Friday, April 20, 2018

Why I haven't been posting

Dear readers,

On the off-chance that anybody is wondering why I haven't  been updating this blog, here is the long-overdue explanation.

I have a baby now. Her name is Percy and she is about as good a baby as anybody could ask for.

I also got a job to support said baby and her mother. It was a long and difficult search for employment. The work is of a technical nature. It is demanding, but pays reasonably well.

But as a result, I just don't have  the time or imagination I used to have to spare for Satan's Game.
I joke about how I will run my Grand Campaign in the retirement home. That is of course my being facetious. I will no doubt get to induct my child into the mysteries of DnD in the meantime.

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Function of "Tricks"

The "trick" or "special" encounter is an important element of D&D. But though trick encounters are mandated in the "chamber contents" table, they have gotten short shrift in the official rules. I have often floundered attempting to implement them in adventures. (Especially in my B/X experiments, in which 1 in 6 encounters are "Special.")
In this post, I am trying to clarify my approach to them, and to create a process which can be easily and harmoniously implemented in adventure design.

This post is largely inspired by This entry in Tao of D&D. In which Alexis proposes that Monsters can be categorized by their relationship to the environment, and by extension, how they function in encounters.
Alexis puts forth 5 broad categories to define what kind of encounters a monster can provide, based on their ecological niche. In subsequent posts, Alexis shows how this provides a rationale which frees the DM from the arbitrary caprice of a random encounter table, and demonstrates how this Monster-Rational can be used to design an adventure to damn-near-completion in relatively little time.
This line of thought is frankly the most useful DMing advice I have ever encountered in the blogosphere. It is simple and effective, and a little painfully obvious after it has been spelled out for you.

The essence of this advice, I think, is that a DM should not be distracted by the Form an encounter takes, but should make design choices based upon the Function of the encounter. So rather than arbitrarily inserting a random trick in room x, the DM will select tricks based upon what makes sense in context and what serves the flow of the adventure.

After a little brainstorming, here are my Functional Categories for Tricks:

Art and Installation Pieces: Meant to inform or entertain explorers, or waste their time. A corpse trapped in amber, a distinctive sculpture of an unknown creature. A friend of mine ran a dungeon where we found a painting of an NPC we had met before, with someone else we had not. Little did we know that the scene in the painting hinted at a deeper conspiracy.

Debuff: Meant to disable, or confound a character's usual capabilities. This includes anything which damages a character's numbers, and more subtle effects which confuse or interfere with them. For instance, evil plants which are basically harmless, but would still confuse an attempt to  detect evil.

Environment Changer: Changes the layout or environmental effects of a location, perhaps opening or closing paths or creating new challenges. A switch which opens a floodgate and drains a pool, revealing a previously submerged passageway would be an example of this.

Environmental Effect: Incidental to the environment, but with a tangible effect upon the PCs: Smoke, extreme heat or cold, gravity shifts, magical fields. Possibly subject to and Environment Changer.

Evidence of Influence: A mysterious effect which hints at the presence of a significant creature or NPC, perhaps intelligent or powerful. In a friend's campaign, we came upon a valley populated by basilisks and archerai. But oddly, they did not attack us. Suddenly, a mighty Roc appeared and snatched up one of these hapless monsters while we hid in a nearby ravine. We were later to learn that this odd ecology was the work of a powerful NPC we were soon to meet. But the sheer mystery of the moment and the sudden tension makes this scene my favorite moment from that campaign. Or it could be something less spectacular, like an alarm spell or arcane eye which give evidence of a nearby wizard.

Lure: Bait to tempt the PCs into danger. The danger may be hidden or obvious.

Qualifiers: An encounter which is meant to limit, but not entirely bar access to something. If an ancient wizard wanted to preserve his library for posterity, while ensuring that it would be properly appreciated and used, these are the kinds of encounters you might place in his tomb/laboratory

Scarecrow: A threat which seems credible from the PC's perspective and dissuades them from a certain course of action. Might be placed on purpose by an intelligent creature, or incidental to the environment: A giant, complete skeleton sits athwart a passageway. Think it will animate and attack,  or did it just lay down and die there?

Secret Doors, Hidden Objects: Any case in which access to something is obfuscated, whether by design or merely incidentally. 

Tool: An object or effect which serves a useful purpose, even if that purpose is unknown or surprising to the players. This should be relevant to the setting: A Zone of Truth cast in a magistrates' chambers, or a statue which translates languages in a public plaza, or an apparatus which extends a bridge over a chasm.

