Wednesday, December 28, 2011

D&D Past and Present

Great pair of articles from the Escapist about the history and current state of D&D:

My two cents:
1.  The loss of continuity- not just between the design of 3e and 4e, but between the people responsible for the two editions and the huge change of direction regarding the OGL- seems to emerge as a significant theme.  It may just be coincidence that Gary Gygax passed away during the same period- certainly, he hadn't had direct control over the game or its direction in many years- but it does seem to indicate that a sort of 'changing of the guard' has taken place in the industry, and that some of the continuity that comes from having everyone be on the same page and having started from a similar place may have gone with him.

2.  The release of 3e under the OGL may well emerge as the most significant act in the history of D&D since Gygax and Arneson released 1e.  The OGL essentially let the genie out of the bottle, and it isn't going back- the core features of the most popular system in history are out there for the world to use, and for the last 10+ years the sort of homemade rules and monsters that everyone had been making for decades became not just a fun part of the hobby, but a potential business sideline.  In the end, the OGL may be what undoes the D&D trademark as a tabletop RPG brand, while the underlying game lives on.

3. Lurking beneath all of this is profound uncertainty about the hand of Hasbro in the future of D&D.  Anyone who glances at Hasbro's corporate filings will notice that D&D really never garners a mention- WoTC seems to be small potatoes in the Hasbro world, outside the occasional mention of Magic.  Hasbro could easily decide that D&D is more valuable as a licenseable property (for movies, video games, board games, toys, and miniatures) than it is as a niche RPG product.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Fritz Leiber is Badly Overrated

I've read, I would say, about 2.5- 3 books worth of the Fafhrd/Gray Mouser stories by Fritz Leiber.  Out of all of it, I think I would say: Ill Met in Lankhamar is a pretty decent story, there are a couple of interesting stories in about the second or third book, and the rest has made an impression on me ranging from 'none' to 'negative'.

I hit the wall today reading part of "Swords and Ice Magic", the sixth in the series.  I read the first three stories or so in the book, and I think it probably marks the last time I will bother with Lieber.  In this collection we have:

  • An inability to distinguish the difference between a story and a conceit, or the bare nub of an idea.  One of the stories was seriously: what if the bad guy split in two?  Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser would kill it.  Then they would go drink.  None of the first three stories are really enough content for more than a single scene.
  • Pointless disposable enemies, that appear meaninglessly only to be dispatched equally thoughtlessly.  I know these two have Plot Immunity, but the pointlessness and threatlessness of their opposition makes these supposed 'confrontations' totally without significance.  The antagonists are cardboard cutouts with swords.
  • Look, I'm not a lily-livered PC zealot.  But even I have some trouble with a story where the antagonist is a woman who was kidnapped to join a harem, and then goes nuts because she wasn't sexually assaulted by her kidnappers- who then is raped sane by the alleged hero of the piece.  That's right, the Gray Mouser holds her down and forces himself upon her, and she is then able to live a normal life where she contributes to society.  Morally ambiguous heroes are fine.  Raping people is not morally ambiguous.
  • The Faceless Wizard and the Wizard with Lots of Eyes that always ask Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser to perform perfectly parallel tasks.  Cute the first time, increasingly lazy with every extra iteration.  Like the two protagonists themselves, there is really nothing to separate them other than their physical descriptions.  Leiber's characterization begins and ends with describing people as not looking like one another, and then having them always react to things in perfect diads.  I like cold food!  You like hot food!  We're such an interesting and complex pair!  I'm off to fetch the boots of the Frost Lizard!  You must fetch the hat of the Fire Sloth!  Let's overcome identical yet inverted challenges through hand waving!
  • And Then For No Reason, We Live.  Leiber sets up elaborate situations that permit his two heroes to survive- but it's always basically dumb luck or dumber antagonists.  Death's intricate scheme for killing them off is to randomly teleport enraged enraged mooks (one of whom is the insufficiently raped lass from above) into the heroes bedroom in the early morning.  But Death never counted on one thing: the fact that the good guys might wake up slightly early, for no reason at all.  What?
I picked up my first Fritz Leiber book after hearing him lionized by fans of classic fantasy, and I've kept going back in the hopes of discovering what the fuss was all about.  Frankly, I'm still wondering.

