Paper and Dice

Gaming from an author's point of view, and fiction from a gamer's point of view.


Monday, January 19, 2009 - 7:06 PM

Yesterday, my dnd group hit the biggest plot benchmark they've had in the entire game, and I am unreasonably pleased about it. Starting with small gangland conspiracies in the world's largest city, they began a turbulent journey upward to the status of heroes following the horrific traces of a conjured disaster. They've all been through trials of fire, tests of the soul and changes of heart. Tensions within the party have risen and fallen, sometimes to the point of open conflict, but through all this time they've kept their eyes on the ultimate goal of confronting the terrible work of someone history has labeled a master of atrocity and abomination.

Well, they've kept their eyes in that direction, anyway.

In their world, they've gained recognition as daring explorers, scholar-adventurers who lift up forgotten histories from ancient cultures and bring them to light. They've translated old books and tablets, discovered facets of their own cultures that most have forgotten, and wandered through places that went untouched for centuries. They've made friends, influenced people, and ticked more than a few off. It wasn't as if they weren't extraordinary before last session.

But in chapter 88 of this adventure, they accomplished something that was thought to be impossible. They destroyed the heart of Hope, a monster-once-a-healer who was condemned to live forever by the creature she tried to redeem.

With this act, they've put themselves into history. They've become ancestors, people whose names will be remembered in tales and songs and records. They have taken the first step into being heroes of the world, rather than heroes of a nation or provinces or a single people, and the hands of those above are reaching down to welcome them. Looking back through my notes and stat blocks, I see the long trail of blood, tears, victory and loss they've come along, and I can easily see that they've begun to transcend the 'dungeon' and are moving up to the 'dragon' end of adventure.

Yeah, they've leveled up. And they earned every single experience point. Emphasis on experience.

Especially for me.

Thanks, guys.

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The Flavor of Machinery

Saturday, July 12, 2008 - 10:24 AM

While combing through the 4ed Monster Manual the other day, I came to a sudden realization.

I didn't recall seeing a single monster who, outside of basic skills, had any special ability outside of combat applications.

I did a second look-thru, and though a very, very few exceptions exist, the monsters in the book are nothing but blocks of combat stats. Even in the case of the exceptions, there are barely any indications as to how these abilities are used except in combat situations.

Before I continue, I want to be sure people don't consider this observation a complaint on my part. This is the flavor of 4ed; it is a combat game, and emphasizes combat more than 3.5 by quite a bit. So, it is what it is. However, I think that the significance of this mechanical foundation is being overlooked by a good number of people.

When you build a conflict resolution mechanic for a game, it will influence the overall feel of the game. It doesn't matter how well you story-tell around the mechanics of a system; one way or the other, the mechanic will affect the mood and the tone. Further, what gets delineated mechanically and how will certainly affect how people build their characters, and therefore influence how the characters behave during the course of the game.

In Kult, for example, the system makes combat very dangerous. There is no heroic dodging of bullets in this game; if someone pulls a gun, you take cover, because it doesn't matter how tough you are. By the rules of the game, any slob with a gun can kill you with one bullet. This mechanical emphasis on how fragile a character is enhances the claustrophobia and paranoia of the setting overall. Also, for practical reasons, it influences people to keep their characters out of combat.

Another fine example is Riddle of Steel, where things which are important to your character actually enhance your performance in the game system. This provides a mechanical reward to players who pursue their character's passions and agendas, and also allows them to communicate to the GM in no uncertain terms what they want to do in the game... particularly because these same agendas and passions are given specific game statistics and are responsible for generating experience points in that system.

In 4ed, noncombat skills have been boiled down and reduced to a smaller set of categories. Skill challenges are an interesting new tension-filled way to handle use of skills (though really, some GMs have been doing something similar with 3rd for a while now). However, the vast majority of mechanically defined applications and abilities (and I do mean vast) are all to do with combat. There is a nominal smattering of 'utility powers', and certainly the ritual casting opens up a good few options, but again, it's few options. Combine this with the level requisites for various rituals, and you quickly find that outside of a small parcel of trained skills, your average 4ed character is not, mechanically, very versatile.

I'm going to break my usual rule about comparing 3.5 and 4ed at this point, because 3.5 is the nearest best point of contrast for what I'm observing here. In 3.5, everything was delineated, and skills were fairly extensive. Their use was further enhanced even in an out-of-combat capacity by various feats, prestige classes and sometimes magic items. Monsters often had abilities which were certainly out-of-combat oriented, even if they were only spells and the like. Utility spells complemented skill use, and skills such as Performance provided additional options for players in the social context.

In contrast, I note that, as written, neither the Succubus or the Pit Fiend in 4ed can even detect magic. In the case of player characters, utility-style abilities are heavily level dependent, and you only ever get a limited few. Skill checks are the primary way to get anything done mechanically outside of combat, and in 4ed, anybody can make a skill check. Some are better than others at it, certainly, but if you have a hankering to build a skill-focused character, your options are few. The vast majority of abilities as presented are for tactical combat.

Certainly the GM can add or subtract to a game whatever they like. My policy is that you do not let the system run you; you run the system. But looking exclusively at the mechanical support for given types of actions in 3.5 and 4ed, one can see what the feel of the game is going to be. That said, the feel overall of 4ed may change depending on where they take the game from here (and that is a very big question). As it stands, those people who enjoy diversity in a character and social interactions outside of a peripheral view will probably want to stick with 3.5. How you define your character may start in your head, but the numbers let you know what you can and cannot, absolutely, do in the game. In 4ed, those numbers are almost exclusively, and very specifically, about combat.

Is it wrong? No. A different game than 3.5? Absolutely yes. I'll play both, myself, but I can readily tell what players will enjoy which game more. I still maintain 4ed is a very clean system overall, but it is (currently) a very focused system with a strictly limited perspective on how the world works.

