Sunday, October 15, 2017

Zero H.P. and Dying

Recently on one of the AD&D Facebook pages someone asked if characters dying at zero hit points was too unforgiving. I had an immediate opinion (of course I always do) and that opinion hasn't changed. I think that the mechanic of dying at zero H.P. is based in the kind of stories that the game was designed to tell. Of course, this mechanic is always one of the quickest to change as rule systems are house ruled or developed. Even the DMG presents optional rules to avoid Zero is Death, and subsequent games have almost universally followed suit. But, if you'll allow me to present my thoughts, I'd like to make a case that the Zero is Death rule is rooted in the kinds of stories we want to tell ourselves.

First, allow me to quote a current media sensation,  the famed George, R.R. Martin. In an interview with Edge magazine, George explains the following on why so many of his main characters die.

"I think a writer, even a fantasy writer, has an obligation to tell the truth and the truth is, as we say in Game of Thrones, all men must die," ... "You can’t write about war and violence without having death. If you want to be honest it should affect your main characters. We’ve all read this story a million times when a bunch of heroes set out on adventure and it’s the hero and his best friend and his girlfriend and they go through amazing hair-raising adventures and none of them die. The only ones who die are extras. That’s such a cheat. It doesn’t happen that way. They go into battle and their best friend dies or they get horribly wounded. They lose their leg or death comes at them unexpectedly."

As D&D matured it became increasingly influenced by two media, movies and video games. In both these media the main characters rarely die, and if they do in the case of video games, they simply restart, usually only a little behind where they were before. Yes, I'm aware that D&D largely started the current video game craze, but there was an increasing feedback loop between the two throughout the 90's and 2000's viz, 4e and World of Warcraft. I think we can also refer to the red shirt phenomena on Start Trek to affirm the other fact that Martin is referring to here as well,


Sort of like D&D NPCs? We might as well put red shirts on the all of the supporting cast in any D&D campaign for the rate they die compared to PCs.

Martin goes on in the same interview to say.

"Once you’ve accepted that you have to include death then you should be honest about death and indicate it can strike down anybody at any time," ... "You don’t get to live forever just because you are a cute kid or the hero’s best friend or the hero. Sometimes the hero dies, at least in my books. I love all my characters so it’s always hard to kill them but I know it has to be done. I tend to think I don’t kill them. The other characters kill ‘em. I shift off all blame from myself."

Which touches on the next thing that can make a DM reluctant to have a Zero is Death mechanic in their game: guilt. The fact is, we represent every non player force in the world and these forces are what usually spell the end of a PCs life if anything will. And thus by default it must be the DM that killed the PC. This logic, for the religious, makes God responsible for every death in our world--sadly some believe just that. But deeper thinkers have come to the conclusion that if God, or something like God, exists he doesn't control every force in the universe, as much as all things are given free will and the forces of the Universe obey natural law. God may have "created" natural law (or not), but he doesn't control it. DMs are called judges in early D&D for a good reason. They are judging the effects of the laws and mechanics of the game and the situations in which the characters, by free will enter. No, I am not trying to equate DMs with God, only to provide an analogy by which DMs can avoid the guilt they feel when a character dies. There is no need to feel like you killed a character, but that the world in which they play a very dangerous game of "war and violence" has killed them.

So, if we are to assume that characters have free will and that they are engaging in a very dangerous world in which living fire breathing dragons the size of semi-truck & trailers, or larger, fly around the world along with thousands of other evil, deadly beasts roam the lands, then premature death should be a constant in this world. In fact, if you think about the closest analog to the D&D world we have, our world during the medieval age, the picture becomes very clear. In the middle ages, men fought against men constantly. Hence the need for castles, fortified cities and the like. Include death, disease, famine, lack of adequate medical care and the death rate becomes very high indeed. Now, drop in several hundred species, some numbering in the tens of thousands, whose sole desire is not just to conquer but to tear, rend, destroy and kill all in their path. Such critters like goblins, orcs, gnolls, hobgoblins, kobolds, and the like. Add a few serious beasties equivalent to natural disasters, like Dragons, a Tarasque, Basilisks, and Wyverns, and you've got a world hundreds of times more dangerous than our own medieval world. And we know that in our medieval world people died frequently and in great numbers. Doesn't it seem likely that death should be a more clear and present danger in the lives of adventurers than modern games make it?

If we extend this metaphor of fantastic naturalism two other facts quickly jump out. First, magic becomes much more important than even we may assume. Magic is the one force that perhaps can equalize the forces of men against such unnatural darkness in the world. The obvious difference between the forces of good and the forces of evil are, generally speaking, that the evil races are more stupid--humanoid races, or fewer in number--dragons, than humans and demihumans and therefore the good races bring their intelligence and wisdom to bear on these forces in the forms of Clerics and Magic Users. Few are the forces of evil that can generate an evil mage of sufficiently high enough level to truly threaten the civilizations of men long enough to cause them to crumble. The exception are races like the drow, who prefer to stay underground due to inherent limitations, races like the Githyanki, who need physical realms only for raising children and pirating etc.

However, magic being what it is, if unrestrained could rocket our analog middle age into a science fantasy utopia (or at least a highly advanced dystopia--e.g. Eberron) were it not for the ever present pressure of these destructive forces in the world. Certainly kings and emperors could fund the research of advanced guilds and orders of mages to investigate new magical findings that might indeed change the world. And such endeavors, I think, would be a constant occupation in many more established kingdoms. However, the forces of evil constantly tax the resources of the state. From within and without these chaotic dangers of misrule would tax even the most capable of magical societies to simply keep destruction at bay warding boundaries and borderlands, scrying upon their movements and counterspelling whatever attempts these unbalanced, invading forces are executing upon the realms of peace and light.

