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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Analog Gaming is Retro-Cool AKA People Crave Human Interaction

4.25 Years

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.

Power of Choice

First off I would like to apologize for the lack of update last week. The time I had slated to sit down and write ended up vaporized by the unruly and downright rude demands of mundane life. Knock off a day for American Thanksgiving and next thing you know here we are. If the fates allow I’ll try to sneak in a catch up, so be on the look out for that. Without further ado let’s into the breach once more.

“What do you do?” One of the oldest bits of Pen & Paper RPG lore out there. I can only glint the periphery of how this has effected my gaming and my time behind the screen. With four short words the burden of what comes next is lifted from the game master and place squarely on the shoulders of the players. The field is open, your decision may spell certain victory or certain doom for not only your character but the entire party. And that decision, well it can be just about anything you want. Magic and future tech in settings means we are not even relegated in our decisions to even make choices that would work in reality.

The good of it? Well it seems to be one of the largest draws of the medium itself, anything you can imagine goes. The limitation is the limitation of your mind. This seems to be the same underlying concept that has made the video game Scribblenauts so successful. When the limitation is your mind you can play however you want.

Can I make a Kraft 'Salad' check? Ha... puns.

Can I make a Kraft ‘Salad’ check? Ha… puns.

The bad? Analysis Paralysis. It’s an actual a thing, go look it up if you haven’t heard it before. Understanding this concept will actually help you have a better role playing experience. Some times our vision gets so fixated on how we try to accomplish something the actual accomplishing becomes secondary. If you have ever been shopping and stared down a wall of salad dressing, peanut butter, soft drinks, snack foods, and so on, you understand this concept. We trick ourselves into thinking there is a definitive right way, or right’er way, and that is how you win. Make the wrong choice and you’ll regret that peanut butter for the rest of your life. We push to the side the actual goal of it all, say making a PB&J. This is the specific and official reason why my wife does not enjoy tabletop games (there is of course the whole geeky fantasy/sci fi thing as well). That infinite solutions exist to a problem and each is roughly as valid is the next if agonizing for her. She needs a defined and obvious right’er way to measure her success. It’s not bad some people are just like that.

This has really been dragged up to the forefront in my weekly gaming group since one of the players is a young boy. While others think and mince over how, he does. Granted this is not always the best idea but everyone has probably been in a group where everyone is paralyzed with how to proceed next. Usually it is because they don’t know enough about the upcoming trials to determine one course of action from another as better. Our youngest player with all the subtlety of the battleaxe takes things straight ahead. Perhaps the most brilliant twist of whimsy is in an adventure all about kobolds he plays the only character able to understand and converse in their native language. He has then proceeded to put the entire party’s feet in his mouth at every diplomatic opportunity. I continue to give him rope to hang himself with in these situations because it is entertaining for everyone and tends to resolve the situations much more succinctly and with more participation than they might otherwise.

Often times it seems like we get hung up as adults on failing. But with RPGs failing does not always mean losing. If your PC dies does that mean you lost? Does getting beat in a fight mean you lost? Life in general is just a series of failures strung together. Experience is the positive result of failure. It’s granulated in RPGs. And while it is an abstract concept it is hard to say it doesn’t do its job. If you’re smash mouth fighter who always goes toe to toe and generally you win encounters some might say you don’t particularly learn anything from it. But at level up the PC earns feats, powers, abilities, stunts, more HP, better gear to do the things he already does. We attune the PC to accentuate our play style. It’s a natural thing to do. But within the narrative you can say the PC got better at what he does by doing it over and over again. I have said it before but I think Green Ronin’s pen and paper RPG, Dragon Age, has the most novel approach to experience. You gain XP determined by how difficult the situation was to overcome. If XP equals learning it is easy to see how you might not learn anything from a low level encounter the party steamrolls. The point is success and failure each hold beneficial effects and that unless a PC actually dies you didn’t particularly lose. At worst the situation’s goal changes. Heck, it might be more interesting and fun than the previous situation. Defusing a bomb with four hours left on the timer isn’t as thrilling as four seconds.

My advice is to not get lost in the how. The best way in my experience is to keep presence of mind to the goal of the situation. What you are trying to accomplish should dictate your strategy and tactics pretty easily. Unless you’re goal is butcher every sentient being in a dungeon fighting room to room is just as valid as negotiating or infiltrating. Seriously, next time you run a dungeon try not to fight anything. ANYTHING. If you really want to play the role of an adventurer remember people have a general aversion to getting dead. Drawing weapons is generally a last resort and even then the result 90% of the time would be one side fleeing. It doesn’t mean your PC is a coward, just that he enjoys living and not being beaten, stabbed, and flayed open within an inch of his life on a regular basis. Pfft, ridiculous right? How dare we desire imaginary people to think and act like not-imaginary people.

Two bits I also try to remember personally when adventuring.

