Friday, May 14, 2010

More thoughts on edition changes

Following up on yesterday's post I thought I would share my thoughts on some good and bad edition changes:

Star Wars d6 2nd edition - came out 7 years after 1st edition and compiled a lot of rule tweaks into the core book. Also, the changes were not to stats but in how the system worked, so tons of supplementary material were not invalidated by this update - GOOD

SWd6 2nd ed revised and expanded - only 2 years after 2nd edition (that was bad) but not so much a rules update as a core book update that was just incredible - full color, better organization, much better art and again it really didn;t invalidate anything that had come before, other than your core rulebooks - GOOD

Shadowrun 2nd ed - Cleaned up a lot of rules issues discovered in the 3-year run of SR1, set the foundation for a nice long run, and didn't invalidate 1st ed material - GOOD

Shadowrun 3rd ed - 6 years after 2nd - More rules tweaks and included conversion information in the back for almost all of the 2nd edition supplements which was awesome at the time, set the stage for another 6 year run - GOOD

MegaTraveller - 10 years after Traveller first appeared it came back in a new boxed set with 3 books that included greatly expanded character generation, ship and vehicle construction, and setting detail. It was "more" Traveller in every way and was excellent for both old and new players. The rules were an evolution of the prior set, not a total change which also left most of the prior material useable as written. Now as we found out later it had a LOT of errors and in the pre-internet era it was a lot harder to track down the errata sheets, and it never was as well supported as the black book edition but at the time it was great - GOOD

Traveller New Era - 5 years after Mega, we got the 3rd edition of Traveller and it was a radical change mechanically, rendering most of the older material unusable mechanically. I found the mechanics clean, logical, and to some degree realistic, but also kind of plain and boring. It also included a major timeline advance taking it from a classic galactic empire type setting to a post-apocalyptic in space setting, which while a cool idea, did not go over well as the mainline Traveller setting with existing fans. I gave it a try and liked it to some degree, but effectively it had nothing to do with the prior Traveller game either mechanically, thematically, or setting-wise and I'm going to call it the textbook example of how not to do an edition change - BAD

Traveller 4th - less than 5 years after TNE we got a whole slew of black-covered books from a previously unknown company that went retro in both look and setting and kind of mechanically as well. The setting was roled back to he start of the 3rd Imperium, the main Traveller setting for 1st and Mega editions - not a bad move. Mechanically it went back to d6's for task resolution but the system was quite a bit different, so a partial win there, but it was not compatible with the older material so in the end it's still a break. The game was also horrendously full of typo's and errors and died a quick death - BAD

Mongoose Traveller - roughly 10 years after the last edition Mongoose came out with a new edition intended to be a more generic set of rules that could be used for a variety of science fiction campaigns much like the original 3-book set of Traveller. It went back to a system that was very similar to original Traveller for task resolution, had a good basic starship construction and combat system that was again similar to the old, and had a look that was similar as well. It was a huge win being both appealing to old-school Traveller players and relatively rules-light which had been the trend in a lot of games over the last few years. Setting material has been published in separate books covering the classic Third Imperium well and adding settings as diverse as Hammer's Slammers and Babylon 5. In my opinion this is a textbook example of how to put out a new edition of a game that has a large fanbase but has been dormant for a while - GOOD

Twilight 2000 2nd edition - 6 years after 1st edition GDW rolled out a brand new system that completely invalidated the mechanical elements of the very well-supported T2K 1st edition. Mechanically this system was very limiting and T2K "Version 2.2" came out within 2 years which improved the system greatly, but 1st edition was very dry, very plain, with no "chrome" to make things interesting. Setting wise the game's background was altered a bit, but the core concept was the same so it avoided the 2nd major misstep of TNE noted above. It also largely reused artwork from the 1st edition material to help keep the feel of the game as T2K had a lot of very nice detailed pencil artwork that added a lot to the look and feel of the game and it was a smart move to keep this. However, considering they had to redo the rulebook within 2 years I'm going to call this one too a fail - BAD

Twilight 2012 - I admit I haven't read this one but I know it exists and I've read some reviews. Let's see, different mechanics that have little to nothing to do with either of the previous editions, a totally different background though technically it is the same - post nuclear America/Europe, plus it's a mechanically heavy game in an era of lighter rules so that's not looking good. On the plus side, it's been close to 20 years since the last edition was released so it has that going for it...really more pointless than BAD - it should have been a GURPS setting book for the realists and a Savage Worlds Book for the less hardcore among us.

