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Random Thoughts of a Game Developer

Archive for the month “February, 2012”

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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#dndnext Cautious Optimism part 4: Edition the Third and the d20 System

In the year 2000, not only did we leanr that many Science Fiction writers were wrong about what the world would be like at the turn of the millennium, we also got a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Well, sort of. I mean, it’s really the third edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, but with no current actual Dungeons & Dragons and no plans to make one, Wizards of the Coast decided that it might be better to drop the word “Advanced” from the title. They were probably right, but there really is no way you can call this anything other than a new Advanced Dungeons & Dragons – especially if you pay any attention to the edition numbers.

In creating 3rd Edition, Wizards took the property they got when they bought TSR, and the new Big Names in D&D – Monte Cook, Johnathan Tweet, and Skip Williams – contributed together to the three Core Books – the Dungeons Master’s Guide, the Player’s Handbook, and the Monster Manual. Each of them then took one book and wrote it. Each book has a single author credit, but in reality all three were written by all three designers. I think they did a  fantastic job. More than a couple people disagree with me and that’s fine. This, however, is my boat, and I’ll sail it wherever I want.

It seems almost like the three designers sat down together and said “How many Sacred Cows can we slaughter and still have it be D&D?” Racial level limits and class limitations went out the window. The weird dual-classing rules vanished, replaced by a much more streamlined multi-classing system (that I still have issues with, but that’s another matter). Ability Score requirements went out the window, as did experience penalties for low scores. All classes used the same experience table, and recieved certain benefits of leveling at the same time. The proficiency system was replaced by a fairly concise Skill System. Feats were ntroduced, allowing fro significantly more character customization. THAC0 was replaced with Base Attack Bonus, and Armor Class went up when it got better, rather than down (which – I don’t care how much you like THAC0 – is more intuitive). A single task resolution system was applied across the board – 1d20 + Modifiers versus a static Difficulty Class (DC) number. This system applied pretty much everywhere – saving throws, attacks in combat, ability checks, everything. I could go on for a while like this, but Wikipedia has done a passable job of summing up the changes, so I will just quote them:

Differences from (sic.) Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd edition

  • The game system converted to the d20 System, which standardized task resolution to a roll of a 20-sided die (“d20”), adding or subtracting relevant modifiers, and then comparing the result to a “Difficulty Class” (DC) in order to determine the outcome.
  • THAC0 is replaced by a bonus to attack rolls. Armor Class (AC) operates as the Difficulty Class for attack rolls, and therefore increases (rather than decreases, as in 2nd edition) as defensive capabilities increase.
  • Ability scores follow a single table and give standardized bonuses. Ability scores are no longer capped at 25.
  • Saving throws are reduced from five categories (based on forms of attack) to three (based on type of defense): fortitude (constitution-based), reflex (dexterity-based), and will (wisdom-based), and also go up instead of down.
  • “Non-weapon proficiencies” are replaced by skills, and become a fundamental part of the game rather than an optional one, with class abilities such as thieving skills being translated directly into skills. All characters are given a pool of points to spend on a wide range of specific skills to further define a character.
  • Special abilities known as feats allow greater customization of characters. Fighters are no longer differentiated simply by weapons, roleplay and equipment selection, but rather by the number of feats they possess relative to other characters.
  • Magic item creation is simplified, requiring a prerequisite feat, spells, and monetary and experience costs, replacing the obscure rules of earlier editions.
  • Barbarians, monks, and half-orcs return to the Player’s Handbook as basic character types.
  • Class groups are removed. “Mage” is renamed to “wizard”, with “specialist wizards” being simply wizards that specialize in one school of magic, and “thief” is renamed to “rogue.” The bard class is no longer considered a type of rogue.
  • “Priests of a specific mythos”, also known as specialist priest classes, are eliminated (except druid), though some make their return in the form of prestige classes or through other options such as feats.
  • The sorcerer class is added to the game as an arcane caster that uses magic naturally, instead of through study.
  • Multi-classing and dual-classing as per previous editions is removed. In the new multi-classing system, multi-classing functioned similar to dual-classing had previously, except that a character could gain a level of any character class upon gaining a level instead of only gaining levels in the second class. Multi-classing is made available to all races, although easier for humans and half-elves, and characters with multiple classes of differing levels are penalized.
  • Prestige classes are added, representing special training or membership in an organization outside the generic scope of core classes. Entry into prestige classes requires characters to meet certain prerequisites. Assassins make their return here, as well as blackguards (fallen paladins) and several others.
  • Any combination of race and class is now permitted, with the exception of some prestige classes. (In 2nd edition, characters of some fantasy races/species are not allowed to belong to some character classes.)
  • Priest spell spheres are removed from the game; each spellcasting class now has its own specific spell list (although wizard and sorcerer share a list). Instead, clerics gain domains that allow them to use bonus spells and abilities based on their deity’s area of influence, as well as the ability to swap out prepared spells for curative spells.
  • Initiative is changed to a cyclic system where the order of resolving actions is determined once per encounter and then repeated, and actions are resolved on the players turn. In previous editions the order is redetermined each round and many actions do not resolve on the player’s turn but at the end of the round.
  • Diagonal movement and range are simplified. Each square of diagonal distance is equivalent to 1.5 squares of orthogonal distance, rounded down.
  • The system for multiple attacks is changed so that, when making multiple attacks in the same round, later attacks are generally less accurate than earlier attacks.

