Cars vs. Trains

Just got an email from Atari to my spam address (the some one WoW account phishers drill with scams) about Daggerdale and so I watched the trailer.

Interesting. Four player co-op.

One bit struck a chord… not a good chord, but a chord. There is a quote from Gamepro saying, “… the way Dungeons and Dragons was meant to be played”.

They’re doing it wrong.

D&D was meant to be played around a table with friends and one of those friends acts as a judge for results or conflicts often playing the other side of the conflict in the form of a gruff merchant or blood thirsty orc raider.

So they have swords and magic, D&D based rules and some multiplayer aspect, but they’re missing the most critical piece – a DM.

“Dude, I thought this post was about Cars vs. Trains, WTF?!”

Analogies.

Pen and paper D&D is like a car. Computer RPGs based on D&D are trains.

Trains go fast and get you where you want to go, mostly, but they’re very linear and cannot do much more than follow the path laid out for them with some scheduled stops along the way. Much like a computer running a module or game, it’s predefined and hard coded.

With a car you can drive just about anywhere there is a road and even some places where there isn’t a road, but you might get into trouble there depending on the car you’re driving. You can stop where you want, when you want and you can change destination without needing to get out of the car and make other arrangements (like purchasing a ticket to another location). It provides more freedom.

In other words, with a CRPG you’re limited by the fact that you do not have a human being on the other end to handle the odd things players will do or will want to do. In a CRPG you probably cannot attack that Innkeeper that is being a douche because the game needs him alive for some reason or it’s not programmed to handle calling in the local authorities, maybe even setting up a trial with witnesses and a magistrate… it can’t do that stuff on the fly.

A living, breathing DM can so long as they’re willing to do so and capable of thinking on their feet.

So no, “Gamepro”, that isn’t how Dungeons and Dragons is meant to be played.

Nub.

UPDATE: Poked around in the forums a bit, lots of unsatisfied customers. Found this video review: http://www.gametrailers.com/video/review-pod-dungeons/714234

PHB 2, PHB 3 and a New Set of Dice

I ordered all of the above online and it’s all new stuff from Wizards, 4e Dungeons and Dragons. I saw one of the books in a local comic store and was curious so I ordered it online (it was 22% off) and they should be arriving today. I think.

Of the three items, I’m looking forward to the dice the most so it figures that this is the one item that hasn’t shipped yet. The dice set comes with a dice bag which will be cool. I really need new dice too. I’ve got about five sets of dice and most of them fail me. I’m hoping if I bring in some new blood (or what ever the dice are going to be made from) the old ones will start behaving.

Of course, it’s not just my dice. Everyone’s dice have been horrible at our last few gaming sessions. One night we managed to get in two fairly simple (since we’re low level) combats because we couldn’t hit anyone and the bad guys couldn’t hit us either. It was like there was this great big dice oppressing cloud hanging in the air.

Well, there was a cloud in the air but that was due to the Battle of the Bowels which seems to spring up every couple of sessions.

Oh, who am I kidding? There are up to eight guys in a room together so “Stinking Cloud” gets cast fairly regularly – several times per session. Guys learn about the Fart Game young and they just never stop playing.

Back to the Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition books. The PHB 2 seems to contain “Primal” character class types. I only saw they listed the Druid and Barbarian so I have no idea what else is in there. The PHB 3 noted that it contains “Psionic” character class types… and the Monk. I am very curious about that one.

I have to say that Wizards set this system up very well to wring a profit out of their customers. Every time I think of it, I marvel at it. Good business sense.

I was also surprised to see all the extra accessories and modules. Lots of stuff out there.

Four Hour Combat…

I might be exaggerating when I say sometimes one person’s action for a round took 45 minutes, in reality, it was likely closer to about 20 or 30 minutes.

Why?

Summoning spells. That and a bunch of screwed up Feats that made casting two spells per round a little too easy.

Imagine you have one guy in the group that is pretty slow with adding things up (1+10 = 1 and 1, so 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 , 7, 8, 9 and 10! Dude, it’s 11.). Now imagine he’s playing a character that involves adding for casting, adding for the results and subtracting from a pool of other numbers with modifiers that change. Oh and add one more roll with addition in there.

It’s going to grind to a bit of a halt, isn’t it? (I’m not trying to berate or belittle or mock this player – he’s a good guy, just staggers with the math and it probably doesn’t help that were try to help and call out numbers hehe).

Okay, now take that guy and let him summon up something that can also cast a bunch of things and has a number of abilities. In effect, imagine giving him a caster with a bunch class abilities and racial abilities that he hasn’t seen before.  He’s now running that creature in the same round has his other mathematical monstrosity.

