Woo! It’s been a little bit of time since I’ve sat down and written something for this here blog. For that, I apologize. A couple of days ago, we finally kicked off a Dark Sun campaign, and I thought it’d be nice to sit down and analyze what I felt went well and didn’t go as well as it could.
First things first: After the session, several of the players told me they had fun. Fundamentally, this is the most important thing with a tabletop game: Having fun. Since most of the folks explicitly mentioned they had fun, and I had fun, I count the session as a success — it got the story started, and set the group up along an actionable path to explore the rest of the story I have in mind.
I do feel, however, that the start was a bit heavy-handed. I always struggle with starting games. The way I look at it, there are three basic ways to start a campaign: A strict group template that defines who the characters are and how they fit together, the party is called together by a person of influence or power (the old you’re-in-town-and-the-king-calls-for-adventurers gambit), and the party is formed in the midst of a crisis situation. I’m fond of the third option, as it allows for organic formation of the party while not dictating any story elements of individual characters. For this game, though, I didn’t want to start in a town. In order to avoid bogging the game down with getting everyone to a point where they can interact with each other, or a logical place to introduce the story, I simply waved the almighty GM hand and said that everybody was in Tyr, and had signed on with a guy’s smallish caravan. It’s a believable enough reason, and nobody expressed an issue with it. I still feel a little dirty for having dictated it that way. It served its purpose though — got the group in a unified location, and progressed the story without bogging down actual play.
We played through a single encounter — this was by design on my part. Some folks were rusty or new to the rules, and I don’t think much of anybody had any real solid experience in playing via MapTool. The encounter we played through was also stacked against the PCs, which doesn’t help how heavy-handed the whole scenario felt to me. They were ambushed by a group of silt runners as their caravan was getting ready to settle for the night. The encounter itself was several levels above them, and they called in reinforcements after the first couple of rounds. A couple of rounds after the call went out, I used some of that GM fiat to dictate the end of the encounter, as they decided to try and get out of there a little too late.
I probably could have handled the start a little better, in my opinion, but them’s the breaks, I suppose. In either case, I have some pretty awesome ideas for where to go from here. More on that next week, I think, when my players have had a chance to play through it. I might even post the upcoming boss-ish encounter thing!
Sorry about that. Have a nice scratch on my cornea, makes it hard to stare at a computer screen for any amount of time.
Part 2 of Dr. Oedipus’s wondrous and awesome introductory encounter!
The party, after having sent Dr. Oedipus fleeing, returns to Freesboro to see about closing the portal within the Beta Chamber. Dr. Oedipus, however, has other plans! Other plans in the form of giant, element-themed, robots!
Seeing the giant robots approaching town, the local scientist alerts the players that she has a stash of giant robots of her own, ready for just such an occasion.
The robots provided for the party simply channel the player characters’ abilities, allowing them to engage Dr. Oedipus’s minions on their own turf.
Each of the giant robots in the fight have a trait that will grant a PC hit by one of their attacks with a resistance and vulnerability to particular damage types.
Gravitic Traits: Resist 5 Water, Vulnerable 5 Earth
Aquatic Traits: Resist 5 Earth, Vulnerable 5 Electricity
Terrestrial Traits: Resist 5 Electricity, Vulnerable 5 Radiation
Radioactive Traits: Resist 5 Gravity, Vulnerable 5 Water
Electrical Traits: Resist 5 Radiation, Vulnerable 5 Gravity
And, PDF version!
We’ve Gotta Close that Portal!
Maybe you wanna know why I’m referring to that GrindWorld thang as the return of Dr. Oedipus, and not some kind of superhero movie origin story.
About a year ago, I was running a Gamma World game for some friends. We were being kind of blah about our current campaign and went to pick up a quick side trek. I was running the Gamma World Game Day event adventure, Trouble in Freesboro. I altered the ending of the adventure to allow me to introduce a villain, Dr. Oedipus, and use him to expand the campaign beyond the initial go-to-lab-beat-up-robots part.
I don’t want to get too much into what I was planning with the plot, as I’ll be recycling a good deal of it to use with GrindWorld, but I’ll present the encounters I used in two parts. First up: ‘Something’s Coming Through the Portal!’
Something’s Coming Through the Portal!
Encounter Level 2 (1,300 XP)
1 Robot, Eradicator, Mk 2
1 Dr. Oedipus
4 Robot, Guardbots
As the PCs are recovering from fending off Tangh, the PCs are given a much-needed rest. They might attempt to activate the Beta Chamber, provided they know (or can guess) the simple password to the enclosure. Stepping into the portal whisks them away to an alternate reality for a few seconds before dumping them back in this one, disoriented but not damaged.
During the fight, the PCs are joined by a group of Klicky freedom fighters, who help them out. The easiest way to adjust the difficulty of this encounter is to vary the number of Klickies involved – be sure to count them when dividing up XP for the encounter.
