Thursday, September 18, 2014

Wading In: "Builds"

What was memorable about this guy? 
Point-Buy games have had "builds" for a long time - Hero, Gurps, etc. With 3rd Edition D&D all of a sudden D&D had "builds" and one of the plagues of the modern age of gaming fully flowered and has yet to really die down.

I'd say for most players, one of the attractions of RPGs is the opportunity to play a character that does things you do not do in your normal life - sticking swords into monsters, throwing magic, or flying a spaceship. D&D 3E (and later) and Pathfinder are very good at letting us do that with tons of options and per-level multiclassing and point buy attributes - compared to the old "roll up your stats and figure out what to play" days it's a paradise for those who like to craft their character to match their specific vision. That's nothing but a positive. Well, almost...

The coal-filled stocking in this approach is that there are a lot of people who, once exposed to your vision of Abercrombie the Barbarian Prince will quickly point out all of the places it could be improved mechanically and all of the less-than-optimal choices you have made in creating him. "Why does he need a 16 Charisma - dump that to 8!" is among the kinder things you may hear. Communal min/maxing is just as annoying as individual min/maxing  when it overwhelms the original concept. Much like MMO players, groups of players around the internet will quickly determine optimal approaches to specific classes and combinations whenever new rules or options come out and are often regarded as "experts".

If you're playing some kind of arena combat game against other players this may be useful.

If you're playing any other kind of game, it's of limited usefulness at best.

Sure, push your DPS way up there, that's really impressive. Hey, now we need an assist on this diplomacy check - oh, you have a negative? Ok, never mind. How about Stealth? Knowledge? Religion? Most optimized "builds' I have seen sacrifice a lot for increased efficiency in one particular area and that's not always the best answer to the things that go on in a campaign and they can get to be on the boring side when you're not slamming through one combat after another because that's a lot of what they focus on. Also it can warp the rest of the party. If we assume the tornado of steel barbarian can solo any monster in the game, the rest of the party may de-emphasize combat capability to try and shine in other phases of the game. Then the barbarian's player misses a session and suddenly combat goes horribly wrong .

Now you do get the opposite problem sometimes where someone takes a bard or a rogue type character and turns them into the jack of all trades and master of all trades too. That's not great for the rest of the party and rather than one player getting bored you have all but one player bored.

A lot of these overpowered builds rely on stitching together very specific abilities from across different classes and supplement books so one way to keep a lid on it is to limit options. Pathfinder has probably the biggest active universe for this kind of thing right now. Sure, the Technology Guide is awesome for the Iron Gods Adventure Path, but if I'm running Rise of the Runelords I probably don't need android PC's with chainsaws and laser pistols running around so the answer there at character creation is "no".

I've played and run a lot of games over the years but I have to say I've rarely seen the need for maxed out PC's. Right now the published adventures I am reading, mainly Pathfinder APs and the new D&D 5E adventures certainly do not demand apex character designs. So it's not pressure from adventure writers that drives optimized character designs.

I have found that campaigns are more enjoyable when people are playing a character they really like and that is often tied to designing it themselves. "Interesting" and "memorable" do not necessarily equal "efficient". Even when looking for power combos, if you find some combination of abilities that is particularly effective how much more satisfying is that than finding it out from some guy on the internet before the game ever starts? For Delve Night at the FLGS an internet-optimized hurricane of evocation may be fine but in an ongoing campaign it's different. Can you live with that character for a year? How about two?

Seeing it discussed online almost constantly I feel the occasional need to push back against the pressure to optimize everything.  Ideally players find a balance between "fun/interesting to play" and "mechanically effective" that works for them and for the rest of the people in their group. Hopefully they take a little time and consider the non-mechanical aspects of the character to round things out.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Wading In: "Realism"

Another old discussion that still seems to come up frequently online - some aspect of a game or the rules for some activity are "unrealistic" in the opinion of someone playing or running a game. Ah well:

  • Rules vs. Physics: Typically this discussion relates to a simulation type game rather than a narrative type game - Pathfinder or Traveller more than Marvel Heroic or Fate. To me, for these kinds of games, the rules define the physics of the game world so when someone states "a normal human can't do that" my thought is "in your world - in this game's world they can" and that's the end of it. Maybe being a reader of the old "Joe Genero" comic opened my eyes to this kind of thing early enough that it doesn't bother me. Honestly, why does it matter how fast the fastest man alive now can run vs. human movement speeds in the game? Who cares how long someone can hold their breath or how long a man can keep his head above water in plate mail? Most of these "benchmark" style arguments can be fixed with one change: the length of a round. If a game chooses to use a 6 second combat round that's done for certain reasons, and human lung capacity was probably not one of them. For a game that is centered upon being realistic, like GURPS, then it might be worth checking, but even GURPS can be fairly cinematic and most other games don't even begin to care about this kind of thing. 
  • The curse of personal experience: It's inevitable - the IT guy hates the hacking rules. The swim instructor hates the swimming rules. The car guy hates the vehicle/driving rules. The closer to the real world a game gets, the more likely someone in the group a) has experience with something similar and b) starts thinking that their personal experience is more important than whatever the game says on the subject. For me this usually ends up with something like "look, I appreciate what you're saying but that's what happens in the real world and this game is not happening there." I suspect if you're playing a real-world type game then this argument isn't all that helpful but fortunately for me we rarely do that. In most of them you have all kinds of physical laws being broken, from massive dragons flying over the landscape and spitting fire to starships breaking the speed of light or time-traveling or all kinds of far less realistic actions going on but this one area is hard for them to let go. Try - for the sake of your fellow players who are likely not experts in this same area, try to let it go. 
  • This is especially annoying when it comes to magic or made-up tech. People get into arguments over how a spell really works. Think about that for a second. I know I have heard someone loudly proclaiming "it seems unrealistic that a wizard could (do X) but a cleric can only (do Y)" - where does realism enter into it? If the rules state how things work, then that's how they work! One person's take on the "realism" of magic can pretty quickly enter the realm of ridiculousness. Advanced technology is at least as bad if not worse because with a veneer of technical justification people start thinking they know how things "should" work even when they bear no relation to current technology. 
Now I would never declare that a GM should never tweak the rules of a game. We've all done it, and it's just part of running RPG's. However, over the years I have seen a lot of bad house rules based on "realism" with no consideration to how it affects the rest of the game. I've seen weapon users (fighter types) nerfed into uselessness through misguided attempts at "realism", while magic zooms along unmolested. Hey, want to know what's most realistic? No magic! "There's no way even the best swordfighter in the world could do X in 6 seconds" - sure, but I bet he comes closer than the worlds best magician is going to get to throwing a fireball! Just go enjoy your fencing hobby or your SCA event or your programming job or your lifeguard job or your SCCA racing and set it aside when the tabletop game starts.

For me, "realism" is a consideration but not a deciding factor in almost any RPG.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Wading In: Alignment

Such an old argument, but one I see almost every week somewhere on the internet, so I might as well state my piece. Here is my response to what I consider the three most annoying parts of this discussion:

  • "You can't do that because you're Lawful Indifferent" - this phrase should never, ever, be uttered by a DM and probably not by another player either. Players are in control of their characters, not the ref. Blocking behavior based on the alignment written on a character sheet is like trying to slow down a car by pushing the speedometer needle back! Alignment is the gauge, character behavior is the engine. Much like the red line on a speedometer, the DM is free to warn the player that doing X means an alignment change to Z, but whether the act takes place is still up to the player. 
  • "It's a straitjacket" - why? It's intended to be an aid to roleplaying, a label for you and others to use when looking over your character. Perhaps you picked the wrong alignment if it doesn't mesh with what you want this character to do. Have the character act as you see fit and let the DM shift your alignment to whatever best fits. If you're having some angst over whether a particular act fits with your character's alignment that's not a sign of a flawed system - that's an opportunity to take a deeper look at your character and how they really feel about the world. 
  • "It's not realistic/too simplistic" - the rules of the game (for D&D at least) define how the game world works. I never hear anyone complain about Detect Magic - there is magic in the world and this low-level spell allows one to determine what is or is not magical and often what particular flavor of magic it is associated with and how powerful the effect is. Everyone seems to be cool with that. There is also a "Detect Evil" spell, and it works exactly the same way and does the same thing. Clearly, in D&D settings, Good and Evil and Law and Chaos are just as powerful and defined as "Magic". Every edition of the PHB has a pretty solid breakdown of the kinds of behaviors that are associated with each combination of these elements and their view of the world. It's not intended to model the real world- it's intended to model the D&D world and it works pretty well. In the D&D world good and evil are not relative or dependent on one's point of view - they are objective and measurable!  If you want to reduce alignment to something as simple as "picking your team" that's certainly possible but you can handle it with quite a bit more complexity and still keep the mechanical aspect in place. 

Now sure, we've all heard the stories about the DM that has it in for the players - especially Paladins - and is constantly jerking them around with alignment issues. First, these are typically stories from the old days and yes, there were a lot of jerks back then. Second, why would you play with these people? There are so many people who play, and so many ways to play today (organized play, game store nights, online games) that there's no reason to spend your leisure time with people you do not like - so don't do it!