Midnight 2nd edition and Conan 2nd edition - these were alternate d20 fantasy games that came out in the early 2000's and then turned around and put out a 2nd edition within 2 or 3 years and then republished most of the material already out. I'm not saying they weren't needed, but they felt like a cash grab coming that quickly considering how little changed mechanically and I dumped both games when it happened - BAD.

Arcana Evolved - coming out about 3 years after Arcana Unearthed this was to at least some degree driven by WOTC publishing a very similarly named D&D supplement and a desire to avoid confusion. It added in material from 2 prior supplements (which were not republished), added new races, new classes, expanded the magic system, and raised the level cap. It also went to full color for the entire book and spawned several very nice supplements that were not reprints. Despite the short turnaround time this was a vast improvement on the already very good original and didn't require the repurchase of the prior supplements, mitigating some of the usual edition change pain. - GOOD

Gamma World 2nd edition- kept the same system as 1st edition, added a lot of material, and gave it a great look that was still being used in some ways over 10 years later - Good

Gamma World 3rd edition - total system revamp, some background/setting changes, lots of errors and errata - I liked it for what it was, but it was a big change from 1 & 2 and drove off some fans. In a lot of ways it seemed like change for the sake of change - BAD

Gamma World 4th edition - another system change but it went back to something at least similar to 1st and 2nd in some ways. It added classes and a more systematic approach in many ways. You can see a lot of precursors to d20 in this version and it played very well. It also had been 8 years since 3rd. - GOOD

That's probably enough for now. One thing to note, I don't typically describe new editions as "upgrades" - that's because while it's always a change, it's not always better and upgrade implies improvement. it also implies an improvement to an existing base and in some of the more radical changes, (TNE, D&D4) there is no mechanical connection to the prior system so it can hardly be called an upgrade. Switching to an entirely different system is more properly termed a migration or a switchover than an upgrade.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Mutants & Masterminds 3rd edition

Just saw the announcement of M&M 3rd edition and I have very mixed emotions. It seems like recently the time between editions for many RPG's has decreased significantly. I suspect this is partially due to an "internet magnifier" effect where flaws in a rule system are exposed much more quickly than in the paper mail era and even the BBS era, resulting in a shorter lifespan for printed rule books. D&D 3.5 was a result of this I think. It may have something to do with shorter attention spans too, though I'm not sure.

D&D: 1st ed 12 years, 2nd edition 10-11 years, 3rd edition 8 years, 4th edition 2 and counting...

Warhammer: 1st ed 16 years, 2nd edition 8 years, 3rd 1+

GURPS: A couple of editions up front then 3rd ran 16 years, 4th is at 6 years and counting

Hero: 3 editions that were all very compatible over 8 years then 4th ran for 12 years, 5th then ran for 7 years and we're on 6th as of the end of 2009.

Shadowrun: 1st ed - 3 years, 2nd edition 6 years, 3rd edition 7 years, 4th is at 5 years and counting

Rifts: Pretty much 1 edition for 20 years with some small tweaks in the Ultimate Edition a few years ago.

M&M 1st edition 3 years, 2nd edition 5 years with a 3rd ed on the way.

So yeah, 3 editions in 5 years seems like a lot, and the changes from 1st to 2nd were mechanically significant to the point that 1st ed stats were not all that useful for 2nd edition as anything other than a guideline for conversion.

A new print run has been a cause for a new edition with some games in the past. This is what happened with Hero in the early 80's/. When stocks run low and a new print run is ordered on a fairly small game (anything other than D&D) the publisher might as well make a few rules updates to get them out into circulation. Nothing wrong with that and it meant that Hero products were directly compatible for close to 20 years.

I think some of the reasons for this might also be tied to Green Ronin being a smaller company. History has shown that the core book has the greatest sales in a game line will come from the main rule book. We also have seen that the best way to spur sales of a rule book is to make a new edition. So I think it's fair to speculate that a revision of their #1 game line will help the financial situation.

They have also stated that with the DC license made it look like a good time for a new edition, making both lines completely cross-compatible. That makes sense too and it's probably better for the long-term health of the game assuming there is some influx of new players attracted by the DC universe license.

The downside of these edition changes is that current players have to decide when/how//if to change over. There's a financial cost, there's the time cost of learning a new system, there's usually some loss of "system mastery" to those involved, and a conversion cost of making use (or not) of the other books you already have with the new system.

