Tagged: D&D

Hunter’s Dreams – The Nexus’ Needs

This is more work on Hunter’s Dream, a 4th Edition D&D-compatible mod made to enable a Bloodborne style of game, where players take on the role of hunters, who have to first research their prey before going out to the tactical combat stage of things where players get to have cool fights with werewolves and whatnot.

One of the funny things about this game design process so far is that one of the biggest ‘new’ systems the game includes is going to be building hutns, where players get to interact with some more board-gamey elements. And as with almost all big things, it’s easier to instead peck around the outside, to work with the smaller things, until you get to the bigger thing. There’s value to that, though, especially because when you’re aware of what your small systems can do, you can use them to adjust the bigger, more complicated ones.

With that in mind, let’s talk about a thing that gives the games a rules patch: The Nexus.

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3.5 Memories – Vileness

You know it’d be pretty easy to draw the conclusion, based on the way I talk about it, that I didn’t like 3.5 D&D. This couldn’t be further from the truth – I haven’t played the game in ten years and yet I still have all my books, still have character sheets and build articles and all sorts of interesting work I did. I wouldn’t write these articles about 3rd edition books and mechanics where I reminisce about how the things I did – silly as they were – were still cool. I liked 3.5.

But gosh did it make it hard.

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Hunter’s Dreams – Handling ‘Race,’ Part 2

This is more work on Hunter’s Dream, a 4th Edition D&D-compatible mod made to enable a Bloodborne style of game, where players take on the role of hunters, who have to first research their prey before going out to the tactical combat stage of things where players get to have cool fights with werewolves and whatnot.

Last time I outlined some of the problems with ‘race’ as she is treated in the game of Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition, the challenges of making settings through the ‘race’ option, and the potential, unconnected legal concerns with how to treat races so as to not invalidate the rules of making 4th edition D&D content.

Those are our parameters, the problems we need to consider. Now let’s talk about what I’m going to choose to overcome this.

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Owlbear Traps

In the past I have remarked upon the idea of Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition’s quality as it being a game that lacked ‘bear traps.’ This is just a basic metaphor, you know, comparisons between a thing that could hurt you hiding in an undergrowth, that you might never realise was there until after it hurt you? It wasn’t ever meant to be a genuine game design term, not something I’d use in serious discussions.

Yeah except now I’m using it and I need to nail down that to make sure people might know what I mean, and I’m going to be very specific here. I’m talking about Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition as examples of game design, and I’m talking about the overall philosophy of the game.

Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition did not mind or care if you had a bad time that was the game’s fault.

I’ve spoken in the past about the sorcerer and the wizard; the tension that lay between two classes that were very similar, with one just being markedly worse than the other, and the competitive design mindset between them. I’ve also spoken in the past about how there’s this class, the Druid, where they have a class feature that’s about 80% of everything that a Fighter is, and how over time, that class feature improves faster than the fighter, resulting in overtaking in the mid-game.

The big issue of 3.5 class balance is that melee combat was, just in general, not as good as magic. Ranged combat wasn’t that good either, but it could be made to compete with magic, mostly through the use of magic. The best archers in the game were inevitably spellcasters using magic to compensate for what the fighters and rangers were given, and still had their spellcasting besides.

This is something of the philosophy of this game, where it wants it to be possible to mess up building or playing your character. It’s a way to represent ‘being good’ at Dungeons and Dragons. Which is an interesting idea, and one that I kind of want to support, on one level. I think games are better when they’re made as sequences of interesting decisions; deck-building in Magic: The Gathering is an interesting decision, and that doesn’t make the game play experience of it that different. Heck, you could view a draft, then a deck build, then the matches of Magic: The Gathering as multiple different games, with all sorts of interesting decisions along the way.

 

The problem is that an evening of drafting for Magic: The Gathering is maybe four hours and you’re done while building a Dungeons and Dragons character in 3.5 required an enormous investment in time because you could only level them up as the game progressed.

It’s also gatekeeping: The game wants to give you the means to screw up at it, because the idea is that doing well or making smart choices is more satisfying and rewarding. Except your character, their feats and their powers are not a small choice; they grow over time based on your experience playing a game and may take months or years to come to fruition. You might need to read dozens of books to get a handle on how a character really works – the full breadth of a character may be dozens of books, some of which are totally unrelated.

This game presented you with choices of varying difficulty, but you needed enormous context to know how those choices worked. And you had to master the system to ever appreciate how bad some of the choices were.

And thus we have an owlbear trap: A way in which Dungeons and Dragons 3.5’s design philosophy prioritised servicing an enfranchised, qualified group of players in order to make it tangibly more desireable to do the things those players liked. Or to simplify: An owlbear trap is when you make it possible for new players to fail, just because they’re new.

Excerpt: The Nyarr

This is an excerpt from the Nyarr, a race expansion I’m making based on my 3.5 D&D work. This is an abridged excerpt of some details about the Nyarr – their general physical look, their interaction with that thing called ‘gender,’ and some writing about what it’s like to be a Nyarr.

The Nyarr are meant to be a culture you can jam into a game that players can easily pick up if they want to play someone without the same Genders Stuff as a conventional setting’s conventional cultures have. In the same way that people sometimes are drawn to things like the Girdle of Gender Change, the Nyarr are a nonbinary race of cool-looking nice monster people.


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Rebuilding Cobrin’Seil Part 4: The Everywhere Else

Back in 3rd edition, I created my own D&D setting. It wasn’t very good, but I’m still very attached to it, and want to use it as an object lesson in improving. I also want to show people that everything comes from somewhere, and your old work can help become foundational to your new work.

Content Warning: Some of the old text is going to feature some unconscious cissexism and sexism, and I know there are a few unknowingly racist terms that I used.


Alright, so previous bandaids were about my decisions that were thoughtless and badly thought out, like ‘Kyngdom’ as a name, or barely scrubbing the name of Cimmura. The thing is, Dal Raeda, the Eresh Protectorate, and Amenti represent what are some of the best designed pieces of the setting, the places where I had good, fundamentally usable ideas.

The rest of things is where it all gets a bit soft, and also where I did some things that are uncomfortable, and now with the benefit of experience, I realise are pretty damn racist.

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Rebuilding Cobrin’Seil Part 3: Framing Spaces

Back in 3rd edition, I created my own D&D setting. It wasn’t very good, but I’m still very attached to it, and want to use it as an object lesson in improving. I also want to show people that everything comes from somewhere, and your old work can help become foundational to your new work.

Content Warning: Some of the old text is going to feature some unconscious cissexism and sexism, and I know there are a few unknowingly racist terms that I used.


The standard D&D place write-up is bad.

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Rebuilding Cobrin’Seil Part 2: Knightly Orders

Back in 3rd edition, I created my own D&D setting. It wasn’t very good, but I’m still very attached to it, and want to use it as an object lesson in improving. I also want to show people that everything comes from somewhere, and your old work can help become foundational to your new work.

Content Warning: Some of the old text is going to feature some unconscious cissexism and sexism, and I know there are a few unknowingly racist terms that I used.


I mentioned last time that I like giving players handles. In the country now known as Dal Raeda, this took the form of different provinces, with different cultures, but since a game set in Dal Raeda meant I’d be dealing with the lead-in to a potential civil war or players subverting or delaying that civil war (and that seems a big setting piece to deal with in my first game or two), I immediately relocated my focus to the nation next door.

I have said this before to new DMs, and I want to repeat it here: Steal things. The first campaign I ran took the plot from Quest For Glory 1 and as my playgroup matured and adjusted and I learned, I was able to build in the space that structure gave me. Some things from the games happened as-is, some things happened in very different ways, and some things never happened, but I always knew where I could look for the ‘now what’ thanks to having that game history on hand. And the next nation over, where I went for the next game, I stole the plot of David Eddings’ Elenium and Tamuli books, as best I could just-barely remember them.

