Monday, 25 September 2023

Stunting for Profit in D&D combat

A complaint I've something seen concerning combat in TSR-era D&D is that it is too simplistic. You roll to hit and see if you hit or miss, roll damage die and that is it. There is no room for the kind of creativity that players might want to realise from cool action scenes in movies.

By contrast, later editions allow cool moves to spice up combat. Feats in 3e allowed stuff like bull rushing, cleave, Disarm, Spring attack etc. In 4e, everyone gets a cool move they can execute. In 5e, feats returned and on top of that we get battlemaster maneuvers that let fighters pull off even more stunts like riposte, parry, feint, trip attack and similar (Rules Cyclopedia is guilty of the same with 9th lvl fighters getting access to special maneuvers).

The fatal flaw in this, the older schooler might remonstrate (and I would join that choir) is that the approach to stunts in later editions gates them behind feats and class features. It defines combat in a way that strongly implies that if it's not on your character sheet, you can't do it. 

What modern gamers miss in all this, the old schooler might argue, is that the basic chassis of TSR-era D&D leaves it open to the player to come up with their own stratagems and utilise their creativity.

But here I don't exactly agree. TSR-era D&D itself fails to provide even guidelines on how such creativity might be played out. Are you meant to just add descriptions to your basic attack roll ("I feint the orc with my shield and then slice at his calves" "ok, roll to to hit as we always do") or should the DM be ready for on-the-fly rulings to adjudicate whatever zany stunts the players might come up with? If the latter, there is a stark absence of guidelines to do so.

In Into the Unknown there is dedicated section for how to adjudicate stunts in a way that is freeform and encourages players to play the scene of combat rather just the rules, but also utilises the small selection of leavers that exist in 5e combat (bonus actions, reactions, move, advantage/disadvantage) to give a rules-based impact for such gameplay. But it is rather tied into 5e combat, s├íns feats and maneuvers that gate such stunts behind class advancement. So I figured - how would I do this in B/X or other TSR-era games?

I've seen people go with the approach that says that you can stunt (ie. achieve an effect different than damage) by simply forfeiting your damage roll if you hit. It's simple and nice, but I think doesn't really add to the game what stunting should - Something out of the box, raising the stakes to gain an advantage somehow, at added peril to yourself. So here is how I would do it:

Tuesday, 25 April 2023

I just picked up the original 1e boxed sets for Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms

 30 dollars a pop on ebay from the same seller. Good deal I think.

The Greyhawk set is missing the maps, but I have the sturdier versions from the folio already so no loss for me

I have owned both in pdf for a good while, but having physical copies is definitely different. I have had the 2e set of Forgotten Realms since the 90s and the Folio of Greyhawk since the 00s, so it will be interesting to compare these two to them. I will probably blog on this soon.

Monday, 10 April 2023

Journey Fantasy (or: Clarifying the Nebulous Pull of Dragonlance)

I have blogged several times about Dragonlance in the past. The broad theme I've struck up is that it gets unfairly judged on the railroad nature of its eponymous modules and the straightjacketing nature of its novel series, around which the world seems to revolve. To me, i's a distinct and worthwhile brand of fantasy once you open up the world and look smaller than the grand themes of wars and stopping gods.

It was never really the Heroes of the Lance, or even the War of the Lance, that drew me to the world. It was the more earthy stuff, such as the coming-of-age sandbox in the Tales of the Lance boxed set that enchanted me. Today it dawned on me why Dragonlance had such a strong pull on me as an adolescent and still tugs at my heartstrings today:

Outside the epic tales that steals the headlines, Dragonlance represents a distinct and different kind of gaming fantasy than the rest of D&D - What I am here calling "Journey Fantasy".

What I mean by this term is not the kind of exploration implied by hexcrawling, such as the West Marches, in the Lewis and Clark sense of charting an unknown frontier (usually because Here Be Dungeons). Rather, the kind of fantasy where journeys become ends in and of themselves. Distance here is not a necessary factor. Myth and magic can be so embedded in the local areas that the Unknown and Wondrous may lie just beyond the village, rather than something requiring an expedition to the Deep Wilds.

In Dragonlance (as I envision it, at any rate) a trip to the elven lands beyond the hills can be an adventure for its own sake - To see the elven lands. To encounter wonder, to meet with mystery, magic and the unknown for no better reason than to have such encounters. You don't do it for the riches, to become all-powerful one day, fighting evil or to help the village in danger. These things may occur in Journey Fantasy too of course, but are more side effects of the main motivation - To explore and be shaped by such journeys.

Much of my favourite fantasy art is less about situations and more about scenes and the sense of wonder

In Dragonlance, this is of course best exemplified in the shape of Kender, who have this motivation baked in by design, in the form of Wanderlust. Dragonlance for me is the kind of setting where the heft of an adventurer is not defined by the battles fought, riches won or feats accomplished, but by the sights seen, wonders experienced and mysteries unfolded before one's eyes. 

Consider how significant a part of the hobbits journey it was when they met a troupe of elves on the road and listened to their songs in Fellowship of the Ring. Or their time spent with Tom Bombadil. All of it still inside the Shire even. That in many ways epitomises the kind of fantasy I am talking about.

"You see an enchanting elf troupe coming down the road in the moonlight and gain 5 XP."