Dungeons and Dragons … and Dungeons …

September 6, 2014

Fifth edition D&D is out.  Maybe it’s my seeing the Player’s Handbook at the local game store.  Maybe it’s having read those reviews of starter rules.  I just read a review of the PHB and skimmed through a review of Hoard of the Dragon Queen.

I don’t have an opinion about 5e, at least about whether it’s good or bad.  I don’t know enough.  It sounds like they tried to undo some of the “why am I not just playing WoW?” of 4e, which is a good goal, but I just don’t know the game.

I never bought 4e D&D.  I hardly played 3e D&D, though I played lots of d20.  I didn’t like the 3e books and pretty much hated the idea of 4e, since, you know, gamers I know have computers and can play WoW or whatever whenever they feel like it.

As may be fairly clear, I’m down on D&D.  So, I decided to do something.

I pulled out my AD&D (1e, of course) PHB and read it, skimming through a bunch of sections, but made an effort to spend some time on those sections I never cared that much about.  When I finished doing that, I pulled out my D&D Basic red book and read through that.

No, I didn’t stop to read every spell description or every monster writeup in Basic.  I did move quickly through most things because, as much as they haven’t been that relevant to me in my life, I looked at some of this stuff (far more AD&D than D&D) a good amount in my formative years.

I got D&D product for my birthday in 1980.  I picked up the AD&D PHB, DMG, MM, and Deities & Demigods in short order.  As with most RPGs where I bought a bunch of books prior to getting older and actually getting into campaigns, I created hundreds if not thousands of characters.

Will I pick up 5e D&D?  Probably not, though maybe something will change my mind.  Would I pick up AD&D today if somehow I lost my books?  Not to play, no.

Still, there’s something about AD&D that I think 3e and 4e, both of which I’m at least somewhat familiar with, lack.  Every version of D&D now strikes me as overly mechanical.  What’s funny is that the Hero System feels less mechanical to me, even though it’s supernumbery.  Something about D&D has always been off when you try to envision taking a fantasy world from fiction and turning around and playing it.

But, it was first, and it was the only real game in town.  I still own zero Tunnels & Trolls products.  Why?  Don’t recall them ever being available when I was young.  Meanwhile, I have a bunch of modules for D&D and AD&D that are pritnear useless to me because they are statblock after 40×40 room after statblock after new magic items after new monsters after wandering monster tables after statblock.  There are interesting story ideas to be sure.  I3-I5 sounds like a cool desert trilogy.  I went to look for inspiration for a desert setting.  I found mechanics.  And, that’s one of the best sets of modules I can think of.

I love L1, The Secret of Bone Hill.  All of the little town shops that have some statted up low level dude do paint some sort of picture to me of a fantasy town.  The interactions of NPCs was something to hang a hat on.

But, getting back to the point.

Which is?

AD&D had something I haven’t felt from 3e and 4e.  It had flavor.  It felt like fantasy.  D&D has caused me to hate dwarves and elves unless you can get into Norse Mythology deep enough for me to forget how much D&D makes me hate dwarves and elves (and I always hated halflings and gnomes, which, by hate, I mean I tried to ignore them as much as possible).  But, that took time.  When I poured over the PHB character mechanics, I was perfectly happy to come up with multiclass builds for elves and half-elves.

Being the primary game in town gives you a lot.  See how reinventing Magic: The Gathering is just a waste of time, unless it’s done as a martial arts game with pictures of real martial artists and was done in 1995.  Still, the PHB made me want to play different characters.  The class system especially but also racial differences made me think of possible PCs.  I should say that the art in AD&D is just so much better than what I can remember seeing in other D&D products for making fantasy feel serious/important.  As silly as I may find D&D undead now, undead then was stylish, no matter how moronic level loss was.

Psionics?  Ludicrous.  Bard?  WTF?  Spell abuse?  Whatever.

What’s my main takeaway of reading the PHB these days?  It’s short.  It’s a lot shorter than it felt.  Note that I only focused on a small portion of it back in the day, but that’s kind of the point.  Back in the day, I was interested in creating characters for the game.  I was interested in what abilities got unlocked as you leveled up, even though I hardly ever played pre-d20 D&D to have characters level up.  Ten or so pages in the PHB opened up a massive world of fantasy.