The thing that appealed to me about these books and that I wanted to use is Eddings’ idea of having knightly orders with different styles and characterisation. In his setting, they were the Pandions, Alcione, Genidian and Cyrinic orders, and they were differentiated from one another mostly by dint of having different names. You got to meet these Knightly Orders in the characters of Sparhawk, and Sparhawk’s Five Interchangeable Friends, who were all different kind of knights and if you haven’t read the books this month you probably can’t remember who was in what order and what makes those orders different.

Now, I enjoyed these books when I first read them, but I first read them when they were almost all the fantasy novels I’d ever read. They were not good books, they’re kind of creepy and misogynist in Eddings’ way where all women are kind of interchangeable nags. D&D also had this handy way to divide up approaches to the world, with the alignment system, so I cut these four orders down to three, and then in an attempt to seem less like I was just stealing names, I renamed some of them a little bit. This gave me three orders, the Pandions (Lawful Good), the Lethinites (Neutral Good), and the Cyrinists (Chaotic Good).

Armed with that basic characterisation I filled in a bunch of other details and they’ve since grown and built around the way the players play and a fourth, hidden order sprang up as well, the Chardunists.

These knightly orders belong in a country known in my world as Symeira, which attentive readers will probably guess I derived from Cimmura, from the Sparhawk books, but also Conan’s Cimmeria. I thought merging two extremely similar looking words would create something wildly different.

I like this country and these orders, and I like who they’ve become to fit with the three campaigns (each of which ran for a year-plus) I’ve run using them. They are a good narrative tool, and they give players an organisation to belong to that’s also free enough that they can stake out their own space in it. They can be a good knight or a bad knight or they have a story of how they came to be a knight. This is good stuff, and players tend to like it.

Now, there are three reasons to want to rename these orders, or to at least make the names a little different. First of all, there’s just basic reference reasons. I don’t want players who know the Eddings novels to think I mean those Pandions, I mean my Pandions. My Pandions aren’t going to have creepy marriages to beautiful princesses they raised and did I mention those books are bad?

Ownership over the terms is another thing; it’s one thing to use terms from another source, and I could easily argue ‘Pandion’ is not a term that Eddings owns exclusively. There were a bunch of Greek kings with that name, and the term is in the Osprey’s species name. Still, why have the argument? The word isn’t so incredibly great I want to keep using it.

The third reason is identity within the culture. See, remember, this stuff comes from a country that’s next to the country now known as Dal Raeda – but if you heard those names were for things within Dal Raeda, would they fit alongside words like ‘Glotharen’ and ‘Delan’? Would they feel different?

The culture currently-and-soon-formerly known as Symeira fills a large space in my setting. It’s a nation made entirely of city-states and small protectorates, spread across the spaces occupied by other countries, with a highway system connecting them. These cities are old, and mostly known for their infrastructure, and don’t have an adversarial relationship with the nations they’re in.

Now, sometimes this is because the nation whose space the city is in doesn’t really have a conventional ‘government’ as we consider it (like the vast, disconnected non-human cultures of the Corrindale woods), the nation’s government arrived after the city was built (think a bit like London), or the land the city is on was purchased or separated for political reasons (like Vatican City). To maintain trade between these cities, the central city financed the construction of a highway system, which stretches across most non-Dal Raedan nations, and other countries accept the presence because the highways are useful, and the cities are great for trade (and also getting rid of them would be hard).

Now, because these cities are jutted all over the place, they can have names and language that relates more to the country they’re in rather than ‘Symeira.’ The history of what-will-not-be-named-Symeira-much-longer is loose at this point, but I see it as being a nation that came together once the cities were established, rather than necessarily the result of a conventional nation-formation mechanism like a revolution.

For the culture of this nation there’s only one other existing meaningful name, and that’s the name of the Holy City, Olifar. I like Olifar as a name, because it’s both got some air in it, which makes it feel ‘uppity,’ and it’s also lacking in hard edges, suggesting the place isn’t tough. It has an ethereal kind of quality to it, which I like for a city that is primarily the home of a church. Olifar doesn’t have a lot of industry – it’s where the church’s largest and most politically important cathedrals rest, and where the church politics all happen.

Before I go on, I’d like to talk about why I want this kind of culture in my game world.

This society lets me have something reasonably similar to a typical European Fantasy, where characters are sent from some central location by someone with a generally positive disposition (you know, a decent, if not perfect leader), then travel away from their central location, have their smaller adventure, then return to their source and report on what happened. Travel time gives you a lot of good stuff for conflict and adventure design, and the delay it imposes is also really valuable. It means players spend time moving, dealing with potential ‘wandering’ encounters, having meals, breaking camp, learning how they do the basics of living without the purposelessness of just giving them time to idle around one another.

Now, one of the easy ways to do this is to mimic the British Empire and have people meet the Queen, then get sent to the colonies to deal with things, but that, perhaps to the surprise of a typical gamer, is super colonialist and that’s not good. I don’t want to tell my players to have adventures in this game space, they’re going to have to be complicit in colonialism in the most obvious way.

(Oh, and yes, I know there are some well-actuallying people who’d argue that any game that represents a hierarchy is inherently anti-leftist and therefore capitalist, yes, I’m very impressed, the exits are there, there, and there.)

This nation gives players a generally neutral, not-pointedly-awful place to exist. There are some state-wide institutions, there’s a watch service that isn’t directly comparable to the police, there’s knightly orders doing things like preserving knowledge, copying books and maintaining libraries and creating jobs. There’s still some trappings of feudalism but it’s all Not-Actually-Feudalism, where you have ‘lords’ but they’re appointed and mostly the bad ones exist so players have someone to righteously stab in the face and the reasonable organisation around them can respond to that.

Originally, I learned the idea for this kind of coalition of city-states connected by highways exists, and it’s known as a confederacy, but we’re not going to use that term because I don’t want players to associate this flexible setting piece with, you know, slave-keeping assholes.

I did a lot of testing of these names, and eventually I went to a randomiser and punched in some syllables, then sorted through the results for a bit. The main thing I did here was exclude names; the names of the original settings, the names of the orders I couldn’t use, and also syllables that felt like they belong to Dal Raeda (so less focus on ‘B’ and ‘Nd’ sounds).  I also rejected a lot of names that felt strongly like they belonged to a specific culture in the real world – a number of names that turns out were common-ish Iraqi names, for example.

First of all, we’re going to rename ‘Symeira’ and ‘Symeiran.’ They’re now Ereshan and the city is Eresh. The group of cities is called the Eresh Protectorate, which I like because it both implies the origin of the coalition, and makes it clear that there’s some degree of protection offered from the center. Eresh also stands apart from Dal Raeda, and they have some similar sound to them (the R and E) but they don’t necessarily feel like they’re just variants on the same basic language. Ironically, these two nations share a language now (because trade), but that’s not how they started.

Eresh the city, by the way, is right next door to the province of Danube

That’s the place they come from, now let’s talk about the Knightly Orders and how they differ from one another.

First, our Lawful Good cavalry knights, the former Pandions are now the Tzarumite order. I like how this name has a hesitation at the start; you pause slightly to say it, because the Tz sound isn’t very quick or natural in English. You know there’s going to be people in-universe who call them Zarumites, and it’s probably seen as kinda dickish.

The Tzarumites are our regimented, well-off order; the ones who have the most inherited property and land, the most overseers, and the one with a deliberate integration with the Watch in Eresh cities. They’re also the order known for cavalry troops and an infamous shocking charge. If you pay a Tzarumite, you probably have access to some money, or grew up working around people who had money, and were being sponsored, adopted, or somehow helped along by people who wanted you in the order.

The Tzarumite colours are black and purple, and their common weapons are longsword and lance.