Thus we can see, our beloved fantasy world stays in a sort of evolutionary stasis, never quite advancing but never quite collapsing. Or better said constantly waning and waxing with the incoming tides of evil and destruction. And, in fact, most fantasy worlds are littered with the ruins of past empires self immolated on the pyre of advancing magic or imploding due to the pressures of encroaching evil. This is good for us who, in game terms, are looking for a fantasy world to play in forever and Peter-Pan like never grow old. But bad, very bad, for those who live there. What I mean is that death would be an ever present constant in such a world, and the danger present there should be reflected in our "play" therein.

Not to forget the divine forces at work in such a world. These divinities take sides in this constant battle, some less so than others given the druthers of the DM. Think for a moment on this: that we play in a world where almost infinitely powerful beings exist and influence the life and destiny on this world on both sides of the battle. There are Gods of the orcs, just as there are Gods of men. Evil Gods, Chaotic Gods, Gods of hearth and home, and Gods of war and strife. Sometimes we in our world, so conditioned by monotheism (whether we are believers or not) forget what true literal polytheism implies. The struggle is real, not just on our fantasy world, but in the realms beyond them acting out the struggle in the Heavens and the Hells just as they are acted out upon our fantasy home world. These forces too, struggle in an endless tug of war for political influence and the fate of not just the world but existence itself. This too, keeps things in a perpetual state of balance, life and death, good and evil, law and chaos.

Now, having said all that and made the argument for the Zero is Death mechanic, I step to the other side. Stories of Hercules, Odysseus, Achilles, Krishna, Gilgamesh, Thor, Robin Hood, Merlin and King Arthur all require one thing: immortality. Even those heroes that in the end die, die with the legacy and promise of a second coming greater than the first. If these are the types of heroes we wish to play, and the types of stories we wish to tell, then by all means, remove the Zero is Death mechanic. In fact, it is better to remove death as a possibility at all. There may be challenges that seem to threaten death, but in the end the hero carries on. But keep in mind, the one thing that all of these heroes also had in common was an unnatural origin. They were not normal to begin with (with the exception of RH). Their births were the products of the Gods, or at the least of strongly magical origins and their destinies fated from birth. Such heroes were never normal men and thus destined for lives that were beyond the normal.

Does this mean that all characters in a Zero is Death campaign die? No, at least not necessarily in battle. Allow me to paint the picture of Conan the Barbarian. Conan was never a hero, at least not by the strict definition of the term. He was a mighty adventurer indeed, but no "hero". Great though he was, in most D&D representations Conan is around sixth to ninth level. Yep, not 20th or 30th not even 15th (admittedly in CB1 & 2 Conan is portrayed as a 13th level fighter and 7th level thief so he is a bit higher there) , but in general not ungodly in level. And moreover the arc of Conan's life is one of random adventuring where he overcomes regional or local menaces--not world shattering epic threats. And he eventually, around say level 9 or so, establishes himself as King of Aquilonia. Effectively this is the equivalent of a 9th level AD&D fighter establishing a stronghold. He then leaves to eventually face death itself. And with the "Death Song of Conan the Cimmerian", I would like to leave this post. Its stanzas speak of the life Conan led, and the stories I would like to tell in my fantasy world of adventure ...

The Death Song of Conan the Cimmerian


The road was long and the road was hard, 

And the sky was cold and grey: 

The dead white moon was a frozen shard 

In the dim dawn of day: 

But thief and harlot, king and guard 

Warrior, wizard, knave and bard 

Rode with me all the way.



The wind was sharp as a whetted knife 

As it blew from the wet salt seas; 

The storm wind stirred to a ghostly life 

The gaunt black skeletal trees: 

But I drank the foaming wine of life 

Wine of plunder and lust and strife 

Down to the bitter lees.



A boy, from the savage north I came 

To cities of silk and sin. 

With torch and steel, in blood and flame, 

I won what a man may win: 

Aye, gambled and won at the Devil's game 

Splendor and glory and glittering flame 

And mocked at Death's skull-grin.



And there were foemen to fight and slay 

And friends to love and trust: 

And crowns to conquer and toss away 

And lips to taste with lust: 

And songs to keep black nights at bay 

And wine to swill to the break of day 

What matter the end be dust?



I've won my share of your gems and gold 

They crumble into clods: 

I've gorged on the best that life can hold: 

And the Devil take the odds: 

The grave is deep and the night is cold 

The world's a skull-full of stinking mould 

And I laugh at your little gods!



The lean road slunk through a blasted land 

Where the earth was parched and black. 

But we were a merry, jesting band 

Who asked no easier track: 

Rogue and reaver and firebrand 

And life rode laughing at my right hand 

And Death rode at my back.



The road was dusty and harsh and long 

Crom, but a man gets dry! 

I'm old and weary and Death is strong 

But flesh was born to die: 

Hai, Gods! But it was a merry throng 

Rode at my side with jest and song 

Under an empty sky.



I've heard fat, cunning priestlings tell 

How damned souls writhe and moan: 

That paradise they can buy and sell 

For gold and gold alone: 

To the flames with scripture and priest as well 

I'll stride down the scarlet throat of hell 

And dice for the Devil's throne!



