Thursday, 21 December 2017

System and Setting (+thoughts on ASSH)

I received +Jeff Talanian's Magnum Opus in the mail last week - The 2nd edition of ASTONISHING SWORDSMEN & SORCERERS OF HYPERBOREA (Jeff was a real gentleman and let me get in on the kickstarter run even though I missed the deadline).

It's kinda the opposite of what I am trying to do with Into the Unknown. It's built on the chassis of Advanced D&D 1e, while I am trying to build a modular 'un-advanced' edition of 5e. I am going for as lean as at all possible, with six booklets optimised for table play and 200 pages of gaming material being my top limit. ASSH is a massive 608-page hardbound single volume.

I am quite in awe of what Jeff has made though. The feel of the book alone, heavy from quality paper and binding, gives it potential to become one of those treasured tomes on many a gamer shelf. And the content is dead-on. I'd like to 'un-advance' a few bits here and there. But the classes, setting, monsters and spells are just dripping with ready-to-play S&S flavor that begs to be used.

I like to just hold it. It's that well made.

Which brings me to the point of this post - What ASSH does right is that it has no implied setting. Rather, its setting is fully explicit and everything in the rules is geared towards supporting that. It works. The monster list, the spells, even the class you play - all of it leaves you no doubt that you are playing a game of sword and sorcery - All of them are situated within the lands of Hyperborea beyond the North Wind. I can't think of a better way to establish the theme of a campaign.

Ranger fighting orc in D&D
Huntsman fighting a giant gorilla in ASSH
D&D wants to be a generic fantasy system, that you can then adapt to your own specific taste. This is a bit of a false assumptions though - Because the rules themselves carry their own implied setting. +Wayne Rossi showed how this is the case for OD&D - By the time of 5e, though D&D still sells itself as an adaptable generic fantasy system, it seems at least self-aware that by now D&D is basically its own genre of fantasy.

The downside of this is that when you adapt such a system to your own choice of genre, you end up with concessions to the implied genre of the game system. Your spells say nothing about the tone or workings of magic of your world. Your monsters neither. Classes and races only to the extent that some may be banned. Your monsters are picked from the same book as any other.

Really, setting publishers releasing D&D settings are too often taking the easy route. Any proper setting realise should have a fresh spellbook, its own set of classes, its own races and its own monster manual. At best we get a few choice additions for each.

Incidentally, this is why I think Dark Sun was such a well realised setting. Every class and race got a new entry in the Dark Sun rules. Only thieves were basically left untouched. And you get to play 4-armed bugs who like human flesh. Although spells were left untouched (a new spellbook just for Dark Sun would have been beyond awesome though), the way they worked was significantly altered - And with psionics so embedded, a distinct tone for the setting was set for this as well. And monsters - I don't recall ever using a non dark sun monster. The ones made for the setting just fit so much better. Even so, the list of monsters from existing generic compendiums that actually exist on Athas is limited to 36 critters. Fuck yeah. We don't ride horses or fight orcs. We ride Crodlu (upright lizards) and fight telepathic Belgoi that ring tiny bells to take over your mind, drain your CON with a touch and want to eat your flesh.
Belgoi - Upstaging orcs since 1991

The point being - Systems explicitly supporting a system really goes a long way towards supporting a setting. And the implied setting of generic systems can actually hold the realisation of your own setting back somewhat.

The upside of generic systems is of course that you don't have to learn a new rules system every time you want to try a new take on fantasy. And everyone knows D&D. But this is what I like about the OSR - We get spins where everyone knows the chassis being used - But with exactly these things being tailored to specific genres of fantasy. ASTONISHING SWORDSMEN & SORCERERS OF HYPERBOREA is just one example. Warriors of the Red Planet another. Fantastic Heroes & Witchery, though not geared towards one genre, understands that different genres require different rules and offers a variety of them. Dungeon Crawl Classics is Goodman Games' attempt to build a more genre attuned version of D&D.

So what does this mean for generic Into the Unknown? Well, one reason I think B/X was so popular is that being so lean makes it easier to build your own stuff on top to suit your needs. And I want to do the same with ItU - Basically to realise one of the stated design goals of 5e that were only half realised: Making a genuinely modular D&D. It's easier to add stuff from a lean base than take out stuff from a more complex base. So in the future, I hope to release a Sword & Sorcery module, with a different Classes book, Spell book and monster book. A Low Fantasy module. Etc.

In the future. For now, with playtest being open, I am just focusing on getting the basic system out the door.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Call for Playtesters - For "Into the Unknown" (B/X hack of 5e)

I've basically finished the DM Handbook - Still missing the treasure and monster book, but these should not be needed for review and testing. All the player material, save a bit of art and layouting in the magic booklet, is done.

SO - Anyone who would like to try out, or simply take a look at, a hack of 5e that harkens back to the simple days of B/X - where the rules properly support old-fashioned dungeon crawls and hexcrawls (and make them easy to run). Where reaction rolls, morale and race-as-class is still a thing.

Sign up to playtest "Into the Unknown"! Just join the playtest group here, and all the files will be made available to you. Any and all feedback is greatly appreciated.

Both there and on the blog, I will also be sharing designer notes in the upcoming weeks.

The proposed cover for the boxed set

Friday, 10 November 2017

"Social Combat" in D&D (B/X vs 3e/5e)

Writing the GM's guide for Into the Unknown has definitely been the biggest challenge of the project, forcing me to examine hard my own assumptions and understanding of what is good game mastering. But at this stage, I think we're close enough that playtest is only a few weeks away. All sections are laid out, page count is finalised - It just needs some text added to a handful of sections.

Blending 5e and B/X has been an excellent study in the differences between the two and trying to understand the implications of some of the changes. Reaction rolls and Morale for example, are among the more beloved parts of B/X that were abandoned in 3e and haven't been seen since. I've spent a fair bit of time examining both sides of the fence and figuring out which way to go.

Here's a sidebar I ended up adding to the section on social interaction that sums up how I feel social interaction should work in D&D:
“Social Combat”
The reaction roll is not a structured system, as combat rules, that should be rigidly interpreted and adhered to. It is meant as a creative inspiration to jolt the GM into thinking differently about encounters than one might habitually do. 
Nor are reactions just a DC for high rolls to beat, but a reflection of the NPC’s agency, that players may attempt to influence but can’t just overcome. 
As such, social ‘rules’ favor the more gradated and advisory reaction table over ability checks. Social interaction is a good time for remembering “When not to roll” and “Ability Scores & Proficiency Areas as Narrative Modifiers” 
When die rolls are made, use them to support the players’ social interaction, not replace it. As always, let the fiction dictate the action.
Unpacking all this, it may help to ask why 3e+ abandoned reaction and morale rolls and never looked back - The best reason I can find for this, is that it was replaced by an entirely different resolution mechanic that was not present in B/X - Skills.

With reaction & morale rolls, outcomes were a function of the NPC's mental attitude and fortitude reacting to its surroundings (of which PCs influencing the NPC was just one factor).

With the universal d20 resolution mechanic introduced in 3e, these were reduced to a target number (DC) - Basically making social mechanics akin to a Social Combat system - Roll high to overcome your opponent's resistance (DC).
Skills such as Intimidate and, most infamously, Diplomacy offer resolution mechanics to replace most of what the reaction and morale rolls handled in the past (one results of that being that fewer encounters ever flee in 3e+, unless prompted by a player "skill attack").
Maybe seeing monsters flee more often in B/X after failing morale rolls inspired old school players to run away more often too.
Nevermind the fact that with enough ranks, a "diplomancer" build in 3e was essentially casting "Dominate Person" at will (out of control numbers for this sort of thing was fixed in 4e/5e) - The issue with making it all a DC vs Player roll is that this isn't how these interactions work. 