I’m older now.  I’ve seen better.  I actually can picture fantasy PCs better with Body Pips and Stun Pips than I can with THAC0.  Of course, Fantasy Hero never had the world baggage that D&D acquired.  You didn’t need articles on the ecology of ochre jelly or how flying monsters twice as wide as people were behind dungeon doors that a human had to squeeze through.

oD&D is also so amazingly treasure focused.  Not to say nD&D isn’t, but it’s so fundamental to oD&D the idea that monsters guard treasure straight out of the videogames that came after D&D.  I used to not hate +2 swords.  I quite despise them, now, for their complete lack of flavor or specialness.  Retainers get a lot of paragraphs in those old books, yet I don’t recall, off the top of my head, ever having retainers in any RPG be something I spent virtually any time on or having virtually any impact on play.  But, when PCs died like flies, retainers dying first was great.

I read an article recently, which I’m pretty sure I blogged about, about how the point of oD&D was survival of the fittest.  It was a gamist venture from the wargame roots to survive as long as possible.  Just one more dungeon.  Just one more boss fight.  Just one more check for traps on the empty room with the chest in the corner.  Boardgames, such as Descent, cover this for tabletop play, and, of course, videogames.

Mechanics matter.  When I get together to talk L5R, most of the conversation has to do with character sheet stuff, whether what a character currently can roll or how XP will be spent.  I found better mechanics than D&D.  I quite dislike the 3-18 attribute system, these days.  I do like how D&D Basic/Expert/et al respect stats that aren’t 16+, if only slightly.  I actually quite dislike d20’s every two points is a one modifier, though, as it’s horribly inelegant compared to halving everything.  Nor am I fan of using a d20 for resolution.  It’s fine to roll a d20 for some esoteric table to give 20 possible results.  For standard resolution, however, a d10 is so much better (not to be confused with percentile – percentile is even worse than a d20 for the same reasons – it gives too many empty results, leading to everything feeling terribly mechanical even if it’s possible to scale everything in the game to where there’s no mathematical difference between the systems).

It’s funny to read how 5e making feats optional is bad because it takes away player choice.  Um, AD&D and Basic had nothing remotely like player choice after you adjusted your starting attributes and chose a class besides things like spells.  And, that was not the end of the world.  Sure, systems where you spend XP to make the improvements you want to make are vastly superior … vastly.  But, the d20 feat system sucks.  No, really, it sucks.  It has good intentions, but it sucks.  It has feats you would never take, feats you always take, and so many feats just come across as pure mechanics, lacking any sort of Both Guns Blazing or Carnival of Carnage flavor another RPG might have.

Would I play AD&D (1e, probably not 2e) or Basic?  Yeah, I can see it.  That Basic only has leather armor, chain armor, and plate armor is nice simplification.  Alignments are Chaotic Evil, but they are easily ignored.  I just feel like the oD&D mechanics, though screwy in all sorts of ways, were more elegant than more recent versions of the game.  I write down my strange saving throw numbers.  I have to get a magic weapon ASAP in order to hurt certain things.  I wonder why there are racial limits on classes and hope everyone dies before they matter.  I ignore how busted some spells can be … really, D&D Expert Haste affects 24 allies by giving them double attacks with no penalty … really?!?

I’m not opposed to dungeon crawl play – see interest in HeroQuest boardgame.  I’m not opposed to videogame role-playing.  I think my greatest problem with any new edition of D&D is just going to be the baggage of it never being what I prefer out of a RPG, which is an elegant set of rules for both character creation and resolution to tell stories in fantasy worlds (that aren’t silly).

I can go into a dungeon.  Draw a map.  Hope nobody cares about the party light source or how many feet it provides visibility for.  Hope we don’t have to stop and check for traps every 10′ and check for secret doors every 10′.  Maybe even play a spellcaster, as it occurs to me that I’ve played spellcasters a surprising amount in D&D play compared to other games.

Meanwhile, for more narrative play, I imagine using some other system because the habit, if not the requirement, with D&D is to fall into the dungeon crawl/tactical wargame aspects of it.  Oddly, that other system could be d20, of the Conan sort – I’ve never played Pathfinder and don’t get the sense that there’s any reason to start.  I’d prefer it to be Roll & Keep, but that requires effort and removing expectations.  Savage Worlds is not terrible, but I’m not sure I think it’s adequate.  Hero might be worth a shot, might not be.  GURPS?  No.  Unisystem?  Is there a reasonable fantasy option.  BRP?  No.