1. A Wrong Decision Is Worse Than Indecision

2. Fortune Favors The Bold

Number one basically boils down to this. If you feel a lull of indecision in the party and analyzing no longer seems to be productive just do something. It’s what our battleaxe wielding PC would do. If it doesn’t seem obviously stupid and suicidal, do it. Experience shows this fairs surprisingly better than I usually imagine. At least by doing something you will get new information that if nothing else will help you analyze the situation better. Generally though you will begin its resolution with that single step forward. Otherwise you might waste another 10 – 30 minutes over maybes.

Number two, you get nothing from doing nothing. Notice it says favors the BOLD, not the STUPID. Be brave, not reckless. Make your PC the next spokesperson for Nike and just do it. Nothing gets your DM/GM’s blood pumping like a character stepping up to the challenge and being genuinely heroic. It happens less than you realize, until it actually happens. The downside is occasionally this is going to blow up in your face. But that’s all right, you know why? -points to number one- And never, ever underestimate the significance of going first. Doing so means you set the tempo and situation. It allows you to be active and not just reactive. It’s maybe a little meta, but so is any actual discussion of tactics during play.

So just make a choice and do something. The truth is you’re going to pick the wrong thing a lot of the time. From behind the screen I feel like any time I give players and option they take the most obtuse and roundabout way possible. That’s just how things are I guess. Luckily most RPGs are created with a mind to make PCs especially resilient. A single mistake is rarely ever going to get you killed in an RPG assuming your DM/GM isn’t actively trying to exterminate you. And if so, well it’s going to happen no matter what you do. So if you can’t go with your head go with your gut. Or just leave it to chance and roll a die to make the decision, who cares as long as you’re playing instead of talking about playing.

Racial Traits and The Ooze

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.

Mutation toy-fair-teenage-mutant-ninja-turtles-ooze-2

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.

AC vs. Armor Soak

Is one definitively better than the other? Certainly people have their own personal preferences but is one system superior the other? In short I would say no, there is no superior, they are different. For me it’s the old apples and oranges analogy, they’re different things altogether.
Armor Class was developed along with what is generally regarded as the primogenitor of Table Top RPGs and Role Playing Games in general. It is iconic to Dungeons & Dragons and one of the bits that has survived all subsequent editions. I do find it a little strange when looking back on 4th Edition that they did not change to an Armor Soak paradigm given so many of the other revolutionary changes to D&D in the edition. If there was a time in which it would have been acceptable to fiddle with the mechanics of AC, 4e was it. Armor Class functions that wearing armor makes it more difficult for an enemy, monster, or trap to damage you.
40kFemaleArmourArmor Soak was a later development. New RPGs brought new mechanics, many no better and often worse than the original mechanics developed through D&D. But only with a lot of work can you turn coal to diamonds. Soak was a mechanic that came out of the many varied mechanics. Damage Resistance was around in the games and campaigns using the AC system but it was something different, a special ability or the creation of magic for the most part. The idea to remove armor completely from the equation of avoiding an attack and instead using it solely to express resisting damage of a successful attack was revolutionary. Why it works so well is because it makes common sense. Wearing a suit of articulated plate mail doesn’t actually make me more difficult to actually strike with an attack, rather the opposite, but the armor is able to protect me from damage of the attack. A bulletproof vest may help to keep me from taking a bullet in the torso but it doesn’t cause bullets to magically deflect around me. It takes some of the lethality out of the blow. A fractured rib and a deep bruise is a small price to pay in exchange for not dying due to small arms fire.
So that is the fundamental difference between AC and Armor Soak. The former is a measure of how difficult the target is to damage and the latter is a more granular study of when hit how much damage does armor keep from harming the target. That is why the latter cannot actually function on its own as a mechanic. Armor Soak does not encompass how difficult the target is to hit in the first place. Armor Class on the other hand squishes both those ideas into one mechanic. A successful attack roll against AC immediately tells everyone the attack landed well enough to cause damage to the target. Armor Class does not take into account the difference between a deflection, glancing blow, and a total miss; essentially both end with the defender not being damaged. Of course one could easily make such a determination with some rudimentary math. A PC with a +2 Dex Mod to base 10 AC, wearing Leather Armor for another +2, and a Buckler for +1 has a total AC of 15. Attacker rolls an 11, Base AC + Dex is 12, he probably dodged. Roll a 14, the PC probably knocked the attack aside with the buckler or the attack just grazed his armor.
The “Roll To-Hit” layman’s term is probably a leftover of the old THAC0 days. That was considered a “To-Hit” roll, though newer editions are straight attack rolls. D&D does not distinguish between attacks that do no damage and complete misses. And depending on the system you play with Armor Soak mechanics, neither does it. Without a minimum damage option for successful attacks heavy armor can be impervious. Back when I reviewed the playtest of Sword & Shield, I noted the lack of minimum damage being a problem. There was the ability for one creature to be completely unable to harm another creature due to maximum damage of the attacker and the armor soak of the defender.
Where Armor Soak outshines AC is in the latter’s accessories. AC is a simple, a succinct and useful system if a bit more abstract than its Armor Soak counterpart. Unfortunately that ease of use is lost when all the other bits are added to the system. Damage Resistance, Temporary HP, and Regeneration being the main culprits. Now after determining that a target has been hit hard enough to sustain damage it can reduce the raw damage, then the damage must first eat through any Temporary Hit Points before dealing damage to the target’s actual HP. Then later, depending on the situation, the target will regenerate a certain number of hit points or create new temporary hit points making the dealt damage almost immaterial. It is a slippery slope of combat mechanics that need to be tracked and tweaked throughout the entire combat. It can be a serious headache. By the end AC and its sundry companions make combat more cumbersome than Armor Soak.
Armor Class can also seem a bit redundant in the d20 system that makes use of Fortitude, Reflex, and Will defenses/saves. It would be natural to conclude one of the three could be subbed in for Armor Class on almost any attack and work in concert with an Armor Soak mechanic.
One thing I do find superior with Armor Soak is that when a PC is hit the armor always feels like its working. You can see its effect as it mitigates the raw damage. Armor Class on the other hand can feel frustrating as a string of high rolls on the attacker’s end can make heavy plate feel useless as it flies over the defender’s AC. When an attacker rolls a 19 on the die, heavy plate is about as useful as an armor made of rainbows and tufts of dandelion.
So is one method better than the other? I would say no. My favorite option would likely be an AC system that included some minor bits of Armor Soak mechanics. Reduce some of the temporary HP and damage reduction madness. I would say maybe give medium armors a ‘Soak’ of one and heavy armors a soak of two.  Armor is one of the places where simulation generally wins over gaming philosophy. Heavy armor is a curse, it ups a creature’s AC but at the cost of reduced speed and all Str/Dex based checks. This is a double punch for PCs as they are usually wearing heavy armor because their Dexterity is not great, they don’t need added negatives to checks. The same goes for sleeping in armor. As a simulation yes it makes sense that sleeping in heavy armor is uncomfortable and impedes rest. But beware night attacks as your fighter with his brand new AC of 11 based on his poly/cotton  blend boxer briefs because donning armor takes exponentially longer than the fight itself. I think with all the flak PCs have to deal with for wearing medium and heavy armor they can be rewarded with armor that routinely soaks a meager few points of damage.

