Friday, September 3, 2010

Roles Through the Editions - Magic-Users

In a weird way, magic-users have changed the least throughout the various editions of D&D in a party role sense, even though they have seen major mechanical changes in the last few editions. In AD&D mages were always the least effective physical combatants with the poorest weapon choices, no armor choices at all, poor to-hit chances, and a d4 for hit points. They also had the unfortunate combination of being the weakest class at low levels and the toughest progression chart, requiring twice as many XP's to advance as a thief at low levels. This weakness has remained basically true through all editions being hard-wired into OD&D, Basic D&D, 1E, and 2E. In 3rd edition there were ways to change this with feats, multiclassing, and prestige classes although the default was basically the same as before. With 4th edition the choices for weapons and armor and the hit point amounts are still weaker than most other classes but it's not as drastic as before.

Abilty-wise Intelligence has always been the king for wizards. In early editions it determined your maximum spell level - not that it mattered until you were in double-digit levels - and extra languages but that was it. It wasn't exactly a power-stat. Dexterity was usually 2nd choice - have to get that AC up somehow! Plus it helped with those thrown daggers and darts used so much at low levels. Some chose Constitution as 2nd but I never saw that as giving great results. When you only have an extra 5- 10 hit points by 5th level it's basically 1 extra hit from a typical weapon or creature. If you were going to be running around with an AC of 9 or 10 it just wasn't enough - Dex always seemed like a better bet.

The biggest complaint regarding M-U's in 1st edition was the limited number of spells at low levels. It is a problem - no one likes getting all prepped and equipped and only getting to do their thing once or twice in a whole day. Before and after that it was all about the knife-throwing (or dart throwing) with the occasional toss of the flaming oil flask. That's really not what a lot of people are thinking of when they think "wizard". Combining this with the extreme fragility of low AC & low hit points, and you had the potential for frequent unhappiness.

One solution was house-ruling and a popular option was to have a high Int grant bonus spells in the same way that a high Wisdom did. I don't have a huge problem with this - it certainly makes the M-U better as almost all of them are going to have a 16+ Int which gives 2 extra 1st's and 2 extra 2nd's, a considerable difference.

One official solution was to add "Cantrips" - a sort of 0-level spell list that could replace a 1st level spell on a 3 or 4 to 1 basis. It was interesting, but I'll be blunt - they sucked. All the low-level mages wanted to do was be better in combat and cantrips were almost universally non-combat magic - lights, changing the color of a piece of clothing, cleaning a pair of shoes, minor lights, etc - absolutely no help in combat for damage, buffs, or any kind of help at all. This was a failed solution.

In my experience the best way to make a low-level 1E magic-user more effective is to get them some treasure - a few scrolls of things like Knock or Wizard Lock let them tap into some of that versatility without reducing their combat ability. A wand of magic missiles was a huge find as now the M-U could contribute every round. The best thing was that all of these were expendable and so self-limiting to a degree - more controllable than adding a +3 Sword to a Fighter in the party or a Mace of Disruption to the Cleric.

Second edition came along and added non-weapon proficiencies. this gave wizards some of the lore skills that their literary and cinematic counterparts often displayed. It was good but made no difference as far as combat though it did make them more "wizardy". Spells and magic items really didn't change, nor did spell-progression. One new wrinkle was the "Kit", kind of a customization to the character that flavored the class in a specific way. One option was the Militant Wizard, allowing one to trade a spell school or three for the ability to become proficient in some additional weapons. The Militant Wiz also capped out at 7th level spells, which rendered this too much of a compromise for many players.

The single biggest change for 2E though was the Specialist Wizard.This allowed a player to trade a more limited spell selection for the ability to cast an additional spell at each spell level as it became available. This was a pretty good option used by about half of the Wizard players in the campaigns I saw. It didn't help in the combat ability department but it did make a big difference in spellcasting,

So 3rd edition comes along and adds skills and feats, better ability score bonuses for lower stats, and a unified experience table. So M-U's are no longer harder to advance, their non-Int stats are more beneficial, and feats allow one to change the traditional poor weapon and armor choices of the mage for something better if the player wants too. Additionally the old house rule of bonus spells for a high Int became official. Wizard players were very happy with 3E as they gained a lot more options and flexibility and really gave up nothing to get it. Scrolls were easier to make, Potions were a breeze, there was a system for making any magic item in fact, many many spells were added and things were good.

