State of the Gaming

Well, long time no post. I am in fact still alive, and more importantly gaming. I have been playing Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition and running the first published adventure path for the game Hoard of the Dragon Queen. Well that is until I pulled the shoot, but more on that later. I will not review 5E specifically here, as that just feels too overwhelming, and my good man Mr. Morrison over at The Rhetorical Gamer has done a good job again of reaching into my mind, with which I can only assume is some kind of voodoo, and laid it to bear on his blog.

So let’s talk 5E a little. I have to say that I like it. The feel of it in motion is good for me. It seems like a good blending of 3e and 4e from my perspective; they have smoothed over some of the hard corners of those editions for me. For example, I like the stronger but less frequent and numerous feats. Shit, you don’t even need to use feats and instead can just go stat bumps. The races and classes seem cool and strike a lot of the traditional archetypes. The subclass system, feats, and multi-classing allow you to build to your hearts content. I love the magic system and their neo-vancian approach to casters. Magic seems, well more magical again (and remember I loved 4e and played it exclusively for 4 years so no edition bashing hear). One of the things I struggled with in 3E/Pathfinder was the multiple buffs deal, so I like how they paired the slightly more powerful buff spells with the concentration mechanic that only allows for one spell requiring concentration to be active at a time. I also love that magic items are not necessary and have taken a step back to the early days of D&D where you might have found me under my covers picking out magic items that I would ruin the world with. Overall, the game feels very mutable to whatever you want to do.

I also like the flow of combat in terms of its pace and not being tied to the grid. Although I am not sure if I still have the chops for theatre of the mind (is there a less douchey term we can use for this?), either that or we as a player base have become addicted to the grid. In my game I have been saving the gridded combat for the more fleshed out encounters, everything else I tend to use a white board on roll d20 (since I play mostly online) with pogs to show positioning. I then use 13th Age style distances such engaged, close, and far. The gridless fights seemed to be a bit of a struggle, a little cluncky with the players being hesitant. In some ways I think throughout the past 2 editions we have been conditioned to think in terms of miniatures on a grid. It doesn’t help that all the abilities and spells are pretty structured with distances and dimensions. Now part of the problem might also be that I have trouble effectively describing the back my hand to someone. We will have to see, it might get better with more practice at it. Also I think I should go full descriptive for old times’ sake. I know what you’re going to say, “dude you never go full descriptive”.

Now on to Hoard of the Dragon Queen, I scuttled the campaign for a lot of reasons. In many ways I just wasn’t digging the adventure. The story itself was okay, it just didn’t grab me. I didn’t like the organization and felt that I was always looking for important content buried in long pieces of text while at the table. I think it also suffered a little from being developed simultaneously with the rule set as it includes terms and rules that didn’t make it into the PHB. They did a good job fleshing out the NPC’s and providing mini-sand boxes for each section of the adventure. I found myself not looking forward to games and it was a real struggle to get down to it. In general, I have been struggling to want to game as of late. I wasn’t really enjoying the group in terms of it not being a good fit and whether it was me or them I am not sure. Between working six days a week in my day job and private practice and having young children There is about an hour or 2 window in the evening between the time the kids are asleep and me passing out, and I found myself not wanting to invest in something so concrete as a weekly or bi-weekly rpg. It became easier and more desirable to just play video games or watch television. So basically, all of these things sort of combined and culminated in me turffing the game. So where do we go from here? Well I am still excited about 5th edition and my DMG just came in the mail. I have been going through old Dungeon magazines and modules looking for an adventure to convert, you know busy work. One of the strengths of the system seems to be that it is pretty easy to convert older 1st and 2nd edition material. I settled on the adventure “Ancient Blood” by Grant and David Boucher in Dungeon #20. The adventure has a nice Viking/Nordic angle to it and a magic sword called “Thor’s Fury”, so really what’s not to like. I think I am looking to sometime into the new year to run it.

I have been thinking a lot about complexity in rpg’s , that and the metric ton of shit that Rob Schwalb took over a recent blog post . From what I can gather it seems that some folks felt betrayed by his self-admitted rant as they perceived it to be the metaphorical equivalent of him dropping his pants and bricking into the mouth of the character optimization play style and by extension into the mouths of 3rd and 4th edition fans, who he was supposedly meant to represent in the design of 5th edition. I didn’t take his post that way, I mean really what DM hasn’t felt the berserker rage as some filthy fucking optimizer…er sorry… -deep cleansing breaths, finding my warm happy place- I am also not prone to being narcissistically wounded by the decisions a game company makes or need what I like to be validated by others, but hey that’s just me. Anyone who has followed Rob’s personal blog shouldn’t be surprised by this at all as he has long expressed his growing dissatisfaction with the aspects of very “crunchy” game systems that were becoming increasingly at odds with the experience he was looking to have at the gaming table. If you look past the hyperbole, you see a guy who is really just describing the results of his gaming “vison quest”, and what he has learned about his preferences and what makes the hobby awesome for him.

