Learning from History

So, today Wizards of the Coast announced the new iteration of Dungeons & Dragons ((Note that they’re not calling it 5th Edition, but pretty much everyone else is right now.)). Of course, you know that, because that’s pretty much all that gamers are talking about on the Internet today.

I’m cautiously optimistic about the new edition. Every new edition of D&D has, to my mind, added something new and valuable to the D&D gaming experience, even if it’s left behind some things of value from previous editions, and I expect that this edition is going to be no different. It’s going to do some things right, and it’s going to miss the boat on some things. That said, the stated design goal of making an edition that is accessible and open to fans of all editions ((A noble goal. I just don’t know how realistic it is.)) points to the folks over at WotC recognizing that there are things of value that have been left behind in the previous years, and looking to correct that.

So. Cautiously optimistic, as I said. But as we wind down 4E ((I have no intention of jumping ship over to 5E right away unless it shows massive improvements over 4E AND can accommodate my ongoing campaign without the need for extensive revision of characters.)), there are some things that I really hope the design and development folks over at WotC have learned from the 4E experience:

  • Value external playtester feedback. The various articles note how external playtester feedback was pretty much ignored in the development of 4E. This is a mistake, because it’s the external testers who will tell you what the game actually plays like at the table. Internal playtesters are great – and necessary – but they’ve often been steeped in the development process, and are coming to the game with a very narrow set of expectations. External playtesters have a much broader range of expectations ((i.e., they have not drunk the company kool-aid.)), and are better representative of the target audience. But that’s a no-brainer, right? WotC says it’s going to listen more to playtesters this time around. Let’s hope they follow through.
  • Deliver what you promise. What I’m talking about here specifically is the horrible mess the online tools for 4E are. Sure, the character builder and the compendium are pretty good, but I still use the downloadable version of the monster builder, because the web-based one doesn’t have half of the functionality I need for tweaking monsters. And the virtual game table is only now really becoming available. And all the other adventure tools are… well, just not there. These are all really disappointing to someone who is paying for DDI every year, and finding himself using exactly one tool. So, you know, keep an eye on promises and the fulfillment thereof.
  • It’s not all about the combats. 4E is a very focused, finely tuned ruleset, developed to make exciting, cinematic combats. And then you throw in some stuff to give the characters a reason for going from one combat to another. There really isn’t a lot out there to support play outside of combat – there’s just enough to allow the characters to find their way to the next fight. This is a large part of what makes the game feel very much like a video game ((I don’t know that it does that much, but that’s one of the primary complaints I hear.)), and sends people looking for other things to play. All ((Well, not all, but certainly most.)) of the complexity and support for the game lies in the combat system, which emphasizes a very particular style of play. Broadening some of that complexity and emphasis would broaden the audience for the game and win back market share, I think.
  • Look close to home for innovation. It’s obvious that the 4E developers looked long and hard at board games, card games, and video games when designing 4E, and that’s a good thing. But it seems to me that there are a lot of exciting new game designs out there in RPG-land, too, and looking at some of the indie ((Whatever that really means.)) RPGs and story games could provide a lot of ideas and insights into how to support non-combat actions, and how to speed up combats as well. Which is something I think D&D needs.
  • Build in an entry strategy from the get-go. Start with the Essentials line, and then add the complexity. Don’t come in half-way ((Or three-quarters of the way, in this case.)) through with the beginner set. I think this one is a no-brainer, but just putting it out there. That way, you don’t have to rely on the current fans – who may or may not make the edition switch – to build the market. You can capture the new gamers hitting the scene, and maybe even pull in the old-school fans who have poo-poohed the complexity of modern editions.
  • Remember that the rules are a tool set. The rules are not the game. The game is what happens at the table. WotC is not the dispenser of truth about how to play the game, they are the providers of the rules, and the DM and players get to mangle them as they see fit. The groups are going to house-rule stuff, and twist stuff, and home-brew stuff, and just plain get stuff wrong, and that’s great, as long as they have fun. Concentrate on providing them a tool kit they can use to build their own coolness in-game, rather than a hard-and-fast, rigidly defined game experience. Leave room for the players and DMs to inject themselves into every level of gameplay and – as far as possible – support the different types of play experience. I know, that last bit is tough – be all things to all people – but it’s a valuable goal.

Those are the big lessons I hope WotC takes forward into this new iteration. Beyond that, I have my own pet peeves that I hope get eliminated and sacred cows that I hope get supported or returned to play.