In general, I'm OK with edition changes when they address some specific issue or issues with a system or if a system has had a good long run and everyone is ready for a change. I realize that the first is pretty objective while the second is not. An example of system issues is the change from Shadowrun 1st to Shadowrun 2nd - there were some major mechanical issues and some rethinking of how to handle things once the game was released and the 2nd edition was a much better system mechanically and had a nice run. System fatigue/sprawl is best exemplified by D&D 2nd edition. By 1999 there were a ton of core books, kit books, adventures, campaign sets and odd sort-of-supplements (Volo's guides etc) and it was time for a reboot. After 10 years who can complain?

I am really not on board when a new edition just feels premature - either the game rules are incomplete, the system seems to work just fine, or the time since the last edition just feels too short. Warhammer Faantasy Roleplay moving from 2nd edition to 3rd edition feels like this to me - 2nd was a great system, well supported, but there was plenty of material left to explore - Where was the elf book? Where was the Lustria book? How about the undead lands to the south? The Warhammer World is rich place dripping with detail and I did not see a need to switch systems (and publishers) that quickly. Star Wars d20 has been a bit of a mess here too with 3 editions in about 8 years, basically 1 for each movie of the new trilogy as they came out. 1st ed only had about 5-6 supplements but 2nd, the RCR, was a full-on game line with around 10 hardcover supporting books that had a lot of good material. The 3rd, Saga is by far the best system and has the most support but ends up with a lifespan of only 3 years!

This beings up one more side effect of a new edition - the "supplement tax". When a new edition of a game comes out, you can bet that there will also be new editions of the supplements you already own,with the worst cases giving you the wonderful experience of paying for something you already bought once. I have 4 rigger books for Shadowrun - 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 3rd revised which was practically a new edition, and that was over about 10 years! I have 2 versions of the Freedom City sourcebook for M&M that only came out about 5 years apart. I bought a multitude of class books for 2nd edition D&D , D&D 3rd edition came out with 5 class books in the early 2000's, then for 3.5 they redid them as 4 hardback books, and now I've been picking up power books (the 4e equivalent) for 4th edition. Its' one of the most annoying parts of an edition change. That said it's also where a game can really shine so it's not something that's easily ignored.

So to M&M specifically: To me it feels like it's too soon. Doing a revamp only 3 years after 1st edition should buy more time than 5 years. I bought quite a bit of 1st edition M&M's supplements and felt a little backstabbed when they announced 2nd edition so quickly. The changes in 2E were good though so I got on board and I've been slowly picking up the books as my 3rd or 4th priority behind D&D 3.5/4E and Star Wars Saga and Traveller or Savage Worlds. Now that I have a fair collection of 2E books, we're going to 3rd. I expect we'll see another Freedom City, another Lockdown, another bad guy book, another good guy book, some more "age" books. It's not bad I'm just not sure it's necessary. How is it going to make my game better? That's what I need to hear. I'll be haunting the forums to watch this one develop.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Return to the Ruins of Adventure - Session 2: Beggars and Baggage

This session saw the addition of a new player who will be running a Human Swordmage. Now as a rule I don't allow new characters to just spawn in with the current bunch, they have to be found - often they are found chained to a wall naked or locked in a cage wearing nothing but rags, but it has to be organic to the game. There's no "You look like a trustworthy fellow" here.

We left the party standing in The Square in the Slums are of Ruined Phlan about to be attacked by a mob of angry beggars. Concerned about the numbers involved, The fighter, Kordan, opens with ... a Streetwise appeal to be cool, they just found the dead beggar already dead? Then Javanni the bard hits them with a Diplomatic barrage that hey, we're all friends here - look we even killed the goblins that attacked your friend. Kordan followed up with more lower-class bonding talk and Javanni continued his epic monologue that ended with the beggar leader crying and handing them his walking stick in friendshiip.

Emergency DM Note: So I have set up a clear combat encounter, my players have had a week to consider tactics, at least one of them knew it was likely all or mostly minions (this was my minion encounter experiment) and the fighter opens with a natural 20 on a Streetwise check! Then the bard, seeing a chance to use his social abilities goes with Diplomacy for a result of 34! I ruled that this meant the party had turned the beggars away from attacking for the moment as they debated amongst themselves what to do. On round 2, the fighter got a 19 streetwise and the bard rang up a 25 diplomacy. Given that I decided that the silver-tongues had turned the beggars into allies, crying, slapping each other on the back and bonding over trying to get by in a world where horrible things can happen to relatively innocent people. The leader gave the bard his staff as a sign of friendship and the beggars wandered off into the ruins.

