Friday, August 30, 2013

Harbinger's Advice Column: Grand Opening

Thanks to my success in writing advice for my fellow Eclipse colonists, I've decided that I can and should write occasional advice columns for others. In-character advice is probably funnier (even for games I don't play), but if someone wanted GMing advice, I'd be happy to answer those, too.

Right, chummer. So there we were in Bellevue - aka hightown, Seattle, where you can’t go five steps without hitting a coffee shop that sells you a nonfat double energy triple mocha cappuccino for 250 nuyen. We had a meet and we were blending in…. okay, we’d taken our big guns off and we were wearing our best tatters. We go into this high security apartment, and long story short, we actually get in to talk to the lady, but then what happens? Our decker says, ‘Uh Oh.’  What? WHAT?! We aren’t even breaking in, we got an invite! She says, ‘I was just taking a look at their host, for you know, bugs and stuff.’ She says this as security shows, and us with no guns. So yeah, my question is, how do you keep the decker from hacking all the things?
Hoi! What I'm hearing is that you have a little problem you can't quite suss, and for reasons surpassing understanding you don't like the idea of disavowing her as a means to educating her. (Seriously, one good "who her? never seen her before, peace out!" and she would not pull that shit a second time. One way or another.) Instead, you are wondering where all of these chaps with the big rocketry came from and why exactly it seemed like a good idea to hand over quite such a high percentage of your armamentum.

Let me tell you, chummer, this is a very pertinent pair of questions to be asking at such a crucial juncture. Let's start with the second question, because come on, no hold-out weapons? Okay, you are thinking, maybe I could have packed a noisy cricket in my hatband or some combat-grade chopsticks in my lunchbox. But come on, what good would those do? There are like a hundred million of these homo neanderthalensis types all up in your entree, and they are waiting for an excuse to give your epidermis a lead lining. So, good point, right? Except...

...maybe the decker isn't completely out of usefulness at this moment. I mean, let's hope, because otherwise it might be time to call Charlie and tell him to limber up for some sort of Foxtrot. Maybe there's a light switch or power line she can temporarily excuse from duty; if you're lucky, all of your chummers hit the deck at the same moment she hits the off button. This is sort of a wet blanket on the party, and you will probably not be invited back, but I am pretty sure that deal was sealed once your decker shat the bed. Either they will not get trigger happy, in which case you can belly-crawl your way to Stage Left, or they will, in which case it is to your benefit to be surrounded. The host of this disastrous confabulation would probably prefer not to be perforated by any over-eager henchpersonnel, so the former is the odds-on favorite.

If that doesn't work, see if you can form some sort of rudimentary lathe.

Once you're out of this sticky situation, you wanna keep the decker from hacking all the things and causing static again. The fastest way is the double-tap, but I'm guessing that erasure is a social fox pass. What about a hotshot for your hotshot? Think of it as low-dose electroshock therapy for instructive purposes only. You can be all, "Don't mess with the bull. You'll get the horns!" and shit. I mean, maybe this is why 'runners from twenty years ago left their deckers at home - not because they aren't useful in the AO, but because they never learned any manners.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Forgotten Realms: Odi Et Amo, Excrucior

In the past couple of months, for whatever reasons of nostalgia (and reading about the new expansion of Lords of Waterdeep), I've been thinking about the Forgotten Realms setting - likely the single most loved and hated setting in all of D&D. Hence the title of this post quoting Bernard Cornwell, quoting Catullus. My history with the setting goes back to probably '93 or '94, when I first picked up the 2e boxed set. I expect that a sizable percentage of my readers are either closing this post already or simply turning up their noses - let's face it, the setting doesn't get a lot of love in the blogosphere. This is what I want to talk about: the flaws that quite justly turned people away from the setting, and the merits by which the setting earned its place in the gaming pantheon. (Disclaimer: this is a post with a high risk of violating my rule against fulmination.) It's my belief that the setting is ideal for brand-new DMs and very experienced and talented DMs, but pretty much awful for anyone who has departed one shore without reaching the other. I don't claim to be one of those transcendent DMs, but I think I may have sighted it from the crow's-nest.