I faced life boldly and unafraid 

Should I flinch as Death draws near? 

Life's but a game Death and I have played 

Many a wearisome year: 

Hai! to the gallant friends I made 

Slave and swordsman and lissome maid 

I begrudge no foot of the road I strayed 

The road which endeth HERE!

~ Lin Carter ~

Friday, October 13, 2017

Is D&D 5e Satan's Child?

Everybody has their story from the 80's if the adults in your life were in any way influenced by the rising tide of panic that saw Satan in every shadow and around every corner. For me it started with an informal youth group meeting my church called "firesides". I didn't go to this particular meeting as it so happened, but the fallout was clear when I went to youth group the following Wednesday. All my friends at church who played D&D, even the guys who taught me to play were either selling their stuff or had been forced to burn it by their parents.

Holy moly indeed! I won't go into the deep pain these events caused me or the real harm they did to my faith in the long run--far more than D&D ever did--but I do draw them from your memories as an attempt to paint a picture of the past and how it effects the present of the D&D gaming world.

If you are not familiar with this time, you owe it to yourself to peruse a few artifacts from the period in order to understand what early gamers were up against. First there was the group formed by Patricia Pulling, Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons (yep, BADD); and their pamphlet that you can read about here. And then there was Jack Chick's circulars Dark Dungeons, which were more entertaining if even more melodramatic. And if you wonder where in the literal hell all this was coming from, check out a few of these videos to catch a flavor of the satanic fear that was rampant at the time: A Police Guide to Occult Crimes & Oprah Show satanic sensationalism. Ludicrous to say the least.

Now, all of this tripe was proven to be false time and again throughout the 80's and 90's including the episode with James Dallas Egbert, the trial of the Memphis three, satanic ritual abuse, as well as allegedly D&D related suicides, murders and other criminal behavior. But, by the time this exonerating press was generally accepted, the damage had already been done. It was, I'll say again, horribly life changing for me. I was a victim in more ways than one. This, however, is not my point here today. The real reason for today's post is a comment made on my last entry by one of my readers Shadowplay. Shadowplay wondered if the shift towards character-driven, story-oriented play may have been in any way influenced by the Satanic Panic as well.

I'll admit, my first instinct was no. I mean we all know that 2e scrubbed off the pointy bits of the game by cutting out demons, devils and other scary stuff in order to placate the moral critics. But the shift to story oriented play? I didn't think so. However,  on second blush I wondered if this actually could be true. Were there forces at work in TSR that could have pushed D&D towards a lighter and fluffier tone in regards to story as well? One had to admit that with all the dangerous parts redacted D&D was not only looking cleaner, it was playing cleaner. It wasn't just more story oriented; the storylines seemed less swordsy & sorcerous and more heroic and chivalrous. I was intrigued, and thought I could do some research.

Honestly, I didn't think I'd find anything. I mean I knew about The Escapist, and their pro gaming research database and articles. I had previously studied actual gaming related social and psychological research on the ERIC database and from several university research libraries I had access to. No, what I was looking for was some kind of internal memo or article or interview or personal memoir of what was going on inside TSR during the times this was happening. I had read interviews from Gary Gygax, watched his appearances and defenses on shows like the 60 minutes' jaundiced tabloid piece. Though helpful for TSR's views, none of that material really gave us a view inside TSR's creative dynamics of the time. Until I came across James Ward's article in Dragon #154 "The Game Wizards: Angry Mothers from Heck (and what we do about them)".

Published in 1990 toward the tail end of most of the vitriol, the article was a slightly safer sell. But here, in this one page policy statement we have much of the smoking gun we are looking for. I would love to reproduce the whole article for those who don't have access, but I should probably not do that. However, I will quote several salient sections.

The article starts with "Avoiding the Angry Mother Syndrome is something that I talk about quite often at TSR, Inc. Simply put, if a topic will anger the normally calm, caring mother of a gamer, we aren't interested in addressing that topic in any of our game products." Clearly drawing a thesis in the sand that TSR is no longer interested in controversial material in gaming. While admitting the game is about sworsdmen and wizards battling evil beasties, they make it clear that the focus of such activities should only be with the most wholesome of motives (can't avoid a grin here). Ward goes on to present the caveat to adventuring that "there are clear differences between fighting for its own sake and fighting for a good cause. The good cause part is largely what role-playing is and should be all about."

You know, for the longest time I could never understand why some old schoolers during the dawn of the OSR would say they lamented the time when you could play any alignment in a game and not only virtuous and heroic types. I mean I had never really had the desire to play evil characters, nor encouraged my players to do so, and I also never really felt that Gary or D&D encouraged it. I also could not see any rule in the later games that explicitly prohibited it or even strongly discouraged it. Where was this OSR critique coming from? Well, it seems that they were mentioning something that had taken over D&D spiritually, not necessarily mechanically as Ward's explanations make clear.