FEATURES OF THE AREA
Illumination: Bright light
Doors: Only one door can be opened at a time. After a door closes, there is a 1-round delay before another door can be opened. During that round, nozzles sanitize the air with a foul-smelling, though harmless, spray. An impatient character can break down a door with a DC 20 Strength check (standard action).
Lights: Lights set into the walls flicker madly. Nevertheless, the hall is considered brightly lit.
Windows: The windows are thick and bulletproof. Each window has AC/Reflex 5, Fortitude 10, 20 hit points, and resist 5 physical damage.
Illumination: This room is in darkness.
Door: The door to the armory is locked. It can be forced open with a DC 20 Strength check (standard action) or unlocked with a DC 16 Mechanics or Science check (standard action).
Reward: Each player draws two Omega Tech cards from his or her deck, and the group rolls 1d6 times on the Ancient Junk table (see page 81 of the D&D Gamma World Roleplaying Game rulebook). In addition, the room has enough ammo for each character.
Barracks and Restroom
Illumination: Both of these rooms are in dim light.
Barracks: The barracks holds four bunk beds.
Restroom: The restroom has functioning plumbing.
Primary Containment Space
Computer Banks: Two computer banks are connected to the Beta Chamber. The computers no longer work except to turn the laser gun batteries on or off (DC 16 science check per battery).
Laser Gun Batteries: Three batteries sit on platforms 10 feet high, accessible by ladders. When the encounter begins, the guns are off. If Tangh or his henchmen grow desperate, they try to activate the guns.
Coolant Tanks: Three water tanks keep the Beta Chamber cool. Each tank has AC/Reflex 3, Fortitude 15, and 30 hit points. If a tank is reduced to 0 hit points, water floods out and knocks prone all creatures within 3 squares of the tank.
Radioactive Slime: Any creature entering a square containing slime takes 1d6 radiation damage. If a character takes 6 radiation damage, he or she can draw an Alpha Mutation card.
Beta Chamber: The Beta Chamber creates a pinhole in reality and shows random views of other worldlines. A creature that steps on the platform is transported to one of these worldlines for a short time, then returned. The chamber door is sealed but opens if “1234xyzw” is punched into the keypad. Tangh has already punched in “1234,” and if the heroes acquired the data pad, they can input the rest. The door can also be forced open with a DC 24 Mechanics or Strength check (standard action). The chamber is immune to all damage.
And, if you’d like a nifty PDF:
So, I haven’t really had a lot of content-oriented things to say of late, and that makes me a little sad. However, I figure maybe I’ll spill the beans about a pet project of mine.
What is Fourthcore?
A little while back, Mr. Joe Kaze introduced me to a concept known as Fourthcore. Fourthcore is, at its heart, a different game design philosophy than stock 4E espouses. Mr. Mike Shea recently put up an article about his experiences with D&D Next, where he makes a comment about his players approaching a dungeon with ‘very typical 4e empowerment.’ I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one that feels like players are expecting to win. I don’t feel like the attitude is new to 4E, or unique to the Dungeons & Dragons game at all. There’s been a whole lot of hubbub on the subject of player entitlement and empowerment, much of it vitriolic. I’m not keen on getting into that debate, so I’ll throw this out there: In my own experience, players of all sorts tend to expect to win. It happens, and it isn’t necessarily incorrect.
Fourthcore and, by extension, Gammacore, turns that expectation on its head. But Sam, what is Fourthcore? Remember that link earlier? Go read over that, it’s short and gets the point across very well. Here it is again. I’ll wait for you to get back, it’s ok.
Now that you’ve read that, here are a few key things to take from it: Fourthcore is meant to be difficult, but rewarding. Not impossible. The difference between a Fourthcore/Gammacore game and a jerk PC-Killing GM is consent and expectation — this is important. Deathtrap dungeons aren’t for everyone, and all the players involved should be ok with it. Forcing someone to play a style of game they really don’t enjoy is kind of a jerk move. Also note: Fourthcore is not meant to be impossible. Just difficult. Perhaps flipping a switch kills your character. It shouldn’t kill EVERY character. And you should be able to circumvent that character death somehow. Perhaps by getting someone else to flip it, or using a pole to do so.
What about Gammacore?
Now that we’re all experts on Fourthcore and what it entails, what about Gammacore? WTF is that, Sam?! Easy: Gammacore is a Fourthcore-style game played in GAMMA WORLD. Cause Gamma World is amazing and you should be playing it all the time forever. No, really. It is. Maybe I’ll ramble about it at some point.
I want to hit on a couple of points that Sersa V’s Fourthcore primer hits:
A Fourthcore adventure is difficult, and can often result in characters dying — sometimes from instant death effects, or save-or-die things. In Gammacore this is especially true — things in Gamma World already tend to kill you more readily than in stock 4th Edition. Don’t pull your punches, rolling up a Gamma World character is a quick, easy endeavor. If you’re so inclined, everything about the character can be determined at random and Wizards of the Coast even has an interactive sheet to do exactly that. A character dying shouldn’t be a reason for a player to be out of the action any longer than the rest of the encounter.
