I really wanted to like this book. I really enjoy the details of making a fantasy world feel lived in; breathing, functioning. So when I found City Builder: A Guide to Designing Communities, I jumped at the opportunity to add such a resource to my library. But there was a singular problem I noticed within the first few pages of the book. The book did not deliver on the title’s promise. It does not guide in the creation of communities or cities. So then, what was the aim? I flipped to the Introduction:
Welcome back for part two of the character generation process. If you haven’t read part 1, hop back to the previous post. This series of posts are developed in conjunction with Ryndaria.com. So jump over there to see the different
Lots of people are talking about 5th Edition, D&D Next, or just simply “Dungeons & Dragons” per WoTC, which is utterly confusing for a brand that has put out different editions and variations of the same product. Anyway, if you were somehow unaware, the newest iteration of Dungeons and Dragons is live. The free basic rules are available as a PDF from Wizards of the Coast. The Starter Set is also available for purchase ($20). The perennial triumvirate of core rule books will not start their staggered release until August (PHB).
So I wanted to do the summary first and then speak about the specifics from the free basic rules.
It’s vanilla ice cream. It’s a solid rules system, but that’s about it. The newest edition will allow you to play enjoyable sessions. It does nothing poorly thus far, but conversely it does nothing great either. In the end I’ll play it, but I’m always going to listen to the full list of rules system alternatives before deciding on it.
Trying to describe the new rules I would say it fits somewhere between 2nd & 3rd edition with some retooling of the mechanics with smart RPG design from the last two decades, D&D and otherwise.
What Once Was Will Be Again
It’s interesting to see the cyclical nature of D&D development reach arguably full circle. The development of third edition was greatly tied to the fan base wanting a more specialized, more intricate game. Enter feats, a robust skill system, and a big jump in rules minutiae. It allowed its players to cover almost any situation that came up. It was also a candy land for power gamers.
I think two major points spurred the development for 4e.
Aging fan base: New blood was absent from the hobby, video games and especially MMOs were/are stealing the young demographic
Time: People did not like how long it took to play a lot of third edition. Fans complained about how long it took to do combat, and that’s without difficult rules quandaries like grappling.
Streamlined: faster to play and lowered the barrier of entry by using mechanics more similar to video games. The classes were also similar so fighters were as interesting to play at level 10 as wizards. In addition the system was designed with DM’s in mind. Often a thankless job, 4e even with all its problems, is a breeze to run behind the screen.
Problems arose with 4e of course and a lot of valid finger pointing can be done to a lot of different responsible parties. Upper tier game play was an absolute mess most easily summed up as option and feature overload.
So 5th edition, D&D Next. Two plus years of R&D, extensive play testing from the public, and now it’s live. It’s a return to roots, a prodigal design that scours through the life of the brand to distil the quintessential when people think of D&D. Unfortunately I think this is an idea borne of the edition wars, that a rules system either can or cannot be D&D enough. But there’s no measuring board and D&D has mutated, changed subjectively for better and worse over four decades. It’s like saying Cherry Coke isn’t Coca-Cola enough. Of course this is the same thinking that upsets people when Final Fantasy games aren’t Final Fantasy enough.
But from the development history of D&D I find myself wondering if there’s not a reason to return to the D&D Basic and AD&D framework. There are two polarizing factions. One faction of the target audience wants simpler rules and fast play. The success of things like Savage Worlds, FATE, OSR, Fate, and others show that pretty clearly. On the other end of the spectrum you still have a significant audience who loves the complexity and ‘crunch’ of 3.X, Pathfinder, and other systems. So why not do that, support two separate lines? Right out of the box you almost double your supplements and thus revenue opportunities as a developer. I think it also may be able to save some of the vitriol that’s so pervasive in the hobby’s community.
