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.
Four and a quarter years it took me to get a magic sword in a play by post (PBP) game. I keep looking at that number and try to make sense of it but it refuses to seem real. It took as long for me to get a make believe sword in a make believe RPG game as it takes the average person to acquire an undergraduate degree from a university. The journey took a number of specific ‘adventures’ and required a trio of game masters to complete.
So what could I possibly learn from such an experience? Perseverance, dedication, patience, and how to take initiative. Worthy qualities surely and some that are by many accounts lacking in our modern age. As a society we’re all about the instant gratification. Don’t think that’s true? All you need to do is look at the rampant success of Free-to-Play games. These games are structured to make the player wait to play for free or pay to play now. Streaming television on demand, public wifi, texting, the world is all about the now.
But you know what’s not now? Table top games.
The resurgence of social, “face time” gaming shouldn’t really be all that surprising. In a world that continues to grow smaller but isolates our interactions more through technology people, especially younger generations, are starving for human companionship. Table top games thus are having a resurgence as are things like bowling and shuffleboard. Yes, shuffleboard, the game old ladies play on cruise ships. Who knows, Bridge clubs may be next.
So why are these things becoming popular again?
Well, I think we’re still too close to the now of the event to objectively examine. But, I think the popularity is due to a few, specific factors as far as I can tell
Time & Duration
Individual games have a short duration. You can have a fulfilling afternoon or evening of fun by completing 2 – 10 games. As long as people spend more time doing than it takes for them to travel to and from the location, it’s a win. Even better if the time can be spent completing multiple games/sessions. More completions = better use of time, we ‘accomplished’ more with our time.
Social & Attendance
As I touched on earlier, we crave human interaction. Humans are social animals, no man is an island… yada yada yada. The nice thing about table top games and social games like bowling is they rarely require more than three people to play, and many require only two players. We don’t feel bad if we’re not able to meet up with a group because they are still able to play and enjoy their evening. Likewise I miss nothing but a good time by skipping, there is no penalty for missing. There are also a good number of cooperative games for those people who dislike being competitive with friends and loved ones.
Low Barrier to entrance, Minimal learning curve
These games are simple to learn. They generally have few rules and can be taught in just a few minutes to someone with no prior experience. Scoring is usually straightforward and easy to understand. Of course there are stupidly complex games, but generally these aren’t the sort of games that only take 20-60 minutes to play anyhow.
Requires attention but not concentration
These games do require attention, but they almost exclusively turn-based. Unless you are playing an in-depth game or a game that has liberal use of interrupt mechanics there is nothing for you to do between individual turns. For a modern world where most people have a tech device on-hand people are checking email, social media, texts, Youtube, news, and everything else in the world, this meshes nicely with the games.
You know what isn’t getting a real resurgence though? Pen and Paper RPGs.
Wait, I imagine you say. There was an uptick in interest in analog RPGs over the past few years. Things like 4e, and Acquisition Incorporated podcasts and video plays of RPGs by some celebrities opened the hobby up to some new audiences, garnered some new interest. But a seven year run was all the tenure 4e received, mix that with multiple brand managers going in different directions, unbalanced power creep and options, Pathfinder being born, and the excessive vitriol of edition wars that something can or cannot be D&D, as though its some binary criteria. Some R&D people leaving WoTC and the creation of things like 13th Age and Numenera. Not to mention WoTC refused OGL for 4e and refused to support prior editions of D&D.
TL:DR version: Because a sequence of crappy decisions and poor attitudes by developers/publishers and the community at large.
Why mess with all that when I can go back to Steam and load up Child of Light, Paper Sorcerer, Legend of Grimrock, or Skyrim, to get my RPG fix?
But specifically the reasons social gaming is getting bigger are the exact reasons RPGs are not.
Time & Duration
It takes time to play RPGs, like a lot of time. Sessions I’ve played have been anywhere from 2 – 12+ hours. Personally I find the sweet spot clocks in at about six hours. Nonetheless each session of an RPG is a segment, of a chapter, of a larger adventure path. You have to meet regularly. How often have you sat down at a table with friends after missing a game session or two and people have a difficult time remembering where the game left off? Full adventures often take years to complete.
Social & Attendance
RPGs are definitely social games, they’re cooperative games after all. But they require taking on a role, a persona. Adventures generally require problem solving and teamwork towards some specific end. You can’t just interrupt the process to tell a ten minute anecdote about your cat because it came to your mind. Attendance is also mandatory. If you have a party of four PCs and a Gamemaster, every one is critical to what is going on. If one person has a scheduling conflict everyone misses a session. In the cluttered schedules of the modern world, finding a time for everyone to play at all can be difficult.