Fourthcore adventures are intended to be extravagant, perhaps even gruesome. Gamma World is already over-the-top. Keep it up. Add lasers and flying saws. Or laser saws. Flying laser saws. Yeaaaaaaah.
Ok, what about GrindWorld?
The Fourthcore blogomation there had a project, the Weekly Grind. It was/is an adaptation of a weekly Pathfinder thing to the Fourthcore ideology. GrindWorld is a Gammacore adaptation of that concept. I’ll be working out a series of encounters to be played in a Gammacore game, similar to the Weekly Grind. I may or may not have some sort of point scoring and leaderboard system, ala the Grind, because that was an interesting feature. So, might I introduce:
Gammacore Grindworld: The Return of Dr. Oedipus
Dr. Oedipus, the mad invader from beyond time is back! His giant amalgamation, Elementron thwarted, he has hatched a NEW plot to take over the world: He has built a set of half a dozen evil robots to lead his armies of drones, but these robots require testing to fill their neural networks with precious informations. Enter: GrindWorld. After hijacking a well-known television station and establishing a compound, Dr. Oedipus has kidnapped a number of citizens and is pitting them against his evil creations — all the while televising the whole thing.
GrindWorld is a popular broadcast for those areas blessed enough to be able to receive it. Their Contestant Outreach program was started to bolster their contestant pool’s ranks, and has done wonders to curb the most violent of crimes in the population centers closest to Dr. Oedipus’ complex. Anything to keep the Volunteer Acquisition squads away.
Can the PCs, as new contestants, survive the dangers of GrindWorld and perhaps thwart Dr. Oedipus himself? Tune in to see!
So, this is a topic that’s been tackled by a few different folks at a few different times. But, really, the archetypes that I’ve seen discussed always assume one thing: Players aren’t jerks.
Since there are other places to read up on typical motivations behind players, I won’t touch on those too much. But what about the kinds of disruptive play styles? Let’s talk about the types of players that might be spoiling your game!
The Socialite isn’t necessarily a bad player or person. They’re just more interested in the social aspects of tabletop games than in the gaming aspect of tabletop games. A Socialite’s main reason for joining your game is to hang out with friends and have a good time — which isn’t an incorrect way to think. However, since The Socialite’s priority is in hanging out, they will tend to allow the game to fall by the wayside. This is the sort of player who shows up 20 minutes late, then spends an hour gabbing with the other players about their week, and they forgot their character sheet in the car and have to go get it, which takes 20 minutes because it’s buried underneath all sorts of other things. Oh, and they left their dice at home, can they borrow some?
In previous groups of which I was a part, we had plenty of days where we got distracted with Rock Band or talking about the latest goings on in World of Warcraft or something. Off days happen. Whip out a box of Munchkin (or Fluxx!) and have yourself some fun if that’s what you’d rather do that day. But man, it can get frustrating when you have that one person trying to derail your game on a regular basis.
We’ve all had ‘em. That one player who steadfastly refuses to play a character concept that aligns with the rest of the group in any way, shape, or form. They’re the ones that play a Half Elf in a game that consists of the player characters enacting genocide on the elven race. They’re the one that goes into a Shadowrun game with a group full of brutish thugs and plays a Decker — with no combat capability.
Often, The Contradictor’s character concept is downright disruptive to the campaign narrative — as with the genocide example I gave. Other times, it’s just at complete odds with the play styles of the rest of the players. The former can often provide interesting roleplay opportunities (though usually it leads into one or more people becoming our next play style) as the party conflicts internally. More often than not, this sort of player merely wants to play something ‘special’, so they feel unique. That’s not necessarily wrong. Everybody wants to be special, right? And besides, having characters that go against the norm is a staple of PC-dom.
Having characters of diametrically opposed play styles can make writing scenes difficult — 4 purely combat-oriented thugs with sticks and a pacifist broadway actor who gets ill at the sight of blood will tend to force encounters to either A) Not involve combat in any way, to appeal to the pacifist character’s strengths, but to exclude the rest of the group or B) Include combat, appealing to the majority of the group, but excluding The Contradictor’s character. It’s a lose-lose situation.
Often born out of one or more Contradictors, the PKer is the sort of player who is down-right determined to kill one or more party members. Situations where a player character that is at odds with the party is placed within it by the GM are different — those are usually ways to introduce conflict and story, or to remove unwanted players and characters. The PKer, though, takes it upon themselves to prove their own dominance over the rest of the party by killing their characters.
