Friday, August 27, 2010

Roles Through the Editions - Rangers

I'm giving Rangers a separate piece from the Big 4 as I believe the genesis of the "Striker/Defender" split in 4E lies with the Ranger rather than the Rogue which is where a lot of the discussion seems to have focused in the past.

Rangers - in 1E they could wear any armor, use any weapon, and had the saves and attack progression of a fighter. They had a d8 for hit points but they had 2 of them at 1st level, which actually made them tougher than the 1d10 fighter at the lowest levels. With an 18 Con you could start 1E AD&D as a 1st level ranger with 20 hit points! They also had tracking abilities and then added some minor spell capabilities at 8th level and up. Most interesting to this discussion, they also had a +1/level damage bonus against certain types of creatures - mainly humanoids/giants. This made them very handy in the G series adventures while merely about as good as a regular fighter in the D series modules. However, nowhere in the 1E writeup is the concept of rangers as lightly armored fighter, more mobile fighter,  or more fragile fighter.

Role: Fighter substitute, especially if your DM runs a lot of outdoor adventures (tracking was usually a big player here as were some of the followers possible at higher levels) or if you thought regular fighters were boring. The tradeoffs were some stat minimums and some alignment restrictions, but this was not a heavy burden for most.

Complaints: Not many that I remember. Most people liked them just fine. Maybe that they end up looking a lot like fighters with a few powers added on but this was not a huge issue back at the time.


2E rather surprisingly added two-weapon fighting as the ranger's signature feature alongside tracking, but only in light armor, along with hiding and moving silently like a thief in some cases. Hit dice changed to d10's just like the fighter and paladin. The gradually increasing damage bonus against a list of creatures became a straight-up +4 to-hit vs a certain type of creature, period, ever. That was huge at lower levels so there was a temptation to take lower level creatures as the favored enemy, but it would be more important against things like Dragons which mostly came up later on, so this was a bit of a dilemma. So the 2E ranger ended up looking and playing somewhat different from his 1E form and set the template for what we see through 4E. I think it was the answer to a question that no one was asking, but it worked alright and gave rangers a somewhat different flavor than other fighter types.

3E Continued the 2E pattern - light armor, nature skills, outdoor thief skills, two-weapon fighting and minor magic ability. Bow specialization was added as an option as well. To some degree the Ranger became the "Skilled Fighter" at the cost of heavier armor. Favored enemies were now selected at several levels over the course of the adventuring career and the bonus was smaller but it switched back to a damage bonus, in addition to being a skill bonus The d8 Hit Die also made a return and so now we have a clear trend towards the future Striker:
  • Light armor
  • Lower hit points 
  • Bonus damage
  • Increased attacks (two weapons or faster bow firing)
  • Increased movement capabilities (Woodland Stride) 
  • Stealth capability
 So where before (1E & 2E)  the Ranger was a flavored Fighter, now it starts to look more like a more combat-oriented thief. He's less of a stand-up fighter now and probably won't be in the front line in a 10' wide dungeon corridor, which is a big change. In naval terms he's gone from battleship to battlecruiser, favoring offense and mobility over offense and protection.

As a comparison 3E rogues use light armor, a d6 for hit dice and have a slower attack progression and no inherent two-weapon or archery skill, but  they do get Sneak Attack damage, which is a conditional bonus that reaches +4d6 at 7th level and continues to increase every other level and have better stealth than a ranger.

4th edition simply completes this transformation. The Ranger is officially a Striker now, sacrificing defense for offense and really not looking much like a fighter, and you know what? I don't really mind. I played a 1E ranger all the way to 20th level over about 6 years and I liked it, but I don't mind the fighter-related subclass types branching out and finding a niche other than "specialer fighter". I don;t mind a class favoring offense over defense - you could do that with a 1E fighter by choosing whether to go with a shield or a two-handed weapon. If your iconic ranger is Robin hood, well, 4E rangers do Robin Hood pretty well. If your iconic ranger is Aragorn, well..that's a problem as the 1E ranger looks more like him to me.

What I don't like is that the Striker/Defender split being such a split. To me should be something reflected in the builds for an overarching "Fighter" class, ranging from slow heavily armored knight to swift lightly armored ranger rather than making it such a heavy break. I think that fighter type classes benefit from  broader classes rather than narrower ones, unlike spellcasting classes. Quick, what's the difference between a fighter, a ranger, a barbarian, and a warden? Now what's the difference between a wizard, a warlock, an illusionist, and a shaman? Even a non-D&D player may have an idea on those last 4, but the first 4 seem a little more closely tied IMO.

