Thursday, January 31, 2008

The OGL is NOT Dead

But it's also not being allowed to go up a level.

The new licensing agreement that goes with D&D 4.0 is now the Game System License, or GSL. What does this mean? Well, first, everyone who was confused into thinking that the 3.0 OGL applied to anything in 4th edition will finally be shut down. I hope.

Yeah, I know, people will still be confuzzled. Oh well...

Second, well, we don't know exactly what else this might mean, because everyone who's seen the GSL is still under NDA. But from what WotC has let out, the GSL will only allow you to reference the core rulebooks, but not reprint any material in them. What does that mean? That means, the GSL will allow you to make supplementary material for D&D 4.0. You can make splatbooks and adventures. However, you cannot make a brand new, stand-alone game. No Conan, True20, Mutants & Masterminds, or Traveller d20 based on the D&D 4.0 engine.

Does that mean those games go away? No. As each currently exists, they are based on D&D 3.x's OGL, which is still in force. It means the games cannot be rewritten with direct reference to bits in the 4.0 books, however. So now the world of d20 gaming bifurcates. On one path, we have D&D 4.0. On the other, we have products descended from D&D 3.x's OGL.

This poses all sorts of interesting questions. Can games like Conan, True20, M&M, and others survive without riding on D&D's coattails? That depends on the game. Honestly, I think all three of those can do just fine without D&D. They've got a good fanbase now, and all three can be grown with or without support from the companies that created them. After all, Star Frontiers seems to still have a strong and loyal fanbase even though the rulebooks have been out of print for twenty years or so now. There's no reason to think these other games couldn't fare just as well, if not better.

And D&D 4.0? Well, I dunno, honestly. It really depends on how much synergy was created between the various games. I think this isn't as big a fumble as limiting who can publish new material for 4.0 when it's first released. But I think that fumble will come back to bite them. How hard? I can't say. But right now, I'm expecting a very strong 3.x community to exist well into 2009.

A Less Positive Dragonlance Movie Review

Rygar of Gax (now does that sound like the name of a D&D fighter or what) sends us this review of the new Dragonlance Animated movie. Not only did he not like the art, he was annoyed with how they chose to retell the story.

For those of you who read the book this will make sense. Would it still be sneaking into Xak Tsaroth if they didn't have the fight in the cauldron elevators? Would it be the same if they just walked straight up to the dragon's horde and rifled through it for the Disks of Mishakal while the dragon was sleeping, without even sneaking at all to get there in the first place?

What about the companions assault on Pax Tharkas? Would it be the same without sneaking in through the tunnels and being attacked by a group of banshees? Would it be the same if they just walked straight into the prison cells and walked back out again?

All the really cool fights inthe book are completely missing in this movie. None of the major points in the movie have the slightest bit of anticipation or risk associated with them.

Not promising, and I'm not getting any sort of vibe on how it's selling, but so far, I'd be shocked if a sequel ever got made.

Hafta Beat it off with a Wooden Stick

Is it a heapin' helpin' of bad-wrong fun? Yep, it's that, too. But it's also another angle on the reasons why I probably won't be playing D&D 4.0.

Does WotC Need to Reroll Their (Digital) Initiative?

Faerie Dragon over at the Velvet Dicebag isn't happy about what's happened to Dungeon magazine since WotC took it back from Paizo.

I'm really getting concerned. If the magazines don't stop completely sucking really soon, I may have to abandon Dungeons & Dragons Insider completely. I don't want to be the crazy conspiracy theorist, but some of the anti-4e crazies are beginning to make me think twice about even buying into the new core books. The dismal failure of the online mags to shine only reinforces that. I hope Chris manages to turn these publications around soon.

I have to agree with Faerie Dragon. So far, WotC’s digital initiative has been an unmitigated disaster. They are not selling 4.0 very well. They’re selling D&D Insider with even less skill. Frankly, the entire situation has me scared spitless.

Let’s be honest here: where goes D&D, there goes pen-and-paper RPGs. It’s the 500 lbs gorilla that dominates this market. It’s also the public face of the hobby. D&D has far more name recognition than any other game out there, or even the term “roleplaying”. And yet, turning that command into steady income seems to be beyond most people. TSR even managed to drive themselves deep into the red while owning this most powerful brand in the hobby.