The only weakness in all this was that multiclassing a wizard (or really any spellcaster in 3E) was not very effective as armor and level restrictions worked in such a way that casters lost a lot of spellcasting effectiveness when they took multiple classes. Many house rules were developed around this but there was never an official solution that was generally liked and accepted. Looking back I think this was overblown but it was an area where strong passions were involved and many a flamewar erupted over the best way to handle it. I think that weaker multiclassing in return for a better base wizard class is an acceptable tradeoff but not everyone felt the same way at the time.

Alright, so wizards have gotten progressively better and more flexible in each edition. how about 4E? Well, they still play fairly similarly. At low levels a 4E wizard is akin to a 1E wizard with a wand of magic missiles - he can make ranged attacks quite well and look like a wizard while doing it. There are far fewer thrown daggers by 1st lvl wizards in 4E but it's something I can live with. They still have a few weak to strong abilities they can fire off a limited number of times per day and they grow rapidly in power as they level up. The mechanics of how these abilities function have changed dramatically but the wizard is still the lightly-armored guy with weak hit points who stays at the back of the party and blasts things while throwing out the occasional illusion, summoning, buffing spell, de-buffing spell, or movement enhancer. They still like wands and staves. So aside from the mechanics change that affected everyone, wizards end up playing very much like they have in every edition. They have specialized a bit into wizards, warlocks, sorcerers, invokers, and now mages, they are still recognizable as the guys in the pointy hats I won't make a pronouncement as to the general happiness levels of wizard players with 4E given my limited experience at this point, but they do work quite a bit like the old ones in combat and there are a lot of options out there for the interested player. I will say this - if you liked magic-users in old editions and have been leery of 4E then if you get a chance to play I would say try a 4E wizard. That should tell you all you need to know.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Schedule Chaos Disrupts Ongoing Campaigns - an old story

Well the start of school, an anime convention, a move to a new house, and a new baby have all conspired to frag my games even though the only one applicable to my situation is the start of school. One might think I would be good at that by now but with kids in multiple schools in multiple districts the myriad meet the teacher nights, open house nights, orientation nights, club organization nights, and anything else they can come up with nights have just been a huge time sink for the last few weeks.

We did manage to work in one session of Necessary Evil in August (I will post that up soon) , but the Basic and 4E campaigns have been grounded for weeks. The apprentices are eager to return to the Caves of Chaos in basic D&D and to finish escaping from the Star Destroyer in our Star Wars d6 game. After this weekend the 4E crew should be more free as well so I expect that to resume in short order.

The 1E game should finally fire up this month, probably on Sunday afternoons on alternating weekends, possibly with a rotating cast of players depending on availability. I'm going to try sticking to a set schedule for it regardless of individual availability and see how that works for us.

The only other potential game right now is dusting off Marvel Super Heroes and running some super sessions. This is the only tabletop RPG that my lone female apprentice has shown interest in so we might start this up as an occasional, intermittent campaign. The rough idea now is to set them up as a new generation of mutants being trained by the current X-Men before being sent off to San Francisco as the West Coast X-Force. Roughly, anyway it's a combination of the West Coast Avengers idea and it let's me drop in some occasional familiar faces like Wolverine or Colossus. We'll see how quickly it comes together when it comes time to put pencil to paper. It's good to have a mix of games with different apprentices so that no matter who is home for the weekend we have an option if they want to play. At least, that's the goal.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Roles Through the Editions - Thieves

Thieves were added during the expansion process of OD&D and are usually viewed by old-timers as the "4th" class."I am focusing on them now as they play a role in the Defender/Striker split we see in 4th edition and illustrate many of the conceptual changes between the early versions and the latest take.

In Basic D&D they had d4 hit points, limited weapon use, mediocre attack progression, and a set of skills no one else had. AD&D upped the hit die to a d6 but left the rest pretty much the same. Now the skills were of somewhat limited usefulness (more about those in a minute) so why play a thief? Well first off they levelled fast - faster than any other class, usually keeping them at least 1 level and sometimes 2 levels ahead of the rest of the party. Additionally, Thief was the only class where demi-humans had no level limits - it was a solid "U" all the way across the table. Now I never saw a ton of single-classed thieves but it was a popular choice for multiclassing given the low XP requirements and the unlimited advancement.

