December 22, 2010

Comparing Editions: A DM's Perspective

Recently (and fortunately) I was able to run a 1st Edition session for my usual 4e group. Two guys couldn’t make it, so rather than have them miss part of the ongoing saga we switched to 1e. The guys indulged me and let me run an old Dungeon magazine adventure of mine, Training Ground, that was originally published in 1998.
Mike Ferguson's recent post on the session and his observations about 4e versus 1e inspired this post—consider it a companion post—so kindly go here and read his first. It’s a good post and contains some excellent observations.
Back? Great. I told you Mike’s post was a good one.
I’ve had the pleasure of DMing both editions this year, so I’ll offer my empirical evidence and observation from a DMing perspective. Like Mike, I’ve already talked a bit about the differences between editions (here and here), but DMing one edition a few weeks after DMing another really knocked some things home.
On a side note, their group did well in a brutal, trap-filled and sometimes admittedly frustrating dungeon. At the time I wrote Training Ground I was mourning what I felt was the demise of the old-fashioned dungeon crawl—world-spanning, political adventures seemed more in vogue at the time—so as Mike rightly observed, I definitely channeled Gygax when writing it. Bravo guys.
Back to editions…

1. Combat Length

What Mike said. And his 3-combats-per-4e-session is exactly what I, when DMing 4e, tend to expect. If you squeeze in four, it’s a terrific night.
One extra observation I’ll toss in is the hit point factor. Increased combat options and tactics definitely drag things out a lot, but usually our players know what they want to do when their turn comes. Likewise, I don’t puzzle over the monsters’ next moves that long. This led me to wonder, was it all about the tactics?
After this recent 1e session, I think half the problem is hit points. In our 1e adventure, which was written for 3rd-7th level PCs (about 30 levels total), the final bad guy had 42 hit points. A few good hits and he was gone. I contrasted that to a side fight in our 4e campaign where a goblin underboss had, like, a hundred hit points … and he wasn’t alone. No wonder the damn combats take so long.
I think the 4e monsters have inflated HP totals because some feats/powers or combos can deal a hideous amount of damage, and the designers didn’t want monsters dropping like flies. The result being that during most standard combats the monsters simply have too many hit points. Likewise the characters.

2. 1e PCs can dish it out but they can’t take it

Because we had only three players and it was a tough dungeon, I let the players roll up 7th-level characters. On hindsight, they were very magic item-weak, but still I thought they’d be killers. Wrong, oh so wrong. The fighter had 49 hit points (not too shabby) but the thief had 28 and the magic-user had 20! And that was with me giving them maximum HPs at the first two levels and letting them reroll 1s after that! Yikes. Do you know the difference between a 20-hit point character and a dead character? About four good hits or two good trap hits. In 4e, four hits would never take out a 7th-level guy unless major criticals were rolled.
On the flip side, there tended to be more misses on both sides than there seem to be in 4e. So in 1e, the hits seemed rarer but stung far more for good guys and bad guys alike.

3. I had to resort to a lot of ability rolls

Far too many times I found myself resorting to ability rolls. Was the PC trying to identify a historical name or rune? “Make an intelligence check!” I’d cry. I’ve grown so used to having skills and such to cover these things that 1e seemed lacking.
That said, Mike’s observation about having the players describe what they are doing or where they are searching instead of simple rolling is dead on. It’s the reason I rarely run 4e skill challenges but instead incorporate skill rolls into the action, as I did recently when their characters chased a kenku assassin across some rain-slick rooftops.

In the end, the experience left me craving a hybrid system. Instead of the endless hits, endless hit points, and looooong combats of 4e or the tactic-boring, PC-dangerous combats of 1e, I’d really like something in between. Something where a simple fighter has a few choices in combat, but not so complicated that I, as DM, must ask players exactly what their Flying Dwarven Hammerhand encounter power does or sit back and watch them puzzle over the timing of a combo. Indeed, since the old days I had desired what I called “maneuvers” but now I’ve seen character development take a back seat to players becoming powers obsessed. It’s time to rein things in a bit, I say.
In any case, it was a breath of fresh air playing 1e again, and it reminded me how far the game has evolved (determining the number needed to hit is so much faster now from the old THAC0 days) but also about some of the things I love that have fallen away from recent editions. It’s got me looking forward to more 1e play, both as DM and as player (still re-reading Lost City Mike?).