I'll be talking primarily about the 2e version of the setting here; while some parts of the setting were improved in the core releases of later editions, I think this comparatively primal form has much to recommend it. Because I want to lay out a redemptive arc for my commentary, I'll start with the setting's flaws, and some means of addressing those in actual use. This gets into outright re-imagining the Realms.

The Big One

Powerful, goodly NPCs control the story of Forgotten Realms, without any kind of clear structure in place to explain why the PCs need to act. This is the result of a setting guided by the success of its novel line, but even before the novels, Greenwood was obsessed with blatant self-insert characters. At the risk of making baseless assumptions about someone I've met only once in passing, I'd point out the number of older, cantankerous men who, for reasons surpassing understanding, are spry, powerful, and desired by women whose only significant adjective is nubile.

Then there's this guy, who I will endeavor not to mention again in this post.

Basically, all of the things that one would like to see the PCs do, from establishing heroic spy organizations to defeating just about every major evil in the setting (okay, let's be real, I haven't read any FR novels in the last fifteen years, I have no idea what goes on now), are canonically accomplished by named NPCs. It's obvious enough that a DM can just change that, but as those same NPCs keep cropping up, one must work delicately, or else scrap the whole thing. If the DM wanted to do the latter, then why work with a published setting at all?

We're lucky enough to live in a time when a group of noted D&D designers have just released a near-D&D system that addresses the problem of how to use the big-name NPCs. Seriously, if you take nothing else from 13th Age, its system of Icons that gives PCs actual, meaty hooks to interact with the big-name NPCs is an awesome innovation. I suspect that this is how Greenwood originally used those NPCs in his own game - not as distant titans overwhelming the significance of the PCs, but as nearby characters that the players interact with often, people the players can love or hate on a personal level. If your character has history with Elminster (preferably a negative history, because conflict is good), suddenly the emotional reaction to his presence in the setting is something other than, "oh, why bother, the big guy will handle it." Even a friendly history is good, though: I'll note that Brust keeps managing to challenge Vlad, even when he is close friends with Morrolan, Sethra Lavode, and Keira the Thief, some of the most capable and motivated NPCs in the setting.

Now, I haven't followed this advice, because the Forgotten Realms campaigns I've run - seven or so, I lose count - predate 13th Age by right around a decade. I went the other way: drag the PCs out to some part of the setting that doesn't see a lot of big-name NPCs, and just never have them show up or do anything. Those players weren't the type to ruin their own fun just to skewer the setting's flaws. In my long-running college game, Alustriel was on-camera for about twenty minutes, in her role as the ruler of Silverymoon rather than her role as an epic-level spellcaster. (On which note, I wonder if D&D Next will add levels 21 and up just so that the FR NPCs can be statted according to tradition.)

My last note on this is that in general, the best place for powerful, heroic NPCs that might overshadow the PCs is the history books. It's still possible to be overshadowed by the dead, but it's trivially easy to write plot around PCs stepping into the shoes of a dead NPC; that NPC's heroic exploits become a promise of glory yet to come, as long as the players trust the DM to let them become as great as that predecessor. I've certainly been tempted to start a campaign with the mysterious-yet-quite-permanent demise of one or more of those NPCs and run the story from that premise, but I never came up with quite the right way to make the PCs give a rat's ass.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Plotting, Staging, and Control

It's hard to explore the full background of my motivation for this post, but it is most recently triggered by an assertion in the comments thread of another blog that I read. (Note: I've now been working on this post for about two weeks, since well before the recent DtD module day.) I've just now discovered that that post and thread are gone, for whatever reason, but the approximate assertion was that emergent play is the only valid game. This, or something akin to it, has come to the center of design thought in tabletop gaming, particularly indie design, over the past five years or so, as games try to shift more narrative control into the hands of the players and minimize the role of the GM. The OSR is particularly strident on this point, as part of their hard-line stance against "story games." Let's start with an outright rejection of One-True-Wayism; following up on that, I want to actually talk about why I think things have come to be where they are, and so on.