Transporters: A trick which moves characters or objects, either for good or ill, by mundane or magical means. Collapsing floors, rotating walls, powerful torrents of wind or water,  and being picked up and carried to Anor Londo by demons are examples of this. 

Not included in this list: The Time-Waster
Of course these categories are broad, and not the specific forms of Tricks. I figure that when you want to include a trick, the broader context should inform the specifics.

For help with specifics of Form, I suggest "Tricks, Empty Rooms & Basic Trap Design" By Courtney C. Campbell. It is a very interesting and useful document for adventure design. I would describe it as the equivalent of the Monster Manual for Tricks and Empty rooms. It provides a great list of examples and Forms of tricks. But like the MM, it neglects Function and context.

This Function First design is predicated on the idea that a D&D scenario should make sense. If there is an underlying rationale for the encounters, then I think that structure makes the game more fair. If the players can discover that rational, it offers another point of engagement to the game, and provides a tool for Agency.
The opposite of Function First design would be Form First design. This is equivalent to building and running adventures from random tables. I have spent plenty of time trying to build adventures in this way, trying to discover and reproduce the "implied setting" of the tables in the official books.
But the content produced in this way has almost always fallen flat. It fails to produce tension, and generates things which just don't make sense.
The dice-roll says wild dogs appear, and that they are friendly. I convey this to the player, and I can feel the game implode.
Using the Form-first, random generation approach to Tricks and Special encounters gives us stuff like a Book which Reduces/Enlarges a character, or a Pool which Grants a Wish. These two examples are fairly coherent as these things go. But now the burden is on me as a DM to actually run these encounters and make them interesting and relevant. Then suddenly, my adventure-building flow is staunched and I need a drink.
So in order to protect my liver, I am embracing Function-First design.

This work on Trick categories is tentative, and subject to later refinement. If you see any glaring omissions, or if you have good or bad results with this idea, let me know in the comments.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

That game in Stranger Things

Season 2 of Stranger Things is about to drop. And it's been a desperate year and a half of waiting. Steve and Eleven have been in TV commercials. Mike was in IT. This kind of nonsense goes to show how badly we are jonesing for another hit of our Netflix obsession.

Stranger Things represents a new kind of sub-genre of TV and movies, which I will dub "80s kids vs. spooky stuff Nostalgia." This genre purposefully imitates movies like E.T, Monster Squad, The Goonies, or the Lost Boys.
Another example of this would be the new IT movie, which for no accident was transplanted from its original setting the 50s to the 80s.

In the base-genre of "kids vs spooky stuff", children or adolescents are confronted with threats and challenges beyond the pale of everyday life. This plays on a couple different levels: It is an exciting catharsis for children, who are continually challenged by their limitations as such. For adults, it is a reminder that childhood was not a carefree, idyllic state, but that it was frightening! The playground was a jungle, and Lord of the Flies is more ethnography than allegory.
The 80s nostalgia element is appealing because it reminds us of how starkly life has changed since the advent of digital technology and the internet. 80s nostalgia shows us an era when "Free-Range" children were the rule and not the exception: Children swear gleefully whenever the parents are absent, which is often. Even the nerdy Indoor-Kids are feral by today's standards.
When Will is being chased by the Demogorgon, he can't text his mom. The setting precludes this. Instead, he runs for the shed and arms himself with a .22 rifle which he is clearly familiar with.

But how does a small, shy, sensitive boy like Will develop these monster-slaying impulses?

is how.

Stranger Things is not a subtle work. The Duffer Bros. are gleefully obvious about their influences and homages. The first two scenes of ST clearly parallel those of E.T. In the first scene, we are shown something creepy which we don't understand yet. Then we cut to a group of suburban boys around a table playing what looks like a board game. Except it isn't a board game and it seems to involve a lot of arguing over magic spells.
The title of the game is never explicitly mentioned - likely for reasons having to do with copyright and licensing - But to anyone in the know, it is clearly Dungeons & Dragons.

I love D&D, and I watched with glee as Stranger Things used it as a framing device to explain what was happening in the story. I was also pleased by how ST accurately portrayed D&D, which is something filmmakers have an odd difficulty with.

That the boys play D&D is as big a part of the 80s setting as the Cold War conspiracy or the landline phones. Dungeons and Dragons has been unspeakably influential in popular culture. But despite this, it is still thing which many people may have heard of, though they don't really know what it is.
The purpose of this article is to clear the mist around D&D, in case it come up in the new season.  

