Tuesday, 26 August 2014

5th ed D&D Player's Handbook (review)

D&D is like the girl I grew up with. As kids we had a great time, and it didn't really matter that our games weren't too sophisticated as long as we had fun.

Then we hit our teen years and we kinda went different ways. We still enjoyed each others company, but I'd started noticing other games and girls and she was kinda hung up on trying to make those old schoolyard frolics into something more than what they really were. She started to bore me and I started to avoid her.

Then in 2000, I heard she was coming back to town. I didn't expect much, and boy was I surprised when she rocked up looking a million dollars! She'd shed the awkward body of her developing years and had matured spectacularly. The pimples were gone and the braces discarded. She was still the same girl at heart, but now she was smarter, cooler, prettier and sexier. She'd always had this potential, but it was a surprise to see her actually live up to it. There were still other girls who I liked (some even moreso) but there was a place in my heart for D, and she was glowing at this stage.

However, the popularity got to her head, and she got caught up in her own bullshit. It was nice to see her, but she had a lot of admirers around that I didn't care for, so we drifted apart again.

Then she gave herself another makeover, and this time I hated it. She was obviously hanging with the wrong crowd, or at least a subculture that I couldn't approve of. She looked tacky and she wasn't the girl she used to be. She was vapid and shallow. She was trying too hard to be cool. She was so obviously trying to be someone that she wasn't, and it was so sad to watch her do this to herself.

So sad, in fact, that I let her go. I couldn't be a part of that.

But last week, I got a knock on my door and guess who was standing there? There was D, slightly shamefaced and desperate to be held. She'd ditched the subculture threads and once more had returned to the girl I'd fallen back in love with in 2000. Though this time, there was something different.

Yes, there it was in her eyes. Rather than take another step down the path she was heading, she'd backpedalled to a better time. And this time she wouldn't screw up. She's wiser now. This isn't a makeover but a do-over. She's learnt so much and she wants to fix it up.

What a sucker am I? She's probably gonna break my heart again. She'll probably go off the rails. But I know that she really wants to make up for the past and she's trying so hard. I need to give her this chance.

And for the first time in a long while, I believe in her. Because this is the best she's ever been.

So come to my arms, glorious girl! It's good to have you back.

What's it like?
It's basically 3rd ed in principle (and when I say 3rd, that includes 3.5, d20, Pathfinder et al. Nobody gets so pedantic and fussy when discussing 1st edition as they do with 3rd. What's the red box? 1.4? 1.5? What about the Rules Cyclopedia? 1.8? It's all just 1st ed, like 3.5 is just 3rd. Deal with it.)

There's nothing wrong with it being a polish of 3rd. 3rd was pretty clean overall. There's a lot of people saying that it feels a lot like 1st ed, but I don't see it. Frankly, that's a good thing. 1st ed kinda sucked, mechanically, though the atmosphere was fun. That 1st ed atmosphere isn't really existent in 5th (not like in, say, the wonderful Dungeon Crawl Classics) and it doesn't need to be.

Roll a d20. Add a modifier. Beat a target. Passive targets tend to be 10 + a modifier. You've seen it all before, kids.

The Character Sheet
I mentioned in my previous post that you can tell a lot about a game by its character sheet, and that's true for D&D5. Actually, you can probably review this book best by flipping through it backwards.

The character sheet has a few of the old familiars. Classic six Attributes and modifiers (again, like 3rd). Saving Throws have changed so that there's one for each attribute (so you can make a Strength save against the boulder falling on your head, and so forth). Armour class, Hit points, Initiative modifier, and Speed are all familiar. There's a list of 18 Skills, which is a good amount without going crazy, and they seem to be a good spread.

There's a few interesting new features. A spot each for "Inspiration" and a "Proficiency Bonus" stand out, which I'll get to later, but the most intriguing part has to be a little area for Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds and Flaws. This is new territory for D&D and immediately got me interested.

A second page deals with notes, treasure and the like while a third page is dedicated to spells.

The sheet is pretty clean, though it'd be clever to run a Hit Point track down the side of the page which you could use paper clips to monitor (ala Deadlands). It's such an easy and simple method and beats rubbing out numbers and damaging the sheet.

