible form of gaming, and referees must feel at home modifying and expanding upon rules as the situation dictates.

– Gary Gygax, Dungeons & Dragons Swords & Spells (1976), Introduction.

The terminology – “referee,” “modifying the rules,” still hew close to the wargaming metaphor. Also in Kask’s quote, you see the first time balance, or as he states it, “BALANCE“, is mentioned. You’ll see it again…

Basic Dungeons & Dragons – Moldvay/Cook (B/X)

The 1977 version of Dungeons & Dragons births one of three major strains of thought on the issue of DM rulings.

Moldvay p.B2 (Foreword) on changing the rules: “In a sense, the D&D game has no rules, only rule suggestions. No rule is inviolate, particularly if a new or altered rule will encourage creativity and imagination.” Paragraph 3 of the second column p.B3 also discusses how the rules are good as-is but should be changed if desired by the group and with the DM’s permission. Also notable for using the term “rules as written”, but only as normal descriptive English rather than a technical term.

Moldvay also has most of a page (B60) devoted to telling the DM that they’re the boss, not the players or the rules. Notably, it has explicit guidance on making rulings when there aren’t obvious applications of the rules. It also notes that though a good DM will discuss rulings with players after the game, a player who still disagrees is welcome to quit as their only recourse.

As you can see Basic moves well away from D&D’s wargaming roots, gives the players a voice but puts the DM in the predominant place. I would venture to say that regardless of what the text of each game says, this became the predominant model of operation for the vast amount of the history of D&D.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1e)

In first edition AD&D, you see further development of ambivalence between the role of the Dungeon Master and the beauty and balance of the rules, though the DM is still considered the apex. It departs from B/X in that players are pretty much actively denigrated. In the opening pages of the 1e Dungeon Master’s Guide, Gary Gygax rambles on at some length on this exact topic.

What follows herein is strictly for the eyes of you, the campaign referee. As the creator and ultimate authority in your respective game, this work is written as one Dungeon Master equal to another. Pronouncements there may be, but they are not from “on high” as respects your game. Dictums are given for the sake of the game only, for if ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS is to survive and grow, it must have some degree of uniformity, a familiarity of method and procedure from campaign to campaign within the whole.[…]  In this lies a great danger, however. The systems and parameters contained in the whole of ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS are based on a great deal of knowledge, experience gained through discussion, play, testing, questioning, and (hopefully) personal insight. Limitations, checks, balances, and all the rest are placed into the system in order to assure that what is based thereon will be a superior campaign, a campaign which offers the most interesting play possibilities to the greatest number of participants for the longest period of time possible.[…]  Naturally, everything possible cannot be included in the whole of this work. As a participant in the game, I would not care to have anyone telling me exactly what must go into a campaign and how it must be handled; if so, why not play some game like chess? As the author I also realize that there are limits to my creativity and imagination. Others will think of things I didn’t, and devise things beyond my capability.[…]  The danger of a mutable system is that you or your players will go too far in some undesirable direction and end up with a short-lived campaign. Participants will always be pushing for a game which allows them to become strong and powerful far desire is to issue a death warrant to a campaign.[…] As this book is the exclusive precinct of the DM, you must view any non-DM player possessing it as something less than worthy of honorable death.

– Gary Gygax, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979), Preface pp.6-7.

You can see that player empowerment definitely isn’t on the menu in the seventies, but there is a stronger strain inserted of the wisdom of the rules and how while the DM is still above the rules, they should tread lightly and wisely in changing them. After apparently sucking down some whip-its, he goes on to say:

Know the game systems, and you will know how and when to take upon yourself the ultimate power. To become the final arbiter, rather than the interpreter of the rules, can be a difficult and demanding task, and it cannot be undertaken lightly, for your players expect to play this game, not one made up on the spot. By the same token, they are playing the game the way you, their DM, imagines and creates it. Remembering that the game is greater than its parts, and knowing all of the parts, you will have overcome the greater part of the challenge of being a referee. Being a true DM requires cleverness and imagination which no set of rules books can bestow. Seeing that you were clever enough to buy this volume, and you have enough imagination to desire to become the maker of a fantasy world, you are almost there already! Read and become familiar with the contents of this work and the one written for players, learn your monsters, and spice things up with some pantheons of super-powerful beings. Then put your judging and refereeing ability into the creation of your own personal milieu, and you have donned the mantle of Dungeon Master. Welcome to the exalted ranks of the overworked and harrassed, whose cleverness and imagination are all too often unappreciated by cloddish characters whose only thought in life is to loot, pillage, slay, and who fail to appreciate the hours of preparation which went into the creation of what they aim to destroy as cheaply and quickly as possible. As a DM you must live by the immortal words of the sage who said: “Never give a sucker an even break.” Also, don‘t be a sucker for your players, for you‘d better be sure they follow sage advice too. As the DM, you have to prove in every game that you are still the best. This book is dedicated to helping to assure that you are.

– Gary Gygax, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979), Introduction pp. 9.

This would certainly excite comment if written today in a RPG.
And then in closing out the pages of this hallowed tome, Gygax writes:

It is the spirit of the game, not the letter of the rules, which is important. NEVER hold to the letter written, nor allow some barracks room lawyer to force quotations from the rule book upon you, IF it goes against the obvious intent of the game. As you hew the line with respect to conformity to major systems and uniformity of play in general, also be certain the game is mastered by you and not by your players. Within the broad parameters give in the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Volumes, YOU are creator and final arbiter. By ordering things as they should be, the game as a WHOLE first, your CAMPAIGN next, and your participants thereafter, you will be playing Advanced Dungeons and Dragons as it was meant to be. May you find as much pleasure in so doing as the rest of us do.”