November 28, 2010

NaClaMomo: Reviewing The Temple of Elemental Evil

For this installment of NaClaMomo, I'll tackle a favorite of mine (alright, yes, they all are) ... that uber-dungeon, The Temple of Elemental Evil. (I'll refer to it as TOEE going forward.) I've already covered The Village of Hommlet here last November, so I'll stick to the additional material.

The Temple was the long-awaited—and I do mean loooong—sequel/continuation to T1 The Village of Hommlet. TOEE has gotten both heaps of praise as well as some criticism over the years, both with good reason. This adventure has had more printings than any other TSR/Wizards adventure before or since, so there must be some "beef" there. Let's take a closer look.


1. Atmosphere

Holy smoke is there atmosphere here! Loevcraftian imagery abounds. Here is a mere part of the initial Temple description:

The myriad leering faces and twisting, contorted forms writhing and posturing on every face of the Temple seem to jape at the obscenities they depict. The growth in the compound is rank and noisome. Thorns clutch, burrs stick, and crushed stems either emit foul stench or raise angry weals on exposed flesh. Worst of all, however, is the pervading fear which seems to hang over the whole area—a smothering, clinging, almost tangible cloud of vileness and horror. Sounds seem distorted, either muffled and shrill or unnaturally loud and grating.

Your eyes play tricks. You see darting movements out of the corner of your eye, just at the edge of vision; but when you shift your gaze towards such, of course, there is nothing there at all. You cannot help but wonder who or what made the maze of narrow paths through the weedy courtyard. What sort of thing would wander here and there around the ghastly edifice of Evil without shrieking and gibbering and going completely mad?

The whole description is, to date, the most evocative description I've seen in an RPG adventure, period. And I've been reading these things for 30 years. Characters entering these ruins can expect a green light to smite the evil within (largely) without mercy.

2. Great backstory

In TOEE, the DM really gets the good stuff. In that I mean the secret history of the Temple makes for a great read, and presents a fully realized background in which the bad guys are evil, strategic, and play things to their own advantage. Iuz and Zuggtmoy are equally insidious, and they compete between themselves, yet each presents a challenge to good-aligned characters

3. It’s almost a complete ecosystem.

Somehow this dungeon combines some six competing factions into what feels to be a living breathing place. Clever players will play those factions against each other.

4. It has some great set pieces.

I love the “zoo” section of the third level. The leucrotta and umber hulk areas, as well as the laboratory and chapel areas are very cool. In fact, I’d easily name the third level as my favorite part of the whole affair, due to the number of unique and memorable rooms.


1. Production values

Production values were a little lacking in this TSR offering. The book is 128 pages long, but sports a mere 23 pieces of art (about a fourth of them repeats from T1). Some of the maps are also crude; after the great maps in T1 the Nulb and upper Temple maps are a disappointment and the other level maps also feature doors that look scribbled in. I will however give credit to Keith Parkinson for an outstanding cover that faithfully serves me as the best player handout ever (see below)!

2. It’s ponderous.

Enter small room. Defeat humanoids with meager treasure. Rinse, wash, repeat. The seemingly endless rooms of humanoids, especially on the upper levels, can get old fast. Today’s DM is advised to take a black marker to the map and simply strike a number of rooms on the two upper levels for sake of faster, more entertaining play.

Interestingly enough, I think the biggest flaw in Monte Cook’s remake, Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, was a similar endless similar rooms approach.

3. It’s damn tough

No really. Some clues can prove maddeningly hard. The attrition factor is wicked, and there are a few encounters that are very deadly for their level (such as the earth elementals on Level One). The bad guys are clever. It’s the combination of all three that can prove very deadly indeed. Zuggtmoy’s tactics are very clever, and Gygax, in typical 1st Edition style, isn’t afraid to make use of illusion or charm effects in helping the PCs find their way to an early demise.

One chamber contains a cloak of poisonousness, a super-nasty little item that resembles a black cloak, but if tried on instantly slays the wearer … with no saving throw! Ah, the First Edition days…

4. The Nulb section is lacking.

I’m guessing Nulb would have been T2, had T1-4 actually been released in four parts instead of two. I wish it had been, because perhaps—assuming the existing material were not simply divided up differently—we might have gotten a bit more Nulb.

The Nulb encounter key provides a mere four keyed encounters. And a crude Nulb map. That’s all. The rest is left to the DM to create. I’m all in favor in giving the DM a bit to develop and a hand in shaping the village, especially after the hyper-detailed Hommlet, but after having so very much of the rather tame Hommet described building-to-building and at times with expanded building maps, not getting more out of Hommet’s evil sibling Nulb seems a waste. At least one inner building map (for the waterside hostel for example) would have been much appreciated.