Going Backwards
The index seems pretty functional, and has worked very well for me as I've needed it. the Appendices include Conditions, Gods, Planes, Creature stats, and additional reading and are all quick and functional.

The Conditions have cute picture examples that assist the text. The Gods cover some classic historic pantheons and also some of the published D&D ones. The Planes basically gives a Planescape primer. Creature stats cover dogs, snakes, gators, horses and the like with a zombie and imp thrown in for interest. The Additional reading section begins with a couple of paragraphs by Gary Gygax from 1979, which I thought was a nice touch.

The book is split into three sections; character, rules, and magic. Sadly, the magic section is nothing special.

There are absolutely no surprises in the magic section. This is classic, level-based Vancian magic. (I was surprised to hear an experienced gamer mate of mine say he hadn't heard this term before. Vancian magic basically refers to the "memorisation" or "utility belt" style of magic design which most editions of D&D have used. It refers to the writings of Jack Vance, which inspired the magic system for D&D. It's like saying "a Tolkien-esque world" or "Lovecraftian gods".)

This is disappointing. I'm not a fan of Vancian magic and hope that a future edition will create something better, possibly taking some cues from Ars Magicka. Many (but not all spells) include a nifty feature where you can cast it as a higher level spell for extra benefits. Eg. I can cast Magic Missile as a third level spell and get 2 extra missiles than I would if I cast it at 1st level. This level up feature could form the basis of an improved magic system. (Weirdly, some obvious spells don't include this feature, even though they seem obviously suited for it. A perfect example is Mirror Images, which doesn't get extra benefits though it seems obvious that you could grant extra images.)

The end result is that this section is the most disappointing part of the book. To its credit, it's fairly compact.

Game Rules
The second section of the book covers the meat of the rules.

It's a mere 27 pages, which I think is glorious. It covers Ability Checks, Saves, Travelling, Resting and Combat, with a few little other necessities. Again, it's all very 3rd ed (especially the combat) with a few differences here and there.

As I said, there's a Save for each Attribute. Resting is split into Short and Long Rests, which grant different benefits. There's a new simple feature called having Advantage or Disadvantage, which means you roll two d20 if you have it, keeping the better one with Advantage or the lower when Disadvantaged. It's simple and effective.

Probably the biggest change is the idea of a Proficiency bonus. This starts at +2 and increases by 1 every four levels, maxing out at +6. You add your Proficiency bonus to "stuff you're proficient with". So instead of a Fighter gaining an extra +1 to hit each level, you just add your Proficiency bonus to weapons he knows (all of them). Thieves are Proficient with more Skills than other people.

You can be proficient with weapons, tools (there's a heap of different tool types, which is cool), Saves, Skill, Spells and a few other things.

I quickly liked it. Instead of having shitloads of bonuses to a few things (like in 3rd) or simply half my level to everything (like in 4th) this time you get a simple increase to your range of abilities. It's simple and is probably the best Skill system we've ever seen in D&D. But it won't be for everyone.

Character Creation
This is probably where the best part of the book is.

Though there's a couple of different methods presented, the default Attribute system is "roll 4d6, drop the lowest, do it six times, and allocate at will". That gives you a pretty solid idea as to the range we're expecting. From there, you pick your Race, Class, and Background.

That's the big change. In original Basic D&D you picked a Class, and Races were Classes all their own. Later, this became an X/Y axis where you picked a Race and a Class. Now they've added a Z axis for Background and it's the most exciting thing we've seen in D&D for a long time.

Not a lot of surprises, and again very 3rd ed. Dwarves, Elves, Halflings and Humans all feature strongly, with Dragonborn, Gnomes, Half-Elves, Half-Orcs and Tieflings thrown in for good measure. There's a little note stating that these last four don't appear in every world, but are included for if you want them, which is a great addition.

Most of them have subrace options (such as Hill or Mountain Dwarves, or High/Wood/Dark Elves) and have a range of benefits. Humans gain a point in every attribute, which goes a long way. Nothing seems particularly crazy.

The range of Classes is once more a flashback to 3rd, with all 11 of those classes included with the addition of the Warlock chucked in to bring the total up to 12. Each Class grants you Proficiencies to boost your Skills, Saves and equipment usage and various tricks, maneuvers, spells and abilities as you go up level.