Low barrier to entrance, Minimal learning curve
This is a mixed bag. There are some pretty simple to learn and play rules systems out there. But sticking with the two biggest names in the hobby? The free barebones basic rules for the newest edition of D&D has over 100 pages. The Pathfinder Core Rulebook? 576 pages. Someone shows interest in RPGs and you hand them a novel to read before they can play? I know what Sweet Brown has to say about that. And with a community who showed plenty of hate for how the previous edition of D&D ‘dumbed it down’ for the video game/MMO crowd we really shouldn’t be surprised the younger demographics aren’t filling the hobby’s ranks and publishers’ coffers.
Requires attention but not concentration
One of the most aggravating aspects of RPGs is choice. If you can imagine it you can try to do it in an RPG. That’s part of the big selling point but also one of its most aggravating aspects in the microcosm of individual sessions and encounters. It’s someone’s turn and they have no clue what they are going to do, worse yet they ask you what’s happening because they spent the last 5-10 minutes flipping through the newsfeed on their phone. Now you get to wait 5-10 minutes to figure out what this person is going to do, meanwhile the others at the table begin looking at their technology devices and that’s really why it seems to take forever to get through most combat encounters in a game like 4e.
People complain about how boring fighters and clerics can be because every turn is heal or hit the monster with your weapon, but abolishing that simplicity doesn’t help the person playing the game who probably has ADD, because everyone has ADD these days, and can’t sit still for five minutes without being actively entertained.
This I think is the unfortunate state of affairs of the hobby. An old guard filled with grognards who need something to be dissatisfied with, publishers who don’t seem to be confident in their target audience and their ability to make money with an iconic product lines.
Am I critical? Yes, but not because I’m bitter, because I know the hobby can be really popular and great. I know these games can create memories we will cherish for years. Perhaps I am overly critical of modern society, but in a world where people have to be told to take ‘tech sabbaths’ it would be difficult not to be.
I should be getting back to a more regular blog schedule. In the future I should have a supplement review and I’ll speak a little about the new D&D rules… which will likely be different than what most people are focusing.
This past Friday I rolled up the short adventure series I was running for my weekly gaming group. It went well. Brick killed a guy, with a trident. I did get to K.O. a PC, which is always amusing. And then I decided a coup de grace was in order. Within my gaming circle I am known for beating PCs black and blue. A reputation earned but regularly over exaggerated.
The latest adventure series was a stop gap, filler between the end of another DM’s adventure and returning to our main campaign set in the world of Ryndaria. You can find out about the campaign world and its DM over at his blog, Ryndaria.com. Due to the nature of the latest series I used it as a way to explore some techniques and ideas I’ve been mulling over for some time. I employed the static bad guys elucidated in a prior post, played some more with D&D Next, used the Story Forge Cards I reviewed to determine some elements, and decided to roll up some random gear for the wayward adventurers.
I’m going to speak more about that last point. Gear is always a fun thing for me to tweak. Most players, myself included, show up to the first session of a new campaign with gear. Some characters are even built around specific gear. I know what’s in the PC’s pack, his armor, weapons, and even how much coinage he has remaining. Now think about any survival movie you have ever seen, whether it is zombie oriented or natural disaster oriented. The story about the guy whose bunker is stocked for a decade of the apocalypse is really boring. Great stories are about surmounting challenges, beating all the odds. I have a tendency in my games to strip that away and gear is a good and quick way to do it. In the first hour of an adventure you can place people in an uncomfortable place and that engages them.
Because I’m not utterly cruel I did not make them bare knuckle brawl for every bit of their gear. Beforehand I found a random gear table and rolled on it for every player and created a number of backpacks to be picked up by the PCs. I was even nice enough to balance it so there would be useful gear for all the players. In addition I found another rolling table of random items and rolled on it to provide each pack with a different signature item. These items ended up being a wooden pen with runes carved along its length, a silver box decorated with stars and moons, a metal bracelet of intertwined serpents in blue and red, and a silver flask engraved with the initials S.K. These items are mundane but worth a little bit of coin. Worst case scenario from the idea is the party sells the items at the first town they come across. I otherwise did no planning for what the items would do or what their importance might be.
