April 2009


So I did some scanning of the 4e DMG today. To be honest, I’m still not quite certain I “get” skill challenges. The basic idea is it is something like an extended skill test in most RPGs – a bunch of characters make a variety of skill tests. You can use different skills depending on the objective. For example, if you are trying to convince a baron to authorize a quest for your group (along with perhaps some donated resources) you could use skills like Diplomacy (“the king has concerns in thid matter”) or Bluff (“I am a cousin of the king”) or History (“recall your great-grandfather ran into a similar issue”). The idea is you need x number of successes before you get y failures. And I do get how to implement it. But I’ve never been quite able make that sort of thing seem interesting. When I tried it with my group there was a feeling of “let’s get back to the real stuff”. Similar to most extended skill tests in my experience – roll, roll, roll, roll, done. Yawn.

Now one could argue combat is like that. But combat is far more dynamic. Your foe is trying to hit back at you. You have resources, your foe has resources. Pelgrange Press’ soon-to-be-discontinued Dying Earth RPG, based upon the Jack Vance series, had its social combat system be identical to its physical combat system. I think that is the direction 4e should have gone in.

That’s not to say I think 4e is absolutely useless when it comes to a tradition dungeon delve. For instance, a reread of the section on traps was quite interesting. There were different Perception rolls/passive Perception tests to notice certain details. But noticing those details does not guarantee you see there is a trap. For instance a pit trap could be indicated by changes in the stonework of the floor. But that does not mean such changes are always indicative of a pit trap. Similarly no check is required to notice fungus, but an active Dungeoneering check is required to realize it will spew LSD as charactrers walk by.

This sort of system, implemented properly, might give some of that “man vs. the dungeon” atmosphere that I am aiming for. I’m looking for the dungeon to be another world, one quite hostile to surface-dwellers. I want a lot of traps. Dark tunnels with wandering monsters.

Of course that brings up the other issue, being able to handle encounters quickly. I’m not certain 4e can do that. If it can’t, does that mean the dungeon needs to change from what I’m envisioning? We play a 2-3 hour game every two weeks. Be awesome to play longer and with greater frequency, but we’re all in our thirties, a lot of us are married and/or have kids. Its what we can squeeze in. So realistically, I’d assume that the typical combat encounter is about 30 to 45 minutes, judging by past experience. Assuming a 2.5 hour session, that makes for a maximum of 3-5 combat encounters. That would assume all combat though – things like discussion, wandering, traps, etc. will probably take up a bit of time, as will side-table talk. So we’d be looking at 2-3 combat encounters. What we can attempt to do is add some non-combat encounters, probably environmental encounters with some puzzles, interaction, etc.

What I’ll probably do next is consider what this would be like with a less-detailed rules system.

One quick thought occurs to me as I flip through the 4e Dungeon Master’s Guide. 4th Edition D&D did introduce the concept of skill challenges which were basically skill-based resolution involving the whole party. Useful for negotiation, searching, studying, etc. I never quite got comfortable with skill challenges in our brief 4e game. I’ll have to spend some time re-examining them to see if they seem appropriate for my goals.

Like most GMs, I suffer from GM ADD – Game Master Attention Deficit Disorder, always planning the next game.

My gaming group – or playgroup as my daughters refer to it – is currently playing a Wild Talents campaign. I have a hunch this game will be a miniseries – mainly because of the divergences the world is taking – a Talent has already triggered a nuclear explosion at the Iran/Iraq border.

Given that, I’ve been mulling over what game to play next. I’ve got a mix of players – system masters, storytellers, etc. I’ve got an itch for some old-fashioned dungeon delving. That obviously points to Dungeons & Dragons. Of course unlike when I was a kid when the decision was whether to use Basic/Expert or AD&D (and we usually just mashed them together), there’s a whole lot of choices now. Of course we might wind up doing something totally different and play Gummi Bears vs. Zombies the RPG.

What I’m looking for in terms of style is an old-fashioned kind of game. I tend to be big on world building and grand plots. But a lot of my best games began with a very limited campaign setting. Explore the dungeon and see were that takes us. The world evolves organically. I’m also trying to capture the old fashioned feel of the underworld – countless levels under Castle Greyhawk, each more dangerous than the previous; the Caves of Chaos, a massive complex of boogeymen near civilization; the lost mines of Moria, once a dwarven home but now overrun by orcs. I want trips into the dungeon to feel dangerous. Deadly traps. Amusing traps. A whole ecology of monsters, some of whom might make for allies, others with nefarious plots hatching against the surface world.

