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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 3, the dawn of Open Gaming

I’m well aware that people have been designing games and encouraging others to use their systems for quite some time, but with the advent of 3rd Edition D&D, WIzards of the Coast did something special and spectacular: they created the Open Game License (OGL). Setting aside all other considerations about 3e D&D (OMG IT ALL MAKES SO MUCH SENSE!!!/OMG THE CLASS AND POWER BLOAT!!!), this addition officially made 3e the most important D&D edition in the history of table top Role Playing Games.

The OGL is a legal document that is attached to most D&D 3/3.5 (and to Pathfinder, and to a variety of other games including Spycraft, d20 Modern, Mutants & Masterminds, and the superlative True20) releases that makes it so that anybody can create and distribute games based on the original material. It does this while including a clause that protects individual product identity, allowing you to easily create modified game systems using the rules, but retain control of things that are specific to your particular game setting (for instance, I could create an Essence d20 game that allowed people to use any of the mechanics I created, but stop them from using, say, Silverleaf, the capitol city of the Sherian Republic of Free Clans). It’s a masterfully written document that brought unprecedented freedom to other publishers. when developing compatible or derivative content: they no longer needed to “get permission” because that was included in the OGL.

Thanks to the OGL, we now have (and this is a very abbreviated list):

  • True 20, an elegant and streamlined universal game system published by Green Ronin
  • PCGen, Open Source character generator software that can be adapted to just about any d20 game system
  • Mutants & Masterminds, a in-depth (if a bit mathematically complicated) Super Heroes role playing game also from Green Ronin
  • Spycraft, an espionage role playing game filled with Bond-eque action from Crafty Games (who also make the equally superlative Fantasy Craft game)
  • Literally hundreds of independently published rules supplements to D&D 3/3.5
  • Pathfinder, a fantastic evolution of the 3.5 D&D rules system brought to us by Paizo that apparently outsells 4e D&D by a fair margin
And the list goes on. I’m not even including non-d20 games that have been released under the license (like RuneQuest). I’m sure I’ve left a lot of other things out as well. Space considerations, don’t you know.
In any case, by adding the OGL to the Most Popular Role Playing Game In The World, Wizards opened up gaming in general. The idea that a system could be used, adapted, modified, and republished by anyone was the greatest revolution in gaming history since the creation of the hobby. Pure, unadulterated brilliance is what it was.

I’ve seen it argued that, by creating the OGL, Wizards also laid the groundwork for D&D’s biggest direct competitor (which would be Pathfinder, which some gamers have affectionately – or derisively – called “D&D 3.75”). This claim is horse shit. It isn’t the OGL that caused Pathfinder to overtake D&D, or even to exist in the first place. A variety of business decisions at Wizards did that – but I’m only going o talk about one: the GSL.

When Wizards – with no fan input whatsoever – decided to move on to a fourth edition of their iconic game system, they dropped the OGL in favor of the GSL – the Game System License. Now, if you do a quick Google search, you’ll find more games released under the OGL than you can shake a stick at, many of them dating back to the time of 3e (not 3.5) D&D. Do similar research for the GSL and you’ll find… well, just about nothing. Now, why is this?

The GSL is much more restrictive than the OGL. Where the OGL said “here – take the mechanics of this game and do what you will with them!”, the GSL said “These are our mechanics. You can make stuff directly related to it, but you can’t make derivatives, and God Help You if you try to make computer software related to it”. Wizards then aggressively enforced the GSL.

See, they saw all the money companies like Green Ronin, Crafty Games, and Paizo were making from their derivative stuff (in the case of Paizo, that included two officially licensed D&D magazines), and said “Hey! WE WANT THAT MONEY!“. I’m all for companies – especially creative ones like game publishers – making money from their work, but Wizards failed to take several things into account.

The first thing they missed was that all of this derivative work led back to them. Instead of dancing in the spotlight as the progenitor of a new generation of gaming, all they could see was the money they thought they were missing out on. They saw character generators and thought we could make and sell those, ignoring the fact that most of the chargen software out there were labors of love created by fans with little or no thought of profit.  They saw the derivative systems and thought we can do that, too, never acknowledging that there was no practical way for them to actually do it. Wizards never could have made Mutants & Masterminds when they had to focus their dev team on D&D. This is easily proven when you take into account how completely awesome a 4e based Super Hero game could be. It almost seems like the system was made for it: they call the various special things characters can do Powers, for goodness sake!

The other thing they missed was that they never could have gotten that money anyway. Wizards does RPGs one way – the D&D/d20 Modern way. Crafty Games does things another way.  I know I covered it a bit in the previous paragraph, but the only reason games like Spycraft exist is because folks saw something special in the d20 system and adapted it. They missed out that several of the character generation software projects were free – either Free as in Beer or Free as in Libre. They missed out on the fact that a whole hell of a lot of the stuff people were putting out were things that WIzards has never expressed an ability or desire to put out. And yet all of them – every last one – still led back to D&D and/or d20 Modern. PCGen, Redblade, Spycraft, Mutants & Masterminds, True 20, Conan the Barbarian (from Mongoose Publishing), Pathfinder, the Everquest RPG (White Wolf Studios), Traveller20 (QuickLink Interactive), and even the (frankly amazing) World of Warcraft Role Playing Game are all – intentionally or not – homages to the d20/3e/3.5e Dungeons &  Dragons game. Did Wizards really think they’d be able to make this frakkin’ many adaptations of the 4e system, or that in order to make 4e adaptations, people would submit to the GSL? Not bloody likely.

It wasn’t the release of 4e that created Pathfinder. It was the GSL. Although I find myself preferring the d20 system more and more over 4e,  4e could have been much cooler if only Wizards had loosened its grip.

So. What can D&D Next take from this? Simple: Bring back the OGL. Don’t make a whole new license when you already have a perfectly good one. This is especially true for the modular approach Wizards is taking. Let people make and sell their own modules. Allow them to put some sort of branding on things that are compatible directly with the core rules, and let people who want to make original works derived from (but not compatible with) the new D&D do their thing. Encourage the whole of the gaming community to use your system.

In this way, D&D Next could do a lot more than bring players of multiple editions of D&D to the same table. It could create a single system that many, if not most, in the gaming hobby could stand behind, use, and love regardless of what sort of game they wanted to play. Instead of just bringing D&D players together, it could bring the whole Role Playing Community together.

C’mon guys. You almost did it once. This time, do it, stand behind it, and encourage it to grow. Be even less restrictive.

The whole of the hobby will thank you for it.


Get a frakking attention span. I’m not doing this stupid crap anymore. If you can’t be bothered to read 1,000 words or so about a subject, then you don’t really care about it anyway.


For my next post, I’ll be talking about 3/3.5e and the d20 Modern system. Probably. Unless I can think of something else I’d rather talk about.

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