November 23, 2007

3.5e, the Good, the Mixed, and the Ugly...

As promised, here we go...

Here’s a few observations—nay opinions, and strong ones at that!—about Third Edition:

The Good

1. It’s a unified system.
Everything makes sense and works logically together. Skills are based on a relevant (well usually) ability. Making a skill check is Ability + Skill ranks + roll. Pretty logical. Other systems work together well.

2. Easy “to hit” rolls.
Low-level combat is easy for the DM. Forget those old 1st Edition combat tables! Forget the much-ridiculed THAC0 mechanic. The monster’s AC is the total roll needed to hit, period; if the PC reaches that number, they hit. I’m so glad we moved away from a negative number AC system.

3. Feats.
Now all 10th-level human fighters need not be the same! Personal customization is key. Receiving additional feats and abilities greatly add to the fun of leveling up.

4. Magic-users are fun again.
It’s great to have wizards and sorcerers with more spells. In the old days, you fired off your daily sleep spell at 1st level and then hid behind the fighters. Now wizard-types can mix it up pretty well, without making the fighters feel weak or useless.


5. It’s a unified system.
The integrated system lauded in #1 above can also make customization more difficult. Don’t like attacks of opportunity? Throw them out … but look out for the PCs or monsters with the Combat Reflexes feat… Retooling the system just got a bit more difficult.

6. Miniatures use.
Using miniatures has now become almost de rigueur for D&D gamers. The game has a much more tactical feel. I personally like minis, and I like knowing how far I can move in combat (especially having suffered as a player under poor DMs that slow PC movement unfairly while letting their favorite villains move about in combat like the Flash). I do know some players that hate the new, chess-like aspect of combat, however. I’ve often seen crazy, zig-zag movements to avoid attacks of opportunity that don’t jibe with heroic combat at all, so at times I can understand the criticism.


7. Long stat blocks.

Years ago I tried the Mythus game system with a bunch of friends. We played through a dungeon of two using the very Gygaxian rules … and then stopped. One of the main reasons, beyond all the new abbreviations and odd rules quirks, was the loooooong stat blocks. (Pick up a copy of Necropolis sometime—which makes the Tomb of Horrors look like a day at the beach, by the way—and look at the BBG’s stats at the end and you’ll see what I mean.)

My first thought when we abandoned the system was, “God, I hope D&D doesn’t ever look like this. Skill-based stat blocks are pure hell.” Well, flash forward 10 years…
I hate the super-long stat blocks for bad guys at CR 8 and higher. Hate ‘em. Scanning a stat block for a super-villain is ridiculous—what does he do next? I understand providing all the spells for a 20th-level wizard/fighter, for instance, but do we really care if he has a flare spell? Would he really use that spell? Ditto for listing many of the prerequisite feats. It just doesn’t seem necessary.

It appears this problem is being adjusted in 4e. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

8. Advancing monsters.
I’ve heard differing views on this one, so I’ll chalk it up to personal taste. I’m not a math guy. I have a very logical brain but my SAT scores were fairly lop-sided. So when it comes to computing stat blocks … well, meh.

I think advancing creatures—be it advancing a beast or leveling up a humanoid— is a royal pain. I like having War10 kobolds, etc., to keep the players on their toes (I can see the ad: “Kobolds aren’t just for 1st level anymore!”) but the DMs work just grew big-time. Check out the otyugh-advancing example in the back of the MM. This brings to mind a likely series of events:
  1. DM spends a half-hour advancing an otyugh up 10 hit dice.
  2. The two wizardly PCs dispatch the critter with two simultaneous fireballs.
  3. The DM, suppressing a sob, leaps out the nearest window.
In the 1st or 2nd Edition days, creating a gnoll commander went pretty much like so: increase his HD by 3, give him 3d8 extra hit points, bump up his armor, and give him a magic axe. Done, five minutes!