Since I made the Lethinite order pretty much up out of whole cloth, they just stay as they are. They’re the academics, and they’re the ones who interface the most with Church laws and libraries. They’re basically your nerd knights, doing things like transporting valuable books to places so they can be restored, or sealing away dangerous tomes that have powerful spells in them. Lethinites are also known for information-based warfare – they scout, they make tactical decisions or strategic plans, and they’re the ones who make the best impromptu fortifications.

The Lethinite colours are silver and rose, and their common weapons are the longbow and longspear.

The rowdy Cyrinist order are almost completely unchanged, they’re just now called the Raguzans. Raguzan knights are the least likely to have landed titles; they’re often ‘knights of convenience,’ or people who distinguished themselves in battle heroically or in a militia situation, given a knighthood that they can’t pass on to their children and given just enough authority to run around as dangerous free agents on the battlefield. Raguzan knights tend to have other jobs, they tend to be working class, and the Raguzans are known for their skill in animal-keeping. If you see a warhound, battle boars, or war dire ferrets on the battlefield, they’re with the Raguzans. Raguzans make decisions quickly and decisively. They’re also the experts in demolitions and breaking sieges , which naturally is a point of tension with Lethinites.

The Raguzan colours are blue and gold, and their common weapons are two-handed axes, hammers, and swords.

Chardunists are the final order, and since I made up this name myself years ago, I don’t feel it needs to change. I like it as a sort of semi-Babylonian feel, which fits their origin. Chardunists started as the Olifar Inquisition, whose duty was to root out psychics in the church territories. Psionics was regarded as a ‘soul sickness’ and the Chardunists became students of it, then experts on it, until eventually, Chardunists who were psychic became influential enough to change the direction of the order. Chardunists have over time slipped into the shadows and become a lesser-known fourth order of knights, who mostly do covert operations, which they use to scoop up psychic individuals and hide them from the remaining inquisition arms of the church.

The Chardunist colours are grey and jade, and their common weapons are daggers, brass knuckles, bottles and someone else’s fists.

This was a long walk! But there was a lot of thought put into making these setting elements engaging and fun while also having distinct names that don’t directly overlap with one another. If you say any of these names aloud, you’re not likely to mix up which of them you’re saying, which is a good test of a decent name.

Also, hopefully, players are thinking of how they’d want to fit into these knightly orders, or not.


All these images are from the VGA Remake of Quest For Glory I, a game that heavily influenced the creation of this setting, even if I let almost none of the Cole’s taste for Whacky Humour infiltrate my game.

 

Rebuilding Cobrin’Seil Part 1: Names in the Kingdom

Back in 3rd edition, I created my own D&D setting. It wasn’t very good, but I’m still very attached to it, and want to use it as an object lesson in improving. I also want to show people that everything comes from somewhere, and your old work can help become foundational to your new work.

Content Warning: Some of the old text is going to feature some unconscious cissexism and sexism, and I know there are a few unknowingly racist terms that I used.


First of all, let’s talk about just some basic work of names.

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Rebuilding Cobrin’Seil

When I was nineteen, I started running Dungeons and Dragons. The history of my time with this game isn’t important, but what is important is that when I started, I had access to the setting books of the Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk settings, and seeing this veritable library of game rules and information about mechanical identity and culture, I immediately said No, I don’t want that.

I wanted to tell stories with this game, but there were two reasons I wanted to avoid an established setting:

  1. I was brand new to the game, and didn’t want people to feel they could ‘beat me’ about the world by bringing up a book
  2. I didn’t want to have to read a dozen books to get started

Instead, I invented a world in a weekend and then spent years bolting on new things, editing, re-editing, retconning and then, around the time 4th Edition became a thing, I quietly put the world away and worked on other stuff. I still ran the occasional D&D game in this world, but the world wasn’t important to the games.

This is a huge trove of lore and game mechanical information. I made classes and races and feats and just a ton of stuff, some of which I recently dusted off and looked at, and you know, some of it was bad, but some of it surprised me. Particularly, a thing that surprised me was how many of the basic ideas in it I liked, and wanted another chance to do better.

Plus, I know there’s an interest in worldbuilding as a skill, and I’m friends with some people who are really good at it, and they’ve had some really interesting stuff to say about it. But I don’t just want to make good things and show you the final product; instead, I want you to see that every good thing you like was worked on and refined and changed, and for that reason I figured I’d put down these setting revision notes here, in a series.

This is going to introduce you to the setting, both how I’d explain it to a player, and how I’d put it into a book. I’m going to examine my ideas, and then examine how I think players might engage with them as play spaces.

Going back over old writing is going to reveal some ugly stuff, and some really basic stuff. I imagine there’s going to be some implicit racism and cissexism, some unconscious misogyny and I know at least once I use a slur as a game term, which isn’t good. A content warning then, going forward.


The image is from the VGA Remake of Quest For Glory I, a game that heavily influenced the creation of this setting, even if I let almost none of the Cole’s taste for Whacky Humour infiltrate my game.

D&D Memories: Genshiken

I like looking back at character creation for RPGs. It’s creative, and expressive, and it has mechanical fine-tuning, I like that stuff. Mechanics give you things you must do, then concept and flavour give you things you can choose to do within that space, and that then means you get to pick what you express.

In a friend’s game, Genshiken was mostly expressing that I was watching a lot of Bleach back in the day.

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4th Edition’s Space Problem

Normally you’ll hear me be pretty positive about 4th Edition D&D. I’m a strident defender of the game, which is made easiest by a number of the complaints about the game being entirely fake. It’s easy to be a righteous defender of something against blatant lies.

Still, there are flaws with 4th Edition D&D, which shouldn’t be any kind of surprise and yet here we are. Let’s talk about one of them. Heck, let’s talk about a big problem, and it’s a problem that’s structural. It’s so structural it doesn’t even relate to a specific class, as much as it relates to the way that classes get made.

Classes take up too much space.

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Battlemind Woes

At the time this post goes up, I will have already played this year’s Weekend D&D game. If things went as I expected, I’d have played a Battlemind, modelled on Gilgamesh from Fate: Grand Order, in that he’s a reckless garbage boy, a property-rights-confused wanna-be Hero of the Sands of a half-Gerudo.

This has meant looking at the class the Battlemind at some length, and let me tell ya, it ain’t great.

For those of you not familiar with 4th Edition D&D, here’s the basics: The Battlemind is a defender class, meaning that in combat, it wants to spend its time forcing enemies to prioritise it – it’s a form of control. The defender wants to make enemy actions as fruitless as possible by making those actions directing attacks at someone who can best handle it, and does this by being the toughest person on the field and then making it hard for enemies to attack other people.

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The Anticolonial Tiefling

With the recent rise of Freely Talking About Your D&D Character the internet has seen in what I’m going to assume is probably the fault of some extremely successful podcaster or whatever, I’ve been seeing a lot of talk about tieflings, and I want to present to you a take on tieflings I don’t see widely represented.

First things first: What’s a tiefling? It depends on the setting (as with all things), but the basics are that a tiefling is a type of human with a bit of demon blood. There are some creatures in most settings – most notably the Tannaruk and Fey’Ri in the Forgotten Realms that show that it’s specifically humans with a tinge of demonic blood in them. In some settings, the Tiefling are a bit like a rarity amongst humans – a Tiefling is born in a human line because a bit of the demonic influence in the family comes to the surface.

There’s often, in those settings, a similar type of creature that relates to celestial interference or elementals – the aasimar who bear a bit of the celestial, and the genasi with the elemental. And if you go down this rabbit hole you’ll find the Zenythri and the Chaond and all sorts of fun stuff, but Tieflings are the rockstars of this set. The Tieflings are the ones who you’ll often see alone, without the rest of the planar-cosmology-filling goofiness of the adjacent cultures.The Tiefling is almost obviously exciting, though. I mean, it’s a person with a demonic tinge to them, a little bit of the outsider, a little bit wild. It’s very appealing to an edgelord dork boy demographic, and certainly appealing to the monster-fucker genre of consumer, too. The tiefling, however, is also going to appeal to the fans of Hot Monsters as a voice of queerness, and that means you’re going to see a lot of people who are very happy to make leather-pants-wearing horned, tailed, spicy bisexual hot messes, and make their characters all about being a blatant metaphor for queerness. They’re a child born into a family that immediately recoils from them with horror, hides them away, and ostracizes them for their disruption of ‘the normal.’

