D&D, old and new (Ropecon 09)

5 September, 2009 at 2:18 pm (actual play, Ropecon) (, , , )

In Ropecon I played Fane of the poisoned prophecies as GM’d by mister Raggi. After the con I’ve played four sessions of 4e.

Minor spoilers regarding the Fane shall follow.

Both of the games were mediocre, but for different reasons. The Fane felt somewhat directionless; we entered the place, killed some stuff, discovered some healing herbs, moved on, encountered a Cthulhuan camel, and so on. There was a big secret that we did not uncover, though the clues were there. I’m not certain that figuring out the secret would actually have been useful. On the treasure side we did find the herbs and one shelf of books, but the value of either was dwarfed by the appetite of the disenchanter-camel. Overall, I think the game might have been better if we had had a concrete goal or reason for being there. A good resource hoard to search for, say, or something more personal. Also, second journey in would likely have been more meaningful.

On the system side, we had one combat that felt too long (the moon chamber). All of them did nicely evoke a sense of danger and the need to move on, which was, I think, the point.

Overall: The play itself was fun; interacting with the environment and guessing at the level of risks. The combat system is pretty incidental I’d go as far as to further simplify it or abstract it away, since what happens inside combat is not, at least for me, that interesting. Props to James for not naming the monsters. It does make them feel more sword and sorcerish, probably due to facing the unknown and otherwordly, and less like D&D fantasy (Dragonlance, Forgotten realms, …).

Yeah: Every character made it out alive, though two, including my fighter henchman, were unconscious.

As for the game of 4e, we had some fights, found some traces of drow conspiracy, had some fights, attacked some underground temple and were all killed. Verdict: 4e is far more deadly than old school D&D. Maybe our only healer being one-shotted during surprise round also was a contributing factor.

4e does not prohibit people from roleplaying; I don’t see any relevant differences when compared to 3rd edition. What is relevant, and what is striking in contrast to old D&D (which does not have much encouragement for roleplaying, either) is that modern D&D has combats that take awfully long time. I take it that people enjoy such combats, but I would rather be roleplaying. In addition, such awfully long combats create the illusory dichotomy between using rules and roleplaying, so harming much discourse on rpgs.

Our game would have been better if we had more players familiar with the rules. Right now there was insignificant amounts of fumbling and me and the GM keeping track of rules for other players. Roleplay was, as always, as meaningful as we made it.

Overall, I probably will be playing 4e (or 3rd edition) only when there are no other interesting games available. They are still preferable to almost all board and card games, though. Chess might be counterexample, if I bothered learning it properly.

So, mediocre games but for different reasons. Clearly different games, also, with similarities being in the name and some cosmetic stuff.


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Variant classes for 3rd edition of D&D

4 June, 2009 at 6:17 pm (roleplaying-games) (, )

Back when I was just getting fed up with D&D I found an interesting set of variant character classes as designed mostly by one poster called Szatany at WotC’s forums. Luckily, the good folk of Campaign builders’ guild have saved them over at their wiki: http://www.thecbg.org/wiki/index.php?title=Ultimate_Classes

I particularly recommend the barbarian. Adventurer is boring. Don’t start by reading it. The classes are probably for edition 3.5, but that doesn’t really matter. I know next to nothing about Pathfinder, but it is supposed to be backwards compatible.

The classes are notable because they embody what is maybe the greatest strength of 3e: One can take just about any ability in the fiction and come up with an interesting representation for it in the mechanics. (Just be careful with the social stuff.) One implication is that they are pretty good inspiration even if one does not play relevant editions of D&D, as long as one is literate in d20.

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D&D my way

4 May, 2009 at 5:16 pm (game design, generic fantasy setting) (, )

Starting today I’ll be running my version of D&D in the university/Kortepohja gaming evening/club, assuming, of course, that there are interested people. I am too cheap to buy anything and too lazy to print excessive materials, so I’ll homebrew/design my own version. As such, the rules presented herein are in flux and draft stage. Before the rules, a bit more detail on the game I’ll be running.

