Tuesday, June 28, 2011


Al over at "Beyond the Black Gate" is musing about what 5e will look like. I'm in agreement with sinclair’s opinions stated in the comments. Hasbro will license the table-top game to a 3rd party (won't be Paizo, since that would mean killing the Pathfinder goose which lays for them golden eggs) while retaining the "all-important" IP (which nobody has managed to monetize successfully). Some time afterwards, they'll possibly take another stab at licensing computer games.

Exactly what form fifth edition will take after that will heavily depend on who picks the game up. However, this hobby is chock full of "lessons learned" from the past. Most of this conventional wisdom is a load of hokum. Remember when everybody knew that boxed sets had killed TSR? The current conventional wisdom is likely just as accurate, and just as firmly believed.

So, in spite of the company that wins the rights to the pen-and-paper version of D&D quite probably having gotten their start as an OGL d20 company, they will probably adhere to the belief that a glut of substandard third-party material killed 3.0. Whatever licensing agreement we do see will likely fall somewhere between the OGL and its ugly 4e sibling. We'll also likely see stronger adherence to the traditional assumed setting of the game; the Gygaxian Great Wheel of the cosmos will return, as will the nine-fold alignment system and things like that.

We'll also almost certainly see the threefold hardback core of the game be continued. After that, though, things get interesting. I think everybody has just about realized that continuously publishing new core books is just splatbooks on steroids. Your game becomes unplayable a lot more quickly and players stop bothering to keep up. Still, it appears you can get a three-or-four-year good run on this model. If that's all you're interested in, then you’re golden.

What are the other options? WotC attempted an online subscription model. It didn't work, but that's in large part because they fumbled the launch. However, that strategy requires skills and knowledge that most gaming companies don't possess. Whoever wins the license won't have the resources of Hasbro and will likely be looking for a much cheaper strategy. (Unless it’s White Wolf. But I wouldn’t hold my breath on that one.)

I suspect that what we will see will steal a page from Paizo's success. We’ll have our core three books, one or two splatbooks a year, and something that looks an awful lot like the monthly Pathfinder product. It may be a bit more magazine and a bit less adventure module, but it will likely combine the successful formula of serial adventures, serial fiction, new monsters every issue, and high production values.

That being the case, we can expect the new rules to emphasize “long-term” play with characters advancing a level every two sessions or so, getting something new every level to play with, and campaigns lasting roughly a year. One-off play will likely be discouraged and it's doubtful we'll see any sort of organized play.

Likewise, I see the use of miniatures being downplayed. That business model hasn't flown for anybody yet. With it will vanish nearly all the positioning mechanics of 4E. Combat will be extremely abstract and simple. I suspect that we won’t see 4e’s exceptions-based rules, either. The result will look a lot more like 3e, but probably even simpler than that, with a stronger emphasis on combat and streamlined statblocks that don’t eat an entire page.

Unfortunately, I'm not expecting anything revolutionary. The game will continue to focus on combat, it will continue to use hit points and armor class will continue to be about how hard it is to hit. The game will continue to use classes and the core is likely to drop the Dragonborn race. Balance will be based on the set-piece combat encounter, and every class will be mappable with MMOG standards of class design. You'll still earn most of your experience points from killing things. In spite of this, I expect lots of appeals towards old-school nostalgia.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Singing Bird Pistols

It's amazing what can be done with simple gears and a wind-up spring.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Right Tool for the Job

So lots of comments about shields and armour and weapons.

The thing about Western Europe was, they were constantly evolving their weapons and armour to outdo their neighbors, or last year’s models. The corollary to that is, every weapon was specifically built to handle a particular job. Sure, some were modified farm implements, but they kept being used because they proved to be useful.

Those polearms with all the hooks on them? Great for dragging enemies off their horses.

Polearms with hammers and axeblades on them, as well as maces, are great for mauling armour and concussing the folks inside with their heavy blows.