The guidelines in this short little piece are not really mechanical, in fact they don't effect the mechanics much at all. It's true that Ward does mention the removal of demons and devils and points out that it's fine if you want to use these kinds of tropes in your game, but it is not to be construed as official TSR material. In fact the guidelines Ward points out somewhat prosaically are guided by a mother's smile ... "each product should be lots of fun to play and involve high adventure, but each product also has to have certain elements that any gamer's mother in this or any other universe would smile at. These qualities must be present in each gamer's role-playing to foster the right stuff." [emphasis mine]

Those last two phrases are powerful indeed: must be present in each gamer's roleplaying. What we are hearing here is a mandate not just for a certain class of product, but for what the gaming experience and play should be like. 'We don't play dark and gritty,' they seem to be saying, 'we play light-filled and heroic'. While they'll say in one breath it is fine if you want to play with demons and devils (which Ward says that they are still getting at least one complaint a week about); in the ne xt breath they imply the way they want gamers to play is in a very different direction indeed. And the last portion tells how they will achieve that: TSR should provide the content that will foster the "right stuff", i.e. the "right" kind of roleplaying. Wow. It seems like Shadowplay's assumption may have been more correct than I would have ever imagined.

The article goes on to explain that a whole series of guidelines have been set up at TSR to achieve this goal which he proceeds to outline in the remainder of the piece. These are:

Artwork: "The male and female figures shown are heroic and good looking, and would get either G or PG movie ratings." With the explicit caveat that TSR does not deal in "blood and gore."

Violence: TSR should take pains, we are told, to limit "the level of violence that goes on during an adventure." Players should focus on using wit and roleplaying to overcome challenges not muscle hewing blood and bone with sword, stressing that "anyone with any intelligence at all ... finds that hacking and slashing becomes boring very quickly."

Adventures: Clearly the goal in such adventures then should be more in line with "saving the princess" than killing evil foes. "TSR's products have used hundreds of goals of this sort, such as actually saving a princess, curing silver dragons of a terrible disease, and protecting small towns from raiding giants." And moreover the reason for this is that "Those who play in these modules like heroic goals. They like the challenge of doing something tough; they like to receive rewards for helping others out; and they like to feel good about their characters after these PCs accomplish something useful." We are no longer exploring savage and untamed wilderness or deep and treacherous caverns filled with crawling undead for gold and glory. Well, I guess we might be, but it is with the purest of motives and to bring to pass an incredible story of saving the princess or curing the diseased dragon. Story has become the point.

The point of this article, however, is not just information, or even assuaging the raging masses; it is, according to the article itself, "I would like for all readers to be able to point to it as a policy statement of TSR, Inc. This company is interested in presenting material that promotes all of the qualities that parents want their children to have as those children grow up." [emphasis mine]. The reason for such a change being that at TSR, "We care about our products and want as few angry moms as possible."

*Sigh*

Now, please know, I do not fault Mr. Ward or even TSR for this article or the changes they undertook. I may not have liked the changes, but as a gamer who lived through this insane time and was personally affected both in my gaming out, I completely understand. The last thing I want to do is to lob stones, or encourage others to lob stones, in the direction of the TSR, its employees or D&D at this time. To tell you the truth, if they had come out with this approach rather than the defenses waged early on by Gygax (which I also love by the way) it might have saved me some small bit of heartache. And yes, you can lob stones at the cretins who organized, supported and fanned the flames of the satanic panic, as many used nefarious ends, deception and lies to accomplish their goals; but in the end, words, not stones lead to healing and understanding.

What I am interested in now, however, is stating that it is clear that much of the changes instituted with 2e and Classic D&D Mentzer Boxed Sets and Rules Cyclopedia, were driven by the Satanic Panic and TSR's subsequent policies to make the game a lighter, fluffier, character driven, heroic, and story oriented game. For me Shadowplay's hypothesis is fairly well proven with this article publicly presented by TSR in their flagship voice at the dawn of 2e.

I think it is also worth nothing that many early designers such as Gary Gygax himself and Tim Kask had already left the organizations. These same voices had defended D&D for what it was without feeling the need to radically change things (as their witness makes clear in their interviews and statements of the time). This trend also speaks to some of the criticism men like Frank Mentzer have taken from certain grognards who decry their work--but this is perhaps a post for another time, or better yet, perhaps not. My mind currently is filled with thoughts after this new discovery. And as regards 5e ... I will only say, as I stated in my last post, that 5e inherited this post-panic legacy far more than it did the spirit, flavor and tone of early D&D as it left the pens of Gygax and Arneson. To say more at this point would be premature. The realizations, I am sure, will be forthcoming as I process and extend my thoughts in these directions.

Peace, and play on.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

D&D 5e and the D&D We Recall

Remember this age? It was a grand time to be a gamer. The Satanic Panic and the days of D&D Yellow Journalism were over and there was more D& product than there ever had been. At least that's how many remember it. Notice the above books, 1e supplements, 2e Core, and a 2.5e Options book. It was a wild and crazy time for gaming, a time in many ways presaging the rise of 3rd edition.

For others of us, it was a time of decline. I owned these books (except for Tome of Magic) but rarely played with them. I was still using what I had grown up with:
Now, I did use other books. The most common ones were:

Because we never had a very defined pantheon in out worlds, but just assumed that in the D&D multiverse all these Gods and Goddesses held sway over some part of any world that existed. It was only later that this view was refined. And who couldn't use new beasties to encounter and overcome. I mean FF is still one of my favorite monster manuals.

But there were others that figured much, much less in my play, the survival guides, Manual of the Planes and Oriental Adventures were seldom referred to. They were mostly novelties, fun to look at, but not really applicable to any games we were playing. The one ninja played in our party used the single class Genin option from Dragon #121 instead of OA, we were just more comfortable with Dragon than OA.