I’m not against D&D.  I don’t have a problem with it being an industry leader, nor do I really care that Pathfinder has surpassed other editions of D&D.  Though, I suppose there’s one way I have a problem with it.  It distracts from far better games, even far better fantasy games.  It gives people the wrong idea about what FRPing should be like.  The number of FRPGs that have elves and dwarves is horrendous.  No matter how brilliant the game might be, as soon as I see these sort of generic, I mean Tolkien, nonhuman races, I will lose interest.  Might as well play one of the versions of Middle Earth, even though I have a hard time seeing how to run a game in the world.

Okay, maybe I am kind of against D&D.  I’d rather see games on the shelf that let me play the game I’m interested in rather than some extraordinarily gamey world.  One might say GURPS has that niche, having a universal system for whatever genre you want, but GURPS is too heavy.  Okay, some people really like Savage Worlds.  I tolerate it.  I’m sure the system closer to what I want a system to be has been made, but it probably included halflings or something and, thus, made itself unregardable.

Anyway, for those people who enjoy it, more dragon-subduing for ya … and dungeons.


Chromancy

September 14, 2013

I have no opinion on the game play, not having time at Gen Con to demo it, but I hope people take a look at this Kickstarter:

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/tsh/chromancer-adaptive-strategy-online-trading-card-g

Speaking of time magic, I’ve slid into a reflective mood at times, recently.  I’ve already touched upon the subject of playing a game without worrying about the game – just do whatever seems fun.  And, many of my deckbuilding gimmicks have involved rewinding time to a point when there were fewer cards and my deckbuilding strategies were different.

But, I’ve been thinking about what appeals and what doesn’t about various games that led me to where I am.

Chess

I have books on chess.  For some reason, I keep pulling one of them down from the shelf that I’ve never enjoyed reading.  The problem with its format is that it sets up a key point in a game to illustrate an aspect of chess and gives the key move … and then gives all of the remaining moves in the game without diagrams of the evolving play position.  I’m not motivated to pull out a set and play through the moves.  I realize that means I’m not the target audience.

Why am I not a target audience for chess?

It’s a game with completely known information.  I may not be that into surprises, but I like guessing.  I like unknown information, which, as I keep saying, is why I prefer CCGs to CMGs or CDGs.

But, it occurred to me that there’s another aspect of chess that differentiates itself from, say, Dragon Dice or another game with known info.  Symmetry.  Collectible/customizable games lack symmetry.  RPGs lack symmetry.  Some boardgames have symmetry or close to it, while others have varying start positions or have factions.

While having nothing to do with time, lack of symmetry is appealing to me.  I don’t like doing what everyone else does, which is quite obvious with my RPG characters but should be obvious with my CCG decks.  That ability to do something different is dependent upon the lack of symmetry in a game.  Sure, you can make various dumb opening moves in chess games that nobody makes just to be different, but the goal isn’t to be stupid, it’s to be different, and there are only so many of those moves, anyway.

Mahjong

When am I ever going to play again?  No idea.

Note that mahjong has hidden information.  I found the subgame of trying to guess what people have in their hands to be quite entertaining.  It’s also asymmetrical!  Sure, you have equal chances of having any hand, but you never have the same hand as someone else, even though it’s possible.

Rather than break bridge out into its own section, as I’ve never played a significant amount of bridge, I’d just point out how scientific games like bridge are because by definition you cannot have the same cards in hand as someone else.

Mahjong was my favorite game growing up for a variety of reasons that had nothing to do with its mechanics.  It was a family thing.  It has gambling.  The tiles (without numbers) look cool.  Different sets had different styles which gave different personalities.  I liked the old-fashioned or more stylized sets much of the time.  I even collected sets – I’ve always been into collecting.

And, it had special mechanics that separated it from rummy card games I played.  Certain melds, certain tiles (flowers), certain hands all followed special rules, which even bled into special rules in play.  “Nine down” meant you had to be careful about throwing a tile of that suit, and so forth with the exotic/esoteric old school style of play that the family used.

Style.  Specialness/unusualness.  Trying to read other people’s positions not by trying to read other people but by following their actions.  These and possibly more are elements I see in games I choose to play today.

AD&D

I technically started with some transitional product between D&D and AD&D, but AD&D was really my first experience with D&D.  A very limited experience as I didn’t play the game growing up, just bought it and read it and did some character creation and whatnot.

That period of being interested in AD&D but not playing it had an effect that makes me wonder about my current tastes in RPGs.  The reality is, while maybe not a problem for the day or when put up against so many competitors, the mechanics of D&D games rather suck.  What drew me in with the Player’s Handbook and the Monster Manual was flavor.  The art made me interested in creating a paladin character (or a victim of a succubus or whatever).  I had yet to become offended by how dwarves and elves and other demihuman races are portrayed in RPGs.  Even the art in Dragon magazine and the like was appealing with Phil Foglio cartoon humor, et al.