But for anything like that to happen WoTC needs to make some changes. First and foremost I feel like they need to find someone with a plan to actually run the brand. Let’s look at their management history real quick:
1997 – Purchases D&D brand
2000 – Releases D&D 3rd Edition w/ OGL
2003 – Releases D&D 3.5
2005 – Begins development of 4e
2008 – Releases 4e, Drops support of all prior editions, no OGL (thanks Pathfinder)
2010 – Releases D&D Essentials
2012 – Begins D&D Next development, Re-releases prior D&D edition materials from the Disney Vault back catalog, Kills all 4e/Essentials future supplements
2014 – Releases D&D (D&D Next, and I believe no OGL)
WoTC does an about-face with the D&D Brand every 2-3 years, hard ones. Like doing a jibe when sailing and not telling your friend and laughing as the boom swings around and violently hits him in the head and knocks him out of the boat. Hard not to be a disgruntled consumer considering the treatment we’ve collectively received.
Particulars of Dungeons & Dragons (seriously, it needs some sort of identifier)
Things I Like:
- Proficiencies, I like the across the board flat bonus.
- Exploration & Social Interaction Mechanics, Finally some reference on how to run/resolve the other 2/3 of the game that’s not combat.
- Multiclassing, I like 4e but it’s multiclassing was useless.
- Gain a Feat OR Ability Increase, Options for how to run your games and how players can develop their characters that actually involves a tradeoff. Also +1 to 2 or +2 to 1 ability makes ability increases always useful.
- Human Racial Benefit, Viable mechanical benefit to play a human, it even offers a variant!
- One-Size-Fits-All Shield, Shield or no shield, there is no buckler (…yet)
- Advantage/Disadvantage, Who doesn’t like to roll more dice?
- Attack of Opportunity, Only provokes when moving away from an enemy
Things I Dislike:
- Vancian Casting, It’s improved but you can only varnish a turd so much
- Too Many Situational and Too Few General Purpose Spells, A cornerstone of Vancian casting systems so you can play the ‘guess what kind of trouble you’ll get into today’ mini game with your DM.
- Healing Spell Preparation, I think you should always be able to default cast a heal spell without wasting a prepped spell selection on it
- Sneak Attack, I want one devastating alpha strike, after that leave all the fighting glory to the FIGHTER
- 3×3 Alignment, Silly vestigial trope. Alignment only matters for divine classes and even then it can be replaced by common sense
- No Reflex Bonus From Shield!
- No 4e Disease Framework, Hopefully shows up in the DMG
- Inspiration, Feels tacked on. I wish it had beneficial options other than just granting advantage
So yeah, it’s good; not great, but good. I think there are better options depending on the specifics of the campaign you’re trying to evoke, but it’s a solid entry for the brand and should be pretty easy for new players and veterans alike to pick up and enjoy.
Enjoy it now, you may only have 2-3 years before WoTC completely ruins it.
- 2 5×5″ rooms
- 2 4×4″ rooms
- 4 3×3″ rooms
- 2 2×2″ rooms
- 6 1×5″ halls
- 6 1×4″ halls
- 9 1×3″ halls
- 6 1×2″ halls
- 15 1″ squares
Recently I finished playing through Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch on PS3. For those of you unfamiliar with the title it is a JRPG produced by Level 5 in coordination with Studio Ghibli. The former responsible for titles such as Dark Cloud and Professor Layton. The latter is arguably the pinnacle producer of anime cinema in Japan; producing such works as Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and Howl’s Moving Castle.
Needless to say as a fan of RPGs and Studio Ghibli’s trademark style and storytelling I was highly anticipating a chance to play the game. Not to worry though, I am not about to turn the blog into a review platform for video games. This is the internet after all, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a fledgling video game reviewer or critic. What I want to speak about is not the merits and flaws of the video game itself but in the thought it sparked in my mind after the credits rolled.
I had just completed 65+ hours of a game under false pretenses. I was sold a lie and gobbled it up like full size candy bars on Halloween. Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch was billed and reviewed by multiple sources as an RPG. But looking back on my experience as the credits rolled and by a cruel twist of fate subsequently watching Idea Channel’s ‘Controlling Vs. ‘Being’ Your Video Game Avatar’.