By the way, this is by no means solely about tabletop gaming. LARP running is definitely at stake, and I may have a few things to say about video games before I'm done. I start with tabletop games, though, because the player/GM dynamic and the implementation of any plans the GM makes are at their clearest in that medium. For ease of conversation, let's call the two ends of the game-running spectrum Centralized (staged and scripted by the GM) and Decentralized (little to no planning by the GM; players shape the narrative in some cooperative or competitive way).

Now, there are some really good reasons that the trend against Centralized plot has as much strength as it does. One of these reasons is the same as the highly legalistic rules of 3.x and later editions - rules over rulings, as the blogosphere has called it. These rules are written in such a way as to bind the GM and create a "fairer" playing field. The full list of reasons for this shift aren't knowable, but WotC cited the desire to standardize the experience to some degree - the D&D experience you got from one DM should at least resemble the D&D experience you got from another. I've interpreted that as something like, "DMs are too arbitrary, and they're misusing their position of authority to the detriment of the game's fun. Let's solve that." Nominally, the DM can change any rule in the game and make whatever happen, but the game delivers guidelines to the DM in such a way that they become expectations in the minds of players.

There's also a general sense that no one really has time to do a ton of game prep anymore. If that's true, then it's a great idea to shift some of the heavy lifting onto the players. The conventional wisdom here is that this will even get them to care more about the elements of the campaign that they encounter. But then, can there be exploration or a sense of mystery in content that you yourself created? I've always believed that the answer to this is No, and as the exploration of mysteries and secrets comes close to the only thing that truly interests me, it's not a price I'm willing to pay. It's not the only thing that people can get from roleplaying games - not by a long shot. Be careful, though, about any situation where one player has any capacity to tell another player that the latter is Doing It Wrong - as when the former player originated the idea for that race, culture, class, or whatever. Players shouldn't do that to each other, but my experience suggests that even people who know better just can't help themselves.

Compounding this point, the video game industry has learned that players can always consume content faster than the game's creators can produce it. Nowhere is this more egregiously apparent than in the MMO production cycle, which has inspired MMO designers to do some truly obnoxious and strange stuff to put an artificial brake on content completion. Many designers - here I include my own past self - have hoped that world PvP would be the answer: players creating their own content in the form of an endless war waged back and forth across the setting. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn't. It's damned hard to make world PvP feel like satisfying content, owing to the limitations of the medium. Other games literally co-opt players into the content-creation machinery, as City of Heroes and others did, by releasing the level-creation tools in the game itself; EverQuest Next is planning on that right from the start with the Landmark toolset.

I don't know all of the reasoning behind LARPs that believe solely in decentralized plot, except that they are typically very large playerbases and very small plot committees - the plot committees cannot do anything more than adjudicate player actions and host events. Some of those groups internalize that necessity to the point that they reject other models. It's a pretty common theme in game development: "This is the only way we can stay afloat (and we learned these lessons through great strain), so we think other people doing it some other way is less correct." Bitter envy (for the resources that let other groups run things differently) or elitism are equal and opposite traps for a stressed-out game-runner.

Monday, August 5, 2013

D&D Next: Off the Cuff, Round 8

A new playtest packet for D&D Next dropped last Friday, and in accordance with prophecy, I'm writing up my thoughts on same. They've hugely overhauled all of the classes - heck, they even changed the name of the wizard class - so let's just jump right in. A quick glance at the Read First document shows me that I am not going to like what I see. Where do I even begin? Okay, classes.

Barbarians start to show just how much has changed in classes, because they now have a class feature at every level. That's a little deceptive, though, because some of those are ability score improvements that everyone gets. Their ability to apply their Con bonus to AC is gone. Reckless Attack and Feral Instinct have been moved to a higher level. There are now multiple builds within the class, the Berserker and the Totem Warrior; the Totem Warrior in turn contains four different totemic options. Relentless Rage has been moved up six levels but otherwise unchanged, which is funny because it is now mostly worse than the new fighter ability Defy Death. Its initial DC is lower, but it scales with each usage, and it comes three levels later.

