Friday, January 27, 2012

5kepticism and Intrigue

DDXP opened yesterday, and the first reports are coming back in. It’s the first public playtests of 5e, plus seminars and whatnot, with bits and pieces being dribbled out. Unlike with 4e, there seems to be more of an effort to explain the core experience, but, as you’d expect, there’s not much in the way of details.

Geek’s Dream Girl is clearly a fan already, so we probably need to take what she says with a grain of salt (unless you happen to know that her tastes mirror yours). She’s posted a rundown of Thursday’s 5e seminar entitled “Charting the Course: an Edition for All Editions.” (You can see a much rougher “transcript” cobbled together from various sources at ENWorld, too.)

You may recall, way back a few years ago, Ryan Dancey talking about his dream RPG. One of his central themes was modularity; each group would basically build their own rules from a list of options, kinda-sorta the way GURPS works in practice, but with a more up-front, compartmentalized collection of building blocks. It looks very much like that’s what the 5e team has in mind here.

That would seem to be a big enough challenge to me, but then they go on to explain how you can have PCs built using different modules (that’s blocks of rules, not adventures, for you grognards who might become confused by their use of the term) playing at the same table. That is, someone playing a bare-bones kinda-sorta 1e style fighter could play at the same table as a push-slide-pull 4e fighter, and they’d both be balanced enough to play together without one overshadowing the other.

That more than raises an eyebrow with me. The issues involved in picking your rules are not just how many pages you want your character sheet to run. 1e combats are fast, simple things, in and out and then dealing with the consequences. 4e fights are long, detailed, involved things. The guy who wants to play a 1e fighter isn’t just saying that he doesn’t want to deal with 5 foot steps, Attacks of Opportunity, and push-and-slide combat maneuvers. He’s also saying things about how important he wants combat to be in his games, how long he wants it to last, and what combat means for the games he’s playing in. I really don’t see how you can mix a 1e-style fighter with a 4e-style fighter and not end up with somebody bored and/or frustrated.

Geeks Dream Girl follows up with some brief comments about getting to play in a 5e game run by Monte Cook. She says some promising things there:

There was a LOT of talk at the table. In character at times! I’ve never been at a D&D table where players were more invested in figuring out their next move.

On that topic, your next move isn’t on your character sheet. You don’t go paging through all your stuff thinking, “Well, I could Bluff this guy.” Nope. We were doing what we thought our characters should do, even if that involved our very NOT charismatic half-orc fighter trying to be a charismatic leader of a band of skeptical savage orcs. Multiple times. In other games, it’s “Okay, who has the highest Charisma? You? Okay, you go talk to those orcs and get them to help us.”

That raises some eyebrows as well, but of interest rather than skepticism. That sounds like a game of D&D I’d enjoy playing.

The world is moving so fast these days that the man who says it can't be done is generally interrupted by someone doing it.
- Harry Emerson Fosdick

Be sure to read through the comments.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

What if Star Wars Sequels Were Made by Italians?

No need to guess. Dark Resurrection is on the intrawebs.

I just finished watching "Vol. 0." The writing is ok, the acting is decent, the fight choreography needs some work (maybe they should get some help from these guys) but the effects, props and costuming are excellent. The style is very European; you can be forgiven for not realizing it's the Star Wars universe until the lightsabers come out. (And yes, they continue the notion that Force-users = lightsabers.)

Two thoughts:

- from now on, padawan should refer to their mentors as "Maestro" rather than "Master."

- Hollywood has a lot more to fear from Blender than they do from file sharing.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Hex Mapping Part 19: There’s Gold in Them Thar Hills!

We’ve got a map, we’ve got our random tables, and we’ve got a team of players ready to tackle our wilderness hex map. Taking a peek at the view from the players’ side of the DM’s screen, the obvious question for them is: why go?