D&D is the original table top role-playing game. In this game, players cooperate to create a narrative in a shared imaginary space. But that is a lot to unpack. And explaining D&D is notoriously difficult to do well.

I hope/predict the science teacher will turn out to be a monster-slaying badass. Also, this is my face when I try to explain D&D.
In the 50s and 60s, there were no videogames. Instead, there was War-gaming. War games were played with miniature plastic or pewter figurines, and there were rules for how the units could move and how to resolve attacks. Wargames evolved from exercises meant to teach tactics to military officers.

Then, in the early 1970s, some guys developed rules for wargaming in a medieval setting. In the back of the book, as an "afterthought," were additional rules for fantastic, Tolkien-esque battles. All the guys playing wargames then (as now) were really into science-fiction and fantasy. So Fantasy Wargaming caught on embarrassingly quickly.

Almost immediately after, another guy in the same group of people had the Big Idea of changing the rules and the scale of the game so that instead of controlling a whole army of the field of battle, the players would control individual characters as they stormed a castle dungeon.

This change lead to an entirely different sort of game. The scope of the action become much finer and more detailed. Players suddenly became interested in deciding what their character did, what they said, what they wanted to accomplish. The game became about playing out the adventures and careers of a small group of heroes, who were in a sense stand-ins for the players.

These rules were published as the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons. But this sort of game was so unlike anything else, that it would be several more years before the term "Role-Playing Game" was invented to describe it. In the years since, hosts of other RPGs have been developed, featuring all kinds of settings and rules-sets. But D&D is the most well known. Its medieval-fantasy setting is filled with ideas which new players can easily understand, and the rules are broad enough to be versatile.

When the ST kids are playing D&D, Mike is in charge of the game. He describes the scene, and the action, and the approach of the Demogorgon. Will, Lucas and Dustin have characters and discuss their plan of action. Mike has a cardboard screen hiding his side of the table where he keep his notes.
The action of a D&D game happens in the imaginations of the people playing. The figurines and maps on the table are not the point of the game, but merely a concrete reference so that the players can keep their shared imaginary space consistent.
While the players of an RPG are generally responsible for a single character, one player is responsible for "Running" the game. He or she is the one who invents the scenarios, describes the scenes to the other players, adjudicates the rules,  and describes the results of the players actions.
In D&D, this player is called the Dungeon Master. The Dungeon Master (DM) places monsters, traps, mysteries and challenges before the players. But the DM is not the adversary of the other players. The DM's job is to manage a game which will challenge the players and keep them interested.
A Dungeon Master wins when the other players are more interested in the game than in their phones. It's not an easy thing to do well, and this blog is basically a chronicle of my attempt to be good at DMing.

Traditional RPGs provided the foundations for electronic gaming. Most any game with fantasy themes, or in which characters have "classes" or "level up" has roots in D&D. Any videogame in which a character's capabilities are numerically quantified is said to have "RPG elements."
Yet computer-based games lack much of the freedom, flexibility and spontaneity of table-top RPGs in which you and your friends are the program  and system. Videogame titles are often praised for the variety of actions which  they permit a player to take. But traditional RPGs are by their nature, games in which anything can be attempted, and there is no divide between the players and the creators of the game.

So if D&D and traditional RPGs have been so widely influential, why are they such an esoteric, occult sort of thing? Simply, because they've been Occulted.
In the late 80s and early 90s, there was a bizarre moral panic in America, now referred to as the Satanic Panic. It was an odd resurgence in public fear of witchcraft and Satanism. If an unsolved crime was a little weird, local police would suspect that it was the work of Satanist.  People would go to hypnotherapists and suddenly recover memories of "Satanic Ritual Abuse" in the same way they might suddenly remember being abducted by aliens.
D&D was steamrolled by the Satanic Panic. The D&D rulebooks detail how to run magic and devilish creatures in the game. A certain demographic of people thought that these were literal instruction-manuals of sorcery and devil-worship, and decided that D&D players were The Enemy in the spiritual war for all of creation. A famous example of this ideology is the infamous tract by Jack Chick.
In 1985, 60 Minutes did a segment on the issue, thus legitimizing the panic for the average TV watcher.
This negative press and Satanic Panic spookified the hobby and drove it into obscurity. But this witchy vibe made it a fine accoutrement for a show like Stranger Things.

Another victim of the Satanic Roleplaying scourge?
There are plenty of fan theories and other articles which detail how the reference to the Demogorgon (a two-headed demon) is a metaphor for the link between Eleven and the monster. Or how the Upside-Down parallels the cosmology of certain D&D settings. So I won't go into that.

