Monday, 20 February 2012

My Roleplaying Game Journey (An Overview)

Today, I am looking back (briefly) at the various games and groups I have enjoyed over the years.  This article serves to give a little more background as to where I come from (in relation to RPGs), and what my experiences have been.  I'm not going to dwell on anything too much, just paint a general picture, so feel free to browse over it, and if you really want to know more, ask!

The Primary School Era

I have been playing RPGs since early in primary school.  At a guess, that was around ten years of age, and I cannot remember what the game we played actually was.  It could have been some old edition of DnD, as I recall there was a map at one stage; but it most likely wasn't.  We played at lunch times, and I definitely recall some of the game being out of a novel-like book.  It could even have been some from of Choose-Your_Own-Adventure book, if such things have been made to allow for parties to participate?  Or maybe, the boy that DMed those games had combined elements from multiple sources?  All I can remember is that we enjoyed it, and had much fun hiding in the library, or in the shade of the buildings, whilst other kids ran around in the sun for some strange reason.

Some time in my 12th year (of life, not school), I was introduced to the first RPG that actually used miniatures.  Hero Quest. That was a whole new world of fun, and I was drawn in immediately...and then school ended, my family relocated 800km away, and I started high-school.  Naturally, I convinced my parents of the importance of acquiring this game, and played it with my younger brother, but the "gaming group" was gone, and had to be rebuilt, or found.  Plus, with the predetermined board, there was less design allowed, and whilst running the monsters was enjoyable, it was not truly "DMing".

The High School Era

As I started High School, my interest with painting miniatures also started.  I still have those awkwardly-painted first batch of creatures from Hero Quest.  Gradually, my taste in games grew, as a hunger for more complexity and more options was developed.  I discovered Games Workshop, and through them, lost much time and money to many different pursuits.  Warhammer Fantasy (Skaven); Warhamemr 40,000 (Eldar), and Necromunda (Orlocks, then Spyre Hunters) all captured my attention at various times.  A common theme was had with these 'teams' I chose: fast, strong offensive, weak defensive.  (Well, the Spyres might not have been that weak, but they were few in number, and that is a form of weakness, right?)  The painting habit improved over time, and continued well into the "So On" era (complete with GW's Lord of the Rings line), up until my role as a father started taking over my free time.

Whilst these skirmish-style games were great, and we all had a whole lot of fun with them, it was Warhammer Quest that truly awoke my inner DM.  Through the latter part of my high school years, we formed a proper gaming group - which was pretty much just the same circle of friends I hung out with elsewhere - and adventured through many stories, and with many different characters.  We even dressed up...once.  Only once.

When we split up and headed for University, we always imagined coming back and continuing the games we had once again, but it never happened.  Now, fifteen years later, the closest we have come is a few games of Castle Ravenloft one Christmas.  And that's not to say it was a bad experience - but trying to organise much more than that has proven to be impossible.

The University Era

When I left home to head to University, money became a lot more scarce (strangely!), and the groups I could have joined, through various clubs, were a significant travelling time away from my home.  Oh, and I was an engineer student, so I did not have much free time!

Eventually, I did meet some people who had a long-running DnD group, and was invited to join.  The full history of that group would be better told on another blog, but it, with a few changes, is still continuing this day, about 12 or so years later.

Meanwhile, I also discovered online forums, Play-by-Post games (which I will talk about more later), and RPGs on the computer (the Baldur's Gate series, and then Neverwinter Nights).  These filled in that need to game, without having to actaully find a time that would work with everyone.  Yes, each of them lacked aspects that a good, regular gaming group had, but they had benefits, too.  A computer game clearly only needs you to be free; likewise, you can write up a post in your own time, and not have to wait on others arriving.  But still, these things were only ever a fill-in, for when the actual group wasn't meeting.

And So On...

My current, long-term group has played through the end of second edition; excitedly entered third (then reluctantly purchased 3.5); took a detour through Star Wars; returned to see out a heavily house-ruled 3.5e campaign whilst trying out 4e on the side; and now are sailing on with some dusty adventures with a full-fledged 4e game (more on which can be seen on the aforementioned blog).