This was very surprising to me as my planned combat encounter suddenly turned into a skill challenge! Considering that low levels posit 15 as a moderate difficulty and 20 as a difficult, my guys blew this away. The beggars were not evil or fanatical cultists or being driven by a greater will than their own so I decided they weren't really strongly motivated to fight once the mistake was pointed out. I have had some player discussions with opponents before but it's been a long time since I have had PC's attempt to talk enemies out of fighting once mini's were placed on the table and challenges were issued. I was unexpectedly pleased at this turn - it's been quite a while since my players have surprised me like that. Also the staff is a magic item and hopefully the wizard will figure that out soon.

So as the beggars depart, the party notices two of them lagging behind the others, dragging a large sack (see above pic for the two beggars). Watching for a bit, they notice the sack is wiggling. Kordan asks them what's in the sack and they respond "our loot". After pointing out that their loot is moving, they respond "Our dinner." When asked what dinner is they declare "Rats - this is our bag of rats for dinner. Food's hard to come by out here so you have to take it where you can find it." The party is having none of this and opens the bag, discovering a pair of boots, which are still being worn by their owner, the Swordmage (Ta-Daaa! Another successful mid-mission character deployment). He is quickly extricated from the sack as the sack's former owners scurry off into the ruins. Realizing he has no armor or weapons, Dave the Swordmage (yeah, I know, we're working on it) shouts after them "Where's my stuff?" - they shout back "In that building over there."

Dave the Swordmage introduces himself and asks the party if they will help him recover his weapons and belongings that are in that building right over there and they agree to do so.

Entering the ruined building all is quiet until they pass a second set of doors and find themselves in a large-ish room where 5 stirges hang form the ceiling. They awaken and combat is joined. The bard and the fighter are punctured during the fight (as we learn about how grab works in 4E) but no one is severely injured and the things are dispatched in less than a minute. The Swordmage finds his gear in another room and is happy once again. The party pauses for a moment to interrogate their goblin prisoner and he agrees to guide them to Whiteye's lair if they let him go when they get there. The party agrees and heads out.

Reaching the street they see a group of goblins has blocked off part of the street and several of them open fire with crossbows. Althea the wizard opens up with a thunderwave on the line of goblins and blows them away, leaving only the leader and the 2 shooters alive. In what will probably come to be a standard deployment Kordan and Dave the Swordmage (sigh) leap into melee while Javanni provides support and Althea and Mikal fire off magic missiles and eldritch blasts from a distance. The goblins have little chance to use their special tactics and shiftiness as they are separated, marked, cursed, blasted, bloodied and slain in short order. Our heroes pause after the fight to clean up and bind wounds, then turn to their goblin prisoner/guide and order him to lead on.

DM Notes
  • As I said I like to make new character entrances fit into the game and this one went very well. It gave us some good dialogue with the two beggars, it gave his character a memorable entry, and it set up a hook for the next planned encounter with the stirges. I had originally planned for the goblin prisoner to tell them that the dead beggar came running out of that building, screaming and bleeding and then collapsing right in front of their barricade - so no, the goblins didn't kill him,the stirges did- but it never came up with the prisoner. So the beggars became the lead instead which worked out perfectly fine.
  • The battle with the Stirges was our first look at the grab rules in 4E and I was initially worried about how that was going to work as stirge bite attacks are treated as a grab, grabs allow one to push the grabbee around some but stirges are small creatures so this didn't make sense at first. Upon further review they are based off of strength vs fortitude (which stirges frankly suck at) so it was not a problem - the poodle sized bat things weren't going to be shoving the Str 18 fighter around after all.
  • Encounter length - so far we have not had any problems with this. The goblin battle last session lasted 6 rounds, but the beggars/stirges/goblins this session lasted 3 rounds each, so the combats are running along very nicely.
  • Action points made some appearances this session as we hit our 2nd, 3rd, and 4th encounters without a long rest. You start with 1 and get another one after every 2 encounters without a long rest, so most of the PC's are up to 3 of them now. The bard grants a damage bonus on them so the fighter and swordmage both burned one during the last goblin fight and were pretty happy with getting that extra action AND a damage bonus at the same time.
  • Dave the swordmage will be getting a better name soon, one way or the other. he's a new player to the group so I didn't hammer him about it but if he doesn't pick one he may get one anyway when he runs into his old master - "Ah, Davidikithis I see you are putting your training to good use" - who will be making a special appearance just for that purpose. I can be subtle like that.
  • Structure and design looks a little more open to me now than it did. I initially designed each section of Phlan as the adventuring area for one level, at least at the beginning. The mid to high levels I may mix up somewhat (6-7-8) but mostly the idea was that at Lvl X the party would be steered towards Area X. They could try Area X+1 but it was going to have a lot of warnings about the danger beforehand. Call it a "moderated sandbox" design, or maybe a "sideways dungeon" - the farther you get from the civilized section of the city, the more dangerous it gets. This is still the plan but having acquired the DMG2 and the MM2 recently I have more options to play with now. The Lvl 10 area to close out the Heroic Tier is still going to be Valhingen Garveyard, and having picked up Open Grave (and being a fan of Libris Mortis from 3rd) it's going to be a nasty ugly place. Lvl 9 will be the Sorcerer's Isle outside of town and I am still debating whether to have it feature abominations or demons. Abominations is more in keeping with the original, but demons would be nice to put in somewhere too and the magical pyramid on the river seems like a good place
  • The Party - After The Beggar Incident, I'm clearly going to have to keep an open mind about how the players approach encounters. I didn't include any skill challenges in the Slums because I wanted to get the combat rules down first and I thought my players would prefer it that way. I may have been wrong, and with a socially-capable party negotiations are certainly an option for them. Interesting interesting interesting.
Session 3 is this Friday so expect a post by Monday, then next week it's back to Necessary Evil.