–Wikipedia Article: Editions of Dungeons & Dragons

That, of course, doesn’t really cover it. There’s a lot more, but most of it is more abstract or subjective. Things like a feeling of cohesiveness of rules, significantly improved book organization, less dependence on tables and an increased dependence on basic math skills during play, and a variety of other such things.

It took me a long time to actually start playing around with 3e D&D. I had lost all faith in D&D during 2nd Edition Advanced D&D, and had moved over to GURPS and the occasional foray into White Wolf’s stuff and even Palladium (which I still say has a fantastically fun  map-free combat system, especially as presented in their Ninjas and Superspies books). I didn’t trust the new D&D. I assumed it would still be boring sword-and-sorcery fantasy, with too many tables, weird rules, incoherent design choices, and poorly written books. You’ll have to forgive me – I was young and stupid.

While I was briefly living in Georgia, however, I was invited to join a D&D game, and a friend lent me the Player’s Handbook. I was hooked almost instantly. The book is well-written, the system is coherent, and the map-based combat is actually very usable – much moreso than I had anticipated. There were, perhaps, a few too many rules, but character creation was streamlined and easy. I made three characters in an hour, and I loved every minute of it. I love character creation systems, and this was (and is) one of the best I’ve ever used. Loads of customization even in just the main book – and you could just see all the customization choices you would get to make as you advanced. But none of it was very complicated, and you pretty much always knew exactly how you would use everything on your character sheet.

Before you think, however, this is an “ALL HAIL 3E” kind of post, I have a lot of problems with 3e as well – I just liked it better than 1st or 2nd.

I mean, there were still serious issues:

  • Grappling was awkward and borderline unusable. Even when you did use it, you always had that Why Am I Bothering tickle in the back of your mind. I built a character based on grappling and still got that feeling every time it came up.
  • Some of the other mechanics were… odd. For instance, unless you followed some particular guidelines, you would get XP penalties when multiclassing. Was this a failed attempt at verisimilitude, or was it a even more clunky attempt at game balance?
  • Ability Scores – the actual 3 to 18 human-range numbers – were largely irrelevant. It was really all about the modifiers now, making the actual numbers seem strangely out of place on the character sheet. They only seemed to be used to give padding to ability score damage, and to make “0” a natural stopping place for an ability to be completely crippled. Not enough, guys. Not enough.
  • Many Thief/Rogue class abilities had been integrated into the skill system, making them feel a lot less special. For instance, a Rogue wasn’t really any better at picking locks than a fighter with the same skill level and ability modifier, and that’s just sad.I mean, sure, they had Trapfinding, but that felt like a tacked-on and arbitrary thing, especially in the context of the rest of the Skill System.
  • Attacks of Opportunity had such an easy bypass through the use of the Acrobatics skill that you would frequently see huge behemoth full-plated fighters and bookish gnome wizards who could easily perform handstands. By level 5 or so – or as late as level 10 if it was cross-class for you – if you were bothered by Attacks of Opportunity, you were doing something wrong.
  • Wizards and Sorcerers were essentially the same class with a different method of spellcasting (one vancian, one that was essentially identicle to the spell casting system from the original Final Fantasy NES game). Sure, Wizards got a spellbook and a bunch of extra metamagic feats, and sorcerers had their metamagic so crippled that it was almost useless (and some things, like Quickened Spell, really were useless) – but those differences suck. I still feel the same way about this, all these years later: it’s the same damn class, folks. Make them choose between Vancian and Spontaneous when they start, or find a way to combine the two (something “m currently working on for my Essence 20 project), and then make one class. Also, it’s pretty obvious that Wizards are significantly more powerful, but harder to build or play, especially at earlier levels. Sorcerers are simple, but their main advantage (lots of spells per day) becomes irrelevant after level 5 or so.
  • Monks looked awesome on paper, but in practice were less than impressive. And then there’s the alignment restrictions; seriously, man – I’ve watched Kung Fu movies. Jackie Chan – the ultimate Kung Fu Good Guy in most movies – was seldom lawful. He’s downright chaotic in Armor Of the Gods/Operation Condor. What the hell were you thinking? Must be lawful my ass… Iron Monkey. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Shaolin Soccer. Hell, even IP Man – the main character might be Lawful Good, but most of the supporting cast and almost all of the villains are “monks” and not especially Lawful.
  • Druids ruled all, and pretty obviously so, but their flavor text was such that you didn’t want to play one unless you, you know, wanted to play one. Which is okay, I guess, but… did they really have to be that frakking awesome? And for the love of mike – when not taking a Feat cripples you, it;s not a Feat – it’s a misplaced Class Ability. I am talking about Wild Spell, of course.
  • Alignment restrictions were clearly applied as either Sacred Cows (Paladin, Druid, Rogue) or the worst balancing mechanic in the history of gaming (Barbarian, Monk, and most of the new base classes presented in later books).
  • Prestige Classes stole the limelight from core classes after the 5th level or so, and often felt like either bad multi-classes (Mystic Theurge), or something that could have been better handled with specialized Feats (Arcane Archer, Shadowdancer). Only occasionally did a Prestige Class come along that was really cool, unique, interesting, and worthy of the word “Prestige” (Archemage, off the top of my head. By the time 4e came out, there were actually quite a few good ones – but they were completely outnumbered by bad ones, and even the good ones felt like they were just there to make you not want to be a lowly FIghter, Wizard, Rogue, Ranger, or Whatever Base Class You Were).
  • ECL and Level Adjustments made playing many, many non-human spellcasters a… sub-optimal choice. I guess I don’t really care until you get to races like Drow and Fey-Ri and the multitiude of other level-adjusted races that come from heavy spellcasting cultures – including “Monster Races” like Rakshasha who get to count every hit-die as a Sorcerer (or Cleric) casting level with spells and all, meaning that they’re supposed to be completely badass spellcasters.  Then it just gets very dumb very fast. (as a side note about the Drow – would it have been so frakkin’ hard to make their spell-like abilities into Racial Feats? Would it? And then lower their Ability Score Modifiers and viola – no Level Adjustment. If you haven’t already, and you still play 3/3.5, you might want to houserule that. I mean, if you don’t hate and want to discourage Drow in you game.)

Again, I could go on. I have to do this first, though:

Rangers. This is a class that’s based on Aragorn from Lord of the Rings (seriously – that’s the actual source of inspiration according to the original designers of the game. He’s actually called a Ranger in the books and the film.)

Really? I mean, the class is awful. So… Really? REALLY?

You can make a better ranger by taking appropriate Feats and being a straight-class Fighter. You could do that in the original 3e PHB without further supplemental books. The only thing you missed out on was tracking, and that’s just not enough.

Ranger is my favorite class. I love Rangers. From Aragorn to Belkar, they’re my faves in Fantasy Fiction. One of my favorite characters I’ve ever played – Trynn Fairweather – was a Halfling Ranger.

Dude. Dude. DUDE. Dude. Please, Wizards of he Coast: by all that is sacred, try at least as hard as you did with 4e. The 4e Ranger is amazing. I mean, it’s too bad so many other things about 4e were kinda… not good. But that’s a topic for another post. My only point is Rangers are fucking awesome, and you need to do right by them.  I don’t care if you have to make them a Fighter Prestige Class or some other dumb thing to do it – make them awesome.

Ahem. End rant. I love Rangers. Okay, now end rant.

Anyway, I already spoke at length about my love of the OGL (about two Blog Posts ago). I won’t go into  it again here, other than to link to the relevant blog entry.

