May 30, 2014

5E Friday

The HUGE announcement this week was that the Basic Rules will be free. You can now play the new version of D&D for free (when it is released in July). This leads me to several thoughts...

-The success of 5E will completely rest on the system. People will be able to decide if they like it before they even buy it. If 5E is going to do well it will have to by providing a system people will enjoy using. Has WotC crafted such a system?

-Of course, from what I have seen of the reactions to this news, a lot of people are signing onto 5E that were not before. With the news of the Basic Rules being free people have said they are now ordering the Starter Set and will likely get the "Advanced" books. This is a radical change from "I'll wait and see" to "I will be taking a look at it".

-The positive publicity from this is HUGE. It completely shuts up the people complaining about the prices for 5E. WotC has been seen by some as a money grabbing company. They still are (as every company designed to make money is) but now it is harder for people to say it with as much venom as they did in the past. It's impossible to belittle WotC for 5E when they are giving it away for free.

-What does this mean for the others rpgs out there? Retroclones reduced the barrier to their games by giving the rules away for free. Now WotC has also removed that barrier. Can 5E actually unite the fans of retroclones into one game system. Already I have seen some people eager to apply their retroclone sensibilities to 5E with their expressions of what they will add to the system, much the same as they have done with the retroclones.
Sure the various retroclones have their fans and will continue, but I suspect with a robust 5E that is able to handle the gaming style of the OSR (assuming it can accomplish this) I see a shift to 5E.

-I know I harp on this but...what is the OGL going to look like? Does it even matter if a person can use the original OGL that gave us the retroclones with the 5E rules?
Edit: They have since announced there will be no news about the OGL until 2015.

May 27, 2014

Appendix N - The Good and the Bad

Most of the people who caught the title of this post will likely already know what Appendix is all about. They might think this article is about which of the books are good to read and which ones should be avoided. However, this article is actually about how the concept of Appendix N can alter a person's outlook of what D&D is, perhaps for the worst.

Quickly, for those who do not know what Appendix N is, Appendix N is a list of books that the creator of D&D, Gary Gygax, noted as having influenced the development of D&D. This is can easily seen with the inclusion of the Jack Vance books and the effect they had on the D&D magic system (called appropriately enough "Vancian Magic"). A quick look at the titles shows a lot of the pulp/swords & sorcery style.You can find a list of Appendix N here.

For myself, I have read only a few of the books on the list (4 of the 28 authors noted). This is because I was young when these books came out and couldn't afford them until later in my life. By the time I could start buying my own books, most were no longer being published or my reading tastes had changed away from the pulp genre. Thus my views on D&D were slanted away from the Appendix N books. While many of the D&D game systems were designed to reflect the Appendix N books, the worlds I was building were being built on tropes from other books. I missed the viewpoints of the Appendix N books and I was fine with that.

However, of late I have been reading some of the books on the list...and they are pretty good. There was a reason why they influenced D&D. If you haven't read any of them, I would recommend them. Thus far, none of the books have disappointed.

However, there is a danger that people will start thinking D&D is meant to play out like the books recommended. There is a danger that if you aren't playing games like the books "you are doing it wrong". This is the dark side of Appendix N. D&D is designed to accommodate all sorts of fantasy visions and tropes. To think D&D can, or more precisely must, only reflect the Appendix N books is wrong itself. The style of the books is only one way to play D&D.

Some gaming groups prefer more story driven adventure, where death of a character is a rare occurrence. Some prefer more heroic adventures that are not grim. Some prefer high fantasy instead of low fantasy. Most of the books in Appendix N are grim, low fantasy. This doesn't mean a group can't play D&D that is not grim or low fantasy. It doesn't mean "they are doing it wrong" if they lay in a different style.

So, go read the Appendix N books, then go play D&D however you and your group likes. In fact, go make your own Appendix N list that reflects the influences of your own D&D games.