Monday, December 12, 2011

A 'Disease' Domain for Pathfinder

A little while back, I was thinking about putting together a Pathfinder Dragonlance campaign for playing online.  Still haven't actually gotten around to starting a game, but I did create a 'Disease' domain for a cleric of Morgion that I was going to use as an antagonist.  I built off some fan-created work that was around on the web, as well as some older 3e stuff:

Disease Domain
Granted Powers:  You are immune to the effects of all non-magical diseases.  However, you are still a carrier of mundane diseases- you can contract them and transmit them as normal, but never suffer negative effects such as attribute or HP lost as a result of infection.

  • Touch of Filth (Su):  As a standard action, you can coat a weapon with filth fever by touch. This disease lasts 1 round, or until discharged by a successful melee attack. You can do this a number of times per day equal to 3 + your Wis modifier. The Fortitude save to resist the filth fever is calculated as per your domain cleric domain abilities, rather than the base save of the disease itself.

  • Aura of Illness (Su): At 8th level, you can emit a 30-foot aura o sickness for a number of rounds per day equal to your cleric level. Using this ability is a swift action. Enemies in the area gained the sickened condition. These rounds do not need to be consecutive.
Domain Spells:  1st - Ray of Enfeeblement, 2nd - Ghoul Touch, 3rd - Contagion, 4th - Poison, 5th - Insect Plague (flies and maggots instead of wasps or bees), 6th - Eyebite, 7th - Waves of Exhaustion, 8th - Horrid Wilting, 9th - Energy Drain

Use it with Papa Nurgle's blessing.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

What a Weird World

There have been a lot of posts lately talking about the possibilities of D&D 5e- when it may come, what it may look like, who it will target, whether it will heal the world and usher in an unending age of peace and prosperity, etc., etc.  Emerging in these discussions are a couple of very different perspectives that have been with us as long as 4e has been around- one that holds that 4e basically abandoned what made D&D D&D, and another that hopes that 4e is the way that Wizards moves in the future.

This reminded me of something I was thinking of the other day, about the demographics of gaming.  I think that RPGs- and particularly, D&D- may have some of the strangest consumer demographics in the world.  D&D hits a market that is 1) almost exclusively male, 2) almost exclusively white, 3) largely above-average intelligence, and 4) seemingly roughly split between ten and twelve year olds and people in the 20's, 30's, and 40's.

There have been some polls conducted on this age group thing... the numbers, are, I think, very hard to interpret given that what we are really seeing is 'how old are the people that hang around a small number of web sites and talk shop about RPGs'.  WoTC and other gaming companies probably have more realistic numbers, but they aren't, for the moment, talking.  I can't really think of any other activity that targets the same range of ages in trying to sell products.  Video games are in a similar category, but there are decidedly video games that target younger and older games, as evidenced by the various age rating labels that the publishers employ.  There are specific games that skew older in the RPG world as well, but then you have D&D- facing on the one hand a high-turnover demographic of young gamers who will pick the game up, buy a few books, and then drop out by the time they can drive a car and on the other hand a group of often very technical-minded older players who have thirty years of history (good and bad) with a variety of products sold under the same label.

How the hell do you address that kind of demographic split?  And what are the real underlying numbers?

Friday, December 09, 2011

Background Traits for WFRP v2

I put these rules together years ago for a WFRP game.  The basic idea was to reflect the fact that, while a starting career reflects what you did as a youth/adolescent/young adult, your childhood might have been spent doing something quite different- and the Old World being the place that it is, you probably picked up a few things in order to keep yourself alive.  It also provides a little mechanical support for some interesting character concepts, like the former wealthy burgher who was reduced to thieving or banditry, noble children dumped into the church or university system, thieving urchins who went on to lead respectable lives, etc.

Background (Optional Rule): Select one of the following backgrounds at character creation.  Your background can't be changed once it is selected.

8 Reasons Why Vehicles Suck in RPG's

I was thinking the other day about games that put a lot of emphasis on vehicles- the Battletech, Mecha-style setting out there.  I had a friend that was really into them in high school, but they just never really did it for me.  I also remember looking at car chase/vehicle combat rules for Shadowrun (1e), Palladium, etc., and just sort of groaning at the complexity of them.  Vehicles rarely make it into my games, and here's why:

Monday, December 05, 2011

E6 for d20

I've never particularly liked high-level play for D&D.