Setting and some situation

The world is my very own homebrewed generic fantasy world. As such, it is not of much interest to outsiders (I keep assuming). I’ver written about it before and ran games in it before. All of the related material should be in the generic fantasy setting category (which I might rename some day if I bother naming the setting; naming is difficult business).

This game happens a number of years, such as ten or nine, after Tirae, the capital of the only credible human kingdom, experienced rebelling and fires as a result of the actions of a heretical cult of dragon-worshippers. The area claimed by the kingdom of Tirae is very light on wood (hence, fairly constant warfare with the elves who inhabit the northern forest of Thaleth(ia); I told, generic fantasy setting). It is bordered by the aforementioned elven forest, ocean, and some tribes of dissenting, semi-hostile barbarians who are much like the Tiraeans themselves, except they are living in blissful freedom/without the benefits of civilisation. In the north there is a formidable range of mountains. Previously there has been one garrisoned entry through the mountains (in the eastern part of the range, yet still firmly in Tirae’s grasp); the three lizardfolk that are born annually in place of humans have been thrown off the garrison; literally, after the serpent cult and related chaos. They are not killed and the lands beyond the garrison are not settled due to a prophecy, or a curse, involving the dragons coming back. Just a few months ago another entrance through the mountains was discovered near the western ocean. Behind it lies a vast forest, but also untold dangers; many a treasure-seeker has perished there. Regardless there is plenty of wealth to be found there and even a small, but growing, village to support more adventurers. The wealth can be acquired by cutting and selling wood (a task somewhat boring to play through), by protecting people and keeping peace, or by exploring the occasionally mysterious locations found within the woods.

Unfortunately, the forest strikes back (in a way similar to, but distinct from, the one outlined in that article) and is closely connected to the Dreaming so that some of those strikes are formidable; in particular, nasty monsters might appear now and then. In addition, there are natives already inhabiting the forest: A tribe of lizardfolk and some wild elves. To add further excitement, the scum of Tirae is flooding to the newly established village. In particular, there are rumours about certain heretical and dangerous cults, like the serpent cult that people in power had, to their knowledge, already rooted from Tirae. As the game starts the village is ruled by a certain somewhat wealth ruffian, whose position is fairly perilous.

Characters to play and generating them

There are Tiraeans, barbarians, very lucky Thalethians, wild elves and daring lizardfolk to play. If people create characters clearly in conflict with each other they must also be okay with inter-character conflict leading potentially to death. This is D&D and I’m going to assume there is a party that can, at least in theory, stay together. It is recommended that players do not come to table with elaborate character concepts, as dice will be rolled. There’s no point buy here.

Character generation, then. First select the character’s species: Human, lizardfolk or elf. Next, roll attributes. There are six of them and they might be familiar: Strength (voima), constitution (kestävyys), dexterity (ketteryys), intelligence (älykkyys), wisdom (viisaus) and charisma (karisma, since I can’t be bothered to actually properly translate it, at least now). Humans roll everything with 3d6 in order. Lizardfolk roll strength with 4d6, drop lowest and con with 5d, drop two lowest. Elves roll everything with 5d, drop 2 lowest. Everything includes constitution. Elves are powerful (a quick estimation gives them an average score between 13 and 14, but I can’t be bothered to actually confirm that). Attribute levels 3 and 4 indicate a -3 malus; 6 and 5 map to -2, 8 and 7 to -1, 9 to 12 grant 0, 13 and 14 +1, 15 and 16 +2, 17 and 18 +3.  The trend continues upwards and downwards. Attribute of 0 is bad news. It should be noted that elves are harmed by prolonged contact with iron and that lizardfolk have natural armour equal to their constitution modifier. Elves can see well in all but utter darkness, while lizardfolk “see” heat.

Next step is selecting a class. Physically competent characters are encouraged to be warriors, while too smart ones can try the difficult path of summoner/diviner/sage and the particularly charismatic ones can develop themselves in apprenticeship to shamans/wise women or men/mages/witches/sorcerers/wizards. Elves have one additional path they can tread: That of woodshaping. At this point, players of human and lizardfolk characters should write the past pursuits of their characters in one word, like “soldier”, “hunter”, “pickpocket” or “healer”. Elves are live eternally; even starting characters are somewhat aged and I don’t want to read that novel. More background info can freely emerge in play.

