student 20 Productions

Random Thoughts of a Game Developer

Essence: A Bit of Fiction, and Stuff

So, here we have a bit of fiction I’ve been working on. It’s intended to be an introduction to the setting/gamebook for my Essence Campaign Setting. So, here is a telling of the Legend of Nera of the Emerald Blade. I hope you enjoy.


Essence 20

Welcome to Essence. This ever-expanding record is meant to give form to the many, many stories of the realm. When I put the Essence RPG together, I plan to put all of these together as chapter headers. For now, I just hope you enjoy them, and maybe come to understand why I love this setting I have forged with the help of dearest friends.


“Where did it come from?” she asked in wonder gazing up into the leaves of the Golden Oak.

“No one knows for sure,” he said gazing at her. “It has stood since before the Mists fell.”

She reached out, paused, and then touched the tree with something between
reverence and awe. “It is… it is so beautiful.”

He thought he saw a tear appear at the corner of her eye, but that couldn’t be true. Solnyr do not cry – everyone knows that. “It is. It is one of the Great Gifts, the true wonders of Tyrce not made by man or nyrian or diathen. Not that diathen make wonders, of course” he added this last with a wry smile.
She didn’t notice his smile – she just gazed at the intricate veins of purest gold that ran through the bark. “It has gold – I thought humans were greedy for gold. Why have they not stripped it bare?”

Garek reached a three fingered hand to the great tree and gently stroked it. “It isn’t really gold. It’s Orichalcum – the Keerians call it Golden Jade. Neither tool nor essence can cut it. When the bark falls of its own accord, the men send their priests to gather it and melt it down to make Crown and Sceptre for a new Empress. The Tree only gives them enough for each coronation.”

She turned to him, wide-eyed – more emotion than he had ever seen from her. “Then – then the tree was made by the Gods as proof of the Crown’s claims to the Mandate?”

Garek looked thoughtful, turning his head from one side to the other. “Yes… and no. No one really knows where it came from, but if the legends are to be believed, the Tree was forged of purest love and honor – as was the Silverleaf in Sheria and the Heavenly Willow in Keer. If you want to believe the legends, then all were wrought of the same love. Would you like to hear the legend, Ale’ah?” he tried to sing the title as she had sung it, but he knew he had butchered it. He was a Weaver of Essence, not a singer. Only a bard could hope to do justice to the Solnyr tongue.

She didn’t seem to mind. In fact, Garek was certain he saw a faint smile at her lips – although whether it was amusement, curiosity, or affection that inspired it, he would never dare to guess. She sat, putting her small pack to her side and gazed up at him. Her legs were crossed at the ankle, and her chin rested on her knees. The posture looked uncomfortable to Gerek, but he had seen it often enough to know that it meant attentiveness in a Solnyr. “They will not trouble us if you tell me the tale here, under the tree, will they? It is sacred to the humans, isn’t it?”

“It is – and to my people, as far as that goes. But they know we cannot harm it. It is eternal, and no mortal thing can bring it harm.” He looked into her eyes, smiled, and told the tale.

Long, long ago, before the Mists fell, there was a great warrior named Nera Greenblade. The way they tell it here, she was a Minosian, but I’ve heard it told with her as a variety of human races: a Sherian, a Keerian, a Bseri – once, I heard the tale with Nera as a non-human – one of the sidhe, I think. I don’t believe that. She was human, if she ever was at all. Which race of humanity she came from is only important to humans.

She was not clever, or beautiful – or even pretty, nor was she possessed of might or mystic power beyond the ken of humans – but she was a true hero. Nera saved the lives of many over and over again. When the fey lords went mad and went on a Wild Hunt, she protected her fellow humans. When the fey retreated, she protected the goblins and other sidhe from the vengeance of man. She fought for peace always – but she always fought. Often with her long emerald blade, but when she could, she fought with words. Do you see?

She was proud – and rightly so – of her prowess, however, and often boasted that no woman or man could best her among fey or nyrian or humankind.

Tales came, however, that there was one man who perhaps could – a lone hunter in the Icy Wastes north of where the Terrison Holds are today. Far, far north where the Ice Bears and Frozen Lizards hunt one another for food and sport, there was a man called Kalah the Last – one of the ancient Sil, the ones humans call Dragon Men.

When Nera was confident that Fey and Man would be at peace for a time, she ventured north, seeking Kalah. It is said that she searched the frozen north for a decade seeking him out, but I don’t believe that part. In the end, she found him, and challenged him according to ancient human custom. Kalah, who knew nothing of human rites new or old, merely gazed back at her, enraptured, for she was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, for a dragon’s eyes see no beauty in form, only in spirit. Kalah had never seen a mortal maid – his whole life was ancient war and the hunt, and he fell immediately in love with her, and he would not fight her. He would not harm her, and vowed that as long as he lived, he would never let her come to harm.

Nera tried to fight him anyway, but her months – I think it must have only been months – in the Icy Wastes had finally made her frail. She collapsed, and Kalah was at her side, stripping off his furs and wrapping her in them. He then carried her for a day and a half to his cabin, using his fiery breath to keep her warm. He spent a year nursing her back to health, caring for her every need. She taught him the Human Tongue, for there was only one such language before the Mists. He taught her Sil, the ancient language of his people. They hunted and sparred and lived together for a decade – and span I believe. They had found that rarest of treasures: true love. In fact, I do not think they would have come south at all, but something terrible happened.