Picture by Honorat whose other work can be seen here.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Return to the Ruins of Adventure - Session 1: New Hopes

So the adventure begins! We open on a small ship sailing the Moonsea towards the city of Phlan. Aboard it are the crew and 4 young adventurers:

  • Kordan, Human Fighter who prefers sword and shield
  • Javanni, Half-Elven Bard and master of the wand, the longsword, and the mandolin
  • Mikal, Human Warlock powered by an infernal pact, user of the wand, the spear, and occasionally the crossbow
  • Althea, Eladrin Wizard, student of the staff and occasionally the longsword
They have heard rumors of the riches to be found in the ruins of Phlan and that the Council seeks to expand the civilized section of the city by reclaiming the ruins. They have put out the word to adventurers of all types that they will be welcomed and supported by the town as they venture into the dangerous lawless areas and fight for what's right.

(So, it's not only adventure and loot but it's government-sponsored adventure and loot!)

Now this is 1400-something in the Dalereckoning, long after the spellplague and all of that so the inhabitants don't think of this stuff as "new" - it's how things have always been to humans and halflings for the most part and even to a lot of Elves and Dwarves. Yes Phlan was destroyed in 1306, partially reclaimed back in the 1340's, but then it was destroyed again in the early 1400's and largely abandoned by civilized men. The dock area was reclaimed about 20 years ago and the old wall repaired but expansion has not really been attempted until now. Now several trading companies are trying to reestablish the Moonsea trade and Phlan is a nice open place to do it. There isn't much of a government structure to bribe or topple, no entrenched nobility, and if adventuring bands can keep the monsters busy then the merchant traffic should be safe. So this is primarily an economically-driven expansion, although some temples and some individuals might have other reasons.

The party steps off the ship and begins exploring the dockside area. Over time they locate the city hall, the major temples, and Javanni manages to find the local criminal underground and pump an underboss for information with his remarkable charm, streetwise ways, and his willingness to buy a lot of drinks.

The local Thieves' Guild controls a lot of the traffic in and out of the slums, the area nearest to civillized Phlan outside the walls. They have a member named Wyler who runs a tavern in the ruins near the wall that handles a lot of this business. Lately though he has gone independent and isn't paying his dues. he knows everyone in the guild so when they tried to shut him down he saw it coming and several valued guild members were killed and Wyler is still in business. The guild captain mentions that since the party is new in town they could take care of this problem much easier and with less bloodshed. Javanni agrees to help by burning down the Bell (Wyler's tavern). The bard's new friend also mentions that there's a group of beggars running around out in the slums causing trouble for the guild too and if they could be dealt with then he would be personally grateful to the party as well.

The group also gets a meeting with a council member, one Barnabus, who is handling the recruitment and guiding the incoming adventurers. He informs our heroes that a group of goblins led by a nasty piece of work known as Whiteye has moved into the slums and this is part of what has spurred the recent recruiting drive - the council does not want goblins living that close to the city. If the party can wipe out the goblins and bring Whiteye's head to the council, then they will be rewarded and given a chance at some additional work in the ruins as official agents of the city. When Kordan asks about rewards, Barnabus mentions that the city has many items in its vault from various expeditions over the years, and that they would be presented to trusted agents of the city as both a tool to expedite their tasks and as a reward for accomplishing those tasks. Then he pulls out a weapon that makes the fighter's eyes bug as he recognizes it as a Sun Blade. Kordan is now very much on board. The party then retires to the Laughing Goblin for the night - one of the better inns in the city - and plans to head out in the morning.