The one we had more of an uncertain love for was the infamous Unearthed Arcana. Really, just a re-written compendium of various Dragon articles and material from other supplements, it introduced two over-powered classes into the game, a weird half class (thief-acrobats), codified rules for specialization, and a boat load of new spells. Yes, we added cantrips on our spell lists, but never found a whole lot of use for them frankly. They were true cantrips, not the cantrips of today, some of which are as powerful as third level spells used to be! I made one Cavalier, that I never ended up playing with. I think a friend of mine played a barbarian a couple of times, but we all thought he was overpowered. And everyone, who could picked up specialization, even though we really felt kind of dirty about it, and DMs kind of hated it. Which led to our love-hate relationship with UA. We just had that innate feel that this was doing something to the game none of us were really comfortable with. The power curve had begun to drift outside of the line of what we considered D&D.

When Second Edition was released in the early 90's, I as still playing 1e, and not even really interested in picking up the new books--not at first anyway. I poo-pooed the books and the changes for some time, even though I had already adopted some of these changes that had been filtering into late 1e splat books and via Dragon magazine. The primary change that was occurring and, I feel, one of the main reasons I at first rejected much of 2e was that there was a shift occurring to character and story centered play. Just look at some of the new covers, even to reprints of the 1e books:

You can see that even by late 1e there is a focus on individual persons, instead of the earlier focus on setting, adventure, and typical old school tropes. And of course 2e followed suit. The player's hadbooks and dungeon masters guides from this era are beautifully done. The artistic quality has improved, even if the content has shifted. We can see that this is a game about heroes and what heroes do, their actions, their stories, their challenges.

 Now, this is not a "bad" thing. After all, of course we knew this was true. Our PCs were trying to be heroes at least, and even if they weren't heroic yet, the stories of the dangers they had faced, the dungeons they had slogged through and survived, the wildlands they had journeyed across in trailblazing fashion to overcome were the stuff of legends. In a very real way this shift in focus simply became what Williams and the Blooms decided to focus on as the selling point and trajectory for future D&D.

The problem, though, was that this was _not_ what D&D had been, nor what it had focused on. Not exclusively at least. The original game had moved warriors and wizards from the wargaming table into the dungeon beneath the castle and the catacombs below. It had dared them to venture into the untamed lands beyond the castle walls and as a result great stories were told. The story was possible because the lands had changed. Setting was the key component that had shifted, and story arose out of the explorers' interactions with this new, dangerous and magical land and its inhabitants. The transition from this approach to a character driven and story focused approach happened gradually, but by 1990 the entire D&D industry shifted to embrace this new angle.

You may find this argument unconvincing, and based on too little evidence, or the narrow band of art alone. But if the covers of the original 3 core AD&D books aren't evidence enough (The party in the lizard-man catacomb of the ruby eyed statue being stolen by two of the party thieves; of the Efreet of the City of Brass being attacked by another party) take a look at a few of these iconic early works from D&D's past:
Bill Willingham's Party facing a Dragon from Moldvay Basic
Dave Trampier's Giant Spider in the 1977 Monster Manual

Dave Sutherland's Paladin in Hell from the 1978 PHB
Can you see the change. Character is there, but the setting and what he or she is not only doing but the impossible odds they are facing is key to the expression that was seen throughout early D&D. The shift in focus from heroic exploits to heroes and explorations to quest driven stories was something that, while present in earlier editions was not the focus for the game. That started in late 1e and boomed onto the scene with second edition.

Which brings me to the main point of this post. 5e has been heralded by many as the return of 1e, or old school D&D. I have always struggled with this because it certainly doesn't feel that way to me. I would assert, first, that this assertion has arisen due to the OSR. It is fairly clear that in the D&D culture specifically and the fantasy tabletop gaming culture generally, D&D changed when TSR was sold to WotC, and Wizards took d20 and wrote what they called the 3rd edition of D&D. Some struggled with this, but the struggle was not much different than had occurred previously as AD&D was released, and then 2e was released. There were always edition naysayers--heck I was one of the 2e naysayers.

But 3rd edition, technically 3.5 was a huge success for WotC and with the addition of the OGL not only had the name of D&D lived, its content was still available and Wizards had brought in all those amateur and aspiring creators to build content for their favorite game. Admittedly d20 was a change from the old mechanical structure, but not a huge one. It made the game easier to understand and more consistent across the rules. People adapted to that fairly easily. And of course 3.5 was created deep within the soil of the 2e character driven ethos. So much so was the character driven model a part of 3.5 that character became king. No longer was setting or even adventure the point--it was being to create, have and play awesome characters from level one and watch them become next to superheroic by the end of their playtime.

Sure settings came and some enjoyed huge success, like Eberron. There were also good adventures during this time, though admittedly, the standard had shifted. Adventures generally needed a cohesive point if not a story outline in which the characters could fit. The point of playing was now how a player's character, who they already loved beyond belief because they had spent hours crafting him to be just the kind of hero they wanted, could have an incredibly awesome story where he could shine, be important and do something awesomely heroic. The point every time you played was to be heroic! Now, I may be overstating the point, but that point is that story drive adventures and characters drove the game.

And, big breath here, that is okay. It is an okay way to play. It is not wrong. And sure, it was a part of the game (in a way) all along. It was just not the point of the game. It had become the point of the game. And I think that those who feel 5e has brought back old school to the D&D world are coming from a place that is much more rooted in this character driven and story-focused realm of the D&D universe.