So what happened is we played. The players got their bags, and went through their gear trading with each other allowing for some nice in character role play I was able to sit back and let them talk only speaking to answer questions about specific items or to clarify my bad handwriting on the gear lists I gave them. At this point I’ve already accomplished all I wanted. The players are offset by the loss of their gear so they’re actually engrossed with what’s happening in the game because you know… they want gear. Very quickly they’re already developing an in-character dialogue and a better foundation of who these brand new PCs are.
Throwing in some random signature items can give you tools to help integrate your story and fill some gaps with a bit of improvisation. Right away the spell caster in the group was lacking a staff or wand to cast. So I drew on the runic pen, now it’s a wand that has been discretely disguised as a pen. Hiccup avoided. The halfling thief stored all his meager wealth in the silver box (its existence he kept secret from the rest of the party). After inadvertently rescuing a party of dwarves at a new construction worksite the party, suffering some rare fit of competency and lucidity, decided to ask them about the other special items in their possession. They knew nothing of the strange serpent bracelet. The silver box exploded with a flutter of notes upon opening. The money within gone it was stuffed with small bits of paper with scribbled messages asking about someone named Mathias. Shared storage spaces are one of my favorite items in the D&D universe so I decided on a whim to make the box a shared storage box between a wizard and his apprentice (going with the whole moon and stars motif). As for the flask, suddenly it was the flask of one of the dwarves, a missing member who had left for the nearest town to buy supplies.
Building in extra stories is a great way to improve/riff on what is going on in the game. Now the players have quests seeds that could spin the game off on whole new adventures. Staggering adventure seeds will also make your games feel less segmented where one adventure ends and there’s a lull before the next arc begins. You can also run small side adventures while writing up the next major arc.
Pro Tip: Repurpose published adventures for side quests to keep your creative energy to use on the main plot.
I then set up a spot where the party was traveling from the dwarves to the kobold lair. On the way they could try to stop in the nearby town or potentially come across the wizard looking for his apprentice on the road. Neither happened but the thief did stay in contact with the wizard for the rest of the short plot. One of the fighters realized now that the serpent bracelet was returning to his wrist while he slept. I did not develop anything for the serpent bracelet until the end of the plot where the party faced off against the BBEG. Due to poor rolls they never were able to make the connection that the BBEG had the same sort of symbol on his neck, the intertwined serpents. With one PC downed to death, and the bad guy defeated they realized too late his body was gone. The villain escaped, but the dead PC came back to life as his companions busied themselves looting his body.
Overall it was a fun adventure and a pretty simple affair to run. I definitely encourage everyone to try out some random items. A quick search on the internet will find copious lists for rolling items and equipment. Really try to feed off the energy of your players. If they’re interested in the item make it important if they don’t give it a second look, let them sell it off at the nearest trinkets dealer.
If you have played anything other than a pre-generated character for any RPG system featuring multiple race options you know something about racial traits. It puts the pointy ears in elfs, beards on dwarf chins, and humans… well, makes them versatile.
Racial traits help us to understand what makes fantastical races fantastical how that can be reinforced in-play at the table. In some systems it goes as deep as altering a character’s core abilities by boosting some stats and reducing others.
This is however a double-edged sword. By having racial traits as a fundamental foundation for the modern RPG system it constantly reinforces the racial tropes as developed by the originator of modern fantasy, Tolkien. Dwarves live underground and deep halls of stone and are renown artisans. Dwarves in RPGs as a result have dark vision, can keep from being lost underground, have a bonus to spotting something strange in stonework, and often have an innate ability to appraise the worth of items such as jewelry, arms, and armor. This can go further to racial weapon training with hammers and axes. Dwarves are slow but steady on the move. They move with equal with speed whether naked or loaded down with 200 pounds of war regalia and gear.
Just from the above passage we can draw some broad stroke assumptions as to how dwarves are represented regardless of a game’s particular campaign setting. If the campaign has a multitude of underground dungeons and ruins dwarves will be some of the best and most common adventurers. Their dark vision, ability to tell direction underground, and better ability to spot inconsistency in stonework makes them unparalleled underground explorers. In addition their unencumbered speed, and racial proficiency with heavy weapons makes them ideal as hard-nosed fighters on the front lines. This idea is better compounded with rules systems choosing to give dwarves a penalty on dexterity stats while boosting either their strength or constitution (the two most useful stats for front line fighters).
