Tuesday, December 18, 2012

D&D Next: Off the Cuff, Round 5

The new D&D Next playtest packet came out today, and it's as dense with changes as any packet we've yet seen. Only races have gone mostly unchanged, I think. I am surprised by a lot of these changes, and the early summary is that I hope most of these changes are experiments rather than expected final forms.

The first change one comes to is the change to skill training. All characters now have skill dice, the size of which is dictated by level, and get to roll that die when using a trained skill. This starts at 1d4 at first level, and scales up to 1d12 at 20th. This is better for "no guarantee of success," and worse for differentiation. I'm happy to see that they've rescaled DCs so that first-level characters can't accomplish the "nearly impossible." I don't think differentiation is that big of a deal, but it does mean that players no longer make choices as they gain levels to get better at one skill rather than another. Skill tricks are a really nice addition, though: when using a skill, the player may either add the skill die to the d20 roll or activate one of her skill tricks. Regrettably, these mechanics are restricted to rogues.

The one (relatively major) implicit problem with skill tricks is that anything a rogue has to pay a skill trick slot and expend a skill die to use, another character cannot be allowed to do on a skill check. Introducing skill tricks thus provides an upper bound to what a character can do with a skill check. I have wanted open-ended, loosely-defined skills in the game from the start, and skill tricks are quite the opposite.

The XP table has changed, and now goes to level 20. The numbers are slightly larger, and based on what I've seen in running Aurikesh, it would probably take three sessions to go from first level to second rather than two. (This assumes a sometimes breakneck pace for a party of 5-7.) I find it strange that PCs stop earning feats after 9th level, though ability scores continue to increase every four levels. Based on today's L&L column by Mearls, I suspect that they're leaving space open for benefits from prestige classes.

All of the classes are now mapped out to 20th level, and most classes (everyone but wizards) now gain martial damage dice and a martial damage bonus, though fighters, monks, and rogues get the most of both: 6d6 martial damage dice and +20 martial damage bonus. The fighter class gives the strong impression that they wanted a few more variations of ways to give the fighter more damage output, since the fighter stops getting new Maneuvers at 10th level and starts getting Combat Surges, which grant an additional attack and increase their damage from martial damage dice still further. Most of the interesting Maneuvers from the previous packet are gone. On the whole I would say that the fighter stays effective, but has lost any flavor it possessed. It does generate some obnoxiously large damage totals, though. 1d8+6d6+20+5 (Strength bonus) + whatever magic the weapon may have (let's say another 2d6 for a flame tongue) yields a beastly 57.5 average damage per round, assuming the fighter didn't hold anything but the skill die back for a Parry.

Martial damage dice are part of a broader ability called Combat Expertise, which is confusingly worded but ultimately explains that the PC's bonus to weapon attacks applies only when the character is proficient in the weapon; further, the character can only apply martial damage dice and martial damage bonus with weapons she is proficient in wielding. On top of losing every kind of benefit, using a weapon with which you are not proficient results in disadvantage that cannot be negated with advantage. I am surprised to discover that all characters see some reduction in weapon attack bonus from this - it looks like they're finally going back to working on math in the Bestiary.

The cleric now has several more options, selected through deity. Channel Divinity has diversified into a slew of options, so the people who couldn't imagine trickster gods granting the ability to turn the undead. Many deities grant two different Channel Divinity options. I don't think these will be all that impressive at high levels, but they're reasonably solid at low-to-mid levels (I'll define that here as levels 1-12 or so.) Many of them are damage bonuses for clerics that should behave like fighters, but in a more cleric-y way. Choice of deity is also choice of armor proficiencies, and as I suggested here, a lot of deity options boil down to making the character more like one of the other classes. (Ironically, none of them make a cleric more like a monk.)

The cleric gets high-level spells, of course, but for spell levels 6-9, they only ever get one slot per level, rather than the two they've gotten for every lower level (though they now get a third first-level spell). Clerics also do not gain domain spells of levels 6-9. That's fine, I guess, except that it means levels 12, 14, 16, and 19 have nary a new class feature. It does fit in interestingly with the fact that high-level save-or-die-like effects are not expended on a successful save, comparable to the Reliable keyword in 4e.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Iron Kingdoms: Player-Side Review

A few weeks ago, one of the guys in my gaming group ran two separate one-shot sessions of Iron Kingdoms, in preparation for a longer-term campaign that he'll soon be starting up. My schedule, particularly preparations for Kainenchen promising to put up with me for the rest of her life, is keeping me from committing to joining the campaign, so I was glad I could play in these. The two adventures were published materials, which did affect the experience of the game considerably, but I'll get to that.