One of the big changes is that Deadly Strike is gone for all classes. They instead receive additional attacks per round, at various intervals. The fighter gets more attacks than anyone else (thanks to per-encounter Action Surges), though barbarians get a flat add to damage and advantage on all attack rolls while raging, so they're still pretty solid on damage output. Advantage on all of those attack rolls probably makes up for having a lower attack bonus than fighters. Barbarians and fighters also now gain advantage on all saving throws (barbarians only when raging; fighters all the time) at 11th and 13th level, respectively. So... that means that they no longer have any use for a lot of the magic items in the game, including the only magic shield currently in the packet.

Berserkers are now immune to charm effects as well as fear effects while raging, while totem warriors are sort of idiosyncratic - while raging, one gets immunity to falling damage, and another gets 15' blindsight. The core concepts of the builds are fine, though, even if their powers are pretty over-the-top. I just hate that they're handing out more immunities.

Clerics now have several more class features and domain features to show for their time, though I feel bad for the party whose cleric goes for a domain other than Life. For all these changes, they still haven't made the one critical change that clerics need as a class - that is, spells cast as a swift action still lock out all other spellcasting or magic item use for the round, which means that clerics can't focus on healing spells and casting sacred flame. I continue to not understand why swift actions don't just lock out non-cantrip spells in the core rules - this is certainly how things work in my game, and it's still not enough to draw even the faintest player interest in the cleric class, because up until now they've been so incredibly plain even with their domain powers.

So what's new? Well, getting only two attacks a round (starting at eighth level) means they're still pretty tolerable melee combatants, and at 14th level they gain Divine Strike, which adds 1d8 to the cleric's weapon damage. I'm fascinated to find, though, that the damage scaling of sacred flame hasn't changed - it's still a superior damage option to unaugmented melee attacks, but once divine favor enters the equation, weapon attacks are king again - and the cleric might have the distinction of best damage-dealer in the game at some levels.

Channel Divinity is a once-per-encounter kind of deal now (twice at 18th level), and the only things that make it remotely okay to have a per-encounter healing ability in just one domain are: 1. short rests to recover encounter abilities take an hour (I expect this to cause a whole different list of problems), and 2. the Healer feat is per-encounter healing also. What I'm getting at here is that per-encounter healing is so good, compared to all of the other healing resources being per-day, that it eclipses all other options. I do have to say, though, the other domains (Light and War) are pretty boss, and possibly more fun than Life - which is where we get into the feeling that the cleric player is taking one for the team by choosing that class in the first place. War in particular looks like it would be satisfying to play, given its ability to kick out extra damage and to let other party members do the same.

Saving throw DCs scale up according to the caster's attack bonus for every primary casting class (cleric, druid, mage - as opposed to paladin and ranger); the mage of course only gets the spellcasting side, not the bonus to weapon attacks. For some reason I had thought they were hanging DC scaling on the spell level rather than just the caster's advancement. Anyway, they only gain this bonus (of 1-3 points) when using their casting implement. I think there are some interesting possibilities there; I hope they'll leave design space open for superior or magical implements, because those could be pretty awesome.

Druids are a bit less changed than other classes, overall. They're (still) pretty much divided into the ones that focus on the land (the casters) and the ones that focus more on the beasts (the fighters); I see definite shades of DC's New 52 "the Red and the Green" from Animal Man and Swamp Thing. My only experience of playing a druid was in 4e, so I miss the absolute fluidity of the 4e druid's shapeshifting, but in the balance the D&DN druid gets more-than-once-per-day access to the creatures of sea and sky. Overall it's pretty good, but the Circle of the Moon druid is going to be a disappointment to any party that expects a full-time leader-type. I'd eventually want to give the druid some way to heal or buff allies without leaving beast form.