This might point to an older version of D&D. But I’m not ready to cement a system yet.

Now for my own biases… As DM, I’ve enjoyed running D&D 3.0/3.5 rules. But I dreaded planning the game. Character generation for NPCs and monsters was just a royal pain in the butt. I know GMs who enjoy that, but I’m not one of them. Together with that issue are very precise expectations as to how much treasure a character of a given level will have. I know there are a lot of excellent premade campaigns out there, but that’s not really what I’m looking for.

What about 4th edition D&D? Last summer we tried out the newest incarnation of the game. As DM I enjoyed it. I found preparation for the game super-easy and kinda fun. For whatever reason I felt like the producer of a movie spending a budget. I know 3.x can be viewed that way. But for whatever reason I often felt like I was doing my taxes. The players, for the most part, enjoyed it – all the tricks the characters had were quite enjoyable and while combats were very tactical, it was a fun kind of tactical – characters jockeying for optimal position, baddies who lasted more than a round, dynamic environments.

There were some issues with 4e D&D. The first of which is, while for the most part the group enjoyed it, one player hated it. Hated it with a passion that makes Rush Limbaugh sound like a Barack Obama fanboy. I might try to win him over, but it’s a darn unlikely undertaking. He’d almost definitely be stepping outside the group for the duration of the game. (As he did for the latter portion of the 4e game.)  So it is something to keep in mind – I’m not looking to exile anyone. In any case there are some other issues that I need to consider. This is not to discount the possibility of using 4e – I really did enjoy it.

The first of these other 4e issues is the length of encounters. While I indicated the battles were a lot of fun, they were also super-long. Now we only had about 3 or 4 sessions of 4e so it might improve more with familiarity. Plus if I go ahead with the idea of a heavy reliance on the concept of exploring the dungeon then a decent part of game sessions should be occupied with exploring, avoiding traps, mapping, figuring out puzzles, etc. So a balance might be gained on this front.

The other issue is one I’ve run into in both my 3.5 and 4e games. And most skill-based games. Given that every character knows exactly how good he is at a skill, it is always the character with the best chance at something who makes an attempt. One character might have an idea and the other will be the one to attempt it. This isn’t a knock against the players, it is a perfectly reasonable course of action based on the system. But it has me wondering how much I want a skill-based system. There was something rather enjoyable in older D&D versions where searching, dialogue, negotiation were handle by player description and adjudicated by GM judgement. I’m not against skill-based systems but I wonder if they can be over-utilized. Mind you I have different types of players. Some of them really enjoy deep immersion in character for interaction. Others prefer to explain what they are doing in more general terms, being uncomfortable with that level of roleplaying. And that’s fine and a skill system can help with that. Though so can a glance at a Charisma score

It’s probably obvious the next thing I’m going to consider is going back to an older version of D&D. This gets away from a lot of the complexity, gives quicker combats, and gets rid of skills, which, as indicated above, might be a good thing. Now anything pre-4e is no longer made, though some older versions are pretty easy to obtain on ebay, amazon, or similar sites. But I’d prefer to not put my players through any of those hoops if I choose to go this route. Fortunately there are some excellent “retro-clones” out there. These retro-clones are games which take the Open Gaming License from the D&D 3.x rules and pushes those rules until they resemble (very strongly resemble) older versions of the D&D game. They avoid using copyrighted text unique to those games but attempt to maintain the flavor of those older games. Often with far better editing. I’m not a huge fan of the “retro” term, but it is probably appropriate. But it implies a certain nostalgia. If we use one of these games it will not be out of nostalgia but because it is right for the game. Here are the games I would consider should we go this route:

  • Swords & Wizardry – A clone of the original D&D rules (i.e. 1974 through around 1979). Offered in two versions, the core rules (similar to the original D&D with some of the supplements) and the white box version (removing the supplements, stripping the game to its core, the original “white boxed” rules set). The game is highly customizable given its basic nature.
  • Labyrinth Lord – Moving a bit forward in time, these rules are designed to mimic the play and style of the old D&D Basic and Expert rules, with the four basic classes (cleric, fighter, magic-user, and thief) with three demi-human classes (dwarf, elf, and halfling). It also has an “Original Edition” supplement detailing alternate character creation to mimic the original 1974-79 rules.
  • Basic Fantasy Role-Playing – Fairly similar to Labyrinth Lord, though it has demi-humans eligible for all classes and has a little bit more of a feel from 3.x rules.

