Archive for the ‘ D&D 5E ’ Category

Post Gencon (NSFW)

Upon my less-than-triumphal return from Gencon I was greeted with a badly damaged car (sideswiped while parked for the weekend), a house turned upside down (ripped up floors and walls, a friend crashing on my couch while he’s in between apartments) and chaos at work (I apparently did not note my vacation on the work calendar correctly, thus screwing up the department schedule; mea culpa). It’s kind of almost back to normal, though my house is in a bit of an uproar and I’m trying to find time to finish my novel rewrite before proposing some pulpy sword and sorcery adventures to a couple of other publishers. I’m also feeling kind of worn out and icky, possibly a side effect of overexertion and a bad diet over the weekend. We’re none of us as young and resilient as we used to be.

So that’s what SniperWolf looks like without the uniform…

But still in all I’m feeling pretty good. Though we never once caught a glimpse of Wil Wheaton, I didn’t get to any of the writing seminars that dotted Gencon, and there was more line-standing than I like, I still had a very good time and actually did a couple of useful businessey things, such as contacting some editors and old friends looking for more freelance writing opportunities.

Like Gencon ’06 (at least I think it was ’06; maybe ’07), the focus this year was definitely on Dungeons and Dragons and its various spinoffs. The opportunity to play the game (or at least the engine) in three different and distinct incarnations — 4E, D&D Next (aka 5E), and Pathfinder (aka 3.75E) — gave me some enormous perspective on where the hobby has gone, as well as where some have wanted to take it.

My previous discussion of the 4E game laid out a lot of my concerns — the powers-based system, the lack of roleplaying, the frequently-argued “skirmish wargame” aspect and so on. Our D&D Next playtest, however, suggested the route of a wayward train that missed an important crossing, heading north instead of west. Upon realizing that it was going in the wrong direction, the train is forced to slow, to divert to a switching yard, all the cars are uncoupled, the engine is put on a turntable and aimed back south, reattached, and sent on its way, where it reaches the missed crossing and heads due west, the direction that it intended to travel in the first place.

Yes, I’m afraid it’s Pedobear.

The 4E train is taking a very long time to slow down, to the extent that WotC is still promoting it and releasing some cool, very lushly-illustrated drow-based products for it, along with its Dungeon Command skirmish game, which Beth and I played and enjoyed considerably (I found the price tag a bit steep, but hey, it’s an expensive hobby). However, the railroad employees are busy preparing the crossing so that the train will smoothly transition, bearing back toward its original destination, on tracks parallel to the sleek and speedy Pathfinder express.

WotC and my old colleague Mike Mearls are definitely listening to the playtesters, adding some cool mechanics to the fighter class and streamlining other aspects of the new/old game to suit their players. Once more, I’m seeing a more flexible and variable system that has the potential to be as loose and unstructured as original white-box D&D or as complex, combat-heavy and locked-down as 4E, if that’s your thing.

Bronies have no shame. Nor should they.

Pathfinder continues to cruise, and the question is whether the new edition of D&D will eventually supersede it (the brand is still very valuable and recognizable despite recent missteps), or whether there’s room in the world for two major d20-based frps. My ideal world is one in which they’re both at least broadly compatible, so that D&D products can be used with Pathfinder and vice versa. I’m not sure whether that will happen, or whether the corporate mindset that wanted to squash the OGL and d20-based products in favor of the cool hip-hop bling awesomeness of 4E, which of course all the kids and their cool friends would want to play.  I’m hoping that everyone maintains a live and let live attitude that not only helps the hobby, but allows me to continue using the $5,000 or so worth of old 3.5E books that still grace my shelves.

I think I can safely guarantee that no one like this attended Gencon I back in 1967.

I’m both amused and bemused at the reaction of many fans to the open playtest of 5E. While I think the consensus is that what we’re doing is exactly what it’s been sold as — a playtest of a relatively new game system that is based upon familiar mechanics, there are those who have been exploding with outrage at various aspects of the game, rather than responding in a calm and methodical manner and letting the test proceed. One commenter over at described the playtest as a “trainwreck” primarily because he didn’t like the new sorcerer character class, for example, and the outrage at how WotC had “nerfed” the fighter in the first playtest was almost palpable. I’d remind the folks who are unhappy with the current state of 5E that they’re just trying out mechanics that may or may not make their way intact into the new edition. But then I suppose not everyone is familiar with the playtesting process.