A person's mental defences isn't being assaulted by some sort of telepathic attack, the outcome of which will produce a binary result (success/defeat) - He is being influenced, swayed towards a certain direction - And besides this is the fact that there is an unassailable defence any person has, that skill rolls struggle to account for - Deciding for oneself. 

The closest combat analogy for an influence skill roll is a Shove, pushing an opponent five foot in a certain direction. No target number or critical hit will shove a foe more than five 5, much less shove him all the way out of combat reach. And unlike a shove, an NPC can always decide to just ignore the push.

Any roll made should not be to determine whether the character succeeded in converting the other party to the desired position. It should simply be to determine how the other party decides to react on the situation - Modifiers can apply to such a roll of course, but it is a fundamentally different thing the die roll is resolving - The NPC's mindset as opposed to the player's skill.

So for Into the Unknown, I determined fairly quickly that Reactions & Morale rolls needed bringing back - They put the onus of the mechanic back where it belongs - The NPC rather than the one trying to influence the NPC - and make clear that what is being resolved is not "player chance of success vs a target's resistance", but basically just letting the dice decide how the NPC reacts instead of the GM, with ways for factoring in different circumstances (such as a player attempting to influence said reaction).

Since I already dropped skills (as D&D knows them), this was easily done, as no players will be left wondering what to do with his Persuasion and Intimidation skills when there are no ability checks to actually use them with.

Nonetheless, it is as true for Into the Unknown as it is for 5e, that there are social interactions where Charisma and proficiency are factors at work and any reaction and morale system susceptible to such factors needs to be able to account for them.

Without further ado, here is a pdf presenting all the rules for handling reactions and morale in Into the Unknown, which can be easily dropped into any 5e game.

Reactions & Morale for 5e / Into the Unknown [PDF]

Most of it will look extremely familar to B/X players. Explanatory note regarding terms in the sidebar on the last page: Itu replaces skills with "proficiency areas" and the rogue's skill Expertise with ability "Mastery" - They are sufficiently similar that they mean the same in this context.

As a side note, this also gives a nice preview of how the formatting and layout will be for Into the Unknown once it hits print.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Setting Review II: Greyhawk

After Forgotten Realms, we move further back in time to take a look at the setting it knocked off its perch as the de facto setting at TSR - Gary Gygax's very own World of Greyhawk (I will, at times, be comparing the two settings for the very same reason).

Quick intro to the setting

(See also my review of the map of greyhawk - Incidentally, the most visited entry on my blog)
  • The world of Greyhawk is a Sword & Sorcery setting built on a proper medieval chassis with just a light sprinkling of Tolkien influences. 
  • It is built around a dichotomy of the lands of Men being relatively mundane, with the history and cultures of these having a suitably 'realistic' feel and the wilderness being home to the Weird - The place where adventurers go to experience the fantastical. Here, Greyhawk has a strong 'anything goes' approach where spaceships, timetravel, contact with other worlds, from the silly to the serious, are all within the tone of the setting.
  • It is a sparse and very open-ended setting characterised by no two greyhawk settings being quite the same, depending on how each DM interprets the setting.

Unpacking the above

I put each paragraph above in its own bullet point, because I feel they each need a bit of unpacking to really 'get' greyhawk. That it even needs this kind of unpacking is perhaps one reason that Forgotten Realms was such a smash hit in comparison.

A Sword & Sorcery setting built on a medieval chassis 

Compared to the Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk has a lot less influence from Tolkien. The primary inspirations that shine through are the Sword & Sorcery of Lieber's Fafhrd & The Gray Mouser and the more classical fantasy of Poul Anderson's Three Hearts & Three Lions.

Other sources can be inferred, but are not as clearly evidenced. What I mean by that is that Greyhawk assumes a different generation of fantasy enthusiasts. For people who had already read Jack Vance's The Dying Earth or Michael Moorcock's Elric it is easy to see how these influences fit like a glove for creating a richer framework of Gygax's greyhawk. But they are not essential for the core of it (more on this below).

Gygax is better schooled in medievalism than Greenwood and it shows in his setting history and how it shows a pattern of cultural development. On a scale of Harn to Legoland realism, Greyhawk, in certain ways, leans much closer to the Harn side. We are meant to know that feudalism had a historical origin here, that peasants get killed in petty wars of nobility and that trade follows pseudo-realistic patterns.  
The clear medieval character (surprisingly rare in fantasy) of it makes it more analogous to Game of Thrones than any other D&D settings (except maybe Birthright).

The lands of Men are Mundane & the Wilderness home to the Weird

An article in Dragon Magazine #40, "Believe it or not, Fantasy has reality", spells out an implied assumption of Greyhawk that is crucial to understanding how it is more than a semi-realistic, but ultimately somewhat bland, medievalist setting:
“...There is an essential element which will determine the success or failure of a game as High Fantasy: the division of the world into Home Areas and Wyrd Areas.
A Home Area is one in which everyday life as we know it exists; it is the Primary World.
A Wyrd Area is the realm of the Dark, the actual world of Faerie. It is in Wyrd Areas that one encounters monsters and has adventures. All AD&D dungeons are Wyrd Areas."
The world described in the original Greyhawk Folio and Boxed Set is mostly the mundane 'home area' world. What neither does a very good job of showing, but which is made abundantly clear by the modules situated in Greyhawk, such as EX1 Dungeonland, EX2 The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror and WG6 Isle of the Ape, is that once you cross into the wilderness, Greyhawk becomes more akin to a gritty Alice in Wonderland, that is awash in Weird Things from interplanetary timetravel, spaceships and robots, to extra-dimensional horrors and whatever else a DM could dream up (lest we forget - The drow were originally a surprise 'evil elf' race unveiled in an adventure and were very much a signature race of greyhawk before Forgotten Realms popularised them further). 

There was a clear assumption of No Holds Barred when it came to the Weird and whatever fantastical stuff you wanted to throw at your PCs would never interfere with the tone or style of the setting. Here, Jack Vance's Dying Earth and Planet of Adventure take over as unstated influences and the baroque, absurd and humoristic character of Greyhawk begins to show itself.

Another assumption to bear in mind, also unstated, is that Greyhawk assumed picaresque adventurers having episodic adventures that could as often venture into the absurd as it did the heroic. As opposed to the more epic quests and heroes that modern audiences might assume as their D&D default, owing to their  modern literary fantasy influences.

Much of this could be self-evident to those who had the folio, a few published adventures and had read much of the same kind of literature that Gygax had soaked in. It is not at all clear to younger audiences, or even older ones who didn't have the same influences (or, those who had but didn't necessarily infer that these influenced were to be imputed). 

A modern World of Greyhawk setting would need to devote a fair amount of pages to elucidate to modern audiences its tone, style, literary influences and hitherto unstated assumptions in order to really be 'got'. 
As such, it has to be said the Greyhawk has not aged as well as some settings (though its kinship with Game of Thrones may have given it new modern appeal) and the bar of entry is somewhat high to younger players.

A Sparse & Open-ended Setting

The saving grace of Greyhawk is that all of the unstated assumptions above are not necessary to use it well.
"The world of greyhawk is yours now -- Yours to do with as you wish. You can mold new states out of old ones or inflame ancient rivalries into open warfare as you tailor the world to suit the needs of your players."
Naturally, many DMs take it as a given that they can adapt existing settings to suit their needs - But unlike most modern settings, Greyhawk was always intended as a chassis for DMs to customise and make their own. For similar reasons, though detailed in some areas, it is intentionally sparse in others.