Tipping Balance

Sometimes systems do a disfavor to themselves in playing to the idea of perfect balance. I speak somewhat of magic user quadratic progression and martial class linear progression. Those of you familiar with older iterations of D20 role playing games will already know this but for those young and unknowing I’ll explain.

There was a time not so very long ago when RPGs were not as finely balanced as they are now. Some of the PC classes made a little more sense when it came to life expectancy. Those who rocked the armor and put their lives in the faith of their sword arm were tougher and better in a fight right out of the gates at level one. Magic users on the other hand were typically frail individuals who spent most of their short lives as academics cloistered in sanctuaries and libraries pouring over yellowed tomes and developing their minds rather than bodies. Magic users at the low levels were fledgling casters, one-and-done spell slingers, “glass cannons”. Life is constantly in peril when you rock 1d4 hit dice and you can’t wear armor for fear of spell failure. As it were adventuring did not stop for the day due to grievous wounds but so the magic user could recover and memorize his one spell for the day.

But assuming you put in your dues, alternating the casting of deadly magics and hiding like a frightened bunny behind the martial PCs you continued to level up. The level up is a sloping curve rather than a straight line. Stick around long enough to gain the XP to become a veteran dungeon delver and suddenly your power exploded. As martial characters began to plateau against more fearsome and strange monsters magic users turned lethal with a strong dose of save or die spells. At the end of the spectrum straight martial characters became relatively ineffectual. Hitting a demi-god with a sword seems a lot less productive than say a spell with the moniker “Disintegrate”. Defensive spells also helped to alleviate the woes of 1d4 hit dice.

Unfortunately modern systems tend to take the idea of balance, especially in the vein of making magic and martial classes more equilateral, to a fault. An unfortunate side effect is the hamstringing of magic and its wonder. I think it’s mainly unintentional but that is the perception. For martial classes anything beyond “I hit it with the pointy end of a sharp stick” is just gravy. You cannot really break it down any further than smacking a monster with a weapon. So by default magic has to change to be brought parallel with martial practitioners. This creates some silly quirks and some inane redundancies.

For example I received word from the GM of the regular Pathfinder game I play in that he crunched the XP and we should level up to Level 3 (Level up! Awesome am I right?). He also pointed me to the spell Masterwork Transformation. Turn a mundane item into its masterwork equivalent, hells yes, Awesome x2!