So what did I learn at Gencon? Besides the fact that Bronies are pretty much everywhere, not much really, though I did come home with a lot of swag and did indeed make a couple of contacts with people who might actually give me some work. That aside, I had a blast and did what one is supposed to do at a gaming convention — gamed. And yeah, I also took pictures of cute cosplayers and watched women take most of their clothes off. Sorry for the less-than-stellar photos — this simply points up why I want to eventually buy a nice new SLR and some decent lenses.

I got a picture of this young woman in the dealer’s room. Her tat, like so many other things that I like, is both sexy and creepy at the same time.

In other news I actually got about 8,000 words on paper for my rewrite yesterday. At that rate I could write a novel in 12 days and I’m sure there are folks out there who can. However, it’s not really a pace I could maintain for long, especially while working 40 hours a week. Besides, a couple K were recycled from the previous version of the book.

The final word count is around 97k, which is about 9k shorter than the last draft. I hope I haven’t stripped the book of any deeper meaning or significance, damaged character or plot development, etc., but I guess the final judgment will be with the publishers and agents I send it to.

On a purely mundane level, repairs to my sideswiped car are covered (after a $250 deductible of course) and come to about $2300 or so. Sheesh.

Home repairs continue and I think we’ll be back to normal in another week or so. Tev, my buddy and drummer crashed with me for a few days while the apartment he’s getting with his gf is being prepped for occupancy. I didn’t mind — not even when he brought the hyperactive little corgi-chihuahua mix dog who felt that every lap in the room was her personal property.

My daughter is off to sample the Burning Man festival, which I’ve come to the conclusion is a modern-day rite of passage for the alt-culture set. I cautioned her not to do anything that I wouldn’t, though I’m not sure whether that’s going to help at all.

And here is a picture of actual gamers, gaming, to prove that I didn’t spend the whole weekend photographing motorcycles and pretty women. Truthfully, wouldn’t you rather look at cosplayers?

Work is kind of a drag, but I’m persevering. If it was up to me I’d live in a timewarp where it was always Saturday, but that may have to wait until retirement.

I’m heading off for an isolated island well away from civilization to do my final polish on my book next weekend. No, really — it’s supposed to be a very nice place. It’s called Bloodslaughter Island. I’m not sure why.

I close my eyes, it ends too soon.

Heavy Metal Thunder (NSFW)

One of the many awesome machines that thundered in the streets of Indianapolis while we played Pathfinder.

What a difference a day makes. My flash drive has been recovered intact, I have a full set of D&D commemorative dice, I have played all of the last three iterations of D&D/OGL/D20, watched women dressed as Mario, Sniper Wolf and Cthulhu take their clothes off, and witnessed a thundering parade of heavy iron that would take away the breath of even the most jaded motorcycle skeptic.

D20 Burlesque from an old show. Don’t worry. I’ll post more.

Yeah, I’m feeling lots better. We started the day playing an introductory 4E scenario in which a bunch of drow were recruited to go clear out a temple that had been occupied by the despised dwarves. We did pretty well, and had a decent group of people including a tatooed heavy metal dude and his equally-metal significant other, who were just there to get the commemorative collectible d10 that WotC was giving to players. Once more I was struck by how very tactical 4E is and how driven by its powers system it was. Characters are defined by their individual powers (at-will, encounter and rarely daily) rather than their race, class, skills or abilities. Roles are rigid and narrowly-defined. Rangers specialize in the bow. There is no point in a fighter using a bow, nor in a ranger using a sword. Players aren’t as interested in roleplaying as they are in using their cool powers, and the quicker the DM gets to the big tactical miniatures battle the better. I know that the comparison sets some people’s teeth on edge, but I cannot help but honestly believe that 4E is a skirmish wargame disguised as a roleplaying game.

Later today we earned our d8 (and completed our set) by playing WotC’s Dungeon Command miniature skirmish game, which is a nice combat only variant on D20 that was fun to play and regrettably points up some of the flaws in the 4E system. This was a skirmish game that doesn’t pretend to be an rpg — it’s just miniatures on a board, doing fantasy stuff. At $40 for a couple of map pieces and a handful of plastic miniatures I think it’s a bit steep, but it’s a very enjoyable and well-designed game.