The game I just sank hours into under the illusion of an RPG was in fact not an RPG. To state then what a role-playing game is let’s use this definition from Wikipedia:
A role-playing game is a game in which players assume the roles of characters in a fictional setting. Players take responsibility for acting out these roles within a narrative, either through literal acting or through a process of structured decision-making or character development.Actions taken within many games succeed or fail according to a formal system of rules and guidelines
I reviewed the time spent playing Ni No Kuni and realized at no point, not one singular instance, did I make a decision that led to character development or impacted the narrative. The only decisions available to me as a player was choosing my stable of monsters (absolutely in no way… or absolutely like Pokemon), equipped gear and items, and which if any of the side errands I completed. None of the side errands impact the game’s narrative. It would be difficult to call the plot linear because it not just resembles a line, it is a line. Point A to Point B and you’re just along for the ride. Awkward tactical time, strategic combat and ‘quests’ don’t make a game an RPG, though apparently people think that now. If I as the player have no agency in the plot and its outcome other than binary success or failure to complete the game it is not an RPG. This game then is no more an RPG than the average shooter or fighting game.
Upon further reflection I came to a strange epiphany, did I now take part in a culture of video games where sports games where actually more RPG-like than the games being billed as RPGs. Recently in addition to Ni No Kuni I have been playing MLB The Show. Playing the Road To The Show mode the player creates and controls one player from the draft, AA & AAA minor leagues, and MLB career to the All Star Game, and Hall of Fame. Every choice and action during and in between games has the possibility to advance the player’s career or penalize him. The character has to deal with the whims of the manager, fighting for a place in the starting lineup (or losing it), negotiating contracts and dealing with being traded to another team. Each facet of the RTTS career mode gives me agency. I determine the strengths and weaknesses of the character, how well he performs in clutch situations, whether he goes to free agency. And unlike many RPGs where losing a battle just means try again or reload the latest save file to make a second attempt in an identical battle sports games are never the same. If my pitcher blows a save opportunity and loses the game I don’t get prompted to retry the event, I live with the results and try not to suck at the next game (one nice thing about having over a hundred games in a season). Even reloading the latest save won’t prompt you with the same situation. Replaying an individual game is always different.
There’s no grand storyline in sports games. It’s a character driven story. I create my own thrilling victories with walk off home runs and crushing despair by striking out the last out of the 9th inning at home with the bases loaded. Even XCOM: Enemy Unknown, is more an RPG than some recent RPG titles. At least in it I have to determine which country I ignore alien abductions within. There is a difference between an RPG and interactive storytelling. Perhaps Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation in his review of Beyond Two Souls stated it most poignantly when referring to interactive storytelling video games as watching a movie you have to pause every few minutes. That’s a frustrating movie experience and an even worse gaming experience. I should not have to feel like I’m doing busywork to watch a predetermined story unfold.
I guess for me an RPG must consist of controlling an avatar that must make a difficult choices, often moral in nature, and live with the consequences of such decisions. The decisions and their consequences then coalesce to define the development of the character. At least for me this is something I try to bring to the forefront in my games from behind the screen. To watch characters and their associated players chew through difficult decisions to which there is no singular, sterling plan of action with no consequences.
In a recent game the party invaded a camp of dwarf workers in the beginning of an underground construction. The camp and its construction site had been overtaken by kobolds. In the fledgling beginnings of a great hall the adventurers battle through the last of the kobolds. The final kobold surrenders begging the party, and freed dwarf workers, to spare the two white dragon wyrmlings. The party found themselves in a dilemma. They might butcher innocent, infantile creatures or allow them to escape and grow up and potentially ravage the countryside one day. Half the party was for slaughter and the others had moral hangups with the murder of majestic wild animals on a ‘what if’ situation. In the end the party decided to let the kobold and the two wyrmlings free. Will it come back to haunt them, or perhaps pay unexpected dividends? Maybe, maybe not.
What do you think? Some people enjoy the beer and pretzel games of slaying monsters, gain loot, and never going beyond that. But at least from my own personal experience and most other people I have seen weigh in on complementing issues is that the nature of those who play RPGs is to delve in and develop characters. That means making difficult decisions and of course making mistakes and living with the consequences of a PC’s actions.
