Thursday, May 29, 2014

D&D 5e: More News is Bad News (for 3rd Party Publishers)

Mike Mearls released another tidbit on D&D 5e, this time supposedly answering some questions on D&D 5e.  Let me summarize some major points:

  • Basic D&D 5e won't be suitable for a basis for sharing material (adventures, etc).
  • DMG will be the book that explains the rules and how to generate your own stuff.
  • The licensing looks like it won't be addressed until 2015.
The comments on this announcement are worth a read, but basically can be summed up in a few short categories:  big fans saying hi, I hate/love GSL/OGL, I trust/don't trust WotC to get it right.  Clearly Pathfinder has been screwing with WotC's business model and the fans now have different expectations that before.

It is good to know that the expectation that Basic D&D 5e won't be suitable for creating stuff and distributing it.  It eliminates any false sense of hope that basic D&D 5e would be a basis for an SRD.  It is hopefully good news that the DMG will address how to make your own stuff.  Licensing uncertainty is a big problem.

Now, reading the tea leaves, this probably means that Basic D&D 5e won't be licensed to allow people to share their material based on it, at least not in a 3rd party publisher sense.  Though there is some hesitation on Mike to release the details, he seems to be purposely vague between the OGL and GSL approaches to licensing.  Maybe the decision isn't made yet; or perhaps the decision is made and he knows the community isn't going to like restrictive licensing.  Lawyers are in the way too, I am sure.  Maybe the conversation is still underway.  Only time will tell.  Leaving the community, which has already seen these rules for 2 years and which is already generating 3rd party fan content in legal limbo does seem like a recipe for backlash though.  This might be a big mistake, a 4e sized mistake for 3rd party content.

All of this slow progression seems to be part of the plan.  By slowing down releases and letting the community experience D&D 5e, maybe they are trying to let some positive momentum build after the disaster that was 4th edition.  I can understand that.  After all, I can't refuse to buy the 5e books because of their 3rd party licensing, if they haven't released the details yet.  They can make a lot of money off of just selling those 5e books, even if the licensing agreement deep sixes the entire 5e community.

This 5e announcement is bad enough that it makes me consider cancelling my preorders.  I guess I'll give WotC a bit more time to make things right and clear, since the books aren't out for a few more months.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Free Basic D&D: What this Solves and the Problems it Creates So Far

Even though I invest heavily in my gaming hobby, I still fundamentally think free is good in gaming.  I've written multiple times before about the advantages that free systems, like Pathfinder, have over pay-only systems like Shadowrun.  Free brings in players.  Free enriches the community.  Free expands my options.  Unfortunately what Mike Mearls announced with free basic D&D is only half free, so far.  This is an announcement of free "as in beer", not free as in artistic freedom.  We still don't know what licensing will be put out for D&D, either free basic on non-free D&D.  Since 3rd party publishers are really the heart and soul of the community, this is a big missing piece.  That being said, let's take a look as the free "as in beer" side of things.

Basic appears to be a subset of the rules required to run the main races (dwarf, elf, halfling, human) through the main classes (fighter, wizard, rogue, cleric) to level 20.  Sounds good.  Just taking a tally from my current campaign, none of the 6 permanent characters in play fall under these character rules.  Unfortunate, but I don't think this is a killer.

From the announcement:  "As we introduce new storylines like Tyranny of Dragons, we’ll also make available free PDFs that provide all the rules and stats missing from Basic D&D needed to run the adventures tied into the story."  There is also some discussion of updating the basic rules as things are released.  There is also discussion of releasing eveything as digital copies (i..e PDF).  This could indicate an impending nightmare for GMs trying to handle the basic rules.  It doesn't say their will be a single version or a single repository of the rules; it says they will release PDFs with rules as needed to support their product releases.  Could this mean their basic rules will be spread across a stack of PDFs?  I hope this isn't what they are really going to do, but only time will tell.

So why do I care about the basic rules?  Can't I just make players have a copy of the Player's Handbook?  So keep in mind that the $50 cost of the Player's Handbook is ridiculous, and already has been reduced on Amazon to $30, which is essentially the same price as the Pathfinder Core Book.  Given this, I would expect roughly the same amount of players to get the PHB as Pathfinder Core in terms of representation in my D&D 5e and Pathfinder games, respectively.  Unfortunately, all the people I play with (me included) are much more likely to use the Pathfinder PRD than any other resource.  I would even suspect that half of my players don't even own Pathfinder Core.  The PRD as a searchable rule set is perfect at the game table.  It allows us to resolve the rules contract immediately in most cases, which is key to having a clean, easy to use rules-heavy system.