Maybe he is a little at fault for not looking up the creature – it seemed like- he knew he was going to summon immediately given that we’ve had two weeks to prepare. And, in all fairness, caster rounds/actions almost always take longer to resolve than other classes simple due to the nature of spell casting. No two are exactly the same and there are a lot of options.

Let me tell you, the whole watering down of D&D in 4e made a whole lot of sense to me after that night. There are no exploitable holes (that I’ve seen yet) that lets you do anything beyond what other players can do in a round. Combat is simple and straight forward. There are no summoning spells – unless they added some in some accessory I didn’t pick up – to add another player on the board to expand the round even further.

There is a lot less ambiguity in what each ability does as well. It’s pretty damn clear.

It’s a benefit and a failing. I’m really starting to wonder if it’s a worthwhile trade off. Or maybe we just start disallowing some of these extra books that are letting people easily cast multiple spells per round.

Oh… and due to ‘rushing’ we missed a number of extra abilities for the creatures and the summoned stuff which would have added more stuff to resolve.

Jeebus.

Encounter Building… (Part II)

Another one of the changes 4e makes to encounters is that it falls back to the specific XP values instead of relative XP values that 3.x used. XP is awarded based on the creature’s level and type – sort of. They’re set up as standard, solo, elite and minion where roles like soldier, skirmisher, lurker, controller, etc. are lumped together under standard. Minions are 1/4 of the XP for standard creatures of the same level, elites are about two to three times more and solo creatures are about five times the amount of standard creatures of the same level.

In 3.x you piled creatures together and tried to build into a CR or Encounter Level (EL) that matched, passed or was under the average character level depending on how tough you wanted the encounter to be. Even ELs to the average party level were supposed to consume about 30% of the group’s resources so you might have three to four encounters per adventure day, more if the EL was lower or less if the EL was higher.

It sort of made sense but our group ran into a lot of problems with it because the CR and EL calculations assumed a party of four. We have seven.  This made it tough for DMs in the past where we would overshoot the average party level by a few and assume the numbers would make up for it. At first we handled this by taking the average level and adding about two to it – this is how ELs are sort of built (if you have a CR 4 creature it’s a CR 4, if you have three CR 4 creatures it’s an EL 5).

How was that a mistake? Well, creatures CR tended to be (admittedly eyeballed by the designers) aimed at about a right level for when the party should have the means to handle or overcome the creature. For example, by the time the group has access to Raise Dead, they would start fighting creatures with instant kill type abilities. The same could be said for turning to stone or petrification abilities. You’d start seeing more creatures with these abilities.

The problem was we were running into encounters with abilities beyond what our characters were capable of handling simply because sheer numbers doesn’t easily overcome these abilities. Players would die, face really tough ACs and casters would face some pretty hefty Spell Resistance and saving throws making a lot of their magic useless.

Ultimately, it was like throwing seven Kobolds at a level 7 Wizard… the Wizard is going to destroy them with a single spell (oh hai Fireball!). Granted, it wasn’t that bad, but you get the idea.

This CR then determined how much XP the group got for defeating or surviving the encounter. Dividing this in four would be quite rewarding, but dividing it in seven, not so much. This meant facing more of these tougher encounters than designed to advance. A downside to this system is that you have a tougher time using lower CR encounters because the rewards diminish the farther below the average party CR.

We tried to fix this by putting each character level against each CR and simply dividing the reward by the number of players present. This meant a level 8 character would get more XP from an EL 10 encounter than a level 9 or level 10 character would – this makes sense and helped a little.

Eventually, we stopped calculating the group’s EL the same way we did with creatures. I’m using average level over all and building encounters to suit that. The problem there is that in some cases the encounters are far too easy, in other cases they’re not too bad. We only run into some real problems if I throw higher CRs at them or when the creatures have some pretty devastating abilities.

Downside is that advancement is slower. Upside is they get more encounters per level, at least they do when I don’t pad the XP some for RP rewards, non-combat encounters and other spot rewards.

So how is this different in 4e? 4e does not have an EL or CR. Creatures have levels which target them towards characters of equal level. They also reward set amounts of XP, it doesn’t diminish as the character goes up in level (other than it puts less of a dent in the XP req to the next level). A level 1 minion will always be worth 25 XP (then divided by the number of players).

They approach character building sort of like a point buy system. You have a design concept for the encounter and determine how much XP you want to award per character and multiply it by the number of characters in the group (obviously modules in print are aimed at a different amount,  but scaling up is not too hard with this mechanic).