Whilst that has happened, the side group was formed.  It was made up from a few eager players wanting to play more than once a month, and a few other interested folk who had not played for a while, or at all.  This group started out as an attempt to move through the levels, sampling what 4e had to offer, before making a decision as to if we would join it or not.  Of course, being a monthly game, it took a year to get through the heroic tier.  Then we slowed down, and took nearly two more years to get through the paragon tier.

New babies, extra commitments, and one individual looking at returning to England meant that as we planned to start the epic tier, the group was a whole lot smaller.  In fact, it was getting hard to have enough people for a game, so we planned on merely sampling a few levels over the expanse of the epic tier, and then seeing where we were (and who was left) before deciding on our path ahead.

A third group was formed at work - what started off as various board games (Settlers of Catan being an early favourite) turned into a DnD 4e game.  Playing almost every day at lunch, we were able to get through games a lot faster, even managing to complete an encounter a day in the epic tier!  Sure, there were a few special battles that had us run over to a second lunchtime, but those were few and far between. 

It is interesting to note the different levels of roleplaying that happen in each game.  Lunchtimes at work are very focused and encounter driven; the monthly games are more relaxed and have room for more social encounters; and the continuing Play-by-Post games allow for in-depth discussion and mid-round flashbacks.  They are all enjoyable in their own way, and I will hopefully be able to continue on with each of them for some time yet!

Friday, 3 February 2012

Are we Losing Good Ideas?

I would have liked to be present for the recent DnD XP playtest and seminars, but alas, it is too far to travel from way over here in Australia!  So I waited the time out, and have since been busy reading over everything that comes out on various blogs, looking through EN World's fantastic news summary page, and listening to different podcasts discussing the small skerricks of information that have been released.  It's taken me a while to process much of this, and, to be honest, calm down from some of the more (as I see them) crazy statements or suggestions that have been made.

In my last #DnDNext article, I talked about my feelings during the previous two edition changes.  What I plan on doing today is talking in more detail about some of the changes that have happened in the rules.  Ultimately, Monte Cook has said:
...this isn't another salvo in the so-called edition wars. This isn't an attempt to get you to play Dungeons & Dragons in a new way. This is the game you've already been playing, no matter what edition or version you prefer. The goal here is to embrace all forms of the D&D experience and to not exclude anyone.
I, personally, doubt this.  And I know I am not alone.  There are aspects about 3e that some people prefer to all editions, and because of these aspects, they still play 3e (or PF).  There are aspects of 4e that people prefer over the other editions.  And any amalgamation of these editions cannot keep all those people happy has said that if he saw Thac0 in the core system, he would be done.  What sort of thing would be 'non-negotiable' for you?  And how many people do you think would have the opposite idea to you?  I cannot help but think that setting out to create a "new, improved, overarching system" would have been more feasible than an "all-encompassing, everyone is happy" system.  Though, then we run into this problem...


Second edition had a lot of wasted time, waiting in town for your party to heal back up.  Even if it was one person, without a real good reason, the rest of the team would wait patiently by for them to be back up and running before continuing on.  Third edition helped fix this - a bit - but with it, brought its own problems.  Clerics were still doing nothing but repairs in combat (or were forgoing the healing to become a better fighter than the fighter), and gold was the new band-aid, in the form of the terribly cheap and not-well-thought-out "Cure Light Wounds" wands.  Buy a few of them, spend a few minutes as you monotonously rolled a bunch of d8's, and almost all the parties ills were seen to.  Fourth edition brought in surges, which helped both limit the amount of easy healing allowed, and expanded what the healing did.  Instead of spending 37 charges form a want, you can trigger 1 to 4 surges, and be at full health.  And, instead of the cleric's healing only doing 1d8+5, it now does a quarter of your HP and then some!  Finally, 4e also allowed the cleric to take part in the battle without having to run around solely devoting time to patching up the others - and it doesn't even have to be just a cleric any more!