No one knows exactly what it was, but something… horrifying happened. Some sages say it was a tear in the very fabric of the Realm. I do not know if I can believe it, but one story I heard from a traveler in my old village – which he claimed to have seen on an ancient tablet in the Imperial Museum – was that a comet burning brilliant green had rent the night, and the invaders had come from beyond the Realm of Clouds, from the stars themselves. The legends say whatever it was lived on fear and pain and misery, and that they had not pleasure but to spread it. Wherever the terror had come from, it threatened all the races of Tyrce with its malevolence. The Gods had forged the Diathen from the greatest animals of the wilds to aid humans and nyrians in battle against them, and the combined force of humankind, the diathen, and all the nyrians together, even standing with the Choir Celestial, were no match for this Legion of purest evil.

A young girl – most versions make her a chacal or one of my kind, but I don’t think it matters – found the two greatest warriors in the north, and told them what was happening with her last frozen breath. Kalah had no love for the peoples of Tyrce, but he would not let Nera face the Legion alone, and so they went, far again to the south.

The two great warriors first met the Legion north of the Chraestalwood, and in that battle, it is told that the combined force of Nera’s Blade and Kalah’s Spear – called Soulsaver – rent the back of the World Dragon, leaving the Rift – 1,000 feet across and bottomless, still seeping the evil of the Legion blood spilled that day. They fought the Legion through the Chraestalwood, joined by the forces of human and fae and nyrian and diathen as they went. In that great battle, Kalah sustained many wounds, but his vow to protect Nera never failed – she was unscathed, all the way to where we stand now, after a full week of constant battle.

Where we are now – that is where Kalah made good on his promise to protect Nera until he died. An arrow, bound with a dozen demon souls, pierced Kalah’s heart, and put him past any power of healing by mortal or god.

He fell, and told Nera he loved her with his last breath. Nera fell to his side and held him, covering him in tears turned to something more than gold, wrought from despair and true love.

At first, the Legion was nearly giddy, feeding from her abject misery – until one sought to touch her, to mingle her misery with physical pain as spice. That one fell, writhing and dying – and the others who had fed on her misery began to fall as well, poisoned with her purest love.

Then she rose to her feet and turned. It is said that no creature has seen true rage since that day. She raised Soulsaver in one hand, and her Emerald Blade in the other, and let out a scream that Zartinus, the Dark God/Goddess of Vengeance and Storms him/herself echoes to this day in the sound that follows lightning when it tears across the sky. It was a sound of pure sorrow, pure misery, and pure vengeance.

Nera swung her blade end felled armies. She thrust Soulsaver and drove back hordes of the Legion. The combined forces of humans, faerie, diathen, and nyrian could only follow her, mopping up the survivors.

She fought for a full year, across the whole of Minosia, across the Dreamsea, into deepest Sheria seeking only to avenge her fallen love, and when she felled the last of the Legions, she screamed again. She cast he sword and Soulsaver away from her, and where they came to rest no one knows. She fell to her knees and said only ‘It is done, my love.’ Then she began to cry tears of Mythryl, and her broken heart took her to the Gods.

Where Kalah fell, the Gods planted a new tree, and fed it with Nera’s tears of orichalcum, and this Great Golden Oak grew. Where Nera fell, the Gods planted another great tree, and fed it with her tears of Mythryl, and thus The Silverleaf grew. Where Soulsaver struck the ground in Keer, before vanishing into legend, they planted yet another tree, and fed it both orichalcum and mythryl tears, and the Heavenly Willow grew with its leaves of adamant.

The whole of Tyrce mourned,and even the Dragons wept bitter tears. In their infinite mercy, the Gods brought the Mists so that we could forget the horror, but they left enough clues behind so that we could remember the lives and deaths of Nera and Kalah – and so that we could understand the living monuments left to Honor, Love, and Just Vengeance.


#dndnext: Deal Breakers

I’ve been participating in a D&D Next discussion group on Facebook (this one to be precise). Someone there posted a comment indicating that they wanted a return to racial class limitations. My response was… energetic. It was the first time I really realized that there are things that Wizards could do with the core rules of the system that are total deal breakers to me. I mean, sure, I knew that they could (and probably will) do things I won’t like. This is different, though. There are a few things they could do that will make me shrug and say…

Until I saw the serious suggestion that racial restrictions on class selection make a return, I didn’t think there was anything they could do that would stop me from getting – at a minimum – the beginner’s set (in whatever form it may take) and trying it out. This, however, would. Which got me wondering – is there anything else that would be a deal-breaker for me? Anything else that would make me bring out my finest Eric Cartman impression? As it turns out, yes – yes there are. Some of these have already been addressed by the D&D Next dev team, so I don’t have to worry about them. Others… well, I’m not much of a worrier. I’m more of a let’s wait and see kinda guy. But if any of the stuff I’m about to go over creeps into the Core Rules, well then I won’t be joining any D&D Next games anytime soon.

Before I dive in, I want to reiterate something: I’m talking about the Core Rules – what appeared (in previous editions) in the Player’s Handbook, or in the Dungeons Master’s Guide. Even the Dungeon Master’s Guide is an okay place for some of this, provided that it’s presented as being completely optional, and not part of the core game rules. I’m not passing judgement on anyone who likes these rules either. To each his or her own, and more power to you. These, however, are the complete deal-breakers for me. These are the things that will drive me away from Next. YMMV, as always.

1: Racial Class Limitations

I might as well go into this one first, since I already mentioned it. I’ve heard it argued that allowing any race to take any class makes the classes feel “less special”. I disagree. Refusing to allow, say, Halflings to become Rangers just makes Rangers sound like a bunch of racist assholes. They probably burn crosses in the yards of any Halfling that has dared to try to do what Rangers do. What an uppity little bastard! Those halflings should know their place – they should know that all they’re good for is being thieves! Bilbo never got up to any Ranger shenanigans, after all! Now there was a “Good Halfling”.

Sorry – was that over the line? I can never tell.