Often intra-party attacks are accompanied with the notion that The PKer is simply ‘playing their character’. Rarely have I seen this used as justification for intra-party conflict and it not just been a cop-out. If ‘just playing your character’ involves murdering the rest of the group, you might want to consider ‘just playing’ a different type of character. You (and possibly your GM) might have fun while you murder your friends — but it’s unlikely that your friends will.
Unless you’re playing Diplomacy. Then screw your friends.
I’m guilty of this one. The Gimmick is the sort of player who you can never seem to convince to play something ‘normal.’ This is the player who, when approached with the idea of rolling up a character, first things ‘Man. What sort of weird race/class combination could I use?’ Pixie rogue? The one Good-aligned Drow ranger, complete with dual-wielding scimitars and a panther companion? You know what? This one deserves a quick detour:
The Drizzt Clone
QUIT PLAYING GOOD ALIGNED DROW RANGERS WHO DUAL WIELD SCIMITARS.
The Gimmick, Continued
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get back to the issue at hand: Why I’m a terrible player. After a dozen years of tabletop, playing a human fighter named Fitor is somewhat unappealing. I like to think of ways to keep the mechanics and the GM on their toes — and having a strange mix of character elements is an easy way to do that. I’d like to think that a majority of other folks feel the same way. A strange character is a quick way for the concept to gain traction — ‘Hey guys, remember when I played that pixie rogue? Ha ha ha. That was fun times.’
The unfortunate side of that is gimmick characters often cause a bit more work for the GM — how would townsfolk react to a little armored pixie flitting around? Or the intelligent spider monkey with a longsword? There can be definite verisimilitude issues with some of these concepts.
One of the ways to make sure that everybody at the table is having fun is to imagine the session as a one-act play. This stage, however, has only a single spotlight. As the night progresses, the spotlight shines on each player in turn. Players who don’t get as much spotlight time as others feel left out.
The Spotlight, as a player archetype, is that player who simply must be in the spotlight. Either they don’t have any fun when not the center of attention, and complain, or they’re the player who’s always got the right idea — which involves their own character almost exclusively doing everything. The Spotlight may do wonders for progressing your story, but it’s at the expense of other players at the table. I hope it’s clear how this is disruptive to the game: While The Spotlight is having tons of fun, the other four or five or however many players are sitting around unable to do anything, and quickly become disengaged. I, for one, do not like the idea of going to a friend’s place weekly to watch someone else have fun. Heck, I don’t even like to watch people play video games.
Solving the Problematic Players
Really, there’s no blanket solution to any single one of these archetypes, nor to the archetypes as a group. Every person is different. Having a member of your group whose play style is diminishing the fun of others can be a problem and, frankly, should be dealt with if possible. I like to think that most people are reasonable and ‘Hey man, when you do that it makes it less fun for Jim and I’ is a pretty good reason to stop being a jerk. Above all, approaching a problematic player should be done in a reasonable, mature way if you want to avoid hurt feelings.
That is, unless you want to alienate them. That’s what The PKer is for, after all.
No, really. You probably are. It’s not your fault.
Alignment is, in my opinion, not a very good thing to have as a mechanic. In general, I’m not a big fan of any sort of arbitrary morality system in an RPG. Light and Dark Side points? Eh. Alignment? Fooey. Path of Humanity? Ok, that one’s actually pretty measurable. But really, morality is not so much about what you do as it is about why you do it.
Let’s take an example: Let us say that you have an adventuring type of person. This adventuring person takes part in the wholesale slaughter and ransacking of an entire colony of kobolds. Is this adventurous fellow/gal wiping out an evil force in order to save a village populated entirely by cute, adorable little orphans (and their kittens — also orphans) who cannot afford a proper winter gift-giving holiday occasion celebration ritual? Or does this adventurer have some long-unfulfilled grudge against kobolds, and has decided to wipe them all off of the face of the planet?
See? The very same action can either be saving adorable kittens (also their orphans), or performing genocide on an entire race of mostly innocent — albeit really annoying — little dragon … puppy … things.
That’s probably the big beef I have with morality and alignment systems in RPGs. Of the lot that I’ve seen, D&D 3/3.5 is probably the most egregious offender. Alignment is actually a tractioned game element. Not only are you arbitrarily defining a character’s outlook on life, but all of a sudden their alignment becomes germane to how the game might play. What’s really annoying, though, is having a paladin in the party with their Detect Evil radar they can use ALL THE TIME. Makes it tricky to have a subtle, nuanced villain who is also a bad guy.
Which brings me to my next point: I have a problem with half of the alignments available. I’ve seen a ton of people over the last decade-and-some-odd who get the wrong idea about Chaotic Neutral. And I don’t think true Neutral really exists.
And clearly two alignments is half of nine.