The Temple of Elemental Evil isn’t for everyone, but if your DM is up to the task of filling out things and editing a tad, and the players have a patient for a long haul of a dungeon, the rewards are there to be had. This very old-school gem contains lots of atmosphere, numerous dangerous and interesting encounters, cool magic items, and more villains than you can shake a stick at. All in all, a worthy investment and something that belongs on every DM’s shelf, if only for inspiration.

November 12, 2010

I think this year I’ll start off NaClaMomo with a bang, by giving my humble take on a very unique Gygax classic: S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. We’ll call it Expedition for short. The origins of this adventure harken back to Origins II and 1976(?) and the influence of James Ward's Metamorphosis Alpha, and TSR eventually published it in 1980.

Expedition tickles a special geek spot for me. As I mentioned in a different post, I’m not a huge fan of mixing genres. The result usually ends up—even well done, as in Rifts or TORG—as a chaotic jumble that tends to promote insane characters at the expense of defined atmosphere. Sometimes however, as in the case of Expedition or Talons of the Horned King, the author can present an RPG one-off that really works well. Gygax was no stranger to this, and he admitted to rare gunslinger or tech-equipped characters and penned two Alice in Wonderland-based adventures for good measure. Put simply, every campaign needs a little fresh air once in a while. Expedition provides fresh air in spades.


1. It’s a big sandbox.
I love sandbox modules. In
Expedition, there’s a whole spaceship to play in! Lots of unique encounters and areas that can test a player’s roleplaying ability, as well as the ability to resist meta-gaming. Sure, the player knows it a ray gun, but would the character?

2. Cool critters aplenty
The starship nodule contains a host of weirdies, from the webbirds to berserk androids to the vegepygmies, not to mention a whole alien zoo! The unique nature of the “dungeon” allows for a host of new creatures without that odd feeling that comes from a standard adventure packed with too many oddball monsters. Adventurers entering this place can’t know what to expect, and neither can the players. That makes for very memorable play.

3. There’s nothing like it.
As mentioned in my introductory paragraph, Expedition is a wonderful breath of fresh air for any campaign that’s grown a bit stale or predictable. The adventure is scaled for higher-level characters, so there’s a great chance that the running campaign has grown long in the tooth and the players need a change, if only for a single adventure.

4. The tech goodies have limits.
Almost all the rayguns and powersuits and such run on charges, so after a while they become useless. Indeed many of the tech weapons found may well see action before the characters even leave the ship, further decreasing the amount of advanced loot the characters retain. The upshot is that the players get a taste of some powerful (and often well-earned) items but there’s little chance they’ll be around for many adventures to come and bedevil the Dm at every turn. Instead, the players are forced to decide when is the best moment to use the really powerful but short-lasting items, which is (IMHO) how it should be.


1. It’s a big sandbox.
There isn’t much of a mission here. Oh, the characters can try to close the starship doors and prevent further spread of the alien beasts, but that’s a secondary goal at best. Exploration and the possible acquisition of high tech goodies in the main show here. For those that enjoy open exploration, it’s great, but players that require that “I’ve defeated the Big Bad Guy” plot element will be disappointed, unless defeating the froghemoth can somehow qualify.

2. It’s damned deadly
Characters that are unprepared are going to get their heads torn off, either by rampant police robots, or the aurumvorax, or perhaps the dreaded froghemoth. Plus there are several more traditional creatures, such as the psionic-powerful intellect devourer, can present steep challenges if played properly.

Gary Gygax wasn't known for writing forgiving modules, and he certainly doesn’t make Expedition a walk in the park. Oh yes, any party that doesn’t hole itself up and rest in a quiet abandoned living quarters somewhere will certainly pay the price sooner or later. Probably sooner.

3. It’s not for D&D purists
It’s obviously not for those that dislike science-fiction elements in their AD&D game, to be sure. Though one hopes that players, lovable fools that they are, will try anything once.

4. It’s more work than it looks.
Like the D-series (to be covered another day), this module requires some work. There aren’t whole cities to develop here, but certainly the endless empty or near-empty rooms common to earlier TSR adventures are well in evidence here. The top floor in particular can be a snooze fest of abandoned rooms and skeletons unless a creative DM fills in the proper details and atmosphere.

I believe
Expedition to the Barrier Peaks is a very special, one-of-a-kind module. Oft-imitated but never matched, everyone deserves to either run this once or, better yet, experience it as a player.