Think I'm wrong? Look at leaders. Some are better at healing, some are better at buffing, some are better at granting actions to others, yet they are all controllers. How closely related is healing vs. "here's a +2 to will defense for a round" vs. "Take a free standard action"? Now how closely related is "I'm a tough heavily armored guy who hits people wit ha sword" vs. "I'm a fast lightly armored guy who hits people with a sword" vs "I'm a tough guy who gets really mad and hits people with a sword? Aren't they at least as closely tied together as what the "Leader" umbrella covers? I think they are.

So where does that lead? Are there really only 3 roles to be played - combatant, leader, and controller? Maybe. There were 4 archetypes in classic D&D but 4E is so different that the old archetypes no longer apply anyway unless you think the 1E Thief was a Striker class for some reason. It wasn't. Leader clearly comes from Cleric, Controller from Wizard (though it;s not as clear as some seem to think) and I think both Defender and Striker spring from the Fighter. Where does that leave the Thief? Let's look at it tomorrow.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Roles Through the Editions - Fighters

The iconic 4 classes in D&D are the Fighter, Cleric, Thief, and Wizard. A typical party in an old-school game would include multiple fighters and at least one each of the Cleric, Thief, and Mage if at all possible because that was the best mix for handling typical old-school adventures. Other mixes and approaches were certainly possible but this was the baseline. Let's look at how this has changed up through the new edition and why.

Fighters: The core of any party - you had to have at least one fighter to make a party really work. Oh it might be a ranger or a paladin or might be multi-classed into something else too but most parties of 4 or more characters included at least one straight-up fighter.

Role: Supreme physical combatant. Most specialized in melee combat but they could also handle ranged combat too. Outside of combat they were no more limited than any other character and they usually had good physical stats for the occasional strength-check, or open doors check.Strength was the primary attribute, usually followed by Con and maybe Dex. They had the best chance to hit in combat, the best hit points, could use any type of weapon or armor from Day 1.In a classically combat-heavy game, they were the best combatants.

  • "Fighters are Boring" - they didn't get any spells (except for high-level rangers and paladins getting a few), they didn't get any nifty skills like the thief, and the magic items they typically go for (+3 sword, Gauntlets of Ogre Power) simply add bonuses to what they already do rather than giving them more options. For players who liked fighting, this wasn't an issue - being really good at something isn't always boring. 
  • Fighters also tended to look alike at times - Plate mail, shield, longsword - because they were equally good at all weapons a fighter usually used the most effective weapon for the situation. So even if your 10th lvl fighter has used a longsword in every fight since level 1, another fighter could pick up a longsword at level 10 and use it just as well as yours. 
  • Also, fighters being used as the baseline for many abilities implanted the idea in players' minds that fighters were "normal" and everything else was exciting and different - to some degree it was a perception problem. Also their excellence was largely limited to combat. In a city adventure wizards and clerics and thieves all had some interesting options mechanically, but fighters usually did not. Some thought this was a problem, some did not. 

  • Unearthed Arcana added Weapon Specialization to make  fighters different from one another. It did help. Some considered it power creep or over-complication but in a long running campaign it was a nice little bit of differentiation. Fighters lost nothing in this update.
  •  AD&D 2nd edition added Non-Weapon Proficiencies to the system so that characters could be good at something besides fighting but unlike 3E's skill system, 2E fighters weren't gimped! Wizards and Clerics were given 4 NWP's while Fighters and Thieves were given 3. This was a pretty even-handed approach that gave fighters more versatility without compromising their combat ability. I still see 1E's lack of a skill system as a feature, not a bug, but if we're going to add a skill system then keeping it fairly even between classes is a good move IMO. So fighters gain something comparable to other classes and give up nothing.
  • D&D 3rd edition revamped NWP's into a skill point system which was more flexible but fighters were given a measly 2 skill points (effectively 2 skills to pick, down from 3 in 2E) the lowest of any class in the game and physical and sensory skills -what they should be good at - were rather finely divided. This crippled fighters in non-combat situations as suddenly other classes who still retain their spell and thief skill elements now also have 2-3 times the skill points of the typical fighter. Rangers and barbarians were given higher skill amounts but the straight-up "Fighter" was now significantly behind everyone.
  • 3E also added Feats as a subsystem for all classes which made it easier to individualize characters even more on the mechanical side Fighters benefited from this probably more than most as it replaced the weapon specialization  from 2E and gave even more options than that. Fighters as a class also received more feats than any other, making them the kings of versatility in character building, if not in play.