One could argue that the “Ranger” lifestyle isn’t really part of Halfling culture. I disagree, but even if that was the case, so what? Even if – in your particular setting – no Halfling has ever, ever become a Ranger before, why would that stop one from becoming one now? Are Halflings incapable of dual-wielding? Nope. Are Halflings incapable of using a bow? Again, no (although they might be more comfortable with thrown weapons or slings, culturally speaking, depending on setting). Are they incapable of tracking, hunting, surviving in nature, or communing with the divine (I prefer my Rangers magic-free, but whatever)? All “no”. So why, again, can’t they be Rangers?

Now, you may want to point out something, but before you do, make sure it’s not setting specific. You could be going “Well, okay – Halfling Rangers are fine, but Dwarves shouldn’t be allowed to be Wizards/Elves shouldn’t be allowed to be Paladins/And so on”. Again, I ask you: why? Give me a reason that isn’t grounded in setting that makes this true? If you put it in the core rules – make it part of the base mechanics of the game, I mean – then that will be the default expectation. I know you can ignore any rule you want,  but if I walk into a convention for a pickup game, what do you suppose I can expect to encounter? The reasoning that if a GM won’t let you play your character in spite of the rules, find a new GM doesn’t hold water here – you’re the one asking the GM to break the rules.

Racial class limitations should be a house rule. I don’t think they have any place in the core rules, or even in official settings like Forgotten Realms or Eberron. If you want to say “In my setting, a Dwarf’s innate magic resistance means they can’t use magic” that’s fine with me (although I’ll point out that Drow have innate magic resistance and they seem to be able to use magic just fine). If you want to say “I liked it better back in the days of AD&D, so whatever setting I use, I’ll be using the racial class limmitations that appeared in those books” again, that’s fine.

As soon as you make it part of the core rules, however, you’re making it the default for everyone’s setting. I don’t want to have to justify an exception to the rules every time I walk into a new game just because I like Halfling Rangers. People who think Dwarven Mages are cool shouldn’t need to do it either, and you shouldn’t have to act like a petulant child just because a particular GM wants to play by the rules as written. “You won’t let me play an Elven Paladin because that’s what’s in the rulebook? That’s not fair! *STOMPING FOOT* How dare you follow the rules as written! Screw you guys, I’m going to find another group to play in – I hate groups that actually read the books!” That’s just… I mean, really? REALLY?

I will make a specific exception for Prestige Classes and similar, provided those PrCs are based specifically on the inherent abilities or nature of the race. A Dwarven Defender is conceptually based on the dwarf’s short-but-broad stature, for instance – something that other races just don’t have, and therefore can’t do.  It’s fairly easy to come up with a laundry list of similar ideas, and I’m fine with that. Since PrCs are, ostensibly, based on specific concepts, often tied to setting, I can even accept the culture-based ones. I wouldn’t want that in the core books, either, but I could live with it.

2: Racial Level Limitations

This is in much the same vein as my first rant, so I’m not going to harp on about it for very long. The only think I will definitely say is that these don’t make a damn bit of sense. My Elf started learning wizardry when he was 75. He is now 500 and has been adventuring the whole time in between. He hasn’t managed to get past level 11, though. Why? Because Elves can’t get past level 11 in that class.

3: Missing Dragons and other Monster Stupidity

It’s called Dungeons & Dragons. Here, let’s try that again with proper emphasis: Dungeons & DRAGONS.

When I got my copy of the 4e Monster Manual and found there were not metallic dragons in it, I was annoyed. That annoyance has grown in the intervening years into full-on nerd rage. I guess it’s a stupid thing to get worked up about, but seriously – what the hell? The Chromatic and Metallic dragons are both major players in D&D. I didn’t need five different stat blocks for each type of Chromatic dragon – I needed all the major dragons.

I also don’t need a half dozen different, poorly-flavored versions of Goblins. I need one version that I can use multiple ways. In other words, don’t pad for space in the Monster Manual. I shouldn’t need to buy a second Monster Manual just to get stats on absolutely iconic D&D creatures. Leave out the Flumph if you must, but if you try to make me buy a second Monster Manual just so I can have official stats for a Silver dragon, screw you. I won’t do it, thanks. I guess this might not stop me from playing – or even adopting and loving – D&D Next, but it will piss me off and stop me from buying more than just the core books. I’m a creative fellow. I’ll adapt stuff from older books, thanks.

Giving me an abbreviated Monster Manual because it just had to have seven pages of Goblins (from 135 to 141 in the 4e MM), however… And no – I don’t care that those pages also covered Bugbears and Hobgoblins. One full page each for Gobins, Hobgoblins, and Bugbears, and suddenly you have 4 more pages free in the book. For Metallic Dragons. Just sayin’.

4: The GSL

Not again. Not ever. I’d prefer a completely closed system to this insulting document, thank you very much. I’ve expressed my opinion on the OGL many, many times. I love it, I think it’s fantastic, and I think virtually every game system could benefit from making it’s core rules available under OGL or a similar license. I think that giving fans the freedom to make and share their own programs, tools, and books is the best thing for the hobby in general. 3/3.5e both benefited from it.

But please: if it can’t be at least as open as the OGL, then don’t insult me with some watered-down crap license that actually lets me do almost nothing. Just close it up and be done with it.


That’s all I’m coming up with right now. I suppose the third and fourth ones aren’t even a deal-breakers – they’re just stuff that will make me wary and slow to adopt. If I come up with anything else, I guess you can expect a new #dndnext: Deal Breakers column from me.

Next time on student 20 Productions: Probably something about Essence 20. With a new Mind Map, probably. And a few more details on how it works. Maybe.