In 3rd edition D&D, alignment is defined upon two axes: The ethos axis is a measure of how rules-oriented the character is. It can be ‘Lawful’, ‘Neutral’, or ‘Chaotic.’ ‘Lawful’ means that the character has a set of rules that they will tend to follow — these rules need not necessarily be actual laws, a personal moral code will suffice. ‘Chaotic’ means the character is actively opposed to rules, and values being a free spirit. ‘Neutral’ is, as you might have guessed, neutral on this matter. The second axis is the morality axis. It can be ‘Good’, ‘Neutral’, or ‘Evil.’ So if the first axis is a measure as to how rulesy a character is, the second axis is a measure of the means to which the character will go to enact their ends. Murdering orphans and kicking puppies is generally on the ‘evil’ side of this axis.
So, back to Chaotic Neutral. Armed with the above ranting about how alignment works in D&D, you should now know that Chaotic Neutral means the character is opposed to rules, and will tend to act counter to authority, and the character is likely willing to kill an innocent person in order to accomplish their goals, but is equally likely to give that person a bar of chocolate (assuming, of course, the chocolate is not poisoned, filled with spikes, explosive, or the person is deathly allergic). What I’ve seen happen countless times is this: Player makes character. Player does not want to invest themselves in the story of the campaign or of their fellow characters. Player wishes to goof around and, in all likelihood, be disruptive to the flow of the game. Character decides they can be Chaotic Neutral and justify their disruptive behavior as being ‘in character.’
Being in character is not an excuse for being a jerk. If you want to play Chaotic Neutral so that you can ‘do what you want’ — and ‘what you want’ is likely to be things like:
- Stabbing the NPC with which the rest of the party is having a civil discussion
- Advocating the murder of the damsel in distress, rather than face the dragon
- Stabbing most anybody for any reason whatsoever
- Stealing the dragon’s treasure, despite the fact that it is not murdering you because you have not yet stolen its treasure
- Anything on Mr. Welch’s List
then, while you might technically be playing Chaotic Neutral correctly, you are very likely playing your tabletop RPG of choice incorrectly, and losing friends in the process. These games are, at their core, a social thing. The idea is to get together with friends and have fun. If you’re the jerk who spoils other people’s fun in order to have his own, then you’ll be the jerk that your friends hang out with because they’re obligated to. Don’t be that jerk.
And True Neutral. Don’t get me started — ok, so I’m going to talk about it anyway. Going on our above definition of alignment, we can surmise that True Neutral (being Neutral Neutral) is not wholly dedicated to the cause of Rulesality nor to a lack of rulesaliciousness. Also, it is not wholesale in favor of rabid genocide, nor of giving presents to needy children. Maintaining neutrality on the ethos axis (law vs. chaos) takes either dedication to neither side (which, in a polarized issue like this, there are no neutral parties — you either follow rules or you do not), or waffling on the subject. If you are waffling between following rules and not following rules, well then you are leaning towards not following rules — even the one about having to follow them or not. How Chaotic of you!
Neutrality on the morality axis is, in my eyes, easier. Either the character is dedicated to a balance of good vs. evil — or to, say, the preservation of a neutral force, such as nature — or they do not feel strongly enough on good vs. evil to act wholly one way or another. Good vs. evil is much more steeped in grey areas than law vs. chaos. I’m actually ok with the idea of neutral on this axis.
Ranting is fun! I am, however, proud that in 4th edition (and maybe in 5th!) alignment does not take nearly as much of the spotlight as it did in 3rd. Several were nixed, and we are left with only Lawful Good, Good, Unaligned, Evil and Chaotic Evil. Of course, now I can’t go ‘No, you are not chaotic neutral, you are neutral evil,’ because they’d both still be unaligned. Drat.
Yeah yeah yeah, the intertwitterfacespacesnets are all abuzz with the fact that Wizards of the Coast announced they are, in fact, whipping up 5th edition D&D. There’s been a great deal of speculation about it, and I’ll not attempt to consolidate information about this new edition.
Besides, EnWorld beat me to it.
If nothing good has come of this announcement, then at the very least it has prompted people to ponder ways to improve the game system. A lot of it is ‘this feature sucked, axe it’ or ‘I loved that, let’s keep it.’ But, at least, they are considering what elements of the game work and don’t work for them. Even if 5E never sees the light of day, or is so terrible that nobody plays it, perhaps people will still look at their current games objectively and seek to improve them.
That being said, Joe brought up a good point. I’d love to see more exposure with game mechanics. Joe’s suggestion: A system whereby we can build weapons a la cart, so to speak. Give us ‘light melee weapon: +2 proficiency, 1d6 damage’ and a set of properties that can be applied, and their costs. This way we can tweak weaponry to work how we’d like it. Also, tables to randomly determine these things.
The weapons in Gamma World are super simplified. There’s Light Melee Weapon, Heavy Melee Weapon, Light Ranged Weapon and Heavy Ranged Weapon. The appearance and workings of the weapon are up to the player to determine — if you want a longsword, go for light melee weapon and say it’s a longsword. If you want to use a section of 2×4, use a heavy melee weapon and say it’s a big chunk of wood.