  • Mechanically 3E gave fighters the best attack progression and the most attacks as they progressed in levels. They still retained their flexibility with armor and weapons. So in combat they are still "the best" but they are still sometimes perceived as "boring" because they lack spells, skills, and special powers like Rage, Healing, Dual-Wielding, etc. This was a much lessened complaint though as one could make a 3E fighter that could out-archer a ranger, out two-weapon a ranger, excel at unarmed combat, specialize in breaking weapons, and pretty much excel at any kind of physical combat one wanted. Multiclassing could solve most of the other problems in making the character you wanted to play at the cost of some of the pure fighter's peak combat ability. With certain feats a rogue could get close to a fighter's damage output but most of the time the fighter was still better. At high levels a wizard could out-damage a fighter, but that had been true since 1E and eventually the wizard does run out of spells...
  • D&D 4th edition has taken a different approach to almost everything in creating a character. One of the goals was to balance all classes at all levels and this changes quite a bit of the mechanical element. Fighters still have the highest hit points but attack progression is the same for all characters and there are no multiple attacks as standard. This is a huge conceptual change - no character can be better at combat than any other as that would be unbalanced. This means that fighters cannot be the kings of combat any longer. They can still take more damage than anyone else as they have the most hit points and the most healing surges. They can use the most armor types of any class other than Paladins, who get one more surge as well. They can use the most weapons. They even get a comparable number of skills when compared to other classes. So far, this isn't looking too bad, but what about the loss of  offensive excellence? What replaces that? Marking.

     Now I have some issues with marking as I noted yesterday. I think it's not something the game needed but it is also in no way a replacement for offensive power. Where before Gutboy Barrelhouse might have  +3 to hit and a +3 to damage and 2 attacks per round with a battle axe at a fairly low level and this would get better, now I can...make this guy take a -2 to hit if he attacks someone other than me - wow, that's impressive. Let me charge the dragon so I can lay down that -2 on him. Even better, it doesn't stack so that if we did have 2 fighters in the party, we can't double-team the dragon - a solo in 4E terms - the most we can give is a -2. This is a piss-poor ability for what was once the mightiest combat class and all Defender types get this! Fighters have somehow morphed into the guys who are good at taking a beating at the expense of being able to really dish one out. Now they aren't helpless and you can take more offensive builds like two-hander specialists or two-weapon fighters but they are always second to the Strikers (Rogues and Rangers etc) who are built to excel at offense while being less durable on defense. It's the first time we have really seen this split in D&D and it's a questionable decision in my opinion as it elevates some classes at the expense of others.
Assuming that each edition of D&D is an attempt to improve the game and resolve the issues that players have with certain aspects of the game, are Fighters better now than when we started this ride back in 1E? I would say that, within the context of the other changes to the game as a whole,  through 2E and 3E yes. Through 4E I'm not sure - it's definitely different, but is it better? The powers are cool as instead of attack-attack-attack I can use Tide of Iron one round then go with Sure Strike, Rain of Blows, and Dance of Steel but much of the Fighter's "thing" is tied up in the mark and it's a mechanic I don't like. I would much rather have seen more emphasis on shifting and knockdowns and pulls which would be a more organic way to make opponents attack the fighter and would give them a definite physical fighter feel - pulling the orc barbarian off of the wizard by knocking him on his ass for 25 points of damage as you step between him and the wizard (damage + knockdown + shift) is a lot more vivid to me than insulting his mother and sticking a mark on him for a -2. The hit point inflation of 4E makes it nearly impossible to take an orc down in one shot on a routine basis so the old school "sweep" as well as the 3E era "power attack > cleave" forms of hide-saving are no longer legit, but there are other mechanics that are much more Fighting Man in feel than a taunt. I will say that the Brawling Fighter build in Martial Power 2 embraces some of this concept and looks like a lot of fun to play. The Battlerager Fighter and the Tempest Fighter in Martial Power 1 are also more offensive oriented builds and help a little too. For any old schooler looking to get into a 4E game as a fighter I would steer you in those directions.

In the end I'm still left with one question: Who decided that the concept of "fighter as prime combatant", a concept that worked through at least 3 editions of the game, was no longer valid and needed to be changed, and why did they decide this?

Hopefully I've illustrated how the OD&D/1E concept of "Fighter" was basically the same through 2E and 3E until suddenly with 4E it's split into "Defender" and "Striker".  This has gotten a little long so I'm going to split up  the classes into different posts over the next few days, including a look at the ranger since that seems to be the genesis of the "Striker" split.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

MMO vs. Tabletop Rpg's and the Concept of Aggro - UPDATE

In an interesting confluence, has an interview with the COO of Cryptic (makers of Champions Online and Star Trek Online) who talks about the new 4E Online Game they are working on and he notes a similar drift of Taunts and Aggro into the tabletop game. Interview is here.

MMO vs. Tabletop Rpg's and the Concept of Aggro

4th edition brought accusations of "it's a videogame" or "it's an MMO" or more specifically "It's World of Warcraft". Most of these I found to be tied up in the terminology used in the game and not really correct, but there is one concept that seems to have made it in that does have a substantial impact on 4E.I'm seeing some revisionist history on this area and wanted to set forth my own thoughts on this.

