Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Dragon In the Room, or welcome back D&D.

Sorry for the delays on update my dungeon crawlers. I was writing up the massive Swankier Combat post (still in the works) and hit a major writers block. So I put that on hold and shifted gears this week to get out some serious fanboy glee.

**DANCES AROUND ROOM** The Players Handbook for 5E is almost out! It's almost out! The preview for the book are driving me crazy. I love how they spread the page previews out over D&D friendly sites. Nice marketing touch by WoTC there. Long gone are the days that ENworld was our sour source of information. (Ah, I remember the early 3.X days well.)

So why am I geeking out over D&D 5E? Well besides it being the new D&D? Well, specifically I'm happy about the changes to the game. Sure, my bane is I'll have to start again at square one of options. Remember that I said I'm a Fringe D&D player? Well, this is the case here...except. Warlock is IN and options like the Star Lock are day 1, and there will be Dragonborn?!, and lots of little things I did like from 4E in there but with a system math and character progression that doesn't give me headaches.

4E was a fine game, but never quite captured the true essence of what I considered D&D. A lot of what it had to sacrifice for balance took away from the uniqueness of classes. And frankly a lot of classes felt tacked on, like created things put there to fill a role just for the sake of filling a role. (Eyes the Avenger, Warden, etc.) Not that these classes didn't have interesting fluff. I just question their addition and often wondered if they couldn't have been folded into existing classes to meet the need.

3.X was nice, very nice to me. But it's math was BONKERSonce you go past level 10. And heaven help you if you didn't have the updated errata on what feats did what. I think 3.X style of feats broke the game balance more than the classes did. It turned into an arms race between class features and feat builds in the adventures and late 3.5 was seriously not fun to DM.

I could go on, but I've been playing since the late days of 1E and the then launch of 2E to now. So I remember the high lethality of older editions, I remember WHY the Tomb of Horrors was so horrible. The old math and questionable issues of the early edition. But the games had a class and flavor that I felt the newer material abandoned too quickly in the attempt to fix issues.

So 5E. the Fifth Edition.

Again, why so excited? I'll just give you the positives I like about it just as a sell you on idea of what about the new math and mechanics that really gets my DM juices flowing:

1. Bounded Accuracy - The math of the game is WAY flatter. Feats, stat bumps, gear, it's all figured into this. So nothing new down the line will over power the raw math of the game. No more +1 to roll feats (and any scrub writer/fan who publishes them will get the hairy eyeball). Feats now give packages of abilities, proficiency, some sort of power or skill that opens up utility vs. raw bonus to rolls. A feat should never, ever be a +1 to ANYthing anymore. All of this will make higher level play faster and easier to judge. Monster math doesn't have to be crazy anymore post level 10!

2. Advantage/Disadvantage - Boiling down all the pluses and minuses of combat into a quick and easy to judge system where I compare current conditions (which now are less than 1 page!!!) and then say if you get the roll twice and keep the best or worse of a roll? Yes please! It preserves the bell curve of the results, and allows for combat options to be handled by just going down a list of yes/no in one go. Come up with if a bonus, penalty, or nothing is called for and roll! Yes, please again!

3. Classes built with bigger modular pieces - Eh? What I mean is they are getting away from 3.X and 4E's feat crazy, every level you have to worry about a choice kind madness. I've enjoyed generic systems and still do. But D&D is a game about developing your character from the foundation of the dungeon crawling genre, not micro managing a character like you would a MMO avatar. That said, I don't want to return to the 1E days of every class mechanically feeling the same. A wizard is a wizard, etc. So 5E does a really good balancing job of giving you play options but not making those choices so fine grained it allows for optimal power gaming. The cafe style of character options are there, but it's more focused on packages. Backgrounds + Race + Class + Subclass + Feats. And 3 out of 5 of those are OPTIONAL! This is important. You don't need to pick them, and just take the static bonus if none appeal to you. And the static bonus is none to shabby. So there is that. And even if you just pick class and race there are little options, call them smaller dials, like weapon choice (which changes fighting style) and sub race which add a little flavor. I think WotC got the level of customization just right here.