May 23, 2014

5E Friday

Its been awhile since I did a 5E Friday. Why? Simply because there was little to nothing to talk about for so long. We had playtests with minor changes and then mostly silence. However, this week that all changed.

-I like that they actually have the Starter Set. One of the complaints about 4E was the lack of an introductory rule set. It looks like this Starter Set will fill that niche, an easy way to be introduced to 5E. It has low level character generation, an adventure, dice and everything a starting role-player needs. And the price is pretty good for what you get...certainly less than the books coming out thereafter.

-News on the character generation is that it will be free online; they are taking portions of the PH and putting them online for free, including the character generation rules. How long after the starter set will it be? The point of a starter set is to give new players a good start. Making them go online to make characters, a key part of D&D, is weak.

-I'm not keen on the DMG coming out 4 months after the PH. Of course by this point in my rpg timeline, I doubt there will be any gaming advice I "need". However, I suspect there will be things in it I do want, such as the magic items since it looks like they will be in the DMG and not the PH as it was in 4E. That is a long time to wait.

-They gave no numbers on how many monsters will be in the MM, it is just listed as 320 pages. I am curious if they are doing the more typical 1E monster section (1 monster stat per monster) or the 4E version (1 monster type but multiple stats for the variations). Are we getting 300 monsters or 100?

-Why am I still calling it 5E Friday when they clearly are not calling it 5E, or D&D Next, or anything other than D&D? Because I like the way "5E Friday" rolls off the tongue, and to make clear what I am talking about. If I call this "D&D Friday" people will think this is a generic D&D article. 5E Friday lets everyone know I'm talking about the newest edition.

-For the record, I am looking forward to the release.Will I buy it? Yes. Will I play it? Maybe, depends on if it gets me excited.

May 20, 2014

The Flashback "We Are Down Players" Adventure

Last week was the second play session of our new Shadowrun (3rd edition) campaign. It is the initial stages of the plotline and for story purposes, and player buy-in, I need all my players to show up for the first few adventures. Last week I was down two players, one was having a baby and the other was visiting his father in the hospital. I still wanted to run something as a campaign can die if the "new campaign momentum" stops.

So, I ran a flashback adventure.

This was run as a singular run with only the table-present players participating. The characters of the missing players were "out drinking and couldn't be reached in time". The adventure was presented as something that happened early in the character's career, a few months before the start of the current campaign time frame. We were able to finish the adventure within the night so there was no carry over into next week's play. The characters were rewarded with xp and money...which they will keep when the game starts again in "current campaign time". It will be assumed they haven't had a chance to spend the money yet, and xp is a meta spend.

A group can run a flashback adventure and not have it impact too heavily on the "current time" adventures if they are run early enough in the campaign. However, there will come a point where explaining where the characters suddenly got a magic weapon or assault cannon becomes problematic. "Why didn't you use that in adventure X if you had if before adventure X?" At this point it may be too late to run a flashback adventure unless there is nothing the characters can bring forward to the current campaign other than information...and even that may need to be explained.

However, for this one time, it was a good way for my group to adventure within the current campaign even though we had missing players.

May 13, 2014

Game System Innovation

One of the strengths of D&D was its strong game system foundation. The game system defined many things, enough to provide a solid groundwork for rpgs that came after. It gave us the concepts of different character types, stats to define and quantify those characters, sub-systems for different character abilities, reward systems, rules for interaction between characters, monsters, traps, spells, etc. In short, D&D, defined the rpg gaming system that all rpgs have followed in one form or another. The amount of innovation in the original D&D was staggering and defining. However, since then there have been other game system innovations that expanded the tools game designers have at their disposal.

This article is going to look at some of the more innovative game system concepts introduced after D&D, including what I feel is the latest innovation from last year. However, first I want to explain what I mean by "game system innovation". Throughout the relatively short lifespan of rpg games there have been a number of new concepts and design that fundamentally changed the way game designers and players look at an rpg game system...but there are less than we would at first think.