Premise: "Aggro" is a concept that springs solely from MMORPG's and has no heritage in earlier forms of D&D yet is a big part of 4E and the redefinition of character roles that colors the entire game.

Now I'm not going to judge whether this is a good or bad thing (Yet) I'm just establishing where it comes from for now.

Aggro is a term for having a monster's attention. Basically if you move too close to a monster in an MMO then it will attack you. This idea goes back to even early video & computer games like the Ultima series where you could see monsters on a map far enough away that you could go around them but stray too close and the chase was on. This was a bit of an upgrade from the earlier tunnel-vision games like Wizardry where if you could see a monster than combat was pretty much underway. Other computer games and then later MMORPG's refined this concept to include things like different monsters having different aggo radii, which way monsters were facing, and even varying levels of hostility - some creatures may not attack unless attacked first and some may issue a warning before beginning combat. There are all welcome refinements and make the games more realistic (in a sense) and nuanced.

So how did early D&D (I'm looking at BECMI, 1E, 2E, and maybe even 3E here) handle "aggro"? Mainly through the DM. There really aren't hard rules in most editions about when monsters fight. Holmes Basic had a reaction table that was supposed to be used whenever monsters were encountered  to determine their actions. Otherwise it was pretty much common sense - if you kick down a door to an orc lair, you're probably going to fight. You can parley in some other situations but the default assumption in most of my games anyway is that adventurers are considered invaders and will be attacked almost all of the time. If they launch an attack on a monster, peaceful or otherwise, they will almost certainly be attacked. Now after combat begins you can get into things like morale rules and such but that's after the initial reaction. So the initial start of combat is really pretty similar- get too close and the monsters will attack or start shooting/swinging at them and the monsters will attack..

So far, so good.

The nitty-gritty part of this discussion happens after the initiating event. Say combat begins when a  fighter shoots a bow at one member of a party of orcs.

In older D&D I , as DM, would have the wounded one and maybe one more go after the archer while the rest spread out to engage the rest of the party. A smart creature or leader type might try and target a mage if he sees one (back when they all wore robes and pointy hats it was easier) and some will target anyone wearing a symbol of something they hate whether it's having the green tree emblem of the Elf Kingdom on your shield or having a holy symbol of Gustavus the Orc-Slayer around your neck. Monsters usually responded to an attack by a group by attacking "the group".

In an MMO the orcs will generally react by swarming the attacker.  They don't typically see the attacks as coming from a "group" they see the source of the damage as coming from "Player X" and move to eliminate Player X, moving right by Players A, B, and C without attacking to get to him. This is a crucial difference.

In more detail "Aggro" is usually tied to the amount of damage done already, not the potential biggest threat. The bow-attacked creature above will drive for the wizard even if he has to run right past a dual-wielding-super-specialized ranger named "threshing machine" to get to him, ignoring this deadly threat due to the simple AI involved. I will grant that orcs are not the smartest opponent in most fantasy worlds, but I can tell you that in a tabletop RPG session that orc is going to think twice before running past and exposing his flank to the dual-blade bad boy. In fact, he's probably more likely to charge that guy, because he sees him as more of a challenge than the skinny little wizard in the robes - but that won't happen in most online RPG's.

Back to tabletop D&D: In a dungeon you generally had 10' wide passages so that attackers couldn't always get to that archer. It was usually set up so that no more than 2 or 3 characters could fight abreast in a dungeon corridor. Usually that meant fighters up front, clerics right behind,  Wizards and Thieves in that 2nd or 3rd rank. This puts the melee specialists up front and the non-melee specialists behind a wall of steel where they can still contribute but aren't likely to get chopped down unless the party is attacked from behind. This helps to illuminate the emphasis on marching order in so many of the early D&D books: it was important. Wilderness adventures were much more dangerous as the party could not control the action by putting the fighters up front - numerous foot opponents, mounted or faster or flying attackers could swarm the party and attack whoever they wanted and the guy at the back with no armor was an obvious easy target. It was dangerous and  items like rings of invisibility were seen as defensive tools, not just scouting gear.

MMO's have a problem here as it's generally not possible to physically block a monster from getting past you even in a dungeon corridor for technical reasons. Pathfinding, collision detection, and trying to keep things from getting stuck in walls usually means that you can't physically seal off an area. This turns every combat into the wilderness situation described above. Now if the aggro is coming from a fighter shooting a bow, then it's not a huge issue as they will move to engage the fighter. The problem comes when the wizard fireballs the orc war party. Now the wizard has done the damage so the orcs are coming after him and the front line of fighters can't stop them from doing so, which leads to a dead wizard..In some games the monsters treat healing as a form of attack as well, so if the cleric tries to heal the wizard to keep him alive then the monsters will split and some will attack him as well - this just makes the problem worse as now the weakest party members are under attack while the characters best equipped to handle a melee fight are ignored. This undermines the whole hit point mechanic commonly seen in MMO's and creates a big issue around survivability and player satisfaction.