In the morning the adventurers pass through the gate into the slums. On the way out the gate guards take down their names and warn them that the gate shuts at sundown and is not opened for anyone. The group acknowledges this and heads on into the ruins.

The only guide that the party has is that the main crossroads in the Slums is known as The Square and has a large dry fountain in the center. They have a rough idea from there where the Bell is and plan to watch for goblins and beggars along the way. They follow the main road out from the gate, noticing that most of the surrounding buildings have collapsed or burned and that many seem to have been built on stone foundations but were often largely of wooden construction above that.

Entering The Square the party spots the large once-ornate fountain. Apparently a statue of some kind once topped the thing but now all that's left is feet, broken off at the base, and the three large, almost nested bowls that once presumably held water. The party also spots a barricade across one of the 4 entries into the square, where some goblins appear to be gathered around something on the ground. They do not appear to have noticed the party just yet.

Excited the heroes sneak up to the large fountain to both close the range on the goblins and to try and get a better look at what has so distracted the humanoids. This goes well for the eladrin, the elf, and one of the humans, but Kordan is just not very good at being silent and alerts the single goblin who was actually keeping an eye out. Combat ensues.

The Wizard and Warlock blast goblins from a distance while Javanni shouts directions and Kordan charges the clustered hostiles, sword and shield at the ready. The goblins respond with hurled javelins at range and short swords up close. Kordan manages to hold most of the attention on him, beating down the gobbos one by one, then Althea unleashes a Thunderwave spell that blast goblins in all directions, leaving a battered fighting man standing in the midst. The combat picks up again as combatants workaround the barricade and into the rubble, exchanging blasts and crossbow fire while fighter and wizard have a discussion about rules of engagement and targeting priorities. The goblins are soon overcome, with the party keeping one alive for questioning.

As they pause to bind up their wounds and their prisoner, the heroes realize the object of the goblins' interest is a rag-clothed human body laying on the ground. He carries nothing of interest and appears to have multiple small puncture wounds. About this time Mikal notices movement in the rubble across the square. A lone, ragged figure can be seen near the fountain too, and he shouts out:

"They killed Fritzie - Get 'em"

and 20 of his friends rise up out of the rubble and charge.

DM Notes:

  • This session went pretty well, setting up the scenario and the initial location and getting us into our first combat. This whole thing only took us 3-4 hours as there we got a slightly later start than usual. For our first run through of a new system I thought it went very well. It helps that Javanni the Bard's player has played and run some of 4E on his own so he can help with the rules questions and already has an idea of how things run.
  • No minions in this first fight, it was 5 goblins - 3 warriors and 2 shooters. Next time it's all minions, so we'll see how those work.
  • Party composition is good, we have one each of the defined roles. Player composition is good too. They are all interested in seeing how this edition works in an extended campaign as the most they have done is short LFR type sessions. They also are working well together and figuring out how each character can make the others better.
  • Old school flashback - well well well the wizard managed to catch the fighter in the blast area of her big blasty spell. Wizards: "Accidentally" frying the fighters since 1978. Some things never change. Some powers have a target of "all enemies in blast" and some are "all creatures in blast". It's an important difference.
  • Yes the beggars and the Bell are minor quests and Whiteye is a major quest. I did a lot of forum research before the campaign and the chief complaint in 4th is "the grind" where too many combats in an adventure that can go on too long end up sucking the fun out of things. The 4th ed formula is 10 encounters per level. Completing a major quest gives XP equal to one encounter. By including a major quest in each section of the town, I shave that formula down to 9 encounters. By including a few minor quests, which give XP = to one creature of that level, I can cut that down a bit more and help the players who get into the situation a bonus in leveling up a little faster.
  • The bard really got into the RP with the underworld element and the rest of the party didn't instantly rebel against the authority figures in the town. A different player mix has had a definite impact here and hopefully it's a positive one. I see interesting possibilities ahead in working for both the Council and the criminal element.
All in all I was happy and so were the players and that's really all you can ask.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Return to the Ruins of Adventure - Session 0: Prologue

So on May 1st our new D&D 4th edition game kicked off. Here's an intro to the situation and some thoughts on starting the game up. This is a long post, so bring a snack.