For the first adventure, I played a pre-generated character, a Gifted human investigator/arcanist. In the second, I played a Skilled elven duelist/knight, who I named Merrick the Swordsworn (this won't come up again - I just liked the name). When I briefly planned to play in the ongoing campaign, I built a Mighty human Stormblade/military officer. So, the game is class-based, up to a certain point. Each character has two professions, each of which offers baseline ability with a varying balance of combat and non-combat. At character creation, a profession is a package deal unless the choice of race or archetype granted an additional benefit (this is not common). The other significant choices are race and archetype. Race carries one or two modest benefits. Archetype carries one automatic benefit and one benefit chosen from a list. I really like the small number of high-impact decisions model that this game and D&D Next use (among other games); these two games in particular get the number of choices just right for my tastes. I feel like they give characters multiple dimensions without just making them incoherent jumbles.

I do want to critique one point. I'm sure the designers had their reasons for doing it this way, but I don't like the fact that the Gifted archetype is an absolute prereq for all spellcasting professions, while the other three archetypes are more like choices to specialize a character's approach to professions. In overall balance, I feel like magic is on equal footing with other forms of combat, except that the character had to spend his archetype choice on gaining access to it. In short, I don't like how magic-using characters are locked out of the abilities of the other archetypes. It just sits wrong with me.

The first character, who I'll call "the arcanist" since that aspect of the character guided his combat interactions and there wasn't nearly enough time for the game to focus on his non-combat capabilities, had a pretty extensive character briefing as part of the one-shot. The briefing was sorely lacking in usefulness to me, as it was lengthy enough to be difficult to absorb, and its setting notes still did not carry enough context to mean anything to me. The GM did his best to explain, but we were in a hurry to get the session rolling. Though not the best for short-term play, this actually speaks well of the setting for long-term play; everything I've seen indicates that the setting has depth and variety. (I have never played Warmachine, which would certainly help with setting familiarity, but the setting is pretty awesome even without.)

So let me talk about the setting for a moment. First of all, leave your sense for hard-line realism at the door, because even basic gear kicks believability to the curb in favor of testosterone-fueled awesomeness. In a lot of cases, I would probably treat that as a slam on a setting, but not this time - here it just means that many characters wear absurd thicknesses of armor (I was surprised to see that this includes arcanists), carry shields that stop gunfire (and often have gunports built into the directly - damn the structural integrity, full speed ahead!), channel electricity in their weaponry, and so on. It still avoids some of the more outright cartoonishness of many other settings, though it's only a few short steps away.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Random Determination in Gaming

This post by Ethan Skemp, and this comic by Randall Munroe, both comment on how humans process randomness, with a slant toward two different types of games. Through our unstoppable powers of pattern recognition, we are excellent at constructing narratives out of events that are either seemingly or literally random. As Ethan discusses, gamers are accustomed to exerting effort toward doing so, stringing together a story even when they watched the dice tumble and know that the outcomes weren't foreordained. There's another element to randomness in games, though, that I'd like to talk about in this post: randomness as a way to avert the perception that the narrative has been constructed. This is really about GM trust.

What I mean by that is that there are plenty of situations in which it is best for the flow and function of a game if the players perceive the GM as an entirely impartial arbiter. At such times, random determination of the outcome is a tried-and-true solution. Now, at its most basic level, this is just about the least innovative possible sentence as regards gaming. Everyone is familiar with non-roleplaying games that use dice to determine outcomes between players; there the dice completely take the place of an impartial arbiter.

I'm not really interested in the round-by-round combat resolution area of randomness. It is right and good that it is there, because I don't go in for entirely narrated combat. The perception of fairness is at stake more than ever when the stakes are high. Going into running Over the Edge, I mentioned to players a number of times that I, as GM, wanted combat to involve exciting description on both sides, with the potential for narrative consequences, and I hoped that they would trust me and be happy with this. Now, getting these people to trust me as a person was trivially easy; at the time, everyone there except Kainenchen had known me for four years or more.