As such, Greyhawk really should be mostly evaluated on its suitability as a gaming chassis to get DMs started with and how easy it is for DMs to pour their creativity into and make it their own. It lends itself as easily to gritty "game of thrones" style gritty low fantasy as it does to "Paladins & Princesses" or Lieber-esque sword & sorcery.

A Note on Later Developments

This review assumes the default line of the original Folio and boxed set. As was obligatory for all TSR settings during the 90s, Greyhawk was blown up by a Big Event. In Greyhawk's case, they took all the seeds of conflict scattered across the original material and triggered them all at once - Thus the Greyhawk Wars and with it the new campaign set From the Ashes by Carl Sargent. 

The Greyhawk Wars altered the tone of the setting significantly. The original version was an open-ended setting with no overarching angle or theme, where the geopolitics is tightly strung in many places, but where events in the wilderness could just as well be influential. Hooks were set as dials for the DM to turn when he wanted stuff to happen.

The setting of From the Ashes was one where geopolitics is the dominant theme of the setting and evil definitely has the upper hand and you can't visit a village anywhere without having to deal with some fallout or another of the wars. More Darkhawk than Greyhawk.

As a result, true to its original intention, many greyhawk fans never took it as more than one person's interpretation of greyhawk.

Roger Moore later advanced the timeline a few years further in The Adventure Begins, which did a credible job of taking it back to a more open setting whilst retaining the dynamics of an unfolding timeline (which was always the intended case based on Gygax's Dragon articles), a point in time it has been frozen at ever since, publicationwise.

Although 3rd edition took Greyhawk as its default setting, all we got were some very dry and bland setting books that represent a nadir in Greyhawk as far as quality of material written.

Roger Moore wrote of the same era (591 CY) with a far more pleasant and evocative writing style and Sargent, while given a thankless task of writing for the most ungreyhawky of greyhawk eras, had an explosive imagination and his work is good for mining no matter your own interpretation of greyhawk.


If you have already soaked in the sword & sorcery literature that Gygax also enjoyed - Lieber, Vance, Howard, Lovecraft and Anderson - to fill in the blanks, Greyhawk will be an easy pickup and represents a very solidly constructed medievalist setting soaked in exotic and weird fantasy where anything goes.

If you are simply looking for a setting chassis where the skeleton is pre-made for you, then greyhawk is also an excellent setting for you to tinker and tailor with and put your own unique spin on. It was designed for this very task and it shows.

If you are looking for the immersive 'Greyhawk experience', a vision of the world as the creators saw it, and you have not read the literature above, Greyhawk will probably come across as a bland and indistinct setting with knights and wizards and little to set it apart from a dull pastiche of medieval europe + orcs and elves. I'd tell you to wait for the 5e setting book, but I doubt the writers would fill in the blanks for you on this.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Setting Review: The Forgotten Realms

Following on  from my Setting Map review series and my more recent thoughts on 4e's Nentir Vale and Dragonlance as a coming-of-age sandbox, I've decided to start a review series of published settings overall. Mostly D&D, but we'll be delving into some 3rd party settings, Warhammer and a few others.

These reviews will be personal and mostly aimed at giving the reader an impression of the flavor, style and gameability of the setting.

I am starting with the setting that has probably the greatest exposure of all.

The forgotten realms! Everyone knows it, or knows of it, at least.

Quick intro to the setting

(See also my review of the map of the forgotten realms)
Let's start by showing the realms from its most flattering side. Quote Ed Greenwood, from the old 'gray box':

"Most of the area under discussion here has until recently been covered by wild forests and unsettled grasslands. Civilization is still a novelty in much of this world, even the oldest of cities on the Inland Sea, or the founding of Waterdeep, the greatest City of the North, are within the memory of the oldest living elves of Evermeet."

"City-states are common, and nations on the increase as more of the wild lands are pushed back and gathered under a single king or government."

"Finally, the Realms are a land of adventure, and therefore adventurers. It is the time of heroes, when one man of pure heart (or with a powerful artifact) may hold his own against enemy hordes, where legions of evil forces may muster and be destroyed by the actions of a few, where the nations rise and fall on magical tides which mere men can control."
In a nutshell, a sword & sorcery setting for exploration, where human civilization is still in its seedling stage - A quick look at the main adventuring areas gives us an outlook like this:

The Dalelands - Sure, they are clichéed by now, but smatterings of peaceful little rural communities separated by deep woods where monsters and ruins abound amidst abandoned elven realms is quite frankly an awesome sandbox to start a campaign in.

And frankly, when you sit in your dale and look around, each direction is just a promise of even more adventure:

Cross a small sea to the east to go exploring in a wild west land of independent city-states in The Vast.

Go west to Cormyr to adventure in classical kingdom-with-knights-land.

Or north for some darker adventures in the Moonsea.

Go even further west, and the Western Heartlands open up a vast wilderland of scattered towns, secret elven kingdoms, ruins and exploration. Same with The North, only more desolate.

And further east and south, beyond the Vast, lie decadent deteriorating city-state,  distant forest realms ruled by sorcery queens, desert kingdoms, dark magocracies, witch lands and utterly ancient empires ruled by god-kings.

What are the realms like?

In its briefest summation, the Forgotten Realms is a Tolkienesque setting that, with the fall of Myth Drannor, became a roughshod Sword & Sorcery setting. And unapologetically vanilla kitchen-sink fantasy.

Moreso than the settings that came before (including Greyhawk), the realms embodies the implied setting of D&D. 

By implied setting, I don't mean what grognards extract from pouring over every paragraph of the original publications, but from what fresh gamers imagine they will be doing when they start on D&D: Travelling through enchanted woodlands, meeting archwizards and sorcery queens, engaging with noble elves and encountering dwarven kingdoms, exploring ancient ruins and uncovering lost secrets in a land of forgotten glories. Whilst unceremoniously lobbing fireballs and enriching yourself with the stuff from the critters you just killed. 

Basically, some diffuse mashup of Tolkien (Elves, dwarves, Dalelands), Medievalism (Cormyr), Sword & Sorcery (all over the place), some ill-defined American frontier mentality of exploration (western heartlands, the north) and on the edges of the known world - A barrel full of the truly exotic and weird that far away fantastical lands should have (beyond the heartlands).

For comparison, I think this mix is what has made the realms more appealing than Greyhawk which is often seen as bland. The Tolkien influences are less clear there and all the realms of men are, by design, wholly mundane (since, in Greyhawk, the encounter with the Weird and fantastical happens when crossing into the wilderness) - So no sorcery queens, godkings or other weird stuff that people see themselves meeting when playing D&D. The Forgotten Realms have all of it, albeit often at the edges of the known world (by the time of 3e, that edge was erased and you could totally have a group with an aasimar cleric, a genasi sorcerer, a dragonborn paladin and a drow ranger - just from the core setting book).

Things I don't like about the realms

Let's start with the first criticism that is true no matter what iteration you use:

It's a Set Piece Setting

The realms may be primed for adventure, but it does feel a little too gamist.

I am not asking for Harn level of 'realism', but there is no sense whatsoever of how the current culture(s) of the realms arose.

Why are there knights and nobles? Because knights and nobles.

For contrast, the World of Greyhawk doesn't give us details of how these arose, but they are easy to infer from the history and style of the setting. It's easy to picture farmers toiling in the soil in the Flanaess.

In the Realms, it's probably best to not look to closely at them, lest you discover they are just decorative props placed on the way to the next dungeon. It just feels a bit too much like a set piece for D&D adventures than a living breathing world.

The disjointed history of it doesn't help - It's basically a story of "...then this kickass empire did kickass things and left dungeons and artifacts behind before KABOOM. And then the next empire did the same, but with different artifacts..." - Which is a fine element to have. But nothing in it really tells us how the current realms came to be.