All of the dislikes about 5e from the last post express, at their heart, a lost time in gaming when gaming was much harder, and felt more adventurous, than it is today. I mean sure, there are still challenges. 5e characters die, and at times these characters face impossible odds. Some 5e DMs still like to throw in save or die poison, require resource allocation, heal more slowly, and make PCs prod along with a ten foot pole when they don't have a thief. Just like there were old school DMs who hated when characters died, crafted brilliant storylines with their players and shepherded characters to godhood and beyond. But, the games were basically making different assumptions. Early D&D, Original Edition, Classic Basic, and early AD&D all played as exploration driven games where adventurers were what you started as, certainly not heroes, and making 5th or 6th level was a feat to be lauded. In 5e, my friends, where fourth level can be achieved by the time most AD&D characters were barely reaching 2nd is simply not the case. And by the time 5e PCs are 10th level, most AD&D characters are just reaching 6th.

5e may have brought you back to the time when old school was becoming a character driven and story focused game. And there is certainly nothing wrong with that. But it did not bring me back to my game, nor the game as it was originally designed to be.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Is 5e Too Easy?

So there was a great discussion today on the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons page on Facebook about what people liked and disliked about 5e. It was, by and large a reasoned discussion designed to be supported by logic and evidence. Admittedly it was on an AD&D group, but several people who commented actually are playing 5e currently--so we have a fairly decent cross section of respondents.

I found the discussion interesting for a number of reasons, but before I get into all of those, I wanted to share the comments which I've broken out by like and dislike and rough topic areas. Please note these comments are roughly summarized by me, and may repeat several times. All this means is that the same idea was expressed by more than one poster. So, here they are:

5e Like/Dislike Comments

Reasons People Give for Liking 5e

It's a lot like the old editions

It's Smooth and Playable like 1e & 2e. It has the feel of 2e. 5e has about the same flavor as 1e & 2e. It feels like it has come full circle back to 1e. There are less rules (like 1e). It has the adventurous feel of earlier editions without the “tyranny of the rules”. 5e seems like a return to 1st. I could run the old modules with almost no conversion. It has a sort of old school feel that got me hooked in the first place. I really like that the 3 core rule-books were delivered to publication in the same way as AD&D. It is, at its core, still D&D.

The Magic is Improved

I like the spell slots mechanic The magic is "sort of" Vancian and that feels familiar enough, but low level casters can cast more spells. Spells can be cast at different slots instead of a different spell type. Spell concentration is more exacting and keeps spells from being stacked or getting too powerful. Offensive cantrips solve the one shot wonder problem. Casters can use magic every turn. Spell slots are a useful mechanic.

Advantage/Disadvantage

5e's advantage disadvantage makes the game better. Advantage and disadvantage makes it easy to quickly ratchet up difficulty or easiness of a challenge. Advantage/disadvantage is an elegant mechanic. Advantage and Disadvantage is a great mechanic. Disadvantage/ Advantage is so much easier than bonuses. Advantage/disadvantage is a cool mechanic.

Character Creation

Built in flexibility—I can create any sort of character RAW without house ruling. Class customization without point counting and long term planning is so much of a relief. Archetypes add class diversity (I think he meant backgrounds?). Backgrounds make for much easier character creation than a multiplicity of classes. No arbitrary race and class restrictions. All of the classes are useful in all situations (roleplay, exploration and combat), though some are better than others. Cleric domains are cool. 5e is still new school D&D with lots of recent races and classes included without the mechanical complications of 3.5/4e.

Support/PR

WotC is doing a great job at PR (YouTube, Critical Roll, streamers), it makes the brand really well known and “more cool”. 5e has made D&D cool. Tons of great support. It’s what’s popular and is easy to find players for. There is lots of demand for 5e games right now. 5e is still in print. It is what is in print now. 5e is easy to homebrew (I placed this here because I am assuming the DMsGuild support has helped this). There is lots of support, especially with Adventurer League. It is so easy to get a group together. 5e is readily available and easy entry for newcomers.

Roleplay/Story

5e focuses on character driven play. In 5e story and characterization evolve out of character driven play instead of exploration driven play. 5e allows me to focus on the story more than the rules. 5e has focused on roleplay more than 3.5. The feedback loop between Inspiration and a character's bonds/ideals/flaws/traits is fantastic. WotC shift in focus to story oriented play encourages roleplay.

Simplicity/Flexibility

This new edition is easy to convert from just about any edition. It is the Rosetta stone with easy conversion to any edition. I love that you can twist it to fit your needs and nothing breaks. 5e has simpler combat than 3.5/PF. 5e has streamlined rules and requires minimal referencing in the books. 5e has lots of room for customization. I really like the proficiency mechanic that applies across multiple things. 5e is easy to teach to new players. 5e has very smooth gameplay that encourages people to try out of the box actions. Fast playing! Easiest edition to adjust on the fly for DMs. It has a wider more flexible sweet spot for encounter balance. In 5e it is very easy to poach from other editions without conversion headaches. 5e has fast playing quick combat.

Bounded Accuracy

I love bounded accuracy. I like it that monsters stay threats for longer. Saving throws scale (or don’t) in ways that leave even high level characters with real vulnerability.

Miscellaneous 

It's forgiving. It gives you lots of chances to save your character. This allows people to take risks that might hesitate to take in an AD&D game and gives it a potentially more 'swashbuckling' feel than a slow tactical advance. I like 5e DMG toolbox approach. I like XP awarding. 5e has cool looking maps. It looks like an opportunity (not sure what this means?). It's a fine edition. Well written with great mechanics. It’s good, just easier/different. It’s better than nothing

Reasons People Give for Disliking 5e

Overpowered

Power levels are off the chart. 5e has easier starting to hit probabilities. There's still quite a bit of power creep. The base starting power level is way too high.