Of course, I am mixing everything together here.  The Angry DM does a good job discussing the two different forms of healing (go read it!).  The noises coming from DnDXP seem to sound like a step back as far as healing.  In-combat, clerics are meant to be back to Vancian (more on that later), and healing sounds more complex.  On out-of-combat healing, Dave Chalker mentioned that a Paladin needed "a several week recovery time" after a run-in with stirges.  Now, I will agree that 4e lets players reset too quickly after a day of adventuring...but weeks?  That stretches things out to dangerous levels.  Either the party is in no rush, and waits around (and thus the penalty is meaningless), or they are in a rush, and leave the paladin behind (so we have to break immersion to quickly bring in paladin2, so the paladin's player has something to do).  Neither of these scenarios sounds like fun to me!  If WotC want DnD to be "more gritty" than 4e, I am sure there are other ways to do it than forcing characters to take long stints of bed rest.

Are WotC stepping backwards?  Are they leaving the 4e simplified (and more fun) healing, and retaking the "one cleric per party" minimum?  Will clerics once again have to choose between keeping their allies alive, and actually partaking in the game? I hope that when further rules are revealed, this will not be the case.

Class Complexity

From the Class Design seminar, we received some general tidbits of information.  But first, a review.

In second edition, the classes were quite separate.  Most had their own XP charts, and thus levelled up at different XP values.  There was a clear divide between the power levels of certain classes - the fighter was superior to the wizard at low levels, and could not stand against them at high levels.  Some were very complex to play; others were simple and easy.  Third edition changed some of this - a singular table was now present for all classes, and they all levelled at the same rate.  There was an effort to balance the power level of each class, so that wizards didn't quite outshine others to the same extent; but largely, they still were the be-all and end-all as you approached epic levels.  Magic users still had a lot of complexity, especially as numerous splat books brought the spellbooks out to triple or quadruple the size of a fighter's sheet. (and that was keeping spells in summary!)  So it was a relief, personally, when 4e brought both the class-to-class power level, and the complexity, to a much closer balance.  With the introduction of at-will, encounter, and daily powers for every class, a fighter was no longer "hit with sword", and a wizard no longer had to wade through 100+ spells to find that right one.  In addition, wizards could use everything they had, and still be quite effective in the next encounter; whilst fighters could have those moments of performing spectacular (and sometimes super-human) deeds.  Each class was both exciting and fun to play, and yet it was simple enough to use any of them.

The options brought in with Essentials for some classes (another rant for another time - but to summarise: just because it is an "Essential" class does not mean it is simplified...the Essentials wizard and cleric, for example, are no easier to play!) meant that players were able to take on a fighter without the complexity of so many powers.  If the player didn't mind that every round was going to be practically the same, they could sacrifice options and unique powers for constant hitting and less choice.  I was disappointed that they only did this for some classes - ranger, rogue, and fighter in particular.  Having similar options for clerics and wizards would have been great: as it is, players who wish for an 'easier' character have their choices radically limited.

So the announcement that fifth edition is going to return to different classes having different complexity levels is another disappointment.  It would be ideal if all classes had options to play a simple version or a complex version (or ones in between), and if the simple versions of each were on par, as well as the complex.

The announcement that "Vancian magic is core" comes into this, too.  It was a great relief to see 4e do away with most of the Vancian system which, whilst may make for good novel writing, does not work well in games!  Having each class based around the same at-will / encounter / daily routine meant that balancing encounters and adventuring days for the party was much easier.  Having a character that, should he use a few powers, is done for the day, grows tired pretty quickly.  Put alongside the character who can continue doing that one (boring?) action over and over again all day long, and you have a break-down in party dynamics.

Again, we don't know a lot about how these work - but all the information we have so far seems to be a giant step backwards in playability, and a loss for anyone whose "way of playing" was 4e.

One final thing on classes - they have said that there will be "3e style multiclassing".   I admit that 4e did not do a great job of multiclassing, but I still think that it was better than 3e's "dip into anything, take the best of five classes" style.  Not only was it not strict enough with the players, it was trouble to guide as a DM.  And when it came down to dipping into Prestige Classes as well... It is not a surprise that they were some very houseruled items.