We then come up with some properties to apply. Things like: Increased Damage – Damage for this weapon is increased by 1 die size. The Brutal weapon modifier can be applied in this way. Or High Crit. Or Versatile. We could have, say, Really Good at Tripping that gives a bonus to trip attempts (ala the whip from 3rd edition).
Of course, you’d want to include a set of ‘standard’ weapons, for folks that just want to pick and go.
Going from 3rd edition to 4th, they exposed a lot of the underlying math that they use to balance the system. The DMG gives formulas to calculate hit points and average damage for monsters, and gives some pretty solid steps to create an NPC or monster from scratch. (Side note: Monsterizer is a program I wrote to help make monsters) I love that. I was always very wary of creating a creature/trap from scratch in 3rd edition. I’d mix-and-match, and often the balance of what I’ve created wasn’t quite right. In 4th, it takes just a few minutes to hammer out the mechanics of a creature and I know just where the balance is going to lie. Spending less time with math and crunch means I can spend more time on story and fun. It’s a good thing.
The only other thing that really comes to mind that I’d like to see out of a new edition of D&D is a loosening of the game’s license. With 3rd edition, they introduced the OGL, the Open Game License (OGL) (Link is to RTF of the license), and the System Reference Document (SRD). It was beautiful — all of the basic rules of D&D were available for free. Legally! You were allowed to do a lot with the rules in your own publications — provided you clearly defined what was open game content and what wasn’t, didn’t step on WOTC’s intellectual property, and didn’t redefine any of the basic mechanics provided in the SRD (IE, you couldn’t redefine what Strength meant).
In 4th edition, we get the Game System License (GSL) and an updated System Reference Document (Both links are to PDFs). However, an astute observer may notice the 4th edition SRD doesn’t actually define much of anything. Under the GSL, you can use things like Strength and classes in your content, but you cannot define them in the rule system. You can show the results of applying mechanics to a creature, for instance, but not reproduce the mechanics.
And what probably bugs me the most is you cannot produce a piece of software that facilitates the character creation process, or application of levels or experience. No character creators! I can understand tightening up the GSL/SRD from a business perspective, but it’s not exactly helping the tabletop hobby as a whole to outright eliminate competition for software utilities.
Especially when WOTC hasn’t exactly lived up to their statement that they’ll be releasing all sorts of electronic goodies when 4th edition was released — close to 3 years ago now. I laugh when I see the advertisement page in my PHB talking about DDI and the game’s electronic tools.
I’d love to see a loosening of the license terms. I’d love to be able to actually make a program that incorporates D&D mechanics. Like a character creator. Even if I can’t have the full text of feats/powers or something, I’m ok with that. Let me include the names and code in requirements so I can determine if the character meets them. That’d be nice.
Hopefully this doesn’t flop. They’re aiming to make an edition of D&D that appeals to players of all editions. It’s a lofty goal, but initial impressions of some folks that have playtested it are positive, and that gives me hope.
We’re players, too! No, really. We are. We like playing games. We like having fun at games. You may have noticed that I try to refer to everyone at a table as ‘the players,’ and everyone not GMing as ‘the other players.’ This is because, generally, the things I’m writing are probably more interesting to someone who is running a game, but also because the person running the game should be included amongst its list of players. They’re there to enjoy a fun, exciting game.
What do I mean? Well, there are a couple of ways to view the relationship between the GM-player and the non-GM-players (for the sake of simplicity, I’ll be using the term ‘GM’ to refer to the person who is the game’s arbiter, regardless of the terminology the game system itself uses).
Us vs. Them
I guess this would count as the traditional GM→Non-GM relationship. In this relationship, the GM is an adversary to be defeated. They provide a scenario for the characters to endure, one which is often nearly unbeatable, and the other players must overcome it, often through judicious knowledge of the game system’s rules and the GM’s own habits.
Why this Relationship is Good:
It gives you a clear meta game. Meta gaming happens, don’t worry. It’s practically impossible to make a decision for a character in a manner that, in no way, incorporates knowledge or methods of thinking that the character would not possess. I do it all the time. Just keep the egregious meta game decision making to a minimum and you’ll be fine. This particular relationship, though, pits not only player characters against the dungeon/traps/monsters/angry townsfolk or whatever the GM’s scenario entails, but also the players themselves against the GM. Most game systems allow for characters’ abilities to be separate from a player’s abilities, so having your PCs overcome the dungeon can boil down to a handful of dice rolls. Outsmarting your GM, however, is a skill.
Why this Relationship is Bad:
Do you really want to be in a social situation where one person is continuously the adversary? What happens when that adversarial nature spills over into non-game matters: The non-GM players deciding on where to eat based on where the GM doesn’t want to, or resenting the GM for a poor turn of events regarding their character? Tabletop gaming is, at its heart, a social event. We play these games to have fun, and there’s a chance that pitting people against each other can erode the friendship.