So as a GM, this means that half of my players, in all likelihood, either 1) will not play D&D 5e or 2) will try to use the basic rules without having a PHB.  Likely, this means I am playing two rule sets at the table.  Moreover, this ultimately means that half of my players are going to feel like crap when they play, because they don't have access to half the character options that the other half of the table can use.  As a GM, this breaks RULE 0:  That everyone should be having fun at the table.

I have faith that hardcore D&D gamers will ultimately flex their muscles and fix these problems.  There may be growing pains along the way.  We'll see how licensing turns out for D&D 5e.  We'll see how the basic rules really get captured.  We'll also see how the community fixes the problems of 1st party limitations.

I am still believer that 5e will be better than 4e and will help resurrect D&D.  My 3 core books are on preorder, so I am putting my money where my mouth is.    How this year plays out will determine what system I try for my next campaign.  Will it be 5e, or will it be 13th age, Numenera, Savage Worlds, or even Pathfinder again?  Maybe I should roll some dice.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Friday Night Pathfinder Horror: Stone Giants

The party had the unfortunate luck of running into two large stone earth elementals this week.  Bengrim, the dwarven stonelord tried to make peace with the elementals.  Unfortunately, it appeared they were tasked with guarding the area and would not give the party passage.  The party knew there was no other way out of the area, so they engaged the elementals.

The mechanical pony, Gallop, rushed into battle.  One of the elementals slammed the pony twice hard, and it was crushed, never to move again.  Krull and Kilrax moved up to engage, as well, but the fists of the elementals was too much for them, and they too were killed.

At this point, the party began to panic, realizing that the elementals were too much for them.  They decided the best option was to rush around the elementals and make a run for it.  With a just few bumps and scrapes, it went well, until the elementals turned on the party and gave chase.  After only a few seconds, Camden was caught by the elementals and also crushed.  His death gave the party more time to escape.

The escape was not as easy as hoped.  The end of the cavern was a large cavern wall that had to be climbed to escape, perhaps 40 feet tall.  The party had difficulty.  Someone finally grabbed a rope and tied it up.  Several people neared the top.  As the elemental came in to crush the party members on the ground, the rest of the party pulled them up to safety.

The next cavern greeted them with the stench of a large underground swampy lake blocking their path.  In relative safety, the party made camp for the night.  The only disturbance was Jerico waking to the sucking of a leech on his arm.

The swim across the swampy lake quickly became a race, egos driving the party to see who could reach the other side the first.  Benson, wanting to avoid the water altogether, levitated himself with arcane power and floated above, towed with a rope by Jerico.  Lillian stowed her armor with Bensen and took off swimming with the rest.  The party was about 15 feet into the water when 3 swarms of leeches appeared, heading for the party.

RIP: Gallop, Camden, Krull, and Kilrax

Sunday, May 18, 2014

On "Punishment" of Overpowered Characters

I keep an eye on subreddits for pathfinder and rpg and this question always comes up:  how do I punish the player who has an overpowered or min-maxed character?

The first problem with this question is that it indicates a lack of communication.  A GM needs to set the expectation for their players.  If a player thinks they can min-max and the GM doesn't want them too, the GM hasn't set the expectation properly.

The second problem is that the rules are an implied contract between the GM and the player for what is allowed and not allowed.  You can't agree on a rule set and then say don't min-max, because you just changed the rules.

I opt for the following strategies when I run into balance issues between characters:

1.  Use plot points to restore balance.  It is very easy to make sure an overpowered character has bad luck.  Mistaken identity, being captured, being targeted are all places where luck plays a part and the GM can control that.  This doesn't apply to mechanics, just things that happen within the GM's control.  Let the players know that you will do this.

2.  Use mechanics to exploit weaknesses generated in min-maxing.  This one has to be used sparingly in most games, because it has the potential to make characters less fun to play.  Have that bad guy convince the barbarian of something.  Make sure that high dex rogue has to use his will and fortitude saves a lot.  If done right, it will help to balance the successes and failures and help everyone share the positive spotlight.

3.  Rewrite the rules.  Instead of point buy, give the players the ability score sets to pick from.  Instead of allowing all books, use only a couple core books.  Instead of allowing every alternative, don't allow archetypes at all.  This will really level the playing field up front if done properly and moves all complaining out of game and into character creation, where it is easier to manage.