There is, of course, going to be some public outcry about the whole thing – it’s another cash grab ((C’mon, guys. WotC is a business, and of course they want to make money. That does not preclude them also wanting to make the best game they can. After all, that will net them more money, right?)), they’re ruining my favourite edition, they won’t listen to the fans enough, they will listen to the fans too much, it’s too much like game X, it’s not enough like game X, the whole thing is going to crash and burn, etc.

For my part, I’m cautiously optimistic, based on past experience. Let’s see if WotC can indeed produce a D&D game that is all things to all fans.

I’d be happy if they succeeded.

GenCon Update

So, by now, pretty much everyone knows about the next setting for 4E: Dark Sun.

That’s cool. I thought the original Dark Sun setting was pretty interesting, and I’m curious to see what they do with it in 4E. It makes a lot of sense, especially considering how the PHB3 is going to introduce the psionics power source for the game.

I’m not entirely thrilled, though. I mean, they talk in the announcement about how they wanted to do something a little less baseline fantasy, and I respect them for that. And I can understand how they want to tap into an existing fan market for the world, especially in the current economic climate.

But I keep thinking about the other two finalists of their setting search, and wondering about the two 100-page setting bibles locked away in WotC’s vault.

I think about them, and I really wish they had picked one of them to do. Why? Partly because I’m curious, and partly because I wanted a fresh new idea. Dark Sun is a neat setting, but I’ve already seen one iteration of it. I’d prefer something new. That may just be me, though. I expect that the 4E version of the world will be every bit as cool and well-done as Forgotten Realms and Eberron were.

Had another nice dinner with Gwen, Brian, and Julie from Sigh Co. Graphics. This time, we went to Alcatraz Brewing Co. Food was good, and the server, Rayna (Raina? I dunno.) was great. Lots of fun.

Now, I’m back in the room, and I’m going to spend the rest of the evening reading Geist. So, far it’s really pushing a lot of my mythology buttons – people who die, then come back from the dead with something extra from the other side; syncretized religion and ceremony to enable supernatural powers; twisted, half-human archetypes bound to the souls of people who must both control and serve them; a system for players to construct their own mythology for their characters; stuff like that. I’m having a lot of fun with it.

And, speaking of fun, the count for today was 12. That’s down 72% from last year’s record of 43. It’s not the lowest score – that was 3, on the year GenCon first moved to Indianapolis – but it’s the first time since then that the count has decreased. We discussed it, and think that it may be an indicator that casual gamers are not attending in high numbers due to the economy. Certainly, sales this year are down over last year.

And that’s it for tonight. Tomorrow around noon, we hit the road for home, and another GenCon – my tenth – will be behind us.

Actually Playing 4E

I know! Two posts in two days!

So, despite my resolve to wait until there were more options out there before starting a 4th Edition D&D game, I broke down and started a 4th Edition D&D game.

Those who know me are not surprised.

I wanted to get some practice running the game, get familiar with the rules and things, while I prepare the campaign I’m going to launch some time next year. This would give me a chance to build some proficiency with the new system, and get my head around what sorts of things a campaign needs that can be best modeled by the new rules.

Now, because I was coming in green, I wanted to use a pregenerated campaign, and Wizards of the Coast graciously provided their Scales of War adventure path. That made it easy. So, I sent out invites to eight gamers I know, hoping for four or five acceptances.

I got seven.

And then one of them asked if they could bring a friend. Back up to eight players.

Well, I decided, I wanted to see how much faster these rules were in play. This would give them a damned good stretching.

So how’s it going? First, some observations about the adventures.

  • They are (so far; we’re at #3 right now) fairly well-written. There are some nice encounters, and some interesting decisions to make.
  • There’s plenty of dungeon crawling going on. Too much? That’ll vary depending on your group, but it’s pushing the limits of my tolerance.
  • There are interesting little links, mainly using skill challenges, that break up the dungeon crawl monotony.
  • Starting especially in the second adventure, there’s plenty of opportunity for improvised little side adventures and extended roleplaying. Not so much in the first, which tends to drop you in the middle of the action and then give you a time-sensitive mission.
  • The editing on the second adventure is really sub-par, with missing labels being one of the more annoying aspects.