– Gary Gygax, AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide (1979), Afterword.

This marks an interesting change. In Chainmail and OD&D the referee is just there to facilitate play between players. In Advanced D&D the DM has a predominant role and, while he is expected to become a master of the rules, reigns over the rules and players alike and can essentially extrapolate and make rulings according to his sovereign will.

Also notable here is the extensive (if mildly mental) discussion of the subject – many later editions barely spare a couple sentences on it.

Basic Dungeons & Dragons – Mentzer (BECMI)

Ah, my first Dungeons & Dragons – the Red Box. In the Basic Player’s Manual, it briefly describes the DM as “the person who plays the parts of the monsters and runs the game” (p.23). I think it’s so interesting that all the player books over time don’t really expand on the DM role to players beyond one sentence of “this person’s gonna run the game.”

The Dungeon Masters Rulebook makes a dramatic break with all that has come before.

The Most Important Rule
There is one rule which applies to everything you will do as a Dungeon Master. It is the most important of all the rules! It is simply this: BE FAIR. A Dungeon Master must not take sides. You will play the roles of the creatures encountered, but do so fairly, without favoring the monsters or the characters. Play the monsters as they would actually behave, at least as you imagine them. The players are not fighting the DM! The characters may be fighting the monsters, but everyone is playing the game to have fun. The players have fun exploring and earning more powerful characters, and the DM has fun playing the monsters and entertaining players. For example, it’s not fair to change the rules unless everyone agrees to the change. When you add optional rules, apply them evenly to everyone, players and monsters. Do not make exceptions; stick to the rules, and be fair.

– Frank Menzer, Basic Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Rulebook p. 2 (1983)

The DM’s role as described is exceptionally limited when you compare the parallel AD&D. Heck, the DM can’t even change the rules without group consensus! All the advice in the first section harps on the fairness aspect.  “…so should the DM keep the “monster knowledge” completely separated from the “DM information.”” It tends to assume the rules are complete and impartial application of the rules is all that is required in the game.

There is no explicit discussion of the GM using their judgment or making rulings at all. The rules section just says briefly that if the DM has questions they should 1) read the rules, 2) read some more rules, 3) ask an experienced DM, 4) send mail to TSR to get an answer (no, seriously).  The only other mention is under the “Complaints” section that talks about listening to player complaints and admitting to your mistakes.  The subsequent sets (Expert, Companion…) have exactly zero to say on the topic of the DM’s dilemma of making rulings using their judgment except inasmuch as constructing the adventure and choosing monsters is within the DM’s purview.

As you can see, BECMI takes the ideas from B/X and then apparently reacts against the strong strain of competition and DM entitlement in AD&D and swings way over in the other direction. Basic’s decline came when 2e came out but its concepts get picked up much later by 4e.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition (2e)

The Second Edition DMG kicks in with a significantly different attitude towards rules, picking back up some of the B/X thread. Rulings are discussed explicitly and rules are put in the back seat in terms of primacy.

Choice is what the AD&D game is all about. We’ve tried to offer you what we think are the best choices for your AD&D campaign, but each of us has different likes and dislikes. The game that I enjoy may be quite different from your own campaign. But it is not for me to say what is right or wrong for your game. True, I and everyone working on the AD&D game have had to make fundamental decisions, but we’ve tried to avoid being dogmatic and inflexible. The AD&D game is yours, it’s mine, it’s every player’s game.
So is there an “official” AD&D game? Yes, but only when there needs to be. Although I don’t have a crystal ball, it’s likely that tournaments and other official events will use all of the core rules in these books.[…] Take the time to have fun with the AD&D rules. Add, create, expand, and extrapolate. Don’t just let the game sit there, and don’t become a rules lawyer worrying about each piddly little detail. If you can’t figure out the answer, MAKE IT UP! And whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of believing these rules are complete. They are not. You cannot sit back and let the rule book do everything for you. Take the time and effort to become not just a good DM, but a brilliant one.
At conventions, in letters, and over the phone I’m often asked for the instant answer to a fine point of the game rules. More often than not, I come back with a question—what do you feel is right? And the people asking the questions discover that not only can they create an answer, but that their answer is as good as anyone else’s. The rules are only guidelines.

– David “Zeb” Cook, Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide, Foreword (1989).

This is very notable – the rules are super flexible, both the rules as written (RAW) and even the rules as intended (RAI) are completely at your discretion, is the messaging. The DMG then talks a lot more about the players’ role in creating the story and in the DM’s role in entertaining them.

A mailing list debate from 2000 highlighting the difference in attitudes – 2e was more about freedom with less specific prescription, and some folks liked that and some didn’t:

1st edition was very personal and idiosyncratic, and not to everyone’s taste.[…] The second edition represents a shift in paradigm from this model (the shift began, of course, right away, as the D&D rules quickly mutated in the hands of individuals, but 2nd Edition was the first time it became evident in the products produced by TSR).  Where once there was a complete game found in a few canonical books, now there is a nebulous web of possibilities spun through any number of sources.

In reply:

There are some good ideas in 2nd edition[…] Other than that, my opinion is that it’s a mish-mash of rules that nobody ever took the time to playtest in conjunction with each other. Put the burden on the DM?  Like I need to have more burdens placed on me!

Some folks are more comfortable with a more constrained and prescriptive ruleset; 2e (along with a lot of the storytelling focus of that decade with Vampire and the like) sets the rules aside for the focus on story and DM discretion.

Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition (3e)

In the Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition Player’s Handbook is the source of the term “Rule Zero” which is often used as shorthand for “DM discretion.”

0. CHECK WITH YOUR DUNGEON MASTER
Your Dungeon Master (DM) may have house rules or campaign standards that vary from the standard rules. You might also want to know what character types the other players are playing so that you
can create a character that fits in well with the group.

– Character Creation, Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook (2000).

Since then, Rule Zero has been expanded in the popular mindset to be “The DM Is Always Right/Can Do What He Wants” or, alternately, “Having Fun Is The Most Important Thing.” It caught on as a term to describe judiciously breaking the rules – and the very fact that it emerged as an explicit term shows that there was discussion of the concept going on.

In the 3e PHB, it is pretty matter of fact about “Here’s the rules.  You’ll be using them.” Except for Rule Zero there’s no mention of possible variation and no real discussion of the DM’s role beyond:

One person in the game, the Dungeon Master (DM), controls the monsters and people that live in the fantasy world. You and your friends face the dangers and explore the mysteries your Dungeon Master sets before you.

– Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook, Introduction p.6 (2000).

The 3e DMG starts out with a whole chapter on the Dungeon Master’s role.  This edition talks a lot about the player role – “The players and the DM work together to create the game as a whole” (p.8).  The DM provides the adventure and the world and adjudicates, but the book provides a whole checklist to guide adjudication and creating house rules. For adjudication, check the rules, check similar rules, if you make something up it’s a house rule and you should be consistent with it for the campaign because “Consistency keeps players satisfied and gives them the feeling that they adventure in a stable, predictable universe and not in some random, nonsensical place subject only to the DM’s whims” (p.9). Any ruling made effectively should become a consistent, permanent house rule.

For house ruling, there’s a section discussing it, and the overall gist is to read the rules, understand why the rules exist, be careful about changing the rules – but still do it.  “Given the creativity of gamers, almost every campaign will, in time, develop its own house rules.”

I have extensive RPG mailing list email archives going back to 1997, and as I search for incidences of the phrase “rules as written,” there’s occasional uses of the phrase all the way back but it comes into heavy use as a gaming jargon phrase on D&D lists in 2000-2001 with the advent of Third Edition.

My experience is that since 3e didn’t really explicitly say a lot about the DM’s role, 2e attitudes mostly carried over into 3e until 3.5e, when new players without previous edition experience and the more tactical rules focus enhanced in 3.5e caused a shift in attitudes not strictly prescribed by the difference between 3e and 3.5e text.

Over the course of 3e/3.5e, there was a significant culture change around rules adherence. WotC put a lot of work into their RPGA/Organized Play campaigns, and especially the Living campaigns had to, due to their format, enforce strict “rules as written” adherence (as predicted by Zeb Cook in the 2e preface, you’ll note!). This generated debate, and as time went on, altered more of the default mode of players towards the rules being fixed above the individual DM’s discretion.

A quote from a Living Greyhawk organizer list email in December 1999:

Last I heard, the rule from on high was:  Greyhawk will be the flagship campaign.  It WILL follow core rules, period.  I suspect we both agree this means we will be playing some silly rules, tho not necessarily which ones actually are bad.  However, until we hear otherwise, we had best be prepared to accept Core rules as written in stone.

And an immediate counterpoint:

I would be very…disappointed…if this were true. If this is the case then another Fate of Istus type thing seems inevitable – weird things springing up in the setting just cos they changed the rules again. The mechanics of the game should poke through the skin of the setting as little as possible IMO. Setting over rules – other wise you make things a complete homogeneous sludge.

Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition, Revised (3.5e)

The 3.5e Player’s Handbook still cites Rule Zero (though without the “0,” so it’s just a sentence in the Character Creation section). Its description of the DM role is:

The DM controls the monsters and enemies, narrates the action, referees the game, and sets up the adventures.

– Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook, Introduction p.4 (2003).

The DMG is largely the same as 3e with some slight shading of language couching the DM’s role and authority in more limited terms. “you control the pacing, and the types of adventures and encounters, the whole tenor of the game is in your hands” (p.4).  Collaboration with the players is called out explicitly more. Also, the sheer magnitude of the rules and their attempt to cover all conditions makes the book more inherently readable as a self-contained guide to the game.

Gary Gygax had some harsh words for D&D 3.5 on this topic:

The new D&D is too rule intensive. It’s relegated the Dungeon Master to being an entertainer rather than master of the game. It’s done away with the archetypes, focused on nothing but combat and character power, lost the group cooperative aspect, bastardized the class-based system, and resembles a comic-book superheroes game more than a fantasy RPG where a player can play any alignment desired, not just lawful good.

– Gary Gygax, GameSpy interview, Pt. 2 (16 August 2004)

At the end of 3.5e’s reign, the Rules Compendium had this to say, in departure from what had become the mainstream, about this essential assumption behind the rules:

ADJUDICATION
Essential to the D&D game is the Dungeon Master (DM). The DM is the referee and storyteller for the game, as well as the judge when the rules don’t cover a particular topic.

Let’s face it: No set of rules can cover every possible circumstance in a game meant to mimic life in a fantasy world. The rules clear up as much as possible, assuming the DM can make a judgment in a situation that the rules don’t cover or that they don’t cover adequately. DMs are expected to use knowledge of existing rules, common sense, realworld knowledge, and a sense of fun when dealing with such special cases. Knowledge of the existing rules is key, because the rules often do cover similar cases or combine to make such judgment calls unnecessary. It’s not always true, but you often can do or at least try something the rules fail to directly forbid, as long as the DM thinks doing so is reasonable. For example, the rules don’t come out and say that a Medium creature threatens all squares within 10 feet while wielding a reach weapon and wearing spiked gauntlets. However, it’s appropriate to assume the creature does just that.