WotC’s digital initiative is an attempt to break free of the publish-or-perish trap the entire industry is mired in. Trying to squeeze a few more pennies out of your market every month, after they’ve bought everything they need to enjoy playing for the rest of their lives in your core rule books, is a losing game. A D&D Insider with a $10 US monthly fee would allow WotC to break free of that trap. They could transform themselves from a publishing company into a service company, which would not only free them from the compulsion to bury their game in an endless stream of new rules and settings, but would also realign their interests with the interests of their customers. Right now, WotC wants to sell books. Their audience wants to play games. With D&D Insider, the WotC focus moves from selling books to getting more people playing the game more often.

It’s clear that Dragon and Dungeon are not getting the resources they need at this critical time when they should be migrating the dead-tree audience over to the digital media. They’re not getting the word out about how the new edition of the game is going to knock everyone’s socks off. And nobody is being convinced that D&D Insider is going to be a vital part of their games in the future. So far, we’ve been promised a fancy version of OpenRPG, and we’ve seen an anemic Dragon and a shadow of Dungeon. If things don’t turn around soon, GenCon ’09 might open with the announcement that D&D is up on the auction block.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

And look! *More* 4e!

Here's a brief GamerZero interview with Sara Girard, Associate Brand Manager for D&D. Mostly, they discuss a philanthropic digital initiative to get kids into libraries. However, they also discuss exposing some folks to 4th edition at the D&D Experience convention in February. There's also a shot of the digital tabletop at about 1:17 that's just gorgeous. They're clearly putting a lot of work into making it an exceptional gaming tool, and not just your usual quick-and-dirty line-map thing.

Why You Might Want to Play D&D 4.0

So the other day I pointed out why I probably won't be playing D&D 4.0. However, that doesn't mean I feel the game will be utterly without merit. It just isn't likely to float my boat. You, however, are not me, and we're all about serving the reader here at Trollsmyth.

John Rogers, a professional writer for comics and screen, is a play-tester for D&D's 4th edition, due to be released in June. He's recently posted his thoughts on the game at ENWorld. Among other things, he notes:

I think the reason there's so much buzz around 4E combat is because that's where the most massive fun-change has come in, and so it naturally dominates discussion and perception. By the time my NDA playtest group got through our first session, we'd (unintentionally) fought three massive combats in one four hour session, many multiple opponents each time. When we finished we all kind of sat back, glassy-eyed, and went "wow." Except for the rogue. He was punching the air and cackling "More stabby! MORE STABBY!"

Because 3E combat had gotten so ... er .. gunky, combat's the first thing you notice when playing 4E. It's hard not to talk about it. A bit like if you bought a new car and got it up to 250 mph. The fact that it has a great interior, amazing safety features and a kick-butt stereo never really comes up in your first conversations about the car.

This is probably among the most informative things we've heard about the game. While others have made similar comments in the past, I believe Mr. Rogers is the first who does not stand to make any money from D&D.

Mr. Rogers has touched on a vital point for the success of D&D 4.0, I think. 3.x is slow, which is bad enough if you're a teenager with lots of time on your hands. It's a game-killer if you're middle-aged, with a job and spouse and kids and home. A quicker, sleeker game is vital for the aging RPG market. And it works great with their online gaming tools. In 3.x, if you can't devote a three or four-hour chunk of time to gaming, you might as well not bother. But with the virtual table-top and a "clean" (to use John Rogers' word) game system, it might make sense for my friends and I to log on for two or so hours on Tuesday and Thursday nights, after the kids are tucked in, for a bit of quick gaming. No fuss about driving across town, no need to find a four to six-hour block of time in our busy lives. We can log in, have some fun, and log off, which for me is about the only benefit MMOGs have over pen-and-paper gaming.

And I imagine I'm not the only one who feels that way.

Combine this with products like Paizo's adventure paths, which give us a textured, complex, more story-like experience without the DM needing to quit his day job, and you've got a winning combination for lots of fans of gaming who have been forced to abandon the hobby because they simply can't make the time for it.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Dragonlance Movie Review

I haven't had a chance to see it yet, but some reviews are starting to roll in. Here's one from "That Guy's Blog" that sums up my expectations:

The voice acting was superb, as was the score. The animation however I felt fell a little flat. The dragons were all computer generated and imposed on the traditional cell animation for the rest of the characters. The cell animation is where I found fault, as it didn’t seem sharp at all. At times it was blurry and even appeared to suffer from ghost images.

I'll link to more reviews as I see them, and hopefully I'll have a review of my own before too much longer.