The definition of innovation is...
1: the introduction of something new
2: a new idea, method or device

My definition "game system innovation" excludes minor or semantic changes. For instance, renaming the Constitution stat to Sturdiness, is not an innovation. It is taking an old idea and renaming it, thus it is not new. So what are some things I consider to be innovations?

Skills. One of the first was skills. With the original D&D there were no true skills. Everything was driven by stats and sub-systems. The introduction of skills opened up a wide area of customization and targeted abilities. It allowed for expansion of character types. It removed the need for some sub-systems, thus providing for more streamlined and cohesive systems. It radically changed the approach many designers took to game systems. The majority of game systems since D&D have included some form of skill system...and some even forgo stats and only rely on skills to drive their game.

Point Based Character Generation. Original D&D's character generation is highly random. There are times when a player had a set idea in mind for a character but was unable to fulfill that vision due to the random nature of stat generation. Point based character generation took character generation away from the random. It let players design the characters they wanted to play. It also opened up other options, especially where a character can be dependent on multiple factors, such as the superhero genre.

Of course, not everyone liked the concept of point based character generation, but it was certainly an innovation that altered approaches to game system design thereafter.

Generic Game Systems. D&D was a game system written for one genre, fantasy. Many of the early systems were written specifically for one genre; Boot Hill - Western, Traveller - Space/Science Fiction, Gamma World - Post Apocalyptic, Bushido - Japanese Samurai, etc. Then came game systems that were designed to work with any genre from fantasy to science-fiction and beyond. They allowed for cross-genre games. They also provided a common language of game system between players who liked different genres. Now a group could play their fantasy campaign and when that ended move to something like a post-apocalyptic campaign without having to buy or learn a new game system.

Dice. D&D was postulated on rolling a die for whatever effect was desired. Soon designers began to alter dice rolling conventions. We began to see dice pools, drop/keep, variable dice, etc. The gist here is that designers changed the way dice were used. It was those early games that showed us the variance of dice mechanics that could be applied. In this one area, designers are still looking for new ways to roll the bones, to interpret the odds.

From here innovation becomes smaller and less substantive. Such things as the TN (target number) were always around, but never quantified as such. When the TN was given a label it changed the way designers approached their own systems.

Which leads me to the newest game innovation, which came out just last year. Player Facing. The concept here is that the players are the only ones to ever roll dice. When attacking they roll dice as normal against a static defense number. When the PCs are being attacked, instead of the monsters rolling dice to hit, the PCs roll dice to defend against a static attack number. It puts everything in the player's side of things; keeps the action with the players (and speeds things up as well). Sure, the concept of player facing may have been in existence before but until it was given a name, it was just an obscure idea.

What other truly innovative things do you think have come along  through the years? What game system mechanics have been developed that fundamentally changed the way designers look at game systems?

May 6, 2014

The Mystery XP

In last weeks Shadowrun game I gave the group 1 Karma (the Shadowrun equivalent of xp) above the normal allotment and simply said, "This is for something Shiva said during tonight's game." I never explained what it was that she said that earned the group the extra xp. I let them figure it out, or wonder about it, themselves.

In this case, she came to the conclusion that the Yakuza were not behind the hit on Seattle's Mafia Don. She used logic (the Yakuza would have chosen a different assassination method) and even explained it in character (she is a shapeshifter tiger and related the assassination to a predator cat killing an enemy for territory). She was indeed spot-on with her statement. So at the end of the night I gave the Mystery XP.

I like to do this on occasion. I like to reward the players when they intuitively do something smart, verging on brilliant. However, I often do not want to come right out and tell them they were right about something. In this case, she was only speculating. Within the game there has been no confirmation that the Yakuza were not involved. So, I instead gave the group a Mystery XP. They quickly determined it was her Yakuza statement that earned them the extra point. I like this place of unspoken confirmation.

Have you ever given out xp without telling the players why they are getting them? Would you ever, or do you think the players should always know why they are getting xp?