Bounded Accuracy

Monsters stay dangerous regardless of PC level, they should become easier to kill has players advance. Bounded accuracy is not a great idea. Bounded accuracy makes the game play inherently different from other editions. The "action economy" makes encounters much less intuitive.

Healing

Easier healing is not a great addition. It is too hard for a PC to actually die. It is too hard to die or face real danger. Core healing rules are way too generous. 5e gives you too many of chances to save your character.

Magic

5e puts more magic in caster’s hands. 5e seems super magic saturated. Spellcasters run around wielding magic like it was just air. Seems inimical to Vancian casting since casters run out of slots, but never out of magic? You can fill up your magic tank and then run low, but never run empty?

Monsters

Nerfing of many 5e monsters has made the game a disappointment. They've lowered dangerous abilities of some monsters. Monster immunities have been reduced to resistances only. Monsters that used to be really dangerous are now much weaker,

5e is too easy

Older games used to have randomness to encounters and less of concern about balancing. 5e is too controlled and balanced. Older games made PCs cautious about traveling to dangerous places, in 5e everywhere seems relatively safe. 5e allows people to take risks that might hesitate to take in an AD&D game and gives it a potentially more 'swashbuckling' feel than a slow tactical advance. 5e doesn’t require players to be in tune with the tactics and strategies of efficient dungeon crawling, but just show up and have a slug fest with whatever is in front of them. It feels like a video game rather than an epic adventure. It’s too forgiving. I miss the AD&D “hard mode”. Older games used to be fun because they were dangerous, 5e is not dangerous. Adventure league stuff is light and fluffy.

Races

No minuses to races is a big dislike. I don’t like monster races as core races. Demi-humans are humans in a different costume.

Adventures

Sub par adventure designers, Tired of having every classic module rewritten, how about some new stuff? Story lines could be more original  and better quality.

Miscellaneous

In 5e, story and characterization evolves out of character driven play instead of exploration driven play. The rules are a bit fuzzy, I never really know how well my PC can do certain things. There's too much uncertainty in the game. It’s not Hackmaster :-). It’s from WoTC.

Summary

While these comments are fascinating for what they are, it is it is obvious that many are subjective and sometimes rhetorical on both sides of the equation. For instance evidently the game feels a lot like the old editions to some while it clearly does not to others. It certainly can't be both, but it can feel that way. A more helpful analysis may point out that 5e obviously does feel like older editions compared to other recent editions (3.5 and 4th), while not as old school as 0e or early AD&D. We don't have the data to say whether or not 5e feels more like older school editions to those who do not like the game. Though there was comment I found hard to categorize wherein one DM said his players felt like it was too much like 3.5 and 4th for them to want to play anymore. For this DM, his players were simply too jaded by any WotC project to give 5e a fair shake.

However, what I wanted to focus on has more to do with the trouble I had in breaking out the dislikes of 5e into categories. As you can see above, I chose the categories Overpowered, Bounded Accuracy, Monsters, Magic, Healing and 5e is Too Easy. At first, I'll admit, I lumped them all into the overpowered section, but that seemed not granular enough so I tried to separate them out into more defined sections. However, the common denominator in all these categories is that they can all be explained as many feeling as if 5e has made it too easy on players. Evidently the feeling behind many of the dislike comments are that WotC has taken away the challenge of the game so much so that people dislike this edition. 

Let's examine each category and I'll explain my thinking. The Overpowered section is fairly self explanatory, but one comment in particular bears special mention. The idea that to hit probabilities have started to high comes down to a proficiency bonus of +2 being awarded at level 1. Effectively this gives all characters a +2 to hit with proficient weapons at first level. At first blush this seems high, and it is. It really stands true across all levels to about 3 for most PCs, and higher for some. What I mean by this is that in AD&D if we take magic user as the baseline ...

AD&D To Hit Matrix
12345
Fighter1010886
Cleric10101088
Thief111111119
Magic User1111111111
AD&D To Hit Bonus
12345
Fighter+1+1+2+2+5
Cleric+1+1+1+3+3
Thief+0+0+0+0+2
Magic User+0+0+0+0+0
5e Proficiency Bonus
12345
Fighter+2+2+2+2+3
Cleric+2+2+2+2+3
Thief+2+2+2+2+3
Magic User+2+2+2+2+3
In other words using the MU as the base to hit armor class 10, and call that a +0 you can see that in AD&D the to hit bonuses are actually very modest at lower levels. What you also notice is that some characters become better at hitting more quickly than others. Contrasting this with the 5e table you see a flattened table that, while it gives everyone more hitting power, there are no differences across classes in base attack bonuses. This is of course what our dislikers were getting at, and if we carried this out we would see that their concern is diminished somewhat as, in AD&D fighters seem to outstrip even 5e's to hit bonuses rather quickly. However, this is a difficult comparison because we are comparing apples and oranges here. 5e used bounded accuracy, meaning it doesn't want everyone to get lots better at hitting at quickly as AD&D did. The entire class philosophy is structured differently in 5e. This concept, in truth, is a post unto itself, but briefly here recall that levels in D&D usually meant the equivalence to normal men. So a 6th level fighter was equivalent to 6 normal men. This was a combination of factors, only part of which was the ability to hit opponents. But in 5e we have scaled that curve to allow the game to be played differently. Not I did not say badly or wrongly, simply differently. 