The DM is also there to keep the game moving. Doing so might require expedient rulings that later prove troublesome or just plain incorrect. That’s okay. Players and DMs make mistakes, and these mistakes tend to average out over time. It’s better for everyone’s fun if the game just keeps going rather than devolving into a rules argument or going back to revisit the round in which a mistake was made.

– D&D Rules Compendium p.5

This statement, while still backing the rules, tries to cut beleaguered DMs some slack in the rulings department, even saying “let’s not go back and hash it over again” as some of the other advice gives on this subject..  James Wyatt writes a full page essay called “Rules and Fun” in the Rules Compendium (p. 63)  that explains why we have rules and how they are important for balance and for introducing new possibilities, as opposed to their function as limits. He argues that the rules aren’t as restrictive as say a computer game’s, and says the D&D rules “limit your options without too narrowly defining them. The beauty of D&D is that your character can try anything you can imagine. The rules are there as a yardstick to measure your chance of success.”

The problem with this from a textual interpretation standpoint is that it’s hard to not interpret the raft of “possibility” options in the 3e branch of D&D as being restriction of options.  I can try to throw my opponent in a grapple – until a feat comes out that says “In a grapple, you can now throw your opponent.” Thus despite mitigating statements by the designers, their design itself passively promulgates an approach to the rules as written.

Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition – 4e

The 4e DMG does a lot of recasting of the role of the DM.  He is described “one of the players,” a turn of phrase never used before in D&D, albeit a player with a special role (p.6) – “The DM is the rules moderator, the narrator, a player of many different characters, and the primary creator of the game’s world, the campaign, and the adventure.” He “stands as a mediator between the rules and the players.” If he makes a rules call during the session, it should be re-discussed later and he should “admit his mistake” and “make it up to the players.” The tenor of this couldn’t be more different from that of Gygax in AD&D, but you can see callbacks to BECMI in the wording.

4e does have a section on house rules (DMG p.189) as something “some DMs” might like to do, and allows that changing the rules is within your rights.

The word “judgment” in reference to the DM using their judgment or making judgment calls is used only 4 times in the 4e DMG, as opposed to 10 in 3e and 15 in 2e. In general it is stressed less in the text as a concept; implying that the rules handle most situations without that being necessary or desirable.

Another significant change here is the formal introduction of dissociated mechanics. In later 3.5e the concept had definitely emerged of “RAW, right or wrong” and that attempting to use game world simulation or physics was undesirable and you should just do what the rules say whether it makes sense or not.  4e codified that and formally dissociated the character powers into “rules first” mechanisms that can be skinned into the world however you want, but that have entirely deterministic effects not beholden to game world simulation. This mode of play places story above world/fiction and thus eliminates a lot of the motivation for rulings calls beyond pure “the rules aren’t clear here” in the game.

Pathfinder

(Yes, Pathfinder is a version of D&D, duh.)  Much of the Pathfinder Core Rulebook‘s GM advice is cribbed from 3e, with slightly stronger statements echoing earlier editions about “All the rulebooks, including this one, are his [the GM’s] tools, but his word is the law” “GM Fiat: The GM is the law of the game.”

When complications involving rules interpretations occur, listen to the player and make the decision as quickly as you can on how to resolve the situation. If the rule in question isn’t one you’re familiar with, you can go with the player’s interpretation but with the knowledge that after the game you’ll read up on the rules and, with the next session, will have an official ruling in play. Alternatively, you can simply rule that something works in a way that helps the story move on, despite the most logical or impassioned arguments from the players. Even then, you owe it to your players to spend time after the game researching the rule to make sure your ruling was fair— and if not, make amends the next game as necessary.

Cheating and Fudging: We all know that cheating is bad. But sometimes, as a GM, you might find yourself in a situation where cheating might improve the game. We prefer to call this “fudging” rather than cheating, and while you should try to avoid it when you can, you are the law in your world, and you shouldn’t feel bound by the dice. […]
Likewise, don’t feel bound to the predetermined plot of an encounter or the rules as written. Feel free to adjust the results or interpret things creatively—especially in cases where you as the GM made a poor assumption to begin with.

So they come out on the side of GM rulings, fiat, and fudging (all forms of primacy over the rules), with a bit of the “make amends if you weren’t fair” flavor.

The Gamemastery Guide has lengthy and detailed advice on running a game including a section called “Winging It,” “GM Subterfuge,” “The Illusion Of Free Choice,” and other related topics. Most of it tiptoes around the topic of ruling in addition to/overriding the rules. It talks about the GM having the final say and not wasting too much time in game with rules disputes but still comes strongly from the rules-fairness viewpoint. It does talk about dealing with “Rules Lawyers,” and says

Even if you follow these rules, you may still have trouble with rules lawyers. Not everyone views rules the same way. The important thing is to stand behind your rulings, and when certain things break the rules—for good reason— don’t feel like you have to reveal world secrets just because the rules lawyer demands answers. GMs work in mysterious ways, and with any luck history will vindicate your choice.

There’s also an “advanced” section on “Customizing Your Game” and it talks about making some non-rules-supported rulings – as long as it’s carefully concealed from the players. “And with some shuffling of notes
and hidden dice roles, no player should be the wiser tosuch an improvised ruling.”

This is an interesting and ambivalent approach – sure, the DM should be ruling, but it’s somewhat shameful and if the players find out then you will be somehow compromised.  It’s like being a closeted 1e DM posing as a 4e GM.

