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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Here’s an AD&D stat block.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morale in D&D

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

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

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

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

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

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

Etc.  Thoughts?

D&D 5e Coming Along… Nicely?

I think it’s no surprise to anyone that WotC has burned every bit of their credibility with me over 4e. And I am a little dubious about the “multiple coexisting levels of complexity” plan they have espoused for 5e.

But so far what I’m hearing about the specific for 5e are really positive. At DDXP they had some seminars, let’s evaluate what they’re saying!

Class Design

The Good

  • Taking Vancian magic back to casters from everyone – in other words, removing “dailies” and crap from fighters
  • Not using so much “jargon” like the power keywords in favor of natural language (thank you!!!)
  • Quick chargen
  • Power not escalating as quickly, for example the fighter BAB not going up so fast, instead just getting more other options, so iconic monsters like ogres are interesting longer
  • No mandatory magic item economy!!!  YAY!
  • Including all the PHB1 classes from all editions, 1-4
  • Easy 3e style multiclassing, which obviates the need for too many variant classes that should just be multiclassing (like every gish ever).

The Questionable

  • Although they are talking about balancing classes not strictly on DPS, which is great – like if the bard does 70% of the damage of a fighter, they get charm and stuff as compensation – but those sample percentages still seem to say that everyone needs to be a combat guy.  That’s not very 1e.

The Bad

  • Nothing? I have to admit except for me being dubious about the true effectiveness of mixing various complexity levels in one game I don’t see anything here that makes me crap myself in rage, which is more than any 2 pages of the 4e PHB can say.

Skills & Ability Scores

The Good

  • Removing rolls in favor of “yeah, your stat is high enough, you’re good”
  • Use of stat checks for saves
  • 4d6 drop lowest as basic stat gen method
  • skills as smaller tweaks to ability scores
  • interaction first, checks come second
  • No set skill list, something can give you +2 to opening jars
  • non-adventuring skills sound like they work kinda like 2e NWPs, which is good
  • Bringing the Great Wheel cosmology back
  • Maybe stat boosting magic, but with caps
  • Silver standard
  • Wider categories of weapon specialization (e.g. axes, not “battleaxe”)
  • Less scaling while leveling
  • Quick prep
  • More power to the DM
  • grittier low levels (not quite 1e, but not superheroes like 4e)
  • skill challenges should “die in a fire” because they mess up the narrative
  • grid-based combat optional in core books

The Questionable

  • Both race and class give you a stat bump, which is fine in the abstract but I worry about it feeding the bad, below.
  • Themes.  They seem to be focusing a lot on these new themes, which is fine, kinda like 2e kits which I liked – but I worry they’re going to put too much power in them (some 2e kits were quite unbalanced too). But later they talk about them limiting class sprawl which is nice.

The Bad

  • I’m worried about the intense stat dependency.  Stat min-maxing wasn’t so important in 1e but it’s all super important in 3e and that sucks. It makes people cry about rolling stats and makes them too min-maxable as they stack their race/class/point buy/etc on top to give themselves +5 to hit and 20 dps at first level.
  • NPCs not being built like PCs. That’s 4e-ism and it sucks.
  • Still talking about their “virtual table” and hedging about PDFs.  Sigh. They’ll never write good software but they need to wake up and join the 2000’s in terms of digital content.


So… Awesome? Bringing simulation back to the game? Making sure you can do iconic 1e things? I have to admit, I am not convinced they can wean themselves off rules-heavy and take it to more of a 2e-ish approach. But I like 90% of what they’re saying!  If they can restrain their impulse to write 500 pages of fucking rules, and keep the stat dependency in check so there’s not the big hassle of min-maxing and stat dumping, this has potential. Maybe even potential to be better than Pathfinder – I love Pathfinder, their flavor and art and everything is nice, but  it suffers from its 3.5e legacy of being so rules heavy – people try “cap at level six” variants like E6 to try to avoid the worst of the power inflation and craziness.  Will 5e be the best yet? I still am not to the point where I’d bet money on it, but it seems like WotC has learned the lesson that Microsoft learned with Windows Vista – giving people what you want them to have instead of what they want never works out well for you.