When we talk about GM trust, though, there are a ton of issues on the table. First off, what am I even asking them to trust me to do?
  1. Be fair. Well, what does that mean? To parse the rules as they came out of the book, and nothing more? Actually, no, this isn't quite right; I believe they expected me to put my own judgment above the words on the page when I believed it appropriate to supporting their fun.
  2. Make the game fun. Technically, I haven't promised to make the game fun. If that were the case, I'd avoid any kind of negative consequences and just go in for the instant gratification.
  3. Make fun possible. As I see it, this is the answer: it's up to them to decide how to feel about things that happen in the game. Individual incidents that are not fun when viewed in isolation are going to happen; I'm even going to deliberately make them happen, because challenge and threat are important to creating a fertile ground for achievement.
In the first combat, one of the players protested with some irritation when his narration of his attack included details that, in my view, made him particularly vulnerable to the opponent's next attack. This wasn't a rules-dictated (by which I mean "found in a book published by Atlas") ability - it was something that seemed appropriate to me, at a time when I needed the enemy to be a little bit more of a threat. The situation was resolved, but the player's perception stuck with me. I'm belaboring the point here, so I want to be clear on one thing: the player wasn't being a jerk, and I do get why he objected.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

New Warlock Invocations for D&D Next

In my Aurikesh campaign, I have players using the Sorcerer and Warlock classes released in the 10-8-12 playtest packet. These classes were cut from the more recent packets, and enough of the other rules were rearranged to make it difficult to play these classes alongside up-to-date versions of the others, but we liked them as they were and decided (big group of professional and amateur game designers that we are) that we were comfortable hacking the rules as needed.

The warlock rules include only barely enough invocations for warlocks to have choices; by fifth level, a character would have all but one of the powers in the list. Also, many of these invocations are not strongly themed for warlocks aligned with the Seelie Court of the fey, and are more appropriate to infernal or dark warlocks. (I certainly assume that D&D Next rules will eventually incorporate all of 4e's pacts.) For Aurikesh in particular, I'll eventually need Seelie, Unseelie, and Infernal warlocks as a bare minimum, and I would be dismayed if there were no Star Pact.

I doubt strongly that WotC will have a Seelie and Unseelie warlocks as separate pacts, but I can handle that on my own if need be. From their introduction in 3.x, warlocks have had a strong theme of "bad guy who does good guy stuff," which was slightly muted in 4e's fey pact. I'd like to keep working with that in my D&D Next setting; while the Seelie can be jerks and Verenestra is notoriously vain, there's nothing actually evil about working with them from the setting's perspective. You've just pledged yourself to the Shining Host; it's not that much different from being pledged to the service of the Gods, since the Seelie and the Gods alike oppose the spread of most kinds of evil in the world. Except that, well, the fey and the Gods do not get along, but you don't have to make that your problem if you don't want to. (Not many people would want to multi-class the warlock and the cleric anyway.)

For the time being, though, I've created a few new invocations to give Aurikesh fey-pact warlocks another few options. A player who wanted one of these non-standard options would need to research them or bargain for them. The Seelie/Unseelie split might well just be something that the player represents through the invocations she chooses to learn. Ideally, I will eventually write a bit more expository text to anchor these invocations in the world.

This cut should be treated as a SPOILER TAG for any Aurikesh players who want to avoid spoilers, but I'm fine with you reading on if you want.

Friday, December 7, 2012


A few weeks ago, Wizards of the Coast released the Monk for the D&D Next Public Playtest. In that version, Monks had to belong to the Lawful alignment. I found this strange and objectionable, for a couple of reasons, and that has led to this post, which is about alignment rules and how I think they ought to work. The extremely short version is: no mechanical impact at all, thank you very much.

Monks must be Lawful; beyond that, I can make suppositions about what the designers are getting at, but no more. Probably they mean that monks lead lives of discipline and asceticism under a monastic rule - a quite strict code of behavior. There's my first problem: the legendary and modern-media touchstones for monks aren't all like this. Just as common as the peaceful-warrior type is the trickster monk - sometimes these are the same character. The trickster monk, like trickster archetypes everywhere, disrupts a corrupt or destructive form of order; training as a monk gives the character an exotic form of wisdom and clearer perception of the world, but discipline is an open question. To continue with The Karate Kid as a model for a moment, the Cobra Kai characters could be treated as non-monks, or argued as Lawful, but I think the former misses the point of the movie (Miyagi's ethos as a monk is superior to their ethos... also as monks), while the latter is highly debatable, and brings me to the big problem with alignments.

The internet, to say nothing of wasted hours during gaming sessions, are a fine bit of evidence that no two people will ever agree on definitions of all nine alignments. ENWorld is down right now, but if it were available I would post links to just a few of the endless arguments on how to classify existing characters in various IPs. Much like real people, though, even fictional characters that have been in writing for a modest amount of time have multiple, conflicting motivations that are poorly encapsulated in alignments. The 2e text in the DMG discussing alignment change (and the penalty for changing alignment) was a perfect example of how a consistent yet dynamic character might be correctly characterized as one of several different alignments, depending on her outlook on a particular situation. I can certainly be glad that 3e mostly did away with penalties for alignment change, though it still included alignment-locked classes that stopped advancing if they stopped qualifying.

