A Glorious Mess

The 3rd ed. Unearthed Arcana is my favorite d20 product that I almost never use. While it probably doesn’t have many fond memories amongst the OSR, I consider it to be a prime example of the old school tendencies of 3rd edition. When 4e tried to do anything ‘old school’ it often came off horribly misguided (transforming the Crystal Caves into a lazy encounters sequence, for instance). But what d20 had going for it was modularity, the same kind that (I hope) will categorize the new edition. The designers of 3e often used the d20 system as an umbrella to cover many variant subsystems like the Book of Nine Swords, Magic of Incarnum, Psionics, and wildly different takes on races and classes. 

Unearthed Arcana was what the DMG of 3rd should have been: rather than just a list of rules that covered the ‘behind the scenes’ of combat and treasure and whatnot, you got an enormous number of variations on the given systems. Now, many of these sucked, but that’s besides the point. How about a Savage Bard or an Urban Ranger? Want to play an Earth Kobold? How about a Githyanki-blooded human? Want to throw out the classes and go Generic? Spell-Points? Variable attack modifiers? There were even rules for replacing d20 rolls with d6s! While many of these things didn’t work out, they were all about expanding your idea of what could be done with the game.

When confronting the issue of a fifth edition, the question at this point for D&Ders is, ‘What do we need from a new edition?’ What could we get from 5th edition that we couldn’t hack out of 4th, 3rd, 2nd, 1st, Basic or Original? What could we produce aside from another unique variation on common themes, and why would we need that from a professional company rather than an independent one, or a single designer? I for one might be interested in a pure ‘Mearls D&D’ or ‘Monte Cook Basic’, but I don’t know why I would want to deal with corporate agendas alongside game creativity.

If D&D Next is going to have any real impact, it will not be mechanically. If they stick to modularity, multiple subsystems, the OGL, and variation there will be much for us to draw on. But the most important contribution will not be in the core engine. It will come from the attitude of the new edition. I have meditated much on James’ idea that D&D is a goulash. As Jeff says, you play Gandalf, I play Conan, we team up to fight Dracula. This is why I love Eberron and Dark Sun, both goulashes of more specific sets of influences. 4e didn’t suit me because it is about balance, tactical play and ‘heroes’, entirely existing in a self-referential ouroboros. If the new version of D&D will succeed, it will be because it allows for weirdness, variation, giant space hamsters and Victorian plane-hoppers. It will allow for laser guns and medusa escort services. It will rip off everything that comes in its path, and glory in it. It will become D&D by striving to be whatever it wants.

D&D Whichever

So I figured I better make mention of this whole 5e thing, you know, to keep the ratings up.

Like many, I got the playtest rules. I read through them and haven’t played a game yet. Some of the little details are interesting and some of the systems I like (advantages/disadvantages in particular). I had theorized before that Backgrounds/Themes might be far more suited to 4e than the existing skill system.  I think it’s cool that they included Caves of Chaos, though I feel that could just as much be a bone for old schoolers as a design statement. I don’t really want to talk about the fiddly bits, however.

Because this isn’t the finished product.

Mike Mearls repeatedly states that this is not what 5e will look like. This is just a taste, a tease, a little something to clue us into the design process and get our feedback. On the whole Mearls’ column hasn’t really done a lot for me, not because I am not interested in his take on things, but because I still don’t know what this game is going to look like next week, let alone next month.

But, as a friend pointed out to me, this edition isn’t about the rules. It’s about unifying the gamer fanbase. Now, I have issues with this idea that a new edition can do this. Many others have expressed this as well. Wizards could have ended the edition wars a long time ago, but they wanted to win them. That’s actually not as sinister as it sounds. They are a company. They have to make product, and seeking to make the best kind of product is not a bad goal, even if misguided in this case.

I felt that if Wizards wanted to end the edition wars, all they had to do was extend the OGL to cover all editions and release all pdfs. Also, they should follow Zak’s suggestion about the coffee table books. Done. After that, they could make whatever kind of D&D they wanted, because the support structure for the rest of us would be in place. Wizards supports your D&D, D&D 4e, and D&D Whatever.

But they are a company, and must put out product. Fair enough. I will say that it saddens me that I feel they are trying to get Pathfinder players back. I really like Pathfinder and the people making it, and for Wizards to now try to win back players of a game I felt they held in contempt seems wrong.

But none of us have anything to fear from D&D Next and whether it will destroy Pathfinder, Labyrinth Lord or whatever. Because real D&Ders will always take what they like, hack the shit out of it and use it. And hopefully, this new game will give us a lot of ideas to work with when creating the next iteration of D&D Ours.

From the Pages of Wizards' World

From the section detailing monsters:


Description: A nemesis is more a phenomenon of the universe than a being. A player may choose to fight his particular nemesis a maximum of once per level. When a player decides this, he will instantly be transported to an inter-dimensional arena. There he will find an exact duplicate of himself, including possessions. Then and there the two replicates will battle to the death. If the player defeats his nemesis, he will gain one point in the primary attribute of his choice. If he loses, the player loses a point in that attribute. Note that the GM should ask the player which attribute he is fighting for before the outcome is decided. Win or lose, the nemesis (and all of its possessions) disappears as soon as the death blow has landed. The player is transported back to his former location, and in that frame, no time passes. When the player returns to the former location, all wounds received in the battle with his nemesis will disappear.

Note: Each player has his own arena. Also, if a player passes a level without fighting his nemesis, he has missed his opportunity for that level.   


WaRP System Released on OGL!

