My buddy Clint has been running a D&D 3.5 campaign for about four and a half years, now, and I’ve been playing a warlock named Dunael ((I talk a little about him in this post.)). Tonight, Dunael died, and I want to take a moment to talk about how it was handled, because Clint did pretty much everything right. I want to remember how he did things, because I want to follow his example if I’m ever in his position ((I have been in his position before, you see, and haven’t handled it nearly as well. In fact, I completely bobbled one occasion when Clint’s character was killed, and I’m still kicking myself.)).

You need a little background ((And yes, I’m sorry, that means I’m going to tell you about my character.)) to understand why what happened was good, so here we go.

Clint’s game is full of home-brewed races and metaphysics and monsters and pretty much everything else. Dunael was a Blood Elf, a race of elves who believe that they help keep the world ticking by offering their blood in special sacrifices every day. Over time, this has made their blood stronger than that of other races ((For example, the vampires we’ve met have really liked trying to bite Dunael. Except for one who was the wife of another party member. Well, ex-wife, I guess.)), and this in turn has made them a little arrogant and superior to the other people in the world.

Dunael took that arrogance a step further, deciding that, instead of just sacrificing his blood to the world as a whole, and let the benefits trickle down to the minor spirits, he would sacrifice his blood to the minor spirits, and strengthen the world from the foundation up. This put him at odds with the rest of his family and his people, but he had more than the usual share of arrogance ((He viewed it as passion, and couldn’t understand why other people didn’t feel it the same way.)) and set out to prove them wrong.

Over the years of play, Dunael became more and more shamanic about the whole approach, dealing more with the various spirits, making short-term bargains with them, and generally becoming one of the world’s experts on the Waking Dream, as the Blood Elves called the spirit world. He learned a number of the secrets of the world, traveled to the underworld, brought back children stolen centuries before, freed a bound demon, became one of the people entrusted with the power of the Light, rescued a companion from eternal imprisonment inside a shadow creature, traveled up the Dragonspire ((Which is actually the physical body of a dragon god, as well as a volcano – Dunael has done his best to avoid waking the Dragon of the Spire.)) to learn the secrets of Truenaming from a sphinx, bluffed a powerful and ancient vampire out of attacking an army, and been made a minor noble in a land that’s not his own ((Of course, all the rest of the party were along for most of this stuff.)).

Well, tonight Dunael and his companions were engaged in an aerial battle around a castle with a group of manticores. Manticores in this world are much smarter, nastier, and bigger than in standard D&D, and are an entire group of powerful, dangerous species that have their own kingdom and take slaves from other races. We were hopelessly outmatched, having just come from a confrontation with the rest of the manticore army ((Wherein I made the ancient vampire, the Sallow Man, back down. Yeah, I’m kinda pleased with that.)) and being low on resources. We were able to do some damage to the manticores and their twisted elven riders, but then two of them started escaping with hostages.

Between us, we managed to stop one of the hostage-takers, not killing it, but distracting it long enough that a companion could snatch the hostage away, leaving Dunael floating there in front of the angry manticore with the rest of the manticores circling above, ready to pelt him with spikes. The manticore blustered, and Dunael blustered; the manticore threatened, and Dunael threatened back; the manticore spelled out very carefully what would happen to Dunael if he didn’t back down, and Dunael scoffed. The manticores attacked, and Dunael died.

Riddled with manticore spikes, at -14 hit points, I looked at Clint and said, “Can I use this sacrifice of blood for something?” Knowing me as he does, Clint was wary, but agreed to hear me out. I told him that I wanted to use it to wake the spirit of the Bleak Citadel, the castle we were defending, to defend it’s people. It was a famous, ancient castle that had been possessed by one noble family its entire existence, and I figured it must have some strong feelings about the kidnappings, etc.

Clint thought for a bit, then said, “Put it in words. What do you say as you try to wake the spirit?” So, I came up with an impassioned plea, and it was heard. Not by the Citadel, though.

By the Dragon of the Spire.

You see, we were on its lower slopes, and I had made enough spiritual noise to wake it. It agreed to save the people of the Citadel if Dunael gave his heart’s blood – his spirit, soul, blood, and power – to the Dragon. Dunael agreed.

Thus, a great stone dragon raised up out of the mountain and slew the manticores, rescuing the hostages. And Dunael died.

