Friday, March 16, 2012

Campaign Shuffle - Exit Star Wars

I started the Star Wars campaign with good intentions - I really like the Saga edition system and think it would be great for a long campaign. Choosing to run the Dawn of Defiance made it easy enough to get started and there is a ton of supporting material on the web now as it's been out for several years and run by many GM's. Unfortunately I'm not sure I will ever get to run it.

Our main group hasn't been able to gather for over a month which is a long break for us. The thought was that I would run Star Wars while one of my regular players ran his own D&D game on a different night as I didn't see much point in two D&D campaigns running at the same time. Well, he hasn't been able to run either so instead of two ongoing campaigns we've been left with none, and D&D overlap is not an issue.

I am once again reminded that D&D is our main game, and it's pretty much assumed that we will have a D&D game for sure, plus whatever else we can work in on the side. An additional factor is that the Old Republic MMO is scratching the Star Wars itch for some of my players, lessening the interest in the tabletop campaign. I felt the general sense of "we should be playing D&D" over the internet waves and made the offer to switch.

So, tomorrow we start a new D&D campaign. Yes, it's 4th edition. No, it's not a continuation of Return to the Ruins of Adventure and no it's not Temple of Elemental Evil 4E Thread 2. More details next week.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Two Classic D&D Elements I Can Live Without

As a follow-up to my post earlier this week on what ought to be in a new all-inclusive version of D&D I thought I would note a few things that I would be happy to see left out of a new version:

Item 1: Level Drains
Yes, it strikes fear into the players, but it also strikes fear into me as a DM because it effectively erases hours and hours of play. A 7th level party walks into a graveyard, and a party with levels ranging from 1-7 walks out - now we have to deal with that meta-game problem somehow.

Levels are how we measure progress in the game (and in non GP=XP campaigns they took a looong time to acquire). Reversing this progress is a pretty drastic form of damage, especially when it happens on a single roll of the d20! Hit points heal back quickly - levels typically do not. Death provides a nice clean break point - to raise or not to raise? In some campaigns that not even an option, so it serves as a definite thing to be avoided with a clear measure of status in hit points. Levels are fewer in number, more difficult to heal, and unlike hit points as levels drain away the character becomes measurably less effective.

Now if there is an easily-available low-level spell that can reverse level drains then it is quite a bit less of a problem. It also makes level drains significantly less scary, which was one of the main points of having them in the first place. So maybe another mechanic would work instead of the classic permanent level drain. There was a mechanic in 3E called "Negative Levels" that imposed a set of negative modifiers on a character and something like that might work. Make it a standard condition like what you find in 4E and it should be easy to implement. I think the goal here should be a significant short-term impairment that wears off over time.

Item 2: Save or Die
Another classic, one we all lived with back in the 80's, but one I'm less in favor of now. The main problem is that character death is the ultimate penalty in the game - "you can't play this character any more". In my opinion, there should be another clause attached to that "...because you screwed up and he died". Screwing up should not include things like trying to open a chest (poison needles you know) or fighting giant spiders just because they happen to be spiders and not some other monster. Characters roll a lot of dice in their careers, and sooner or later they're going to roll a 1 - better hope it's on a to-hit roll and not a saving throw or it will cost you your character. I think instant death effects should be extremely rare, and when they turn up on poison needle traps, dart traps, on spiders and scorpions and centipedes all in a 1st-3rd adventure module, then they aren't rare and it's a problem.

Now one way to make this a scary ability but somewhat less punishing is to change up the way save or die works. I've experimented with this in my Basic D&D games like this: Failing a save-or-die save means the character drops but is not instantly dead. The party basically has hours = to Con score to do something with weaker poisons or lower level spells, minutes = to Con for stronger ones. This keeps it simple and still takes a character out of a fight but leaves some room for the party to do something - like find a healer. Plus you see things like this in myths and fairly tales where a magical curse is laid on someone and there is a race against time to find a way to save them. With this maybe the death spell is now "death curse" and the allies of those affected only have minutes to save them.

Another simple option for things like poison is to just have poison do damage, likely based on the hit dice or level of the monster. How about this: Poisons do hit point damage = to the Hit Dice of the monster per round beginning on the round the wound is inflicted. It works like ongoing damage in 4E with a chance to save each round. In a fight against something like giant scorpions, this makes the back and forth of stinger hits, damage, and saves a lot more interesting than hit = death.

A slightly more complicated option is to follow the method used for petrification (among others) in 4E and also for the Affliction power in M&M 3E: List a set of 3 conditions in order of severity from least to worst for each type of attack like this. Attack is made, it hits, target fails to save, 1st condition. Next round if a save is failed, the 2nd condition takes effect. Next round, if they fail again, then the 3rd condition is imposed. For petrification in 4E this was typically Slowed/Immobilized/Petrified. For evil old school DM's thinking this is watered down, well, watching a player sweat that next save as they struggle to fight on is every bit as satisfying as "Fail! Stoned!" is, because it takes longer. Giving players more time to think about it adds an element of suspense beyond the single die roll.

Note: I actually don't mind turn to stone effects in old school D&D because there are specific spells and magic to help with that - it's not exactly save or die. It's close but I usually give it a pass when going retro. Poisons and magic are the ones that have problems.

Finally, we could leave all of this stuff in pretty much as-is with the addition of one extra mechanic: Hero Points. If players had a per-session or per-level way to do something as simple as say reroll a die then many of the problems of these mechanics are mitigated, especially if one can also be used to avoid death. Maybe you get 4 +1 per level, so a starting character gets 5 of these Luck Points. I can make an argument that they should be much lower, maybe 1 per level, but I could also argue that the lower levels are when they are needed most. Maybe 2+ level would work too. Savage Worlds goes with 3 per session, which eliminates the need for tracking them between sessions, but D&D players tend to like some resource management  so a per-level allotment is probably fine. Uses would be to reroll any d20 roll, take one extra action, to regain a lost level, or to be a zero hit points and unconscious instead of dead. I can see an argument for an automatic success instead of a reroll, but I think the heart of D&D is tied to rolling that lucky 20, not auto-passing a check. Very few things are automatic in D&D, especially older editions of D&D, so I personally feel a reroll is more fitting for this game.

I've tried out a system like this in my Basic game with the Apprentices and it makes a huge difference - they know that fighting crab spiders at 1st level is dangerous, but now a random encounter in a hallway doesn't mean instant death for half the party - but you can bet they will be more cautious when they know they just burned through 2 or 3 Luck points. It gives them a chance to find out just how dangerous something is without dying from it - at least the first time.

Another benefit is that it also puts the burden back on the player, or to phrase it differently it gives them another interesting choice to make. Some players will burn them up on offensive choices, re-rolling attacks to take out the bad guys and then have nothing left when the wraith starts slapping them around for two levels per hit. More cautious types will use them only defensively and level up with several left in their pocket - and that's OK! My goal here would be to give players some ability to smooth off the sharper edges of fate and they can choose to spend it as they see fit. This might also be flavored as "enough rope to hang themselves" and if it goes that way, it goes that way.

Anyway, there are some things to ponder when it comes to D&D old and new.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Overreaction Tuesday

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

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

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

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

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

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