So what are you waiting for? Obtain this old-school wonder, dig out your ancient 1e DMG, and give it a spin. You’ll be glad you did, if only for the change of pace.

September 22, 2010

Bring on the Beholders

There are a fairly large number of monsters that are both iconic and favorites of mine, yet I've never actually used them in an encounter as a DM.

Often this owes to their power; one doesn't pull a Demogorgon figure out of the box every session, after all, and there's a good reason most players have more experience with kobolds than storm giants. I've also run very few campaigns in which characters got above 8th level (especially in the old days when leveling up was a much more arduous affair), so usually facing powerful monsters simply isn't something the PCs can do.

Still, there's a few critters I've always wanted to use but haven't: beholders, catoblepases, umber hulks, su-monsters, to name a few. Other creatures, such as the purple worm, saw use in my 1st Edition games but not afterward in latter editions. The arrival of Second Edition in particular had a big impact, because giants and dragons got a huge boost (and have been powerful foes ever since).

This past weekend, beholders (yeah, two of them) entered one of my campaigns for the first time. No, the PCs were still low-level. It was more of a foreshadowing encounter, a little something to make the players think ahead and to alert them to the challenges ahead. Little fish in a big pond and all. After a little thought, I decided I wasn't going to be shackled every single encounter by that 3e and 4e "CR" mentality. My current group, as mentioned in my last campaign post, is a very sharp group and they're smart enough to know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em. And in this case, they kept their heads down.

I can't speak for my players, but for me it was fun to finally plunk the figures down on the mat and play these far-from-the-norm uber-baddies. After a while, one gets tired of kobolds and such!

If you're a DM, I suggest you find that never-used favorite, be they high level or low, and find a way to work them into your game. You might just enjoy it.

Now where did I put that purple worm figure of mine?

July 29, 2010

It's an Open Book

Next month I'll be starting up a new 4e campaign, and I'm pretty excited. I have an excellent group of players (which include several talented RPG authors, editors, and playtesters) and the group really has a wonderful vibe. Now the work begins ... but it's work of the best kind.

I'm creating a continuous campaign, which is to say a number of adventures linked together by a common plot thread in "adventure path" fashion. The campaign will be set in the Known Realms/√Āereth setting. The plot is just beginning to come together, though I already have enough material on paper for 2-3 sessions of play. Where shall I "take" my players? Crumbling keeps? Deep caverns? Seaborne vessels? Aztec-style pyramids filled with worshippers of forgotten gods? Decisions, decisions!

It's been a long time since I've hammered out a campaign from scratch. A long time as in years. In my recent time-starved (and player-starved) years I've fallen into a habit of using modules or adventures from Dungeon for a few evenings play. This time is different—I shall create everything from the ground up. It's daunting, and exciting, and it reminds me why I enjoy DMing so much.

Playing the DM Role

At the time I started playing the game (back when dinosaurs still roamed the earth), I purchased a copy of the venerable "blue book" set from a store in New York City (no stores in my local NJ really carried it yet). My friend Brian, brave fellow, was willing to give it a go. Soon we sat down and ran our characters—a fighter (me) and magic-user—through Quasquetan. I still remember the first creature we fought (drumroll) ... a single giant ant.

I didn't exactly have the DM thing down yet, and I basically played while openly rolling up random monsters and treasure (the module left the room-inhabitants undetermined). It didn't matter, we had a ball. Soon thereafter we switched roles, with Brian serving as DM (only), and I did a solo(!) trip through the
Tomb of Horrors. (Yes, that was insane. And my guy was low level, crazier still.)

Perhaps that first experience gave me a healthy fear of being a player (though doubtful, as it was great fun), but I really think my natural storyteller nature drove me to DM. Most of my friends didn't have a great interest in DMing either, so more often than not I found myself in the DM seat. As a result, I've grown most comfortable in that role.

My lack of playing characters, on the flip side, has rendered me rather self-conscious as a player. This year I've played a 4e ranger and much enjoyed it, so perhaps I'm shrugging off some of that. One hopes. But in the meantime the next great campaign project beckons, and I couldn't be more psyched.
If they only knew what I was planning...

May 28, 2010

Getting LOST

The television show LOST has certainly proved to be a thought-provoking effort, and there's gaming inspiration aplenty to be found there. Indeed, though I haven't read the work, Pagan Publishing's Final Flight seems to owe at least a nod to the show.

I don't think an actual RPG based on the show would work unless the players are unfamiliar with the show—in which case it might make for some great investigative/action gaming. (Future post on this perhaps...)