One of the reasons I stopped buying D&D products is that it lost all of its flavor to me.  Fourth Edition may be the worst offender when it comes to feeling like everything is just numbers, but 3e started down the path of making the game feel just mechanical to me, even if that path had been started previously with 2e or whatever.

Now, if there weren’t other RPGs out there, then maybe I would have stuck with it.  Off the top of my head, I’m trying to think of what fantasy RPG showed me a different model.  Not Melee/Wizard/The Fantasy Trip – those were precursors to an even more mechanical feeling game:  GURPS (Fantasy).  Champions certainly would never have made me see a different path!!

It had to be something about playing at conventions in one-shots of more narrative games.  Vampire: The Masquerade, perhaps, with 7th Sea being a more fantasy RPG in a similar vein.

But, you know what?  It might have been Origins 1994 that took me down my path.

Immortal – The Invisible War

Once my favorite RPG (maybe even game).  Highlander (TV series) and World of Darkness RPGs is what I thought of when I was first exposed to this (playwise, I saw ads for it in Dragon) when Origins was in San Jose (it was in San Mateo in 1981?!?).  After having Ran Ackels, the designer, run a table for me at Origins, I started describing it as a cross between Highlander and Mage.

I have my signed copy sitting a couple feet away.  I’m getting interested in it again, though no one else would ever run it for me and I don’t have any desire to run it, myself.

What was so appealing about it?

First, mythology.  I love mythology.  Where I got increasingly disenchanted with AD&D because I thought the game was making Tolkien (and the original Northern European myths) races silly, Immortal could be all about a spin on real world myths.  Sure, V:TM got there first as did whatever else, but this put world mythology up front.

Second, mechanics.  Sure, Immortal made InQuest Magazine’s “Games That Suck” article (I think the first one but maybe the second).  Sure, when talking to Ran and Rick Don, who became the game’s champion, there were comments about how the mechanics didn’t actually work.  But, I think that’s an important point – mechanics only need to seem to work.  I was not a campaigner back in the day.  I was a conventioner.  I didn’t see all of the problems in trying to build real characters or in how the GM was to resolve issues.  What I saw in that first experience was a PC going through sewage pipes in some liquid (maybe gas) form.  I saw my character look into the future and be reluctant to tell anyone what would happen because, the more the future is known, the less you can change it.

But, I’m getting off track on mechanics.  What appealed to me about the mechanics was Floating Immaculum.  And, yes, the game had just as many and possibly more (!!) pretentious names for everything.  Immortals have (rainbow colored) Halos, which are attributes.  They have Motes of Immaculum in those Halos, showing how strong the attribute is.  Okay, just pretentious names for same old, same old.  Except, Dragon Magazine’s Immortal flyer went over Free Immaculum.  Immortals have a certain number of Motes that can be moved around from attribute to attribute.  I need to be stronger, I assign to Orange.  Faster, Green.  If I leave it as Free, my initiative or number of actions or something was improved.

The art isn’t quite my style, but it was evocative.  But, I digress.

Immortal gave me a view of a RPG that could appeal on a story level much more than “My half-elf is multiclassed fighter/magic-user and will Sleep the orcs.”  It gave me weird mechanics (to go with mundane things that were essentially modern day skills – I also like real world settings whether modern or historical).  It was not a mass market product.  When I played it, which, at first, was only with Ran running, I got to do cool stuff, the mechanics were incredibly minimal, but it didn’t have the “rules lite” annoyances that a lot of more modern games incorporated.

For a time, it was perfect.  Later, it became less perfect in my eyes.  I saw more of the challenges in mechanics and running a campaign.  I really didn’t like what was done with Second Edition.  The game became too much about Immortal politics rather than modern day mythology in my play.

Tying into Chromancy, there was even time travel in some adventure I was in, might have been the LARP I played in.

Time

Time to wrap things up.  Memories make you.  There have been many games I’ve left behind that mattered a lot at the time.  Besides leading to me to where I am, it is possible to go back to the well with some of these games.  Can still riff on Babylon 5 with that CCG, can still try to do opening hand optimization with the Wheel of Time CCG, can still play the most fun CCG of all time, Ultimate Combat!, and, of course, RPGs never become obsolete.  After all, how different is Melee/Wizard from, say, BattleTech?