I also happen to agree with what I think Rob is trying to say. I didn’t take his post as advocating or that he, in some way conspired, to remove the mechanical crunchiness or complexity from D&D, but rather that the game needs to offer more than just that. D&D, to be truly successful, moving forward needs to allow and support different play styles. I realize that you can play a given edition anyway that you want and are not limited to doing things just one way and I am not talking about flirting with barmaids or talking to the king because those are the same whatever you’re playing. I am talking more about the game in action. For example you can try and recreate a heavy exploration or dungeon crawl feel similar to what you experienced in 1st or 2nd edition D&D with say 4th Edition but the system constantly fights you. It pulls for long set piece tactical skirmishes where the roleplaying, exploration, and interaction happen in combat. The combat essentially is and where the roleplaying happens. The combats are long because we need to make sure to use every standard, minor, immediate, free, and no action we painstakingly crafted together and that are at our disposal. Character creation can be a beast, even for someone like me, and a bit of a barrier just from the sheer volume of decisions and options. It’s one thing if that kind of stuff is your jam, but if it is not then you are kind of boned in 4th edition. I saw this first hand in my face to face group, were none of them probably ever read the core rulebook let alone a charop forum. Character creation and leveling were brutal. When they clicked on that button for their first level feat you could see their eyes glaze over at the nauseating volume of choices. Again, it doesn’t mean 4th edition is bad or wrong or that you can’t just say fuck it and pick the first option you see, it’s just the system pulls for something different. I found Pathfinder the same way, maybe even more so.

After reading the Basic Rules I am beginning to get sense of what they meant by an edition for everyone through modularity and I think it’s fantastic. If you want easy character creation and an old school feel of play you go with the baseline classes, opt out of feats and stick with stat bumps, and use theatre of the mind for combat. It’s quick, easy, and you’re cooking with gas. You want a more 3rd to 4th kind of feel? Then add some of the more complex sub-classes, opt into feats, use the rules for grid play, and boom Bob’s your uncle. There is even supposed to be different ways to handle healing, other than the default hit dice system, coming in the DMG that will allow you to tailor it to your desired play style. For those of you who are having aneurisms at the thought that Mr. Schwalb has single handily ripped out the still beating heart of the charop play style devoured it in front of you, take it easy. It doesn’t matter what system it is the minute you have any choices there will always be the best choice and best combinations, especially with multi-classing and feats. Plus this is just starting; you don’t think there is going to be tons of more player options in the future? You have to remember that charop is a lucrative play style for any company, because there are more players than DMs and player options sell. I think the take away is that WOTC is trying to provide you with options in terms of play style, not choosing one over the other. Is it going to be perfect? No, but what in life is aside from beer, pizza, and for some of us online streaming pornography?

Personally, I would have to say I have been leaning towards moderate complexity, in terms of character creation and game rules. You could sort of say I am like goldilocks in that regards. I like a descent amount of choices or options in character development and play, but not so much that it is overwhelming where you have to study the books like they were the Dead Sea scrolls. In gameplay, I am finding I prefer a system that is easy to adjudicate (parsimony over simulationistic detail) and combat that is not sluggishly long. I know you are laughing at the last point as I have played predominantly 4th Edition over the past 4 years, but it is likely that fact that has more clearly defined my preference. However, having said that I can make do with less or more complexity; I am kind of a cheap date that way. I am pretty intrigued with the new D&D, and maybe it will hit my sweet spot, but more on that later.

Dropping Loads

Unless you’re a gamer that lives under a rock then you have probably heard that 5th edition is jismming (is that a word?) all over our collective faces, necks, and chests July 15th with the release of the Starter Set, and get this, a free version of the core rules (or what they are calling Basic D&D) in a pdf download. The Starter Set is DM focused coming with pre-gens, advice/rules, and an adventure for levels 1 to 5. The free Basic D&D is the core of the game with character creation rules for levels 1-20 with four classic races and classes. It will also include some monsters, game rules, and magic items so you could technically play full campaigns with the free pdf if you so desired. The traditional core books will have a staggered release (a sort of refractory period between jisms if you will) with the Players Handbook coming August 19th, the Monster Manual September 30th, and the Dungeon Master’s Guide November 18th. The PHB will have the fuller contingent of classes, sub classes, races, and the rest of bells and whistles. The DMG will provide the traditional world building/campaign guidelines and magic items as well as some of the promised modularity in terms of variant rules. I of course pre-ordered all three core books. It also looks like WOTC is going to try and focus on adventure paths this time around, especially after giving the core rules away for free. The two entries The Hoard of the Dragon Queen (8/19/14) and The Rise of Tiamat (10/21/14) are set in the Forgotten Realms. I am not sure how I feel about this. It just seems like yesterday’s news, but I guess they want try and appeal to the largest segment of the audience.