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Essence 20 and me continuing to babble endlessly as usual

So, I’ve dropped something I’ve been calling “Essence 20” a few times in the last couple posts. For those relatively new to this blog, its original focus was on game design – specifically RPGs of my own design. I say it was about them, not actually about finishing them. I have one complete and one kinda-almost-but-not-really-complete game on this blog.

There’s a link up above tome called 16 Bit Heroes Alpha – Incomplete, and that’s more or less done. Well, sorta. Okay, not really. As far as I can tell, the math comes out about right, but I have yet to run a game using it, and I finished the blessed thing… oh, ages ago. Somewhere one this blog is also a game I put together on a rainy Saturday afternoon called Quick Play. It’s pretty good stuff, and is much more complete than 16 Bit Heroes. Of course, it’s also only about three pages long. It’s kinda hard to eff up the math in a three page long game. I’ve seen it done, but I think you almost have to try to do it.

Anyway, part of the problem I keep running into is that I want a moderately complicated game system – kinda like 3.5 before there were a bajillion splatbooks. I like tactical map-based combat (sue me). I like character options – the more free form character creation can be, the better, I say. It’s one of the reasons why GURPS is one of my favorite games of all time. Well, was until 4th edition, anyway. I also love 6e Hero, but that’s a whole ‘nother kettle o’ fish, as they say.

As I pointed out, I want a game with a system complexity level right around the d20 basic system – more specifically, right around the d20 Modern level, which, even with several additional books, never really became all that complicated. I also like the talent trees, and so on – nothing I haven’t raved about here before.

Alright, set that all aside for a minute. I have a homebrew game setting that spans multiple genre while remaining grounded in good old fashioned fantasy. I’ve been working on it since I was 9 or so, and it got a whole hell of a lot of definition when I was in High School during a very long campaign I ran (using GURPS) called the Essence Quest. Most of the people I played with in that game are still my best friends today; to date, I still think it’s the best game I’ve ever run, in no small part because of the just effin’ awesome collection of players.

One of them pointed out to me recently that I’ve tried many times to adapt my setting to game systems, and that I need to actually do the opposite: either design a game system around y setting from scratch, or adapt a game system to my setting. You know, not my setting to the system – the other way around. Devan, you were right. As with all things RPG related, you and the rest of the Crew are usually right. As if you didn’t know that already, ‘ya smug bastard ;-)

Essence 20 is me taking the d20 system – primarily, but not exclusively from the d20 Modern SRD – and beating it until it fits with my game setting. I’m not adapting the setting to it, I’m adapting it to the setting. Essence 20 will include free-form character creation and development in a classless environment, all based around the solid d20 system framework. I will eventually need help on this project, which is something I’ll get to in later posts.

Essence 20 doesn’t use the traditional d20 system stat set, instead focusing on Talent Trees to develop a character’s abilities (“stats” are based on what you can do instead of the other way around – although it is actually kinda recursive).  I’ve put together some pretty extensive talent trees, a la:

This was done using Blumind. I've since switched to XMind because it's got more features and is a hell of a lot more cross-platform, but I miss the simplicity of Blumind. If you want mind mapping software, and you'e on Windows, get it. It's beautiful in its simplicity, tiny, and uses little in the way of system resources.

Changes have been made since I made this, but mostly in the form of additions and name changes. Oh, and adding in how stuff actually works.

You’ll have to click on it to see it, sorry – it just won’t fit properly on the page here. Heck, you might need to open it in a new tab, or download the image and use a graphics viewer. Do what you have to if you’re curious. My friend Pat pointed out that this might be the first game book ever to need to be published in 11×17. I laughed, and then my laughter tapered off into silence when I realized that he had a point.

Basically how it works is that you get a certain number of points to stick in Talents when making your character. Each point in the Talen also gives you access to a Power on the talent tree. Experience allows you to add in new Powers, and the total number of Powers you have in a particular Talent Tree is the score for that particular Talent. For every so many EP spent improving the character, you gain a Feat. Racial abilities come by building up a race-specific talent tree. The value for Talents is used for things like skill rolls and so on. If it sounds complicated, that’s just because I’ve done a shit job of describing it here. It all comes together pretty smoothly when I’m describing it in person.

There are finer details to work out, but the basics are already done. I hope to start a playtest/dev game this Friday. We’ll have to see how schedules work out. As I come up with more, I’ll post it here, of course (it’s kinda what I do), but the fact that I’m hammering an extant system instead of developing one from scratch means that a lot of the work is already done. If I do this right, you’ll even be able to use other d20 type books (specifically d20 Modern and/or D&D books).

I’m doing an “all rights reserved” thing on this for right now. The final game system will be OGLed, while most setting specific stuff will probablyn be held back as “product identity”.

I know it’s not much to go on, but I welcome feedback and questions in the comments as always. Oh – and tell your friends about me!

next post: back to D&D Next, and a discussion about Non Disclosure Agreements

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#dndnext Cautious Optimism 6: In Summary

This post is (for me at least) coming on the heels of my last one. I’ve decided to increase my update schedule for reasons that I hope will become evident. I hope to be up to daily posts soon, so keep your eyes open and if you like what you see, tell your friends.

I’ve been titling these posts Cautious Optimism for a reason – that perfectly expresses my feelings on D&D Next. I choose to call it by the name Wizards of the Coast is using for a number of reasons, even though I feel like a doof every time I say it out loud. Wizards thinks they’re onto something, and I agree with them. What they’re saying about the design – and what little we’re hearing about the design – is promising. A simple core with additions for those who want more depth or complexity? Sounds nice. Sounds familiar, but it sounds nice. It’s a good familiar that we’re hearing about. This is D&D, after all. When it becomes unfamiliar, a lot of us fans balk and go somewhere else.