As for the Thief skills, the thing that really made them unique, well, they just weren't that great:

-Pick Pockets: Almost always used against fellow party members, this skill caused much intra-party strife in older editions. Typically used by bored Neutral or Chaotic Neutral Thieves whose last words were often "but I'm just playing my character...". It's rarely useful in a dungeon or wilderness, it's typically only useful in a city adventure for anything other than getting the thief beaten and bloodied.

-Open Locks: Useful sometimes, but most parties included multiple fighters and most of the games I ran or played in were pretty much a "Plan A" affair - bash it!. How often is picking the lock advantageous enough to choose that over bashing it? Not that often. Now on chests it's a handy thing, but that's also where you tend to find traps and other nastiness which leads to...

-Find/Remove Traps: Now this is a useful skill, leading to the Thief being perceived as a specialist along the lines of a Cleric. Going into a graveyard? Better bring a Cleric. Going into a trap-filled pyramid? Better bring a Thief. With racial and dexterity adjustments it was possible to get reasonably good at this. A class-defining ability.

-Move Silently: Useful, but not as much as one might think. Sneaking off by yourself is rarely a good idea in a dungeon and it's unlikely the rest of the party has this ability. Also, Boots of  Elvenkind can steal the Thief's thunder here, allowing anyone to be better than a low-level thief and almost as good as a high-level thief.

-Hide in Shadows: Another useful skill but anyone wanting to be good at remaining unseen will go after a Cloak of Elvenkind or a Ring of Invisibility so it's easily superseded or surpassed, even by non-thieves.

-Hear Noise: A stepchild in some ways. If the DM gives everyone who listens at a door a 1 in 6 chance to hear something, they are already as good as a 3rd level thief! We played it (when it mattered) as a second chance roll after the initial d6 roll - if you didn't hear anything or heard something vague then the thief could use this skill to try and determine more details.

-Climb Walls: useful at lower levels, fading at medium to high as levitation spells, fly spells, feather fall, ropes of climbing, slippers of spider climbing, rods of lordly might, and other magic surpass it's abilities. This skill more than any other caused debates among players as if a Thief has X% chance to climb a wall, what does a non-thief have? Does Dex matter? Does Armor? Encumbrance? What if I have a rope? Adding a limited skill system to the game for one class opens up some areas for debate and conflicting official answers never really settled it. We will be playing it as the chance for a Thief to climb a wall with no equipment at all - it may not be the best answer, but it's simple and it works for me.

--Read Languages: a somewhat useful ability that varied quite a bit with DM interpretation. I always took it to mean things like treasure maps and journal entires as mentioned in the description, but some took it as a straight-up $ to read anything, making it very useful in some adventures.

So none of these skills are really game-breaking but as a set they do point to a character who is handy in many non-combat situations and is also useful in a dungeon. Not bad. combat-wise though they are weak with only leather armor, no shields, and only clubs, daggers, darts, slings, and swords as weapon options. Their to-hit tables were not great either. The saving grace of the combat thief was the backstab. Now it took a little setitng up (well, unless you had a Cloak or a Ring) but it gave a +4 to hit and double to quintuple damage depending on level.  This was very achievable even at moderate levels - a 5th level thief with say a +1 longsword would backstab with a +5 to hit and do 6-27 points of damage. Against a 5HD creature that may be enough to kill it and will certainly take a big chunk of its hit points in one shot.

Being in light armor and thus having high mobility plus being able to hide and then deliver a painful blow - this could be the genesis of the Striker going back to 1st edition AD&D. It could be, but I really don;t think it is as no one I knew thought of thieves as a primary combatant. The backstab was the only thing that made them useful in combat (note in 1E they don't even get bows, the best ranged attack they can do is daggers, darts, or slings) and it was nice when it came off but it was not an every-round kind of attack  - you could usually do it once per combat, maybe twice, but more than that was rare. Fighters were the kings of combat and Clerics were the secondary combatants. If the 16 Dex guy in leather skulking at the edge of the fight got in a good shot then that was great, but it was not something to be counted on. Thieves were not "DPS" characters the way some see them now (thank you MMORPG's), they were specialized characters mainly good at non-combat tasks with one nice combat ability.
Complaints: The main controversy around the thief had to do with the skills, namely "what can non-thieves do in these areas"? Otherwise some players liked them, some didn't. I can say that a Magic-User/Thief was a lot of fun to play though...