Now let’s make a gnoll commander, say a Ftr4, in 3rd Edition: first we select the feats, then we compute the skill points and ranks (adjusting for class, synergies, armor, and racial bonuses)… Eech. Yes, if you’re running a home game you could probably leave out his Swim or Rope Use skill values and take some short cuts, but if you are writing for publication or want to be by-the-book, the DM’s job just got a whole lot harder.

9. Fast leveling, slow play.
Level advancement in 3.5e is too fast for my tastes. I agree that is shouldn't take years and years of game play to see PCs level up, but in my experience 3rd Edition PCs level up every other session in the lower levels—first and second level seem to flash by—and it seems that the players barely get used to their PCs before they’re tacking on new feats.

Likewise, gameplay has generally slowed down. Combat at higher levels is painful—for the players and DM, not the PCs and monsters! A dramatic final combat can take hours.

Creating characters on the fly is also a chore. In 1e, an experienced player can create a fully-equipped 10th-level PC in 15 minutes if they aren’t overly fussy about mundane equipment. Creating that same PC in 3e/3.5e probably takes an hour.

10. Third Edition is a powergamer’s dream.
Part of this falls under DM responsibility and control over one’s players, but the new system makes number abuse very tempting. Third edition has made charisma less of a “dump stat” and has balanced out the abilities fairly well, but there are other areas where “clever players” (read: munchkins) can build unbalanced characters via bizarre class combinations—I’ve seen some absurd combos online to be sure—or weapon and feat choices. Spiked chain, anyone?

A recent Wizards column spoke about Power Attack and how the feat was meant to represent a warrior’s ferocious swing in combat but instead led to most players coldly min-maxing their bonuses to get the best “bang for the buck” in combat—some minor abuses are very common.

11. Poor grappling rules.
I guess some things never change!

November 15, 2007

Detroit (White)rock City

This past Saturday was the Goodman Games’ Castle Whiterock (DCC # 51) release party at Gamer’s Gambit in Fairlawn, New Jersey.

I tromped down into the Gambit “dungeon” to find Adrian Pommier already hard at it—running a table-full of eager adventurers through the caves of Whiterock. (Actually Whiterock has all types of environments, including underwater, but this was mostly a cave level.) As many Gen Con tourney players can no doubt attest, Adrian is a kick-ass DM, and it was great seeing him comfortably run the PCs through their paces. Soon I was offered the sole spare character—a bard*—and despite a raging fever (I had spent much of the week fending off a fierce bug, almost ankheg-sized at that), I got sucked into the action. Play in Whiterock? Sign me up.

Jeff LaSala and his wife Marisa participated, as did Adrian’s wife CJ, and Whiterock co-author Chris Doyle hovered about at the ready, lending aid and handing out copies of the Sinister Secret of Whiterock (DCC # 51.5) as needed. Adrian’s got a great play style, and I found myself forgetting my spinning head and getting pulled into the adventure-in-progress. Our party was fighting its way through a cave level of the mega-dungeon, fighting off giant ants, mountain troglodytes of all types, and hideous demonoid-looking frog spawn. The mountain trogs were an unexpected treat—its not often one gets “on the wrong side” of one’s own monstrous creations and I had never actually encountered them as a player (I understandably DMed all the playtests for The Scaly God). This level had mountain trogs raised a notch, including what might have been the biggest, baddest trog of them all! I won’t spoil the surprise, suffice to say that Adrian’s description of a huge creature with arms like trees sauntering toward us got everyone’s attention. It was a great few hours—the type that pass too fast—and it’s a great dungeon. Get ‘em while they’re available, folks. (Me, I had Mike Ferguson bring me back one from Gen Con—something he probably cursed me for on the plane ride as the boxed set must weight 15 pounds! Thanks Mike!) I congratulate Adrian and Chris on their big, bad dungeon and I hope one day to explore its fabled halls once again.

*I’ve never played a 3rd Edition bard … ever. I don’t have anything against them, but it just never worked out that way. So this was kind of funny. And when I tell my regular players, they’ll find it amusing indeed. Let’s just say the bard was quicker with his rapier than his lute. Call me impulsive.
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