…Wait (continues reading description). I have to pay the difference of the item and its masterwork equivalent in spell reagents? Ideas like this are f*cking stupid. The spell is hamstrung to the point it is no different than just trading normal gear to a merchant and purchasing the masterwork items. The entire spell is inane and is literally a waste of space.

Unfortunately many modern RPGs are littered with this sort of ‘balanced’ magic. Brew a healing potion for the exact cost of purchasing one at full market price is another useless option. You know there is one spell that could easily replace all these. A nice ritual of “Summon Merchant”. Actually… I should probably write that down. It’s very reminiscent of the Trygalle Trade Guild (Malazan Book of the Fallen) or Vulgrim (Darksiders). Make the spell a flat cost in reagents and all goods have a 10% price hike for their convenience. Bam, done and I saved you at least a page of stupid spells for you rulebook.

All of this also assumes your DM/GM is not a dick and doesn’t make your magic users buy/find reagents for specific spells as would be entirely practical and within his rights to enforce.

captainHammer_700x437I think for an ideal game balance developers should look more to the idea of generalist vs. specialist. A hammer is a great tool but it isn’t the most practical choice for all problems. Likewise a fighter is generally the best as the whole fighting gig but some problems cannot be solved by sword and board. Good examples of this would be incorporeals, swarms, and the common poison arrow trap. If the guy encased in steel with a big, sharp killing stick isn’t your go-to character in a fight you may be doing combat wrong. Return the magic users to a more situational role with the occasional blast of raw power. I can tell you it’s much more memorable to use the spell Grease effectively than incinerate your eleventy-first mook with a fireball. Dealing large amounts of damage of the mundane variety is best left for the weapon wielders. I think the average mage should be reserved for something better than hunting down goblins and beating skeletons to bone dust.

On the upside it means you can give monsters crazy vulnerabilities that reward players for playing smart. Fire elementals are tough for the sloped brow martial characters but quick and easy for a magic user decked out with a cold/water spell.

Do you have warm gushy feelings about quadratic vs. linear class progressions? What do you think about spells that simply replicate mundane transactions?

Death of the Fighter

“Fighting Man” was the first version of the fighter. The name, like fighter, is pretty clear about what such a character is all about. The meat and potatoes combat monkey. When something nasty rears its head the fighters step into the breach with sword and shield to trade blows with horrific monstrosities to guard the magic users with the help of a cleric. Despite all its fiddly bits the surface is an elegant system. One class focused on combat, one on magic, and the cleric a bridge class capable of holding its own in combat and using limited divine magic. 

FightersSubclasses were added for the fighter in later supplements and editions. The fighter could now specialize in a certain style of combat or even be a Fighter (Paladin), further specializing the class. Fighters could now play very differently. A ‘Sword & Board’ Fighter Paladin was a different beast from a Fighter Barbarian with a two-handed ax. 

Metaclasses were introduced and the fighter was placed as a subclass of the Warrior alongside paladin and ranger. Subclasses transformed into classes in their own right. Third edition did away with the metaclass idea and its roster touted 11 base classes in the Player’s Handbook. The Fighter now shared its martial glory with the Barbarian, Monk, Paladin, and Ranger classes. Third edition also introduced a much simpler and pervasive multiclassing option. Now PCs often dabbled in two or more base classes as they progressed becoming piecemeal amalgamations. 

By the 4th Edition of D&D, the fighter had lost much of its clout. It was no longer had access to the best armor at 1st level, lost its versatile mastery in weapons. Fighters no longer did the most damage in weapons combat or have the best fighting defenses. Fighters were now just people who wore armor and swung swords but lacked the extra flair of the paladin, ranger, warlord, battlemind, and warden classes. Fighters appear to have been included for posterity only. 

D&D Next is again changing what a fighter is all about. The fighter will be regaining the martial feats of 3.X along with a new mechanic of expertise dice. Fighters expend their expertise dice to use combat maneuvers such as using a shield to protect themselves or nearby allies from ranged attacks. This mechanic is completely separate from other classes but shares some similarities with the Monk’s Ki abilities.

While the fighter is a class and concept I love it seems, with D&D at least, to have run its course. The fighter was initially conceived to be the guy who was trained in using arms and armor. As soon as other classes were introduced who also relied heavily on the use of arms and armor the fighter lost its niche. Other classes essentially Fighters+, they use arms and armor plus do something else. I hate to think of killing the fighter, but I would rather it be buried than watch D&D drag its broken body through the mud for the sake of posterity.

 

P.S. 

One thing I would like to see in D&D Next is the return of Opportunity Attacks. I would scrap the convoluted Expertise mechanic and make opportunity attacks an exclusive Fighter class trait. To me at least that would in a simple mechanic cement the combat superiority I expect from the class.