The Dalelands and Cormyr for example, are supposed to be these plucky up-and-coming realms nestled in the ruins of former majesties. But both are comparatively ancient to most other realms around (1200 years+) - Effectively making them weird for just having hung around for a 1000 years without any real development or change happening, with no real sense of  where these people came from or how their culture developed.

They could have made a lot more sense as human successor states arising in the wake of the fall of Myth Drannor, for example (which was still over 500 years ago - a very long time in medieval terms). Both in terms of age and development, but also in terms of telling us what they grew out of. Humanity as a fledgling culture developing on the borrowed remnants of their former elven patron empire. Alas, they basically seem to have popped from a vacuum and stayed that way for 1200 years.

Now for the second point of criticism

Bullshit in later editions -  NPCs, novels, metaplot & canon

Most grognards favour the original gray box whilst latter generations tend to hail the 3rd edition book as a masterpiece of setting work.
For me, I prefer the 2nd edition boxed set, minus the Times of Troubles shenanigans. In fact, setting the startdate a decade or two before the original startdate still gets you all the best of the realms without the added junk (including Greenwood's own - Why would I go to the haunted halls of eveningstar when the knights of myth drannor already looted the place?). 
The 1st edition set is just a tad too incoherent in its presentation to work for me. And that 3rd edition, while it did a masterful job of condensing a truckload of usable information into one tome, just made the realms seem too small and too busy. The Shining South was no longer a far away land of magic shrouded in myth - It was just another step on the trading route of known lands. Sense of wonder? lost.

Basically, the problem with the realms is everything that happened once the wheels started turning. Novels began being written and become 'canon'. Drizzt made good drow rangers cool. GreenwoodElminster bangs a high-level hot chick and goes and does some canon bullshit somewhere else. Harpers foil a plot from pantomime Zhentarim villains, etc. The time of troubles crapped on everyone's ongoing campaign (though it did hilariously spawn The worst module series ever), shadow wizards start invading the realm in other novels, bla bla bla. By the time we hit late 3rd edition, I didn't even want to know what was going on anymore. It's more marvel-universe-in-fantasy-dressing than whatever it used to be.
Then 4e came along and basically trolled the Realms into extinction. 5e  tried a soft reset by advancing the timeline enough to make the far future a bit more like the good old days. whatever. Take me back to 1340 DR please. 


Basically, Forgotten Realms is an evocative setting that fits D&D assumptions like a glove and works eminently for gaming -  It is however, also a hot mess, greatly encumbered by decades of being a shared world. With a bit of discipline, this can be shaved off for a perfectly good D&D setting, if immersion is not too important.

Recommended point of entry? Get the 1st or 2nd edition boxed set, read the setting and imagine it 10-20 years early than the set presents, somewhere just before Greenwood's own groups started running the realms. Maybe read the first few sourcebooks released for it. Get the setting from that. If you need more, you have a wealth of material to choose from, but treat it like salt - A bit added can enhance the flavour. Overdose and you'll ruin an otherwise perfectly good meal.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Dragonlance was a Unique Sandbox

Dragonlance has a bad rep in some old school circles. For me, it has always been one of my favourite settings. It certainly has its flaws, but it had a brand of fantasy that mixed coming-of-age stories,  faerie tales,  romantic sagas and plain D&D in a way that spoke very viscerally to my sense of wonder and... well, fantasy. The novels helped create a sense of immersion and of an intertwined and living world with its own mysteries and concerns.

Not the Chronicles/Legends (or their spinoff railroads) mind, though I read and enjoyed them (they now figure prominently on my 'not sure I want to ruin childhood/teen memories by re-reading in my 30s' list). That story was too big really to be about anything other than the heroes it featured. It was never really what Dragonlance as a world was about for me. It was all the other ones, the small tales, that grabbed me and pulled me deeper into the setting.

And of course Tales of the Lance, the boxed set:
Some people hate the Elmore quality of this - I love it
As a kid, this set was my most treasured tome, to be poured over countless times and always returned to after exploring other things. For several years, there was one section I always ignored as uninteresting though: "Using the Adventure map and Talis".

I've blogged before on how the setting map in Tales of the Lance has loads of adventure potential. If you flip it over, you get a hex map of Solace and its surroundings:

What's the deal with the "story track" section? It was never explained anywhere.
Once I  actually paid attention to this section, I realised I had been ignoring the most gameable part of the book. I didn't have the concepts for it back then, but this section presented a wholly traditional sandbox, complete with terrain types, interesting locales (each entry with a mood, likely reaction, move cost, chance of getting lost and chance of events), index-cards for a variety of NPCs (also work for PCs for quick-start if needed) and the hex map above. Looking at this today, this was made by a seasoned sandboxer. It has all the info you want to run one well. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen any TSR product present such a well-structured and easy-to-run sandbox as this one!

It is not quite an 'old school' sandbox though, in that it has some unique features - The hex map is intended to be shared with the players at the table (it also doubles as a battlemap). And not only do they have a clear overview of the landscape, it also reveals the location of all the sites of interest and provides detailed maps of several of the sites!

It makes it very easy for beginners to get into this style of play - Take a look around the map, what looks cool? What would we like to explore next? It gives players a lot more to go on than a blank hex map they have to fill out themselves. Actually, it's a format I'd consider using myself.

It also makes a lot of sense, in-game, for the genre it wants to sandbox. This is not a game of exploration of an unknown borderland frontier for gold and glory. It's a game of coming-of-age exploration of the many adventure sites to be found in the vicinity of a backwater town, in the style of the excellent Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures OSR game. It is to be expected that the PCs would know what's on the map from growing up in the town and hearing the local folklore and legends about these places. This is not about exploring the unknown as much a it is exploring the history, folklore and mythic fabric of their home community. Sandbox-style.

It is certainly a different genre to old school D&D. But Dragonlance didn't just 'ruin everything' with railroad modules. Though hardly noticed (did anyone actually use this sandbox?), it gave a unique and very well executed take (ok,the talis cards were a bit weird) on how to use the sandbox format for completely different genres.

Besides the actual hexmap and sandbox chapter, the setting map littered with terse adventure sites, here's some more proof that the authors of Tales of the Lance very much intended their product to be used in an open-ended explorative sandbox format. Take a look at this section of the DM screen that came with the box:

Whoever made this, wanted to use it for sandbox gaming.
The back of the world book is a frigging random encounter chart and we also get to large maps which is just a bunch of adventure locations with no descriptions. Go crazy.

I always felt Dragonlance before the war was a great setting for gaming - If I were to run it today, I'd run it in that period, with a clearly stated premise that there was not going to be a War of the Lance on the horizon. No dragonarmies, no world in need of saving, no heroes of the lance. It is however, a world at the dawn of a new age. The rousing of the world from the cataclysm would be a more gradual one, and the conflicts erupting, though reflective of a wider dawning of a new age, more local in scope.

The year is 340 AC, the latest news in the town of Solace are gloomy as a ragtag band of local adventurers, including the local dwarven blacksmith, were all killed on their latest quest.

Clerics have begun to resurface in pockets across Ansalon, but they are far and few in between and far from everyone believe that the old gods have actually returned. A PC cleric would be rare and controversial, but hardly unique.

Dragons have been sighted across ansalon in recent years as well. Not enough to convince most people that they are anything other than stories from a former age. But sighted nevertheless. tales of obscure 'Draconians' are also emerging.

I'd run them through the local sandbox at low levels, then begin to introduce some more regional threats. An evil priest of takhisis has allegedly allied with a red dragon and occupied an old dwarven fortress and using it as a base for invasions into Abanasinia. This is what rams home that a new age is dawning and that both the gods and dragons are well and truly back. Play it by ear from there, steal various plot hooks from later developments, but make them more local.