Single-handed swords suck at penetrating heavy armour, but are great against lightly armoured (or, even better, unarmoured) targets, where those long, sharp edges can leave really nasty gashes.

The axe, favored weapon of Richard the Lionhearted and Robert the Bruce, was a compromise between the two. The bearded axe could be hooked around the edge of a shield so you could pull it out of someone’s hands, or just jerk them around with it.

The flail could get around the shield entirely.

And so on. Different tools for different jobs. How do we model this in D&D? Not well, I’m afraid. Gygax’s weapon-vs.-armour-class table was one stab at it, but as I understand it, even he didn’t use it. The other options I can think of require rewriting the combat rules entirely, and end up looking something like the table-crazy Arms Law from Rolemaster.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Carts, Horses, and the Arrangement Thereof

Over at “The Sky Full of Dust” they’re designing an RPG! It looks like a fun project. Mr. Forster has started his exploration of rules by poking at stats. I think he might have things a bit backwards, however. Yes, stats, if you chose to use them, will form the bedrock of your game and its mechanics. But, exactly because of the central place of stats, you might want to leave them as the last thing you nail down solidly.

I'm going to use an example from wargaming. When designing a wargame based on an historical battle, exactly what features you focus on depend upon your interpretation of what happened in the battle. The battle of Hastings is a great example for this. The old story of the Battle of Hastings was that Harold’s army was all tuckered out after marching all the way north to York to fight Hardrada’s Viking army at Stamford Bridge before marching all the way back down south to fight at Hastings. Under this model, the most important attributes are the resilience, morale, and rested-ness of your troops. The game is strategic and probably solo with the player taking on the role of Harold and trying to do as little as possible to thwart the Vikings in order to leave enough troops in good enough condition to stop William.

A more current theory about the battle says that the deciding factor was matériel, the Norman use of combined arms and mobility versus the Anglo-Saxon static shield wall. This is a much more tactical view of the battle, in which the placement of troops, the layout the terrain, and individual unit statistics become vital. Balancing the resilience of the shield wall, the long-range harassing affect of archers, and mobility of cavalry in statistical form is central to modeling this sort of battle.

But there is also a third view of the battle. At one point in the fight, word spreads that William has been slain. Hearing this, William removes his helmet to show his fleeing warriors that he is in fact alive. His soldiers rally, and William notices that parts of the until-then impenetrable shield wall had broken loose to chase his fleeing soldiers. The shield walls quickly reformed, but it gave William a clever idea. After a few more feints, his soldiers faked being routed. Sections of the shield wall broke off to chase down the fleeing Normans, but were themselves surrounded and wiped out by prearranged ambushes. With the shield wall fatally compromised, the Normans are able to chop it up and wipe it out piecemeal.

If you want to model this view of the battle, you’re less worried about some sort of rock –paper-scissors balancing act between infantry, cavalry, and archery, then you are about the command presence of officers, the obedience of the troops, and the morale of individual units.

The same holds true for RPGs. A game about slaying vampires and finding a date for prom ought to have very different stats from a game about exploring dungeons. Mr. Forster has decided to limit himself to just three stats, boiling them down to only those immediately useful in combat. But now what is he going to do about adjudicating those abstract languages rolls? Does everyone have the same chance of knowing a language? Or is it based on class? I could certainly see reducing things down to a single stat measuring mental strength which would handle learning languages, resisting spells, and similar issues. But if he's making the game I think he's making, there's a good argument for stats beyond those used in combat.

And what sort of combat does he want? To-hit rolls and hit points work great, but they're not the only option. What about a combat system based more on unit tactics, shield walls of hirelings or hired goblin skirmishers? In that sort of the game, charisma could be far more important than individual stamina. On the other hand, a game in which combat is specifically designed to only take up a limited number of decision points might not need hit points at all. Instead, the vital combat stats might be which schools of combat your character has mastered (di Grassi versus drunken boxing or somesuch).