This is very basic queer coding, after all.

I personally don’t like it? Partly because the nature of queerness is that you don’t get born with queer horns on your head. Your queerness is a part of your identity that isn’t branded on you from birth and most importantly, being queer isn’t bad. A demon child that has actual special powers as an emblem of queerness really gets on my nerves because it kind of isolates the idea of queerness as both defined by birth (which it’s not) and monstrous (which it isn’t).

Every time I bring this up, though, it’s inevitable that someone will explain to me, helpfully, that queerness and monsters in media are often linked, and often queer people will identify with monstrous characters. This is very helpful because it’s definitely not something I’m already talking about and am already extremely well-aware of.

I’m not trying to take away your fun!

I just have my own preference.

I’d like to lead you to this other idea, though.

Tieflings have special abilities. They have stuff other cultures can’t do. Claws and fangs, and a feeling of fire, a tail, horns, sometimes unique feats, whispers from the beyond, a secret from a demon patron, a whole host of things. The tiefling is, mechanically, set apart from the human culture. As to why, well, there’s no real hard proof of where they came from.

Sometimes there’s stories of wars with planar invaders, sometimes it’s more that tieflings are byproducts of long-gone old sins. I like the 4th Edition D&D idea best, though. It presents the Tieflings as having been once the dominant culture in the world, with a super-powered magical empire that they then messed up so badly they not only cast a culture-wide sudo rm -rf / but also did it in a way that left every other culture very aware of what they did. They were humans who collaborated with demons and it changed them from being humans, and then, mixed in amongst human culture, there are these people, these tieflings, who have some of that ancient demonic heritage and powers just there, in them.

To this story, the Tieflings are the children of an empire that is no more and what defines their place in their current culture is that everyone around them is very aware of their relationship to that culture.

In this case, the Tiefling are both victims of empire, adrift colonists with no culture of their own, and beneficiaries, with all the old power that resides at their fingertips waiting for the tieflings to go get it… but that same power can be measured in terms of the peril it can cause the world. You may be saving the world, by turning these tools of global domination against themselves, but doing so comes at a cost.

This, this to me is interesting. It connects you to something monstrous, something big and something that you have every reason to resent as an individual. It draws the player’s relationship to their own potential power not as the invigorating power of gayness but of a question of how to deconstruct a master’s house.

That’s a question that often requires you to look for the master’s hammers.

3.5 Memories – Singh Rager

Sometimes playing Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition was like playing a game under a Mexican standoff. Part of it was our maturity as players and part of it was a very programmatic view of the game rules. There was a fairly widespread, commonly seen vision that there was a correct way to play the game, and you could use precedent and rules and various senior authorities to make your position the correct one. The thing is, these arguments weren’t fun and they’d eat all day and you’d get sick of them, so you wanted to avoid them.

What’s more, the game was so big that it wasn’t very easy for a DM to be sure about what their players could do, and it was often very awkward to roll with it when a player did something unexpected. If you were particularly strict about things, you’d sometimes watch as the game juddered to an almighty halt as you nerfed a player in-action, putting your foot down at the right moment to make a player feel bad. Especially bad when players had common goals, but you had to reign one in while leaving the other unrestrained. Rightness of it notwithstanding, it felt bad.

It wasn’t like the design didn’t encourage this kind of mindset, too – there were all sorts of monsters which were made explicitly to shut off particular abilities of player characters. Golems often were immune to magic in all but extremely specific ways, many monsters had totally unreasonable damage reduction or really weak saves in one category, and that was meant to represent a way that the players could prey on weak points, or, that you could punish players for their failings. DMs knew they had ‘the nasty stuff’ they could bust out, and it was stuff that almost never had any meaningful reason to be the way it was. You didn’t need to put Gricks anywhere, Gricks didn’t have powerful resonance. You didn’t need a Golem, representing a wizard’s hubris, you could just use all the other more interesting things wizards could do. Wizard players would never flipping bother with making a golem, too.

DMs stayed away from these things unless the players got uppity, and the players, in order to avoid arguments, tried to avoid getting uppity. One of the easiest ways to get uppity was to show off that you could exceed the challenges presented by the DM – which really, in hindsight, is such a silly thing. If a fight’s over fast, just implement that knowledge for next time.

Anway.

What this meant is that if you wanted to min-max, you kind of wanted to min max within boundaries of what the DM could handle. Combat was a good place to stay, because even the nuttiest combat build still tended to be limited by where it could physically stand and how many actions you got in a turn. Wizards could sidestep entire combats with utility spells, or scry-and-die boss monsters. Clerics could make armies and take over dragons, and druids were all that on rocket skates. The Artificer and Archivist waited nervously in the wings, hoping nobody would notice them, because they were somehow more busted than the other spellcasters.

If you wanted to min-max a melee combat type, though?

Well, boy, you could go buck. wild. there and it wouldn’t really matter too much. The most broken melee combatant in the game you could make was probably a wizard or cleric, after all, so if you got there without doing any of that nonsense, you were usually seen as ‘playing fair.’

So let’s talk about the Singh Rager, a 3.0 orphan that got nerfed by 3.5, and was good enough even after the nerf.

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Game Pile: Lords Of Madness

I rarely hold up Dungeons and Dragons books as being good books for general gaming purposes. They’re all very much books about Dungeons and Dragons, and even Elder Evils, last weeks’ offering for campaign-ending threats, was a book jammed full of systems for explaining weather, big dungeon designs and complex fight mechanics. When you bought a book for Dungeons and Dragons 3.5, you were often getting a book that was some 30%-50% system information, information that’s dead weight if you’re not using that system. Some of my favourite books from that time, like The Tome of Battle and Races of Eberron are absolutely steeped in mechanical information, and if you’re not using it, you really aren’t getting enough book for your investment to be worth your time.

But let me show you a book that I want to recommend to anyone making or playing with horror even if you don’t want to use D&D or even fantasy settings, that also has the on-theme matter of being a spooky book about spooky stuff. I don’t mean Heroes of Horror, which devotes a lot of its space to trying to systemitise horrifying things, no. I want to talk to you about a book about putting things in your world that are horrible.

I want to talk about Lords of Madness.

That said, I would issue a content warning, beyond the typical this is a book about spooky stuff. This book has a lot of humans being eaten, brain parasites, descriptions of people being seen as prey, but all that stuff is very passe for D&D monsters. Here be tentacles, goop, puppeteering and meat.

The other content warning is that if you’re Dissociative or plural or have DID or any of the related fields of mindset complication, Lords of Madness attempts to write numerous ‘alien’ psychologies that may look familiar to you, imagined as alien othered.

I’m personally reluctant to use the term ‘saneism’ because I don’t feel qualified to make that call, but there’s a lot of language in this book that assumes a very simple mental health binary and puts things like plurality or low-empathy living in the ‘bad’ bucket. Note that this doesn’t really take into account that most D&D adventuring parties are composed of homeless murderers.

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3rd Ed D&D – The Whale Monk

We talk a good game about how weird balance was back in Dungeons and Dragons but sometimes it just made a kind of sense. Druids were really good because they could shapeshift into animals and also cast spells. Fighters were bad because they had to stand in one spot and whale on something to get the most of their abilities, and no amount of hit point damage compared to ‘dead on the spot from having your soul ripped out.’