Let’s say I have a party of seven level one characters and I want them to each get 300 XP from an encounter (that’s advancing them 30% towards level two so it’d be a pretty rewarding encounter). I use a pool of 2100 XP (300*7=2100) to buy up creatures.

I might use a bunch of level 1 standard creatures, say about 10 of them (10*100 = 1000) which leaves me with 1100 XP to fill out. I might pop an elite into that encounter (about 250 XP) leaving 850 XP. I might decide to pop another Elite in there or maybe add some standard creatures, maybe I use a higher level creature for the Elite. Either way, I’m left with a bunch of XP which I can spent on Minions (34 of them!) if I want.

This would end up being a pretty epic battle but also be very rewarding (as I noted above, it’s 30% of the way through first level).

If I wanted to tailor the encounter to be less rewarding but also less large scale, I might target about 100 xp per character (700XP budget) and just go with seven standard creatures or I might go with four standards and one elite.

This might sound pretty generic, but it isn’t. Consider that the second encounter could manifest as seven wolves (skirmishers) or seven spiders (lurkers) or four orcs and an ogre or maybe six acolytes and an adept of some evil god. The reward and model might seem the same, but the roles you fill it with could make things very interesting.

It’s an interesting system where the only immediate flaw I see is that a DM might target the XP reward too high relative to the character’s level. There is no (as far as I read) obvious mechanic for a DM to look at an encounter and decide whether it is too tough or too weak other than the total XP reward.

They have kept the Encounter Level mechanic and it is supposed to work by comparing it against the group’s level. It is supposed to wirk similar to ELs in 3.5e with lower ELs are easier, higher ones are more challenging but I don’t know how they get that number. Looking through some of the adventures, I see several that are EL 1 and one that is actually an EL 6. Total XP rewards are pretty high, but I’m not sure where the EL is calculated from. (I’ll look at that up and post it when I get a chance.)

UPDATE: There is a table in the DMG that lists the XP target, size of the group (4, 5 and 6) and what EL it would be for that group.

Now I’m thinking about how this can be adapted and adopted in my 3.5e campaign. It’s not really easy because the XP reward for a creature is really relative (creature CR:groupCL). I suppose I could resolve the XP reward for each CL and use that for a cost to pull from the pool, but I’m not sure how that will work.

Encounter Building…

The more and more I DM in D&D 3.5e, the more and more I realize creating encounters is presented in a poor light. It’s too complicated without enough variation in what a DM can (if they strictly follow the rules) throw at a group.

3.5e creatures have a base stat block which can be advanced or you might slap a special template on there (fiendish, half-dragon, zombie, etc.) and that is how you customize them. This involves a fair bit of elbow grease but once you do the work you can re-use it to some degree.

The failing there is that everything goes up.

Confused?

I’ll use an encounter from last night as an example. The group solidified from their Wind Walk traveling on some ice near an iceberg. Some of them heard some shouts from the nearby ship that brought them here (here being Frostfell in Eberron). Looking up to the ship they say an oversized Sahaugin on the edge of the ship being fended off by the crew.

The Sahaugin was advanced from the normal HD range up to where it would be Large sized and have considerably more HD so it could stand a round of pelting from the party (effectively, a CR 10 creature). I did tie a custom template on but I’m not going to go into specifics because some of the group reads this blog.

The crew was supposed to be semi-weak but I didn’t want them to seem entirely incompetent. There were two factions to the crew; one side that was honest and another that was dishonest – the people hiring missed the Sense Motive check that would have indicated these guys were kind of shady. Once the Sahaugin was dealt with, the ‘bad guys’ decided it was time to steal the ship – they didn’t expect the group to have quick means of crossing a 20 foot gap.

That is where the problem comes up. To make them capable, I’d have to level them up some. By doing so, the end up with more HPs and saving throw abilities than I’d want but the area I wanted them to advance in didn’t go up a whole lot. In short, I wanted minions (4e term) that go down quick if you focus on them but who are capable of hitting and doing damage to the players. The squishy nature I was aiming for was lost.

Now they didn’t last more than two swings, but the intent was for them to be taken down in one shot. The idea behind that was to let characters with Cleave and Greater Cleave have a chance to use them and create some imagery of heroes mowing through enemies, thereby saving the ship. Yes, I could have fudged the HPs to make that happen, but it’s not in the nature of the game system to do that. I was trying to make it work within the system.

Bottom line is that it doesn’t.