Saving Throws

Second edition had a multitude of saving throws for different effects.  You had a save vs paralysis, a save vs breath weapons, and a save vs spells in general.  Third edition brought these together, and gave three: Fortitude, Reflex, and Will.  Fourth edition simplified it further, and gave you a single save (at 55%) to end effects; the Fort, Ref and Will scores were changed instead to defences, and attacks rolled against them.  In this way, someone who cast a fireball rolled to hit each target's reflex score, instead of (in 3e) someone casting fireball, and each target rolling a Reflex save to get out of the road.  Mechanically, it is the same thing, with the rolling just happening on the other end of the attack.  It makes sense, too - we don't have "armour class" saves!  And, it helps with time.  It is much easier for the wizard to roll his attacks than it is for the DM to roll the saves - sure, maybe not if that's the only thing that happens, but once a few characters are doing these area effects, the rolls are split up amongst the players, instead of all being on the DM.

And so WotC is bringing back saving throws.  Not only are they stepping back from the nice, simple, singular save, they are going past the idea of having three saves, and instead, tying a save to every single stat.  Which reminds me: in 3e, Fort was based on Constitution, Reflex was based on Dexterity, and Will based on Wisdom.  Of course, that meant that if you specialised in other stats, your saves were rather rubbish.  4e helped counter this by allowing the best of a pair of stats work towards a defence.  And now, we go back again - not only do you have more saves, not only does it look like the target is rolling them again, but since each is tied to a single stat, everyone is going to have good saves, and rather bad saves.  We are headed back again to that point where a fireball doesn't affect half the group (as they always save), and will devastate the other half (as they can never save).

Plus, what does your force of personality (Charisma) have to do with how well you can resist being scared, or be immune to another person's charms?

Ability Scores

These, too, have had some change over the years.  3e allowed us to easily calculate the bonus of a stat, with a simple and standard formula used across all six abilities.  4e thankfully didn't really change this, but did change how the stats increased, giving +1 to all each tier, and allowing additional bonuses twice per tier. In doing this, they moved away from the need of "+X Dexterity" items, which was a good thing.  Stat-boosting items were a necessity in earlier editions, and became the go-to item of choice.  Not only that, but when they were applied or removed, it caused a whole lot of recalculation to be needed.  So why they are reintroducing stat-boosting items, I do not know.

They are focusing more on stats as important, which sounds good.  Instead of skills, it seems that they will be referring players back to stats, which will make things simpler (as opposed to their choice with saves).  And allowing stats to have more influence than, say, an inherent bonus will make that "strong fighter" feel more strong.

However, WotC have mentioned races only giving a +1 bonus to a stat.  Unless they are planning on changing how bonuses are calculated (for example, "stat - 10" instead of "(stat - 10)/2", so that 17 Strength is +7), then having a +1 racial modifier seems poor.  Ineffective.  Boring.

Fourth edition did a lot to make races more important, but there was still more they could do.  I would hate to see this as another step backwards.

Magic and Mundane Items

There was some great news about magic items: they are no longer part of mathematical progression!  Whereas 3e still had the +X sword as part of the calculation to defeat monsters (both in hitting, and in bypassing DR), and 4e needed that bonus to stay on the good side of the 55% hit rate, there was a great rule in 4e that allowed for inherent bonuses.  Using this meant that the characters no longer needed to find a +X weapon to be able to maintain the desired hitting rate, and thus items could have more story elements to them.  So on this, I am most definitely happy.

I'm almost happy enough to look over the reintroduction of stat boosting items.  Almost.

Another bizarre comment that has arisen is the idea of moving from gold pieces to silver as standard.  I am not sure what the purpose of this is, nor if it will mean that everything suddenly drops / jumps in price, or if it is just a push for everyone to say "silver" instead of "gold".  The reintroduction of 3e's damage types (slashing, bludgeoning, piercing) could be good, as I missed those enemies that were vulnerable to certain weapons.

My Current Conclusion

In closing: I am concerned that WotC's stance may be a little backwards.  That is, in wanting to encompass every crowd, and cover every game, they have forgotten that many changes from edition to edition have been improvements.  Though some people still enjoy THAC0, it is easier (and more sensible) to have positive values of defences, and add things together.  My hope is that they build on what has been learnt from previous editions - and the current one - and create something better for DnD, not step backwards to mechanics gone past and left behind.