Compare these experiences with the other rpgs we played — D&D Next playtest, which harkens heavily back to 3.5E tradition, while keeping things open and flexible with lots of DM input and off-the-cuff playing. It felt SO much less restricted and straightjacketed than 4E, and SO much more like the kind of D&D I used to play. Not everyone is happy with the playtest, and that’s not surprising, but as for me I am delighted to see the light of reason and adaptability finally shining into the darkness of the D&D license.

My gf didn’t want me to post this picture of her and Miss La Maia from D20 Burlesque, so I excised her from the photo like Leon Trotsky.

Pathfinder, however really takes the 3.5 engine and fine-tunes it, making it the tightest and best-tested system around. Our Pathfinder Society scenario went quickly and efficiently, and everyone who wanted to play got to. There’s an easy familiarity to the system — D20 with many of the rough edges filed off, and lots of new rules and options added. I feel most at home and comfortable with Pathfinder because, well, it’s the same game I’ve been playing for the past decade — not “re-imagined” or corporatized like 4E, but streamlined, tested and tinkered with to make a more efficient and effective game, much like a custom motorcycle engine.

See how I tied everything together, there?

The D20 Burlesque show was everything it should have been, with funny gamer gals getting down to basics with call-outs to Cthulhu, Metal Gear’s Sniper Wolf, Mario, zombies, anime and more. As I was using my companion’s camera I don’t have photos yet, but I’ll take care of that on the next post, so you can see the very, very exotic woman who did the Mario routine — and who until recently danced with the local gamer burlesque back in good old Portland.

So there’s more to be said I’m sure, and tomorrow night I’m heading back home to flooded houses and busy contractors, but right now I’m definitely in a better mood, and looking forward to doing weird ass shit like playing my guitar, composing more songs, recording music, finishing the rewrite on my novel and maybe even getting a literary agent. I’ll see you soon.


Kickin’ It Old Skool

(Notice how I spelled it “Skool” to demonstrate how very contemporary I am?)

Anyway, it’s a bit late and I’ve got work tomorrow, but I just completed my first playtest of whatever the latest incarnation of Dungeons and Dragons is called — Fifth Edition, 5E, D&D Next (which seems to be the semi-official working title) — or whatever. While I do need to go back and check my NDA to see specifically what I can and can’t say about the edition, I think I can safely stick to generalities and basic reactions and say that it looks very promising.

THIS is how we used to roll, biatches!

When 5E was announced I found myself wondering exactly what the designers planned. Would it take 4E mechanics and rules and try to improve on them? Would it roll back to older mechanics such as 3E or even 2E? Would it be something entirely new? The hints that WotC let out were tantalizing and to the effect that they were hoping for a stable, simple “core” system that could be added to, bringing in elements inspired by various other editions for the game that each individual group and DM could make their own, as complex or simple as they wanted.

The playtest materials consist of the current version of this “core” system, which reminds me of the old joke about how you carve a ship model out of a piece of wood (you carve away every piece that doesn’t look like a ship). This version is D&D as lean and mean as WotC could make it, with the absolute minimum needed to run a game — no cumbersome at-will/encounter/daily/weekly/monthly/yearly abilities, no voluminous list of skills, no elaborate feats, no specialized prestige classes. This is the bare foundation of what D&D has become. Rather than melding 3E and 4E, it feels more like the 3E mechanic integrated with 2E/1E rules — simple, straightforward and open to interpretation and DM modification. Presumably some form of these rules will end up being “Basic D&D 5E” and the player or DM eager for more detail, realism and/or complexity can then purchase supplements to add such things as tactical combat, complex magic, feats, skills, and so on. If this is the future of D&D, all I can say is bring it on — after living in 4E’s “World of D&DCraft” for the past several years, it can only be an improvement.

Our party consisted of five pre-generated characters and ventured to the venerable Caves of Chaos which veteran D&Ders will remember from the classic Keep on the Borderlands module from the paleolithic era of AD&D. A fighter, rogue, wizard and two clerics pretty much cleaned out a kobold lair, and almost died in the process, fleeing from the now-devastated caves with the angry Kobold King screaming in anger behind them. I cut them some slack here — everyone was wounded, they were out of healing spells, and the king and his bodyguard would have mopped the floor with them. It felt like the D&D I used to play, with vulnerable first-level characters battling large numbers of low-powered monsters and escaping with a handful of hit points between them. It most assuredly did not feel like 4E, where character advancement seemed to consist of “Dude! You start out AWSUM and KEWEL, then as you gain levels you get EVEN MORE AWESUM AND KEWEL!!! WORD!!!” And no, there’s nothing wrong with playing that way —  I object to the fact that if you play 4E it’s the only way you can play.