The fact that Wizards seems hopeful – rather than greedy – with this announcement means a lot to me. They call it D&D Next because they’re hoping major versions won’t be needed anymore. They’re hoping – perhaps unrealistically – that this will be the last real version we’ll ever need. It’s hard to see that and not hope right along with them, even if you’re not sure you can believe it (or them). It’s hopeful, and I like hopeful.

In that regard, I wanted to go over a few of my hopes for Next. Some of these things are abstract, some are concrete, and I want it to be clear from the start that none of these are deal-breakers for me.  I love this hobby, and I’m willing to give a lot of ground and still love the granddaddy game of them all. D&D has, through every edition, had its ups and downs (as I think this series has pointed out rather well). Wizards of the Coast has set themselves up for an ambitious path for Next, and I hope they succeed. I am cautiously optimistic that they will.

But on to my hopes for the new system.

Feature 1: Fast Character Creation

I want to be able to do character generation and start a game in the same night. I don’t think that’s unreasonable. I want the core of the game to allow for that sort of thing so that if my game group can’t manage it, then it’s our fault. Our fault for screwing around (which is okay if everyone’s having fun), or our fault for including too many rules modules. From concept to finished character, I want less than an hour for newbies, and half an hour or less once we get to know the system. Ideally, I’d like to always start with core rules, and then add stuff in as we go on a situational basis, which brings me to:

Feature 2: On The Fly Extension

If my game group decides we suddenly want a highly tactical map battle, I want to be able to add that in, and then leave it behind for the next session. I want to be able to do this with most rule modules (or whatever name they’re finally called): I want to be able to plug them in and abandon them at will, mid-session if possible. I do that with extensions in my Chrome Web Browser, and I want to be able to do it in my D&D game. Even if I’m stuck with a module once it goes in, I can live with that – provided adding it in the first place is easy and intuitive. I want new modules to hook onto extant rules systems so that, when I stick them in in the middle of a campaign, they still feel natural. I would prefer, however, that varying levels of complexity be easy to integrate because…

Feature 3: Variable Character Rule Complexity

I have had otherwise great gamers be put off by having to learn a whole bunch of crap just to play their character – they wanted simple, obvious die rolls that were consistent and easy to remember. I have had other players relish diving into the crunch and complexity, fine-tuning each score, and agonize over every spell/power/feat choice, and love every damn minute of it. Personally, I’m somewhere in between these two extremes, and I think most players probably are.

Those two different kind of players don’t usually belong in the same game, though. The game will accomidate one and not the other, and I’m tired of that. I don’t want that anymore, and D&D Next is posturing as if its the game to pull it off. I hope it does. I hope that folks who loved the micromanagement of 3 and 4e will be able to sit down with folks who would be more comfortable with the much more streamlined 0e or one of the games out of the Old School Renaissance (a word neither I nor Chrome, Opera, or Firefox seem to be able to spell without looking it up). If one player can have a nice, simple one-page character sheet, and I can have three pages of stuff, and my real crunch-loving friends can have six – and we can all sit and play the same game at the same time – that will make me happy. Oh, so happy. Being able to add to the complexity of your own character as you go so that it moves with your learning curve and desire for crunch would be even better, and that brings me to…

Feature 4: Extensible Character Classes

I love core classes. I’d love about five of them in the core rules (Fighter, Rogue, Wizard, Cleric, RANGER… or, you know, Paladin or Monk – any one of those three RANGER), and then maybe five to eight more in later rulebooks. What I don’t want is an endless procession of prestige and paragon classes, epic destinies, and so on. I want to be able to flavor-up and put my character on a path using feats. I’d love it even more of that particular method of improvement were optional.

It would be really cool if those feats could be put together into a group, showing a particular path of improvement that reflected a specialization within the larger context of the class. Maybe a few small benefits just for using all that stuff, but mostly flavor and guidance for role playing within the context of that set of tools. Yeah – that’s a good way to put it: a collection of tools for guiding your character towards an archetype that exists within the class. It’s too bad there’s not a name for that sort of thing, maybe an older system tat could be dusted off and updated… Oh, wait! There is!

Feature 5: Kits not Prestige Classes

For all my ranting and raving about 2e and the things I hated about it (actually, as I recall, I couldn’t even be bothered to rant about 2e much specifically – I just rolled it all up into a general AD&D rant…), there is one thing I truly miss from 2e: KITS. Kits were an awesome idea. They provided small, specific bonuses, but didn’t really reward min-maxing. They were also packed to the brim with fluff rather than crunch, and could be taken (in fact were supposed to be taken) at level 1 – making them essentially the opposite of Prestige Classes. Kits are the way to go for “core” (although I prefer them to appear minimally, if at all, in the core rule books). By flavoring the core classes rather than tossing them in the bin, they remained special and unique, and that was better.

If you want to add in Prestige Classes or Paragon Paths or whatever the hell in extra stuff, that’s fantastic. Go for it. I won’t buy those books, but I think they should exist. Me, I want KITS, not PrCs. Eff PrCs. We don’t need class bloat. And that, sadly, brings me to y next point:

Feature 6: Fewer Classes, More Kits

This one makes me sad, because it’s admission time: Ranger shouldn’t be a class. If Kits are brought back, then Rangers are a Kit that should be applied to a Fighter or Druid class (Druid could be a Kit for Cleric, but to me the shamanistic nature-worshiper is too fundamentally different in nature from the organized religious miracle-weaver). Paladin could be a Kit applied to Fighter or Cleric. Barbarian could be applied to Fighter or Rogue – or any other class, for that matter; the idea of a barbarian Cleric or Wizard is very, very cool to me.