There you have it -- some fun ways to manage character balance in a game without ever having to use that word "punish".

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Brainstorm: Krohnus the Crater Planet

There exists a world, ravaged by constant bombardment of radiation such that the surface has become a living hell.  No vegtation seems to survive there; life is barren, hot, unkind in every way.  However, deep in the depths of the planet's layers lay a crater, many miles deep and many miles wide.  The radiation passes over the crater, leaving the inside untouched by death.  Within this crater, all normal life on the planet survives.  Outside of this crater, well, the things that live there are things like outsiders, demons, devils, and other toughened species.

The crater itself is divided into large oval bands of layers, each band miles wide and supporting a specific ecosystem.  Various humanoid races are scattered through the vegetated layers in cities, tribes, and villages.  All the diversity of what once was perhaps a living, flourishing planet, now exists in these layers of the crater.

Deep within the crater is a radiation zone around the original meteor that created the crater.  It, like the planet, is called Krohnus.  Within its reach, only exotic, demented, and unnatural life spawns.

Under the crater, caverns delve far into the planet.  There, so rumors have told, entire cities dwell, living off the hidden life-giving water seas and lakes that still remain.  Few know of the undercrater life in the world above.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Rules of Rolling

It is interesting how one of the mundane mechanics of role playing games has, in fact, became one of the bigger obsessions and superstitions associated with RPGs.  Go to any game table, anywhere, and you will find people with way too many dice and way too many superstitions about dice rolling.

Because of this, the rules of rolling are an important aspect of the game.  How does a player know when to roll?  How does that roll get counted when players are always rolling random dice at the table?  How does the GM prevent cheating?  How does the GM manage expectations to know if a roll is going to count?

Since a roll of the dice can make all the difference between a TPK and a victory, it is important to consider the rules for rolling.  A good example of one set of rules is Ronald's Rules of Rolling.  Ronald's Rules are good -- clear, concise, and definitive.

Ronald's Rules are just a bit strict for me.  In my typical Pathfinder games, I don't really want to spend a lot of time waiting for players to roll dice in order for things like perception.  Instead, I prefer to occasionally use the everyone rolls at once mechanic.  After all, a GM doesn't need to make sure no one cheats ever -- instead he or she just needs to catch a cheater once and then eject them from the game.  Occasional spot checks of individuals ensures we don't have any cheating.  And, if need be, rely on the eyes of the players to catch cheating too.

Besides, most times, for things like perception, I only really need the highest of the group.  Or in the case of initiative, I just need the number when I call out the character's name on the turn tracker.

I do like the rules about clearly defining rolls, making them land on the table, and the GM making the call if they are tilted.  Interference is not a real thing and gets ignored, and I like that.

The other thing I like to throw in to the dice rules is no stacking of dice.  Many a game has been disrupted by a polynomial dice tower toppling and sending d-whatevers flying every which direction.

Now superstition is yet another thing altogether, and I try to both allow it where it is harmless, yet point out that it is foolish.  The superstition isn't really about making the dice roll better; it is about giving the player something else to do when they get bored.  As a player, I was notorious for keeping my dice neat and always laying with the highest number facing up.  "Gravity will pull more of the material to the bottom so they'll get heavier on the side that rolls high."  Of course, this is ridiculous, but it is fun.

In any case, next time you find yourself at the gaming table, player or GM, take a minute to think about how clear the rules are about ruling, and what you know about when and how to roll.  And don't forget to put you naughty low-rolling dice away in a bag where you can chastise them later for ruining your game.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Out-of-Game Mechanic

Getting together a group of players to play an RPG for most people is only something that happens intermittently, following the intersection of the schedules of everyone involved to enjoy the hobby.  However, for many people in the hobby, this few hours a week set aside for gaming just isn't enough.  They need or want something they can do when they have time outside the game, an introvert's task away from the extrovert's domain at the table.  Today we're going to discuss that aspect of the game -- the out-of-game mechanic.

For GMs, finding something to do outside of game is always easy to do.  Whether prepping for an upcoming game, reading new rule books, getting ideas from modules or novels, or even building and painting miniatures and terrain, there is always something to be done.  In many ways, I think this is what draws players into becoming GMs -- they find they want to spend time outside the game on the hobby, and this oftentimes manifests as spending time worldbuilding.  This probably is also why many game masters suck at what they do, because a good game experience is all about the extroverted interaction at the table, but most GMs are motivated by the introvert experience away from the table.  But being a GM is not for everyone, and clearly, not even something most players want to delve in to.  As game mechanics go, GMing is not the best away-from-the-table mechanic.