Now this isn't really off-base behavior - if I'm running a tabletop fight and the monsters notice someone healing while the fight is still going on they may well try to stop them - hold person is a fine choice here - but the fighters have ways to intervene by using the rules for fighting withdrawals or position swaps or bull rushing in 3E etc. Plus most swarm type monsters = orcs, kobolds, etc have low enough hit points that one hit is likely to take them down, letting a fighter intervene by clearing the attackers away before they can kill off the mage, very much in keeping with what a "fighting man" does. In most MMORPG's these lower-end creatures do not go down in one hit, eliminating this as a solution to the "swarm the wizard" problem.

In most MMORPG's the answer to this problem is the "Taunt". This is an ability that most fighter-type classes have, usually a ranged attack, that does "ghost damage" to draw the target to attack the fighter - that's how it works mechanically anyway. It's a mechanical construct to let a fighter force an opponent to attack them instead of the wizard. Sometimes it affects a single target, sometimes a group but this is how it works in a broad sense. This leads to the concept of "Holding Aggro" which means that it's one character's job to draw the monsters' attention and keep it, soaking up attacks to keep the rest of the party safe. This is really where the modern concept of the "tank" starts to diverge from the classic D&D concept of the "fighter".

On a mechanical level I find "taunt" to be an inelegant solution to a technical problem and on a conceptual level it's just a mess - apparently all fighters learn vile insults in all monster languages as an integral part of their training and consider it a vital combat move. It's foreign to fantasy literature and movies and TV. Most older videogames  typically used the rule of "attack the nearest target" which while seemingly simple allows the fighter to intervene just by being the closest target. This fits into a world much more smoothly than "taunting" by fighters. I have seen situations where 2 fighters move some distance apart and alternate taunts on a group of monsters to the point that they spend the combat running back and forth between the two fighters without ever striking a blow while the rest of the party whittles them down with lesser attacks. It's ridiculous and would never happen in a tabletop game or a movie or a book.

This also leads to a split in the role of the fighter as some fighter types are built around this concept as more defensive types while others are conceived as more offensive types - they generally are not expected to Hold Aggro, they are expected to do lots of damage by attacking the monsters. MMO Rangers usually end up as one of these "DPS" (damage per second) types. This idea that fighter types can only be good at either defense or offense but not both has taken root in many other computer games now and is bleeding over into tabletops .

So, how does this tie back to 4E? Well in 4E fighters have a "mark" ability and it is tied directly to this concept. It allows a fighter to "mark" an opponent (sometimes multiple opponents) and if the marked monster attacks anyone other than the fighter they take a -2 n their to-hit rolls. What is this, exactly? What does it look like? how would it be described in a novel or short story? It's clearly a taunt, designed to drive a monster to attack the fighter instead of some other party member. Now I admit I like D&D4 but this is one of the weirdest concepts to be added to the game. What problem are we trying to solve here, exactly? It does introduce a tactical element that can make fighters a little more complex to play and one complaint over the years has been that "fighters are boring" but I'm not sure this resolves anything. Why is it here? Part of it is tied into "Class Roles" as seen starting in 3rd edition where "Fighters" were largely considered defensive while Rangers and Rogues (of all things!) were considered offensive types. In 4E fighters are flat-out declared to be "Defenders" while rangers and rogues are declared to be "Strikers". This unnecessary split is all tied back into the concept of  taunts and holding aggro. It pulls a clumsy solution to a technical problem from the online world back into tabletop gaming for no good reason.

No one played a fighter in AD&D 1E because they wanted to suck up more damage than anyone else - they had the best hit points, sure, but they were the best at killing things at mid to low levels too - wizards arguably passed them at higher levels but that's not where most of the game was played. We didn't buy Plate Mail and a Two-Handed Sword  to protect some other character - we did it because Plate was the best AC and a two-hander did the most damage - we were tough AND we were awesome in combat! We didn't have to choose! We wanted to be on the front line because that's where you could kick the most ass! Not because it was my duty to protect some guy in a dress! This forced split in approach has no basis in old-school D&D, no basis in movies or literature, and no basis in old computer & videogames - it springs solely from the MMORPG world. To someone who grew up playing the older editions of D&D the idea that the party's thief would be the primary damage dealer while the fighter is there to suck up hits is just mind-boggling. Shouldn't the wiseacre thief-type character who's too quick to be hit by the big clumsy ogre be the one issuing taunts? That's how it usually goes in books and movies - the light fast character keeps one opponent busy by dodging and insulting the big bad until the fighter can join the fight, whereupon the fast roguish type usually gets in a backstab or two but rarely finishes the fight - that's how some of the classic melee engagements go. 