Fighters are a huge change. They have almost nothing in common with the previous packet. They're terrifying engines of destruction, eventually scaling up to three attacks per round and doubling that once per encounter (twice at 17th level). They gain substantial self-healing abilities, the ability to stay at 1 hp rather than falling to 0, ignoring any damage that does not kill them instantly, and advantage on all saving throws. They've removed a lot of the defenses that gave fighters interesting choices for their reactions, though. On top of this impressive span of abilities (that unfortunately do not carry any interesting choices in themselves), they add a Martial Path. There are three options presented, and this is where we see the simple and the complicated in parallel as they've been talking about. From simplest to most complicated, there's:

  • the Warrior, based entirely around increasing the crit chance and triggering abilities when you score a crit, 
  • the Knight, with a couple of different internal tanking mechanics, and a lingering reference to the skill system of the previous packet visible in their Courtly Grace ability,
  • the Gladiator, who hangs on to the expertise dice mechanics of the previous packet, now called combat superiority. They're trying some new things with the exact functions and interactions of the dice, and there's some definite good stuff here.
Fighters also gain three more Ability Score Improvements (which they can cash in for feats) than any other class. I think framing the choice as being between two points of ability scores and a feat (which now does rather a lot more than it used to) is not awesome, and I like giving fighters that choice more often is even less cool. The meta-game will pretty much be about getting your attack stat and your Con up to 20 with as few Ability Score Improvements as possible. This changes the dynamic of low-to-medium starting ability scores in a way that makes the game less interesting, rather than more. You can recover from any spread of ability scores you can imagine, but at the cost of having interesting options.

Mages are the new wizards; the language in the document hints obliquely (such that I might be misreading) at magi that are less scholarly than the options currently presented. The big change here is that scholar/generalist wizards are gone (at least for the moment) and enchanters are added as a specialty, and that they can now make scrolls and potions. So first let's talk about these specialties, because the degree of difference that they make to the character's playstyle is a much bigger deal. They gain six distinct abilities relating to their specialty; the most interesting of these from a design perspective are the ones that circumvent each specialty's core weakness. Enchanters and evokers in particular have always had problems with high-level creatures being immune or well-nigh so to their spells. The abilities on offer here don't help the wizard who wants to throw fireballs at the fire elemental, but the specialty applies equally to lightning bolt... so as long as WotC's creature design pays some attention to what it's doing, the evoker will have a valid workaround to the problem of the fire mage. Now, there will still be players who choose "evocation mage" when what they really want to play is "fire mage," but maybe there will be some other solution in the long term.
Briefly, I also want to mention Overchannel. The mage gets one use of Overchannel for free, while additional uses in the same day require scaling Con checks. I read this as a response to complaints that per-encounter and per-day powers in 4e were arbitrary in the limitations on their use - WotC has responded with a design that says, "Wanna use that again? Here's the price." In things they are not as dedicated to limiting, like the Gladiator's superiority dice, it's, "Wanna use that again? Spend an action on it, or hope for a break in the fight."
Okay, now on to the scrolls and potions bit. This is the first magic item creation system we've seen for D&D Next, and it isn't a system at all. The mage spends time - one hour for a scroll, eight hours for a potion - and creates it for free. Mages can maintain a number of spell levels of scrolls (which can't be above third level in any case) equal to half their level, and the same for potions. Since potions don't have an inherent spell level in most cases, the ability divides the existing potion list into either one level slot or four. 

Now, this is basically fine as long as we're talking about the mage just supplying herself and her party, though scrolls have kind of an odd effect - in the mid-to-late game, scrolls still only store low-level spells, so both scrolls and the wizard's low-end slots are really only useful for utility and some defensive effects. The hour required to scribe a scroll matches up with a short rest, so scrolls kind of become encounter powers. The list of potions that are available is such that they too are utility and defensive abilities - not that the 2d4+2 healing you get from a potion of healing is worth much at 10th level, but five of them could at least help if no one has a dedicated healer. Weirder, though, is the impact that this would surely have on the setting economy... whatever those might be. I hope that these rules will develop further and offer something that one could reasonably call a magic item creation system - this seems like a stopgap to me.