There are however, some odd places that the balance of the game just blind-spotted. It’s a bit of a canard, back in 3rd edition that every book had a broken thing in it, and the more stuff in the book, the more chance you’d find something that slipped up and had more broken stuff in it. Almost every splatbook in 3rd edition featured a class that was busted weak and another that was busted strong, and another that just didn’t work properly. Yet nonetheless, it was in a published book, and that means that it has some reality to it, some unvirtuality that leaves the creative mind of the DM fit to examine the option and decide if it’s okay, or not.

Let me show you something extremely silly and extremely powerful that a reasonable DM might give you a funny look over.

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Bad Balance: Incarnum And Cognitive Load

One of D&D 3.5’s biggest problems was its magical system, which was by default bonkers and broken. Despite that, though, there was an almost constant attempt to expand the magic system, to fulfill every specific small variant visions of magic. The Expanded Psionics Handbook, the Tome of Magic, the Artificer and the Archivist, wings of spells in The Book of Vile Darkness and The Book of Exalted Deeds – there was a near-constant effort to expand the magic systems to do different things in different ways.

You can approach design from either a strong mechanical position, or a strong theme and Incarnum was a power idea that came hard out of a mechanical interaction. Magic of Incarnum brought its own system, called the Incarnum system.

The Incarnum system, as simple as I can explain it, is that you could create virtual items in your item slots, and then invest a small pool of points into these items to make them better. This could give you special abilities that got better, from turn to turn, and you could rearrange all these points every turn. When you needed lots of defence, you could sink those points into defenses. When you needed to kill something fast, you could put those points into offense. This system was pretty interesting and cool! You could really customise a character in a lot of ways, and there was this balancing act of choosing where your points were by default.

Incarnum however, was a really bad system, not because it was bad, but because as a player, you had to spend the bulk of your time juggling a small list of points for a small advantage. None of the Incarnum values were particularly large, and the niche utility of some of the shifting was as much a matter of pooling skill bonuses into your armour at the right moment at the right time, rather than really changing what you did. The system was designed to be careful enough as to not get out of hand like the existing spell system (which was broken), but still be an alternative worth playing (which was pretty hard, when the spell system was broken).

The real thing though that kills Incarnum is cognitive load.

Cognitive load is the concept in psychology that describes the amount of active memory you have to track to keep a task executed. It’s how you concentrate on something, it’s the work required in your brain to manage the information presented to you organised. Incarnum was a system that started with cognitive load problems, and it got worse as you levelled up.

You might sometimes hear a player describe a game as ‘smooth’ or hear a designer say something is ‘frictionless.’ Mostly, that feeling is attained by making sure your design does little to demand cognitive load without a reason. It’s one thing to concentrate on a complicated turn or a crucial strategy, but you don’t want the everyday operations of play to require you to make a lot of complex planning and contend with juggling information.

There’s a reason designers preach the idea of simplicity. It’s not for its own sake, it’s because you want to make it as easy as possible for the players to make decisions about what they want to do in your game, rather than have to do math on working out how what they want to do can work.

Bad Balance: The Problem With The Tome Of Battle (Which Isn’t What You Think)

Right at the tail end of 3.5 D&D, there was a book released that ruled.

There’s a lot of critical talk about the Book of Nine Swords. There were comparisons to Anime, as if that was inherently a dismissal point, as if Anime wasn’t regularly cribbing from D&D in the first place.

The Tome of Battle presented a solution to the problem of melee combatants in 3.5. As you levelled up, melee combat just didn’t keep pace with the kind of things spells could do. Spellcasters even in the early game had an edge on the melee characters, and increasingly, the game became about countering spellcasters rather than countering melee characters. You can view late-game combat as about trying to shut down the Wizard long enough that the Paladin could get some licks in.

But in Tome of Battle, melee weapon-wielders and armour-wearers got to stab things in the face real good. They touched on the core idea of 4ed, which is time spent in a turn is actually more valuable than hypothetical infinite options. It was a great book, created great characters, had a wonderfully varied lore you could use a little or a lot from, and mostly didn’t have total turkey prestige classes (as most books did).

Yet at the same time I am comfortable and confident declaring that Tome Of Battle is, as it stands, a mistake. Not because of anything the game did intrinsically, but because the book was released into a world with poor Tordek here. 

The Fighter in 3.0 D&D was a really rough sell. The fighter at level 1 was already comparable to another class’ class features, and their design scaled up very linearly. The best levels of Fighter were 1 and 2, because the class was frontloaded enough to let you rush up to some sort of mid-tier trick slightly early (like Whirlwind Attack, the game’s idea of an ‘End Game’ Fighter Feat). The next best one was level 4, because at that point you had unlocked access to everything the Fighter could get access to and you only had to take one level that Didn’t Really Do Anything to get there.

There were a lot of things wrong with how they updated it for 3.5, one of which is the removal of the ‘Fighter’ subtype from the way they presented feats in the Players’ Handbook. Back in 3.0, feats that the Fighter could take with their bonus feats had the subtype [Fighter]. In 3.5, this was removed in favour of the new line

Special: A fighter may select [this feat name] as one of his fighter bonus feats.

This was in my mind a blatant mistake. They could have made it so that Fighter feats had riders or bonuses if they could check the number of Fighter feats you had, but only if Fighter feats had a subtype.

Anyway, the thing is, the fighter was pretty weak and attempts to fix the fighter had almost all missed, usually because they approached the problem in the totally wrong way – Fighters got better on a linear, additive scale, while spellcasters and things balanced against spellcasters got better on a quadratic scale. A level 20 fighter could do a decent bit of damage to a dragon in one full round of combat, assuming he could close – but the wizard could disintegrate the dragon or take over its will entirely.

But if you wanted to play a character in armour, with a weapon, whose primary interaction with enemies was hitting them with the weapon in increasingly skillful ways, though, the obvious look for most players was that the Fighter was your jam. And the fighter, as a character class, was made totally unnecessary by the Tome of Battle’s inclusion. In some cases laughably so – the Warblade got some bonus feats, got Weapon Specialisation (formerly a Fighter-only benefit) and got all those maneuvers that let the Warblade hang at the level of the Wizard.

The Tome of Battle classes didn’t wholesale replace all the fighter-style classes. Paladins and Crusaders compared to one another. The Sword Sage could do a lot of interesting tricks, but the Monk could still do other things the Sword Sage couldn’t.

But the poor Fighter?

The closest thing the Fighter could do is spend their bonus feats to buy Maneuvers. Once you had Warblades there really was no reason to play Fighters beyond their simplicity. They didn’t quite measure up to threats the game thought of as reasonable, but you could cover that with your party. They didn’t give you the kind of options they thought they did, but you might never notice that either.

But when the Warblade sat down next to you, did most of what you did, and a host of exciting, additional extremely extra things as well, it was hard to not notice.

Painful Paladin Problems

It’s hard not to see trends in conversations about tabletop RPGs, and one enduring trend, for decades now, has been some form of The Paladin In Our Party Is Being A Butt, or its companion I’m Playing A Paladin And I Feel The Rest Of The Party Are Being Unreasonable.

I’m going to assume here I’m dealing with people who don’t need the basic idea of the Paladin explained to them. You probably don’t need a rundown on history that features Charlemagne and Roland and stuff. There is a sort of idea of Paladin-ness amongst players, but there doesn’t seem to be a single, easily-reached, agreed-upon example of what a Paladin is.

Paladins seem to almost be more of a D&D convention than an actual conceptual thing. A divinely empowered warrior, someone who’s turned the dial of ‘swords at people’ a little higher and the ‘casts spells’ a little lower, the Paladin is nonetheless a very D&D part of D&D. And they seem to be split, culturally, between two pretty hard binaries, one end of which is A bossy frictious dick, and the other is Inoffensively not that. Part and parcel of the idea of the Paladin is this sort of moral imperiousness. In 3.5 D&D it was pretty stringent – Paladins couldn’t associate with people who did certain things, which meant a Paladin in the party created a tension where the other players might be limited from certain actions.