You can start with stats and have everything flow from that. But to my mind, it makes more sense to decide what sort of structures you want in your game and then design your stats to support those. The stats are the bedrock of your game, and as such, go a long way to not only defining what the PCs are like, but also what your game is about. Having a solid idea as to what both the players and the PCs will be doing in an average game session can go a long way to helping you decide which stats you need.

Ack! Nearly Forgot!

Tomorrow is FREE RPG DAY!

If you're in the Austin area, it looks like the place to go is Dragon's Lair. (Unfortunately, it doesn't look like Tribe is taking part.) If you're willing to drive a bit further north, however, Jeff Dee will be demoing Villains & Vigilantes at Rogues Gallery!

Art by Jeff Dee, and used without permission or any claim of ownership. But since I'm advertising his demo, I figure he won't mind too much.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Shields and Turtles

Oddysey is continuing her hate-on for the shield! Ok, seriously, she brings up some good points:

My understanding of older styles is that shields were mainly used when the sword was a heavier weapon that didn't allow for much finesse, and in large, well-trained units where each individual soldier's use of the shield contributed to the defense of the unit as a whole.

The "heavier" comment generally isn't true (most were actually lighter than the bastard swords she discusses in the previous paragraph) but the large unit stuff is. Unfortunately, it's nearly impossible to speak about medieval European swordsmanship because they kept changing things all the time. Vikings used shields in large part because most Joe-vikings didn't have body armour (and they did shield walls). Most mounted knights wanted shields because being on horseback made it hard to protect their left side. That lasted until the armour got good enough that the shield became redundant. The Spanish sword-and-buckler dude used his shield to get past the wall of sharp pointies surrounding a formation of pikemen so he could get to the soft, stab-able center. The story of medieval European arms and armour is one of constant flux and innovation, as warriors adapted their kit to the foes they expected to fight.

I think Oddysey nails it here, from a gaming perspective:

The main reason I think D&D doesn't favor shields remains that split between offensive and defensive strategies, and honestly it's a pretty good one -- more offense means shorter combats, and shorter combats means more time for the parts of the game that I find actually interesting.

A game with valuable defensive strategies is a game of interminably long combats. Low-level fights against weak armour tend to be pretty snappy; but pit your 2nd level fighters against guys in plate and be prepared for a whole lot of dice rolling: miss-miss-miss-miss... And that's in a fight where the only real defensive choice is which armour you put on before the fight starts. Imagine how ugly it could get if the goblins could form a shield wall or a turtle? I've often considered building a combat system around the rock-paper-scissors of thrust-parry-feint, but again, that sort of focus just makes combats take longer, and that's not at all what I want in my gaming these days.

Art by Albrecht Durer.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

For Helium!

At last! A teaser poster for "John Carter of Mars" once called "A Princess of Mars." Not bad. I like the feel of the design the lettering creates. But what's this? Disney is putting their name on this? Hmmm... Before "Pirates" that would have scared me spitless. After pirates... maybe it can work?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Kill it With Fire!

Timeshadows writes:

That shit is just as wrong, and more-so, today, in this age, than it was in more Victorian years of my own lifetime.
--Not only that, it's *Fucking Stupid* for a Niche of a Niche hobby trying to find new players --players who haven't bought into the Cannibal Corpse mindset, that is.

Is that /so/ *Fucking* hard to understand?

Since she’s the dissenting voice in this so far, I figured she deserved a proper, longer response. Though I have to admit, I’m not sure I understand her argument.

My father played one, maybe two sessions of D&D with me after I got the Mentzer Basic box for Christmas. He never forbid me to play the game, and even encouraged my interest in it, but he never played it again himself. The game, quite simply, was too violent for his tastes.

RPGs are all about violence. The latest iteration of the “gateway game” has a huge miniature combat component to it, and just about all the other rules are tacked onto that. The world of computer RPGs is even worse; the mmogs that allowed you to bake bread or play music in the tavern are all but gone, driven out by those that focused on grind-tastic combat.