Maybe I'd use Beyond the Wall to run it. But actually I've felt for a while that 5e was more suited to dragonlance than any other edition.

Old G+ Comments (02/05/2019):
Quite annoyed that google ate all comments on my blog. As an experiment, after discovering some of them are stored in gmail thanks to email notification, I am putting them up as a crude jpeg.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Update on "Into the Unknown" - Kickstarter Boxed Set looking likely

Quick intro: "Into the Unknown" is my hack of 5e to make it run more like B/X - Old school meets modern. Many simplified mechanics; Race-As-Class; reaction and morale rolls are back; spend-gold-for-xp combined with downtime activities; simple but central hexcrawl framework; terse and short writing - And fully compatible with 5e. Click the tags below for more.

The player booklets are basically finished. Works has stalled a bit as I am working hard on the GM booklets. This is turning out to be a lot harder than the player booklets, but I want it to be good - And this is really demanding the best of GM wisdom from me! We're still a couple a months away from completion, but I have the structure of the booklet and just about every chapter and section lined up, so things should be proceeding more smoothly from here.

There are other good news though. The player booklets look quite good, even just printing it with a regular printer. And I've been researching the cost of making a proper print run - in a boxed set! This looks much more affordable than I first assumed, as long as it is 50+ made. At first glance, production cost here in Denmark could be as low as the 30 usd range for six booklets and a box which is not what I expected. So I went ahead and made a box cover in anticipation of putting this on kickstarter:

Obvious Homage is obvious
So yeah, I think this is really happening. A target of 50 backers seems realistic - I won't run until I have all the actual material written and I enter the final edit-tweak'n'polish phase (I am thinking to use the kickstarter as playtest as well) and I have a firm price offer from a printer. Sometime in autumn?

I guess that means I should look at stretch goals and stuff? I've never done anything like this before. Comission someone to make a kewl character sheet? Comission art from Russ Nicholson and Larry Elmore?

I guess I will need to set up a company as well, to report taxes on this for and all. Jeez. I did not anticipate all this when I first started hacking this.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Against the Funnel of Game Balance - Old School Fun

Game Balance is a totally different kind of fun compared to old school fun. It's more a fun-nel really, that basically seeks to minimize the parts of the game that old schoolers find fun.

Gamers, generally speaking, roll dice because the element of randomness brings a level of excitement to the table. And they applaud creative thinking or player skill being able to make a crucial difference in a tight spot. Because it is fun. Because they are variables making the game more open-ended.

Game Balance is the opposite: It is the premise that so long as the party manages its resources properly, they will be guided through a scenario of progressively more difficult encounters, each of which they should be able to defeat in turn and still come out with positive hit points, for a total combat experience that should be neither too easy nor too hard. If the GM knowingly presented encounters too strong for the party, that is seen to be GMing in bad faith. If they are too easy, the GM is expected to make adjustments so that the players can stay within the happy medium of challenging encounters in the Game Balance Funnel.

In other words, you can expect to come out on top as long as you stick to the guidelines on both sides of the table. You can roll dice and come up with zany stratagems, but the game is rigged so that the outcome is meant to be a foregone conclusion regardless of these variables.

This concept of "game balance" became part of the gaming culture during the 3rd edition cycle and was enshrined into inviolate law in 4th edition.

In 3rd edition, the Game Balance funnel was not originally intended to be part of the game. It provided encounter guidelines mostly as an tool for eye-balling Total Party Kill encounters and enabling the GM to steer clear of this if he wanted to. The gaming culture however, quickly began to take the guidelines as a social contract and part of the game. When Wizards of the Coast released adventures that did not follow these guidelines rigorously, there was outcry. They quickly learned not to do that again. The guidelines had become law.

In 4th edition, this was taken to its ultimate conclusion. Though the various mechanical widgets players had to choose from were probably more plentiful than ever, 4th edition was so perfectly balanced that it was virtually impossible for the GM to "break the game" (ie, kill the player characters) as long as players and GM alike stuck to very clearly defined guidelines. As part of the this, players also could not break the game either - Each class was designed to be perfectly balanced against each other, giving every player a chance to shine equally. 4e is maybe the most balanced RPG ever made.

Why did game balance become such a hot item? How did it go from 'here's a guideline' to being the holiest principle in the design of the game? And why wasn't it a bigger deal before 3rd edition? Whilst some of it might well be the zeitgeist of the times, I'd argue that the design of other parts of 3rd edition, developed even further in 4e, inevitably lead to a design where Game Balance had to become law. In two areas mainly:

Character build - with 3rd edition, making a character became a mini-game itself. "Builds", tracking progression from 1st to 20th level, became a thing. The game itself encouraged this sort of fiddling with prestige classes that could be combined in multitudes of ways and whose requirements and optimal benefits required planning ahead many levels in advance. Feats likewise, often required planning chains of them many levels in advance The tone of the game itself shifted, with a greater emphasis on self-actualisation through the character you are building to become over time, than the adventures to be had.

Say Player A spends half a day building a character, plotting out how Lazariavilnus the gray elf rogue was going to become a Rogue 1/ Wizard 4/ Daggerspell Mage 10/ Unseen Seer 2/ Arcane Trickster 3 at level 20, meticulously planning assigned feats and skill ranks to get just the right synergies at level X and Y - And then Lazariavilnus dies in fire at 2nd level due to a random encounter with a dragon - Player A is probably going to be unhappy that the GM took away the character he had invested so much time in already - Especially when the GM actually had encounter guidelines that could have avoided this.

It is only natural really - Player A invested his time in ways the game encourages - Engaging in the mini-game of character building. What's the point of doing that if you have no assurances that your player is likely to survive to ever see it come to fruition? That Game Balance became expected by players is almost inevitable when you design a character creation mini-game with that kind of investment in it.

The other part of the game that lead to this is the increasingly binary nature of encounters in the game. Gone were reaction rolls - Which, though in spirit intended to let GM decide for himself, tend to just lead to more binary outcomes of "Fight or.... fight?". As were morale rolls - creatures were now much more likely to fight to the death. And even more crucially - encounters changed from primarily being obstacles in the path between the PCs and their goal (gold, which = XP) to being the goal itself (XP).
Besides the more variable outcomes of encounters in TSR editions of D&D, it also gave ways of attempting to by-pass encounters that were way out of their league, without necessarily compromising their quest for the goal of the game (XP).

Contrast this to 3rd and 4th edition, where the combat encounter was enshrined as the ONLY real way to gain XP and thus advance your character - If combat is presumed inevitable and something the players are supposed to seek out in order to advance in the game, it becomes more natural for players to expect that they should be able to survive it. Sure, the party could have just sneaked away from that dragon, but that's not what the game incentivizes. As part of this focus, it is only natural that combat was more developed, and took up more of the game time in a session, in 3e and even more so in 4e.

So game balance became the pillar to stand on for the increased focus on the mini-game of character building and the different more combat-focused player incentives offered in the game.

Looking to TSR games, and their OSR offsprings, we can see why game balance is mechanically less relevant there and simply not in the spirit of these games.

