Dungeons & Dragons: Free Basic Rules

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.

Overall Impression

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.

We SCREAM!

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.

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Transitioning from Action Points to Augmented Fate Points

Excellent For Counting Points During Play!

Excellent For Counting Points During Play!

For a reminder, if you didn’t read the last blog I suggest you read the previous post as this is a continuation.

Last time I spent a little bit talking about Fate Points and how they operate as a mechanical boon by offering up some specific leeway to the GM for one’s PC. Slacken the reigns a bit on your PC and you get yourself a point to be traded in later to make a challenge a little easier. So first let’s a take a more in-depth look at Action Points, Fate Points, and how they function.

Action Points

If you’re not familiar with Fourth Edition you can probably gloss over this section as it doesn’t pertain to you. Alternatively I suggest picking up a 4e PHB and reading up on Action Points. If you’re looking for just a little extra something to add to a different system’s game action points are a good place to start. Back on point, what’s the deal with Action Points? Action Points in the most basic of terms gives a creature the ability on its turn to take an additional standard action. In most circumstances it’s the opportunity to make two attacks in one round, which is pretty nice by itself; couple the idea with a PC that can utilize two Daily Attack Powers in a round and it is a super powerful boon. While not the only example you can probably see some hints as to why Solo monsters can be difficult to run in 4e. Each PC in the first round with APs can drop 5[W] or more damage on a creature with serious persistent effects. This is a problem is you’re running a Solo Artillery or Controller type with low HP. Get caught in the open early in the fight and a set piece finale battle can turn into 1-2 rounds of very ugly evisceration. The second big bonus to APs is it allows you to do multiple actions when you otherwise would not be able. The Dazed condition is a little more manageable, and an AP can give a PC 3 chances to escape a grab in one turn. The latter is crucial when fighting a creature that gets big bonuses on attack and damage against grabbed creatures or does automatic damage to them.

Action Points do come with limitations. Assuming general adventuring wear and tear most PCs will only have use of 2-4 Action Points per adventuring day. There is also no active way to gain APs. Outside of simply continuing to adventure and thus gain milestones there is no In-Character action a player can take to gain more. Additionally, taking an extended rest resets action points to one so there is a serious problem with wasting APs. This problem can be compounded as players can only use one AP per encounter and APs are practically useless as written for use in any situation other than combat.

Perhaps the biggest difficulty for Action Points comes for the DM/GM. The use is exactly the same for those behind the screen as those in front of it. Only two types of monsters have AP for the DM to play with, Elites and Solos. With the latter these AP are almost always used when the monster is under the Dazed condition defensively rather than offensively.

In Summary, Action Points are powerful but they’re limited in quantity and relegated only to use in combat situations. As written they are not particularly useful for a DM.

Fate Points

Fate Points operate in a different manner than the traditional Action Point. The first difference is FPs are more abundant. As characters advance they have a higher refresh rate. The refresh rate tells the player how many FP a character will start a play session with at a minimum. And, unlike APs, Fate Points are carried over to the next session. A PC with Refresh 3 ends the session with 4 FPs, he begins the next session of play with 4 FPs. If the PC ends the session with 1 FP he would begin the next session with 3 FP, i.e. his Refresh Rate.

Fate Points have different mechanics. While APs provide additional actions, FPs improve the chance for success or failure for actions. Fate Points can be used to gain a flat +2 bonus to rolls, give a player the opportunity to reroll an attempt, give enemies a -2 on their attempts, and in some cases they can be used to auto succeed at attempts.

In my opinion, the most novel idea about FPs is the way they are bargained back and forth between the GM and the players. Each PC is an amalgam of stats and aspects. Aspects are short, descriptive phrases that explain who the character is. Fate Points are used to engage aspects, for PCs this is usually to be better at something. For the GM, he can use these same aspects against the PC. Tapping the aspect costs a FP. PCs tapping an aspect hand over a FP to the GM. A GM only hands over a FP when he taps a PC’s aspect. If a GM taps one of his bad guy’s aspects the FP goes back to the FP bank/pool. Players can also tap detrimental aspects of their PCs to gain FP from the bank/pool. I’ll give an example of how this works.

In a recent game session I played a half-orc touched by the fire element, which he worships as a zealot (this serves no mechanical benefit). The party has been engaged with a boat trip across a massive lake, all the while being harried by an ice witch. Upon meeting the ice witch in combat my PC launches himself from the boat to charge down the ice witch, howling hateful, fury all the way. This is the sort of action that really reflects the concept of my character and is likely to earn me a Fate Point from the bank.

Fate Points are far more useful for a GM than AP are for DMs. Fate Points can be used to boost bad guys, hamper good guys, entice players to play up their PC’s drawbacks in exchange for FPs, or compel the detrimental effects of their aspects if they have no FPs.

New Points

So what about new points for 4e D&D or any d20 system? Drafting Fate Points directly over to d20 is ill-advised given Fate is a system that uses Fudge dice. But I’ve put together a pretty simple system for new points.

–        Each Player and GM/DM resets to 1 point per day session

–        +1d6 to Attack, Skill, Save Attempt

–        Reroll Attack, Skill, Save Attempt

–        Gain Points by going above and beyond by playing PC’s personality (GM discretion)

–        Gain Points by accepting GM advisement over PC’s personality

There are two major differences to implementing these points over the standard AP. First, there are some abilities and powers which function off of APs. Warlords especially give out bonuses to PCs when they use an AP. In such a case you may find it necessary to limit each PC to gaining these boons once per encounter. The other is that Elite and Solo monsters should still gain their built-in points. While this hinders solo monsters in their reduced ability to function under the Dazed condition it is offset by allowing them a greater bonus when attempting to save from conditions and a better chance of hitting with the limited, more powerful, attacks.