This is my preferred relationship. It presumes that everybody gathered around the table is looking to work together to build a story of some sort. Perhaps the story is of a group of heroes from a small town in the middle of nowhere who grow and topple an evil overlord bent on world domination. Perhaps the story is about fledgeling werewolves trying to survive in a chaotic, dangerous new world. Who knows! But the idea is that each player, GM and non-GM alike, is vested in the story and brings plot elements to the table.
Why this Relationship is Good:
If everybody’s doing a little of the writing, then it’s easier to keep the game moving. It provides more material for the GM to use, lessening the chance that they’ll run out of ideas (or, at least, interesting ones) which can lead to game stagnation. Additionally, the plots that the characters bring will tend to cause that character’s player to be more vested and interested in the game, which causes them to interact more and drive more plot. It’s a bit of a feedback loop when it works properly.
Why this Relationship is Bad:
The other players are unpredictable. In a strong, story-driven game, the plot elements that their characters bring can easily be outside of the scope of the campaign, or counter to the intended plot. Exploring a PC’s story can mean more work integrating the story into the campaign.
I hate this particular relationship, I won’t lie. It’s, from what I can tell, remarkably common. In this relationship, the GM has a story/scenario, and the other players show up to partake. They do not contribute (meaningfully) to the storyline. Games under this relationship could just as easily have been marketed as a JRPG.
Why this Relationship is Good:
Since the GM is the only one providing story, they’re able to plan for its nuances well enough in advance that they can craft a very believable, intricate interaction among varying power groups. Games steeped heavily in intrigue can benefit greatly from this. As a player, you’re not expected to think creatively outside of your actions at the table. No homework!
Why this Relationship is Bad:
Aside from what I’ve mentioned above, this relationship puts the health of the game squarely at the GM’s feet. The other players are interested and the game continues based on how engaging the story is that the GM provides, without meaningful contributions from the other players. If the game fails, it’s the GM’s fault. If the game succeeds, then they’ve all accomplished something. Inherently, this relationship is a bit selfish on the non-GM’s part.
In your own games, what sort of relationship do you have with your GM (Or the non-GM players if you’re the one running the game)? Is it the sort of relationship you all want?
Let’s see if we can’t stir up some controversy! Or, rather, I get annoyed at some of the anti-4th Edition sentiment I see. Let’s see if I can’t pitch in my 2¢ Please note that I’ll be discussing some D&D stuff, but elitist grognardism exist in other games. Jerkishness is, unfortunately, pretty universal.
Way back in the day, when D&D 3rd edition first came out I didn’t see what the hubbub was about. 2nd edition was ‘working fine’ for me, and I saw no need to learn a whole new system. It was fully two years before I played my first 3rd edition game. And in that two years, I learned nothing about the new edition of D&D I was claiming to dislike. My dislike of the system was based purely on good old-fashioned inertia.
A side note: I say 2nd edition was ‘working fine’ in finger-quotes because, looking back, it really wasn’t working as well as it could. To this day, I find 2nd edition D&D to be unnecessarily dumb. Well, the proficiencies and THAC0 are pretty silly. And a lower armor class being better is counter-intuitive.
After I started actually playing 3rd edition, I saw how it made more sense in my brain, allowing me to take more liberties with content and make more awesome things happen. When 3.5 was announced, I was skeptical. But, keeping in mind how I had dismissed 3rd edition out of hand, I kept up on news and got excited. I got my Big Three 3.5 books the day they were released.
Then they announced 4th edition. My initial reaction was the same as with 3rd and 3.5: I didn’t want to learn a new system and feel obligated to replace my books. But I kept up with the news. Encounter, at-will, and daily abilities instead of only swinging a sword as a fighter or juggling spells per day as a spellcaster? Interesting! Nixing skills that weren’t specially applicable to an adventure-in-progress (AKA Profession or Craft)? I’m not sure about that, but I can see the reasoning.
After the system came out, and I had a chance to play with it I was in love. I’m a fan of 4th edition, let me be clear. It’s definitely not the alpha and omega of RPG systems — the appropriate system is still entirely determined by the nature of the game and its players. Some games aren’t appropriate for D&D4, and that’s ok. The games I like to run do tend to be very appropriate for it. In the last few years, I’ve seen a couple of salient points brought up against 4E. Let me address a few:
4th Edition is Like World of Warcraft
This particular point presupposes that ‘like WOW’ is accepted as a bad thing. Is it, really? I’m not sure saying D&D is more similar to a game that millions of people play (and, one would assume, enjoy) than previously is a point against it. I know this is a bit of a strawman defense here, but detracting from D&D by saying it’s similar to WOW is like saying crunchy tacos are better than soft because soft tacos are like burritos. I like burritos. I like tacos. Why can I not like these weird burrito-taco hybrids?