For me, a lot of what makes fantasy gaming fun is the iconic bits from books and movies- guys in armor with swords (or robes, with spells) facing off against Orcs and Goblins and other similar critters.  Once it gets to the point where it is a guy in flying boots air-battling with a host of demons wielding a flaming sword and periodically becoming invisible and invulnerable, I tend to lose interest.

I suppose that is why parts (though not all) of the OSR appeals to me- the back-to-basics, no god-fighting, no MMO-style superpowers and magic armor/weapons/shoes/blankets/hats aspect.  It's probably also why I've always liked WFRP, a game where, v1 naked dwarves aside, even basic opponents had a decent chance of cutting off your arm or something equally terrible if you didn't think carefully and stay cautious about entering a fight.

That's why it was exciting for me to have E6 for d20/Pathfinder pointed out to me in a forum the other day.  It's been around for years, apparently, but entered the world during a time when I wasn't gaming a lot in general, and wasn't playing d20 in particular at all.

E6 has a simple underlying idea: you might be a veteran of a dozen combats, but being hit in the head with an ax by an ogre should still be dangerous.  So after level six, you periodically pick up new feats to represent growing training (a little better at combat, a few more spells, a few new tricks for rogues and bards), but you stop gaining hit points, saves, and other automatic escalations of the game's power level.

The result is that the game retains some of that gritty, early-level feel.  Just because you've been around the block a few times doesn't mean that you can just wade into a pack of 300 goblins without blinking.  That means that iconic, low-level threats like goblins, ogres, orcs, basic undead, etc. stay threatening without the need to add tons of templates and character levels.

The result: a game that keeps the low-level feel of grounded PC's needing to plan and prepare to fight iconic opponents, and a distinct reduction in the amount of preparation that the DM needs to do.  Similarly, higher levels tend to be where the game-breaking magic items, spells, and cheesed-out prestige class/feat chain combinations tend to appear.  Low-level game balance- which is far better play tested and far easier to predict- dominates for a much longer period.  Rituals and magic items can add some extra effects if needed, but a mage can't just wish the entire adventure into total chaos.

Definitely worth a look if you're interested in a similar style of play- you can even grab some Pathfinder-specific E6 rules someone has put together.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

The End of Cataclysm

The final major content patch in the WoW Cataclysm story line is now live, from what I understand.

WoW has been banished from my hard drive for over six months now, but I still stop in from time to time with some of the major news sites (particularly MMO Champion) to see what is new in the World of Warcraft.  Lately I've been at least a little more tempted to stick a toe back into the WoW whirlpool, but fortunately the declining availability of space on my hard drive keeps this from becoming a possibility for the time being.

So I watched the new videos released today of the cinematics marking the end of Deathwings reign of terror (or, at least, reign of randomly burning people to death while questing), and found myself a little underwhelmed by it. The resolution was fairly cliched- the aspects giving up some of their power and withdrawing to let mortals fight for themselves, baby on the way for a fully matured hero, etc., etc.  This is, as some posters pointed out, the same ending as a lot of other fantasy stories- LotR comes to mind, as does Dragonlance's Age of Mortals kick-off come to mind, but I am sure that there are others as well.

I will freely admit to not being a big WoW lore fan- I played Warcraft I and II but not III, which is apparently where all the important stuff for WoW happened.  I was certainly not that familiar with Deathwing going into Cata.  As a result, he never felt like a particularly interesting BBEG to me.

Part of this was because of unfamiliarity with the lore, but part was because most of his most important activities took place off screen.  Sure, he killed me a couple times questing, but other than that?  He apparently set fire to Orgrimmar and Stormwind, causing them to become larger, better organized, and with more daily quests, which doesn't seem that villainous.

I think that really this was an over-reaction to WotLK.  Story-wise, players complained about Arthas apparently becoming a sixth member of the party too often, but his recurring presence at least established him as the main personality of the expansion.  His presence in the Death Knight starting area, the Wrathgate event, the five mans, the flashback quest chain involving his weird disembodied child-self... these all gave you a great feel for who the villain was and why he needed to be put down, even if you hadn't read the books or played WC III.

That was what Blizz did right from the perspective of a non-lore expert in WotLK; the important lore was right there, in game.  Cata seemed to assume you had heard it before, and would want to kill Deathwing just because he was Deathwing.