Somehow this has led to the idea that the role of the "Tank" is equally enticing as the role of "Striker" and "Controller" and "Healer". I have news for you - it's not. Even the name is a misnomer - most actual tanks are tough, yes, but they have awesome firepower too, they aren't just there to draw fire. they're mainly there to blow stuff up. In most MMO's "Tanking" means standing at the center of a bunch of enemies doing mediocre damage and watching while the rest of the party blows stuff up. Quick, is Conan a Defender or a Striker? How about Lancelot? King Arthur? Fafhrd? Gray Mouser? Elric? Aragorn?

To flip into another genre for a moment, who is the tank of the X-Men? Most people would say Colossus is the Tank while Wolverine is the Striker. However, if you go back to  the Marvel Super Heroes RPG Colossus can not only take more damage, he hits for more damage too (Monstrous Strengthe = 75 points of punching damage)! Wolverine with his near-infinite regen but comparatively low-damage claws (Wolverine's claws are Class 1000 material but do Excellent damage, which is 20 points) actually looks more like the concept of the "Tank" on paper than Colossus does, but no one thinks of him that way or would play him that way but then again the game predates the MMO era and doesn't view things that way either. In movies or TV does Superman sit there and take it while Batman and Aquaman club an opponent into submission? No, he takes the other guy's best shot then punches him through a building! Yes, his defense is strong but his offense is just as strong!

So I'm left wondering who decided that fighters shouldn't be good at both attacking and defending?  Who decided that this was too powerful? Who decided that "taking damage" is fun and a class-defining ability?

Not me, that's for sure. It seems to me that somehow the answer to "Fighters are boring" is to make them less effective at what they used to be good at. How is that better?

That's enough for now - I'll have more on Character Roles tomorrow .

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

4E Manual of the Planes: A Review

Since I noted I was reading this I decided to post a review. The newest Manual of the Planes is a 160 pg hardback published in 2008, making it one of the earlier books in the 4th edition line. This is basically a setting book - it describes the D&D cosmology as revised for 4E. There is an overview chapter, a chapter each on the Feywild, the Shadowfell, the Elemental Chaos, and the Astral Sea. Major locations within these areas are described over a page or two such as Sigil (from Planescape), The Abyss, The Nine Hells, and the realms of the gods. This section of the book takes up the first 110 pages and is 99% mechanics-free, so it would be usable in any game if you wanted to follow the 4E cosmology under different rules for some reason. The rest of the book has a chapter on monsters, one on paragon paths, one on rituals, and one on magic items - this 50-page section is about 99% crunch and is the mechanical meat of the book.

Overall I like the way the book is laid out, moving from the general to the specific and from the fluff to the crunch. It is almost an old school presentation as the description are mostly large-scale noting some interesting locations here and there and leaving the majority of the detail to the DM. Nailing down the general characteristics of a plane  - gravity, layers, who's in charge -ensures that players will have a common baseline but it avoids the trap of detailing every single floating rock in the Astral Plane. It's exactly the right approach in my opinion. The more recent books on the Elemental Chaos (The Plane Below) and the Astral Sea (The Plane Above) may fall into this trap - I don't know for sure, I haven't read them - but I'm not sure how much more detail is needed  after reading this book - it covers what I needed to know just fine. I could see a book on "Sigil" to give those running a Planescape-type campaign more to work with, or a "Secrets of the Abyss" book to cover both more demons and some sample lairs (and the recent Demonomicon may do just that) but more planar overview books seem redundant.

Things I didn't like...well, not a whole lot. Some of the changes for 4E don't mean a whole lot to me as I haven't kept up with planar politics and events during 3rd edition or 2E's Planescape days. I know who went where back in 1E and I now know who is where in 4E and they are somewhat different but demons are called "demons" and live in the Abyss and devils are called "devils" and live in the Nine Hells and I've seen other editions that couldn't get that right so there's not a lot to complain about here. The good counterparts of demons and devils were Devas at one time, now 4E just goes ahead and calls them "angels" which is fine.The only things lost are the Ethereal Plane and the separate elemental and para-elemental planes have been combined into the Elemental Chaos and I am fine with both changes. My players always seemed to be a little fuzzy on the difference between Ethereal and Astral anyway so this at least avoids that confusion.