Iconic Wallpapers

I'm loving the iconic characters Paizo has created for their Pathfinder and Dungeon Mastery series. The latest, Lem, can be found at the Paizo blog if you scroll down to January 22nd. Yeah, some of the write-ups have been horribly cliched, but Lem's among the best of 'em. Wayne "he's everywhere" Reynolds art really brings these folks to life. His attention to detail is amazing. I love how Lem's flute is not just a stick of wood with some holes in it, how his garments are layered, the jangle of jewelry around his neck, and that lovely, slightly snarky, slightly sweet expression on his face. This is one bad-boy halfling, who'll have you thinking his heart belongs only to you, but won't be calling back for months at a time. He reminds me very much of, for some reason, of Carla Speed McNeil's Finder.

It's interesting to see the different styles that Mr. Reynolds paints in. Typically, when you're presented with an artists work, you have a fairly good idea what you're going to get. Mr. Reynolds, however, seems to be fairly wide-ranging in his styles. His "wall-of-action" pieces for Eberron had a very strong comic-book-action vibe to them. His Paizo work has less of that, and more of a "you are there" air that reminds me of Elmore, Parkinson, and Jim Holloway.

If skimming through the Paizo blog doesn't give you enough good Pathfinder art to drool over, check out the fan-made desktops in this thread on the Paizo boards.

Why I Won't be Playing D&D 4.0

This isn’t a blanket condemnation of D&D’s 4th edition. Just further realization on my part that D&D just isn’t where I’m going these days with my gaming. This latest revelation was instigated by this description of magic item slots in 4th edition. Apparently, in 4th edition you can’t use magic rings until your character reaches 11th level.

This really rubs me the wrong way. And I know I’m being silly, and I understand why they’re doing this. This is the natural outgrowth of the CR system. In order to accurately judge what sort of challenges the PCs can tackle, the designers need a relatively accurate idea of what the PCs are capable of. Saying things like, “just hand out fewer magical items” doesn’t cut it. If your PCs don’t get the right magical items at the proper levels, they’ll fall out of sync with the CR system. The CR system is a triangle of relationships, PCs to monsters to treasure, that work in tight partnership to ensure proper challenge and proper reward at every stage of the game.

And this is what makes me cranky, especially as a DM. In order for this very cool “aid” to building adventures to work, I have to essentially let the folks in Seattle tell me what monsters I can use, and what treasures those monsters can be guarding. Yes, I can ignore that and do whatever I want, since it’s my game. But if I do, first, I’m utterly tossing out the CR system, which is one of the big selling points of the modern incarnations of D&D. Second, if my players have played a lot of D&D 3.x, they come to my table with certain expectations. One of those is that the CR system will be in place. Even if I tell them it won’t be, they won’t really listen. They’ll make decisions based on all the assumptions about challenges and resource management that go along with CRs.

This annoys me, because we didn’t use to play this way. Please indulge me while I put on my Grumpy Old Man hat. Way back when I got my copy of Moldvay Basic, our models were the myths and legends we read in school. And in those myths and legends, the heroes were almost always horribly outmatched. The cyclops was way outside Odysseus’ safe range of foes. When Sinbad was attacked by a roc, he had no chance of killing the giant bird. The first two billy goats were no match for the troll. Robin Hood was incapable of beating Little John with staves or fists.

So when I challenged third level characters with dragons or a medusa or a handful of minotaurs, nobody batted an eyelash. The players knew they might be faced with foes who could not be outfought, and that not every solution to every problem would be found on their single-page character sheets.

And weeeee liked it!

Yeah, the arbitrariness is nothing new. 4.0's wizard can’t wear rings until tenth level, and my Basic D&D magic-user was incapable of learning how to properly swing a sword. That’s annoying, but that’s not what really turns me off the game. Putting my game on the sorts of rails the CR system requires turns D&D into something I’m just not interested in playing. Does it make it an easier game to DM? Certainly. Does it make it a better “gateway drug” to the RPG hobby? Undoubtedly. But it also becomes a game that’s just not fun for me.

UPDATE: Faerie Dragon over at The Velvet Dicebag thinks that the folks at WotC may have failed to hit their stated goals as well.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Sunday, January 20, 2008

More Planetary Romance Than You Can Shake a Stick At

Lots of neat little bits of exciting news out there for you fans of Planetary Romance. First of all, Edgar Rice Burroughs is seeing something of a resurgence, almost certainly due to his work entering the public domain. You can get the scoops over at the aptly named Rebels of Mars. Not only has the long-languishing-in-development-hell Barsoom movie been picked up by Pixar, of all people, but there's also a team promising a Pirates of Venus movie for 2010.