So those Cobra Kai monks? They're driven by the belief that might makes right, and while they might be loyal to John Kreese and the dojo's rigid internal hierarchy, they do so not out of dedication to personal discipline, but from the direct threat of physical violence, made even clearer in scenes of the Cobra Kai students away from the dojo. Explicit disregard for the rules is pretty much the centerpiece of the climactic sequence. This is D&D's stated definition of Chaotic Evil. Ah, but isn't this - taken from the text on Lawful Evil - also true, especially of Kreese?
He cares about tradition, loyalty, and order but not about freedom, dignity, or life. He plays by the rules but without mercy or compassion.
Well... yes. If I can only apply one of Lawful, Neutral, or Chaotic to both Mr. Miyagi and John Kreese, though, there's not really a clear answer, and especially not one that fits comfortably with "all Monks must be Lawful." With Lawful as a stand-in for "obeys a code of honor" (any code)... well, that's like saying that any behavior that can potentially be defined by rules is Lawful, even Robin Hood's - the quintessential Chaotic Good.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Lore Game: Basics

In LARPing, there is a playstyle (not exactly a character archetype) defined by deep engagement with the setting lore and ardent pursuit of its mysteries. This area of gameplay is of particular interest to me; my first long-term character, in Shattered Isles, was a dedicated scholar, and the enjoyment I got from that ensured my lasting addiction to this hobby. In creating Dust to Dust, we wanted to create as robust a "lore game" as its predecessors had, and I think we have made a good start of it. In this post, then, I would like to offer a few thoughts on how to create a lore game with a good chance of drawing players in. As a preliminary note, though, a lot of this is fundamental to all good setting construction; if you're already proficient in setting creation, I am about to spend a lot of time preaching to the choir.

There are a ton of DM-advice columns and blogs out there that tackle exactly this topic. I don't think it's a great exaggeration to say that every new indie game that comes out includes one or more tips (in the form of rules) for how to either manage the campaign's lore, or get players engaged in generating that content. This is the point in this post in which I note that I come from a school of thought in which the GM/Plot generates the overwhelming majority of the setting's lore, and specifically looks at that work as a series of challenges for the players to unravel. My review of Technoir, while more at incandescent than merely glowing, noted in some detail my reservations about any content-generation methodology that meant that there were no mysteries for players to unravel. 13th Age has been praised for its notecard-based... actually, yeah, I can probably call it a CMS, technically. It directs GMs in weaving plot threads that the players care about back into gameplay and serves as a brainstorming tool. What I'm trying to say here is that tabletop games have been tackling a lot of the same things I'm talking about here, in all kinds of different ways. Some of those solutions are excellent tools for implementing the directives I'm talking about; others approach the concepts of setting depth and engagement from such different angles that there is no common ground to find.

Consistency: Create a Setting Bible

This is the most important and fundamental thing. There is probably nothing more important than making your setting consistent. Even weak points in the overall design can be worked around, explained, and explored to find interesting detail, as long as there is a foundation of consistency. Whatever Emerson may say about foolish hobgoblins, consistency lets the players feel confidence in a logical process of discovery and educated guesswork. Further, surprise is as simple as the subversion of expectation, and expectation comes from a solid foundation of world consistency.

Managing information so as to build a foundation of consistency is not easy. There's a lot to handle, from individual NPCs on up to realm-level politics and laws of magic. This is the fun stuff of setting creation, but make sure that you don't run so fast and so far in your creation that it collapses in on itself. The line between "glorious mess" and "impenetrable jumble" is a fine one, though the difference between the two is sometimes just good exposition.

I worked on LARPs prior to Dust to Dust, and prior to the proliferation of the wiki across the whole internet. We managed campaign information through a plot-side website that was rarely updated and a message board. The wiki format for data storage still has its issues (such as rarely taking the time to engage in full wiki markup of a page or addition), but it's a hundred times more comprehensible and navigable than a message board of several thousand posts that have no interconnections.

As I work on the Aurikesh setting, I am creating both a player-side and DM-side wiki to organize the setting details. I am aware that there are gaming-oriented wikis that I could be using - Obsidian Portal and Epic Words are justly famed - but I have become attached to the minimalism of PBWorks, and I keep on with it. Also I secretly believe that using a gaming-oriented wiki is bad luck for a campaign's long-term survival. Call it gamer superstition, or an obnoxious reluctance to learn new things.

If the campaign is to be anything longer than a one-shot, your setting bible is going to be a living document. I am not enough of a guru of information management to give advice on how to make that happen, and in any case a deep discussion of this topic is outside the scope of this post. If you have advice on this topic, though, I charge you in the name of all that is holy to share it.