More stuff happened after that, but it doesn’t really touch on what I want to talk about. Here are the salient points about how Clint handled this:

  • Clint was very clear that, if I didn’t let the manticores leave, they would all attack me, and I would probably die.
  • He made sure I understood what was at stake, and gave me a chance to back out.
  • Once he saw that this was something Dunael was willing to die for, he didn’t pull any punches. He filled him full of manticore spikes, and let the dice fall as they would.
  • When I asked to do something that would give my death a little extra meaning, he not only allowed it, he took it a step farther, turning the event into the stuff of legend. Dunael died defending the Citadel ((The Lord of the Citadel, by the way, didn’t like Dunael and his friends much. There was a whole thing, there.)), and woke the Dragon of the Spire ((This is not necessarily a good thing. When the Dragon wakes, there are usually earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that follow.)).
  • He made it obvious to everyone that Dunael’s death was meaningful and not in vain.

There was some talk after the fact about how to resurrect Dunael, but I told the other players that this was a good, fitting end for the character. His story is done, and ended on a good note. He died being himself as hard as he could be, bluffing a tremendously powerful creature with nothing to back up his threats, and he still managed to do what he set out to do.

I’m going to miss him, but that’s the way his story should end. Thanks, Clint, for giving him the ending he deserved.

Now I’ve got to dig out my 3.5 books and make a new character.

The Myth of Balance

I’ve been doing some thinking about game balance lately. Here’s where I’m coming from.

I remember back when D&D 3E came out. As information was slowly released, there started to be a lot of message threads on discussion boards about how different classes or spells or other features were broken – either too powerful or not powerful enough. When the game was released, there followed a real rush of house rules designed to fix the broken piece.

Same thing happened with 4E. Same rush of complaints, same rush of house rules.

Anything wrong with that? Nope.

But the threads became more strident and angry as time went by, with people arguing passionately* either for or against the broken item. It’s still going on and, with all the new powers in 4E, I expect it to continue pretty much indefinitely.

The issue at the core of each of these discussions is game balance.

A large number of the threads about powers say will say that a given power is unbalanced, meaning (generally) too powerful**. The words game breaker and win buttons get tossed around. And you know what? It’s all a bit ridiculous to me.

In my experience, there are two aspects of balance to consider. One is the balance between characters. This one, I take seriously – if someone feels that they have been slighted by the GM compared to another person in the game, that creates bad feelings, and that can hurt the game. It doesn’t matter if the perception is true or not: if it perceived to be true, then you’ve gotta deal with it as if it were.

These balance issues can usually be dealt with with a little communication. Talk to people. Find out what’s what. If one character is doing a ton more damage than the others, get that player to show the others how he built the character. If someone has more stuff, slant the treasure in the direction of the others until things even out. And if the perception is just plain wrong, look at why someone believes it and address that.

The other type of balance is the balance between the players and the GM. This is entirely illusory – a shared fiction that allows the game to take place.

See, I’ve been a GM for a while, now, and I’ve discovered that I can kill the characters any time I want to. And not just by resorting to Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies. Any time I want to, I can just change the numbers on a monster in combat to make it kill the party. I can bring in more monsters. I can pick a monster that’s already just too much for the party to handle.

There’s no balance. I have all the power.

There’s an inherent social contract in gaming, though, that says the GM won’t pull crap like that. The GM will give the party reasonable challenges that the party can overcome. That’s all it is, though: social convention. An agreement that the GM and the players will work together to make the game fun.

So, I have to shake my head when I see a thread complaining about how powerful a given piece of the game is, and how it destroys the balance. Especially when these complaints come from GMs.

Don’t you guys get it? You’re in charge! The characters can have all the toys they can carry, and all the best powers they can think up, and they’re still at your mercy! Have they picked up a power that creates a zone of healing? Keep them out of it, either by having monsters that can move enemies around, or by making the environment so cramped that the zone is mostly inside solid walls. Have they got a power that can kill a target every round? Swarm them with minions. See? And that’s just playing within the rules. If you start to fudge things, the possibilities are literally endless.

There’s another option, too – let it work. Let it be as beautiful and horrifying as you feared it would be. Let the players have the sense of accomplishment that comes from doing well in an encounter. Enjoy it with them.

And plan something tougher for next time.

What’s my answer when players in my games want to take a power that they think might be overpowered? I say, “Sure!” If it looks like it’s out of whack with the powers available to other characters, then I reserve the right to retroactively veto it, but I have never had to do that.

Never. Even with home-made stuff.

In short, balance is a myth in roleplaying games. Rules strive to create fairness, but they can’t cover everything, and they can’t force someone to follow them. Don’t worry so much about balance.

Worry about everyone – you and your players – having fun.

Everything else will take care of itself.



*And only sometimes literately.

**Very few complaints out there that a power is unbalanced because it’s not powerful enough – those powers just don’t get picked by the players. The complaint about lack of power is usually reserved for class features and other things that players don’t get to pick from a list.