AD&D 2E: Stats and skills remain the same for the most part. Armor is a little more open but weapons are almost unchanged. The biggest innovation here is that Thieves were allowed to direct their skill points at each level into the skills they wanted to be good at. This made it much easier to specialize in being the "Traps Guy" or the "Sneaky Guy" and so in that way was better, and it helped differentiate PC Thieves from one another. As far as non-weapon proficiencies, the new skill-system for 2e, Thieves were not the skill-monkeys that Wizards and Clerics were - they were on par with fighters.

3rd Editin sees a radical change - more weapon and armor options, a unified experience table meaning thieves are no longer the levelling champions, and two major changes:
1- "Rogues" now have more skill points than anyone else and their specialized skills are now part of the general skill population. This ensures that Rogues will now be seen as the "skill class" and it wraps up the whole "non-thieves trying to climb a wall" issue.
2- Sneak Attack is a replacement for the old backstab ability and it is possible to pull it off repeatedly in a round with multiple attacks, making it much nastier than the backstab even at low-medium levels and allows them to rival fighters as the kings of combat.

This is the beginning of the "Rogues are Strikers" design and is a big change from prior editions. In general Rogues in 3E were mainly seen as the skilled class (in the games I saw at least) but the rogue as damage inflicter concept was set and would only grow as 3E progressed.

From here it is a short jump to 4E's "Rogues (Thieves) are Martial (read non-magical) Strikers where the damage output is the class-defining trait - not sneaking, not finding/removing traps, not climbing walls or deciphering scrolls, but DPS (damage per second, an MMO term). It's a massive change from the early editions and reflective of the emphasis of the new edition versus the old. Combat has been a focus in every edition of D&D but it was always one sub-system among several in the game. With 4E it has become the game and the determiner of "balance", with non-combat abilities barely described, let alone quantified.

In some ways I like this better - anyone can learn rituals, the skill system lets anyone be good at what they want to be good at, and combat roles are easily grasped. But a part of me still likes the more open-ended nature of the older editions. One of the goals of "Balance" and more rigid rules in some areas is to allow players to play at conventions and in tournaments and to enforce similar experiences with the game. I get that and I don't have a huge problem with it. But I don't typically play at cons, I don't play in tournaments, and I don't join a lot of new groups or play with a lot of strangers - I usually play with the same group of friends, occasionally adding or subtracting a member or two. So much of the supposed benefit of these changes doesn't really benefit me and my players. It's different, but is it better?

Another of the big changes, having played both old and new D&D recently and seeing it especially with thieves, is that now everyone is good at combat. In older editions there were big differences between the classes and how they reacted to combat - thieves and mages weren't always keen on it and often were the voice of "Plan B" = let's talk/avoid/sneak/bluff or do something besides charge in. This led to some interesting situations and a lot of times things ended up in combat anyway but those discussions or suggestions were an important part of the game. Now with 4E everyone is optimized for combat so no one is really trying to avoid it unless they are out of dailies or have metagame knowledge that the beastie is too high a level for them to fight.

Again, it's not necessarily a bad thing, different people will have different preferences and I like a good fight myself, but it does lead to some different playstyles between the two games,  sometimes very different, and the dislike of old-school players for the new-school game tends to anchor here - not just in how they read, not just in powers, not just in "it's an MMO" but in the very real differences in playstyle that the different editions steer players toward. I probably could play a 1E style game in 4E, but mechanically things are not driven that way in play. There are some interesting design similarities between 1E and 4E (most of the rules are directed at combat, non-combat is relatively unregulated, and it's not a unified system - PC's, NPC's, and Monsters share no universal design system) but in play they are quite different and not everyone is going to like them. I'm OK with that. However. if someone needs an example of the changes in not just mechanics but in philosophy and playing style, let them ask someone who plays or played a 1E thief about it, then compare to a 4E Rogue player's view. That should be all the illustration anyone needs.