Warriors are skilled at the following activities (hence gaining their level as a bonus): attacking, defending, fortitude and reflex saves, potential maximum hit points. Further, they can use any and all commonly available and even rare weapons.

Summoners are extremely sharp folk; in game terms, intelligence bonus is required to make most use of the class. The most feared ones can contact power entities living elsewhere. Their profession requires strict self-control; many are ascetic and wear simple robes (if that). Summoners are skilled at will and fortitude saves. In addition, they can cast divinations as detailed below.

Shamans have strong personalities (cha 13+ recommended) and can bend others, living or merely animate, to their will. The powers of shamans are often used unwittingly by untrained or weak-willed (wisdom bonus or at least lack of penalty also recommended) shamans. Shamans are skilled at will saves and can cast spells as detailed below. Elven shamans do their magic by singing.

Elven woodshapers can create various items from living wood by focusing on it. Their craft requires significant patience and attunement to achieve (wisdom bonus would be nice). Shapers are skilled at will saves and moderately skilled (half level, round down) at fortitude saves, attacking, defending and shamanism (as shamans of half their level). In addition they can shape wood as explained later. All elves can shape wood as shapers of half their level.

Characters also need to be equipped. They start with suitable fairly basic equipment; no rich ones. A weapon or two, some leather armour, clothes, camping equipment, maybe something little implied by their background. A shield or two, mayhaps.

All characters can speak and understand Tiraean or some language of northern barbarians (they are dialects of the same language and which one the character knows does not affect communication very much, though social position of characters who are not fluent in Tirae’s main dialect may be bad). Lizardfolk also can speak Draconic, lizardfolk dialect. All elves speak their native brand of elven (all elven languages are dialects of each other, too, and enable mutual communication). Characters can learn one additional language per point of intelligence bonus, if any. Alternatively it can be used to learn a written version of some language. Draconic and the elven dialects have written forms. Human languages do not. A certain archaic dialect of elven is the dominating language among human scholars. Anyone with relevant background can communicate in that dialect at fair level, though reading it is far more rare a skill.

Derived values

Some basic arithmetic, such as deriving attack bonuses, is unfortunately necessary. Attack score: Strenǵth modifier plus any from level, -4 if unskilled with the weapon in use. Ranged attacks use dexterity modifier instead. Defense score is influenced by dexterity: First, take all negative modifiers (such as negative dexterity modifier) and add them to 10 (or substract, since adding a negative number is the same as substracting a positive one). Next, add highest positive modifier to what has been established before. Next, sum all other modifiers and halve this result; it, too, is a bonus on defense. In summary: All negative modifiers apply, highest positive modifier applies, as do half of the others (round correctly). Leather armour gives +1, chain or breastplate gives +3 and shield gives an extra +2 (as well as splintering occasionally). Fortitude save is constitution modifier (plus suitable levels), reflex save comes from dexterity modifier, will save from wisdom modifier.

Hit points are determined as follows: Take number of six-siders equal to level. Add number of dice equal to the absolute value of constitution modifier (e.g. 2 dice for +2 and -2). Roll them. Forget number of dice equal to constitution modifier; the highest ones if con mod is negative, the lowest ones if con mod is negative. In other words: Positive con modifier adds bonus dice and the highest results are kept, while negative modifier adds malus dice that are rolled and then lowest ones are kept. E.g. level 1, constitution 14: Roll 2 dice, keep the higher. Level 2, constitution 4 (modifier -3): Roll 5 dice, keep the two lowest ones. Hit points are capped above by constitution plus any fighter level. Someone with 5 constitution can never have more than 5 hit points unless he has fighter levels; a 2nd level fighter with 5 con can have up to 7 hit points (but good luck rolling that with two penalty dice). Damage characters deal is d6 for most one-handed weapons; 2d6 take higher for two-handed ones and bows; 2d6 take lower for light or improvised ones (dagger, unarmed, thrown rocks). An off-hand weapon in melee increases damage by one step.