Character creation is quick. You can roll up a character in less than 15 minutes. Discover more about it in actual play if it makes through the first few sessions. In fact, we can see that character mortality was considered a feature of older games, not a bug. Quote +Frank Mentzer, author of the BECMI series of D&D:
"The point is so obvious that many folks miss it (emphatically including the designers and players of the current version):
D&D Characters Die Frequently.
If you and your players refuse to embrace this axiom, you fall prey to an invulnerability that renders all the dangers impotent. You simply reenact plots knowing that the hero always survives and wins ::yawn::. But in accepting it you spring headlong into a world of thrills 'n' chills where failure and death are ever-present possibilities, surmounted only by the now-classic D&D resolution: create another heroic wannabe and try to do better."
Secondly, Combat is more avoidable - reaction rolls tend to produce different outcomes. Morale rolls tend to shorten fights. And more importantly, players aren't given strong incentives to look for fights. The real prize is the gold on the other side of the encounter. Why fight a dragon when you can just sneak past it and try to loot its hoard by stealth? Especially if you have doubts that you would be able to survive it.

This last part is the clinch in terms of fun - The social contract of game balance means players are simply not supposed to consider if they are able to survive the encounter - the rewards of the game are triggered by engaging in and winning fights and we're supposed to be able to survive each encounter - There should be no choice needed for that random encounter with the dragon - The GM wouldn't put it there if we couldn't defeat it. The world the PCs inhabit is basically solipsistic. It exists only as a level-appropriate response to the PCs and their goals of character advancement.

In TSR D&D, fighting is more of a choice - And one you can opt out of without detracting from your primary aims. This also means the GM can put in encounters that the players could not hope to survive if they engaged it in combat. And from there, create a world that is more open-ended - A world which feels less like a solipsistic funnel towards the next combat encounter and more like a world that has its own life independent of the PCs; where combat is but one aspect of the game and whether to engage in it at all is a legitimate strategic decision that the game will not punish you for opting out of.  Where achievement is earned and not a foregone conclusion.

The good GM then, does not go out of his way to set challenges that he knows will not kill the characters. Rather, he lays out meaningful choices for the players; to choose whether to fight the challenge, or look for other solutions to accomplish their goal. And he leaves it to the players, not the GM, to estimate the "challenge rating" for encounters they come across.

The point of this article is not to argue that all those who play pathfinder and 4th edition today are having BadWrongFun. When I played 3.5, I went all in on character builds myself and enjoyed the experience of tinkering with it. It was a fun solo mini-game to engage in outside the group play. And lots of combat can be fun - up to a point.

The point is rather to illustrate that when modern players consider older games to be unbalanced - That this is a feature, not a bug. And that this was by design, not accidental.
That developments of game balance do not necessarily constitute an evolution of the game, but rather a horizontal shift in focus in terms of what the game wants to be.
That there is a different kind of satisfaction in discovering your character in play, as opposed to building it and plotting out its future well in advance. And that being less attached to your character is actually somewhat liberating. That accomplishing your goals without the compulsion towards combat can create a wholly different style of play. And that combat is genuinely exciting - Because you could very well die.

It's a different kind of fun to the fun-nel you've been used to.

My advice to 3e/4e players wanting to give the OSR experience a shot - Try dying. Come to the session with a folder of character sheets. It won't take more than an hour to create a good handful or more. Just have a basic idea of what that character is right now. And die a couple of times. Get it out of your system.

Around that point, you will start to have a good feeling for how to navigate a world of fantasy full of dangers and glories to be had, where the skeletons of adventurers who failed might actually be found in dungeons - And do your best. Doing so WILL affect the outcome. 

Monday, 26 June 2017

4th edition's implied setting is Old School as f*ck

4th edition really turned me off D&D, at least as far as keeping up with its current state goes. At the time, I was already souring on 3.5's existential crisis with wanting to be GURPS in a class and level based system with abstracted combat. GURPS I felt simply did that better and I was coming to realise older versions of the game did the D&D parts with class, levels and abstracted combat, better.

When 4e then came out, I read all the reviews and play examples to get a feel for the game and see if I wanted to tag along. Nothing new under the sun from me there - I was instantly turned off by the extremely gamist nature of it - A roleplaying game so standardised by rules, it had abandoned all pretence of players playing out the scene and using rules as an aid - Players were playing out the rules with the scene as a background prop. Combats taking forever. 9 page character sheets. Characters defined primarily by boardgamey tactical roles. The hours spent on the mini-game of charop taking almost as long as actual gaming sessions. As with all things, I am sure it's possible to use 4e differently than this, but I've seen nothing since to suggest 4e does not at heart encourage this style of gaming. The players I know who play 4e in fact play 4e not because these criticisms aren't true, but because they like this style of play (in addition to liking other styles of roleplaying as well). But I didn't - at all - So 4e got a pass from me as the edition where corporatist D&D finally went off the deep end and shed its legacy and connection with former editions to go off and be its own thing in the 21st century.

The flavour parts of the game didn't seem much better at first glance either. Dragonborn and Tieflings are core classes now? And what's an Eladrin? Ugrh. For me, D&D has always been about mundane heroes journeying into the wilds to encounter the Weird and fantastical. And through this touch of Chaos, become greater than they were, gradually breaching the gap between the world of men (or even risk becoming alienated from it) and the world of myth on the other side of the fence.

4th edition at a glance seemed to totally break down this dichotomy and bring the fantastical right into the hearths of the mundane households, letting fey rub elbows with demonic offspring and dragonchildren in your regular tavern. When there is no Otherness to the fantastical, no sense of the Unknown,  the sense of wonder evaporates. The fantastical becomes mundane. 4e looked to have jumped the shark on its fluff to me at first glance. To be expected from such a gamist edition I figured and went on my way.

It was only around the time of the D&D Next playtest that I, thanks peeking at the flamewars that were inevitably sparked by the changes of a new edition, was inspired to look a bit deeper. Not for the rules, mind you. I still would rather play just about any other version of D&D. But the fluff. The fluff was just downright.... inspired!

Set that one critique about mundane vs the weird to the side for now though (we'll revisit later), and the implied setting of 4th edition reveals itself to be imaginative, bold, absolutely dripping with adventure potential and above all - Old school as fuck.

4th edition's implied setting feels far more mythic than any of its predecessors. This often translates into "gaming disconnect" (Tolkien, Glorantha, Dragonlance) as it setting becomes more pre-occupied with its own stories and mythology than its gaming potential - For Nentir Vale though, making it more mythic actually makes it more gameable. Gone are the tolkienesque angelic-racist elves of 2e & 3rd edition. The eladrin realms of the feywild have that dreamy otherworldly "journey into faerie" feel that traces its legacy back to the folkloric tales of the middle ages.

This happened in 4e. I wasn't around to witness it, but it did.
4th edition may have ditched alignments - Yet they crafted a mythology that is absolutely about the eternal conflict between Law & Chaos - Giving us a setting with all the principles of Keep on the Borderlands knitted straight into the fabric of the setting (moreso, I would argue, than any D&D setting before it) . The only thing they didn't do was explicitly call out that this dichotomy was their guiding principle (because officially - no alignments.

I mean, their cosmology is basically like this: The Astral sea was boring, so now it's Spelljammer with planes instead of planets (fuck yeah). The astral dominions are basically where the entities of Law took residence - They are all platonic embodiments of various concepts.

The Elemental Chaos is the other side of the cosmos - And far more visceral and, well... "elemental".  The font of creation - Basically Limbo, always in flux, but with elements of various kinds floating around in pockets and realms. Still, you can take your spelljammer ship and ride the elemental waves here as well (unlike the para-elemental plane of Ooze that we fucked off with the rest of the great wheel).

And below that, the nasty side of Chaos - Entropy leading into oblivion. The Abyss sitting between existence and nothingness.

Oh, and just to be even more mythic on y'all, our Law/Chaos struggle mirrors the Olympians/Aesir vs Titans/Jotuns struggle.  So you can instinctively grog this because this story is already in your cultural consciousness. And giants sided with the titans primordials.  Giant losers are therefore cosmically inimical to Law, gods and mankind. Ergo, go fight the good fight, adventurers.