Making this more complicated was the 3.5 D&D morality system that worked as a sort of omniscient snitch. In a narrative sense, there’s an interesting tension to a Paladin’s friend secretly doing things they know the Paladin won’t approve of, and the ways you keep that secret. When the moral fabric of the universe can shift you to an evil alignment for losing an argument, it simply dobs you in and you lose that potential complexity.

Now, I love Paladins. I love them since I first learned the word from Rakeesh.

Rakeesh is a Paladin from the Quest for Glory Games, games that were definitely informed by their designers’ D&D campaigns, or campaigns that derived from them. But he wasn’t a western sword-and-sorcery type, nor was his Paladin status informed by such. Rasha Rakeesh Sah Tarna was a man of African mythos, from an Egyptian culture. He may have used the word Paladin (which is kinda French) to describe himself, but he did not learn that way from anyone French or otherwise fancy. He learned it from within.

Rakeesh spoke of the Paladin as someone who conducted themself with honour, and whose moral framing was powerful enough to enact their will on the universe. They could heal wounds – both their own and others, light their sword aflame, damage dreadful foes and even cast some magic thanks to being a Paladin, and being a Paladin made the universe itself recognise your righteousness.

I also learned of the Paladin from Oriental Adventures. Which, yes. I know.

Oriental Adventures sought to write about the D&D system in the context of the Legend of the Five Rings setting, using the existing sets of clans and their families. The books said that if Paladins existed, they would be much more like the Akodo and Matsu family champions, individuals focused intensely on Honour as their strength. These families, when you look them up, are full of stories of people doing the right thing when it brought them low, holding to principle when it meant doing what they did not want to do, and also, expressing their values in the face of opposition with face-wrecking violence.

The principle these books outlaid for the Matsu, particularly, who are members of the Lion Clan

Which is the best clan, by the way,

Are the ones who describe the idea that honour is not imposed, given, or taken. It comes from within.

These two voices helped shape my conception of the Paladin in 3.5 D&D. The Paladin was not an expression of armour and rules – it was about an entity of principles, a warrior whose ideology informed their methodology. It’s really been bedrock to how I play my Paladins and why it never seemed to me to be interesting or worthwhile to treat the Paladin ruleset as if it was somehow a perfect template.

In 3rd Edition D&D, there were Chaotic Paladins (sometimes using the Holy Liberator prestige class, sometimes using the alternate path). There were evil ones and even Neutral ones – and sure, while Lawful Neutral paladins were boring, it was still able to present that shell of an idea; an ideology as expressed through a character. The alignment rules were so wobbly it wasn’t like being Lawful actually meant anything. Lawful was not the same thing as Law-Abiding. After all, ants are lawful – they behave in strict adherence to rules of their society. It makes sense that ants and ant-creatures are lawful. But do they know the rules of the city in which they live? Why would they follow them? Does not following those rules make you less lawful?

In the end, the Paladin doesn’t need to be the party Load or the party Conscience. They need, instead, to be a character for whom ideals and morality are much more tightly wound, fixed precepts of their worldview. A fighter may fight for money or love or rage or all three from day to day – but the Paladin always knows what they fight for.

The Paladin’s honour comes from within.

Rules are Stupid

The D&D Alignment system is nonsense.

This isn’t some deep wizardry here. This is just a really rudimentary fact. The entire system is phrased like it’s a moral judgement framework and there’s been a truly enormous quantity of writing trying to thread the needle of explaining a moral framework that is both simple enough that a game system can handle it, while also making a way of representing actual human interactions that can’t be exploited by the most sophomoric seventh-grade part-time evil dictator.

The main lesson of the morality system of D&D is a greater one for designing rules in general, though: Rules are stupid, or rather, rules cannot make choices or judgements. Rules are things humans interact with, they are not capable of making complex judgements themselves. What you want a rule to do is interface quickly with a player asking it a question: Hey, what happens when I do this?

The rule should, ideally, serve as a sort of curve bend in a pipe – player intention runs towards it, and that pipe just directs the player’s intention in the right way, with as little friction as possible.

How does this apply to the Alignment system? Well, largely it means you have to start acknowledging it as a silly rule, and accept that it’s not really going to be a good tool to use to direct player intention. If you have a Paladin who tortures someone and whose player expects their moral standings to stay Lawful Good, your problem there isn’t in game rules, it’s that you’ve got someone in your group who thinks they can justify torturing people as a good thing.

What it means is that you need to approach the morality system as a set of flags: Spells that want to ‘blast evil people’ can be used for dramatic reveals, or things that impede ‘good characters’ from entering should be as simple as a boundary or barrier… but you shouldn’t be using them as a moral system, just as a way to put simplified flags on things.

Or, you know, just ask yourself if it’s worth it to have spells that want to try and make complex moral judgements on the fly?

3.5 Memories – The Illumian Swordmage

It could be possible to think that, given the ease with which I point out design and balance problems in Dungeons and Dragons 3.5, you might think I hated this system, or hated its power level or had some sort of fundamental problems with the way the game worked. This is – well, it’s a half truth. I absolutely wish the game was better designed, a more elegantly crafted toolset for the stated aim.

But I loved making characters in 3.5 D&D. I loved playing them, and I loved the busted stuff I could make it do

So let’s talk about that stuff! Continue reading

Bad Balance: Why Balance?

Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 was absolute nonsense balance-wise, but it was remarkable because it was imbalanced in a whole variety of different ways that are good object lessons for designers to take on board when making your own RPG content.  So, rather than one huge master-post explaining it, here’s one example:

Why Balance?

Inevitably, in this kind of conversation, someone will sit back, stroke their chin and say Yes Well, But Why Do We Need Balance Anyway? and then deliver a smug, eye-raised look as if they’ve just next-levelled the entire conversation. And sure, they’re kind of right – you don’t need things to be fair. You don’t. Heck, you don’t even need a rules system, man.

Setting aside the obvious Let’s Take It Too Far And Show The Point Is Ridiculous, the question of balancing 3.5 D&D seems to always bring up someone who, weirdly, echoes the arguments of 2ed D&D before them. It usually comes down to it’s a cooperative game and there aren’t any winners or losers and therefore, balance is a phantom that need not be pursued, as if somehow, the game’s function is inhibited by balance, and that balanced things impose themselves between fun and the players.

Problem is, someone has to run the game.

Balanced characters aren’t balanced against one another to meet some arbitary philosophical goal. They’re balanced against one another so the person running the game has a reasonable, handleable piece of information about things they can present to the party. Big deal, the response comes: the DM can just tailor-make the experience for the party, every time. All they need to do is know what those characters can do, how good they are at it, how resistant they are, any rare abilities they might not use often, and how well they hit things, what they attack.

Which is to say: You don’t need balance. You don’t! Knock yourself out. You do you.

But there’s a virtue to having characters with roughly comparable ranges of power and utility, because it means that the people running the game aren’t faced with an enormous different task of challenge construction. That means that when someone wants to run a D&D game, they’re not presented with a cliff face of learning. It means that there are going to be fewer situations where the players try a thing they’re meant to succeed at and fail because it so happens that the enemy’s abilities fall into a venn diagram of specialised, obtuse weaknesses.

If you’re playing D&D 3.5, a game primarily designed around tactical movement and combat, and you think it doesn’t matter that it has a decent tactical movement and combat system that is reliably testable, provable, and functional, then maybe you want to play a different game? There are a lot of great games out there!

That’s the next lesson: Balance can be valuable for games, even cooperative ones, because it allows the person or people making the challenge to construct meaningful challenges.