The reaction to the free Basic D&D was pretty amusing. I personally thought it was a great move and a lot of others on the interwebs were in agreement. However, there was a fairly vocal contingent that took a dump all over it. I have never seen a company take so much shit for trying to give something away for free. A friend of mine said you’d think they were giving away free syphilis or something. People are screaming that it is not enough, giving us a gimped game, with chants of an OGL or nothing. WOTC has stated that they have plans that they will announce later detailing the license structure of 5th edition and it seems like there will be a system for being able to sell individually created stuff, so will see. On a side not it would be ridiculous for WOTC to ever do an OGL type thing again. It was probably the worst business decision they have ever made, great for consumers, but ultimately terrible for them.

My own gaming has been a little stagnant of late. I have prepped the new introductory module for the Slaver’s A-series published in the re-released hardcover collector’s edition using the OSRIC system. The game has been put on hold as sadly one of the players, who is my best friend, is dealing with the final stages of his father’s battle with cancer. I am still playing in the 4th edition Against the Giants game and we have slowly ground our way to the last bit of the final module. My Dwarven fighter Karl Laggerbelly is a beast of a defender. I have to say that the published modules in 4th edition have really not been great. Even with Chris Perkins writing the giants ones, I just find the combat system ill-suited to the traditional dungeon crawl. The best 4e games I have played in or run have been homemade with an eye towards the mechanics of the game. Lastly, I have been slowly working my way through the new Runequest rule book. I really like the system as it brings back a lot of fond memories from my youth. I am amazed by how much more complexity they have added to the system. I had the thought that with the gritty style of play that can be created that the system would be great for a Dark Sun setting. With a little work the Folk Magic could be re-flavored as psionics. So I have that percolating around my brain, we’ll see what comes of it.

Well the specter of D&D next hangs heavy over the nerd realms these days like a giant Rorschach level pit stain evoking a myriad of responses ranging from the second coming of Christ or Elvis to complete and utter revulsion and white hot rage. Where do I fall on this spectrum? Well somewhere in the middle around indifference and bordering on complete apathy. Don’t get me wrong I will still buy the core books because well, I buy everything anyways. But I really need this thing to come out soon so some of the edition warring can simmer down. I know it will never stop but with the open play testing it seems to have concentrated it like a lightning rod in the WOTC forums. They still haven’t set a firm launch date, which isn’t helping much as it gives the illusion to some that the game is in trouble design wise. They have stated that they are shooting for a summer 2014 release, which most took to mean at GenCon this year. However, with that date inching up on the horizon, they have been pretty coy about whether it is a go or not. There aren’t any official events listed for D&D Next on the schedule aside from some seminars that use the wording “upcoming” edition (edit-a poster named Wavester confimred theat he has entered WOTC events for the registration at GenCon but they are waiting for a few details to be ironed out before they get “turned on” and that they will be using a D&D Neext ruleset). There is an unconfirmed rumor that the Basic or starter set (not to be confused with the PHB, DMG, and MM which will come later) will be launched July 15th. I don’t envy the developers and I f I was one I would probably try and push it off for as long as possible as there is the very real possibility that it’s release could land with a big echoing thud, regardless of the actual quality of the game. Then what?