The first Season of ST had three parallel storylines going on; one with the adults,  another for the teenagers, and another for the kids. Of these three groups, the kids are the most mentally well-equipped to confront the dangers which confront them, and they generally have the best idea of what is going on. By making Will, Mike, Lucas and Dustin into such strong protagonists, the Duffer Brothers are tacitly endorsing Dungeons and Dragons and saying that the game benefits its players.

I love D&D and RPGs. They are a game which the players can truly own, and which can be about anything and everything. Stranger Things is a fun show which endorses my enthusiasm. I hope that ST can help to introduce intelligent, interesting people to the hobby.

And frankly I hope to see even more of D&D fan-service in Season 2.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Marginal Magic Items

Here is some stuff that I came up with when I was futzing around with the recent B/X adventure.
The game was struggling and I wanted to drop some magical weapons and buffs in the players laps so that they would have a little  more agency, be a little less fragile and generally feel encouraged.

Of course, pretty much every resource ever for D&D exhorts DMs to keep magical items on the top shelf, and to dole them out sparingly. But when I was first reading about B/X, I did not fail to notice the extreme fragility of the PCs. I realized that any decent equipment was very likely to outlast its owner, and I had a vision of a B/X as being about zany Vancian magical items and their succession of owners, rather than the other way around.
This kind of thing conveyed a sort of implied setting.
With this in mind, I decided to split the difference by dreaming up some magical armaments and buffing items which would offer advantages which are significant at low level, without conferring as great a benefit as standard, listed items. And I wanted to design them in such a way as to make their use a tactical choice, thus giving players a shade more agency.
For instance, a  weapon which can can be +4 a limited number of times per day seems more fun than a weapon which is simply +1 all the time.

Keep in mind that these ideas and mechanics have hardly been play-tested. Turns out my players lost interest in the adventure before they could get around to finding and experimenting with these toys, which were practically waiting for them in the next room. Next time I guess.
Also, I'm holding back a few things because my core players read this blog.

Flame Projector aka the Dagger of Microtransaction
This object looks like a flashlight, or a lightsaber. But good luck trying to describe it to your players without them imagining it as a sex toy. When the button in the handle (marked with the rune for fire) is pressed, it emits a cone of white-hot fire about a foot long. In combat, it works as a dagger which does fire damage rather than piercing damage. The hot flame easily and reliably ignites wood or rope, and can even heat steel to welding temperature.
But this does not come for free. The pommel of the projector (marked with the arcane symbol for gold) screws off to reveal a cavity large enough for a single gold piece. 1gp provides 10 rounds of flame.

The player who found this item was not too excited about it. I didn't tell him all about the item, and had him play out experimenting with it. He was expecting some kind Rod of FWACKOOMing, so the flame-dagger was a little disappointing. He was the one who first called it a micro-transaction dagger,  because it costs a little money to use.

Does this make  me an asshole DM? maybe. But I felt it was important  to include limiting factors in the marginal magical items. It seemed gamey, and like it would provide something useful to low-level characters without upsetting the power balance.

I can admit that hitting them in the pocketbook is a niggly kind of way to impose a limit, and not the easiest to track in game. Fortunately a few others came to mind: capacity, recharge time, per time, situational, user specific, requires exotic ingredient, or a to hit/damage handicap.

Theophanus' Aspergillium is a weapon which has a limited capacity.
More commonly known as a holy water sprinkler, an aspergillium is a baby-rattle like thing with a perforated head to hold a few shakes worth of holy water and sling it over a distance.

Theophanus's Aspergillium is a mace which can be "charged" with holy water. On a successful hit,  it deals d8 of holy damage (to enemies with a vulnerability to holy water) in addition to bludgeoning damage. It can only do so 5 times, and then it functions as a normal mace. It can be charged again by using up a flask of holy water, which are generally available in D&D settings.

Firearms also have a limited capacity. They way I run firearms, they ignore any armor bonus from conventional medieval armor, giving them a significant advantage. In a suitable, post-apocalyptic setting where ammo cannot be easily replenished, a handgun with a few shots could make a fine marginal magic item.

3x3 Broadsword 
This is a weapon limited on a per-timespan basis. 3 times a day it, can add +3 to hit. Of course, the base weapon type, bonus and times per day are all variable. I'd just keep the numbers small for easy counting.

Dagger of Spiders
It is also a per-timespan weapon. Can summon 1 hd of spiders / day, summons last a turn. They fall out of a portal on the hilt and quickly grow to full size. You can see how this concept can also be scaled to dial in the overall power of the item, all the way up to the Kalashnikov of Slaad summoning.