Dungeons are great for players. They know exactly where the monsters are likely to come from, they are full of treasure, and they are relatively easy to map. In the wilderness, there’s much less treasure per square mile, the monsters are not easily categorized in terms of toughness by your depth beneath the earth, and they can pounce you from nearly any direction.

So why should they go out there?

Seven Cities of Gold: There’s some insanely fabulous treasure out there. If the PCs find it, it’ll easily kick them to the next level, maybe higher since it’ll probably take multiple trips to bring it all back to civilization. It’s brimming with magic in the form of lost spells, swords fabled in the annals of history, and holy relics. If the PCs find it, they can buy their own private island and retire as kings!

If I was going this route with my current map, the big haul would, of course, be in the sheltered valley at the center of the map. But the entire island would be scattered with clues as to its whereabouts, and maybe bits of related treasure would be seen in other hauls. If the campaign begins with some dungeon runs, they’d find hints about the treasure to whet their appetites in those dungeons first.

Of course, if you’ve got seven cities of gold to hunt down, maybe the PCs uncover the smaller ones before working their way to the capital.

The Legolas & Gimli Expedition: Powerful (or, at least, wealthy) interests back in civilization want the wilderness mapped and they’re willing to pay to have it done. Usually, there’s a flat fee for every hex mapped (60 gp or so, depending on the size of the party), which encourages both caution and speed to earn relatively easy money. Bonuses will be awarded for securing resources that are of interest to the PCs’ patron. Maybe they want logging or mining rights, or negotiated trade settlements with the natives. Or, in the case of the classic Keep on the Borderlands, the lords of a newly settled castle need the surrounding territory explored and cleared of monsters, so the bonus is on monster heads.

Missing Persons: There’s somebody out there the PCs want to find: lost family members, kidnapped princesses, or hated enemies the PCs want to track down and slay. Be careful about dragging this one out too much; there’s only so much “your princess is in another castle” most players will put up with.

Lost: I’m a big fan of shipwrecks, defeated armies, or other variations on the theme of being stranded out in the wilderness as a way to start off a campaign. The caveat with these is that, once the PCs find their way back home, they might have little incentive to return to the wilderness.

There’s no reason, of course, you can’t mix-and-match these. In fact, you probably should. “Yes, we know you just escaped from the goblin-infested jungles of the eastern coast after being shipwrecked, but you now know that territory better than anyone, and we’re certain the fabled Tower of the Stars is out there somewhere. Here are the clues we have to its location...”

Don’t fret too much about keeping the PCs out in the wilderness after they’ve spent some time exploring, making friends and enemies, and learning the lay of the land. These are all just baits for the hook of a persistent world that reacts to their presence in it. We’ll talk more about that next time.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

1e Back in Print?!?

Jeff's got the skinny and some excellent analysis. Not sure I need 'em (my original 1e PHB is still in decent shape) but as I and those books get older, I can't help but think that having some "stunt copies" for actual use is a good idea.

If you don't own a copy of the 1e DMG, and you play any sort of fantasy RPG at all, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy. It's got a huge range of useful-at-the table info, like the reputed magical properties of various gems (pp. 26-27), the cubic volume of rock miners of various races can excavate (p 106), the healing properties of herbs and spices (pp. 220-221), and those wonderful 1e artifact-level magic items. Plus, some of the best art of the era.

If I could own only 1 RPG book, well, ok, I'd probably go with the 1e PHB. But for running a game, designing campaigns and adventures, or just pure inspirational reading, I've not seen anything yet that can touch the 1e DMG.

UPDATE: Here's a link to the actual product description at WotC's page.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Marketing 5trategery

Not much to say about 5e yet, but a few of the marketing decisions WotC has made have caught my attention.

First, we had the Big Media Blitz: articles in the NYT, Forbes, and CNN as well as more industry-focused outlets like The Escapist. The nameplates are enough to make it clear that this is "serious news." But the content of the articles is very interesting. They're mostly written in a first-person editorial style. Even the NYT article, probably the most traditional in tone, completely lacks the usual corp-speak infested press release we've come to expect from this sort of thing.