A little while later, in 2002, Wizards released d20 Modern (designed by Bill Slavicsek, Jeff Grubb, Rich Redman, and Charles Ryan). Now, it retained some of my issues with 3e (the Grapple Rules, and needlessly complicated Ability Score/Modifier paradigms and such), but… I fucking love this game. I wish D&D was re-built around the design principles of d20 Modern. My only issue is that, using Rules as Written, there’s no way to start the game as a spellcaster. Fix that (and you could with a couple of additional – even optional – Talent Trees), add in a few of the Iconic Classes (ESPECIALLY RANGERS BECAUSE THEY’RE AWESOME) instead of the Abillity Score Based Classes (with Talent Trees and all) – and you’ve got me. You’ve got a rules system that I will use until the day I die. In fact, I’m doing basically that for my Essence 20 project. In fact, I’mcurrently planning on keeping the Ability Score classes because they are reasonable character archetypes (not great, but reasonable), even in a fantasy setting. Which Essence Is. Sorta.

So I’m asking – right here right now, of the whole of the D&D community: Is wanting D&D Next to be essentially universal with a basic setting of generic fantasy asking too much? Can we bring not just multiple editions of fans, but multiple  genre of fan together to the same table? I think we can. I think Talent Trees could help.

Anyway, I was going to say a lot more – I was going to talk about 3.5e, and psionics, and rant for a while longer on the virtues of d20 Modern, but… I guess that’ll all have to wait for other blog posts. This one is too long as it it.

It’s just as well. I could easily fill an entire post just with d20 Modern, or Psionics. Maybe I’ll do that next. Alternately, maybe I’ll tackle one of my favorite add-ons to D&D3/3.5 and discuss how to improve it and bring it over to D&D Next as soon as possible.

Yeah, I’ll probably do that next. Incarnum and D&D Next. That sounds pretty snappy.

I’ll have to re-theme the Blog in blue, though. Or cerulean. Or cobalt… Maybe I’ll just write the whole thing in a Blue Font. That might work. That won’t get annoying or anything… oh, wait – it will. Maybe that’s the point i want to make…


I liked 3e and the d20 system, but it had issues. Rangers are awesome, but they weren’t awesome in 3e. I love d20 Modern. If you want to know more, develop an attention span. And, yes – I am a jerk.

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An Interlude: The Scariest Video Games

For reasons that I don’t quite understand, I’ve suddenly felt the need to comment on scary video games. Enjoy if you can.

The atmospheric and slower-paced Silent Hill series (at least,the first four) get my vote.




I’m going  to make an unpopular statement, and say that Silent Hill 3 is the best and scariest of them, followed closely by Silent Hill 4. The first two are outstanding, but… sorry, you spend far too much time wandering around aimlessly, and although the stories are better, the atmosphere gets less scary every minute you spend not knowing what to do next.

SH 3&4 don’t have this problem. You don’t spend a lot of time wandering around – the things that are terrifying push you from one event to the next. The very fact that they are more on-rails makes them scarier: the character you’re controlling has almost no control over the events transpiring around them. You’re just trying to survive, and find out what’s going on so you can keep surviving. It’s more intense than wandering around a foggy town. SH2 is amazing, but it takes a while to get into it, and that while is too long.

Everything after SH4 is pretty much a train-wreck, by the way. The production studios changed, and the new one brought a more American-Horror-Movie aesthetic to the games. Now, American style horror movies are great (I’m a huge fan of them), but what works in a scary movie isn’t what works in a scary video game. The southeast Asian (Japanese, Korean, and Thai especially) style of movie horror, to me, works much better in video games.

Since SH4, the landscape of horror games has changed. There’s a lot more spring-loaded-cat, and a lot less atmosphere. Doom 3 is good for the occasional jump-out-of-your-pants scare, and does have a seriously creepy vibe to it. Likewise, F.E.A.R. has some great scares to it. The problem with these two, however, is that they focus on the action. That’s fantastic for the games themselves (you’ll never hear me bad-mouth either one of them), but it does make them a bit less scary.

Dead Space has some pretty creepy moments

But after a point, you get the feeling that the freaky monsters are looking for disco lights to stand in so you can see them better. That’s not cool in a horror game. Fewer monsters that spent more time in the shadows – and made you feel completely outclassed when you fought them – would have gone a long way toward making Dead Space on part with Silent Hill in terms of pure terror.

To bring this to a close, I thought I might mention one more game from the past that’s scary as all holy hell, for much the same reason the early Silent Hill games were. If you’ve never played Fatal Frame 1 or 2, you should. At night. With all the lights off. All alone. Which is how you should always play horror games anyway.

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