Bad Balance: Your Part In Failure

Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 was absolute nonsense balance-wise, but it was remarkable because it was imbalanced in a whole variety of different ways that are good object lessons for designers to take on board when making your own RPG content.  So, rather than one huge master-post explaining it, here’s one example:

Your Failure

You’ll find if you listen to any given D&D 3.5 player, they’ll usually have some memories of the things I talk about being total bupkis. I know I played alongside a cleric who wasn’t overpowered, and we had one game where the runaway behemoth was a telepath. As your friendly neighborhood min-maxer I had the game squealing under the heel of a bard, once. More often than anything else we’d see on the newsgroups players wondering about how they could play clerics well, because they thought their only job was standing by and healing, leading to an unfulfilling game of whack-a-mole. What’s more there are a lot of games where the wizard player felt worthless and ran away from goblins a lot with a terrible armour class. Once I heard the artificer dismissed as trash because a player could simply not imagine how to make it work.

This is one of the many ways D&D3.5 was unbalanced: It was entirely possible to play overpowered characters badly. Most of the characters who were busted were busted because of spells or magic items and that stuff was overwhelmingly available…

If you took it.

You could absolutely play a weak wizard! You could pick up the twenty totally worthless spells at every level, you could sink into the swamp of crap. You could take a level of sorcerer and a level of wizard, and then maybe level them up side by side and maybe you’d balance your stats and oh good god noooo.

You could be handed a high-octane chainsaw laser hammer and it was entirely reasonable for a new player, a player who had no reason to expect they were being given something totally broken, to sit down and tap nails in with the wrong end.

Perry’s Lock

Hey, I can use this blog for any old bullheck I like, why not use it for this.

I ran this D&D campaign called All The King’s Men, when I was a younger man with different pets and worse hair. The premise of the game was that in the great City-State Coalition of the Symeiran Empire, there were three orders of church knights, each compliant with one of the three law-chaos alignment axes. Lawful knights, neutral knights, chaotic knights. In this party of six, three players were knights, and three of the other players were the direct contact and friend of one of the knights. Three adventuring pairs.

The lawful knight of this group, Kyrie, had her offsider, a luvable cawkney thief called Perry, short for Peregrine. Perry was chipper and playful and had a luverly accent and Perry was great. I loved Perry to bits. Great dynamic with the other players, and also, the player is a great min-maxer. Now this is 3.5 D&D with a lot of homebrew content, alongside people who love to optimise buuuut aren’t as good at it as Perry’s player was. Perry, rather than be a dick about it, therefore dedicated himself to find the things nobody in the party did and do it excellently.

In the first major arc of the campaign, a door was locked before them, and the party were losing time chasing the person who’d locked it behind them. Perry then popped his knuckles and said hold my beer, before sitting down and cracking that lock with a truly grotesque skill check in the fifties. Bear in mind this was at level six or so! He pops this DC 15 lock with a skill check enough to do it as a free action, stepped through, and once the party were in, locked it behind him to keep others from pursuing.

Okay.

Fast forward a year and change and eleven levels, and the party have returned to this same site, to find it taken over by vampire nobility. The familiar zone they ran through at a dead run, chasing someone was now a sieged path they had to work through, a dungeon crawl, full of decadence and dangerous vampires. The party stopped at a door, and Perry, who by now is basically a Time Ninja or something, looked at it and said ‘well, I’ll check it.’

‘It’s locked.’

‘Oh, okay, like a magical lock?’

‘Not far as you can tell.’

‘Okay, I’ll just Open Locks on it-‘

‘Roll.’

‘I have a huge bonus, seriously?’

‘Yeah, there’s a chance you can fail.’

Perry’s player gives me a look, as he picks up his d20 and rolls poorly. A fairly low roll – a 4 or so. But he’s been so good at things so far that he’s convinced there’s no mundane lock that can actually impede him. A moment, – ‘Forty eight.’ I check the notes and…

‘Nope.’

‘What?!’

‘I said nope.’

Who the fuck locked this door?

YOU DID.

(He took ten and got the lock just fine, if you were worried.)

Bad Balance: Free Power

Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 was absolute nonsense balance-wise, but it was remarkable because it was imbalanced in a whole variety of different ways that are good object lessons.  So, rather than one huge master-post explaining it, here’s one example:

Free Power!

A thing you’ll find in most games is there’s an opportunity cost to adding things to your character. Magic items occupy this space in D&D where there are slots, clearly recognising that there’s a good reason to limit the number of belts you wear, especially when those belts do magical things. Thing is, the item system isn’t the only place that came up.

In most games there’s an opportunity cost. Every choice you make is an option. In 3.5 D&D there were a surprising number of times when there were no such choices. If you were aiming for a prestige class at level 6 onwards, your first five levels could sometimes look like utter nonsense – fighter 2, barbarian 2, ranger 1, for example, would give you a grotesque fort save, a handful of benefits and lose you a single point of reflex and will, which was just not a reasonable trade. If you were building a wizard, prestige classes themselves could look ridiculous, as you cherry-picked the opening benefits of four or five of them because none of them had a meaningful late game reward.

When you give players an option for something, you need to make it so that they’re giving something up if they take it. Not that every option is punishing – that’s its own bad idea – but that every option is a choice, and choices should be meaningful.

Bad Balance: Paralysing Potential

Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 was absolute nonsense balance-wise, but it was remarkable because it was imbalanced in a whole variety of different ways that are good object lessons for designers to take on board when making your own RPG content.  So, rather than one huge master-post explaining it, here’s one example:

Paralysing Potential

Did you play a spellcaster back in 3.5? Did you play a Cleric? A Druid? A Wizard? God help you, did you play an Archivist?

The 3.5 spell list is an absolute swamp of bullshit, a completely festering mire of options that include procedurally generated X damage over Y area with Z range math-up messes that really form the basis for what you can probably handle, balance wise,  to spells which are unimpressive with one basic form, and totally busted if you think about them innovatively, spells designed to be worse versions of the former, multiple spells designed to fill the same space by designers working on different books, grandfathered together, spells designed to duplicate other spells just with a different flavour to try and keep the spell schools reasonably balanced, then some complete out-of-context nonsense that didn’t have any combat-or-existing mechanical application but suddenly changed the context of how combat even happened. Feel tired at the end of that sentence? Good, because it’s worse than that.

Spellcasters 3.5 were broken and it was easy to get a modest amount of broken just by paying attention to a few exploitable spells, but if you wanted to go deep, if you were the kind of player who was willing to marinate deep in the dank shit of supplemental sourcebooks or even just read through the ramifications of everything in the player’s handbook, if you were the person who bothered to use Scribe Scroll and stockpile every level 1 spell you didn’t wind up using in any given day until you had literally a library of the dang things, then you knew how broad, how busted, and how blinding your potential was.

There’s no surprise that players – despite the weakness – really appreciated Sorcerers. All sorcerers needed to know was a small handful of useful spells, rather than try to learn all of the spells present in the entire danging game.

The way I coped with it, myself, was to opt away from the full-bore spellcasters. My few times playing Cleric or Druid were times that DMs quickly started nerfing things on the fly. If you instead limited yourself to doing a smaller handful of things really well, you might be less powerful, but you’ll at least be able to make a choice on your turn without ever being stymied by the thousands of things you could do. Levelling up and building your character was still a long, agonising process, but at least that concentrated the wait.

These older editions would sometimes present you with complicated puzzles in the form of a combat arena and expect you to answer that question with a spell template; a line, a point, a single target, a circular template or maybe a chain. But then, the Wizard didn’t have to do that, they could answer it by teleporting away, by charming something, by becoming invisible, by summoning thirty tons of stone directly above the enemy, by becoming something else, by making someone else into something else, and all of these options were presented to you.

Now it’s your turn.

Pick something.

Go go go.

Bad Balance: Accidentally Overpowered

Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 was absolute nonsense balance-wise, but it was remarkable because it was imbalanced in a whole variety of different ways that are good object lessons.  So, rather than one huge master-post explaining it, here’s one example:

The Accidentally Overpowered

If you played D&D3.5 and you were into it, you knew you could spend hours working on a character, combing through dozens of races and classes and prestige classes, and even if you weren’t going to scrape through everything to milk every single possible advantage, it was still not uncommon to see builds like Wizard 5/Really Strong Wizard Prestige Class 10/Archmage 5.