In addition, the Evil DM has also pointed us the blog of upcoming Perils on Planet X comic book. Looks like a lot of fun!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

More Book Lust: The Tales of Beedle the Bard

Yes, that Tales of Beedle the Bard. Rowling wrote these by hand, and the decorations are gorgeous. This is what the the third edition core books of D&D wanted to look like. Be sure to scroll down of the yummy, yummy pics.

Friday, January 11, 2008

A Kobold Gnawing on the Dragon's Corpse

Wolfgang Baur, the man who sent me my first professional rejection letter, has started his own D&D magazine, Kobold Quarterly. Mr. Johnson of Cinerati has many nice things to say about it.

I have to confess, I love the free-wheeling feel of this. Conversations with Wayne Reynolds on his technique and articles by Ed Greenwood feel like the Dragon I used to know and enjoy, way back when.

4e: For Those Keeping Score at Home...

Here's where the various third-party publishers have come down on taking part in the $5k, early-adopter grace period WotC is offering:

Necromancer Games is in like Flynn!

Goodman Games also is eager for a piece of the action.

Paizo, in spite of some level of partnership with Necromancer Games, is moving a bit more cautiously. However, I'll be shocked if they don't jump in early.

Green Ronin seems intrigued, but they probably have better things to do with their time.

Mongoose is cautiously optimistic.

Monday, January 07, 2008

D&D 4th Edition: Traps and Their Hidden Meanings

Ok, maybe not that hidden. If anyone is still under the impression that 4th edition is just 3.75th edition, this description of how traps will work in 4th edition should pretty much put the last nail in that coffin. Those saying that this game is shaping up to be a major departure from previous incarnations of the game are absolutely right.

From the beginning, the basic gameplay of D&D involved a series of mildly challenging encounters that would slowly wear away at the resources of the party, punctuated by serious challenges that posed a real threat to life and limb. Resource management was a core component of the game. Do we have enough spells/hit points/supplies to tackle one more room? Or, less often but far more thrilling, “Oh shit! That room was a hell of a lot tougher than we were expecting. Do we still have enough resources to get back to safety alive?”

In that game, traps were the niggling little things that plinked you every now and then. Most were not deadly, but they forced you to cast spells, drink potions, or just suck it up and deal with the loss of hit points or stat drain. They were not particularly thrilling, could even be annoying, but they also were markers that told players they were headed in the right direction.

In 4th edition, traps now seem to fall into two categories: tactical terrain features and set-piece center pieces in their own right. The tactical terrain features are the stuff of table-top wargaming. They’re used to add a fun wrinkle to the usual slug-fest of combat. They’ll be the surprise extra complication that make our heroes appear to be in over their heads, sure, but they’ll also secure flanks or offer extra protection to less reliable troops. The set-piece center pieces will be like the glorious contraptions that you find in the Indiana Jones and National Treasure movies. Chances are, you’ll know there’s a trap there. The fun will be in figuring out how it works without getting mauled by it, and getting around it, or finding a way to turn it on your foes, so you can get at the goodies that the trap guards.

(Interestingly enough, I’d say that most traps in MMOGs are far more like the traps in older versions of D&D. Those sorts of traps are easy to code: step in the wrong spot, and get whacked for a few hit points. The new traps will require a lot of specialized coding, AI design, and art to reproduce in a MMOG. In this aspect, at least, the upcoming D&D is far more unlike current MMOGs than the older versions.)

I expect to see the thief beefed up as a combatant, and the reviews we’ve seen of Races and Classes do seem to back this up. No longer a tool to minimize the resource drain of traps, the thief needs a new role to play. Making them sharp-shooting assassin types would seem to fit very well with their style. Thieves are going to be more fun to play. The DM is going to have to work harder to include traps in the dungeon, because the typical pit-with-spikes by itself will hardly be worth including. Now, a pit with spikes that must be traversed while the party is trying to hold off the advancing hordes of army ants, on the other hand…

All in all, I have to say I like a lot of these ideas, and I may very well buy a copy of the 4th edition DMG to plunder it for such notions, which is saying something. While I did buy a copy of 3rd edition's PHB, I never felt the need to get the DMG.