And the underdark? Back in the mythic time when gods and primordials fought over law and chaos openly, one god was cursed and thrown underground for eternal torture. All these caves and passages is him dragging his tortured corpse around underground, creating open spaces as he boroughs through.

And we get mirror planes, basically reflections of life/nature and death/shadow - Because not all world-walking is about cosmic power and opening portals to new realities. Sometimes, the farmer just stumbles into faerie by accident. So your low and mid-level characters can walk into the realms of myth as well. Remember my criticism about the barriers between the mundane and the Weird? Turns out they cranked it up once you look past the player races. 4e's implied setting hardcodes this dichotomy into the setting (and blends law/chaos into the division on top) (too metal, man) and then turns up the volume on the fantastical once you go into the Weird. It's like they drank from Odin's mead of poetry Gygax's mountain dew of Appendix N when creating the setting for 4e.

It's easy to grog and get into, thick in mythic flavour and basically IS D&D embodied and distilled into setting form.

And yet, for all the flavour, it doesn't get self-absorbed in its own history or style. There is something accessible and basic, almost saturday morning cartoon style, in the way it grabs you. "These are our memes and archetypes. You have met them elsewhere, even if you don't know it. So just plug and play."

Part of the reason it is so accessible is that it is intentionally sparse. There is tonnes of stuff simply left out, or barely hinted at. Because it was designed to be nothing more than the most basic of frameworks for DMs to fill in the blanks on and make their own worlds out of. I know, right? Old School as fuck.

In fact, the publication history of its implied setting is like some sort of tragic homage to another very old school setting. We get the bare bone outlines in the DMG - 24 pages of teasers (mostly about stuff like "what is a town", "fantasy worlds tend to have religions", "here are rules for weather") that open with "the world of D&D doesn't have a map - until you make one" (so fucking metal) and then talks about the higher level assumptions of the D&D world. Things like:

  • Civilization is scattered points of light amidst a vast wilderness full of monsters in which ancient and mysterious wonders are nestled
  • gods are distant
  • It's your world
and another 15 pages on Fallcrest and the Nentir Vale, a pocket sandbox area+home base in a forgotten corner of the implied setting. That's it.  Old. School. man.

This is Fallcrest, the homebase. Shadowdale can fuck off back to Tolkien's Shire.

From here, the rest of the implied setting is revealed in scraps and pieces in various modules and articles in dragon magazine. You know which setting I am talking about now, when I said it was a homage, right? Yeah, this is basically World of Greyhawk all over again. Only, this one is dripping with flavour already and has the law vs chaos angle built right into its mythology with direct access for adventuring potential.

Except for one, tragic, difference. Greyhawk got its boxed set to set the word on what the world is like, even if it is an open-ended, loose framework, word. 4e's implied setting, Nentir Vale, never got that far before they killed the line. The setting book was on display on amazon and all. But then D&D Next happened and what was probably D&D's most D&D-like setting ever fell off a cliff.

That setting book could have been its last old school hurrah. "here's your setting book. It leaves out most things for you to create, but now at least you finally have your setting map. You will never see another supplement for this setting again though. Create the rest yourself." But we never got even that.

There is no "canon", no well defined history (myths in fact are far more prevalent than history) or even list of countries. It will remain forever an individualistic hodge podge of scant notes in the DMG cobbled together with hints and tidbits from supplements and adventures, some scholarly attempts at making sense of it all from fans online and the vast majority of it left for DMs to fill out with their own imagination. Old School. as. fuck.

If I were to run a non-homebrew setting these days, I'd probably pick 4e's or the Wilderlands of High Fantasy. I'd have to find a way to make those dragonborn and tieflings palatable to my sensibilities somehow, but that ain't hard. Other than that, it's just straight up D&D.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

The D&D endgame has always sucked (except for *that* edition)

In the grognard-sphere, you can find many examples of grognards decrying the loss of D&D's endgame.

As I am working on B/X-ing 5e for Into the Unknown,  a cursory look at end-game approach is also on the menu (though mostly for a later Companion supplement since the core will only go to 10th level).

I've never really played with domain and stronghold rules. I was certainly aware of them and of the fact that the game was supposed to move in that direction. I just didn't understand how non-wargamers would think they are anything but an exceptionally boring endgame.

"You have over countless sessions fought everything from orcs to dragons, progressed from saving villages to saving kingdoms. Now, as you move into high-level play, new destinies and high level rules appear. Forget about resource management of rations and arrows. That's for noobs! At high levels, you get to manage the resources of an entire keep! Track the cost of building a new wing of the stronghold. Retain reeves and chamberlains. Collect taxes. Explore the intricacies of domain resources and incomes. Hear the complaints of peasants and track the cost of holidays. Graduate from low-level hero to high-level administrator! Play the domain game."

If that was the kind of campaign I wanted to play, I'd have gone for Birthright from level 1. The domain game fading from D&D was a natural consequence of it having nothing to do with the kind of game you thought you'd be playing when playing D&D.

That doesn't mean it was replaced by anything better though. 3e seemed to just go with the assumption of "why should high level play be any different from low level play? Just add more hit dice!"  Ignoring for a moment how awful the execution of this was in 3e, this assumption is, in itself, not terrible, since this is, after all, the kind of game you are playing D&D for.

Freebooters of the Frontier embraces this conclusion by declaring a simple endgame condition: amass 10,000 silver pieces and you win the game. This is perhaps preferable to the 3e's approach of "just keep doing the same thing with ever increasing numbers and levels of complexity." If D&D is to have an endgame, it should be somehow different, or at least an evolution, of the basic "kill creatures and amass treasures to defeat the villain" model of D&D. And preferably one that doesn't hand me rules for pricing the cost of holidays in your barony.

5e is not much better. Basically, the only edition who seems to have gotten the right idea is 4th edition (drops truthbomb, runs away).

4th edition D&D introduces epic destinies. They come on board about 8-10 levels too late, but they play to a good assumption of high level. While low-level play is often reactive and about a party walking the land waiting for destiny to happen, high level play ought to be about crafting a destiny for yourself.  Epic destinies enable this deliberate approach towards building your character into something larger than life the way you want to be larger than life. Low-level D&D play is "choose your own adventure", high level play should be "choose your own destiny." and 4e is the only edition to really grog to that.

In terms of flavour, 4e often does it quite well, presenting a good load of destinies that are essentially about transitioning from mundane hero to genuine mythic paragon. From legendary generals or sovereigns, becoming an archmage or epic lorekeeper, to questing for demi-godhood, heimdall-esque defender of a cosmically significant place, or an entire people, becoming consort to a deity to emerging as an actual avatar of a deity, thieves who can steal actual concepts, to becoming a literal parable yourself.

A lot of this is very high level stuff of course (and oftentimes more a culmination of a path of estiny) and some might want some intermediate high level play, on the level of domain play, becoming a guildmaster or similar. That is sort of what the Paragon tier (levels 11-20) was supposed to accomplish for 4e, except the execution amounted to little less than "choose your next splash option".

But the point remains - In either case, high level play should be about crafting your destiny and the rules for high level play should be in support of this - Rather than assuming that the end game should revolve around one goal (domain play) or none at all (3e).

So basically, the high level endgame I would want to introduce for Into the Unknown has very little to do with B/X and its endgame (cosmic adventures, a la the Mentzer Immortals set, would probably come closest as a possible destiny to choose from). I don't think I want to take an old-school approach just for the sake of doing it old-school.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

A critical examination of Hit Points

Oh, Hit points. Is there any other gaming concept as opaque and contentious over the ages? Maybe Armor Class,  but that is for another day.

What are hit points really? With monsters, it is simple enough to equate hit points to physical damage. But less so for people.