Being an old-school gamer for the most part but not having a lot of system hate for any game prior to 4th, I was a little shocked at the changes from 3rd edition and put the game away before I could even finish the PHB. My group continued with the 3.5 game I was running at the time and ignored 4th. By the end of 2009 however, I was a little tired of having only that campaign (after 18 months) and looking for something to run with the family. I thought I would re-examine 4th with the idea that the kids don't necessarily need to start with old-school stuff - why not free them of all that legacy material and just start them off with the current version of D&D?

I managed to read all of the rule books this time and saw some good ideas in there. So during Christmas vacation we tried it out over 3 sessions and I decided that I was wrong, they did need to start at the "start" and newer is not better in this case. I started a red book basic D&D campaign that you can read about on this blog. It is still going and probably will be for some time to come.

By the start of 2010 my 3.5 campaign ended as well and I took some time off from running anything to recharge my batteries. We had some group dynamic issues after 8 years of playing together and everyone went their separate ways for a while.

I reconvened some of the 3.5 group in April ready for something new and we started up the Savage Worlds Necessary Evil campaign that is also still ongoing and which is also written about here.

But I was still looking to do something else as we still had some free weekend time and I have a lot of games. I brought up trying out D&D 4 and the group went for it as a tradeoff game with NE, planning to alternate sessions from week to week.

We used to play on every other Saturday night, no exceptions, and if too many people couldn't make it we would just cancel altogether and pick up on the next "other" Saturday. This worked for a long time as I typically had 6-8 players and schedules being what they are meant that someone was almost always out. This time we are playing on Friday nights and scheduling the next session at the end of the current session, with a general goal of playing weekly as much as possible. We have left Saturday as an option when it's needed too. This has cut down on the schedule stress a lot, as under the old way missing one time meant 4 weeks between sessions, which is bad in many ways.

We have also cut down to 4 players, with the recent addition of a 5th. This has made a huge difference as there is no room to sit back and let others take the reins while doing nothing, which happened fairly often with the larger group and leads to boredom, random actions after being bored too long, and general dissatisfaction with the game. It's also not as easy to squeeze people out as the party needs everyone to contribute. There's also less role-overlap or niche-stealing as you aren't likely to end up with 2 of the same thing - especially in 4th edition's classes-gone-crazy world.

Starting in March I began reading up on the new rules and picking up the books where I could find them at severe discounts - Amazon, eBay, and Half Price Books are amazing tools for the modern gamer. I have paid an average of about 8$ per book including taxes, shipping, etc which is awesome for current material that has a cover price of about $30 average. There's no scribbling in them, no torn pages, no funny smells, and none have been lost in shipping or anything else. It's the way to go when picking up a mainstream game like this, especially when you are unsure how much use it will get.

Reading the rules one thing has hit me sort of after the fact - it's simpler, but it's not simplistic or lacking in options. Most of the hard rules of the game are in the PHB - the first one - and most of that book is not rules. It's a surprisingly small amount compared to almost every other game I have (other than Savage Worlds) - Character Creation, Skill Use, and Combat. That's really it. The DMG has encounter-building, Traps, and XP numbers, but it's a pretty small part of that book too and not something players have to learn. So learning to play the game really only requires the PHB and that's it. Compare to 3rd where the Monster Manual saw a lot of use with summoning spells and the various Complete books added new classes that used different subsystems and added new subsystems to existing ones - look at all of the things someone could do with Turn Undead by late 3.5, and look at how some of them require feats, some require rolls, some have other prerequisites like losing a level to an undead creature. Options are good but there were a lot of little things one had to keep track of in the game. God Forbid you tried to use Book of Nine Swords on top of it...

I have about 15 books on my shelf for the game now and most of them are not rules - they are more character options but importantly they do not add new subsystems to the game - they add new powers and feats and sometimes classes within the existing framework, and the power creep is almost non-existent. This is a huge win in the new player department. using Lady Blacksteel as an example: She is new to gaming, having started in the middle of the 3.5 campaign in 2008. To make her Druid for that game she had to use the PHB, the MM for animal stats, Complete Divine for more skills and feats and spells because may of those were just better than the original PHB versions. For 4th, all of the information needed to do something is contained within the power descriptions and she can build her Wizard completely within the PHB and it doesn't suck - even though she didn't use Arcane Power or the PHB2. Those other books exist, but she doesn't have to read them at all, or if she does, she doesn't have to sort through a bunch of stuff that doesn't apply to her character. She is finding it a lot easier to make what she wants and does a lot less book-flipping, even though we're all new to the system.