So having established there are rules out there it must be considered whether this is the route to go to. I do like the idea, but I’m not certain how easy a sell it is for the group. Here are some of the issues I discussed with one of my players.

  1. The old rules were inconsistent and complicated.
  2. Loss of the coolness of 4e options.
  3. Dislike of the whole “retro” idea.

I appreciate the disorganization of the old rules, especially the original edition. While the treasure hunt nature of the old rules has its charms, it can also be damn intimidating. I do think the clones are far better edited and tend to have more of a universal mechanic, so this may be surmountable.

The loss of the coolness of 4e options is a real concern. Like I said, I found a lot of the 4e features darn fun. And I think that will determine which way we go. The coolness does come at a cost – we’d probably be looking at one or two combat encounters per session vs. several with older versions.

The retro concept is something to be avoided. Like I said, I have no desire to indulge in nostalgia. Any rules choice will be for maximum enjoyment. But I do think there may be something to be gained from the older rules. The website Philotomy’s OD&D Musings discusses this. The whole site is interesting but the following may be most appropriate.

Rose Colored Glasses

For some reason, when I tell other gamers I’m playing OD&D (or AD&D, or B/X, et cetera), I often hear comments about my “nostalgia” or my “rose colored glasses.” I find this both odd and annoying. The idea behind “rose colored glasses” is that your perception is being altered, and that you aren’t seeing things as they truly are. If you’re “looking back through rose colored glasses,” it means that you’re not seeing clearly, with the implication that time has tricked your memory, making the past seem better than it actually was. You only see the good stuff through the rose colored glasses. So this is a neat turn of phrase, a flippant dismissal of any fond feelings for older editions like OD&D. Nevertheless, while glib, the phrase doesn’t apply to me and my enthusiasm for OD&D.

Rose colored glasses only “work” when you’re looking back on an experience. Once you actually go back and experience it, again, the glasses stop working. At that point, the experience must stand or fall on its own merits (or lack thereof). I’m not looking back fondly on OD&D, I’m currently playing it. When I say I like it, it’s not because rose colored glasses have skewed my perception of the past; it’s because I like the experience I’m currently having. Rose colored glasses? Nope.

Another interesting post on this site is a discussion of the lack of skills. http://www.philotomy.com/#player_vs_pc A partial excerpt:

The original OD&D rules do not include a defined skill system. As a result, OD&D sometimes calls on the player to use his own skills and creativity when adventuring. This is a different approach than many gamers are used to, and running with it can take some adjustment if you’re in the habit of handling all PC actions with some sort of skill system that models that PC’s capabilities. Some players don’t like the idea at all, arguing that the game should be testing their PC’s capabilities, not their own: relying on player skill goes against the idea of the character. They have a point, but I think there is room for a different approach in role-playing. It boils down to the fact that relying on player skill for some situations is fun. I think it also encourages thinking outside the box, and immersion in the situation the character is in.

I’m not at any firm decision – nor am I really needing to be at this point. I need to figure out what the evil Ifrit in our Wild Talents game is going to do next…

Though I’m not yet a world-renowned blogger, this is my second blog. I imagine it’ll be my secondary blog – my primary one, Publius the Geek is dedicated to my interests in history, politics, religion, etc. It’s primarily concerned about “real” issues.

This blog is dedicated more to my “geekier” interests – primarily roleplaying games but I might sneak some discussion of other “non-real world” issues like computer games, comic books, fiction, etc.

As far as the name of the blog. Well, if you were a geek in the 80s you might recognize the reference. The first Dungeons & Dragons adventure tons of people played was Keep on the Borderlands. And one of the rumors you might hear at the Keep is that “bree-yark” is goblin for “we surrender”. And of course in the adventure you’ll run into some goblins that declare “bree-yark”.

Since I mentioned this blog was mainly about roleplaying games, my background in them extends to the early 80s, on a snow day when I was over my friend’s house trying to decipher this Dungeons & Dragons game his brother got for Christmas. I was a pretty active gamer in middle school and high school. We mainly played variants of Dungeons of Dragons, with some Star Trek, Star Wars, and Marvel Superheroes thrown in for good measure.

I did some occasional gaining in college, but not a whole heck of a lot. When I moved to Massachusetts I began my current group. It’s evolved quite a bit over the years – no members from its original group save me. We’ve mainly played Star Wars with a decent amount of D&D (3.5 and 4e), Serenity, and we’re currently playing a Wild Talents superhero campaign.