Originally, number of Hit dice = the number of hits before you go down. Simple and intuitive option. A normal 1 HD man goes down when struck by a sword. A troll, being of larger and more durable stature than a man, has six hit dice (ie, can take six sword hits before going down).

But then the iffy part: A 6th level fighter fighter is the equal of six men - Is his body as tough as a troll? What does his extra hit points represent?

The exact answer seems to vary over the years and as significantly - There doesn't seem to be a clear consensus in any point in time as to its exact status.

"Wounds + [x], from taking a hit" seems to be the the closest definition people can agree on at any given time. But even that is stretched by the time we get to 4th and 5th edition - The most grognardy of my own group has taken to calling them "hero points" ever since we switched to 5th edition, due to the high and frequent rate of daily healing and proliferation of non-magical instant recoveries ("Second Wind", "Song of Rest") and morale boosts of temporary hit points ("Rally", "Inspiring Leader", "Heroism") suggesting that the "Hit" and "wounding" part of hit points don't mean much until you hit 0.

Gary Gygax, in his usual sesquipedalian style, gave this answer in the 1st edition DMG, page 82:
It is quite unreasonable to assume that as a character gains levels of ability in his or her class that a corresponding gain in actual ability to sustain physical damage takes place. It is preposterous to state such an assumption, for if we are to assume that a man is killed by a sword thrust which does 4 hit points of damage, we must similarly assume that a hero could, on the average, withstand five such thrusts before being slain! Why then the increase in hit points? Because these reflect both the actual physical ability of the character to withstand damage - as indicated by constitution bonuses- and a commensurate increase in such areas as skill in combat and similar life-or-death situations, the "sixth sense" which warns the individual of some otherwise unforeseen events, sheer luck, and the fantastic provisions of magical protections and/or divine protection. Therefore, constitution affects both actual ability to withstand physical punishment hit points (physique) and the immeasurable areas which involve the sixth sense and luck (fitness).
According to this then, Hit points = Physique + [skill, sixth sense, luck & divine protection(!)]. The problem is, EGG didn't really seem to grasp what hit points was supposed to be all that well, for there is no follow through on this definition in any of his rules.

One would presume, from reading the above, that the majority of a high level characters's hit points comes from the "immeasurable areas". But he still heals at a flat rate of 1 (or 1-3, depending on which early edition you use) hit point per day.

That 1st level fighter with 8 hit points who lost all but one of them in a fight is as good as new a week later. The 5th level fighter with 29 hit points who lost all but one of them in a fight needs 4 weeks to be as good as new. Where are the immeasurable parts reflected in the healing process?

EGG may have written flavor text to suggest otherwise, but his take on the actual rules for hit points place them squarely as "wound points". To which I would say to Gary, were he still alive:

Grognards, brace yourselves. I am now going to argue that the designers of the 4th and 5th edition understood the original concept of hit points much better than Gygax did. None of them have fully internalised the implications of hit points though.

Gygax, much like James Wyatt, Mike Mearls et al, was an interpreter of the concept. So let's go to the originator of the idea, Dave Arneson, and look at how he understood the concept of hit points.

Originally, hit points were fixed. The notion of gaining more as you levelled came about because the players at Arneson's table didn't mind that it took multiple hits to kill a troll, but they minded that it only took one hit to kill them. So, he came up with the idea that:

 "As the player progressed, he did not receive additional Hit Points, but rather he became harder to Hit."

He soon enough changed this to hit points growing with level, but it is interesting to note that this was the original conception it grew out of (and also that Arneson tinkered with the 'modern' notion of power level=harder to hit, yet in the end decided to use growing hit points to model this).

Here we see where Gygax derived his inspiration for his flavor text from at least, but phrased in a much sharper and succinct concept - It is really only the first hit die of a player character that represents the physical part of hit points.

It seems however, that, unlike Gygax, Arneson followed through on this idea more (it was his own idea, after all) and treated hit points more fluidly and situationally as a result, in the same way he, and subsequently D&D at large, made AC and saves fluid through various situational modifiers.

In the "Temple of the Frog" as presented in the Blackmoor supplement, Arneson has this encounter:
"The destruction of an egg area will cause all frogs to fight at double value for 2-12 melee rounds after which all will withdraw to the pond and submerge."
Good golly, y'all. Dave Arneson used temporary hit point mechanisms in print way back in 1975.

And this is where we see 4th and 5th edition internalise Arneson's original concept of hit points much better than Gygax did as they treat hit points as a far more fluid mechanic than than static 'wound point' approach of former editions.

A fighter can recuperate hit points in combat with a "second wind", a leader can inspire his allies with temporary hit points. Anyone can, effectively, "heal" themselves up entirely overnight. Hit points in these editions are basically the metaphysical heroic mass of the character. And seen as such, the resource management built around it makes a lot of sense.

Here we see a proper implementation of the fundamental sense of hit points: An abstracted engine, not for determining wounds as such, but for recording attritionally, your heroic capability and resources in combat.

The problem for both 4th and 5th edition is that in embracing this, they have essentially taken the notion of characters ever actually being wounded out of the game. Sure, like Gygax did with the "immeasurable areas" of hit points, they pay token homage to the notion of wounds in their flavor text. But the actual mechanic does not reflect taking any wounds until you hit 0 hit points (and even that is just brief unconsciousness - or death). Prior to death, there are no dramatic implications to being hit other than your daily resource management.

Interestingly, Arneson seems to be the only one of significance who properly internalised how the implications of hit points being a gameable and dramatic abstraction for being harder to hit meant that something more was needed to represent actual wounds. In the original "Men & Magic", we have the seed of it (which I suspect, but have no way of knowing, was Arneson's bit):
“Whether sustaining accumulative hits will otherwise affect a character is left to the discretion of the referee.”
This is a statement D&D in general has done very little with. But Arneson's Blackmoor does. It gives us our first hit location system, wherein hits variously give penalties to dexterity, reduced movement or even instant death. I don't want to give Arneson too much credit here - The system is abominably complicated, but the idea of it is sound - Something more than hit points is needed to track actual wounds.


Having played my fair share of games who did away with the 'unrealistic' bag-of-hit-point systems (a move which my younger self applauded back then), the unfortunate reality at the table of these more 'realistic' systems is that they just don't play out with the same intuitive and well-paced dramatic development as hit points. Landing more hits and taking points off your opponents metaphysical "still standing" score is just more fun and dramatic than a series "you hit, but the opponent parries" exchanges until someone actually hits with what is likely a fight ender.

I consider hit points as probably the most innovative and strongest feature in the history of D&D - It's a brilliant combat engine that strikes a lovely balance between being easy to track and the dramatic development of combat, tracked over more than just one encounter.

And yet, my opinion is that for more than 40 years, D&D has never really given us a damage system that properly integrates the implications of what hit points really mean.

5th edition probably comes the closest and gives us the best platform for addressing the gaps. The 5e DMG has a lingering wounds table. Throw in some hit point milestones for gaining levels of exhaustion on top and I think you have a good adjunct for tracking wounds and other effects alongside hit point that give dramatic consequences to combat whilst still being fairly simple.

For older editions, the fix is steeper, as the "hit point = wounds" mechanic is just so embedded. You'd need new healing rules, mechanics making use of hit points as a more fluid resource, etc. I don't think I'd want to go there.

But even in 5th edition, I'd like to see mechanics making more use of hit points as a fluid mechanism. "Temporary damage" from fear effects and low morale maybe? Critical hits giving temporary hit points to the attacker for a round or two. Stuff like that.

Either way, it goes to show, there is still room for growing the full implications of the original concepts of the game. Maybe 6th edition will finally take hit points and wounds to its natural conclusion?