It’s hard to get a bead on what’s going to happen. The forums are a bit of a wet hot mess with each feature, mechanic, or playstyle being constantly attacked and ripped apart by packs of jackals. Nobody can agree on anything and everything seems polarizing from cries of dissociative mechanics to vancian vrs neo-vancian casting to healing and hit dice. Perhaps my favorite clash was WOTC’s decision to remove movement penalties for the smaller races in combat. The rational being that there are more interesting ways to bring out the flavor of the individual races than a movement penalty. So Dwarves and Halflings no longer have a lower speed than the rest of the races. The shit storm and threatened rage quits that erupted in a thread was something to behold with some decrying it as the further pussification of the game because the munchkins don’t want any kind of challenge compared to the good old days. Then there were simulationists claiming that this ruined their verisimilitude because it’s just not physically possible for someone smaller to move the same speed as someone taller. This led others pointing out that in a six second period a little person or even a child could probably sprint 30ft which then led to, I shit you not, someone entering the land speed of a cheetah into the conversation. How can you win when you’re designing for these people? Now granted I am a firm believer in the silent majority that are way less bothered by any of this bullshit and I see a lot of people that are reasonably flexible that seem to like what they see so far. But then there is the part of me that thinks who is really going to run a table top rpg these days other than some crazy, intense motherfucker that posts on forums (or writes a dumb blog-natch). When you look out over the hobby landscape these days table top rpg’s are an ever shrinking niche market with so many strong options and contentious factions you have to wonder what the expectations for D&D can be? The strength of Pathfinder alone and I realize rpg’s are not a zero sum area, has to dent performance expectations let alone the general hatred that WOTC tends to evoke in a lot of people.

I know personally I won’t allow myself to get caught up in the product frenzy like I did with 4th edition. I look at my shelve full of all that crap and get angry. I am going to keep it simple this time around and be a little judicious with what I get, perhaps being satisfied with just the core books…yah and then pigs will start flying and hell will freeze over and I will start shiting golden eggs out my ass.






Well Runeslinger almost did it to me with his latest post outlining his new campaign with Runequest’s 6th edition rule set. What do I mean by “did it”? well that S.O.B. almost made me buy another fucking game system (notice how I externalized blame to avoid culpability for my behavior, a classic addict move). It’s wasn’t like he was really even talking about the system as the series is more about the campaign he is developing, but just dropping the name and his subtle mention of hit locations was as good as dangling a crack pipe in front of Mayor Rob Ford. I thought there might be some danger when I read his initial post about the game, but like the newly sober clutching a one week chip I confidently dismissed any concern of a relapse. However, with each additional post the monkey on back whispering those sweet nothings got louder and louder. I haven’t broke yet, well not a full on snap, but I did open the link that he so kindly provided to the Runequest website where you can conveniently order the latest edition of the game along with lots of old supplements. After my hands stopped trembling and the cold sheen of sweat running down my back dried, I was able to close my browser. Safe for now.

Lately I am far enough along in my recovery and “summer of George” gaming experiment that I am not so easily swayed. I mean I have only bought one game book over the last year and I am not really counting that because it was the OSRIC rule system and I already own all the 1st edition D&D books, so technically I don’t think that counts, or at least that’s how I am deceiving myself. Runequest, however, holds a special place it my heart. I played it pretty much exclusively throughout high school and undergrad, way more than I had ever played D&D. We used the Runequest 2nd edition rule book and only that book; it was the special or limited edition version if I am not mistaken. Think about that for a minute, a decade of fun campaigns and shenanigans with just a single red book. It makes me want to kick my own ass when I get wrapped up in the business model of WOTC and their drop trow and shit out volumes of product approach.

The resolution mechanic revolves around the d100 (you want to roll low), which I found revolutionary at the time. Combat seemed more realistic in that you could attack and parry. There was individual hit locations with their own hp so you could hack off a limb or noggin, particularly if you went through a phase were you played barbarians with 21 strength and 21size who gravitated towards two handed weapons (I can only imagine what dynamic or conflict I was trying to work through), sometimes even cutting through an opponents weapon to do so. There was also special critical damage based on weapon type like impaling, crushing, and slashing. I read on the Wikipedia page that the combat system was an excellent simulation of battle more so than say AD&D but was ill suited for larger scale or mass conflicts involving multiple combatants because that said realism would be too time consuming. This made me chuckle as many of our sessions consisted solely of mass battles, standing back to back with my comrades in arms beating back the evil horde of the week. In our games a sea voyage meant two things: 1. Rolling to train and 2. Being boarded by pirates.

In terms of character generation, the system was classless allowing for a lot of flexibility in building whatever concept you had in mind. Although, I always felt that the system favoured more martial builds. Given my lack of creativity, my characters were usually based off of whatever fantasy series I was reading at the time. For example, some version of Silk from Eddings Pawn of Prophecy series was always lurking around ready to flow out of the shadows an impale your nads with his daggers. The skill system was pretty robust as well, especially coming from ad&d. We even used the map of Gloranthia (the default setting but with almost no info provided in the core book) for every campaign. The names of the cities always stayed the same but the inhabitants and culture changed based on whatever world we created. So in summary, Runequest was pretty fucking awesome back in the day and I can’t wait for my copy if the 6th edition rule set to….er I mean….ah fuck you Runeslinger ;)

The DC Adventure game I have been threatening people with finally took place this month so I thought I might hurl my two cents in your face for your consideration.  This was really the first step in a painfully slow and awkward process of branching out from 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons and making use of the bajillion (that’s a word right?) RPG’s I have purchased over the past several years. I wanted to be able to walk into my basement and not feel their lonely eyes burrow into my soul from their perch atop my bookshelf, a shameful and constant reminder of my lack of impulse control and its’ consequences. This year will be my gaming equivalent of “the summer of George”, and DC Adventures has kicked off the festivities.