Sorcerer can be a Kit for Wizard – as can all manner of specialist mage. In fact, any number of alternate spellcasting methods could be Kits applied to existing spellcasting classes. We don’t need a whole new class for Hexblades and Warlocks – we need Kits and funny ways of managing out spell list. What if Warlock was a Wizard Kit that let you cast your spells known as often as you like – but only gave you one new spell per level, and capped your highest selectable spell level as 1/4 your actual level?  Wait… that sounds more like a Hexblade… Whatever, it doesn’t matter. The point is, if we have Kits – rich, well-written flavorful Kits – we don’t need an asston of character classes.

And if Wizards has trouble coming up with interesting, detailed new Kits, they can sign my ass up. Err… I mean, ask the fan community to come up with them, and put them into their magazine. You know, their online magazine. What? You say they have two? What the hell is the point of that?

Feature 7: One Magazine to Rule Them All – in more than one media

Alright, guys: when it was a print publication, it made sense to have two different magazines. As an online PDF, however, that’s just… dumb. If you’re going to do an online magazine, here’s my suggestion: call it Dungeons & Dragons Magazine. Put the articles out over the course of a month, available to subscribers. Then, at the end of each month, compile them together into a print magazine that people who are willing to pay a premium can get in their hot little hands.

We’re gamers, Wizards of the Coast. We like hard copies. If I spend too much time reading on my computer, my eyes get rather tired. I like the feel of the pages under my fingers. I like being able to flip between them during a game. PDFs don’t do that, although I will admit that, baring a proper print release, I personally would like an e-book version. Of course, it’s pretty easy and cheap to publish in e-book format, so my real question is this: Why in the 666 Layers of the Abyss aren’t you already using e-book format? I mean, it couldn’t be that hard to push the books to that format, could it? The books and the magazines. As I understand it, Amazon already has some sort of regular update mechanism. I’ve been lead to believe that you can subscribe to newspapers on your Nook (or whatever the hell the Amazon e-book reader is called; I can’t keep them straight, and it’s just not important enough to me to do a Google search).

Online is powerful, but it isn’t everything. Offline is important, too – and so is print, no matter how out of date it seems. We’re gamers. We like books. We’re also fans, and creative people, us gamers – and that brings me to my last point, and if anything was a game-breaker for me, it would be this one:

Feature 8: Bring Back the OGL

This is the big one. The one feature to rule them all. See, with the OGL, if we don’t like something or think we can write it better for some small niche of the market, then we can – and we can sell it. The shoreline sorcerers may be looking at this and thinking “but that way lies Pathfinder” – and they’d be wrong. Pathfinder is what it has become because the OGL was abandoned, a new system was created without fan feedback, and the straight-jacket joke that was the GSL was enforced. That’s why Pathfinder is what it is. It’s not because the Wizards allowed us freedom – it’s because they took it away. People don’t like that. Creative people – like gamers – especially don’t like that. It makes us angry – and you wouldn’t liKE US WHEN WE’RE ANG… HULK SMASH STUPID GSL!!!!!


More importantly, though, is that you guys at Wizards haven’t always delivered on your promises. When the OGL was around, that wasn’t a big deal: fans just did it themselves, and you were off the hook. No harm, no foul. The GSL came around, though, and suddenly you’re shutting down fan sites and projects… without offering anything like what they were providing. I’m still waiting for the graphical character model creator and neat-o 3D online tabletop it was supposed to plug into. You don’t get us to buy your product by excluding fans. You get us to buy it by making it awesome.

As a side note – let me buy it. I’ll subscribe for a magazine. I’m not subscribing for a character creator and an online tabletop. I’ll buy those things, though. I’ll even pay for update packages occasionally. But if you want me to buy your character generator, it needs to be better than this one or this one, and your online tabletop had damn well be better than this completely free one. Remember that 3D tabletop you guys promised us? The one that hooked up to a character creator that made cool 3D tokens for the 3D tabletop? Yeah – I’d pay for that. I’d even pay to use your servers as long as I had the option of not using your servers and establishing my own. People do pay for convenience and service, you know. QuickTrip has based their entire existence on that.

So, to Wrap up:

Most gamers hop systems and editions. Sure, we do it at different times and for different reasons. We use White Wolf when we’re feeling angsty or dark or melancholic. We use GURPS when we want a blend of freedom and realism. We use RoleMaster when we’ve fallen in love with tables (I’m assuming. Neat system, but too damn many tables for me, thanks). And we use different editions of D&D for a whole list of reasons, but two of them are ease of use and familiarity. D&D is comfortable for us because it’s where most gamers started. We like new and neat and different, but if you make it too different, we’ll balk.

Some of us – me included – even have a great deal of appreciation for the “new different” 4e. As I said in my last posting, I think it’s a fantastic fantasy miniature combat game.  If you just ran screaming from 4e, go to a used bookstore and pick up a Player’s Handbook and a Monster Manual (and nothing else), and try it out in that context. Just try it as a battle sim. It’s unrealistic as all holy hell, but it’s fun, and that’s what games are supposed to be. I think we roleplayers can forget that bit sometimes. We get caught up in how things should work, or in forging complex stories, or in making deep and fleshed-out characters and forget that when we play D&D, we’re playing a game – and games should be fun. In a specific context, 4e is fun. It’s great in that context, and if you’re into that sort of thing.


Go back and peruse the bold face. Develop an attention span. If you don’t have one, I’m not sure how you play role playing games in the first place. Yes, I’m a jerk.

Coming Up on student 20 Productions

Next time, I’ll be talking about my own development work, the Essence 20 game I’m working on, and I’ll even have a relevant image for you. Interestingly enough, it relates to some of what I’ve been saying about D&D Next. That will be up soon – maybe even tomorrow. I may also drop hints about what I’m building up to. Who the heck knows with me? I’m unpredictable like that.