Monks now have a ki pool that powers per-encounter abilities. It turns out to be a reasonably sane approach, though it looks like they'll have to spend pretty heavily from the ki pool to keep up with fighters. They now gain Expertise at 2nd level, which is a die that either applies to all Dexterity checks or all Wisdom checks; this die starts out as a d6 and scales up from there. An identical mechanic shows up for Rangers, and a similar (Dex-only) one for Rogues. This drives me nuts because of how those three classes necessarily dominate skill-check situations where their relevant abilities apply. What the heck kind of statement is "I have expertise in Dexterity?" Anyway, I'll come back to the removal of skills in a bit.

There are now two monk paths, one of which is all about the elements. Interestingly, monks don't have to stick with the same element all the way up their progression, and can go back and take an earlier ability that they didn't choose before if they want. These guys are, nonetheless, very much a lift of Avatar: the Last Airbender into an Aristotelian elemental system, and their magic is at least as flashy as a wizard. The other monk is more in keeping with D&D tradition, all the way down to the Quivering Palm. It's mostly fine; my main feeling about monks is that I still hate immunities, and at least the monk's advantage-on-all-saving-throws ability is actually only against spells.

Paladins have at least temporarily lost their Warden and Blackguard options, which will make the Warden in my campaign sad until I write up a stopgap variant. Other than their Channel Divinity power of Holy Smite, the paladin shares the cleric's attack progression, Divine Strike ability, and Divine Favor spell, though they do have a two-point advantage on attack bonus in the long-term. More interestingly, they've added Circle of Cleansing, which purges "a curse, a reduction in speed, or an effect imposing a condition on a creature." The last clause there is surprisingly vague, but I guess that means only the things listed as conditions, rather than all ongoing effects? Maze, for example, is an ongoing banishment that isn't, technically, a condition. (Also, the creature isn't within the range of Circle of Cleansing.)

Paladins don't cast spells until 2nd level anymore, in keeping with Mearls's statement that the first two levels are "apprentice" levels. The paladin's immunity to fear is gone until 15th level for Devotion paladins (the one build currently available), but at that point the paladin exudes the immunity in a 10-foot radius. They get a traditional paladin's mount, and it scales up in power in a way that isn't a huge hassle to track. They also gain immunity to disease (10th level) and temporary immunity to spells cast by fiends or undead (20th), which does mean that a lot of fiends and undead will want to spend the first minute of any fight on spells that don't target the paladin - either targeting the paladin's allies or altering the terrain to hinder or harm the paladin.

Rangers are now the only class apparently capable of Tracking at all, rather than rangers receiving the Track general feat for free. They've (at least temporarily) dropped the Giant Killer Path and overhauled the Dragon Slayer and the Horde Breaker. The new breakdown is that Dragon Slayers are archers and Horde Breakers are two-weapon fighters. They have a few other useful abilities as well; cool, but the thematic connection to their Path is sort of shaky. Their usefulness to the fighting style is rock-solid, at least.

There are a lot of other small changes: Feral Senses moved from 10th to 19th level. Camouflage got renamed and moved from 5th to 12th. Woodland Stride got renamed, reduced in power, and moved from 7th to 16th. Like paladins, rangers start spellcasting at 2nd level now. The summary of the change - in case I haven't rammed this point home - is that ranger abilities are spread out over the whole spread of levels, and they're still getting useful-but-modest things until pretty late in the progression.

Rogues are another massive rebuild. Their Sneak Attack dice have been tamped down a bit. The "minimum roll of 10 on some ability checks" mechanic is back, though set at 11th level rather than very early on. The rest of the core rogue abilities (things not part of a Style) are defenses and utilities that are... really, really strong, though rogues could only really handle evasion-tanking against one opponent at a time. The weird thing is that rogues are based solely on amplifying the damage of a single attack. They're the only weapon-using class that never receives a second attack in a round.