Mingled with the Big News folks were bloggers like Dave Chalker enlisted to spread the word on the 'nets. Phase Two begins at the D&D Experience convention where Dave and the Chatty DM will apparently be running demo adventures for the new edition. Follow up comes through using the weekly Encounters program to get the new rules out there for folks to playtest.

So it's a one-two-three punch combination: Big News media outlets, the D&D blogging community, and the FLGS network. It's very corp-light, very friendly, and at least feels very interactive. It includes people many of us already have relationships with (if only as regular readers and shoppers). And WotC's out-of-pocket costs are primarily made up of flying people out to Seattle and putting them up in a hotel.

Even the apparent fumble of a lack of an announcement on the front of the official D&D web page makes this feel like a friendly, come-around-the-back-door invitation, rather than a proclamation from on high.

Making WotC seem friendly and approachable would seem a Herculean task. Doing it on a shoestring budget smacks of genius.

Somebody involved in this project clearly knows what they are doing.


So, 5e is now officially in the works and has, as others have surmised, already had early bits playtested. This means pretty much every single one of my predictions for 5e was absolutely wrong. ;D

I gotta admit, I have no idea what the plan is here. Hiring Monte Cook looks kinda-sorta like an appeal to the 3e crowd, but that would be insane. Those folks are quite happy with Paizo and I know more than a few still feel burned by how 4e was marketed and designed. Does talk about making the game "as simple or complex as you please" mean a bifurcation of the game into D&D and AD&D again? And what are we to make of promises to keep the game's "action focused on combat, intrigue, and exploration as you desire"? One of the themes of this blog is how that sort of choice ought to be echoed in just about every design decision that follows.

Keeping in mind my awesome track record on predictions, here are mine for 5e:

Class-based, with Levels, Hit Points, d20s, and AC
I doubt that's even up for debate. These are considered the most basic attributes of D&D and I doubt the brand is so hurting that they'll touch any of these low-hanging sacred cows.

There Will be Boxed Sets
And there will be a "Basic" intro box sold in stores like Target or WalMart. There will also be coffee-table quality hard backs as well, though how strongly the two are linked remains to be seen.

There Will be a Strong Focus on Tactical Combat
Most folks think that's what D&D is. There will be lots of effort put into balancing combats, combat options, and giving everyone lots of choices in every round. This will continue to make the goal of faster combat elusive.

And hey, since it's my blog, I'm predicting Shields Shall be Splintered will be central to the new design! ;)

There Will be Some Flavor of Social Combat Mechanic
It will be much more rigorous and involved than 4e's lackluster skill challenges. There will likely be class-specific abilities for it as well, and every class will be able to bring something to the "fight," even Fighters. Like tactical combat, it will eat hours like they were potato chips.

Less Hardback, More Monthly
I'm still thinking we'll see something along the lines of Paizo's monthly Pathfinder adventures. It may even been a resurrected version of either DRAGON or DUNGEON magazines. I also think the plan, at first, will be to limit the number of hardbacks published to one or two a year after the original three come out.

This is Only the Beginning
Let the LOLs begin!

Best of luck to Mearls, Cook, and the rest of the team. I suspect they're gonna need it.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Hex Mapping Part 5 Addendum: Moral Landscapes

Getting back into the swing of blogging, I've been going back through my posts about hex-mapping. Part 5, where I discuss placing the terrain features that exist between mountains and coastline, brought to mind a conversation I had with a friend about alternatives to pseudo-realistic geography.

The guidelines I gave will tend to generate a landscape that is reasonably realistic. This should give you a map suitable for a campaign built around the assumptions that under-gird the stories of Conan, Elric, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, or Odysseus. In short, it's designed to fit very well with what most of us consider the default assumptions of the early versions of D&D.