Gameplay and magic

The primary activity shall be adventuring, which includes exploring places, combat, interacting with creatures and finding lost treasures. As a GM, I’ll stick with arbitrating the world and offering hopefully interesting things to get involved in; the players ought to have motivated characters (greed is good motivation to start with; let more emerge in play) and either engage opportunities I provide or create their own goals and go for them.

The rules have fairly good coverage of combat. First everyone declares what their characters are attempting, then the activities are resolved in an order that makes sense; this means that quick actions happen before slow ones and ranged attacks happen before spear-thrusts which precede sword-strikes. Shamanistic magic is slow. In case of equal situations, roll d6 + dexterity modifier to determine initiative. Attacking characters roll d20 + attack and the attack hits if opponent’s defense is reached or exceeded. Damage roll tells how much damage the attack deals. Damage is reduced from opponent’s hit points (which are abstract and not pints of blood). Anyone reduced to 0 hp is safely unconscious; anyone reduced below it must make ortitude save, difficulty 10, to not bleed to death. Any character at negative hit points can be automatically killed by taking an action to achieve that.

Characters naturally heal 1 hit point per night of proper rest. Characters reduced to negative hit points require the services of a skilled healer or shaman.

Saving rolls and some magic involve rolling d20, adding relevant modifiers and hoping for a suitably high result.

General resolution works by the help of a six-sided die. As a GM I estimate chance of success for task at hand; for example, picking pockets might be 1/6 or 3/6 for someone with background as a thief. Next, a relevant attribute modifier is added to the aforementioned chance. For someone with +1 dexterity modifier, the chances would be 2/6 and 4/6, while a somewhat clumsy (-1 dex mod) would-be pickpocket would have chances of 0/6 or 2/6. Then roll a d6 and try to get under the chances. I declare the chances before you need to roll, assuming there does not a exist a specific reason for not disclosing them (the target is something preternatural in disguise, say).

Experience and advancement need a few rules, too. Human characters need current level times thousand xp to get a new level, lizardfolk characters 3/2 times that, elves double what humans require. Each gold piece is worth one experience point to whoever acquires it. Slaying monsters is worth 100 experience per hit die to those engaged in the killing. In addition, I’ll let players set up goals for their characters. Minor or boring goals are worth d1oo experience when completed, while major or interesting ones give ten times that. What is minor or major is entirely up to GM fiat. Level means rerolling hit points and gaining whatever benefits the level gives.


Summoners know one first-level divination per point of intelligence bonus at the start of the game. They can prepare one divination per level per day so that they always prepare more divinations of lower levels than of higher levels (at first level, 1 level 1 divination; at second, two first level divinations; at third, two first level divination and one second level one). All divinations give information or do something else to the caster; this is intensely personal craft.

New divinations can be mastered only by hard studies or as a gift of dubious value from some powerful entity. Learning a divination takes number of days equal to the divination’s level squared and can happen through reading or being taught, with the latter being more common. Receiving a divination as a gift means that the entity has typically installed a backdoor of some sort so that whenever the divination is used the entity learns what is happening and can perhaps influence the events in some way. Consult proper summonings of the same level for guidance. Suitable D&D spells of same levels can be pretty freely added to the list.

The entities summoning is concerned with are always powerful ones and characters happen to know the true names of them, which grants a measure of power over them. Still, they are far beyond controlling.