I hope we’ve buried the old canard about women not liking violence in their RPGs. These games are largely about violence, violence against women and men and children and animals, self-inflicted violence and certainly undeserved violence. Even if orcs spawn from pods by the power of the mystic underworld, even if those orcs never make it to the surface to attack the towns and cities the PCs use as home-base, the threat of violence against women is always lurking in the background.

And don’t try to feed anyone any lines about how violence against women drives away women. There have been far too many examples to the contrary for that to be convincing.

Now, you might have an argument when it comes to graphic depictions of violence against women, a la Cannibal Corpse. Though, honestly, you also might be able to just stop at “graphic depictions of violence” and leave it at that. The dripping-intestines thing does appear to be something that primarily appeals to guys (though not exclusively) and I don’t have any market research handy to back that up. I just haven’t seen anyone else jump on that bandwagon for a product targeted primarily at women.

But, as far as being “wrong,” I’m afraid it’s all bathwater and no baby; if you want to purge the hobby of violence against women, you’ll have to purge the hobby out of existence. And you’ll be tossing out most entertainment appealing to women as well. I’m not sure why it’s more important now than in the past (America, at least, is far less dangerous today than it’s probably ever been) either.

As for my father, eventually we did play a few home-made RPGs in later years, sci-fi games focused on things like planetary geological surveys and collecting animals for study. We had fun, but good luck selling that sort of game to RPGers today, male or female.

Pardon Me if I Offend

My younger readers can be forgiven for having a blasé attitude towards music. I imagine it's hard to conceive of a time when it meant something to be a fan of Billy Idol, George Michael, or Madonna. I feel the same way about the Beatles or Elvis; what the heck was all the fuss about?

Things are different now, however, and in a very interesting way. Back then, you could be both offensive and acceptable. Sixth-graders could dress up like KISS and air guitar in an official school production.

Hell, you could sing "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer" in an official school function.

This was a different age. Public intoxication was frowned upon, but not illegal. You could go to a public park with a picnic and drink a beer. Whether or not a restaurant or bar allowed smoking was up to the owner. Democrats and Republicans could discuss politics together without ending friendships.

It wasn't that there were no rules; the rules were just understood to be flexible. You could break them. You could get in trouble for breaking them. But it was also generally understood that most rule breaking was not a threat to society at large. It was also generally believed that a healthy society could stand to be offended every now and then. Many even assumed that such occasional offense was healthy.

I am not going to argue D&D's popularity was largely based on any dark reputation. (I will, however, argue that Saturday Night Live stopped being funny when it stopped being offensive; there's a reason the Lonely Island bits are much funnier than the rest of the show.) I will argue the travails of D&D's dark past, where it was assailed by “angry mothers” and decried as witchcraft, are overblown. Yes, some mothers and other relatives did snatch away books and burn them at church meetings. But not in any significant numbers. You can still find first edition books floating around the used-bookstore economy. There was no great purge, and I don't recall Gygax being subpoenaed to appear before a congressional hearing.

The truth is, nobody gives a damn what we do in our little hobby anymore than you give a damn for what model railroaders paint on the sides of their boxcars. Understand that most moralistic condemnation, when it rises to the level of media attention, is mostly just a good old-fashioned shakedown. You and I don't have enough money to make the effort worthwhile.

Most of you have no idea what happens in my games. I imagine some of you would be horribly offended. I am, without a doubt, a "lawn-crapper." So are the guys at Paizo. So is James Raggi.

In the Doom & Tea Parties campaign, most people are assumed to be bisexual, slavery is practiced by nearly every culture, and human sacrifice, while rare, is certainly not unthinkable. Am I making a statement in my game? Not really. These are just tools to create interesting situations for us to play with. Most of these issues are less personally offensive to me than the idea of acquiring wealth and power through home invasion, murder, and piracy. And everyone who enjoys D&D knows that those create interesting situations that lead to fun.

If the stuff I bring up in my games, or that Raggi and Paizo publish, offends you, I shudder to think how you will feel when you discover what your sister was reading when she was twelve.

Art by William Hogarth.