OSR

It’s worth noting the Old School Renaissance movement to bring back older versions of D&D, with its seminal A Quick Primer For Old School Gaming using the phrase “rulings, not rules” to try to describe the spirit of older editions as compared to newer editions. It cites these four pillars:

  • Rulings, Not Rules
  • Player Skill, not Character Abilities
  • Heroic, not Superhero
  • Forget “Game Balance”

Most of the time in old-style gaming, you don’t use a rule; you make a ruling. It’s easy to understand that sentence, but it takes a flash of insight to really “get it.” The players can describe any action, without needing to look at a character sheet to see if they “can” do it. The referee, in turn, uses common sense to decide what happens or rolls a die if he thinks there’s some random element involved, and then the game moves on. This is why characters have so few numbers on the character sheet, and why they have so few specified abilities.

Some, however, consider this to be a bit of a retcon of how old school gaming actually worked. As you can see from this research, it is and it isn’t – the “rulings vs. rules” concept was very strong especially in B/X and 2e, somewhat less so in 0e/1e, and actively militated against in BECMI. Hackmaster and the Knights of the Dinner Table comic prominently parody the not uncommon rules-adherence mode of play in AD&D. As all nostalgia does, the Quick Primer picks certain elements out of the past to bring back and leaves aside some other elements.

Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition (5e)

The 5e playtest, when it was called “D&D Next,” had some very retro things to say about the interaction of DM and rules.  “The rules are a tool that you and the players use to have a good time,” “The rules aren’t in charge. You, the DM, are…” “the DM’s power comes with responsibility. Be fair and impartial with the players.” This last quote directly hearkens back to a quote from Zeb Cook’s 2e introduction – “As a Dungeon Master, you have great power, and ‘with great power comes great responsibility.’ Use it wisely.”  It even goes on to discuss ignoring the dice – “The dice don’t run the game. You do.” This sweeps aside a lot of the underlying play assumptions of later 3.5e/4e and brings back a lot of B/X and 2e concepts.

In the final 5e books, it definitely takes a step back from the “rules are God” approach that 3.5e and 4e had been heading towards.  In the Player’s Handbook, it says in the Introduction:

Because there is so much diversity among the worlds of D&D, you should check with your DM about any house rules that will affect your play of the game. Ultimately, the Dungeon Master is the authority on the campaign and itssetting, even if the setting is a published world.

It also appears to take a hint from the OSR’s formulation of “rulings, not rules” as well as the prominent fiction-first modern indie games like Apocalypse World when it describes the basic pattern of play –

  1. The DM describes the environment
  2. The players describe what they want to do (and the DM decides how to resolve those actions – importantly, the PCs don’t decide what rules they use)
  3. The DM narrates the results

In the Dungeon Master’s Guide, the DM is described as the “creative force behind a D&D game,” and it goes into their multiple hats (designer, actor, etc.).  And in its Introduction it’s very clear that

The D&D rules help you and the other players have a good time, but the rules aren’t in charge. You’re the DM, and you are in charge of the game.

Emphasis is in the original. The three parts of the DMG are “Master of Worlds,” “Master of Adventures,” and “Master of Rules”.  As “Master of Rules” the DM is described as the mediator between the players and the rules.

As you read through the 5e DMG, I get a very 2e feel off of it, down to the art direction, and its approach to the game is very similar too.

In Part 3: Master of Rules, it’s very straightforward about presenting the GM with pros and cons of approaches including rolling dice in the open vs rolling behind a screen and fudging (changing rolls) if you want to.   It offers options about the role of dice including using them a lot to mostly ignoring or not using them, OSR style.  In the early stages of 5e development they had some discussions about “5e being compatible with all the versions!” which of course was impossible and left by the wayside, but they’ve tried to preserve some of that in terms of saying  you can take as rigid or loose a playstyle as you want regarding the rules – but in the end, it’s the DM’s call.

And in Chapter 9, you are encouraged to “let your imagination run wild” and use optional rules or make up your own, with pages of advice on how to do that well.

Now, this is how the text reads – but the designers have done a very good job of continuing this.  Games live on past their pages, and now in the age of the Internet, you can reach out to the designers in realtime.  5e designer Jeremy Crawford gives official rulings via Twitter. But the tone of his and Mike Mearls’ responses is usually “here’s how I’d rule”, not saying “this is what’s right you have to do it” like Sage Advice columns of old.

Conclusion

Though in each edition you had some elements of each approach, there’s a clear move in philosophy over time from

  • 0e – the referee is an aribter and fills in the gaps
  • 1e – the DM is large and in charge, the rules are pretty good, your players are at both’s behest
  • B/X and 2e – the DM and players are both important, the rules are super mutable
  • 3e/early 3.5e – the rules and players and DM are leveled out in importance, meaning rulings are minimized and a negotiation with players
  • BECMI/late 3.5e/4e – the rules are pretty fixed and players and DM are equal and subject to the rules as law; RAW is an option
  • OSR and Pathfinder – splitting off in their own directions in reaction to 4e, OSR back to a mix of 0e and B/X flavored attitudes and Pathfinder to a hybrid of 1e/2e/3e attitudes
  • 5e – The DM is clearly in charge and can ignore/change rules and rolls as they deem wise, with the goal of everyone having fun (as opposed to the sometimes-stated 1e goal of “keeping the players in their place”.) It reincorporated a lot of the 1e and 2e thinking into the game to an even greater degree than Pathfinder.