The heart of LOST, beyond its many mysteries and layered plot threads, was the depth of its characters. We were presented with a bevy of interesting characters, all with their own personal strengths and demons, and as a viewer I found myself rooting for most all of them, even as they disagreed with each other, sometimes made stupid (if very understandable) mistakes, and had conflicts.



The conclusion of LOST left many big unanswered questions, specifically the nature and origin of the island itself. Perhaps this was for the best. Like most, I yearn fort real answers and find out the whole story, but mysteries solved are, well, no longer mysterious.

When I was very young I learned a lot of magic tricks, and I still remember my profound disappointment when I learned the secret (which I won't detail here) of the famous linking rings trick. My reaction was along the lines of, "That's it?!? That's how it's done?" Since then, watching the trick is far less magical, as might be expected. In the case of LOST, I'm probably much better off not knowing how the rings link.

The final episode raised many questions even as it answered others. The final scene behind the credits may prove the most haunting yet, though I suspect it was thrown in just to get folks talking and doesn't really imply what some might think.

In that spirit of mystery, I offer a "dirty dozen" pressing questions:

1. What's up with Walt? Clare's baby? It was implied both were psychic/special. Was the polar bear in the comic a mere coincidence? (And speaking of, how did the polar bear get over to the main island from hydra Island? Swim?)

2. If Locke/Samuel was "evil incarnate" why would he become mortal when the stopper was pulled from the pool of light?

3. Why did the Black Smoke spare Mr. Echo, and then kill him later? Why did it appear as a horse to Kate? (Was a horse ever on the island? If not, how could the Smoke take its shape?)

4. Desmond—with difficultly—was able to remove the stopper because he was immune to electromagnetic events (and how did he get that way?); so how did Jack pull off a similar feat? Was it a power bestowed by Jacob?

5. Who was Jacob's surrogate mother? Who was Jacob's real mother?

6. Why were certain people (Miles, Richard, etc.) missing from the final church scene? Why that dizzy blonde Shannon instead of Nadia? (Was this because Nadia never visited the island? But Penny never set foot on the island either!)

7. Why did Daniel Faraday's mother advise Desmond not to gather everyone in the LAX reality?

8. In the LAX reality, Charlie described having an after-life experience but being "saved" by Jack. Doesn't this imply he was ready to move on from the LAX purgatory? (And why were all the other LAX details needed in purgatory, such as the gangsters, Jack's being married and then divorced from Juliet, etc? For closure?)

9. Who made the Latin annotations on the Hatch blast wall blacklight map?

10. Why was Dogen's presence in the temple supposed to protect everyone from the Black Smoke? What was the ash/powder that formed a barrier against the creature?

11. Why could no women on the island, save perhaps Clare and Russo, give birth? Is this condition connected to Jacob's surrogate mother?

12. What's up with all the Egyptian iconography? Why were members of the Dharma Initiative learning heirogyphics (which they were, based on blackboard notes)? Why the Egyptian characters in the hatch countdown device?

Bonus question(s): Why did poor Hurley suffer such bad luck associated with the numbers? How did the Dharma people know to stamp the numbers into the metal?

And the biggest mystery of them all: HERE.

May 10, 2010

So Long, Frank

I'm sorry to hear of the passing of Frank Frazetta, artist supreme. This Brooklyn boy did some of the best paintings around, and I still remember people years ago purchasing fantasy paperbacks just for his cover art. Frank defined an art genre and inspired a generation of budding artists. He died at 82.

April 23, 2010

Shadows Gathering

The third Age of Cthulhu adventure is out, and it's a doozy. Shadows of Leningrad takes your daring investigators to Russia, wherein dark works of art serve as a gateway to the slumbering power of an Old One, and madness and death awaits. It's 1927, a time of great change in Russia, and evil stirs. Check out a preview here

Shadows was written by Mike Ferguson, one of the industry's best writers and author of numerous excellent adventures and supplements. I can't wait to get my grubby mitts on this one, and I humbly suggest that you, Gentle Reader, acquire it too. 

April 06, 2010

Stage Fright, and Giving Voice

True confession time: I'm not much of a roleplayer. There, I've said it.

I've seen three basic schools of roleplaying:

Either type (a):

"My swordsman insists the guard let him pass. If the guard resists, Torromir will run him through and keep going."

Also known as the mellow third-person.

(b):  "I insist he let me pass. ''Come now, good fellow, let me pass!' "

I'll call this the mixed style.

or (c):  "Hark! Worthy guard! Make way for a man on urgent business!"