Now, as to playing the adventures:

  • After character generation, we had a tiefling warlock, a tiefling rogue, a dragonborn fighter, a dragonborn paladin, a human cleric, a human wizard, a half-elf ranger, and a half-elf fighter.
  • There are issues with running this large a group in any system. These were exacerbated in this game because none of us were overly familiar with the rules. Things dragged, no one got enough DM face time, and little timing misjudgements I made snowballed into huge problems.
  • Two players bowed out after the second session, saying that the group was just too large. They were right.
  • Six is much more manageable.
  • Leaving your rogue out front with no back-up in hostile territory will do bad things to the rogue.
  • Skill challenges have a lot of potential, but some practice is needed to run them as something more than a non-physical combat. Also, having skills that automatically grant failures seems designed to punish players for trying to stick to what their characters are good at. Skill challenges should encourage players to take risks, not devolve into a guessing game to see where the booby-trapped skills are.
  • Combat encounters still take a fair bit of time to run. Now, part of that is lack of experience with the system, and part of that is the fact that monsters have significantly more hit points on average, which makes the combats run a larger number of rounds.
  • The new system actively rewards you for co-operating in your party and playing to your strengths. After some shaky combats, the players started to see how to make their characters work together to support each other. The last fight of the last session was a complete slaughter of the monsters.
  • Adding Campaign Coins to the game has been fun.
  • Doing up customized cards for powers and magic items can greatly speed play. You can check out some templates here. Personally, I use the Power and Item Cards by JFJohnny5. Thanks, Johnny!
  • I got some Alea Tools magnetic markers to track bloodied, marked, and cursed conditions, but they were too attractive to each other, and wound up being more trouble than they were worth. Apparently, if you have a magnetically receptive play surface, they don’t push and pull your figures around nearly as much. I’ll have to see what I can find, but for now, I’m looking for a different way to handle this. Any suggestions are welcome.
  • Speaking of marked, I like what this condition is trying to do, which is make enemies attack someone who is very much a threat to them, but I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a less fiddly way of handling it. It can be a bit of a challenge to keep track of whom has been marked by who.
  • There has been some comment that combat seems very repetitive, because characters use the same powers over and over again. I find this confusing to me, because in 3.5, characters just used the same attacks over and over again, and the people complaining didn’t find that repetitive. Maybe this is an artifact of the low level limited number of powers; we’ll have to see how things change as the game progresses.

So, what’s the verdict? Among my players, it’s that 4E is a good system. It’s not the second coming, it won’t end world hunger, or bring about peace in the Middle East, but it works for what it sets out to do. Mostly, anyway. It’s easily as good as 3.5, and if there are places where it doesn’t quite measure up, there are also places where it outshines the former system significantly.

And my opinion? Well, let me put it this way. The adventure path I’m using is written for five characters. When I found out I was going to have eight, I went through and beefed up the encounters to be appropriate for that number of characters. The guidelines in the DMG on how to do this are very, very clear. The process is very simple. It took me under an hour to update over a dozen encounters, and that includes a couple where I had to increase the level of the monsters, rather than just add extras. When two players dropped out, it was even faster to adjust for that. And I’ve been getting faster with each adventure. This means I’m spending my prep time fleshing out background, making props and cards for treasure, updating power cards for the players, and reading the next adventure.

This, I like. This is what sells me on 4E.

D&D 4th Edition Demos

Check out this link.

So, yeah, I’m going to be doing D&D 4E demos at Imagine Games and Hobbies over the next three Saturdays. For the first two, I’m going to be running excerpts from Keep on the Shadowfell, the first 4th Edition adventure, which goes on sale Tuesday, May 20. The adventure comes with a quick-start rulebook and pregenerated characters, which is what I’m going to be using. Two demos a day, as long as I get players; first one starts at 1:00 pm, second one starts around 5:00 pm. On Worldwide D&D Day, Saturday, June 7, I’ll be at the store all day, running demos out of whatever launch package they send Pedro. If you’re in Winnipeg, and you’re interested in giving the game a try, come on down and play with me.

Okay, the plug’s done. Now I want to talk about what I know about 4E, and what I think about it.

First off, I want to stress that all the information I have is coming from that immense mixed blessing, The Internet. When I was down at Imagine today, I got to look at the sealed Keep on the Shadowfell, but that’s it. It’s not on sale until Tuesday, and I have no special access.

But there’s been a lot of stuff written about the new game coming, and I’ve been doing my level best to read it all. Sites that have been really valuable for insight:

  • Wizards of the Coast has been posting regular updates and teasers and art previews for some time now.
  • ENWorld, which was born in the rumblings before 3E, has once again become the place to check for news on the newest edition of D&D.
  • The Chatty DM, who stops by this site every now and then, has posted an extensive review of Keep on the Shadowfell.
  • Some months back, Ain’t It Cool News posted a three-part review from one of the playtesters, but I can’t seem to find it now.


The point I’m making is that I really don’t know any more than anyone else about the game, and less than many. So why am I talking about it?

Because my hopes are high. And they’re high for specific reasons.

Unfortunately, I also have some serious reservations. And again, they’re very specific.