At the same time, prominent “D&D Offramp” games like 13th Age and Numenera have a large portion of their pitch not just new setting/rules but explicit attitudes towards the running of the game – in Numenera, Monte Cook has a very large section about GM empowerment that, while not written in Grand High Gygaxian, still recalls much of the AD&D 1e and 2e advice about the GM being in charge and doing what they darn well please. 13th Age is a little more 4e-ey but both with rules-crafting and rules advice tries to take D&D in more of a storygaming direction. Dungeon World, a D&D-style game build on the Apocalypse World engine, is interestingly picky about the rules but the rules are kept to a minimum and it’s always the DM’s decision what rule is getting invoked at any time.

Every D&D Edition For Sale!

In case you’re one of the few who missed it, Wizards of the Coast has finally joined the Information Age and decided to make all old D&D editions available for sale electronically at D&D Classics. (It’s a white label DriveThruRPG/RPGNow site.) B1: In Search Of The Unknown is free for their launch week!

They have loads of the classic modules up already and they say they plan to get everything up there eventually.  Good on them!

Geek Related – The Site

I got a question in a post comment recently asking if the stuff on this Geek Related site was also me – it is, it’s my old Mindspring site from before I started the blog.  There’s some stuff you may find of interest there:

The Official Death To Jar Jar Binks Website – ah, youth.  Not really RPG related but the day after Phantom Menace came out I slapped the site together. It got featured on Salon and ZDTV among other media outlets. For the last like ten years I still get emails from people demanding “Don’t you have anything better to do with your time?!?” like I’ve even touched the site in a decade.

The Way, The Truth, and the Dice – I was publisher for the e-zine of the Christian Gamers Guild for a couple years. There’s some good stuff in these mags (especially the realistic combat and friction rules); sadly it all fell apart due to infighting (they eventually put out a fourth issue some 5 years later with content we’d gathered, but nothing since then).

Scooby Doo Cthulhu – Almost as popular as the Jar Jar page, this is the Scooby crew statted for traditional (BRP) Call of Cthulhu.  Used in about a billion con games. “Julianus” did them, I just hosted them. I especially liked using them with the various “Blood Brothers” CoC adventures.

The Monk – I redid the monk class for AD&D 2e based on a more supernatural, free-wheeling style as I was watching a lot of HK movies and playing Feng Shui.  They totally stole my approach for Tome of Battle: The Book of Nine Swords and then D&D 4e. I made up custom monastic orders for Greyhawk too, partially based on on some of Erik Mona’s Oerth Journal work (“Baklunish Delights”).

Horror in Roleplaying – probably one of the most lasting of my game essays, I did a lot of horror gaming back in the day and wrote extensively on how to do it. Nothing from the entire storygame movement has caused me to think any of it should be changed.

Classless Skills and Powers – I really enjoyed AD&D Second Edition and when the Skills & Powers supplements came out I wanted to like them – they let you do more of a custom character generation – but they were deeply, profoundly flawed.  I figured I’d fully GURPS them up and turn D&D classless.  This worked great, we ran several campaigns with these rules (sometimes mixing in non-S&P characters for those who didn’t want to go to the trouble). 3e ended up solving a lot of this in a simpler way so I left this behind when I upgraded, but for 2e OSR fans it could be useful!

Children of the Seed – Feng Shui is one of the best RPGs ever.  And it was powered high enough I thought it would make an even better anime game than a HK action game.  I was a fan of the anime series Blue Seed and so I wrote characters and a con-ready adventure to that end!

The Yeomanry page is down forever, sadly, and Bruce’s session summary page died with Onramp and he’s being a slack about getting it going again.

The great thing about all of these is that I had a lot of spare time back in the day and took all this real seriously – so this has all been playtested in campaigns and/or many con games, there’s bunches of sample characters and whatnot… About as complete as you could hope house rules and whatnot to be.

So poke around and let me know what you find interesting!

Myth & Magic Playtest Underway

Myth & Magic is a 2e retroclone under development and it’s looking good!

In retrospect, the much maligned 2e was probably, in my opinion, close to the best version of D&D. Shocking claim, I know.  But a lot of the stuff in 0e (race as class?) certainly deserved to die, and 1e was pretty Byzantine. 2e cleaned it up but was still light enough that people could house-rule and “ruling, not rules” reliably. I was really sold on 3e when it came out, and it definitely had some nice bits, but over the years it led to some mighty undesirable things (CharOp, Christmas Tree Syndrome, etc.).  A cleaned-up 2e might just do it for me!

You can download the Myth & Magic Player’s Starter Guide and GameMaster’s Starter Guide for free (forum registration required) now, they’re a playtest covering levels 1-10.

Player’s Starter Guide

It’s not just a slavish reprint of 2e, which is good. They’ve adopted the to-hit bonus and AC ascending from 10 from d20 instead of the less intuitive THAC0.  And they’ve added a seventh stat, Perception.  I think this is just wonderful; I ran with a Perception (and sometimes Luck) stat for most of 2e’s run. In general it’s 2e but cleaned up.

They also add “class talents” which are kinda like feats but scoped down a lot and limited to specific classes. You can spend proficiencies on them. I like some things about that approach, though I worry that powergamers will just take those and not actual NWPs.

There are still some wonky bits I’d like sanded off, like different XP tables per class – that’s just complexity that adds no value.  I don’t require classes be “balanced” but let’s avoid those different-for-the-sake-of-it bits that littered early D&D. If you want thieves to advance X% faster, give them the same XP table and just give them X% more thief skill points a level. Voila, same effect, less complexity.

On the other end, the only modernization I’d remove is the point buy character creation.  That is the gateway to optimized character builds, which in turn are the root of all evil. Yeah, it was an option back then, it was still bad.