Better known as the all first-person, or hardcore roleplayer.

I usually fall into the (a) or (b) camps. I prefer the middle road, a mix of in-character and third-person perspectives. Pure in-character speak makes me way too self-conscious as a player.

I recall some months (years?) ago playing with Adrian (of Goodman Games fame) Pommier's group. He had a healthy-sized group of players, both male and female, and the group fell pretty solidly in the (c) range with the occasional touch of (a) or (b). I sat down for the first time, not knowing most of the players at the table, and it was fairly intimidating. 

For those that haven't had the pleasure of experiencing Adrian's DMing at a tourney sometime, let me establish that he's a wonderful DM—totally comfortable and confident, adaptable, extremely solid in his rules knowledge and as likely to give voice to a pious cleric one moment or a haggard beggar the next and make either distinctly believable. The players were good, the DM good, but the play style was an unusual one for me. It was a good experience, and it had been a while since I ran into a group that relished the role-play over roll-play aspect, or at least gave both equal measure. I soon shook off my opening jitters and eased into it as things went along. I came to admire the dedication of this group of roleplayers, yet I still admit it isn't my default style.

Growing up I suffered from a near devastating shyness—in my younger teens simply ordering fast food was something worthy of rehearsal (the beginning of The Godfather comes to mind)—yet many years later I went on to act onstage and jock a highly rated blues radio program. To be sure, radio is a different thing. The audience is unseen and rarely heard from (except via the occasional call-in). But why would I be more relaxed speaking to an unseen audience that numbered in the thousands instead of a new group of perhaps 8 people that shared my hobby? I still wonder about that. (And it should be fairly noted that my first one or two solo radio shows were sweat-dretched affairs.) I'm still no public speaker to be sure, but doing seminars at Gen Con isn't the nightmare I would have found it years ago. I take that as a good sign!

Several weeks ago I attended my last of a number of play-reading classes, taught by a wonderful fellow named Peter. In late April we'll resume classes. Peter, well accustomed to working with both experienced actors and amateur students, gently guides us through the paces of cold reading the parts, deftly interjecting every now and again or giving voice to minor parts in his strong British accent. It's been educational (not to mention enjoyable) on a number of levels. Reading from the various plays makes me recall my days spent a decade ago studying Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon and elsewhere, reading the master's lines until they warmed to life (or, more accurately, until we warmed to meet them). Of course, reading plays now makes me think of gaming as well. (Okay, I'm a geek, I admit it, pretty much everything I encounter makes me think of gaming.)

In a similar vein, I have a very young son and I read to him nightly at bedtime. Giving voice to the characters in his books is also voice acting of a sort, even if my only goal is to bring a smile to the face of a 16-month-old boy. I happily ham it up and soon find myself smiling too. (Trying to give a unique voice to 12 different animals in one book is good practice for any DM!)

This recent combination of reading plays and books and giving voice to fictional characters—even if Elmo—has made me reconsider the way I game. In the near future I hope to take a short break from 4e to keeper a short Call of Cthulhu campaign, and a bit more roleplaying (if only on my part) might well help to establish the proper atmosphere, so I may stray into solid "b" or even "c" territory for a change. Who knows, I might even enjoy it.

So what roleplaying style do you prefer? Are you an a-, b-, or c-type, or something else entirely?

February 09, 2010

Does 4th Edition have Soul, Part II: Nostalgia

Mike's recent comments here and at Emerald Lich made me reflect on my recent post about 4th Edition.

To be sure, nostalgia plays a huge part in the way I've viewed both 3e and 4e. I "grew up" with 1st and 2nd Edition. My first, influential experiences with the game took place with those rulesets (sorry Mike, I never used the red book!). By the time 3rd Edition came along, I had largely give up gaming for other pursuits and I looked at the new (3e) ruleset with both interest and detached bemusement when it was released. Indeed, I didn't actually purchase a new 3e Players Handbook for months; odd behavior for a once-huge fan of the game.

The newest version of the game is very balanced. Let's face it, 1e was totally unbalanced (sometimes purposefully) but in a way, for all the frustrations it caused (dead 1st-level magic-user anyone?) it was also part of the experience.

There was no sense of entitlement on the part of the players, no automatic assumption that every encounter will be fair or that every item of treasure will even out. Sometimes you fled because survival required it. Sometimes a rod of lordly might fell into your lap (until the DM later found a way to destroy it). Sometimes 1st-level characters died through no fault of the player, but you laughed or groaned and rolled up another one (a process that rarely took longer than 15 minutes). That very uncertainty, that very sense of having no idea what would come next, it was half the fun.

