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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!!!!!

Ahem.

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.

TL;DR

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 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.

TL;DR

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.

Next:

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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