GameMaster’s Starter Guide

The GMSG kicks off with the usual but keeps it short instead of meandering in for hundreds of pages, and even includes the first raft of monsters, which is good. It goes bad, however, when it incorporates the 3e approach to balanced encounters – ELs and XP budget.  “The XP budget tells you the maximum amount of XPs you can tally to an encounter.” That’s some 4e bullshit right there and needs to go.

On the monsters, they have a “CAM” (Combat Ability Modifier) which seems overly simplistic – it’s a single modifier for all skills and attacks and physical attribute checks in combat. It replaces all the stats but Int and Per. I’m about streamlining but that’s a little much, it makes monsters too homogeneous. Everything’s as strong as it is dextrous as it makes Will saves. And it’s always equal to the monster’s HD, which begs the question of why it needs to be an additional separate stat with an oblique acronym in every listing.

It does have random treasure determination tables; I get pissed off every time I run Pathfinder and want one, so props there.

Both

The art is sparse but good,the graphic design is simple but good, and it’s copyedited better than many pro products I’ve bought.

The game is definitely a good innovation on and return to 2e; with some more work I could see it being competitive with e.g. Pathfinder which I really like. And I like it better than the 0e clones, I never got that, 1e is the first real edition, and even in a cleaned up version like Castles & Crusades there’s still a little bit too much “Oh I’m a first level cleric and have… no spells.  I suck.”

My RPG DNA, Part 3: The Late Memphis Years

As the year comes to an end, I’m realizing that several post series I did kinda petered out without me completing them, so I’m going to try to bring them some closure!

This summer, people were posting in depth on their “RPG DNA” – their gaming history and how it shaped their gaming. My first two installments were:

My RPG DNA, Part 1: The Texas Years – Self-starting with Star Frontiers in junior high and moving on to D&D/AD&D.

My RPG DNA, Part 2: The Early Memphis Years – Returning to gaming via Magic: The Gathering and then escaping the D&D Ghetto!

Now I’ll talk about the Late Memphis Years.  My roommates and I were obsessively playing any game we could get our hands on, and for the first time I was attending cons. We had a pretty big group of gamers, some regular and some irregular, playing all sorts of stuff.  Many were in IT or were med students (as I was in IT and my first roommate Robert was a med student, those were our main contacts) but as friends of friends added in we had a dozen people from various walks of life. I played some, but GMed mainly, and the more I experienced the more I wanted to take roleplaying “to the next level.”  I really enjoyed the experience of a “realistic” game world and the point of roleplaying, to me, was immersing into your character’s mindset and experiencing that world through that character.  And this was hard to do “right.”  So I set out to craft a campaign that would be all about that from the ground up.

Night Below

For my big immersive campaign, I used D&D Second Edition.  Why, when I had played lots of other games and had escaped the D&D-only ghetto that too many gamers languished in?  Because everyone knew it, and because it was actually the right tool for the job.  The rules were light enough to not get bogged down in them, and were oriented towards simulating a coherent world. And, to a degree, because I wanted to show that you could indeed do something meaningful in D&D, in my opinion that though to a degree “system does matter” you don’t have to use a different game to catalyze real roleplaying.

I set it in Greyhawk, my favorite D&D world, which had just enough realistic detail and was at the time being used by fans in opposition to the super high magic and railroad shenanigans of the Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance – the online community for Greyhawk was awesome (people like Erik Mona were participants). I picked a boxed set campaign called Night Below, by Carl Sargent, which had enough content to sustain a long term adventure but was loose and sandboxey enough I could do whatever I wanted with it. I mixed in a more than healthy dose of Cthulhu mythos.

Then I formed a group.  I sat down with the existing large set of players and explained what I wanted.  Full immersion.  Total sim.  “I’ll run a casual game Wednesday nights.  But Sunday will be this game.”  I set expectations.  The world will unfold with realistic characters and consequences. People will be in character and on task 50 minutes, then we’ll have a 10 minute break, per hour.  There will be strict information compartmentalization – players won’t know anything their characters don’t – no sharing character sheets, no rules talk, lots of note passing and taking people aside.  Required attendance. This was to be a “pro level” game for people who were serious about taking their gaming farther than they had before.

I had a pretty large set of players who opted in.  After the first session, a couple of those realized I was serious about the sim and opted out, leaving us with a good small core group. Robert (med student), Suzanne (med student), Jason (med student), Travis (started at MIT but burned out, working at bookstores), and “Big” Mike (programmer). The group had turnover as life intervened – in fact, Travis was the only player who was there throughout the entire run; the group became Travis (now a Memphis police officer), “Little” Mike (med student), Laura (manager at a transportation company), Hal (musician then transportation then programmer), and David (med student).  The resulting adventures of Mikhail (mercenary and leader), Dane (excitable archer), Damia (fey gypsy girl), Orado (crazy old wizard), and Tristan (priest who had once been a fighter) were indeed the stuff of legends.

The campaign ran for five years and was insanely engrossing. People moved, changed jobs, etc. but kept coming every week with few exceptions. (Advancement was slow, I was doing by the book 2e XP and the characters were only level 9 max at the end.) We completed the campaign right before the real life group disintegrated with people moving away etc.  People still call me now, ten years later, to reminisce about the game.  With serious immersion and buy-in, we developed more “advanced” roleplaying skills at a high rate, and most of my more “deep” skills on things like creating horror in an RPG, balancing plot against character free will, improvisation, etc. all were crafted in this campaign’s crucible. Characters loved each other, betrayed each other, hated each other, protected each other, went crazy, discovered horrible secrets about their origins… In fact, it all worked almost too well – I have been somewhat disappointed in pretty much all of my role-playing opportunities since and some of the players openly say “I haven’t played RPGs again since, most campaigns are just silly compared to what we all had together.”