The game Over the Edge has been converted to a 28-page OGL rulebook called the Wanton Role-Playing System. Huzzah!

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Over the Edge is one of those games that hipster RPers like me love to talk about as though we played it for hours and hours, each moment revealing new secrets of the depths of our inner Being like unfolding lyric poetry. Truth is, I’ve never played a game, not really. But the system is badass, and if you ever want to get a grip on what the whole ‘indie RPG’ community is all about, it’s a good place to start.

I think that we D&D players have a lot to learn from this little booklet. It might not have d20s and to-hit bonuses and classes and Vance, but it’s got speed, style and inventiveness as its core tenets. It revolves around the classic rule, ‘if you don’t know the outcome of an action, make up a number on a die and roll for it.’  

I hope that we get a chance to see a lot of stuff being produced for this system, just like the stuff the OSR is putting out now. In fact, if you want to try splicing some OtE goodness into your old-school game, check out this cool hack. It’s for Tunnels & Trolls, but we know how this goes. Splice it, dice it, hack it ‘til it works.

Randomized Armor

Way back in this post I debuted a new (I think, or new-ish) combat system. I have since decided that adding armor values to the defensive score is a bit too high (because I'm fickle). I've had a couple of variant ideas kicking around inside my head, so I thought it would be a good time to debut one of them.

When I was looking at Wizard's World one of the things I noticed is that armor actually absorbs hits rather than increasing the difficulty of being hit. This is an approach I first saw in Iron Heroes (which is a game I love and want to play more of). Another thing I saw in that game was that Barbarians had a random die roll for their damage reduction (like a 1d4 DR at first level). All this swirled around in my head until it occurred to me that randomized armor might be a good idea.

In this system, attacks are:

d20 + Combat Bonus (CB) + STR (or DEX)
d20 + CB + CON (or DEX).

I like this because CON now has another use besides HP bonuses. So if an attack hits, the attacker rolls damage and the defender rolls to see how much his armor absorbs. The values are (for generic armor):

Light Armor (Padded Cloth, Leather, Chain Shirt): 1d4
Medium Armor (Studded Leather, Chain Mail, Ring Mail): 1d6 (-1 to DEX)
Heavy Armor (Full Plate): 1d8 (-2 to DEX)

or something like that. This way not only does CON become more useful, but high-damage weapons like two-handed swords are guaranteed to do some damage. Also, rather than incite a bonus war over AC, this simply has characters run the gauntlet of randomness twice, once to hit and once to harm. There must always be a possibility of harm (we don't want armor to deflect hits just because of number discrepancies). As for shields, I would just allow shield bonuses to go to the defense roll as usual, and probably create categories for them as well:

Buckler: +1
Light Shield: +2
Heavy Shield: +3 (-1 DEX)

This does not accommodate Tower Shields, which I always considered finicky and deserving of special rules anyway. Otherwise we could just go total Old School and leave shields at +1 (which is fine by me).

Feel free to share your thoughts!

First Look Into Wizards' World

This game (as many of you already know) was bought and re-published by Dan Proctor, who got it from God-only-knows where. The first thought one has when looking at the thing is: why republish this, yet another variation on classic D&D? What makes it special?

You can play a Metamorphic Dwarf Assassin or a Demonic Halfling Jester. Half-Elves don’t get to be angsty. Instead of Paladins, you get White Knights (who save princesses from towers) and Black Knights (who lock princesses up in towers). You can be a Fighter, or you can be an Attacker, a Defender, or a Destroyer. Dragons only come in the gemstone variety, like Amethyst or Malachite. In fact, many of the monsters are made of crystal or are a very specific kind of demon. Wizards use spell points, and spells like Charm are more gradated. There are scores for ‘Secondary Attributes’ like Stealth and Alertness, derived from Primary Attributes. Armor absorbs damage. There are all kinds of finicky little percentages that improve your attacks and defenses with specific weapons (really just expanding Thief Skills into a more general percentile system). This gives  certain classes special bonuses and whatnot; it’s a little too finicky for me, but at 85 pages in total I won’t whine. There is a Potion of Voice Throwing. There are red-horned bulls who fire green bolts of energy. There are Frost Frogs that teleport. There are giants that talk like valley girls (no, really). Dark blue weasels communicate via telepathy in a British accent. There are rabbits that possess the weak-willed. The sample party characters are named Macbeth, Fortinbras, Alvin, Oedipus, and Primion. And the monster names, like Drakra, Garn, Jarg, Madradox, Placeron, Syke, and Xelnarr, all with illustrations (though the green saber-toothed gorilla, the Xexaxax, gets no such love).

In short, Wizards' World looks like D&D made a determined effort to look like the cover of a concept album by a Yes side-project. It reminds me of movies where the characters are playing D&D but nobody who wrote the movie knows what D&D is so they just made up some words based on the AD&D book covers. It feels greater than the sum of its rules-variants, and therefore dependant on those variations (rather than the alterations being merely cosmetic or clever). It accomplishes more in terms of being its own game in 85 pages than other games do in 300. The illustrations look like fun, as in the fun I want to have while playing this game. 

Others hopefully will cover the finicky bits, like the Secondary Attributes and +1% to hit with chosen weapon per character level. I won’t right now, though there are bits I like and bits I don’t. Others are better at that stuff, I think.

When I first looked at Wizards' World, my initial thoughts ran to the article on ‘Fantasy Heartbreakers’ by the infamous Ron Edwards. I feel like I (or someone) should say something about that article at length and how it pertains to the OSR. That will come later. Or maybe someone has, and y’all can link me to it.