Some first-level divinations

  • Perfect memory: Perfectly recall one scene, including all perceptions related to it, for as long as concentration is unbroken. Analysing the scene can take minutes or hours, depending on the level of detail involved.
  • Instance of time: Everything happens in bullet time; your actions are no more accelerated than anyone else’s, but you do have time to think and observe. Gives +3 (if d20 is used) or +1 (if d6 is used) in any situation that demands fast reaction and where thinking it through can help. Also, the player can take his time making the decision.
  • Recognise: This divination can be cast up to wisdom bonus times; if the modifier is not positive, this divination can only be cast once and only works when the caster actively concentrates.  Each casting selects one person, whom the caster will thereafter instantly recognise, no matter the circumstances. The target can be hidden, disguised, shapeshifted, or dead but the caster will nevertheless recognise them. Moreover, the caster can be unconscious and will upon waking still know that the target was nearby. This spell is permanent; the caster can dismiss any recognition at any time by willing so. Recognise can be cast whenever in the presence of the to-be-target; this includes contact entity and similar summonings.
  • Accurate [sense]: Each sense is a different divination. The relevant sense is greatly amplified, making the caster generally hard to surprise and very scary to be around. The effect lasts for as long as the character keeps concentrating on that one sense (so sniping would be possible with enhanced sight and eavesdropping an entire discussion with enhanced hearing likewise).
  • Contact entity: Character contacts one entity whose real name is known; the entity learns what the character thinks is happening at that moment and can communicate its general pleasure or displeasure about the situation, as well as vague instructions. This divination is instantaneous.
  • Detect auras: Diviner senses auras; that is, spells and entities of power; in some idiom suited to the caster. Sight is traditional. This spell lasts for as long as the caster concentrates. An aura can give vague sense of the power some entity wields. Careful observation can even tell something of the disposition and intentions or past deeds of some observed target.

Few second level divinations

  • Open window: Pronouncing the name of some powerful entity the character opens a window the thing can sense through. It can use some power roughly equivalent to first level shaman spells through the window, hence closing it. Alternatively it can reveal itself or communicate through the window. Unless the entity uses its powers the window closes at next dusk or dawn.
  • Read languages: Character can read one particular written document, regardless of language it is written in. Lasts as long as the character focuses on that document.


Shamans wield power to impose their will on their surroundings. They can cast one spell per level and more lower level spells than higher level ones, much as summoners do. In addition they can cast extra spells but at a cost. Shamans know one spell per level and an additional one per point of wisdom bonus. Shamans don’t have to prepare spells ahead of time. They can improvise spells but at even greater cost and risk.

When improvising spells or casting over one’s daily allotment the shaman’s player must roll a single d6. If result exceeds the spell level, nothing bad happens except that future similar rolls get +1 until the shaman has rested. In case of known spells the shaman gets to add wisdom bonus to the roll. Wisdom penalty hurts all of these rolls. When improvising a spell the player first tells what he is attempting and the GM then decides what level the spell is of.

Failing the roll above gives GM free reign to come up with nasty problems. In general, they should be in line with the level of the spell just being cast. The spell itself may or may not come to pass. Maybe I’ll write down a random chart or something.

The difficulty of saves is 10 + charisma modifier + shaman level, unless otherwise mentioned.

D&D spells of same level tend to be somewhat more powerful. Generally spells can be increased in level by doing one of the following, assuming suitable spell: Increase range on scale touch/personal -> presence -> sight -> far -> wherever, increase duration on scale short/concentration -> till next dawn or dusk -> till next full moon or other suitable lunar phase -> year and a day -> suitable number of years, like 81, 101, 49, 169, 666, 42 -> eternal, increase spell’s target along following scale: single person -> handful of people -> hundreds -> kingdom or species -> everything

Spells of first level

  • Pain: Touched target takes d6 damage per combat round, up to charisma bonus rounds. This spell never kills a target but is excellent at subduing them. Resisted with fortitude.
  • Scare: Target within presence that fails will save must flee or take -4 on all actions.
  • Courage: Target gets +2 on attacks and resisting mental effects as long as it keeps on fighting; resisted with will.
  • Healing: Up to charisma bonus targets heals d6 hit points per night of sleep and rest.
  • Sleep: Target becomes drowsy or, with failed save, falls asleep.
  • Leaping flames: The flames in bonfire or similar suddenly flare, causing 1 damage to those nearby (and serving as a distraction and maybe blinding people; I’m sure there is more ways of using this spell). Avoided with reflex.
  • Breeze: Sudden breeze may extinguish torches, scare, distract, or do whatever else breezes tend to do. It may also move feathers.
  • Hold portal: Door or other closed means of physical entry or exit clasps shut and chooses to not open: Only those with strength at least equal to caster’s charisma may even attempt opening it. Duration is till next dusk or dawn.
  • Charm: Resisted with will. Target treats everyone as basically trustworthy and good personality until evidence to the contrary presents itself. Duration is till next dawn or dusk.
  • Command: Failed will indicates that target follows one simple command spoken out loud by the caster; the spell is instantaneous, so extended actions can’t be forced through this spell. Target must understand the command for the spell to be effective. Self-defenestrate is a bit complicated.