Then we get to the two rogue Styles of this packet: Assassination and Thievery. Assassins are quite convincing damage dealers if they can gain surprise, and pretty frickin' murderous otherwise. It's easy to see how this Style could have a pretty good time in the majority of campaigns; there's combat in just about every game, though I have some significant doubts that most of the targets a 16th level character cares to kill will have few enough hit points that Death Strike actually does anything, even when the Sneak Attack dice are all maximized by Assassinate. Also, they get expertise in Intelligence. On the other hand, Thievery is very good at stealing things and getting away with it. It says a lot about my experience in gaming that this is the Style that I can't help but read as "annoying griefer" and/or "fucking kender."

At long last, this brings us to the end of Classes, and I can move on. Backgrounds and Lore are the replacement for a skill system. Backgrounds now grant two (out of eleven) fields of lore, which constitutes a +10 bonus to Intelligence checks made to recall lore on that topic. Backgrounds also grant proficiency with a set of tools that more or less define "the things this profession uses," which by extension defines all of the things you can't do without the Background and toolkit. I'll point out that several classes now grant proficiency in tools or the like as well - all four warrior-like classes gain proficiency in riding, while druids gain proficiency in herbalism kits - an easy line to overlook, but it carries with it the right to make healing potions for 25 gp. It's finally somewhat feasible to play a character who works with traps and locks without using the rogue class - a monk or ranger with the Guild Thief background is almost as good as a rogue, since so much of the ability rides on whether or not you can use the tools. Fortuately, feats are an easy (if precious) way to pick up fields of lore your Background didn't grant.

I don't like the flat bonus offered by fields of lore; the truth is that we need to get away from rolling dice for information recall anyway, and shifting from dice to an overwhelming bonus is no help if the upper limits are just shifted higher and players have no way to invest further character power or resources in improving their mastery of that field of lore. I don't like getting rid of skill dice; I haven't yet succeeded in verbalizing the benefit of rolling both the d20 and the skill die (along with the ability score bonus), but it's palpable at the table - outcomes don't feel like a given, and I've seen a lot of disappointing d20 rolls unexpectedly rescued by a great skill die roll.

I agree that characters should have to have the requisite tools to attempt a relevant task - for example, picking a lock without thieves' tools is so difficult as to be less than 5% likely. We can call that "toolkit required." I'm still not sold on requiring proficiency in those tools also - as I've said before I don't like any statement of "no, you can't even attempt that thing" in a D&D-like game. I'd much rather just say, "Okay, go for it. By the way, here's your penalty to the roll." When talking about things for players to try in desperate situations, "no you may not" is... well, it breaks the rules of improv.

In the Bestiary, apparently they've made a bunch of monsters lower in accuracy (this is the big one), damage, hit points, and AC. Judging by my campaign, nothing could be less necessary - I'm seeing a huge number of encounters that should be fair challenges, but that can't get anywhere close to damaging the PCs before they are butchered. I would have moved the needle in the other direction on every single one of these.

The new Character Sheet would be better discussed by someone with a better knowledge of good UI design than I have, but it looks to me like not enough space for the really text-intensive parts of the sheet, and a lot of space given to things that you don't need to reference in actual play very often. Samhaine and Four Color Criticism are, from where I'm standing, the Awakened Masters of character sheet layout.

The DM Guidelines are pretty seriously overhauled. In most Off-the-Cuff posts I ignore the DM Guidelines document, because they don't change much. This time, they've introduced a six-step system to track exhaustion, ending in death. This rule is kind of tucked away in a sidebar, but it's probably more interesting than the whole condition list currently found in the How to Play document. I don't want to unpack the whole thing in this post, but the good part is that they're trying to present Hero vs. Nature as an interesting challenge. The bad part is that the tone of the system is at odds with the tone of the rest of the rules - by even mid levels, characters are several steps above the common man, but the exploration rules point more toward gritty simulation. (I'd like both games separately, please.)