4. Reduced repeat powers and spells - It's an old hold over from prior editions that needed to go. No more Cure X Wounds. No more 4E, same power at higher level with minor cosmetic tweeks. Powers cost slots. The base cost for a power or spell is when you can first learn/use it. And some, not all, can be powered up by using a higher slot for a lower level option. For casters this sames on SO MUCH BOOKKEEPING. It may not seem that big of a deal, but I've spent years looking at Basic Spell X, and Basic Spell X+1 and thinking, man I wish these spells could just power up. I can do it in games like GURPS using fatigue. Why not make it like the 2E power points options that Psions used. Sure it uses slots, but that's fine. I love it!

5. Proficiency - Wow. Just wow. One of the things in 3.X and 4E I hated was the way the skill system worked. I like skills in games. Sometimes they're great like GUMSHOE's cost for profit use of investigation skills. Sometimes they are a kludge like Shadowrun's skill web/matrix/whatever. But 3.X's skills and the DCs for checks never seemed to make any sense to me. There should have been ONE chart for difficulty and a much simpler way of adding up what you were goo and not good at. 4E's abstraction was too great and skill challenges inflated the number of rolls in a situation. I think FATE or 13th Age where your character defining titles and rolls determined the things you are skillful in were about right. 5E is what I'd call a close compromise. You get the background which give proficiency bonus on skills, and you get a selection of thematic ones from your class. More can be acquired from feats and that works. It is a lot easy to know what you are good and are not good at and the bonus while helpful is not game breaking it you don't have it.

Those alone would have had me lining up to play. There is a lot to learn from earlier editions, but I'm hopeful we'll get a robust support for 5E. That and I'm getting to the point where I want my flexibility and ease of use too. I guess it is a drawback of getting older. (I shouldn't laugh. :P) I'm not advocating if you have a preferred edition you abandon it for the new one, but I am saying giving the new one a try may not be that bad. Personally I plan on plowing through a ton of OSR and 2E books for ideas and then converting them up to 5E material. The old books will be useful for me.

But I await Eberron and Psionics. Ya hear me Mearls? Joe needs his magic trains and airships and crazy mind powers! Please? I'll wait and see.

Coming up if I can finish it soon the Swankier Combat. Or something else. Dunno. I'm going to try and post more often. Just not enough to burn out. Till then Maze Runners!

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Labyrinth Strikes Back, Edition Logic Bomb

Welcome back Labyrinth readers...if there are a few of you out there still. Missed ya all! I'm back and ready to dish out more wisdom from the depths of the maze that is my GM brain.

First up a few things happened: 1. Life. (Have Baby Daughter, will busy.) 2. GM burn out. (It happens to best of us, you take a break and get your mojo back.) 3. House. (Have New House, will busy X2.) And so it goes. But things have improved and I worked out my issues, mostly, and I'm ready to talk gaming.

Let us start the new blog post talking about D&D 5th Edition. It's out, well the Basic version, it's new, it's pretty. I like it for many reasons which I will now list: It is like a greatest hits of D&D (which is good imo), the math is way easier, I love advantage/disadvantage in play so easy to make rulings on, proficiency can be used in so many creative ways thanks to backgrounds, and the class builds are like a playful 3.X/Pathfinder/meets 2E and a pinch of 4E thrown in. Puggly as it sounds it's really, really smooth and easy to eyeball things. Great for GM prep and session play.

The catch for me is a classic problem. Vanilla game meets fringe play style. I'm a weird GM. I enjoy kitchen sink games set in Eberron, or really grim Dark Sun sessions, etc. The Players Handbook will offer me fun class types like the Warlock, Chaos Sorcerer, and the tactical/arcane fighter builds. So there is that. AND, the DMG will have Warforged as a playable race. So, options. Not ALL the options I'd like, but it is far better than I expected.

But no Psionics yet. Give me my Psionics! You hear me Mearls! Mind Powers Wowza! Need it! Soon! Thanks.


But the launch of 5E brings about Edition Waring and a lot of sour grapes from those with an agenda. For me it makes the forums of many sites very very painful to read. What else is new eh? There will always be a very vocal group of players who want to complain to someone that either the new edition didn't meet their exacting requirements, or steps away from Edition X they like, or some random weirdness only they seem to have issue with. But there is one key element that seems to drive the most common issues and that is they don't grok the Edition Logic behind the changes.