Second level spells

  • Instant healing: Immediately heals d6 hit points.
  • Burst of fire: Any flammable object (like someone’s hair) bursts to flames, dealing d6 damage to anyone nearby and thereafter acting as a normal fire. Successful reflex reduces damage to 1.


All suitably experienced elves can do some woodshaping. Select one object per level: The elf can effortlessly create a near-perfect wooden version of the object, given suitable wood and some time (minute for a knife, hour for a spear, days for a house). In addition, woodshapers know one wondrous effect per point of wisdom bonus, but no more than one per level: Items as hard as iron, fireproof wooden items, reviving some random wooden thing (e.g. fence, door, spearshafts, firewood), growing thorns, so on.

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Dungeon seed generator

21 November, 2008 at 11:18 pm (game mastering) (, , , , , )

I decided to create something that gives me ideas for dungeons, as, for me, having no creative limits means not getting anything done. Abulafia is the natural place for such creations. So, hereby I present the dungeon seed generator: http://random-generator.com/index.php?title=Dungeon_seed

It is supposed to generate enough information to build a small dungeon, or a possibly partial level of a megadungeon, around. To get a new set of seeds, refresh the page or click “article” just above the “Dungeon seed” text.

The generator is currently functional, though not as good as it should be. Particularly the layout seeds are weak. If anyone has good ideas to offer, post them here or modify the generator itself (it is a wiki, basic syntax can be used via copy-pasting). (I deserve the right to move particularly fantastic items of layout or otherwise to the wonders portion.)

I’d like to thank Phased weasel for suggesting that the lowest part of the generator only provide a single entry, not several.

As a bonus for any who have read this far, there is another generator that you might want to use if players characters leave a dungeon, especially for a longer period of time. (1 entry for an absence of a day, 2 entries for week, 3 for month.) The generator is a bit more boring than the (hopefully) evocative dungeon seed generator; it assumes a complete dungeon and makes it potentially more interesting to revisit. Also: It is not a substitute for the dungeon and residents thereof responding to adventurers, only an add-on. Link: http://random-generator.com/index.php?title=Dynamic_dungeon

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In spite of laser clerics, or not bashing 4e

21 August, 2008 at 10:30 am (game design) (, , )

I’m not exactly a 4e hater. (Even though laser clerics and astral diamonds and starblah armours are profoundly stupid. In my opinion.)

So, there exists a bunch of things that 4e does very right. I have not played it, so these are only from design perspective. (My bias: I like elegant game designs.) The following are not in any particular order.

Out of combat

Skill challenges are a development long overdue. They allow one to mechanically handle non-combat encounters in such a way that it takes some time, which focuses more attention on them. The challenge can be constructed so that it promotes using different skills, or at least accepts such use. The difficulty can be scaled arbitrarily by increasing DCs or the number of successful checks one needs to achieve a victory. (Two ways of handling difficulty are redundant, as one would have been enough, but it is easy enough to always look difficulty from a chart and only mess with the number of successes required. Or the other way around.) Skill challenges allow partial successes, which are essentially a form of “Yes, but…”. You track down the beast, but it has time to slay the residents of a lone farmstead. You find it resting atop a heap of slaughtered farmers. Good luck you did not fail two checks or it would have ambushed you. Or three, because it would have lead you to an ambush by an unfortunate band of orcs and slipped away in the fray.