Good 'ol Appendix N has a lot more going on in it than just those stories. Consider the landscape of the Arthurian romances, for instance: trackless forests peppered with magical castles, enchanted pools, and bridges fashioned from giant swords. The lands of Narnia and Oz are like unto it. All of them share a moral component in their landscapes. The moral character of the land's rulers and inhabitants actively shapes the landscape.

In Part 5 of this series, geography informs the location of populations within it. A more Arthurian geography turns that on its head. The twisted and wicked troll king does not choose to live in lands of tangled brambles and sulfurous hot springs. Rather, whatever land the troll king chooses to dwell in will eventually become tangled with thorny brambles and dotted with sulfurous hot springs. Likewise, the lands around Camelot are not rich and fertile due to geography so much as the virtuous nature of the King and his court ("The land and the king are one.") Should that virtue be compromised, the land's fertility will suffer and fair weather will turn foul.

If that's more the feel you're going for, you should place your terrain features after you've decided who lives where. Kingdoms will tend to be small (most seemed to have but one large city, if that many, and it was centered around the capital castle) and there will be little trade between them. It wouldn't be unusual at all to come across some land or castle nobody from back home had ever heard of before. You might even easily cross between worlds without realizing it, a la the Mabinogian.

It doesn't need to be an either-or thing, of course. Tolkien's Middle Earth seems to borrow a bit from column A and a bit from column B here, where the geography itself is anthropomorphized enough to create its own moral atmosphere. Ancient tragedies create modern terrain hazards, but most of the world appears to operate under the forces of geology and meteorology well known to most of us. In such a world, the features of the troll king's kingdom have a certain chicken-or-the-egg mystery about them; does he live there because he chooses, does the landscape follow him, or does he create it somehow?

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Cartography Turned Up to 11

One of the really invigorating aspects of gaming today is how so many people seem eager to take what's been done a hundred times before and do it again but better. We've seen this from industry giants (the index of Ptolus leaps to mind) as well as relative newcomers to publishing.

Here's an example from real-world cartography:

Post-computer editing decisions are frequently outsourced—sometimes to India, where teams of cheap workers will hunt for obvious errors and messy label overlaps. The overall goal is often a quick and dirty turnaround, with cost and speed trumping excellence and elegance.

By contrast, David Imus worked alone on his map seven days a week for two full years. Nearly 6,000 hours in total. It would be prohibitively expensive just to outsource that much work. But Imus—a 35-year veteran of cartography who’s designed every kind of map for every kind of client—did it all by himself. He used a computer (not a pencil and paper), but absolutely nothing was left to computer-assisted happenstance. Imus spent eons tweaking label positions. Slaving over font types, kerning, letter thicknesses. Scrutinizing levels of blackness. It’s the kind of personal cartographic touch you might only find these days on the hand-illustrated ski-trail maps available at posh mountain resorts.

What follows are a few choice examples of how Mr. Imus put more info into his map than most have and made it more legible. Definitely lessons for our hobby here, I'm certain.

Monday, January 02, 2012


Yeah, so this is when I'm supposed to review last year's resolutions and look ahead to this year with some new ones.


I think I managed to achieve just two of my resolutions for 2011. Oddysey did run some Pathfinder for me, and I did do more book reviews.

Everything else?


To say 2011 was not a banner year for this blog is an understatement. It wasn't a banner year for pretty much any aspect of my life. It wasn't the worst year (far from it!) but I can't say I'll look back on it very fondly, beyond a few bright spots here and there, mostly to be found in the first half.

So, back to it! More writing, but most of it won't be at this blog. My goal is once a week here. Why so little? Because I've got a lot of catching up to do. I've got some writing that needs finishing up for Raggi (which should be a fun treat for those of you who have enjoyed what you've read here) plus damn near everything I mentioned last year.

And yes, I will be retuning to the my series on hex-mapping. There's still a lot to say there, including some reflections on earlier bits in the series.

The good news is that it's all fun. I'd love to be finished with it, sure, but I'm looking forward to spending time on it all as well.

Wish me luck!