Thursday, September 27, 2012

My D&DNext Looks like Myth and Magic

I learned to play D&D during the AD&D 2nd edition era. Not everything about that era was great for the game (bankrupting TSR, for instance), but I still have a lot of nostalgic memories of it. That is the form of the game that is familiar to me, and certain things about earlier editions (Dwarves being a class, no baseline Bard class) and later editions (sorcerers, Dragonborn and Tieflings) will always feel a little out of place for me.

But nostalgia isn't everything. 2nd editions rules were baroque and confusing in a lot of places. There were arbitrary restrictions from earlier editions ported over whole cloth (restricted class/race combos, alignment restrictions for rangers and thieves) that never really seemed justified within the game. 3e cleaned up a lot of the mess and added a nice unified skill system for task resolution, but added things that over-complicated the picture like multi-class/PrC fever and complex feat/Prc 'builds' that varied from the unplayable to the game breaking. The refined math made the game more intuitive, but also introduced us to the arms race of optimization and 'effectiveness' that swallowed 4e whole.

So when the Next playtest packets started appearing, I was excited. D&DNext, to me, looks a lot like 2nd edition looked before kits and optional rules and torturous attempts at re-building the non-weapon proficiency system into a general purpose skill system turned it into a morass. Shortly before the second playtest packet came out, I started putting together my own criteria for what I wanted from a D&D-ish experience. As of a couple days ago, it appears that what I was looking for is already here: a 2e retro-clone(ish) called Myth & Magic.

Here's what was on my list:

  • Quick PC creation: Over the years the amount of choice and customization found in 3.5e and PF has started to feel exhausting to me. You sit down to make a PC for a new game, and an hour later you're still spending skill points, picking spells, and calculating attack and defense bonuses. Starting a new high-level character can be a multi-day prospect as you sort through feat chains and try to keep track of unspent skill ranks.
  • Anyone Can Try Anything: I've grown skeptical of skill systems that end up feeling like they restrict options instead of expanding them. Instead of anyone being able to try to sneak into an enemy encampment or negotiate (with terrorists), only the people who bought that skill and kept it ranked up through play have a snowball's chance in hell of succeeding. 
  • Supports Lethal Dungeon Crawling: 4e's healing paradigm made it very hard to make anything other than an extended combat with multiple opponents feel like a credible threat. To support a more high-stakes style of play, you need several ingredients: low overall HP totals, limited healing, and fast character creation. Why fast character creation? Because if it takes three hours to fill out your character sheet, your DM isn't going to want to kill a level 1 PC, and you aren't going to want to make a new one.
  • Consistent Rules: No weird subsystems where you switch from trying to roll high on a d20 to trying to roll low on a d6, or suddenly busting out roll-under-percentiles when you need to fight a monster whose name ends in a 't'. This encourages improvisation and 'eyeballing' instead of needing to plan and pre-calculate as much of the game as possible.
  • Feels Core-y: This is probably the most subjective of all. Halflings, elves, and Dwarves feel 'core' to me. Warforged and Shifters don't. Shardminds and Kitsune really don't. Fighters and Clerics are core. Cavaliers and Oracles are not. Psionics aren't core. Half-orcs, assassins, monks, and druids can go either way. There are things I have to see (the 2e PHB races, the 4 main classes), things I wouldn't mind seeing (Paladins, Rangers, Bards), things I will probably ignore but don't object to (Monks), and things I don't want to see (Psionics, anime-inspired class/races). Entirely arbitrary, probably prejudiced by early exposure to AD&D 2nd edition.
  • Some (But Not Too Much) Character Customization and Variety: This goal is in tension with both quick character creation and supporting lethality. I generally like the additional features that Pathfinder added to 3e's classes. I like having the option to make my Halfling Thief or Dwarf Fighter slightly different than the standard- being able to decide that I favor a certain weapon, or focus a lot on picking pockets and less on traps. Not taking it all the way to the 3e 'micro-manage every skill point' level, or the 2e kit-style 'abandon a class feature to gain extra competence somewhere else' extent. But each character should have a 'specialty', and there should be a few interesting options (rather than one world-beating option and three crappy ones).
  • No Mandatory Gear Progression: Magic items are special little bonuses that you treasure, not mandatory gifts and purchases that are built into your progression.
So how does Myth & Magic do at meeting my requirements?

Pretty fantastically, actually. Classes are very simple, but still offer some customization through Class Talents (essentially mini-feats, but without any dull, mandatory, or useless feats like Extra Turning or Toughness or Friends with Voles). All the core 2e races are there, in recognizable but often improved versions (Gnomes are both Dwarf-y and scholarly, with an Int bonus and some stonecunning). Actions are resolved using attribute checks, with a simplified attribute bonus system that preserves the advantage of having an ability score of 11 instead of 10 that roll-under-attribute provides. Non-weapon proficiencies are back, but they are sensible and just add to your ability to make an attribute check instead of restricting your options. Weapon proficiencies allow you to buy fighting styles, weapon group proficiencies, or other little features, but the list is small and they all at least appear viable. Non-weapon proficiencies have ranks, like Rules Cyclopedia Weapon Expertise, so that it's possible to focus intently on one area rather than having every ability move in lock-step. Healing is closer to a 2/3e model. Magic is magical instead of obligatory.

Better yet, there is a free version of the players guide which includes just the core four classes- Thief, Cleric, Fighter, and Wizard- which matches up exactly with plans I've been making to run a core-4-only dungeon crawl.

So overnight Myth & Magic has given me a bunch of extra free time, because I'm no longer working on converting Labyrinth Lord rules to support the type of game I was wanting to play. At the same time, it has substantially raised the bar for what D&DNext has to bring in order for it to be compelling for me- Myth & Magic already looks like it delivers a lot of what I have been hoping for from D&DNext.

So, if you're nostalgic for 2e, liked the consistent rules of 3e but hated the complexity over-growth, want a preview of what cool things we can hope for for 5e, or want a simpler combat mechanic than 4e that puts a little more effort into customizing non-combat aspects of characters, check out Myth and Magic.

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