“It’s Not D&D” – 4th Edition Analysis and Apologia

First off, let me start by saying a couple of things.

  1. I love 4th Edition D&D.
  2. I love 3rd Edition D&D, including 3.5.

There. Now you know where I’m starting from.

I’ve seen some comments on forums and such about how 4th Edition D&D is not D&D. People point to a number of things to justify this claim, from the loss of Vancian “fire-and-forget” magic to the fact that houscats can no longer kill 1st-level wizards with one swipe of the claws. Most of the people posting these… let’s call them discussions, because the word “diatribe” is needlessly inflammatory… feel very deeply and strongly about the points their making.

They make these points with varying degrees of skill and lucidity, like any internet discussion. Some are well-reasoned analyses of differences, some are foam-specked and profanity-laden rants. Both types often bring up interesting thoughts and opinions.

I’m going to wade in here, because I just read a blog post from one of my players here*, where he talks about why he feels that 4E is not D&D. I think it’s an insightful post, that makes some good claims, so I’m gonna talk about it.

Let’s get this out of the way: 4E is D&D, because Wizards of the Coast, who own the trademark and the intellectual property, say it’s D&D. Any other interpretation is just the wonking of self-perceived-purists of the so-called fanboy elite**.

Having made that somewhat-antagonist statement, I will say that 4E is definitely not the same game that 3E*** was. I would even go so far as to say that 4E is a much bigger departure from 3E than 3E was from 2E, or 2E was from 1E.

Now, to be fair, there was the same kind of outcry back at the launch of 3E, which broke a lot of the unwritten rules of D&D design. Maximum hit points at 1st level, free multiclassing, unified experience point progression for all classes, no racial class or level limitations… all that good stuff. Remember? And then there was the new stuff grafted on, things like feats and skills and prestige classes and funky double weapons. D&D finally owned up to the fact that it was simulating nothing but D&D – a very specific kind of medieval fantasy.

People came around. D&D became a driving force in the market again. Hell, 3E made me start buying D&D stuff again, and even made me run a game.

I think that the success of 3E, despite its real departure from the sacred cows of D&D tradition, showed that people would accept big changes, as long as the changes made for a fun game. And 3E was, and still is, a fun game. Currently, I’m playing in three different 3E games, so you know I love it.

The changes from 3E to 4E were even bigger. About the only things that stayed the same were the names of things and the basic die mechanic. Everything else got a big overhaul – so big that, without the names, you wouldn’t know it was the same game.

Here’s some of the claims made by those criticizing the game, and my response to them:

  • It’s not as gritty. Generally, I take this to mean that your character is not as weak and powerless at lower levels. I would totally agree with that. I just don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. Sure, there is an appeal to emulating the sword-and-sorcery books of Leiber and Howard, but D&D hasn’t really done a good job of doing that ever. Firstly, because it’s been predicated on parties of adventurers, and secondly because the hit point mechanic doesn’t do that good a job of modeling realistic combat. However, it is very true that the lower levels are far less desperate and perilous, as long as the DM does a good job of balancing the encounters. Do I miss that sort of thing? Sometimes. On the other hand, it’s fun to have a character who can actually do cool stuff starting right at first level, and doesn’t need to sleep for eight hours after an eighteen-second fight.
  • Too many hit points. This is sort of tied to the above point, but not exclusively. This is one of the main things that makes the combats last longer, at least in number of rounds. Because it’s not just the PCs with more hit points, it’s the monsters, too, while damage output (at least, at lower levels) hasn’t scaled up by the same degree. This means that each fight generally goes on for more rounds than in 3E. The upside is that it makes it more likely that the monsters will get to trot out their special tricks. From the players’ point of view, that may also be the downside. I like the fact that monsters get to do more things, and to be more interesting. It also gives more time for the PCs to do things other than just stand and hit things.
  • Combat is very repetitive. I’ve heard from people that combat in 4E is just your character using the same power or two over and over again until the bad guys fall down. I really don’t get this one. After all, combat in 3E was just using the same attack or two over and over again until the bad guys fall down. Personally, I think the powers add more variety, even at low levels when you have fewer of them. Also, I think the way actions have been structured gives players more incentive to try different things in combat, because you don’t lose your iterative attacks if you move. Still, I’ve read this one on the net, and I’ve had a couple of players mention it to me in person, so they obviously feel that way. I just don’t see why, myself.
  • I hate having to pick a paragon path. Yeah. This one, I’ll go along with whole-heartedly. Paragon paths obviously replace prestige classes from 3E. The one thing that was overlooked, though, was that prestige classes were optional. Paragon paths really aren’t unless you’ve gone full-bore into multiclassing. Now, part of the feeling of constraint may be because we’re still pretty early in the development of the game, so there aren’t as many paragon paths to choose from as we might like. Still, I think it would be better if there was an option for a “purist” paragon path for each class, if you see what I mean.
  • It feels too much like a video game. I’m gonna be blunt, here: if it feels too much like a video game, that’s the fault of the people at the table, not the game. I honestly feel that you can’t blame the system for this one. Now, I’ll admit that they borrowed some ideas from things like World of Warcraft, but they also borrowed from other board, card, and roleplaying games. Some of the things they’ve borrowed work better than others, in my opinion. For example, the exceptions-based approach to powers and abilities (borrowed from Magic: The Gathering, among other games) works very well, letting monster stat blocks stay small and useful, and minimizing the amount people have to shuffle through various books. On the other hand, the marking mechanic (borrowed from the MMORPG idea of aggro) requires a lot more fiddling around in play than I think the advantages warrant. Interesting idea there, but not perfect implementation.
  • It’s just a combat system. That’s just crap. Like most mainstream RPGs, 4E devotes a fair bit of space to combat, because a) that’s where the market is, and b) that’s what requires the most simulationist rules. But 4E, for the first time, starts putting rules around non-combat encounters, as well. The skill challenge rules may not be perfect, but they’re definitely a non-combat set of rules that takes up several pages in the DMG. Now, there’s definitely a real weighting of the powers for characters towards the damage-dealing, combat powers, I will admit. More of a weighting than I might like to see, even among the so-called Utility Powers. But still, it comes down to what you do with the game at the table. If all you run is combat, then the game is gonna look like a combat system. If you mix it up a little more, then it won’t. And to say that there is no support for other types of play just says to me that you haven’t looked at the DMG at all.