But take away underground dungeons, perhaps this new campaign will feature exclusively topside adventures over an expansive landscape and most actions will happen during the daytime. Dwarves because of their particular racial traits become far less useful. Dark vision is far less useful, underground direction sense meaningless, and stonework perception only useful for the occasional hidden passage or hiding hole in a wall.
Dwarves are just one example. We could run down all the different races and sub races but you get the point. So if you decide to run a new campaign these are issues you may want to keep in mind. In doing so it may be worth offering some alternative racial traits to replace those which will not be overly useful in your campaign’s setting. A quick look through the race entries of your current system and some time thinking about the plot of your campaign’s arc should give you a good starting point for developing alternative racial traits.
Past character generation in a campaign, racial and class abilities fall to wayside from the perspective behind the screen. They are locked down as defining features of a PC, tools for the player to use in their time adventuring and nothing more, other than boosting the ability with a feat choice. This is unfortunate and as a Gamemaster you should not be lulled into complicity with any facet of the game. This can be a quick and dirty way to add some really interesting ideas into your campaign.
Generally we consider mutation something only found in more modern settings and ideas like TMNT. In D&D 4e an attempt was made with the changing landscape of Forgotten Realms and the Spell Plague to include mutation ideas. Unfortunately they never took root, mainly because of poor design integration. A quick look of cost/benefit evaluation shows most of the Spell Plague powers required characters giving up too much to make the mutations worthwhile options.
Mutation can however be a good way to grant a boon or lay a lasting curse on a character. During an arc run in a home brew campaign setting the party unintentionally helped a witch with a dire ritual. To repay the characters she left behind dark gifts. To reinforce the terrible nature, not only of the potential gifts but the people they were dealing with, these dark gifts were hidden in the bowels of the witch’s servants, found hanged by the neck in her den stomach’s wan and distended with the boons. All the party decided to forgo the dark blessing but for the assassin PC.
He gained the boon of shadow for his macabre effort. The PC gained near supernatural ability to hide in shadows (an incredibly useful power for an assassin). The trade off was he suffered light sensitivity, a heavy penalty while attempting complete tasks and attacks while in bright light. The result being the PC was confined to be a shadow dweller and the stigmas associated with that habit.
To keep things roughly balanced you will want to have a good bonus offset by a penalty. I used the duplicity of the boon to make light a far more important factor in the campaign than it was otherwise. If you hand out some powerful boons look to offset it by having the player lose a racial or class trait as is appropriate.
Using mutations and special training boons to replace class and race features will give you some extra options as alternative rewards for the party. Using mutations can help to make PCs feel like they are shaped by the campaign setting in which they live and helps to makes the PC a little different than their racial boilerplate.
Favorite Non-Magic Item
Counterfeiting/Forgery Kit. A travel lap desk with all sorts of wood blocks and carving tools, sealing wax, fine vellum, ink, and quills. Use it to forge official documents and seals. Make everything from invitations to fancy parties to Letters of Marque, very useful.
Honorable Mentions: Ten Foot Pole, Thieves Tools
A Character You Want To Play In The Future
I would like to play another tactician or ‘No Attack’ warlord from 4e. The warlord has a large array of options and powers that allow it to boost someone’s attack or give them another attack in place of your own. It’s easy to play, surprisingly fun, and allows you to really explore other facets of combat like aid another actions, and alchemical weapons.
A Character You Will Never Play Again
I don’t know if I have a character I would refuse to play again. I try not to make PCs I hate. Outside of D&D I would say probably the first PC I create for any rules system without guidance from an experienced player. Mechanically they usually don’t work very well and are useless.
What Is The Number You Always Seem To Roll on a D20?
Three and Eighteen.
Best DM You’ve Had
I’m not sure I can say I’ve had a hands down best DM. It’s sort of like saying someone is the best author you have ever read. In this case favorite does not necessarily mean best. I’ve had DMs who are good at different facets of the position. Some have been very strong with tactical combat, story plots, developing NPCs, improvising, world building, describing scenes and actions, creating suspense and an air of danger, props, wrangling the table, pacing, and having consistency.
The best advice I can say is play with a lot of different people and make note of what they do that works and what does not, use the information to try and improve your own overall style.
Well, that’s the end. It was good to look back into the past of my own experiences with Dungeons & Dragons and the history of the game itself. I definitely feel this was the right way to go through the challenge, taking a tedious month-long task and knocking it down into a two-week assignment. I have also developed a few other potential topics for upcoming posts that should be fun to look over.