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#dndnext Cautious Optimism Part 5 (I think): Incarnum and 4e

So, last time on student 20 Productions, I mentioned Incarnum and threatened an all-blue-text post to make some sort of childish point. Well, I’ve since decided to roll a few more things into this post, so… it won’t all be blue and childish. Well, not blue, anyway.

WARNING: this post is almost completely a rant.

Incarnum and Other Really Cool 3e Stuffs

I’ve been going in more-or-less chronological order for this whole series, and I’d like to keep it that way. I was going to start up this post talking about the ins and outs of 4e, but that wouldn’t be accurate chronologically. Moreover, there were a few things that 3/3.5e did towards the end of its run that are completely on topic for talking about 4e, so I might as well start there.

Cover of

Cover via Amazon - Such a neat book. Too bad.

In 2005, James Wyatt, Frank Brunner, and Stephen Schubert got together and wrote a book for 3.5e called Magic of Incarnum. Oh, wait – just a sec… almost forgot something… The book was about a new kind of magic for the Dungeons & Dragons game. This new magic was – according to the back of the book sitting next to me on this couch – “Drawn from the ambient life energy that fills the multiverse.” That’s… That’s just cool.

Basically, Incarnum allowed you to forge magic items from life-essence, which you then bound to “chakras” in Soul Melds. The idea was fantastically cool, even if the execution was… well, only okay. Incarnum is blue, you see… so all of the stuff in the book is pretty much blue, too. From Cerulean Sandles to Bluesteel… stuff, all the Incarnum effects were some shade of blue or another, making it easily the most monochromatic supplement in the history of D&D. I get the flavor idea and all, but… what if I want my character’s Soulmelds to be pink? There wasn’t really much point in the color selection. I realize that I’m being petty, and any GM worth his/her stuff would allow your character to make any color soulmeld he/she/it wanted as long as it was consistent… but, like my formatting for this post, it was kind of a silly thing to do.

Now, the really cool part about Incarnum, in my opinion, was the fluff. I could easily make-shift a better overall system (well… less complicated, anyway. I dunno about better, really)… but some of the fluff was pure genius. It included an implied explanation for why non-incarnum characters could only wear, for instance, one magical amulet. Now, that’s always been a pretty obvious nod to play balance, but the idea that the magical item was connected to the character’s soul in a real metaphysical way was awesome.

The system itself was overly complicated. There were, in the back of the book, sample “Essentia Trackers”, which you would need to play any Incarnum wielding character with more than four or five levels of Incarnum class. This is… not good. If you need an extra special bunch of sheets just to keep track of your powers (I’ll have more to say about this when I talk about 4e), you have a problem. I don’t mean spell lists with page references and summaries – I mean extra tools that you have to use just to keep track of your special new powers in addition to what are effectively spell lists.

Now, I loves Incarnum. The power source is neat, fairly original, and conceptually cool. This did not stop the execution from being, at best, poor. I’d love to see it in an ear

Cover of

Cover via Amazon - 'nother cool 3e book. Very neat.

ly- release addon book for D&D Next. I’s personally drop the color theme and have it work in a manner closer to actual magic items. I mean, the 3e magic item system is pretty cool. How cool would it be if you straight converted that into a set of class abilities? Heck, even if the D&D Next designers don’t create such a book, I will. If D&D Next has a license that resembles the OGL, you might even see it someday. Here, probably. If I’m lucky (or good), on, too.

Other cool supplements came out towards the end of 3.5e that are worth mentioning. The Tome of Magic added new concepts and ideas for spellcasting that bore little resemblance to what we today think of as D&D magic. The Tome of Battle is of special note, because it seems like a testing ground for the idea of giving fighter-type characters “powers” that function in a similar manner to magic… which was more or less the whole point of 4e.

(I’m going to give short space to 3/3.5 Psionics here: it was an overly-complicated, point-based alternate magic system. An essentially identical system for spellcasting even appeared in Unearthed Arcana. It was basically a whole new spell list for weird-looking, crystal-waving hippie spellcasters. Large portions of it were copied more or less directly from Wizard/Sorcerer/Cleric spells. It’s not… I mean, it’s fine I guess, but there’s nothing special there. It seems like even the designers didn’t think it was that spec

Unearthed Arcana

Image via Wikipedia - the book that proved that 3/3.5e Psionics was really just an alternate magic system. One of the best 3/3.5e books ever, by the way.

ial: the default system for handling the interaction of magic and psioncis is to treat them as being identicle. An anti-magic field shuts down psionic power. Ugh. Why bother? Just make a Sorcerer and say he/she is psionic instead of magical. Basically the same result. You can still even have all the extra classes, although I think they’re not really needed).

The point is that Some of the most creative ideas came out towards the end of the run for the edition, and that would have been really cool if it weren’t for what came next.

D&D 4e


Alright, let me get this out of the way: I like D&D 4e. I don’t love it, but I like it. I think the tactical combat system is really fantastic. I think that the books are well organized, and it makes for a great board game. You can have some serious fun with it. Some of the classes and powers were really cool, and the 4e version of Psionics is really, really cool and flavorful. As a tactical miniature battle game, it’s really, really hard to beat. As an RPG… well, it just sort of falls flat, doesn’t it?

(Side note: 4e Rangers are frankly awesome. Seriously. A little too awesome, really. I mean, were there any other at-will powers quire as good as Twin Strike? Nope. Not really. You get that one at first level, and it’s still your go-to power at level 30 or whatever. Or at least, it was for me. Plus – they were awesome. ‘Cause, you know, Ranger.)