Now none of the characters there had Greater Cleave. The group has learned long ago that it is a wasted feat because when you get higher in levels, you’re less likely to get more than one ‘cleave’ opportunity per round.

That is part of the problem with the system. Everything scales up as the characters (or NPCs) level. What I wanted was some guys with a semi-decent AC, low HPs and decent ATK rolls. Can’t do it unless I just make it happen and completely forsake the rules. The other place this fails (horribly) is in the XP rewards. Because the ‘bad guys’ were low level, the EL was barely anything to the group so it wasn’t so rewarding on the XP front.

My group members can tune out, go back to surfing porn or what ever, because I’m about to talk about 4e.

This is one thing I believe 4e does better and I’m trying to squeeze some of their concepts into 3.5e. I thought I could make it happen, but it seems like 3.5e is making some pretty high saving throws.

4e has ‘classes’ for creatures. This is different from character classes, it’s more of a category that can define the intent of the creature or how it should be played – sort of. I don’t have all the specifics here, but what I was looking for above is what is actually called a ‘minion’ in 4e. Minions tend to be very squishy (in fact, I believe they only ever get 1 hp), they don’t reward a lot of XP but they do reward some and they can still have skills or attack bonuses that make them a threat that needs to be dealt with.

Oddly enough, the ‘boss’ type class is actually ‘solo’. Most MMO folks will do a double take on that, I know I did. It’s not that the creature can be ‘soloed’, it’s that the creature is enhanced or beefed up to the point where it should be the only creature in the encounter.

I don’t remember all the others, but it included things like ‘controller’, ‘soldier’, ‘brute’, ‘artillery’, ‘skirmisher’ and ‘lurker’ as categories. Most people have an immediate idea of what the roles for those categories are. Same goes for the DM. Neat thing is you might have the same creature type slotted into those roles or swap out certain roles with other creatures. You might build an encounter of lurkers or brutes and mix soldiers with artillery.

EDIT: They also have two other designations that apply on top of those roles, the “leader” and “elite”. Leaders have additional abilities that work much like Leader type classes for PCs – they can grant bonuses to their allies abilities making them worth focusing on where possible. Elite types are stronger than normal creatures (but not Solo types) and replace two-three of the regular types. They’re useful for eliminating excess numbers in an encounter so instead of having five ogres, you might have two ogres and one elite ogre.

This is the direction they took with the MM entries in 4e. Instead of getting one or two stat blocks for a creature you get a bunch that fill different roles or scale up to other level tiers for you.

That’s a big part of how they allow a DM to whip up a session or encounter on the fly without a lot of prep work before hand.

I’ll definitely be investigating this a bit more and trying out some other concepts on my group. I’m about to run them through a Dungeon magazine (4e) adventure, modified to suit the story and with the creatures converted as much as I can. Hopefully the ‘design’ of the encounter doesn’t get lost in translation.

D&D 4e Test Drive

Is this a sign of the state of things at Wizards? For those of you too lazy to click the link, it’s basically page that gives people a starter package in the form of PDFs and pimps the Character Creation tool (trial version) they have developed. The PDFs include the Quick Start Rules and Keep on the Shadowfell module that was packaged together and sold as a preview or advanced look at 4e (it came out before the PHB, DMG and MM). They also have an additional adventure that was released as part of a Free RPG Day which is neat to have.

I’ve got mixed feelings about this.

First off, they’re making 4e D&D immediately accessible by creating a free trial. Good for them, it’s a great idea and falls in with all the other MMO and gaming software out there.

Yes, I said software. They’ve moved towards this sort of software release model as it should be more sustaining (for Wizards).

Second point is that I’m a little annoyed that I bought the Keep on the Shadowfell module. It was a good module on its own but now it is suddenly being made freely available? Grr…

Lastly, it seems a little desperate but it might just be a side effect of their shifting business/release model. Trial versions make sense (in games software) but it’s not something common to pen and paper RPG systems. Note I said common, it has happened in the past, it just isn’t common.

Imagine This…

You go to the local shop and pick up a game. You go home, you install the game, contact a friend over your IM of choice and let him (or her) know you’ve got the game and it’s installed.

You pop in game and set up some server setttings. You name it and get attached to a search service (hi2u Gamespy). Just in case you slap a password on it.

You pop out of the game and tell your friend the server name and password. Then pop back into the game.

There, you make a character (or two) and save it (locally or to an official vault). You then start up the server and pick which module you want to play. It fires up and your chosen character loads in and your friend joins you.

Sounds familiar right? Neverwinter Nights should come to mind.