Skill challenges are not actually mechanically interesting. To make them gameable, one would need to leave hints about the applicable skills in any particular situation.

The challenges are modular; if you don’t want to focus on a particular thing, just call for normal skill check and be done with it. Unfortunately the gamedoes not allow one to do this with combats, as of yet.

Character options

There are less options at character generation, and radically less options when advancing a character (no multiclassing). Both of these make the relevant process faster, which is good, but reduce playable options, which may be bad. The supplement treadmill is likely to greatly increase the number of options, given time (and money or illegal downloads).

At higher levels when getting a new level one does not so much gain new powers as swap old ones for new ones. This is good, because it reduces the number of options one has in play, hence reducing analysis paralysis and makes it less likely that some ability is forgotten (I have lost a 3rd edition character because I forgot he had one fifth chance of negating critical hits, and it was not fun to remember it afterwards). Also, swapping powers means that planning the character’s path 19/29 levels into future is less necessary, though not any less rewarding, which I think is a good thing.

Non-options, like 3rd edition caster/different caster or caster/noncaster multiclassing, have been radically cut down. This reduces the role of system mastery in character generation, which I think is a good thing. Nonfunctional archetypes are no fun.


Rituals deserve their own entry. Personally, I think that rules which force one to make choices between combat and noncombat ability are a bad thing in a combat-centric game. For example: Preparing fireball or whatever third level utility spells there exist in 3rd edition. This is not a problem in games that do not focus on combat to such a degree. Actually, the problems mostly arise in games where combat encounter, as opposed to say an entire dungeon, is a discreet and central unit of game. Utility spells do not always or usually function within that unit, hence it makes sense to make them a separate resource.

The idea of rituals also fits my aesthetic preferences. Implementation not quite as well.

In combat

All characters have several, hopefully viable, actions to take during any given round. At least in theory. This is certainly an improvement from 3rd edition, where all characters have a number of theoretically viable but often practically useless options. And then there is grapple.

I am certainly intrigued by how well the roles and their special abilities actually function in actual play. Does the fighter pushing a target by one square as an at-will power actually make a difference? This I’d like to know.

Here’s a bit of game design philosophy I support: Rules are bad if they are not used in actual play. Hence, the simplified monster stats are, in my opinion, a good thing. They reduce unnecessary cruft from the rules.

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Laser clerics, or 4e bashing

19 August, 2008 at 9:44 am (roleplaying-games) (, , )

In which I shall be disgusted by the direction the feel of D&D is moving towards, not review it as a game, but rather describe why it is a new kind of game entirely.

If you’d rather read a third edition afficiando bashing 4e, go read Jukka Särkijärvi’s well-written and fun review.

I have, from reliable sources, heard that 4e is fun to play. I can’t really say without playing it, because it is an entirely new genre of games, much like Forge-games once were.

New kind of game

Some characteristics of 4e that are relevant: Extremely involved combat system, combat powers that make fluff a reasonable term in that they essentially have an arbitrary effect that the fluff tries to justify, actual coverage of noncombat encounters in a potentially interesting way.

So, essentially, there’ll be three different games you will be playing. The first is more-or-less freeform roleplaying parts, maybe with a roll or two of dice now and then. Second is structured roleplay in the form of skill challenges. Third is playing Magic: the miniature game. This is a valid genre of games. It has strengths and weaknesses, like any other kind of game. I am personally not interested in it, though I will grab any opportunity to play, should such a thing materialise.

One notable weakness is a result of the strict combat/noncombat division. Given that a cleric can probably shoot lasers or sacred flames or something, can I blind someone by using these powers in total darkness? How bright are they? My warlock also has a laser. Can I use it to harm objects? All the powers are targeted at creatures, according to their descriptions.

One can see the above as a strength, too, in that it will allow one to define how the powers work. The problem here is that the rules won’t start reflecting these definitions. If I define my warlock lasers as fiery missiles, they will still harm fire elementals. Can I light a campfire with one?