All that having been said… Ugh. Where do I start? There was a sameness to all the classes that many people complain about, and I agree. I don’t think you should look to classes to make your character stand out… but it doesn’t hurt if they help, and these really didn’t. The Warlord (Martial Leader) and the Cleric (Divine Leader) were essentially the same class, and this problem – role being more significant than class – was consistent throughout the whole system. I know – there are a lot of differences, say all the 4e fans. Well… yeah, sorta, but they all work basically the same way, and the feel about the same when you’re playing them. That’s one of the things that made the Psionic classes so damn cool – they worked at least a bit differently.

People talk about combats running too long, but I never really had that problem. I have also heard a lot of people talk about similarities between 4e and a certain MMORPG I could mention. I didn’t see hat either – but probably only because I’m incapable of seeing any similarity between MMOs and tabletop RPGs. I can’t compare them at all – I just don’t see it.

The biggest problem with 4e, however, was a buisness thing. It was so painfully, obviously setup to be some kind of cash cow. Now, I get that in other industries – summer movie blockbusters, for instance –  that makes sense. It makes no sense to do it that way for RPGs. We’re not a huge market, Hasbro. You can’t treat us like one. We don’t like it. We find it insulting.

Coming out with a new edition that was so completely different from everything that came before it was a pretty questionable decision in and of itself, especially what with all the cool and innovative ideas that were coming out of 3e by then. Then there was ending Paizo’s publishing rights on Dragon/Dungeon magazines. Dividing up Chromatic and Metallic dragons among two Monster Manuals. Ending the OGL and releasing he insulting GSL in its place. Aggressively going after folks who, as fans, were creating things to help fellow players manage their games. That last part there? Yeah, that was a deal-breaker for me, Wizards of the Coast. Don’t punish fans for being fans. You sell your character creation software by making it really good in this industry – not by persecuting people who make free tools for their fellow fans. (see how I drew on the life force of the universe for that bit? What can I say – I’m good.)

It all smacked pretty heavily of a money-grab.  Wizards of the Coast transformed from a company that supported its fans to a company that was milking them for all they had. I realize that Magic the Gathering has given them plenty of experience at that, but this is Tabletop Role Playing. We’re a community. We’re kinda grassroots. Being a dick about homebrewed power-tracking programs is just being a dick, guys. I can’t afford to buy your Power Cards, and even if I could, I don’t wanna, I shouldn’t have to. I should be able to write my own program to do it, and then give it away to my friends and anyone else who thinks its useful. You want to sell something that does that, you make it better than what I’m making. It wouldn’t be hard. I can’t code for shit.

Dungeons & Dragons / Magic The Gathering

Dungeons & Dragons / Magic The Gathering (Photo credit: Laughing Squid) - 4e seemed - to me at least - to try to combine the two. Not frakkin' cool, dude.

Even before that, though, I shouldn’t need a small deck of cards to keep track of what my character can do. That’s… stupid, guys. D&D has never worked that way before, and if you think you can convince us that designing it to work that way now was anything other than an attempt to milk us for extra cash, I’m sorry – you’re wrong. If I want to manage a deck of cards, I’ll play Magic. I love Magic; D&D isn’t the same thing.

You don’t get money from us that way, Wizards. You get money from us by keeping your promises, letting us play how we want with your stuff, by bolstering and listening to your fan communities, and by consistently publishing high quality product. I’ll lay down $40 for a good book with lots of neat material. I won’t lay down $40 for a book that’s 3/4 power lists. I just won’t, and you know what? Lots of other folks felt the same way.

I also don’t want 15 versions of the same damn monster, either. Give me  couple examples, and the tools I need to make my own. We’re tabletop gamers, guys – we have imaginations by definition. If we didn’t, we couldn’t even play the game. On the same note, don’t try to make me buy two books to get the iconic dragons that have been in the game from the get-go. I can’t think of anything else that seemed greedier in 4e. It’s called Dungeons & DRAGONS, oh magic-users of the shoreline. The Chromatic and Metallic dragons have been core for quite a while. Don’t try to make them something not-core now.

As another bitch-and-moan, I would like to add that the multiclassing system was nothing short of a moronic waste of time. It was awkward, hamstrung, and stupid. I’m just saying… to multi-class, you take a feat that lets you pick some powers and gain a class ability that won’t work with any of the class abilities you have for your main class? That’s multiclassing? Really? (you know where this is going, right?) Really? REALLY?

I like some things about 4e, to be sure (RANGERS!). The combat system is kinda awesome. It makes a lot of sense, and runs pretty smoothly as long as folks don’t have too many powers. It made for a fun boardgame. Skirmishes were neat. (RANGERS!!). The ability to use a choice of different ability scores for your defenses made it so that you didn’t have to dump points into DEX just to have a decent AC so you could survive. There are good ideas here.


But it was done all without consulting a single fan. Followed by persecution of fans. Wizards took away freedoms that had been given to fans, and acted like a bunch of money-grubbing jakcholes. Of course Pathfinder did so well – Paizo did none of that, and they used a system that people already loved. The fact that I can make an Incarnum Character using the 2005 book and play it in Pathfinder is cool enough – I get to keep and use the books I already bought.

Wizards handed its 3e fans to Paizo on a platter. Is it any wonder that so many switched over? Why wouldn’t they?


Wow. This has been the longest and most popular series I’ve ever done on my blog. It makes me sad that it’s almost over, but even after Cautious Optimism’s initial run comes to an end, it will continue to make appearances throughout the D&D Next Beta Testing events, and probably beyond that. Most of my posts have to do with this hobby I love so well anyway, so stay tuned, yeah?

Come to think of it, I haven’t really done much in the way of series. I certainly haven’t stuck this well to an expected update schedule. Maybe this is some kind of leaf-turning-over-thingie and I’ve crossed a bridge. Maybe I should try for two posts a week.

Or is that crazy talk?


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