Wednesday, 15 June 2022

The Nebulous Heft of Levels in TSR vs WotC D&D

One thing that weighs favourably towards TSR D&D rulesets for me is the different experience of character levels.

Character levels in TSR D&D just strike me as having far more heft to them, than levels in 3e onwards. 

I remember being much more proud of my AD&D fighter reaching 5th level than I ever was of reaching much higher levels in 3e or 5e. And it's not just due to nostalgia. The achievement felt more significant, as if 5th level in AD&D meant more than 9th level does in 5e. Not only in terms of my investment as a player, but also in terms of what that meant for the character in the world.

A 7th lvl fighter in B/X or AD&D setting is a big deal to my mind. A force in the world. A 7th lvl fighter in 5e strikes me as a somewhat more run-of-the-mill character. The AD&D 7th lvl fighter seems somehow further removed from 1st lvl than the equivalent 3e/5e character,

It's a nebulous impression that is hard to explain or justify. And I am partly writing this blog post to gain some clarity on this. At a glance, a level in 3e+ D&D ought to be more significant:

What's the difference between a 1st level fighter and a 7th level fighter in B/X?
6HD, +5 to hit and improved saves. That's it.

In 1e, at 7th level he would improved his attacks per round from 1 to 3/2 and gained another 2 weapon proficiencies on top of +6HD, +6 to hit and improved saves.

2e is the same as 1e, except the fighter would also have gained 2 non-weapon proficiencies if you use this optional rule.

What the difference in 3e?
6 HD and +6 to hit, an extra attack at +2 to hit. Improved saves, four additional feats and (2+INT)x6 ranks to buy skills with.

In 5e:
6 HD and +1 to Proficiency Bonus (improving saves, to hit and skills). Second Wind and Action Surge at 2nd lvl. Choice of sub-class at 3rd lvl which opens a slew of abilities. An ability score improvement at 4th (or a feat, if you use that optional rule). Extra Attack at 5th. Another ability score improvement or feat at 6th lvl. At 7th lvl another sub-class ability.

The WotC 7th lvl fighters have a lot more going on (even though the 5e fighter has only improved proficiency bonus by 1) at each level. They don't just become better, they become different as they advance in levels.

Yet, my impression of heft does not seem to come down to numbers. A 7th lvl 3e fighter would wipe out 7 1st lvl fighters much faster than a B/X equivalent fight. Yet, a 1e 7th level fighter would probably win much faster against 7 1st lvl fighters than a 5e equivalent.

5e Player Characters
vs

B/X Player Characters

Friday, 13 May 2022

Dragonlance: Age of Mortals re-appraised

 I've blogged about Dragonlance and the 5th Age before.

The post-War of the Lance world was meant to be an open-ended one, but struggled to escape the confines of what was once Dragonlance's biggest asset: The saga of the Heroes on the Lance, which by then had become its most confining burden. 

It seemed impossible to tell new stories of new heroes in a meaningful way - Even the fastforward of 25 years didn't really do much and left the world sort of aimless and floundering in what it wanted to be. 

Dragons of Summer Flame changed all that. It definitively closed the book on the Heroes of the Lance and left a new world, upheavaled by change - Dark knights, a world scarred by warfare and chaos, and of course the departure of the gods heralding the last, longest and eventually brightest age of the world: The long foretold Age of Mortals.

This I felt was actually the kind of open-ended world Dragonlance deserved to be. I thought the introduction of Mysticism was an eminent and flavourful replacement for divine magic in a now-godless world. 

To me, the 5th age was a world that seemed to suggest that now the gods were gone, all the other wonders and mysteries of the world would find space to come crawling out of the woodwork. Including of course the many ones seeded by the gods themselves, who would have known for ages that the age of Mortals would eventually come into being.
Besides being given the open-endedness of shaping the future, I also felt like the 5th Age was more primed for discovery of wonders of the past. This, although not really openly stated, always felt like a key premise for shaping the direction of the 5th age- 

It changed the world from one guided by a strong authorial hand (both novelwise and meta-plotwise) to a a world whose meta-plot was now a sandbox. No one guiding the hands of fate, no tales that have to be told, but plenty of seeds laid out from the deep past for things to unfold. The prescient nudges of the gods laid out before they left could still make their influence felt, but there's no one there to adjust and correct the outcomes from here. Just the mortals making the most of the Age given to them.

I liked mysticism. I liked the dark knights, the Legion of Steel. And individual dragons taking a more pro-active role in the world. And that Chaos had left something new in the world too (obviously with daemon warriors and fire dragons - but also other things less malignant). And new mysteries and wonders emerging like the Herald and the Shadow Sorcerer.

I didn't care for the loss of High Sorcery - Wizardry always struck me as something very appropriate to the 5th age - wizards taking destiny into their own hands to shape the world. And it was a very distinct world-building element, a good engine for storytelling. But I understand why, even if I think it was an objectively bad decision.

And of course, the open-endedness. It still seemed like the world I knew, but given new dynamics spun out of its own past. A world once stuck on its own railroad now re-made to go in any direction from here.

Sadly, it was the 90s. And the creative team taking over to develop the 5th age seemed to have figured "why consider restraint when we can go extreme"?

The main fault was taking the idea of dragon overlords and then turning the knob well past the safety limit. This was already a world ravaged by chaos and recovering from the devastation. Did we really need 50% of the geography altered and an oppressive status quo of godlike beings imposing their will on the land in a way that mortals are helpless to oppose? 

It created a situation that was the very opposite of what the 5th Age was meant to be about. If anything, the new dragon overlords were even more heavyhanded drivers of metaplot than the gods were.

And the new game probably didn't help. I understand why they did it. And truth be told, I thought there was much to like about SAGA. For me, it really did capture the flavour of Dragonlance better than AD&D did. But at the end of the day, it was a rather immature system that needed development over multiple supplements to approximate something decent. I've said before - SAGA 2nd edition could have been an excellent game if it had ever happened.

But its worst crime was that it wasn't D&D. TSR had miscalculated, thinking the gaming fanbase was first and foremost dragonlance fans, rather than D&D gamers who loved dragonlance. This, combined with how the dragon overlord oppression*, created a gaming world that was just too far removed from what gamers recognised as Dragonlance.

*Others will no doubt argue "it wasn't just the dragon overlords, it was all the changes, not least loss of the gods!". But I maintain that if the 5th age creative team had been more restrained, it would still be recognisable as the same world, just better for gaming and telling new stories, being finally free of the straightjacket that was the Heroes of the Lance.

I didn't miss the gods in the 5th age. Not really. Their imprints remain, which is good for seeding a world with adventure. Their active involvement are not an asset to a gaming world. 

If something was missing about the gods, perhaps mysticism could have been re-branded as something like "the power the deities left behind in the souls of mortals", so that there could be Mishakal-flavoured mysticism that connects to those whose hearts emulate her values, same for Takhisis and all the others. That way, you could still have temples devoted to those values and such.

War of Souls for me was a disappointing fanservice reset. The story in the books was poor and the outcome was basically just 'here's the best we could do to make it look more like pre-DoSF - Your gods are back so stop moaning'. The kind of reset that has more in common with marvel and dc comics storylines than the epic sagas of a world like Dragonlance. 

The aftermath felt like the worst of both worlds to me - Something even less recognisable as Dragonlance than what came before. A world that once again didn't know what it wanted to be, but knew what it wanted to resemble and settled for that.

It didn't help that this Age of Mortals 2.0 was wedded to third edition of D&D. I liked the system at the time for what it was, but it felt like shoehorning Dragonlance to make it fit the system.