One point of clarification is using points to boost or reroll attacks. This is done for one attack roll. Therefore a monster using a close burst power that misses four PCs cannot spend a point to reroll all the attacks included in the power, but only a singular attack roll.

And that’s it. So read it over, try it out and let me know if you think it’s a better option than standard action points in 4e or a nice addition to 3.X or other favorite d20 system.

Gotta Give Him Upside!

One of the most difficult things to do when running a campaign is getting your players to ‘buy-in’, leap the invisible gap that separates a player’s character as dictated by its character sheet and the creator’s bubble of imagination to one that is somehow tied to the campaign setting and the places and people that comprise it.
So one question that comes to mind is why does this disconnect, this gap, exist between player and his/her PC and the setting. I think it’s a surprisingly deep question with a lot layers of answers that form the reality. I think there are psychological, sociological, creative parties at silent war in that gap. But, I’m not really here to get into what the gap really is or why, and I’m nothing of an expert on the why persons and people do the things they do.
So instead I would examine my own experience. If you run a game there’s a very high chance you also enjoy RPGs as a player. When I think about a new campaign and adding a new character there is some hesitation. For one the character generation process has become a far more intensive and personal effort as RPGs have evolved. You can roll up an early D&D character in a few minutes, at the table, after Olaf the VII died. In a few rooms the party is likely to find Olaf the VIII. Compare something like 4e, a rules set that is generally regarded as being streamlined. Drafting a new PC in 4e can easily take the better part of an hour, and certainly longer if you’re really tweaking a power gamer build. Time = investment, it’s really that simple. If you’ve played RPGs for any amount of time you have problem had a character die a random, meaningless death from the odd trap or wandering monster.
What else? That’s only one facet another is trust between a player and the game master. If you decide to throw in your lot with the GM and help him tell his story you don’t want to be rewarded with only negative benefits. But the same goes for the other way, I don’t want a GM to heap rewards on my PC simply for playing along, to be made a continuous example to the rest of the group why they should play along.
Playing along also comes to the division point of where the GM thinks your PC should act one way because of some in-game relationship/reason and you feel differently. This can be either because the former is so obviously flawed that you can’t help but metagame or because you know, it’s your PC and you think you should be able to dictate Olaf the VIII’s beliefs and actions all by yourself.
So what to do?
This is one of the things I think the Fate System really nails. Offer the player something tangible and immediate for playing along. Fate Points, they let players do extra special things or mitigate potentially dreadful disasters. You can offer one of these Points to a player in exchange for activating one of their PC’s characteristics. Better yet the player can decline the offer unless they have no fate points in his possession. An empty-handed PC is basically at the mercy of the GM to compel them to act on the PC’s character aspects. But as soon as you fork over a Point to the player they are able to decline as necessary. Fate Points in this way are a fluid currency used in the struggle between player and GM for how characters act and react.
There are a lot of people out there who have toyed with the concept of adding Fate Points to other systems. Next time I’ll chart out my own mod but until then I encourage you to scour the web looking for the many numerous fate point modifications.

The Secret Path

“Man I really wish I could play this game!”

If you’ve played pen and paper RPGs for a while you’ve probably heard this exact phrase from a DM/GM, uttered it yourself while running a campaign, or at least thought it. It’s a common sentiment and it makes sense given the way we create games. Behind the screen when we decide plot, fights, NPCs, BBEGs, setting, and nearly every other minuscule detail of a campaign we base it on what interests us, what we like. It’s thus natural during or after a play session to ruminate on how you would rather be playing the scenario rather than running it.

Beyond pen & paper RPGs to nerd/geek culture in a larger scale everyone has their niches. What genre or specific piece of entertainment you probably enjoy but others do not and vice versa. For me personally that’s comicbook super heroes. The rest of my weekly gaming group enjoys them while their omission from the current timeline would leave my life relatively unaffected.

Because of outside influences I decided to run a short game, mainly to try out Fate Accelerated Edition (FAE). So why not play superheroes? Well, because I don’t really enjoy superheroes.

Then I decided we should play full on superheroes.

Why make that decision? Well for one I’ll still get the opportunity to test drive FAE, which was the whole point. The second is it’s a scenario I can run from behind the screen without wishing I was playing instead. The flipside is all the people who enjoy superheroes will get to, you know, play superheroes.

It also means from behind the screen I have to throw some good stuff in the game. Because if I’m going to run it I should at least enjoy it. And since the subject matter isn’t my cup o’ tea I can turn my laser focus on the other aspects of the game and draw my enjoyment from there. Enrich the game experience by bettering the actual experience through combats, situations, relationships, and plots rather than costumed capers. My players will take care of the flair and style, I just need to make the game run like a finely-tuned engine.

So it’s something to consider. If you’re going to run a game try a genre or setting you’re patently uninterested. Let it be the vanilla ice cream base for your sundae. At worst the rest of the group will get to experience something they might not otherwise without running themselves (and I won’t have to phone-in playing a super hero) and at worst you might gain an appreciation for the source material. The point here is to highlight aspects of the games you run which is usually pushed to the side by stuffing things we would personally like to see into the game. It’s also a great carrot to get people to try out a new rules system.