Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Overreaction Tuesday

So after a week of superhero stuff I figured it was time to get back to D&D. There's been quite a bit of chatter over the last two weeks on EN World and the WOTC site about some more stuff so I thought I would sound off a bit.

  • Vancian Magic: A lot of people really are screaming for this one to come back. I always assumed that it would. I have to confess though, it's not my favorite anymore. It's simple, easy to use, and forces players to make hard choices, but I've seen too many other ways to handle magic over the years to get excited over playing this again. I Shadowrun is my favorite magic system, letting the player gamble against drain to pull off bigger effects and pushing the hard choices into the heat of the moment instead of at breakfast that morning. As un-thrilled as I am about it, if we're going to start listing defining traits of D&D, then wizards memorizing spells is one of them.
  • Turning Undead: This week's article at WOTC discusses the mechanics of clerics vs. undead in various edition and what it should or should not be. I agree with a lot of what is said in that it's turned into a clerical utility power over the last two editions instead of a specific class trait vs. undead. I would add to the desired effects list that if a party knows they are going to face a bunch of undead, they should want a cleric to come along, kind of like taking a ranger or druid into the wilderness or a wizard into the planes. This is something I would expect to see re-focused if we're doing a back-to-basics version of D&D and it sounds like that's the direction they are taking. Good.
  • Skills was the subject of an article last week and I like the way they were headed a while back with skills as an open "pick something you are good at and take a bonus on related ability checks" type approach rather than picking things from a set list. Much like the commenters there I find that having skills as a set list and giving them a separate progression creates a view of "I can't do that because I don't have the skill" mentality. To avoid that, we should have short lists of very broad skills, or no list at all and let players pick say 3 (non-combat) things they are good at. Either way it should be a small bonus, say a +2. This could stack with racial bonuses, class bonuses, and maybe (maybe!) a feat bonus. Keeping the total bonus available small keeps target numbers smaller than the current edition, and cuts down on the progression of numbers in general, which was mentioned in one of the early articles. I'd like to see a mechanical system where every +1 is greatly appreciated if that's truly a goal. If the class, race, and feat bonuses were each +1, then with skill being a +2 a character would start with a max of a +5 to their roll even if they min/maxed things to stack them all, say for a thief who wants to be really good at sneaking, or a ranger who wants to be a master tracker. If you're trying to roll under a 3-18 stat, that's pretty good but it's not game-breaking. The way this would look is say I'm the ranger mentioned above and I have a 13 Wisdom, and that's the stat used for tracking rolls. Normally I would roll a d20 looking for a 13 or less. With my impressively stacked bonuses I would instead be looking for an 18 or less - I succeed 90% of the time! Master tracker! I suspect a lot of this is going to depend on how willing they are to get away from the whole d20 + modifiers vs. Difficulty Class that's been the standard since 2000. If they're truly going for the united editions, then I think they will. If not, well, I guess we will see.
  • One item that has not been discussed in detail is Alignment. Yes, many people hate it, yet many of those same people are the ones shouting for Vancian magic to return, and yet every criticism you can make of alignment you can make of Vancian spellcasting too: Archaic, Outdated, Restrictive, Confining, and (my favorite) Unrealistic. Yet both have been a part of the game from day 1, book 1, and have been included in every edition. Furthermore, the Vancian thing only affects a low percentage of characters in a game - alignment affects every character in the gameworld, PC & NPC alike. Lawful Good versus Chaotic Evil and the rest is one of the signature qualities of D&D. It needs to be in there, and it needs to be in the core rules.
  • Finally, one item that will likely not be discussed but is a favorite of mine: Gold Pieces for Experience Points. No, it's not fashionable to discuss anymore, but the early editions of D&D established its dominance and it's what they used. Not some story reward chart, not some carefully figured monster XP by level by encounter number by party member formula, but the beautiful simplicity of 1 gp = 1 xp. Plus a little bit for the monsters themselves, but it was minor. It worked for the first 15 years of the game's existence*, and it is by far the easiest system to moderate - everyone knows what it is, everyone knows how it works, so everyone knows what to do. No, it doesn't necessarily reward political intrigue - but then that's not what the game is about, is it? What early published adventure consists of a bunch of political intrigue? None! (And no, Assassin's Knot doesn't count as it was clearly labelled as something different with solving a murder mystery, kind of proving my point.) So there's no reason this elegant mechanic couldn't be brought back to the most basic form of the new game to help keep the focus on what the game does best: Dungeons!
Anyway, that's the topical discussion for this week!