I might also include weapons which are decidedly non-magical, but have some significant tweak to them, such as Brittle weapon: Does 1 extra point of damage, but breaks on a natural 1 or 2. or Lightly built weapons, which have a bonus to hit, but do less damage.

Of course, many of the above items can't be described as magical weapons. But what exactly makes an item "magical" is probably dependent upon the hidden logic of the game setting, and a topic for another post.

Temporary buff items
Besides armaments, I came up with a few other consumable items to help characters to survive.

Golden Stud of Saving: A golden piercing which protects the wearer from a failed save. Works once, then breaks.

Red Ribbon: Offers 8 bonus HP. Then is destroyed, as if it took the last hit for the wearer.

Fiendish Barrister: a calling card with arcane and demonic script: “Legal Advocate. Any Place, Plane or Time. Call  upon Nerus.” Summons a charming, professional devil who will faithfully serve as negotiator or legal counsel.

Eyedrops of Unknown Providence: user gains darkvision for a 24 hour period. (I have totally unbalanced  games by including items like the Visor of Darkvision. Don't be like me. Let darkvision be a temporary buff rather  than a permanent one)

Awakening Salts: imbiber cannot be surprised for 48 hours. Cannot sleep either. Bonus to any check involving perception. Penalty to any check involving not coming off like a crackhead.

Surgeon’s gas: one-time bonus to thief skills of 40%  (if doing it AD&D) or 2 on d6 rolls (in B/X) or +5 in later editions. A volatile liquid which usually comes in tiny glass ampules, in a wallet of 3 ampules.  Or in a bottle with dozens of doses. Also works for other feats of manual dexterity.

Parenthetical ending thought:
This whole train of thought was a reaction to the sheer brutality and inutility I experienced with B/X.
The realization that a certain amount of statistical bonus actually facilitates gameplay has lead me to realize that from a game design perspective in  D20 based systems, DMs need not be so miserly with numerical bonuses. Whether a PC has a +2 or a +7 bonus,  they will  still have bad rolls and streaks of inordinate bad luck to boot. The key thing is agency, and numerical advantage does not equate to agency. For instance, a cloak of spiderclimb does more to unhinge an adventure that a +5 sword. There is also a the element of equality among players. If PCs have a +5 attack, that is fine. The DM can easily adjust. But an issue arises when one PC has  the +5 when the others don't, and has so much more agency that it begins to show in awkward ways.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Samurai

This post is a follow-up to my previous post. I vented my frustration with WotC and their anemic attempt to design a character class (the samurai) in a way that captures the appeal of the archetype.

In this post, I will present my version of the samurai, and try to explain my rationale for the design choices.

This careless treatment of the Samurai is nothing new.
In the 3E version of Oriental Adventures, the samurai was technically identical to the standard fighter, but granted an "ancestral daisho," a +1 set of katana and wakizashi. While I appreciate that this approach gives the player and the DM freedom to interpret the samurai, it's pretty damn lazy, and practically pointless.
Also, WotC should perhaps have known better than to still be using the term "Oriental" in 2001.
The original Oriental Adventures from 1985 can get away with it.
Oriental Adventures 1st Edition.jpeg

The AD&D version lavishes detail on its conception. In addition to a Samurai class, it has 2 additional classes which covers other aspects of the Samurai mystique.
The Bushi class represents an impoverished samurai or ronin, who dabbles in banditry and relies on brute force. The Kensai focuses on sword-mastery. The Samurai-proper adheres to the code of bushido and has features which account for the social situation and cultural refinement expected of a respectable samurai.

This level of grittiness seems to be intended to serve a campaign in which multiple players want to play "samurai," but want to distinguish their characters. In fact, the Oriental Adventures are probably best played as a separate,  entirely Asian-themed campaign, rather  than as an add-on to the typical Western motif.  
(To be honest, it is more natural-sounding to say Oriental than "Asian-themed.")
Asian-Themed flavor?

For the purposes of this post however,  I will be treating the Samurai as a single class, and attempt to roll the various aspects of samurai-ness into a single class, suitable for interjection as a foreign element into an otherwise Western campaign, alongside the paladins and the Vancian magic-users.

I agree with one of Mike Mearls' statements. To paraphrase; a samurai is a member of the warrior class from feudal japan. But how can you have a Japanese warrior if we are in D&D and there is no Japan? So we do have to take the samurai out of proper context to put it in D&D. The trick is to define the samurai outside of that context.

