Thursday, April 26, 2012

You Say "Industry," I Say "Potato!"

Recent discussion about Monte Cook bowing out of the development of 5e has lead a certain someone to declare that her initial decision to not care about 5e has been validated. This (all happening on G+ where the cool kids hang out and your humble troll occasionally lurks) lead to the requisite argument about the importance of the industry to RPGs.

I think this is one of those areas where people are talking past each other. Watching Zak of all people poo-poo the industry is a bit twitch-provoking. Sure, he doesn’t need the industry, but I don’t exactly see him sending the money WotC’s paying him to advise on 5e back to them.

The DIY community can absolutely point to things like Fight On! and the gorgeous books shipping from Raggi’s living room and proudly proclaim that they can produce high-quality products just like (and often better than) the industry. But that only begs the question of where, exactly, is the line between the industry and the DIY folks.

The line has gotten really blurry with 5e. So far, 5e marketing has largely been about getting the blogging world yammering about it. In just under a month, WotC is promising to unleash a playtesting blitz similar to what the Paizo crew did for Pathfinder. Are all those playtesters part of the industry? What about people who drop some cash into a kickstarter project and get their names in a book? I think they are, and I’m fairly certain Paizo and WotC want them to feel like they are. The products Paizo sells are not nearly as important as the culture they foster, with their wide-open playtests, their organized play, and their RPG Superstar contest all working to blur the line between industry and hobby. Spend some time on the Paizo boards and you’ll discover that Pathfinder isn’t so much an RPG as a friendly, geeky cult. The fans send the corporate headquarters pizza for crying out loud! Even Apple fanatics don’t got that far.

It was recently announced that Tor is going to drop DRM on their ebooks. They can do this because the relationships authors have with their readers is becoming warmer and closer. Readers want to pay for books because they know that’s how writers keep the lights on and afford time to sit down and write. They want to say “thank you” to the authors for what the authors have given them. Paizo’s fans want to do the same thing, as do the fans of Steve Jackson Games. WotC is trying to build the same sort of rapport with their audience.

It’s coming slowly, but the relationship between consumers and producers is transforming. It used to be we just bought what we were offered. More and more, however, we’re developing relationships with the folks who make our stuff. I think RPGs are ahead of the curve here because the line between producer and consumer has always been rather hazy, and is only getting fuzzier with time.

Friday, April 06, 2012

A Swing and a Miss?

Looks like it to me:

Our current plan is to condense skill and feat choices into two choices: background and theme. Background tells you where you came from, who you were, and what you are trained to do. Your background gives you a set of skills, specific tasks, areas of knowledge, or assets a character of that background ought to have. The thief background gives you Pick Pockets, Stealth, Streetwise, and Thieves’ Cant. The soldier background gives you Endurance, Intimidate, Survival, and an extra language. We want your abilities to carry the weight of basic task resolution, so these skills improve your chances when you perform tasks related to them or just let you do something, such as cook a meal, speak Goblin, or run for twice as long as the next person.

Where background speaks to the skills you possess, your theme describes how you do the things you do. All fighters, for example, kick ass in combat because they are fighters. A sharpshooter fighter is awesome with ranged weapons while a slayer fighter dominates in hand-to-hand combat. Your theme helps you realize a certain style, technique, or flavor through the feats it offers. Each theme gives you several feats, starting with the first one right out of the gate. As you gain levels, your theme gives you additional feats that reflect the theme’s overall character.

There's a lot of maybe here for me. Maybe this will work if skills and feats don't have prerequisites. If they do, then I'm still going to have to build out my character to level 10 or whatever to make sure I pick up the right ones. And maybe it'll work if everyone doesn't decide your fighter must have a certain feat and skill package to be "viable" in the game. If that happens, your attempt to tie background to mechanics has backfired, and now everyone is playing the same background over and over again.

It also depends on how skills and feats are used in the game. Are they additive or subtractive? By this I mean, do the skills work as they do in the Lamentations of the Flame Princess RPG, where everyone has a 1-in-6 chance of finding a trap, but the Specialist can improve his odds? Or can nobody swim unless they have the swimming skill (which, as 3e taught us, means that nobody can swim because, seriously, how often does that come up). They've made noises in the past that indicate that it's more the LotFP style, with everyone at least getting a roll based on the appropriate stat, which is promising.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Ashe and Earth

If you're a regular reader over at the LotFP blog, you'll have seen Ashe Rhyder's entry in Raggi's March art contest. Rhyder's also been over at G+ offering to do art at request. Leaping at the chance, I finally got the Gefirir that Taichara created for me illustrated:

Monday, April 02, 2012

Of Combat Acrobatics and Not-So-Frustrated Novelists

While doing research for the sort of project that will never see the light of day, I came across this comment from R.A. Salvatore regarding fight scenes:

It seems to me that fight scenes used to be vague descriptions of the chaos happening around a major character or characters, who were often more interested in accomplishing something within the context of the fight rather than winning the fight itself. Even 30 years ago, I remember reading Terry Brooks's excellent Wishsong of Shannara. I love that book and adored the character of Garet Jax. In the climactic scene for that character, Garet Jax battles a demon. The fight starts, Terry cuts away, and we come back to see the result. Not the fight, but the result. This is tradition. Go back to Homer and Virgil--they don't describe the fights in actual terms, but in symbolic and grand gestures.

So why did it change? Partly, I think it's got to do with the amazing choreography in movies like The Princess Bride.

I think Mr. Salvatore overstates the case a bit, but he does have a point. Take, for example, this famous fight by Dumas, in which D’Artagnan first draws sword alongside the three musketeers:

This contest at length exhausted Jussac’s patience. Furious at being held in check by one whom he had considered a boy, he became warm and began to make mistakes. D’Artagnan, who though wanting in practice had a sound theory, redoubled his agility. Jussac, anxious to put an end to this, springing forward, aimed a terrible thrust at his adversary, but the latter parried it; and while Jussac was recovering himself, glided like a serpent beneath his blade, and passed his sword through his body.

Jussac fell like a dead mass.

It’s not quite the cut-away that Mr. Salvatore describes, but neither is it the detailed recitation of every thrust and parry, every feint and stratagem, every step of the “dance” as Mr. Salvatore calls it. Here's an example of a more modern fight scene from the novel Tiassa by Steven Brust, a noted fan of Dumas' rather droll style:

I pulled a knife from each boot and tossed them underhanded at the two in front of me--one missed, the other poked a guy in the side; both of them flinched. I drew my blade and slashed the nearest, ruining his pretty face, which gave me time to skewer the other in the middle of his body. He dropped his lepip and doubled over; must have gotten a good spot. I slashed at the first again, but missed as he fell backward.

I took the opportunity to turn around, which was just as well; one of them had gotten past Loiosh and was coming at me. I didn't like the idea of his heavy lepip against my little rapier, so I pulled three shuriken from inside my cloak and sent them in his direction. One shuriken scratched his forehead, one missed, and the last almost clipped Loiosh's wing where he was tagging around the other one's head.



And I’m willing to go along with his thesis blaming the movies. Consider this flash of blades, the ring of steel-on-steel, but it’s not easy to tell what’s going on, or why Captain Blood won the fight. A few years later, we get the same duo dueling in "The Adventures of Robin Hood".

(Seriously, follow the links. It's fun stuff. I'd have embedded, but apparently it was disabled for both of them.)

Again, the swift and ringing swordplay is difficult to follow with the eye, but in the end, it’s clear what happened: the fiendish Sir Guy cheated, drawing his dagger to get a sneak-attack on poor Robin, and, thus proving his villainy beyond any shadow of doubt, was slain!

Now, compare that to this:

Aragorn gets a brief burst of flashing blade near the end, but for the most part, this fight is all about special moves and impacts. This is a post Rocky IV/Die Hard movie, where the hero takes a pounding, but stays on his feet to win in the end. The hero proves his right to victory by sheer stubborn endurance.

And notice how slow and big the moves are. Even with the editing to add a sense of speed and danger, it’s easy to see what each of them is doing with their weapon, what part of the body they’re aiming for, the results of every swing and thrust. It’s all about the big moves, the sudden reversals, the equipment, and the moments of impact.

The comparison to D&D style combat is obvious. TSR-era D&D has its 10 second and 1 minute combat rounds, the action is vague with the clash of steel, and the sudden end to the fight. One moment, both combatants are fighting to their utmost; the next, one of them is dead.

Meanwhile, 4e is about the slow whittling of resources: healing surges, daily powers, action points; special individual moves like “Fury of the Sirocco” and “Cloud of Steel.” There are even mid-fight transformations to the combat in the form of the “blooded” status. The fights are less climaxes to slowly rising action and more events in and of themselves, sometimes with nary a preamble.

I don’t expect 5e to do much to reverse this trend, but it’ll be interesting to see what they do with it. The 4e/”modern” style combat requires more time, more resource tracking, and more granularity to pull off. The reward is really detailed combats. Getting the latter without the former would be an interesting trick to pull off.

UPDATE: 8/8/2019 A more literary analysis over at Monsters and Manuals on this topic.