For those not GM-inclined, the game is the game, whether at the session or not, so the out-of-game mechanic is really the basis for what they can do.  Different systems have different levels of what to do out of game.  If you are playing a rules-light game, there might not be anything really to do.  Delve into one of the old standby favorites like Pathfinder or D&D, and the only limit is the amount of time you're willing to invest.

After all, in these rules-wide and rules-deep systems, like Pathfinder and D&D, with hundreds of modifications for characters, a player can spend hours and days building, planning, and optimizing a character.  Just the standard amount of work to level up is suited for time away from the table.  Throw in planning for reaching prestige classes or for optimizing multiclass combinations, and now you can spend hours thinking about just a single character without ever need another player.  All of these character optimizations are mechanic driven; not role play driven.  We're not talking about what the character feels or their background -- we're talking about feats, skills, class levels, ability scores, and equipment.  Nubers on the page can take on a whole life of their own away from the table.

Equipment, alone, deserves its own consideration.  With books like Ultimate Equipment and Encyclopedia Magica to plot and scheme with,  a player can spend hours trying to find that one perfect piece of equipment for every situation.  Constructs like the Handy Haversack further this appeal, giving the players to carry far more than they would ever really have a use for.  In some sense, many games encourage hoarding of equipment by supporting lots of items in the mechanic.  As a GM, this sometimes mean the best question to leave the table with is "Is there any equipment or items you guys would like to have in the future?"

Role playing considerations outside the game are probably the exception rather than the rule.  Though it doesn't happen often, some players do work on discovering the aspect of who their characters are and how they should behave during out-of-game time.  This is one of the areas I spent a lot of time on, probably so because automated tools have drastically reduced the amount of time I need to spend on considering mechanics.  For me, it is far easier to know what Crayla will take for her level 3 feat than how she should react with a party member gets ripped apart by a bear and left for dead.  Is there room here for more mechanic for these role play questions?  Perhaps, but maybe it isn't needed.

A major thing to keep in mind is that some players don't want to spend a lot of time working on things away from the table.  Even leveling up can be a chore for some.  For these players, it is imperative that the out-of-game aspect be optional.  For rules-wide and rules-deep systems this can be a challenge because certain classes require more study on the part of the player.  Playing a fighter and hitting things with a sword may require very little planning away from the table; playing a monk and using all  the monk's special abilities properly is going to take some study.  In these cases, try to help your players find the classes and options that fit their away-from-the-table level of time.

The common thread through all of these out-of-game activities is that some players want to experience the fun of their hobby away from the table, even when the group of friends can't get together.  Whether you are picking a new game to play in, or planning a new game to start, be careful that you don't forget this part when you choose your system.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Friday Night Pathfinder Horror: Fresh Blood

So we had three new players this week, in addition to Sarah playing a new character.  The two other remaining regular players were out, which provides an opportunity to focus Dooley on new characters.  So here is the cast:

Player D:
  • Krull, a half-orc barbarian
  • Tabbris, a human druid

Player C:
  • Camden, a dwarf monk
  • Jack, a human sorcerer

Player S:
  • Bensen, a human wizard
  • Jerico, a human fighter / monk

  • Gallop, a steelheart pony rogue from Ponyfinder
The 6 humanoids all started outside the orc city on the road to the caravan camp or in the camp.  An earthquake hit which sent the 6 tumbling into breaks in the ground.  After a substantial fall, tumbling down the opening, they found themselves below ground in the dark, battered.

The cavern contained a few weapons and an odd blue metal pony automaton.  Getting closer to the pony seemed to activate it.  Finally, one of the party touched the pony and it came to like.

Looking farther into the cavern, the group discovered a gug, a terrible multi-armed brutish creature several times larger than any of the party.  Hungry, it stalked the group, with magic, the barbarian blade of Krull, and the attack of the mechanical pony chipping away at its health in combat.  The creature, after being hurt, scrambled away into the depths of the cavern where the party could not follow.

In the next area the party discovered a group of large snails with flails attached to their heads.  The pony foolishly attacked them.  The party quickly figured out to leave them alone and move on.

The next portion of the cavern had a series of pillars, apparently arcane and dwarven in nature.  Some sort of pit was covered and locked by a codex-like device.  Careful discerning of the area determined it to be a protection device of some sort.  A dead body lay nearby, apparently the victim of the device.  One of the party figured out the code and entered, opening the hidden access to a well of fresh water.