The European Knight in Shining Armor has a fantasy surrounding it. The mystique of the Knight has a lot to do with moral values such as loyalty and chivalry and faith. In reality though, medieval knights were probably more like gangsters. Chivalry was an invention to curb their less admirable qualities. In my BS opinion as an armchair anthropologist, the warrior class of a feudal society is the warrior class of a feudal society. So historical samurai were a mixed bag like any other cross-section of society. So what is the fantasy of the samurai?
It should go without saying that here I am discussing the fantasy and not the reality.

Let's face it. As Westerners, our ideas about Samurai are informed by popular culture. Kurosawa movies like the Seven Samurai depict a certain pathos and hard-fatedness in the life of a samurai.
While we're on the topic, y'all know this Classic Western is a scene-for-scene ripoff of Yojimbo, right?
Another big influence is the Book of Five Rings by Musashi. Musashi was a famous duelist who is said to have fought over 60 duels in his life, yet managed to die at a respectable age of cancer.  His gimmick was that he used both wakizashi and katana when everyone else was just using the katana with both hands.
The Bo5R is an eclectic work containing advice about life as a samurai, descriptions of how to fight in Musashi's signature style, zen-like musings, and general advice on how to keep your shit together. I once heard something about how corporate executives fetishized it along with the Art of War as a treatise on winning, and thus Bo5R entered Western pop culture.

One thing clear from both Samurai movies and Bo5R is that being a Samurai is a mental game. The battle is won first in the mind.  I think this has a lot to do with the religious background of the samurai. Zen and Buddhist thought emphasizes introspection and self awareness. "Mindfulness" is a virtue in Buddhism. By contrast, if you ever read any medieval romances, it becomes clear that neither the characters or the author are very deep thinkers.
The mystique of the knight has to do with external relationships; to Liege, to Christ, to Lady-fair, the mystique of the Samurai (and the monk) has to do with the relationship to self. The martial skill of the samurai is rooted in discipline and self control.

So here it is. Starting with the standard fighter as a template, but without specific adjustments for a particular edition:

Alignment: Samurai may not have a chaotic alignment. Most samurai observe a code of honor. And as a result of their social position, they will tend to favor the status quo. Also, their combat abilities depend on a disciplined and well-ordered mentality which cannot be supported by a chaotic perspective.

Weapon specialization; Samurai are professional hereditary warriors, and favor martial weapons while disdaining "peasant" weapons. They will not be proficient in clubs, staves, maces, axes, slings, flails or any weapons which are adapted from a farm implement or tool such as sai or bill-hooks. They also disdain the use of sheilds,  or "civilian" weaponry such as rapiers or blackjacks.
As a result, they focus their training on weapons appropriate to a professional warrior: swords, daggers, spears, glaives, bows, crossbows, firearms and unarmed combat. They gain a bonus to attack with these weapons equal to their level in Samurai, divided by 4 and rounded up.

Danger sense: Samurai discipline themselves to be in-the-moment and are difficult to surprise. frightening to peasants. They gain a bonus on any perception rolls that might prevent them from being surprised or ambushed. This bonus is equal to half their level in Samurai, rounded up. This does not apply to finding or spotting traps.

XP bonus: When one samurai kills or defeats another in a duel or stand-up fight,  the winner gains twice the XP for that combat. Samurai constantly compare themselves to eachother, and their  reputations proceed them.

Honesty: Because of their earnest mentality, samurai has a penalty of -2 to all bluff or disguise rolls. On the other  hand, they are also more difficult to put one over on, and gain a bonus of +2 to sense motive.

Frightening to peasants: A samurai is set apart from the lower classes, and will never be able to shed the mein of a samurai, which is frightening and impressive to peasants and serfs. Samurai will gain +2 to attempts to coerce or intimidate peasants.

So there you go. We have some features which are meant to portray the refined combat style of a samurai, and a few more to help depict their social situaton and relation to the rest of the world. It may stand out that I didn't include anything about having a lord or a daimyo. But I wanted that part to be optional, not mandated.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Hasbro ruins D&D.

Listen to this shit.
(In a nutshell, Mike Mearls describes his grand conception of The Samurai in D&D. And it's nothing but lukewarm diarrhea. He is very excited and pleased about this attempt to re-package the samurai as a fighter variant. They have dismantled everything remotely interesting about playing a samurai or what that might mean, and reduced it to a mere temporary buff. Because apparently this is what the fanboys want)

This is the public, official version of Satan's Game. And people are paying money for it because they don't know any better.