In general I’m a conservative consumer. I don’t spend a lot of money and I don’t do so often, especially on impulse buys. So I’ve come to realize something is special when I see it for the first time and have an immediate impulse and actually purchase. This was my experience with Story Forge Cards.
What are Story Forge Cards?
The product is a writing aid created by B.J. West. It is a large deck of cards used to brainstorm ideas by presenting archetypal elements of narrative structure and have the user create meaningful representations of the elements and string the elements together.
There are 88 cards in the deck. The cards are large, I suspect the average size of a Tarot card. Each card is constructed of durable plastic with full color printing on the face and back. Like a Tarot card whether the card is upright or inverted changes the meaning; often this change is to the near opposite (such as ‘The Devil’ having an opposite of ‘The Angel’. The deck consists of five ‘suits’: Destiny, Emotion, Identity, Wealth, and Will. Destiny cards represent large life-changing events. Emotion cards represent (you guessed it) epic feels. Identity cards represent how the subject views itself and/or world views it. Wealth represents something tangible and material while Will represents a positive or negative effect of the subject’s mental fortitude.
Using The Cards
First off shuffle and cut the deck. Each time you cut the deck instructions say to twist the stack since the card’s orientation matters. Choose a ‘spread’ from the instruction booklet depending on what you are trying to accomplish. Developing a character, use the character background spread. There is also a quick pick spread to quickly add some depth to minor characters. Spreads also include genre staples such as Film Noire, The Action Film, The Hero’s Journey, Love Story, etc. You then deal cards into the spread as illustrated in the booklet. Each card position represents a point of consideration. Each card comprises a vague idea to which you specify after completing the spread.
I used the cards recently to add some depth to a central NPC being used for the recent RPG arc I’m DMing. To develop the character I used the Character Background spread.
- The Character’s Base Nature: Restraint (Wealth)
- Influence of the Universe: Lust (Emotion)
- The Character’s Achilles Heel: The Devil (Destiny)
- Influence of Friends and Family: Fortune (Destiny)
- The Character’s Driving Passion: The Burden (Will)
- The Character’s Destiny: Defeat (Destiny)
- What Stands Between the Character and Its Destiny: The Gamble (Wealth)
If you’re anything like me just reading through the list shows how great of a springboard a process like this can be. I can punctuate definite ideas for how the cards manifest for the character and naturally begin looking for ways to string them together into a comprehensive patchwork. Occasionally the something will just not work. The first solution the booklet offers is to flip the troublesome card around and uses its ‘opposite’ to see if that gets the creative juices going. Still stuck? Slap a new card down in its place.
The cards work. In the time I have played with them I feel they have really given me a boost in creativity. The cards are vague enough and varied enough to conjure possibilities and connections that are not the foremost in my mind. Even with some of the larger spreads I have run the results are complex without being overly convoluted. I did receive some card lays that were a challenge to make something coherent. I saw it as a creative challenge, a chance to really stretch the head muscles to fit something that at first glance seems out of place, off the wall, into the rest of the creation in a meaningful way.
As stated the cards are larger and the deck is thicker than your average deck of playing cards. I have pretty stubby fingers so shuffling the deck has not been a quick or graceful event. I expect I will get better dealing with the cards in time but if the subtle artistry of shuffling eludes you this product may grind your nerves. Some of the card lays are just strange. The vagueness is a blessing and a curse. Some card lays I would find myself staring at the card drawing a blank for how it fits; imagine drawing ‘The MacGuffin’ for a character’s base nature. The Story Forge Cards are a writing aid first and foremost. Yes, they are helpful for RPGs but it is not their primary focus.
I say buy it (I did after all). It’s a powerful tool that will help you develop better stories. The secondary benefit may be you have better RPG plots. I would like to try them during the character creation phase of an RPG campaign to help players develop their characters. If you’re also a fiction author (especially new to the craft) it is a useful device. It will help you write better original ideas and keep you from some of the common neophyte problems like Mary Sues and one dimensional characters.