Each Class forks into options as you go along which kinda covers the Prestige Class idea (Mages pick a School to follow, Barbarians can follow the Path of the Berserker or opt for the more shamanic Totem Warrior, Paladins pick an Oath out of Devotion, Ancient or Vengeance, etc.) It all allows for a lot of customisation and could easily open up for expansion.

So far, nothing seems ridiculous or broken. Time will tell.

This is the good stuff and is what people are talking about when they say that 5th is borrowing from the "indie scene". This is the section where the game asks you to define who your PC is, rather than what it can do.

It also briefly mentions alignment, which is back to the classic Law/Chaos, Good/Evil scism. You aren't obligated to pick an alignment.

A Background helps define your character as a person and is where all that funky "Personality" stuff on your character sheet finally comes in. It also grants you proficiency in certain Skills and Tools and also gives crazy other benefits (eg. A Charlatan has a false identity they can slip into.)

You get to customise your Background as appropriate and many options are given. It's probably best to give an example.

I rolled up a pretty reasonable Human Monk and thought that the Acolyte and Hermit backgrounds were pretty obvious choices. However, I decided to fuck around and make him an Entertainer and went for a dancing instructor, with some kind of funky dance-based martial art.

Next up I had to pick two Personality traits and I went with "I enjoy a good partnership" and "I'm always moving". Then comes an Ideal and I went with "Passion: Emotion is the expression of the soul" which seemed wanky enough. As a Bond, I chose to go a bit obtuse and decided that my monk was obsessed with a dance called the Tanrateuva; a near impossible dance to master and will create interesting roleplay opportunities down the road. Finally, a Flaw, which wrote itself; "I can never refuse a dance."

This gives a pretty good idea as to how Backgrounds work. It isn't anything we haven't seen in many other games over the last twenty years, but it's a first for D&D and it's welcome. As a side note, I spent more time on the Background than anything else, which is cool.

Playing your character in keeping with your Background allows you to gain Inspiration which you can cash in for Advantage. This is glossed over briefly and seems to be detailed in more depth in the Dungeon Master's Guide.

Multiclassing is back to a system similar to 3rd, but without the XP penalties. Feats exist as an optional rule and are nowhere near as important as in 3rd. Basically, whenever you gain an Attribute increase (every 4 levels or so) you can gain a Feat instead. The list of Feats is fairly short, but satisfactory.

Myself, I'd include them.

It seems that the developers wanted to try some new things, but were scared because they tried something different with 4th and suffered for it. So they went for familiarity with a few tweaks.

It's not a huge game changer. Backgrounds are exciting, admittedly, but you could simply plug that onto previous editions with minimal fuss. The Skill system is the best we've seen, and Magic is boring.

This isn't the best roleplaying game on the market. But it is the best D&D the market has seen, and a huge step back in the right direction.

I doubt I'll commit to anything long term with this incarnation of the girl next door, but I'm happy to have her back. And I'm sure she'll mature more wisely this time.

(Style 3, Substance 4)

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

The Three Biggest Lies in Roleplaying (article)

The best lies have a ring of truth to them. Something that seems right which disguises the lie so well that it makes it hard to argue against.

Take Fonzie. Everyone says that Fonzie is cool, and it's easy to fall for the lie. After all, he rides a motorbike, has immaculate hair, and can control a jukebox with his fists. Everyone knows that Fonzie is cool.

It's a lie. Fonzie isn't cool. His best mates are Potsie and Ralph Malph. Schoolkids. Fonzie himself is a high school dropout and is now a mechanic (honest, but not a dream occupation). He's always got a different girl, which makes me wonder why they don't hang around. And the only thing more pathetic than living with your parents is living with your teenage mate's parents.

So keep that in mind; a good lie always seems to be true. And the three biggest lies in roleplaying all seem true, in their way.

Lie #1: "It's only a game." AKA "We're all here to have fun."
This is usually said for the right reasons. Nobody wants to see somebody getting angry and upset because of roleplaying. If your character has died, it's unacceptable to have a tantrum in your buddy's kitchen. That's far from cool. So someone will say, "Hey dude, it's only a game. Chill out."