The two paragraphs above are me looking at 4e from a wrong perspective. The correct way to look at it is that combats are self-contained units of fun, and what happens in them is not necessarily indicative of what the characters can do outside them. That is the purview of rituals, skills, common sense, genre conventions and the mighty prestidigitation. Accepting this is likely to make the game a lot smoother.

Laser clerics

Philippe shows his evil side by making an attack on this post before I even had written this. He is correct in that lambasting 4e because it has laser clerics is not really valid criticism of the game, considering you can change the fluff at will, as it does not have an effect on anything, at least not in combat.

Be that as it may, there are few parts that are, in and of themselves, jokes. For example, the coin types: There is copper, silver, gold, platinum, and astral diamonds. Huh?

The setting implied by all of this material is awfully flashy. It has preciously little to do with any fantasy I enjoy. Even the D&D literature I have read is much less flashy. The Drizzt books have, in comparison, very little obviously magical stuff going on (though I am have not read the recent ones).

Maybe the style of the books comes from bad anime (defined as anime I don’t watch or like). Maybe it comes from WoW and its ilk. Wherever it comes from, it completely kills any desire I have for reading the books, running the game, or even playing it as anything except a glorified miniature game.

(A necessary disclaimer: The martial classes are an exception to practically everything I have written here.)

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To challenge or to validate

18 January, 2008 at 7:53 pm (actual play, game mastering, rpg theory) (, , , , )

More theory-related non-dichotomies. Basically, something is validated in play if the it is accepted and engaged when playing. Something is challenged when it is engaged in play in such a way that it is questioned. I’m going to apply the definitions on the level of fiction and particularly characters, though social issues can also be analysed by the same methods.

Most, if not all, games have some portion of character validation in them. Thalin is GM in a Star Wars game that started this Monday in the university group and I am playing a jedi weaponsmaster. I want my character’s skill with weapons to be validated; thus far, there has been training of less experienced jedi and no truly challenging combats. I’m totally happy with that. On the other hand, the character has some dark side influence (which is not as huge a deal as in normal SW, because the setting is quite far from canon and set in the far future) and that is something I do want to be emphasised and challenged. I don’t know how far the character is willing to go if someone, say, mocks him or irritates him, though he is darker than I originally envisioned. Finding such things out would be interesting.

Alignment in D&D, particularly that of paladins, is also a great example. Some players and game masters want the paladin to be a knight in shiny armour, all good and just and so forth. This is, I believe, how paladins were intended to be played. At least this is the way the design points towards, with the extremely great price for falling (paladin becomes worth less than a fighter in combat) and the difficulty of becoming a blackguard unless that was intended from the start. Validating play supports the paladin; opportunities to be good, encouragement to do the good thing, maybe an opportunity to redeem a bad guy in a game not focused on combat.

Some game masters want to challenge the goodness of paladins. Some players want their paladins to be challenged thusly. Should orc babies be killed? A demon has possessed an innocent child, killing whom would banish it forever from this realm. How should one act in a hostage situation? The usual method is to put two goods against each other or make choosing one of two bads a necessity. In this model, the assumption that paladins are good is often put under microscope. Are they really the shining examplars they want to be? Is it even possible?

Both methods are, of course, totally valid. As with all theory and naming, one should be aware of the differences and find a suitable middle ground. Or an extreme view. Whichever. The problem with this issue is that conflicting assumptions can lead to play that is bad (not satisfying, in other words). A GM who wants to challenge the paladin and a player looking for validation can lead to perceived persecution, while player looking for challenging play and facing only validation will feel the game falls flat. This is true on characters not like paladins, but usually to a less dramatic effect.

Riddles and mysteries are another similar issue. I see absolutely no point in them, because that is not the way and the place to challenge me. Other players find them enjoyable. Mechanical challenges likewise: Attempts to challenge the mechanical aspect of a character are something I don’t find particularly interesting. Some play to be challenged in such a way.

I am fairly certain that a game where a lot of things are challenged would lead to more volatile play and one where the central parts of the game are validated would be more predictable, and hence easier to run in scripted way.

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