Fortunately for us, I believe this particular argument is just poorly worded. It seems to me that there are two main points supporting the theory that D&D4 is like WOW: Some folks feel that the powers presented in D&D4 are too similar to a video game presenting you with a hot bar of abilities that you can press to do things. This particular model isn’t aided by cards representing powers (and, really, having the cards helps present the information in an easy-to-consume manner like you wouldn’t believe). Personally, I would posit that D&D4 isn’t similar to WOW in this regard, but is more similar to Magic: The Gathering. The powers in D&D4 are exceptions-based. This means that the basic rules one needs to learn to play are fairly short, as they only need to cover the most essential of circumstances. Each ability, then, explains how it behaves differently within itself.
Now, here’s a very super big ultra important side effect of having character abilities be exceptions-based:
I don’t need to know how your class works in order to know how your abilities work. As a DM who has had the opportunity to make something like 3 D&D4 characters in the last three years, this is a godsend. You come to the table playing a class I haven’t had a lot of opportunity to explore? Awesome. Your powers tell me how they work, and that’s all I really need. This lets me be lazy and forgetful. Besides, my memory isn’t as reliable as it was when I was young, and it usually takes a bit of repetition for me to remember something. If I was expected to learn every class this way, that would provide a fairly hefty barrier to entry.
And secondly, I get the feeling that people are seeing the ‘quest rewards’ presented in 4th edition are like turning in quests in an MMO. Here’s a big hint: This isn’t a new thing. 3rd edition called them ‘ad hoc story awards.’ The idea behind these quest rewards is that you’ll have situations in a game where the players are doing things the DM didn’t expect. This is a good thing. You will, likely, wish to reward the players being creative and vested in the campaign. This is also a good thing. So Wizards decided to give you suggestions on ways you can reward them.
4th Edition Doesn’t Allow for Imagination or Roleplaying
I fail to see how any game system restricts you from roleplaying or being imaginative and creative. Unless it’s Boring: The Commute or something. I honestly and truly have difficulty understanding this particular point — the creativity and fun present in any tabletop game, regardless of system, are provided by the players (in this case, I use ‘players’ to refer to everybody around the table — it is not solely up to the DM or the non-DMs to provide the fun). Granted, D&D4 doesn’t have pages and pages of rules about how to handle every little situation into which you might run: This is on purpose. If the game system had rules on what to roll to do everything, then that system wouldn’t allow for creativity. I feel like this isn’t a lot to say on this particular point, but I’m not sure how really express it otherwise.
4th Edition Lacks Character Options
It seems like this particular argument has fallen out of favor lately, as more books have been published. I don’t think it’s entirely founded — when 4th Edition first came out, several character classes were in absentia. This has since been rectified. Each class has at least two ‘builds’, which are suggested sets of powers and abilities for a class — and I want to say most, if not all, have a third build presented in the Power books (Martial Power, Divine Power, et cetera), though I have not explicitly checked for just this. Let’s toss in the paragon paths (DDI Compendium says there are 561 of them), epic destinies (112), and now character themes (58) and backgrounds (793!), we don’t seem to be hurting on ways to customize the character beyond the basic classes. And that’s not even to talk about feats — there are a whopping 3,182 of those on the DDI Compendium. So many, in fact, that folks have complained about there being ‘feat bloat.’
I’m not so sure that ‘lack of character customization’ is an issue these days.
Oh, I almost forgot the ‘Hybrid’ classes.
I feel like there were generally other arguments against the game, but none seem to be coming to mind, so let me wrap this up with what I find to be a major point in its favor:
I feel like 4E is much easier to prep for than 3/3.5 was. No joke. The DMG presents information about general damage/HP/defense values for monsters/NPCs of a particular level, and ‘treasure parcels’ for general ideas as to lootycakes to give. This might feel formulaic, but one must always keep in mind that any rule presented in a book is a suggestion, not an unassailable law. The numbers given in these situations are pretty well in the proper range (especially if you take the updated damage expressions) so I can spend less time worrying about whether or not a boss monster is balnaced — does it have enough HP, do its attacks deal a proper amount of damage — and put that time into worrying about whether or not the encounter is fun. In 3rd edition, I didn’t often write things from scratch. I second-guessed balance a lot. In 4th, though, it’s rather common that I’ll put together an encounter full of baddies that are all custom-made.
Treasure parcels make it pretty simple for me to judge how frequently lootycakes should be given and know where encounter rewards fall within the expected power range for characters. In 3/3.5, monsters had an arbitrary treasure value, and there was this often-overlooked chart in the DMG for wealth-by-level. I suppose the idea was to keep PCs’ in the general ballpark of that wealth-by-level and keep rewards for an encounter within reason for the monster, but it was a pretty vague system. Frequently, I’d have parties that were far off of the suggested wealth. With 4th edition’s parcels, though, it’s pretty straightforward — again, giving me more time to spend on the fun and less time to spend on worrying about crunch.