Now imagine, instead of a 3d isometric view you get a view and gameplay much like DDO.

Personally, that’s sort of what I’ve been craving in my online experience. MMOs are nice but how often do you really interact with all the others on there? Auction House maybe. Maybe you might PUG something.

How much fun would it be to have DDO’s interaction in an environment like NWN? Including the ability to have player created content (which is unofficial and can’t be used for vault characters) and official, high end content that expands on what is there or creates a whole new campaign for you to play through.

I think this is the direction DDO should have taken a long time ago. You can buy extra player races, buy new content, buy new modules or buy whole new campaigns and play them with your friends.

Think about that for a bit.

You might not be getting 15$ a month from everyone, but you might get smaller amounts as you release more content. And you wouldn’t have all the upkeep for servers. You also wouldn’t have to create a full blown world and could have the modules pull people around to different areas entirely making it so you could have different developers working on things.

Take WoW for example. Imagine if Elwynn Forest, Westfall, Red Ridge and Darkshire might have been individual modules (packaged together for the initial release). You (the module designers) could easily reuse those environments (with some changes) but add on different quests or storylines – much like a DM really does in D&D.

Turbine and WotC really missed the boat on this, enamored by the thought of having a MMO with millions of people paying 15$ a month.

Ah well.

D&D Insider?

It’s been awhile since I talked about the Wizards D&D Insider and all the awesome apps you get for making your 4e experience better and enabling you to play online with friends!

That’s because they haven’t delivered.

And it sounds like it’s no longer in development.

If you look around their site, you no longer see COMING SOON banners for the Character Visualizer (or what ever the virtual miniature creator thing was) or the virtual table they had plans for.

Do I feel duped for having bought a one year subscription to this?

Yes and no. I’m disappointed they won’t deliver on one of the tools I thought was going to be great, but looking at the price of what I paid (which amounts to 5$ a month) it’s not a bad deal for two (online) magazine subscriptions; Dragon magazine and Dungeon magazine. Unfortunately, I don’t play 4e and my group has decided against it so both this magazines aren’t going to be used in their given form.

Oh, I will likely nab some ideas or thoughts and read the articles, but I won’t be using them as is because they’re 4e.

The Character Builder is useless to me. It was put together really well and gets some fairly regular updates, but I’m not playing 4e so what good is it?

I should have known better with the failure of their previous attempts at creating (or outsourcing the creation) of software tools.

Ah well. I’ll likely put the 4e books right up next to my games from Turbine CDs.

Is it a Comb Over?

My current D&D group is clinging to 3.5e which got me wondering – is it really worth it? We’ve been playing it for years and we still haven’t gotten all the rules down. Every week we learn something new or realize we’ve screwed something up.

We’re not idiots.

So why is it we can’t get the rules right for something we’ve been playing for several years and is supposed to be a watered down version of 2e?

“Table top WoW” I’ve heard people call 3e (and I hear the same for 4e – that’s odd, no?), but that was also something said about it when my group looked at and resisted adopting it. “Too much like a computer game” was another one I heard – not necessarily from them. But I’ll move away from that line of thought and come back to why we can’t get it straight after several years of playing it.

Here’s what I’ve come up with: I bet a few of the players probably don’t even crack open a sourcebook to give it a during the week between games but I can’t even blame them. Most of us are married, have kids or other hobbies and responsibilities we didn’t have before. We simply cannot give it the attention we need to or once could. We can’t spend hours in the evening or on weekends sifting through manuals and checking out all the rules. We just don’t have it in us anymore or we simply don’t have the time we once did.

It’s like those hideously long patches of hair aging men comb over the top of their bald head and think it means they’re not bald. This is our nasty little comb over.

We don’t need to cling to that patch of hair. We need to shave it off and accept that we can’t deal with convoluted, complex rules that are loaded with cross references and exceptions all over the place (inluding itty bitty little foot notes under a table). We’ve got too much going on in our lives to remember all that. Our heads are filled with technical specs, programming languages, policies, processes, rates, operating systems, security architecture on top of spouses and raising kids – it just isn’t possible. Sadly, the majority of them are “RP > All” types which I think would benefit the most for the streamlined combats that get resolved faster and with less rules confusion. It leaves more room for story and RP and less for debating some obscurity. But maybe we’re also just a bunch of windbags that want to argue about shit, what ever it is.

Ultimately, it’s better to be bald than cling to something that really doesn’t work but we’ll deny baldness and be keeping those comb overs for awhile yet.

/rant off

I feel better. I’m off to go slaughter the group’s characters now. :D