Old School Note: Page 15 has an entire page devoted to using the Great Wheel cosmology in 4E. Big tip of the hat to the writers here as even as they make some major changes to things, they at least take the time to cover how to handle NOT changing it - very nice.

So overall this is a good, useful book. Could I run campaign here?  Sure, there is at least as much info as we had in the Greyhawk Folio way back in the old days. Would I? Hmmm...probably not an entire campaign. Heroic Tier characters are going to be in over their heads much of the time. This whole thing feels more like a Paragon to Epic level setting. I would probably use it as an interesting place to visit rather than the main setting, kind of like it was in older editions. I could see spending a lot of time during the 10-20 range on a spelljamming quest to collect say the Rod of Seven parts or spending chunks of the Epic tier interfering in the affairs of some of the deities or demon lords, certainly.

I'll do some more of these reviews as I catch up on books I have missed or as I re-read books relevant to the campaign at the moment so look for more in the future.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Other Campaign Worlds and Me

To wrap up the impromptu theme of the week here are my experiences with some other published campaign worlds:
Empire of the Petal Throne - The first published campaign world - I have never seen a copy in person nor have I played or run anything in it. From what I have seen it's not anything I would be terribly interested in but I understand why some people still revere it. James M gives a more detailed discussion of the game and its history than I could here.
City State of the Invincible Overlord - The Judges Guild world is one I do own - I have several of the paper supplements and the original "books in a bag" sets of City-State and Tarantis, plus the Mayfair boxed set. It's an interesting setup and many, many people love it, but it is a wide-open kitchen sink type of world - there's not really a particular vision of what makes the world different here. Then again at the time it was published just having a world setting was pretty unusual in itself - it didn't need to separate itself from the pack  because there wasn't a pack. I've never run it and never played in it but I considered it for 3E briefly and I might do it again just to say I have. Apparently the Wilderlands of High Fantasy set in either original form or 3e Necromancer games form is what really makes the world come alive and that's a piece I sadly lack. James M again has a nice overview of some of what makes it special here. Reading some of that I need to get my copy out again - it might get some use in the upcoming 1E campaign.
Glorantha - It's not D&D but it's probably the most influential non-D&D campaign out there. This is the Runequest world and it's very different than traditional RPG Fantasy worlds. The gods are fewer in number and more directly involved in the history of the world than most. Technology tends to be bronze age as a standard (if you have iron plate armor you're a big deal and it's worth a lot of money). The feel is more mythic and nothing is generic. Mountain ranges are the backs of sleeping dragons, elves are plant creatures,  many of the monsters are unique (no orcs or goblins here) and it just feels different. I've never run Glorantha but I played in  a long-running RQ3 campaign and owned the boxed sets for a time. I wouldn't try to run D&D in it, but it does make for a nice change if you are burned out on D&D, both system-wise and world wise.
Planescape - Published in 1994, a big and seemingly very popular 2E AD&D world that no one in my circle of friends played or ran. Never owned it, never read a single product for it. It gets a lot of love now and looking back at the authors I see names of people whose later work I like, but it was always an also-ran line as far as I was concerned at the time. Plus, it looked and felt like TSR was trying to emulate White Wolf (Vampire was very popular at the time) and WW was my gaming kryptonite at the time. I can appreciate it more now, but at the time it felt like Planescape was targeted at someone else, not me.
Spelljammer - similar in some ways to Planescape as it was a 2E product that my friends and myself basically ignored. We were firmly grounded in our Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms games and this added what, exactly? It looked silly and we bordered on active dislike for it on the rare occasions it came up. Looking back at us we took our D&D games fairly seriously and there was no way we were going to waste our time with this - you take your flying boat and go fight your hippo-men with guns, we're going to attack the Vault of the Drow and try to win a barony for ourselves. Looking back at this, it looks like a lot of fun and I would love to play it today. Again, never read any of it, never owned a single product of the line. Having a pretty good idea of what it's about though, I can tell you that the 4E Manual of the Planes (which I am reading right now) contains a pretty good update of this concept including a discussion of Spelljamming vessels. I think an episodic campaign of "D&D Star Trek" could be a blast - in any edition.
Ravenloft - I never played the original module, never read or owned it until a few years ago. I'm still not sure who thought it was a good idea to sort of turn it into a  2E campaign world. I have never read or owned any of the campaign materials so I admittedly have limited knowledge of the setting but I just don't see gothic horror as a good fit for D&D. A Vampire can scare lower level players in most editions but compared to the Huge Ancient Red Dragon, A type VI Demon, a Pit Fiend, or some of the other big nasties of the D&D world it's just not a top-tier opponent past a certain level. Without some mechanical support for "fear", PC's aren't going to act afraid. One of my good friends played in a fairly lengthy 2E campaign of this and it just sounded OK at best. It seemed like a lot of special rules to force players to act a certain way when everyone couls have had a lot more fun just playing Realms or GH or Spelljammer for that matter.  Not a fan of this one.