Let’s talk about why I’m pumped, first, then we’ll talk about why I’m worried.

The changes I’ve been reading about in the stuff that’s been posted online has shown me that the new game seems to be hewing close to one of my personal design goals when I build games – just enough complexity to make the game fun, and no more. For every new system I add to a game, for every time I come up with an idea that means a die roll, I try to ask myself, “Does this add to the fun?” If the answer is no or, worse still, that it detracts from the fun, I toss the system and start again.

It took me a long time to learn that lesson, and now that I have, I cling to it with both hands and all of my heart. Make sure that every time a player picks up a die, it’s adding to the fun. Make sure that players are excited to roll a die, not just going through the motions.

You can’t always achieve that, of course. The world’s not perfect. You need some complexity to make the game able to simulate what you want it simulating. But the complexity should serve the game, not the simulation.

And this seems to be the view taken by the designers and developers of 4E. In a lot of the interviews, they talk about how the game moves faster, especially in combat, while the characters all have interesting choices to make every turn. Some of the pregenerated characters and monsters have been posted on the Wizards site, and it looks like they’ve been paring away excessive complexity to focus on the fun stuff. That’s my kind of design.

They also talk a lot about how much easier it is for DMs to design and run adventures. Now, I generally spend about 30 minutes prep time for every hour of play in campaigns I run. One of the designers talked in an interview about how he never spends more than 30-40 minutes putting together a full evening of gaming. They say it’s much easier to build encounters, to adjust monster stats, to set up skill challenges, to create treasure, all the mechanical stuff. That leaves more time to building story, description, NPC quirks, building props and hand-outs, and all the other fun stuff.

The designers also say that it’s far easier to run the game. Looking at the monster stat blocks that have hit the Web, I’m starting to believe it. The one that really swayed me was the Pit Fiend stat block they posted. Instead of a laundry-list of special abilities, most of which never get used in combat, there are a set of powers that look like they work well together and a set of tactics to show you how to use them.

I just finished running a high-level D&D 3.5 campaign. This is so much nicer than the high-level threats I had to keep track of there, without losing flavour.

I mentioned skill challenges a couple paragraphs back. The new game integrates a system for handling non-combat challenges that rely on the characters’ skills, but don’t come down to single die rolls or rely on only one skill. They talk about it here, and it sounds pretty good to me.

They’ve also done a lot to try and address that age-old bane of verisimilitude, the 20-minute adventuring day. You know: the party gets up, heads out, gets into two fights, and has to rest for another eight hours to heal and regain spells. Well, they’re doing a number of things to deal with that, and I hope it solves the problem.

So, that’s what’s got me hoping.

Now, here’s what’s got me scared.

First, Wizards has obviously taken a long, hard look at the MMORPG phenomenon, and wants to grab a chunk of that market to play 4E. They’re emphasizing party roles, handing out more video-game-style powers, reworking some sacred cows like random hit points, and so on.

There’s a reason I don’t play MMORPGs. Actually, there are several, but stay with me.

I like the way D&D has traditionally done some things, and I don’t like the way a lot of MMORPGs seem to do things. I don’t want to play a table-top version of World of Warcraft.

Let’s talk roles, first of all. D&D has always been a class-based system, so roles have been an intrinsic part of it since the beginning. What I’m worried about now is the emphasis on the roles, and whether that leaves room for a graceful, elegant fighter or a wizard who likes to mix it up with a sword. I want it to, but I’m not sure it does.

As for the powers, a lot of it is going to depend on the jazz that goes with it. We’ve seen powers where a Paladin hits a foe and heals an enemy – how is that explained? What’s the logic behind it? Can you justify it in the game world without resorting to MMORPG terms? I hope so.

Y’know, really what it comes down to is that I really want to like this game, but there have been some big promises made and I don’t know if it will live up to them. I like the things they say they’re changing, but will I like the way they change them? When Mongoose released the new RuneQuest, I was so pumped. I figured that if they could deliver on even half the things they were promising, they’d be golden.

I don’t even want to get into how disappointed I was with the game once we playtested it.

I just really don’t want that to happen again. I’m leery of getting my hopes up to high.

But I can’t help it. I’m just really looking forward to the release, to trying it out, and to playing it regularly. After all, I was a real nay-sayer when they announced 3E, but it won me over big-time. They did it once; I’m sure they can do it again.


Anyway, to get back to the point, demos at Imagine for the next three Saturdays. Come down and try the game out with me. It’ll be fun.

In the meantime, I’ve got this idea for a 4E campaign – The Phoenix Covenant. Maybe I’ll talk a little about it next time.