Edition Logic you say? What are you talking about? Well to put it simply each new edition has a set of desired results during the development phase. This defines how the edition will launch and most often the earliest product will interact with it. For example:

Exalted 2nd Edition was an attempt to reign in multiple action economy and social power use to allow for some amount of control when NPCs went up against the meat grinder that is Exalted Characters. Combat was focused into ticks, with very specific keywords in play, social combat (if half formed and very confusion to some) was there to keep PCs and NPCs from jumping off bridges at simple commands. Etc. It grew out of the Power Combat options from 1E, an experiment at adding very fiddly rules to charms and actions so tighter rulings can be made. It kinda worked and kept the action bloat from getting too crazy, the issue came later in the game lines development (lets say around the time the martial arts book came out that lazy writing or editing allowed for 1E logic charms to be reintroduced into 2E math) which allowed for crazy action bloat to return, and strange overly specific but very popular paranoid combat options to rule the table.

What does that mean?

That new writers, old players, and other folks will forget the core Edition Logic (design bible, whatever you call it) of the game down the line and start developing/talking about a way different concept of the game down the line. This is a natural process and is the reason why new editions happen. The expected style of play begins to change from the baseline and the rules have to be updated. That and to make money.

I don't envy Mr. Mearls and WotC tightrope act they have to walk from a PR perspective, but from a design side I like what they did. If I was to guess the top 3 bits of Edition Logic and why they changed D&D the way they did, it would be as follows:

1. Inclusive Rules - And so a LOT of 4Eisms must be sacrificed. Easier math or no, a lot of D&D plays like 2E and 3.X. Which means roles are dead as we knew them (See the Essentials Experiment). Saves come back, but are now more varied (a half and half 2E to 3.X idea), a lot of 4E classes are ripped apart for features. 3.X/2E class features are RETURNED to the base class. Druid reabsorbs the Primal classes. Cleric/Paladin dissect the Avenger/Profit, etc. Monster stat logic works like 3.X. Etc. The character and monster options need to cover the majority of published works and 4E is a serious outlier.

2. Easier Math and Character options - This is why we get back the vanilla Fighter. Mind you Casters are a lot more fragile this edition (more like 2E casters). But the Linear Fighter/Quadratic Wizard arguments return. But this also does away with 'everyone is the same' issues of 4E build logic. Proficiency rules seem to be a compromise between 4E/2E skill system. The very overly fiddly 3.X skill system is dead in favor of a very general you are good in X system. But unlike 4E it is way more class/background specific. Which works, easy to judge if proficiency exists and you are done. The bounded accuracy in 5E also makes higher level play not break as easily. Fighters do more later in combat and the 'sweet spot' of play gets extended wider than a 5-10 level range like 3.X or earlier editions. I'm not sure WHERE the math breaks, but I'm sure I'll start seeing it once the PHB drops. And like any cool headed GM I'll make houserules to fix it.

3. Nostalgia Farming - Eh? Hate to say it, D&D is a brand. And just like the Transformer and GI Joe movies they are trying to market to old fans. Why? It's not just to pander to 40 somethings with money (but it is in part) but they want the game to be something new fans can walk into hearing the stories of the old game sessions and find the materials there to play something like those old games. Hear Dad talk for hours about his Ravenloft game? Why look, core books and the Ravenloft setting book! And look, a start up adventure set as well! Who cares that it's written by a 3rd party under the WoTC license. (Hint, hint, this is what I feel the new 'ogl' will look like.) It's there so you can have your d20 apple pie and know what to expect. This means a lot of vanilla options in the books published with fringe material showing up in conversion guides and much later in the publishing schedule.

So walking into 5E we are going to have a lot of players from previous editions using old Edition logic guidelines they learned though play. Eventually they'll come around but by the time that happens the team working on D&D may have new Edition guidelines they are pushing for. Or maybe the Evergreen idea behind 5E will keep going. Doubtful, but eh weirder things have happened. Expect 5E players to have their expectations and new Edition Wars and Warriors to flourish. Keep gaming and ignore it the best you can.

Next up? Swankier battles, Fringe D&D and You, and other fun topics. Till then Gamers!