I could write a hundred posts on that campaign, so I’ll end it there, except to say that if you and your group can let go of all the baggage and decide to really  honest-to-God roleplay, you’ll get so much more out of it than powergaming, metagaming, escapism, gamism, narrativism, etc. provide.

The Casual Group

But it would be wrong to not mention the casual group as well!  Since I was getting my “serious gaming” jones in with the Night Below campaign, here we all just had fun.  Besides lots of great gaming stories, playing many different systems, experimenting with loads of house rules (like my 2e Classless Skills and Powers variant, bringing GURPS style character builds to a D&D near you, or my Feng Shui inspired 2e monk class, which is still cooler than all monks and was only really matched by the Book of Nine Swords), and other game related fun, this was a solid group of guys.  Scott, Brock, Tim, Kevin, “Big” Mike, and Paul were the founding members and many more have participated over the years.

Though I had more in depth relationships with the Night Below crew, it’s the casual crew who was there for each other in real life when people needed help.  In fact, this group still meets weekly today, ten years later.

My two favorite memories were the “Vampire Holocaust“, a simple 2e Forgotten Realms adventure gone awry and turned into a multi-month gripping PC-vs-PC deathmatch, and our Freeport campaign, our very first 3e game, where I kicked it off with Green Ronin’s Death in Freeport but then everyone in the group had to take a turn running with the same group in the loosely defined “World of Freeport.”  I handed out all the early 3e adventures (due to the OGL, there were a bunch out of the gate) and everyone ran – that was great, even those who weren’t “good” GMs per se did at least one thing that I learned from. I strongly encourage everyone to try  out round robin DMing sometime. The group started an email list at this time and is still known as “Wulf’s Animals” (their pirate crew name) as a result.

The casual group wasn’t as “artistic” an experience, but it had more belly laughs, that’s for sure.

The FORGE

Meanwhile, Hal and I were so full-to-bursting with gaming goodness we wanted to do more and start helping the larger gaming community. In May of 1999 we met up with the RPGA regional director who also lived in Memphis and put together a Memphis-based group, the FORGE (Fellowship of Role Gaming Enthusiasts), which exists to this day. We started with game days at a library and eventually moved to the local gaming store (we had trouble initially because they basically let card/minis gamers have dibs on the space; eventually we worked out an agreement with them).  We managed to get a great core set of four officers, the “Red Hammer Council” – Hal, myself, Collin Davenport, and Mike Seagrave. In short order we were running 2-3 tables of games at each monthly game day, running a lot of the gaming for the local con, MidSouthCon, and a FORGE team even got third place in the Gen Con D&D Team event at Gen Con 2000.  Though we were RPGA-affiliated we made it a point to run a variety of games, and our earliest meetings had everything from Call of Cthulhu to Feng Shui to Aberrant to Fading Suns…

It took a lot of work – making a Web site and negotiating places and discounts with game stores and doing elections and a constitution and handling the “outlier personalities” that any group like this has some of.  But though it we met hundreds of great gamers from all over the Mid-South!

My Scooby Doo Cthulhu and Children of the Seed Blue Seed/Feng Shui mashups were created to be run at FORGE events.

The Rise of 3e and Living Greyhawk

Since I loved Greyhawk and was involved in an RPGA club, it was the natural next step for me to get involved with the huge event of 2000 – the launch of Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition and the Living Greyhawk campaign!  I was selected as one of the three “regional Triads” for the huge Mid-South region, which mapped to the country of the Yeomanry within Greyhawk (in LG, each real world region got a specific Greyhawk region to set their adventures in).  Myself, Kevin Freeman, and August Hahn (who has gone on to write a bunch of stuff for Mongoose) got galley proofs of the 3e rules to read and when Gen Con 2000 came along, we launched it with a bunch of great adventures. The region had loads of great volunteers and we had some stellar events and adventures.  There was some amount of frustration in that we were limited in what we could do – by the required adventure format being somewhat limiting, by Wizards IP restrictions in terms of developing our Greyhawk regions, and by the “Circle” in terms of them being overwhelmed and thus very slow to get anything done. But despite that we did a lot of stuff; even when I had to leave Memphis and couldn’t be a Triad for that region any more I still helped them out until Wizards brought LG to an end in 2008.

Sadly, most of the information, adventures, etc. from that era are lost now in the Great WotC Hate On for D&D 3 and Previous Intellectual Property Like Greyhawk.  The Yeomanry Web site is down and all the scenarios aren’t available (except on BitTorrent.  Yay!), and Wizards has purged most of the 3e/3.5e content on their site, and is trying hard to pretend that Greyhawk never existed.  My experience throughout LG with the RPGA and WotC definitely contributes to my current hate of them and their business practices with respect to 4e. As time went on, they treated even people doing huge amounts of volunteer work for them, like the Triads, as serfs and gave us all the mushroom treatment.

End of an Era

Whew.  That’s a lot and I feel like I didn’t do any of it justice; so much happened during a short span of years, especially 1998-2001. I have to say that I am proud to have helped found two things that have lasted (Wulf’s Animals and the FORGE), and two things that ended but kicked ass while they were in effect (the Night Below group and Living Greyhawk). And for anyone from that era who’s reading along – thanks so much for all the great memories, you all still mean a lot to me.

Next up – the Exile Period and the Austin Years!