Now I don't mean to make too much personal slight here; at least no more than a person deserves for having bad ideas about how to play D&D. I'm sure Mike Mearls is a nice guy who loves his family and who pays his taxes. He's clearly very intelligent. You can tell because he has a solid perspective on what The Seven Samurai is about, and he can hardly compress his train of thought into words.

But holy crap, did he say this is what the Forums wanted?? So WotC is now designing D&D by focus group. And an internet forum is like a focus group, except you don't have to pay them.

He says that people want to use the word samurai to describe their character. What an odd way to put it. It is clear to him that people don't actually mean they want to play a noble born warrior from feudal Japan. So what the shit is a samurai if not that? I also wonder why this is clear to him. Was it made clear by people in the forums? Or is it so clear that he just assumes it?

So at WotC, the approach to designing a Thing begins with taking the Thing out of the context which defines the Thing, and imitating the comic book or movie version of the Thing. Whatever that means.

As an aside, he makes clear that they use the same approach with the Knight. According to Mearls and WotC, the knight is another thing that people say they want to play, but they don't mean it.

Mearls clearly knows about knights and samurai: That they swear fealty to lords, and that they are elite because horses and armor and weaponry are expensive. But he throws these aspects out the window when designing the class according to the insights from the unpaid forum members.

(Never mind that having a fealty relationship or economic concerns make great motivations for adventures and are generally solid plot devices.)
At least better plot devices than frickin' Amnesia.

Mearls knows that there is something interesting about the samurai persona. But this whole nebulous thing somehow gets reduced to a temporary buff to attack and HP. I guess this is what they got out of the forums.

"Hey guys. What makes an interesting adventure to you? What makes a game of D&D better?"
"We like it when our characters hit stuff and don't die."
"So you mean an honest-to-goodness tactical challenge?"
"No. Just higher numbers to add to a dice roll."

Mearls finishes by getting really excited: Something about how the use of a temporary bonus will cause the player to cathartically identify with the fighting spirit of the samurai.
Does he really believe this? Are there people who play D&D who are that simple?

"Ok guys. So how big do you think the temporary bonus should be?"
"Oh, really big. The numbers stand for my immersion in the game. The more bonuses, the better the game is."
"We knew it all along! This is going to be the best version of D&D ever. Let's make some youtube videos!"

Jesus. As best I can figure, the reason for this kind of crap is that D&D is not owned by people who care about D&D. Wizards of the Coast is a subsidiary of HASBRO. The same company that owns My Little Pony and keeps licensing Transformers movies. We have to call it a Spirit Board now because the Ouija board is trademarked. Shepherding the refinement of the table top RPG is not their priority.

It grinds my gears.
In my next post, I'm going to present a samurai class of my own design. I don't even care about samurai or plan to include them in any adventures in the future. I just want to show that it can be done better.

Monday, October 2, 2017

I tried 5E too.

Admittedly, I took a long break from this blog. I had a lot of life-changes over the last couple years and didn't have the benefit of being around my accustomed people. But I still got a little gaming in.

In this interim, I got a chance to try Fifth Edition. it was only one session with a group that I dropped into. But it was a good chance to look at the rules and make a character and try the rules.

In short, here are my impressions. Let me restate that 3rd Edition is my main basis for comparison.

1. Mechanics: The system is essentially the D20 system. But the mechanics are significantly unified and streamlined. Good.

2. Power levels: Characters are both more powerful and harder to kill. I think the power-creep has gone to far. But certain aspects make sense.

3. Forced roleplaying: There are actual mechanics meant to inspire "roleplaying." They suck. Maybe they are a necessary crutch for some. I don't know.

4. Me hating other people's fun in a petty sort of way: Exotic character races and bizarre prestige classes are normalized and made mundane and thus irrelevant. This contributes to power-creep and to a blandification-of-the-weird. It legitimates the sort of self-indulgence which I find to be in poor tastes.

Like 3rd, 5E has us rolling a d20 and adding a modifier to beat a Difficulty most any time we need to ask a question of the universe (aside from damage rolls.) The difference is that the classifications of different sorts of rolls has been pared down, lending to more simplicity.
For instance, saving throws and skill checks are both simply "checks." I like the elimination of Saving throws as a separate category. In 3E, all saves had to be classified as either Fortitude, Reflex or Will, modified by Constitution, Dexterity or Wisdom respectively. This gives an odd extra value to those ability scores. It may have balanced out these states, but it was hardly elegant.