That said, it also occurred to me that a very interesting thing has happened to D&D. In just a matter of months, the pendulum has swung in a surprising direction. D&D has gone from trying WAY too hard to be contemporary and hip, to being retro and Old School.

My beautiful and awesome girlfriend, who is one of those gamer/nerd women you’ve heard so much about (and knows way more about computers than I do), suggested after visiting GenCon last year that we consider getting into some of the Old School RPGs. These include Castles and Crusades, Swords and Wizardry, the upcoming Dungeon Crawl Classics, and a host of small-press Indie games that want to bring back the look and feel of gaming in the 70s and 80s. While I’m not about to come up with a serious and scholarly analysis of the movement, it seems to me that some elements of this Old School movement include very basic rules that aren’t airtight and can be interpreted, changed and modified as GMs and players see fit, and emphasis on simple adventures like dungeon bashes, wilderness exploration and the like, and very basic, unpretentious physical design and layout that mimics the old crude publications of yore, but also improves upon them with modern typography, editing and publishing technology.

This is the lovely Anna Logue, whom the Internet misses horribly. Yes, I KNOW I'm writing about D&D 5E, but I'm afraid I might lose your attention. Does anyone know what happened to her, by the way?

No full-color hardbacks here, and no complicated rules that require the use of miniatures, and try to nail down every last detail of combat, chaining you and your players to a square grid every session. No immutable powers and rigidly-defined rules, no fanciful encounter designs that require a mathematics degree, no attempts to be more like online MMOs… Old School rpgs want to bring back the feel of gaming in your parents’ basement, passing around chips and wondering what it would be like to really kiss a girl. It’s odd that there is such nostalgia is associated with such desperate and unhappy times in one’s life, but there it is.

But it’s more than just nostalgia, I think. I always felt that the more complex, elaborate and dialed-in a set of rpg rules became, the less freedom I had to experiment and make it my own. This was and is my chief complaint about 4E — that as admirable as its goals and as talented its designers were, in the end I was expected to play in a certain clearly-defined, plainly-explained fashion. Each adventuring party had to contain a “Controller,” a “Leader”, a “Defender” and a “Striker.” Only rangers could excel with a bow — if I wanted a fighter or a warlord who specialized in ranged combat, tough luck. If I wanted a fighter-rogue like Fafhrd (or Wulf for that matter) or a warrior-sorcerer like Elric, too bad. If I wanted to create a world that was magic-poor and barbaric like Hyborea, well I was just plain out of luck. And so on.

Mind you I’m sure that many of these desires could have been created using the 4E rules as a starting point, but by the time I’d finished tweaking, shifting, recasting and redesigning, there wasn’t really any point. I had OGL, I had my old 3E books, and I had Pathfinder. There wasn’t any real compulsion to play 4E except to pretend that I was a World of Warcraft character.

Old School changes that — we’re back to basic, flexible, slightly ambiguous rules, and we’re back to relying on the DM to provide his own unique interpretation. In complex, clearly-defined games, the role of DM feels kind of like traffic cop — one who directs traffic and can to some extent oversee drivers’ behavior, but has no control over when the light turns green, or which streets are one-way.

There used to be quite a lot of complaining — and, for that matter, there still is — about how older rules were ill-defined and open to interpretation. And this was entirely true, but now that we’ve seen the future, the case can be made that this was one of the things that made them so much fun, and which turned newer games into algebra homework. Like so many things, old school games’ weaknesses could also be strengths, depending on how one looked at them.

So here we are, coming full circle, transforming the grandfather of all roleplaying games into something that can be Old School, New School, neither or both, depending on how many supplements you care (or can afford) to purchase. I like the idea myself, and I’m hoping that they succeed with it. And hell, I’d love to start writing for D&D again… Anyone out there who’s looking for freelance support, feel free to contact me :) I’ll be at Gencon with business cards and a can-do attitude.

Fight on.