Also: Spring Break! So posting times will be a little all-over-the-place this week but I am trying to keep up some kind of regular posting.

*Sure, some people ignored it as "stupid" or (again my favorite) "unrealistic" and they are the same people who think level advancement in later versions is too fast! Because they were doing it wrong back then!** Sure, we all played around with the rules back then but you can't cut out 3/4 of the experience point system, not replace it, and then complain about advancement rates down the road!***

**With all of the interest in how Gary played and how Dave Arneson did things, you'd think people would be more accepting of GP's for XP's but it's kind of a blind spot in a lot of OSR things that I see. Not sure why that particular rule gets slighted, but it does.

***Until you get past about 9th level for a lot of classes and you start to need 250,000 XP's per level. That does slow things down, even with gp's for xp's. But getting to 9th was not excruciatingly difficult XP-wise. Surviving, well, that could be challenging, but to have to deal with that AND not getting xp's for treasure, wow, that sounds like Runequest.


Aaron E. Steele said...

You missed the most important criticism from the anointed and all-knowing modernists: that (name of cherished DnD mechanic) is not "fun".


richard said...

I'm agnostic about Vancian magic but militantly opposed to alignment, and not for any of the reasons you cite: I simply don't know what archaic or outdated mean in a game of swords and goblins and restrictive/confining might be just what you need to prompt creativity. I also don't know what realism could possibly mean here.

No, I hate alignment because it's incoherent, incomprehensible (at least in early editions - I haven't read 3 or 4), and in various ways actively hostile both to the core activity of the game (murderhoboing) and the social contract of play (of not being a dick to your fellow players). Not being a dick is already hard to reconcile with murderhoboing - it requires a fairly specific and twisted kind of gentleman-pirate ethical code - and it is not helped by a 9-point ethical compass on which at least 4 points actively tell you to be a dick (cn and all the evils) and 3 points almost certainly tell you not to murderhobo (xg), and of the remaining points, one will tend toward dickishness through unenlightened self interest (nn). For practical purposes, to survive an adventure, pcs pretty much have to behave as ln or lg among themselves, reducing their self-conscious alignment-driven behaviour to the occasional bit of theatrical showmanship (see me rescue these children/torture this waggoner!); I can think of no more effective way to trivialize moral questions in the game.

tl:dr - if you don't really want to deal with something, writing a system for it is usually a good way to kill interest in it. Especially if that system dictates how pcs should behave.

Blacksteel said...

Aaron: Yeah fun is pretty nebulous.

Richard: Alignment can be a problem and I've definitely seen it used as an excuse for dickish behavior, but I don't see it as being quite as limiting as you do. I don't see good as being "won't kill" and I do see chaotic as doing fine in small groups. There are degrees within each alignment.

Also, try looking at this: Alignment is defined by character actions. You can claim whatever alignment you want at the start of the game, but if you start killing good NPC's I'm probably going to move you over to evil. If you claim lawful evil but start helping strangers and asking for nothing in return I'm probably moving you to good. Alignment is the speedometer, not the engine.

Plus I never really saw D&D as a game for complex moral questions. D&D has always been more about deeds than words in my experience. Alignment makes for a handy label for a fantasy gaming world (these guys are evil, so it's OK for good types to kill them), not an accurate reflection of real-world philosophy. Mechanically if you have whole planes of existence tied to an alignment and deities that exemplify those alignments and empower agents in the world then it makes sense to have them in the game, if for nothing else than to let people choose sides.

Finally, if 'Next' is supposed to be an edition uniter then it has to have something about alignment because every other edition of the game has had them. It's part of the "thing" that is D&D - classes, races, levels, hit points, saving throws, alignment, armor class, longswords, maces, wands, etc.