I look at the newer editions much in the way I look at the newer Star Wars movies. They have all the required elements and a lot of cool things—and I've warmed up to them tremendously after repeated exposure—but they simply don't have the "soul" of the first three movies in my book. I've asked myself if that's really because I was a teenager when the first movies came out. Star Wars was new at that time, there was nothing like it around. Special effects movies weren't a dime a dozen, with frantic Transformers trailers blaring on one's TV and all. I think the only "space movie" I saw before Star Wars in the theater was 2001: A Space Odyssey, so when that star destroyer first flew overhead in the opening scene of A New Hope I was hooked on sight. By the time the new movies came out, they had to compete with a pack of effects-ladden films that had been released over the past decade. I was older, more jaded. The original Star Wars rocked me because it was a great movie, but it also had no competition. Likewise, 1st Edition.

I think that's a good description as to the effect of nostalgia on my playing preferences. I still would like to see a less rule-heavy, less combat-heavy version when 5th Edition emerges (which I hope doesn't happen until 2015 or so), and acknowledging my nostalgic feelings doesn’t change these impressions. But to ignore nostalgia's impact would be wrong too.

I frankly don't know if any future edition will ever bring back that old magic (no pun intended). Playing older editions is fun, but I'm experienced enough to see the chinks in their armor. The newer editions inspire more power-building and meta-gaming for my taste. What to do? I guess there's really nothing to do, except gather a good group of friends and simply try to have fun without thinking too hard about it. In the end, that's good enough.

January 22, 2010


One day, on a warm afternoon last August, I found myself exiting a friend's car after going out for lunch. As I cornered the sidewalk, I turned back to give a fast wave to his departing vehicle, and my left foot strayed about three inches beyond the sidewalk and snagged on a sprinkler head—you know, the small black pop-up type. Except this one never popped back down. Suddenly I found myself flying toward the pavement, headfirst. (Critical failure on a DC 8 Athletics check!) My immediate thoughts, in order, were basically:

Oh hell.
And I'm wearing my good trousers.
Guess I better protect my face.

Luckily, my vaunted (ha!) reflexes nearly match my clumsiness and I got one hand out. It wasn't enough to completely break the fall however, and there wasn't time to roll—I was simply falling too fast. My palm skidded across the pavement (that move always makes me feel like I'm about 8 years old when I do it) soon followed by my head. My chin struck the concrete hard enough to roughly slap my teeth together and my head snapped upwards. I rolled off to one side, feebly clutching my cranium while my ears dimly registered out a woman screaming "Oh my God!" It took a few more seconds to realize she was talking about yours truly.

I spent the next minute or two seeing stars—whole constellations in fact—before I forced myself to my feet. (Add spiraling cartoon stars above head with tweety bird sound accompaniment.) Several people assisted me into the building, and I flopped wearily down into one of the waiting room chairs.

The incident—from which I was unmarked and unimpaired 48 hours later—made me think about D&D game play. It made me think about how characters take staggering wounds only to leap back into the fray without a moment's pause. Highly unrealistic. But how realistic need the game play get? How much realism is worth the extra rules work? The PCs are meant to represent heroes, after all; Conan wouldn't sit clutching his head for several minutes if he took a similar tumble, I'm quite sure. On a more practical note, adding in rules for the pain characters feel is much like adding on to-hit or movement penalties because of wounds or fatigue, in the end it only penalizes the PCs when the chips are already down. Likewise, it adds yet another thing for the poor DM to track. The advent of Third Edition did introduce standard rules for stunning and dazing and the like, so I suppose a DM could add those on. But when to do it? Which wounds cause more pain than others? One could apply such effects only to criticals, but again that only pours extra salt in the wound (so to speak).

I feel in the end it's better to let the PCs truly be heroic figures, greater and stronger than those puny mortals that play them. Of course, a DM might add a few descriptive words about the pain caused by a particularly nasty wound every so often. That gets the player's mind working, which is always a good thing. And as far as added DM work, it's quite, ahem, painless.

January 13, 2010

Does 4th Edition Have Soul?

It's been a while since the release of 4th Edition, long enough for me to finally get a good sense of the game.