So yes, I'm sure some people have had bad experiences and reject alignment because of it. I see it as a tool rather than a weapon. It does require some DM involvement to keep players clear on the expectations, assumptions, and consequences, but it's a traditional part of a D&D game just like classes and levels. I've never had a reason to play D&D without it. I don't think it's essential to every RPG, I've played plenty that have nothing like it, from Star Trek to Shadowrun to Superheroes, but I think it's a notable part of D&D (and Pathfinder) and shouldn't be jettisoned without consideration.

Ironic note: 4th Edition de-emphasized alignment to the point where there was no Detect Evil type ability and that did not help its popularity at all as far as I can tell. I'm not sure if that means anything, but I thought it was worth mentioning.

Monday, September 15, 2014

5E and Pathfinder Back to Back

I played D&D 5E for the first time on Saturday, then had another session of an ongoing Pathfinder game (Kingmaker) on Sunday, and I thought I'd share some notes from the combined experience.

Like any first run with a new set of rules, there was some clunkiness at first. We had a DM and three of us playing so we had time to focus in on each character. I ran a wizard (necromancer), and there was also a monk (elemental) and a fighter (eldritch knight). We started at 3rd level. This was a homebrew adventure, not a published one, so we spent time getting acquainted and figuring out how we wanted to proceed as we picked up new information about the area we were in. We ended up sneaking in to a ruined city that was mostly populated by goblins and undead. There was plenty left to explore so hopefully we get to go back to it at some point and play some more. Afterwards we talked about the game and the high points were:
  • Making a character is pretty easy and does not really feel like it needs a generator tool like HeroLab. 
  • Backgrounds added more in the flavor department than I expected, given their limited mechanical impact
  • Characters feel a lot less detailed/special mechanically than in Pathfinder and 4E. Sure, an Eldritch Knight feels at least a little different than a Champion, but I suspect two Eldritch Knights in the same party would play very much the same. Pathfinder and 4E have enough mechanical options that this is far less of a problem. Of course they also have so many classes that it's less likely to happen in the first place. I suspect time and expansion books will mitigate this for 5th as well but right now it feels smaller.
  • There is a lot less to keep track of as there are not a bunch of conditions and modifiers flying around. The universe is pretty much the proficiency bonus, a stat bonus, and advantage/disadvantage and that's the biggest part of nearly any roll.
  • It certainly felt like D&D, probably 2E D&D the most. 
Biggest insight: I suspect the battle-cry for 5th edition games will be "don't I get advantage on that?"

Character-wise Pathfinder also still feels like D&D : ) Sure, the modifiers are composed of more elements but once they're on your sheet it's not that different from 5E - d20 + your normal mods (found on your sheet) and possible situational mods like cover and concealment. Interestingly enough we just hit 3rd level in the PF game too so this was a pretty direct comparison. The PF characters just felt like they could do more when it came to game mechanics. Not in power level, but in being able to do something that would affect a situation in some mechanical way, not just handwaving or adding color. It's tricky to pin down but that's how it felt.

The other big note on 5E was from the DM who has run/played a lot of 3E/4E, mainly 4E for the last 5 years or so, and he said "The monsters are boring" - and I can't help but agree. I've been running Pathfinder and 4E the last few years and the 5E monster statblocks seem so ... mundane. Compare the stats for the manticore from all 3 games:

So the 5E manticore can fly but other than that it really just has melee and ranged attacks.

Pathfinder's manticore has flyby attack which is a normal part of the rules in 5E but not in PF. It also has the ability to track fairly well which could be interesting.

The 4E manticore has similar ranged and melee options but has a built-in shift on each of its attacks increasing its mobility beyond normal movement and it also has a reactive attack where it can throw spikes when hit. That action-reaction option does make fighting one a little more dangerous.

All of them fulfill a similar role in their editions of flying spike-flinger, no radical differences there.

  • The 4E version does "more" as written and there are options to add templates and similar changes within those rules. 
  • The Pathfinder version has a universe of options from advancement to templates to class levels to gear. 
  • The 5E version is pretty plain but I'm hoping that changes with the release of the Monster Manual and the DMG and possibly down the road even more options will come to light.  

It holds true with goblins, too:

5E is pretty simple, but they do get the nifty extra move which was pretty frustrating to our fighter over the weekend.

4E actually had six different types of goblins in the first Monster Manual so there are a lot of options when populating a goblin lair. I do see some carryover of theme with the better-than-average mobility of these things. The minion is probably the closest to the new version. The other 4E versions though add some sneak-attack type options and even more interesting movement abilities. I'd really like to see some options to liven up the monsters of 5th edition in a similar way.

In the end I'd call our first run "successful" but I don't know that it's going to bump our ongoing fantasy games. In the long run it has potential but right now it's just not quite there.

Motivational Monday