In interest of full disclosure, this next list is some of the claims on the pro side of the argument, and what I think about them:

  • Combat is faster. Hmmm. So far, I’m not seeing it. I think each round goes faster, but you wind up with a larger number of rounds per combat, so on the whole, I think it’s a wash. If anything, I find that 4E combat is going slower because neither I nor my players have the mastery of the system that we developed in 3E. That, of course, will be corrected with practice. But I don’t see combat speeding up all that much.
  • Prep is faster for the DM. Yes and no. Customizing something that’s already been done, like updating a published adventure to match the number of characters in your party, is amazingly quick and easy. I love that. Having said that, building an adventure from scratch takes about the same amount of time, I find, though again part of that is lack of mastery of the rules. One thing that sort of complicates things is the linking of treasure to level, rather than to encounters. It pushes a DM to a very linear plot, I find, to make sure that the treasure is appropriate for the characters’ level. Still, that’s not insurmountable – it just takes some juggling, which takes some extra time.
  • Monsters are easier to run. This one I agree with whole-heartedly. I’ll even go a little farther, and say that monsters are also far more interesting to run. Even the lowliest kobold and goblin has a little trick designed to make them memorable to the characters. Fighting a goblin is now substantially different from fighting a kobold. And that’s a really good thing.
  • Running the game in general is easier for the GM. I don’t know. It’s tough to compare, because of that lack of rules mastery in the new system, compared to the acquired rules mastery in the old system. Still, the underlying structure, the new ways defenses are used, and the idea of exception-based abilities all seem to point in that direction. I hope it’s the case. But it’s too soon to tell.
  • Characters get to make interesting choices at each level. Yeah, I think so. There don’t seem to be anymore dead levels for any character. At each level, you get a new power, or feat, or something nice. Having said that, there seems to be optimal builds for each class, which I’m not sure I like. Optimal builds implies sub-optimal builds, which is a sort of tacit constraint on character development. I’m hoping that phenomenon is just a result of the comparatively small number of choices available because the game’s less than a year into it’s published support.

So, there’s my take on the whole thing. I like both systems, probably because they each do different things. In the end, I really find that the group makes the game, not the other way around. As my friend Penny said, “I’ve come to the conclusion that rules systems aren’t that important to the game. They’re just the tools you use to tell the stories you want.”****

This begs the final question: why am I currently running 4E games, and no 3E games? Simple. I’ve done the 3E experience. I ran an eight-year campaign. I’ll gladly play 3E, but I’m not interested in running it anymore. I’ve told my 3E story. Now I want to tell 4E stories.

But I love playing 3E, as Ladimir, Synry, and Dunael will attest.




*It was written back at the beginning of November, but I just read it now. Yeah, I don’t check that blog very often.

**So take that, Michael! 😉

***Take it as read that, whenever I refer to 3E, I’m including 3.5.

****I’m paraphrasing, despite the quotes. She said something that amounted to the same thing. Forgive the misquotation, Penny.