I chose DC Adventures (aka Mutants and Masterminds 3rd Edition) largely as a bit of a break from the fantasy genre, plus just seeing my favorite DC Heroes and Villains stated up made me a little turgid below the equator. The production value on the core and supplemental books is amazing, with art taken directly from the comic books,  and on par with anything I have seen WOTC put out. The game is built around the d20 system so largely familiar to anyone who has played dungeons and dragons, particularly 3rd edition.  Characters are built by spending power points on bumping ability scores, skills, powers, and advantages (essentially feats). The total power points available to pimp your character with is determined by the series power level (masked adventurers, super heroes, big leagues, and world-protectors) which is meant to loosely keep the characters balanced to the style of game you want to play. Given that I was running a limited scenario I let players use any hero or villain with a power level of 10/super hero. If I was going to run a longer game I think I would have insisted on everyone making their own characters. I encouraged the players to only use the hero’s continuity or established fiction if they felt that it would help them and to add/make up whatever they wanted.  Thus we ended up with someone playing The Trickster from an alternate earth as a hero. This then allowed for a fairly dramatic scene with the current earth’s Trickster, seething with anger over his material/act being stolen by this upstart hack, challenging the player to a yo-yo duel. Overall, I liked the character generation system, as it was fairly flexible and customizable enough to build whatever hero concept you have.

In terms of the gameplay, combat encounters are resolved by applying “conditions” on opponents. So if you hit and damage an opponent ( i.e. punch, kick, blast etc)  or use a power with some kind of effect (i.e mind control) it doesn’t subtract from some form of health  but instead lays a condition. If an attack requires and attack roll you role to hit against the targets Defense Class. if you hit then the target makes a resistance check against your effect/power/attack DC to determine effects. there are no hit points and results for attacks  cause various conditions based  on degree of failure of the resistance check. a successful resistance check negates the effects of the attack. This plays out until the accumulation of conditions renders one side incapacitated. I found the lack of health or hp’s a little jarring during the first session and despite having a Doctoral degree calculating the degrees of success and failure on the fly (i.e. 1st, 2nd, 3rd, & 4th) was a little awkward. The players also disliked the resistance checks to negate any effect of a successful attack. I think this coupled with the lack of hp made their characters feel less than heroic and the combat stagnant. Even if the villain failed a resistance check on an attack the resulting effect of -1 to his toughness defense (what you use to resist damage attacks) seemed boring or anticlimactic to them. The first encounter was so flat and off putting I downloaded and actual play podcast to see if I was doing it right. The second session went a little smoother, but the general consensus was a dislike for the null effects or action  negation. I think one other thing that was  missing to create that comic book feel was the lack of knockback during combat. When super powered guys are stomping each other’s faces in I need dudes to be flying into buildings, lampposts and other shit.

The only other quibble as GM that I had was the relative lack of encounter building advice in terms of balance. I bought the Game Master’s guide as well and while they had lots of flavor and challenge/encounter ideas there was a lack of actual guidance in terms of number of villains and their power level that would be appropriate or how to use minions. I ended up using a formula that someone on the Green Ronin forums had created. The first encounter I ran had the party facing off against Captain Cold, Weather Wizard, and Girder (a pretty typical scene in the comics to me). It went pretty awful partly due to lack of system mastery but also due to the challenge either being too hard or better suited to a more climatic end type battle. After about an hour of combat with everyone making their majority of their resistance checks nothing had really happened. In the second session I used more faceless minions with one or two standard bad guys which helped with combat length.  I think the more familiar I become with the system the less an issue this would be, but some upfront advice would be welcomed.

Overall, I think the system is pretty serviceable and I could run a decent longer term campaign with it.  With the Heroes and Villains Volumes 1 and 2 coupled with all the setting fluff from the different era’s and worlds of the DC universe allows you to readily create any series you could desire. The skill system is fairly robust and good for creating skill challenges.  However, I think my preference would default to Champions/Hero System if I was to run another super hero game. So what’s next in my “summer of George” gaming festivities? Well I am currently  prepping a 1st edition AD&D game using the OSRIC system to run the recently re-released Against the Slave Lords  series, so stay tuned.


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