The Equipment document has rules for month-by-month living expenses, which is one of the only throwbacks to 2e that I am happy to see. Monthly expenses are something I use in my campaign to handwave all of the miscellaneous crap I don't want to handle in detail, while also maintaining at least a minor pressure to have some income. There are no mechanical effects currently attached to higher standards of living, but there are notes on how different standards of living might affect the story, in the form of the encounters and challenges you experience.

With the Weapon Mastery feat gone (which is a shame - my players seemed pretty happy with it), they're now able to change up how weapon damage works. The rules no longer require that all weapon damage be covered in a single die, so some weapons such as the maul have changed over to 2d6. I don't take this to be a particularly meaningful change... or a necessarily permanent one. Thanks to Mearls's comments in Legends & Lore over the past few months, I'm unusually conscious of this packet as nothing more than a milestone showing their progress along the way. Their design has, after all, already moved on, and it sounds like they've reintroduced some of the things I miss most in this packet.

In a surprising move, katanas aren't just better anymore. They're longswords, plain and simple. 90's-era game design is rolling over in its grave.

I've already touched on Feats, but let's talk about them in detail. First off, I think Mearls's Big Plans on how the metagame will evolve (in the L&L post linked above) are accurate, which just leaves me wondering why the heck he finds that outcome desirable. They've also gotten rid of Specialties completely; ironically, they did this by making each feat a full Specialty unto itself. Since it's supposed to be balanced against two points of ability scores, feats are hugely potent; most carry two or more separate benefits. Regrettably, a lot of the combat feats just drive the need for maxed-out attack stats - when the benefit of the feat is the right to take a -5 penalty to hit in exchange for doubling your weapon die and Str or Dex bonus to damage, you need every single point of accuracy you can scrape up.

Feats like Archery Master have been common throughout the playtest rules, and similar cover-ignoring powers are likewise found in 3.x and 4e. This has always bothered me because it largely turns off the possibility of a cover shooter once this feat is available - and if you would be participating in the cover shooter to begin with, you probably already have a high Dex and want to pick up this feat as a top priority. What I'm trying to say is, this feat separates the specialist from the non-specialist to a huge degree. (I do realize that the rules aren't trying to support a cover shooter.)

The Healer feat is pretty solid healing, considering that it's free. It probably won't heal all of the damage from a battle, but it definitely softens the demand on the cleric's spell slots. In combination with the Life domain's Channel Divinity power, the Life domain cleric (paradoxically) can spend more of his time not healing than other clerics can. (In the balance, the other clerics might be able to end the fight sooner with their granted powers.)

All in all, the feats themselves are not bad, though I feel like the Arcane/Divine/Druidic Initiate feats are egregiously under-powered compared to the weapon-using options. Getting to the good stuff takes most of any character's feat slots, which means that unless you're a fighter or a cleric, I hope you started with a maxed-out attack stat and no interest in anything else. They're the only feats that are presented as a feat tree, and they really emphasize why the rest of the feats aren't structured that way.

I'll finish up this huge post with Magic Items. The essential design hasn't really changed, though there are minor tweaks in this document. I am still very happy with their approach to magic items, but they really do throw a spanner in the works when it comes to high-end play - player accuracy and defenses are going to be quite significantly better than what the bestiary offers. I'm kind of sad to see rings of protection in the game at all; at least they take up a precious attunement slot.

On the whole, the magic item document suggests a world and a game in which low-level (1-4 or so) heroes see no almost no magic items, because the majority of the document's items are Rare, Very Rare, or Legendary. As they advance, such items become a possibility, but really never commonplace. There's a lot of good guidance here, as there has been in previous documents, on how to make magic items a compelling part of the story and setting. Big fan!

The changes to other documents don't seem like a big deal; I don't have the fortitude to repeat my breakdown of the spell list from the last packet-review post, and I don't think it's necessary in any case. Thanks for sticking it out this far, and while I disagree with a lot of the changes made to classes and skills in this document, it seems clear to me that they're still in an experimentation and feedback phase, so I look forward to the playtest surveys.