Skills remain. But their sheer number has been pared down.
(Skills are a sticky wicket when you are designing a system. ie. shouldn't someone with Profession:Sailor also be able to Use Rope? Or if you are trained in Medicine does that mean you know about medicinal herbs, or how to operate an fMRI scanner? Medical tricorder? And can you perform dentistry in a pinch? Should the system count those as separate skills? Wouldn't that be a little too gritty? Personally, I think a strong system should account for widely different technology levels and their interaction, which necessitates a more complicated system that one where Pre-Industrial Iron Age is the default)
Anyways, 3E had like 30, 40 different skills, not counting the unlisted ones which count under Profession or Craft. It errs on the side of being too finely parsed. 5th takes this down to about a dozen and is better for that.
Also, rather than having an allotment of skill points, and a to-hit bonus, characters are either Proficient in an action, or they are not. Proficiency in a field grants a proficiency bonus, the magnitude of which goes off a character's level. Whether the proficiency applies to a craft or a weapon, the bonus is the same. It's simple. But it makes sense. My gripe is that a character's skills are more or less locked-in at character creation, and there's  little room for customization or shoring up  weak skills along the way.
Also the proficiency increases in chunks every 4 levels or so, rather than incrementally with each level. Why? Not sure I like that.

5E adds the feature of rolling with Advantage or Disadvantage. Basically this provides the DM a way to adjust for the situation and say "Ok, that thing you want to do will probably work because of such and such." or "Ok, you have some serious stuff working against you (like trying to sneak in heavy armor), but you can still attempt it if you want."
The subject rolls twice, and takes the higher result if there is an advantage, and the lower result if there is a disadvantage. This saves the DM from having to arbitrary modifiers on the fly. Arbitrariness is built in, but is less debatable. I think I like this mechanic.

Power Level and creep:
3E might be a little kooshy, but there's still plenty of room for players to feel threatened and vulnerable at low levels. 5E makes this even worse.
I played a fighter with an archery specialization. The fighter has an ability called Second Wind which recovers HP once, and recharges with a rest. It basically doubles a fighter's HP, creating what might feel like tension, until you remember to use the ability which heals you for free.
Another big difference is that magic users can use cantrips (0th level spells) without limit. This wouldn't be a big deal in 3E, where cantrips are spells like Read Magic or the one that deals d3 damage to undead. But 5E includes cantrips which deal d8 damage, at a distance without limit. This makes for a big increase in the damage-dealing for low level spell casters.
This buff for spellcasters seemed extreme to me. But in terms of damage capability, it's comparable to what a character with a bow might deal. And it makes more sense than in 3E where spellcasters are forced to double as crossbowmen if they want to remain effective without burning spells.
In a game which is essentially about fighting monsters, it makes sense if you want magic users to actually have something to do in combat. So I can't object too much.
I'm sure there are other instances of how non-combat classes have been turned into combat classes. but I haven't discovered them yet.

Forced "roleplaying:"
As part of character creation, 5E asks you to choose a "bond," "flaw" and "ideal" for your character. There are about six of each for each class and you are supposed to chose a trifecta to guide how you play the character.
The problem is, once you make these sort of details part of the game system, they become subject to a form of min-maxing; choosing what will hinder your character least and off the most benefit.
By mandating these elements of character background, 5E might discourage players from creating characters according to their own inspiration.
Also these books are by Hasbro, and have to be politically correct. So the options the basic rules give you are pretty boring. For instance, I had to invent a flaw for my character: "Dislikes women." I'll spare you the gory details of his his background story.
I can see how some players might need this sort of structure to introduce them to roleplaying. But I think there is more hindrance than help.

I'm a hater who hates fun.
I just think there's a sort of breakdown in the game when a player can say their character is a half-dragon with a horny lizard-head and a breath weapon, and there is an expectation that the character can walk into a town and an inn with the humans and the halflings and everyone will act like this is totally normal. At that point, the game has seriously damaged its potential for weirdness and wonderment.
And "dragonborn" are default playable race in 5E. Thus informing the "default" D&D setting.

Also, the character-customization which would have been handled through feats and prestige classes are rolled into class progression. (We never got into prestige classes anyways. Why bother when you can multiclass?)
This forced branching of character archetype only creates and illusion of an individualized characters, when in fact, the available paths have only been more strictly delineated,
All in all, I appreciate the mechanical simplification in 5E. But at the same time, it offers even more of the shallow, indulgent fluff that made me run to basic. With one hand, 5E caters to the player's desire for an "cool" character. but with the other, it creates limitations that hobble creativity.