Some of this ease of use is organization, some of it is formatting (the powers are a huge win here) and admittedly some of it is that it's a newer game and has less material than some editions, but I would say when it comes to player options there are a lot more in 4th at the 2-year mark than there were for 3rd, and probably 2nd (I can't remember the timing on the brown books) and certainly 1st. The almost modular approach to classes and powers in this version makes a lot of this possible too. Power sources, roles - formalizing these turned me off at first but seeing the benefits to the system from doing it - well, I've changed my opinion pretty drastically. The 3rd edition started a lot of this, but 4th has really made it universal. I do call that an improvement.

So I did see a lot of good points to the game, different as it is. I also wanted a somewhat old-school feel to the campaign so I am using the old Pool of Radiance module and computer game as a starting point. You can read more about my campaign thoughts in my earlier posts here, here, and here but I settled on Phlan as the best start for my group and our first run at this edition. I think a lot of the feel of a game comes from the tone set by the DM and the players will pick up on that and run with it. So I am using mainly traditional D&D monsters, especially in the lower level sections - no digesters or really weird undead here - it's mostly goblins, kobolds, orcs, ogres, gnolls, and Dragons of course. There are humans in the ruins as well, and there are other adventuring parties which can make for some interesting roleplay experiences. I will also say that I am using the encounter and XP structure presented in the DMG but I have not read any published 4th edition modules and this is on purpose. I want to see if the system works as written and interpreted by me and I don't want to copy what's already out there. I do like the codification of the different types of terrain and the emphasis on using them to make things interesting - that's a good move in my opinion and I am adding it in where it makes sense. Ruined cities should be interesting to move around, and this one will be.

One note: I am not using the DDI right now other than the free downloadable character builder. I really don't like the idea of needing not only a computer to run a pen and paper game (a complaint leveled sometimes at Hero System) but an internet connection and a monthly subscription! I see what they are doing and I see some advantages to having tools and a rules database online but charging a monthly fee for it just turns it into something I can't endorse. I can kind of see it if you can look at it as being like a magazine subscription to Dragon and Dungeon in the previous editions. I can almost get there - but it's a lot more expensive than those and if I want to read it off-line I have to print out all the material I download, adding to my expense. It just sets a bad precedent for the hobby and I just can't bring myself to do it.

Final Note: This is heretical crazy talk in some quarters but running overlapping campaigns I may be in a unique position - running 4th edition feels a lot like running Basic D&D. The change from 3rd edition's concept of everything should be built using the same rules system (which I loved when it came out) to the approach that PC's use one system, NPC's and monsters use another is a huge difference and is a lot more like old-school D&D than original flavor d20 ever was. Even the powers for monsters is a lot more like old school monster stats - Basic doesn't give you that the Orc has a 16 Str and a battle axe which you then translate into 1d8 +3 (x3 crit) - Basic says the Orc hits for a d8+1 or a d6 or whatever the monster requires and typically doesn't specify a weapon.. 4th edition follows a similar path with the powers. It may be identified as having a spear, but the power tells you everything you need to know about the critter's melee attack and doesn't have to match up with some set weapon damage or take into consideration what a Gnoll's spear attack might do - it just does what it says, period.

This ties into something I only recently realized - that D&D4 plays a lot different than it reads when you have experience with 3rd edition. There were a lot of assumptions about timing and effects and complexity after my first read-thru of the rules that just melted away after my first couple of sessions. I think someone coming in fresh might not have that problem but I have 30 years of D&D legacy material in my head and apparently reading it does not filter that out the way that playing it does. It's the first time I've run into this with a game an I suspect it's largely because it's named D&D and this pulls down all kinds of things into my brainspace that another game would not. Reading it, it looks as far away from old school Red Book D&D as you could get, but running it...well, it's a very different experience. I'm not saying they are the same, but the ease of setting up and running is quite different than I expected and my post-game combat notes look a lot like my notes for our Basic campaign.

That said there is a 1st edition game in the future for me and the Apprentices and maybe a 3rd edition game too down the road. I am not going to tell people that they need to convert to 4th - I wouldn't have liked that myself a year ago. All I will say is that if you come across an opportunity to play it and are in an open frame of mind, give it a try. If you've seen some of the rules, download that character builder and play with it a bit. I do not plan on selling my 1st, 2nd, or 3rd edition books, or any others, but this is a game I am getting to like for its own sake and my players, most of whom started with Basic or 1st edition are starting to warm up to it too.