There are many things I like. Many of the 3.5 problems or annoyances have been dealt with, such as ponderous grappling rules, uneven character classes, race blandness, overlong stat blocks, the "christmas tree" magic item effect, and the dreaded amount of math that goes into monster building and leveling. Sometimes for me, it's the simple things—like diagonal movement. The 1-2-1-2 rule wasn't hard to remember, but I didn't DM a single game wherein I didn't have to remind a player of it. Attacks of opportunity was another one that tripped up my players, and nothing irks a player like being told their PC got nailed when then thought him safe.

Many folks online have commented that the "soul" of D&D seems missing from 4 however, and I sadly must agree. I feel that way too ... but why? I've puzzled over this for a while now.  Here are the reasons why I think my gut tells me I'm just not playing D&D (when playing 4e) anymore:

1. The death of too many sacred cows. Magic missiles that miss? No more vancian magic?

2. Too much player information/involvement. No, I don't believe in that "I'm the all-powerful DM" attitude, but there's a line. Putting magic items in the Player's Handbook crossed that line for me. Magic items should be fairly rare and wondrous, mysterious, and even potentially dangerous. Reducing them to a shopping list and asking players to create wish lists? Meh. (What's next, an Amazon-like website that suggests to players magic items their PCs might enjoy?) There's nothing wrong with a player conveying that she dreams of playing a mighty fighter with a magic sword or a wizard wielding a mighty staff, and the DM trying to oblige. DMs should try to please their players and let them live out dreams through their characters within the balance of the game. But wish lists? I say thee nay.

3. Forced monster organization. As a professional adventure author, I can tell you that 4e's monster system is a pain. The "let's set up groups of mixed creatures" can indeed make for interesting combats (never a bad thing), but the system makes it near impossible to create combat situations in which the PC meet a group of one type of creature (which need happen fairly often for realism's sake) or a single creature that isn't a solo. Do you want to have the characters in the sewers run into that random alligator? Forget it, the combat would be over in a second; best make it two alligators, one shambling mound, and eight stirges—never mind that those creatures would never realistically hang out together. (Some of the monster groups presented in the Monster Manuals are good for a hoot too.) 

4. PCs are too strong. As a player I find rolling up new characters mid-adventure to be a pain, and I'm a notorious softie as a DM when it comes to killing off player characters, yet I do feel low-level PCs need to be vulnerable. That sense of vulnerability only leads to a greater sense of accomplishment later when the PCs level up.

5. Nostalgia. That sense of wonder is largely gone. I honestly blame this more on my gaming longevity than any game edition.

6. It's all about combat. I love destructive spells. Love 'em. When playing a 1st Edition wizard, I long to hit 5th level so I can add fireball or lightning bolt to my spellbook. But there are other things. The heavy combat slant of 4e's powers and spells can reduce handy roleplaying opportunities that can stem from using a certain spell in just the right way, etc. Roleplaying opportunities still exist of course, but the previous editions had spells or proficiencies that screamed for a dose of roleplaying every time they were used, and I miss those.

7. Excessive DM hand-holding. Ultimately any DM guideline is just that. Former versions of the game and even some hallowed modules—Village of Hommlet I'm looking at you—had some extremely lop-sided treasures. Either the players got crumbs of they were tossed necklaces worth 10,000 gp. But the parcel system breaks things up a bit too neatly, eliminating the DM's freedom, and player awareness of that system places unfair expectations on the DM.

Some of my reaction to 4e (and a lesser extent 3e/3.5e) is that of mixed blessings. I've always been a big miniatures user, and I've suffered from players (and DMs) "stretching the limits" of how far figures can move in a melee round, etc., so having a more miniature-oriented game was a blessing ... at first. Now I'm not so sure. 

Likewise with feats and later powers. I always thought fighters should have a selection of cool moves to select from, but now it's started to leave me feeling flat. The ever-expanding list of powers has become like MAGIC cards (which probably makes sense given the company involved) ... more and more minor variations of the same stuff, with power gamers examining every detail to wring out the stronger options. I realize many find this system tinkering fun, a puzzle-like quest to optimize their characters, but to me the more time a player delves in the rules the less time they're actually involved in the play itself. The hyper-awareness of the rules that 3.5e bred by "rulifying" every aspect of the game extends to 4e, and as a player I don't want the rules in my face every second, I want to lose myself in the action. To some, the statements "I swing from the chandelier and strike out at the orc with my feet, knocking him back if I can!" and "I use my daily Juggernaut's Roll power to push the orc two squares east!" may be the same thing, but not to me.

Ultimately the soul of a game is in the play. Rules can be modified, play can be altered, and both DMs and players can tweak any system to find what works best for them. Does 4e as written have enough "soul" for you?

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