Al-Qadim - a 2E world. I never read it, played it, owned it, or cared to. It just never excited me.
Oriental Adventures - I own it for 1E and 3E but my players are just not interested. Never played it or ran it, probably never will.
Eberron - a new setting for 3E and republished for 4th. I picked up the main book not long after it first came out and it looked like a friend was going to run a game. It fell through and though I have read a lot about Eberron I've never sat down to read the book and I've never played or run in a game set there. It's kind of an odd blind spot to have after 10 years of 3E and part of a year of 4E but there it is. I will probably pick up the 4E books before too long but I have no plans to run anything in it at this time.
Kalamar - at one time I would have had a lot to say about Kalamar as I really liked it early in the 3E era but as time has gone on I just have lost all interest in it. What seemed interesting at first as a "realistic" medievalish fntasy world now just seems boring. There's really nothing I can point to as making the world stand out from other options or as better than other options or unique in any way. Having every book published for it and having run 2 campaigns in it I can say that in my expert opinion it's very plain and has nothing to distinguish it as a world in its own right. The only game that I see it fitting with now is a gritty GURPS fantasy campaign emulating low-level D&D play and the odds of me running that are pretty slim. So my good-sized set of Kalamar books is on the chopping block for my nest trip to the used book store.
Scarred Lands - This was a 3E campaign world put out by Sword and Sorcery (an imprint of White Wolf of all things) and it was very good. This is the setting where those 3E Creature Catalog books and Relics & Rituals books are from. I will write about it in more detail down the road but if I fire up another 3E game it will most likely be set in this world. I also have every book published for this setting and the contrast with Kalamar could not be more pronounced. The setup is post-apocalyptic fantasy with the world recovering from a war between the gods and their progenitors the titans which the gods won, similar to Greek mythology. Certain races were created by the Titans while most were created by the gods and the tension between the Divine Races and the Titanspawn is a big part of the setting as the titan-bred races try to find ways to return the titans to power and the divine races try to prevent it without squabbling too much between themselves. Druids get their powers from the titans while clerics' powers come from the gods, so it's not just a racial thing. There are a ton of interesting monsters tied to the world, 3 continents covered in some detail, some nice poster-maps of said continents, and some regional sourcebooks breaking down parts of the world in more detail.
It has a unique feel fluff-wise with things like the Blood Sea which is red because there is a titan with his heart cut out chained to the bottom of it. The blood leaking from this titan cause all kinds of bad things to happen so you have an ocean full of mutated weirdness including bloodthirsty fish-men and shark creatures and various tentacled horrors.
It is also unique mechanically because of the monsters & magic items detailed in some of the books, the details on the gods and titans in others, and the massive number of prestige classes available in the books that let characters join some of the legendary organizations talked about in these books.
The best thing I can say about it is that nothing feels generic - they don't take the easy way out at any point yet you can play regular D&D here - it's not so far-out as Dark Sun or Spelljammer that it feels like a different game. To me it's the best mix of "new & different" with "ground-based, prime-material plane-based regular D&D" that I've seen since the Realms came out for 1E.
Dragonlance - I read and loved the original novels and I own the Dragons of War strategic game and the one with the battlesystem scenarion at the Clerist's Tower but I've never played in a DL campaign or even an adventure, nor have I run ny of them, nor have I owned any DL campaign material until recently. Not too long ago I picked up the 3E Dragonlance Campaign book and it is very nice. So I like it and though I wouldn't necessarily be up for running it I would gladly play in a game if one opened up. DL has a bit of the "Star Wars Problem" in that a big epic story has already been told, so some players are going to wonder what their characters are going to do.  I think that's surmountable, but the DM has to have some specific ideas in mind - I think it's a campaign that needs to be plotted out to some degree and not just a sandbox game.
   Note: I was not a big follower of this world past the initial novels & the twins trilogy but they did 2 things that pretty much killed it off for me later: First was changing it over to that Saga card-based system. I can't think of a stupider move either creatively or business-wise than taking an iconic D&D world, probably the best known to non-D&D'ers at the time, and making it NOT D&D! Pure jeenius at wrok! The other bad move was "Dragons of Summer Flame" which was the original writing team coming back to TSR after some kind of dispute and writing a novel to advance the timeline to the next big thing - it got all kinds of hype and was published in hardback (not many D&D books were at the time) and I got it and it was terrible. Not just because it killed off most of the main characters from before, and not just because it had to go and find something worse than Takhisis for the big bad, but also because it was just a bad book.

So that's my wrap up of my brushes with the various campaign settings associated with D&D (plus Glorantha).