That, however, is something you work for, something that comes at the result of a lot of system mastery, and, speaking as someone who had a lot of that mastery and really loved it, it was nice. It was good. I liked that. I don’t even feel that that was, itself a problem (though we’ll get to that).

The problem that cropped up in 3.5, and you could see it happen in people’s stories of their games and problems adjudicating how characters work, in that some characters could, completely accidentally, be utterly honking busted, and those characters could be wildly out of whack with their friends and party members without ever trying to be. If your party featured a composition of a fairly boring Fighter, Cleric, Rogue and Sorcerer, one of those four characters is absolutely in a league of their own compared to the others, and as players play, it’s going to come out and get noticed.

Or what about an arrangement like Ranger, Druid, Barbarian and Wizard? The barbarian is better than Ranger, the wizard is better than both and the Druid has a single class feature that’s better than the Ranger.

The issue isn’t that a player could work to be broken, the issue is that players could accidentally be so good that other people would completely replace another character in the party, and if anyone noticed, it was just straight up feels-bad territory. It was really obvious – and it got worse as people levelled up and you had more room, more opportunities to make mistakes! What makes it even worse still is if players went and did stuff that was redundant! Fighter, Ranger and Barbarian were all the most easily grasped, handleable classes, and if a party has two of them, one of them was going to notice the gap!

Well, if they looked.

So you had to hope they didn’t look.

That’s not a good solution to the problem.

Continue reading

Just Playing 4ED D&D

I was a holdout.

I loved 3.5 D&D. I really did. I was an active poster on the min-max forums. I had lots of work – I mean huge amounts of work – set aside for running 3.5 D&D campaigns. I was planning, in an odd and roundabout way, to make my living selling 3.5 D&D stuff, never once considering the transient nature of that industry period.

I remember sitting down and trying to make my case that 4ed D&D removed too many options from me, it made me do all this work all over again to make characters I liked, and now I didn’t even know if there was anything cool I could connect to. I even said ‘it doesn’t feel like D&D.’

Then at the table, one of our players – working on her research thesis – simply told me that the game let her play. The game meant there was less time for her spent correcting things, researching things, and that she could just play. The game’s dungeonmasters’ tools were there to make it easier to grab monsters, put them together, and just play.

http://www.rpgmusings.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/party1.jpg

I wound up falling into 4ed pretty hard after that. The first thing is that min-maxing 4ed is pretty good and fun – and I had misunderstood the aim of optimising. The thing is, optimising isn’t about making the most powerful thing you can hypothetically make – it’s about making the most powerful thing within the confines of the game. That’s optimising, it’s building to your limits!

With that in mind, 4ed D&D had really good DM’s tools. It structured enemies and their abilities as if you might have to gauge them. I don’t know who remembers what it was like learning 3.5 encounters but sometimes you’d have to double a monster’s HP on the fly as players spiked it out in one shot, or cut their lifespan in half because players couldn’t punch through their highly technical defenses. Enemies were designed, now. They were designed, not eyeballed!

http://www.aidedd.org/dnd/images/grick.jpg

Do you remember how 3.5 D&D monsters even worked? So many outliers! So many creatures that were ‘technically’ fair, because they were balanced around frustrating either/or mechanics, like the Grick. Remember the Grick? The Grick was a creature with 8 hp, and DR 15/+1. That is to say, they ignored the first 15 HP of any attack from any weapon that wasn’t enchanted at +1 or more. Which meant a Grick was, when you had your first magic weapon at level 4 or so, an absolute laugh – 8 damage was almost nothing to a character who knew how to try to do damage, but 23 damage was a lot for an early play. Dealing 16 or 17 damage five turns in a row was pretty tricky at level 2 or 3, and Gricks, you could fight four Gricks at level 3!

Without a magic weapon!

Anyone sensible would fix that, but 3.5 D&D kept these dang things more or less the same, which was extra irritating! They had a chance to fix them!

So on the one hand you could see D&D 4ed as a major enema on the DMing system, allowing the tools to be a lot more useful for people who were DMing the first time. But it wasn’t just that.

https://vignette1.wikia.nocookie.net/eberron/images/f/f4/D%26D_-_4th_Edition_-_Eberron_Map_Khorvaire.jpg/revision/latest/scale-to-width-down/640?cb=20090819121531

The other thing is that the 4ed ruleset had a very broad, permissive attitude to things in the skill and story system. There’s this chart in the Dungeonmaster’s Guide about why you might want to make a story point a conflict – and it shows a story arcing in two directions: that you should only really make failures about sending the story in other, different directions, which is super interesting by comparison.

The Skill system – which is simplified, it’s true – represented a major change as well, where skills were made a bit more vague, so players could interpret their methods of solution. Suddenly, you could Arcana Things in the dungeon to make obscure systems stop working, but you could also Dungeoneering them or Endurance them to represent sustained effort to break them.

When a player wanted to run a game, when they wanted to sit down and represent the way that their story worked, nobody had to explain it to them. They could read the books, look at how the books talked about running scenarios and stories, and then, those players could make those choices as they started to run the game for the first time.

The Dungeonmaster’s books focused on giving you toolsets, and explaining them well. It was not about creating intricate systems that you had to feed data into, instead focusing on showing you results of those systems so you could easily grab them, but then also giving you the information of how those results were generated.

http://cdn.playbuzz.com/cdn/8638382e-e024-4c14-888f-6a814c9d54ee/1a8f6acd-4512-46bf-8e6d-e1f4cac996b7.jpg

Then there’s class roles. I know some people hate these, and those people are fine, but those players can just be wrong at me all they like. Class roles already exist in other games; they’re ways that two characters choose to make themselves different to one another so in any cooperative situation, they’re not just replicating each other’s efforts. I’ve done that in games – I’ve been the one player who could replicate another player’s efforts, and I’ve been that player worse when I could replicate another player’s entire character with a class feature of mine.

Class roles are a formal structure for enabling players to build cooperatively. They’re also mostly focused on combat, not on other toolsets; you can reliably point out that Clerics have access to healing type utility powers and skillsets, and Rangers have access to naturey type utility powers and skillsets, and Bards tend to have access to every single thing.

What about the handful of utility goofiness, like magically summoning up birds to talk to or stuff like that? Well, the game doesn’t even tie those things, those special abilities to characters’ classes or roles. Those are now rituals, which means if you want to have access to that kind of special ability, you can just have it if you’re willing to invest in the skills to do it!

http://archive.wizards.com/rpga/images/mit20051103a1.jpg

You might notice so far I haven’t really been talking about the way this game’s combat system worked, per se. Oh, sure, the monsters as DM’s tools, but not the combat system as players deal with it. I mean, it ties into the combat roles – but you can run a combat-less 4ed game-

Yeah, you can.

Don’t look at me like that.

I don’t know why you’d want to, the tactical combat in this game is one of the fun things it does well – but you don’t have to use it.

The thing is, the combat system, that? I totally understand if you want to take it or leave it. There are lots of games that don’t do combat well, and do other things really well, and you could totally use those. But I like running around stabbing baddies with my Paladin’s big honking axe, and I also like the downtime between those combats spent solving big puzzles and meeting strange people and managing my resources and yes, occasionally flirting with demons because that’s all very complicated.

I like 4ed because it plays well. It’s big, it’s solved, it’s searchable, and you can have a lot of fun playing it. If it doesn’t work for you and your group, that’s fine too. Nothing wrong with that.

But acting as if 4ed D&D is inherently bad? That’s really foolish. It works. It plays. It has inclusive rules that can handle a wide variety of things. DMs are rarely left with the answer ‘I have no idea’ to the question ‘hey, how could I do this thing?’

It just plays.


This blog post and subject was suggested, as above, by @Kassil on Twitter. If you’d like to suggest stuff you’d like to see me write about, please, do contact me!