One might think they were planning to make a computer game out of it or something.

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Monday, July 7, 2008 - 1:46 PM

My second session of 4ed went sliding by this past weekend, and already I'm finding a definite feel for the system. Judging from other opinions and what I've read, skill challenges seem to be a much larger part of the system than the way I have been using them. This seems to be a sort of compensation for the lack of out-of-combat mechanical options given to the players, at least at lower levels.

Overall, the game went smoothly. There are some design decisions I'm still attempting to figure out (the charging rules seem odd to me, for example, though I understand how they are supposed to work), but in general the rule sets were easy enough to pick up. At this point I need to absorb the quirks of the system and bend it where it needs bending.... there's no system in the world that doesn't need bending somewhere, after all.

I had mixed reviews from players about 4ed. Some really don't like it. Others do. Some are neutral. The major complaints, in general, have been the editing/content of the books (which I agree with), and the lack of sufficient mechanical support for anything not having to do with tactical combat (which I agree with in part).

My own opinion has moved into a reasonably neutral one. There are some ideas here which I like, and which I can translate mechanically into my 3.75 campaign (never trust 3.5 by itself). As a system, 4ed is solidified in my mind as a tactical wargame with RP enhancements tacked on. It is a reasonably quick system with a good, solid balanced system foundation. Character options at the moment are very limited, but that also keeps things streamlined which in and of itself is not a bad thing. However, there are some bits and pieces in the rules text which are just not written very well, and I expect as time goes by more rules arguments are going to crop up about things which the designers probably did so many times they figured nobody needed clarification on them. Lastly, I am certain that the foundation of the game is going to suffer when the publisher dumps a horde of new character options into the next set of rulebooks. I hope my certainty is ill-founded... but I'd say it's a safe bet, judging from what I've seen happen in other games time and again.

On the tweaking 3.5 note, I'm very much enjoying the Pathfinder material that has been coming out these days. The Paizo group has been consistent in their creativity and quality, in my opinion, and I see no reason to cancel my subscription with them, even though I don't game nearly often enough to make use of everything I get from them. Even so, spinning source material through my brain always leaves a trail of seeds that burst into something new, and I enjoy that well enough. Integrating some of their rule changes and adaptations for the standard 3.5 system is something I'm playing with at the moment.

As far as playing is concerned, I'll be posting some information about the 4ed scenario that I was testing out this past weekend... and the continuation of that scenario, as well. In this particular adventure, I am adhering strictly to the guidelines presented in the 4ed books, to see how they play out in practice with the sorts of players I run games for. Also, more Paths fiction is on the way.

Until then...

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Saturday, February 9, 2008 - 9:40 AM

I was filing through the new Warhammer 40K RPG, Dark Heresy. While doing this, I had a sudden realization.

Let me get the obligatory review part out of the way before I move on. Overall, I liked it. It's a tight, well-presented game that doesn't assume you know everything about the rather extensively detailed Warhammer universe. Further, it does a fair job of concisely explaining the moods and themes of that universe without getting too wordy. Sure, there's the usual spin to produce 'cool factor', but despite the usual tremendous-shoulder-pad-and-pervading-skull motif, it comes off well.

I have some wariness about character creation, in that the system appears to allow heavy customization at first glance... but it doesn't, not really. Creation is easy, which is nice, but there was a lot of similarity in the twelve sample characters I drew up. I suspect that if I run this game, I will probably tweak things to allow for more options.

Here's where the thoughts got provoked.

Dark Heresy sold out on preorders alone. Now, anybody involved in gaming at all knows that Warhammer has a huge and loyal following, and I'm sure that has something to do with it. That Black Industries has produced fantastic work with the Warhammer Fantasy RPG is another strong reason (plus, they're fun people; I met them at GAMA this last year). There's no doubt there's an audience for it. What I wonder is how many dedicated RPGers will avoid it just because it has Warhammer attached to the title, perhaps assuming that it will be little more than a glorified miniatures game.

Dungeons and Dragons has this problem, also. Many people assume that DnD is always some kind of door-kicking tactics party, with lots of math and a great deal of rules arguments. Sure, sometimes it is, and it is certainly true that 90% of the game mechanics are to do with combat... which means you can expect a fair amount of it.

DnD doesn't have to be that way. The group I'm running right now is on session #70 of a campaign, and sure, in combat the rogue yelps at the tank for flanking. Sure, the conjuror is always looking for the best place to land her spells. But I have rarely seen such a tightly-knit web of character interaction. They have spent whole sessions meandering through character development, unravelling plotlines and figuring out their future. The progression of their story, from struggling against conspiracies to becoming local heroes and now to understanding what it takes (and means!) to change the world has been wonderful. These characters have grown, in all ways.

There is no reason Dark Heresy can't be the same kind of game. In fact, combat being as nasty as it is, there's a strong implication that you Should try and talk your way through things. Now, I do make fun of what I call the 'Warhammer aesthetic' as much as the next guy, but sans shoulder-pads, the setting is really very evocative. Beyond the dark, science-fantasy grimness of it all, the setting has a lot of depth that is worth taking a closer look at, and I firmly believe that dedicated RPers can find a lot of stories to tell with that in mind.

The next time you have a knee-jerk reaction to a game, be it DnD or Vampire or Dark Heresy, consider that a game can be run however you want it to be. A system is always just a framework. Mechanics will inevitably flavor the feel of the game, but you, be it player or GM, you are the one crafting the stories. Dark Heresy doesn't have to be about huge guns, outrageous armor and ridiculously toothy vehicles. It can be about the survival of the soul against oppression, the seeds of hope in faith, and the power to escape from ignorance.

Of course, making sure your GM/fellow players share a similar vision is important, but that's a story for another time.

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