And they'd be right in that regard. I'm never going to advocate immaturity.

But keep in mind that roleplaying isn't just a game. It can be, if that's all you want. But it can be so much more. Roleplaying can (if done in the right way) be art. Or education. It can be a powerful immersive experience drawing on literary conventions. It can, at times, change your life.

It doesn't HAVE to do that. Some people only want their entertainment to be fun and light. But others are happy to go further.

Roleplaying can be an artform, not just a game. It can be like TV, literature, film, or theatre. These aren't always "fun and games". I didn't find Breaking Bad, 1984, Requiem for a Dream or The Laramie Project "fun" experiences. But they enriched me.

The best times I've had in roleplaying have been when it becomes more than a game. When we've been emotionally and intellectually affected by the stories and characters we've created together. This isn't always fun but it is incredibly satisfying, and at such a stage there's no sense of competition. It's art. And a very unique form of art at that.

We shouldn't be afraid of letting roleplaying become more than a game.

Lie #2: "It doesn't matter what system we use as long as we're all enjoying ourselves."
I've already covered the second part of this statement in the previous point. It's the first section that's more important.

The person saying this just wants to roleplay. And that's great. They're happy just to get into the experience and aren't fussed about what conventions are being used, and that openness is fantastic.

But it does matter what system you use. It matters what conventions are being applied. Because these create the structure for your mutual experience and form the borders of your creative agenda.

Whether you are playing D&D, FATE, Burning Wheel, Call of Cthullu or a systemless game, the structure of the system (or lack of it) will affect how each player (and GM) interacts with the experience. It puts restrictions on the fiat and malleability of the storytelling. And it encourages certain behaviour.

I watched a 5th ed D&D review recently where the reviewer made a great observation. He mentioned that many people (myself included) criticesed 4th ed for lacking roleplaying. He said that he didn't previously put much weight on that argument because he felt that there's as much roleplaying in any game as the participants want there to be. You just ditch the rules and start roleplaying. You don't need rules to roleplay.

But then he read 5th ed and saw how a game can encourage you to roleplay. 5th ed (NB: at the time of writing, the new Player's Handbook is about to be released) has stuff like character goals ("Avenge my father") and backgrounds ("I used to be an alcoholic") and other things like that which encourage you to roleplay. Suddenly he saw how the rules of a game can aid, assist and promote roleplaying.

Different games will encourage different styles of roleplaying. Running Microcosm is a totally different experience to running Hackmaster. Wraith is different to Deadlands, as Pendragon is different to Legend of the 5 Rings, as PDQ is different to Warhammer Fantasy.

If it doesn't matter what system you use, then why not use a better system? Don't be satisfied with a poor fit.

Lie #3: "You can't make a proper judgement on a game until you've played it."
This is the "fair go" argument. It's usually used against people who have read a game and disliked it, so don't play it. After all, games are usually different in practice than in theory.

It's a fair argument in its way, but it's rarely true. I've played a lot of systems and I've been more likely to be underwhelmed by something in play that looked good on paper than impressed by something I expected would be crap.

The way a game system presents itself gives a very clear indication of what the experience will be like. Hell, even just looking at a character sheet will tell you a lot about the experience. If the sheet has a list of ten different combat skills with ratings between 1 and 10, a picture of a human form with different sections to track wounds, and three different boxes to track ammo types, I'm pretty sure that this is gonna be a combat heavy game and it'd be a good idea to get some dice out from the kit. On the other hand, if it just has a list of personality quirks and sections to write down opinions about various characters, I'm gonna be playing a different kinda game (see Lie #2).

I don't need to sit down for three hours and play a game to confirm what I already know from reading the rulebook. The book itself will give me a pretty good idea as to what experience I'll have.

In one of the earliest incarnations of D&D, all weapons did 1d6 damage. That might seem odd, but then keep in mind that if you were using a two-handed weapon you could only attack every other round. There's no advantage. Do you really need to sit down at a game table to confirm that something is wrong there?

Occasionally, but not very often, a game will surprise you. Something that looked bad will actually be kinda awesome. But just because the Fonz has the occasional good line doesn't mean that he's gonna move out of the Cunningham attic any time soon.