I am going to come back to Bounded Accuracy, but for now let it suffice to simply say most of the complaints about Bounded Accuracy have to do with the fact that it makes the game "easier" in some ways and that has been generally dissatisfying to some. This conception isn't exactly "true, but I'll return to this at the end. For now, let's move on to healing. 

There was much made of the 5 minute workday during the D&D Next playtest, which basically went like this: characters enter a dungeon, fight their first fight of around five rounds and then have to leave, go back to town or camp and rest and heal in order to come back when refreshed. I was always curious about this, as it was never a problem in AD&D. At least we didn't see it as one. It became a serious problem with 4e because of limited power usage by all classes that needed a long rest to recharge. Yes, in 1e we often had to leave to rest up and recuperate, but we also had to manage resources, and utilize clerics. Yes, MUs and clerics only had a limited number of spells but we didn't cut and run just because the MU has used up her magic missile. In short, we see the complaints about healing being based in 5e being to soft on healing and too generous to players. 

Magic too, is very simply stated as many do not like how much magic is running around in 5e. At-will cantrips, overpowered magic, increased spell slots, they all point towards too much power for beginning casters. These new rules also do something else: they make 5e a much more magic rich game than earlier editions. This in itself is not overpowered, but a difference in flavor of the genre, but that too can be discussed elsewhere.

I was initially confused by the Monsters in 5e. While the goal of boundned accuracy was to make it possible for lower CR monsters to remain a challenge to higher level layers, and for players to be able to challenge a lower number of higher CR monsters, they turned right around and nerfed a lot of the monsters and their special abilities so as to threaten players less. It seemed like a contradiction to me. Very few monsters have deadly poison anymore, nor do they permanently drain levels or abilities. The point here seems to have one purpose to me: to make combat easier on the players, evidently many agree.

And lastly, we come to the real category of the night, 5e is Too Easy. All of these comments hit to the heart of the problem and really encompass all of the above complaints as well. 5e is not adventurous enough, not dangerous enough, not enough of real challenge for the players or their characters. They begin to feel invincible after a while and also begin to default to a rush in and kill it sort of tactic 8 or 9 times out of 10. I've said it before too, 4e was actually more deadly for my players than 5e is. This, in my mind points directly to the concept of bounded accuracy and what some readers have called the action economy of 5e. I've explained it before, but allow me here to simply and strongly reiterate, 5e plays like a different beast than any other version of D&D to date. 

I know many find it's basic simplicity, flexibility and speed of play reminds them of their early days in gaming when we didn't pay attention to a lot of the rules. But the fact is for those of us from a certain era, and style of play 5e is a very different animal indeed and unable to satisfy our desired style of play. It makes different assumptions about the game and about it's players and dungeon masters. I would go into it here, but I am saving it for another post. This post has grown already overly long. However, I can't emphasize strongly enough that though many dislikes are rooted in 5e being too easy or not adventurous enough, that I feel it is rooted in the fact that 5e is, moreso than those in the past, a very different game than some early D&D gamers are used to. More on this to come.

Friday, October 6, 2017

AD&D Thoughtful Comments

If you don't know Benoist Poire, you should really check out some of his writings and work. He is probably best known for his work with Ernie Gygax Jr. on The Hobby Shop Dungeon under the G.P. Adventures company name. He has also become quite an AD&D advocate and has shared some very insightful comments about the theory behind AD&D, some of which I wanted to highlight today. The first was in a note he posted about AD&D level limits and how they structure the entire philosophy of the game.

Some of the insights he shared here, I had never thought of before. The idea that levels for instance were indicative of the number of men your character represented, from the old Chainmail days. How did I miss that? I mean, I'm currently going through a little project where I am rewriting the entire corpus o the little brown books and supplements to get a better grasp on the nature of the game. Somehow I totally missed that.

Conan, 6th level i.e. the equivalent of 6 Fighters
Something I was aware of was how Chaos and Law worked and how men differed from the demi-human races. I always knew D&D was always intended to be Human-o-centric because of this difference between Law and Chaos. Although I didn't read Poul Anderson's Three Hearts & Three Lions until last year, it really opened my eyes once I did. It also made me agree when Benoist so confidently says AD&D is not based on LotR. AD&D draws so much more from Vance and Anderson and others in Appendix N than it ever did from LotR.



The thing was, I never really knew this stuff back in the day. Am I biased to say it makes a difference now?

Well, I can say that when I read Benoist's note and other such insights he has offered up say, here




What I realize is that Benoist is capturing something that feels very familiar to me. This is the beauty of writing about games. Sometimes commentators are able to capture something that we didn't even realize ourselves. AD&D is what it is because of its rules and assumptions. And when we play that game those assumptions, mechanics and spirit come out in our play, define it, and give shape to the experience. That is what I'm talking about when I say I prefer this game. Yes its mechanics can be stilted and appear somewhat baroque or even "baroken" :-) but they are not. The mechanics are there to give spirit and feel to the game. AD&D is what it is and you have to appreciate it for what it is.

I play 5e currently, and the fact is, as Scott Anderson pointed out to me a couple of posts ago, 5e confounds me because it presents itself as something it is not. It is a very different game, with a very different feel. You have to accept it on its terms, not another's. The facts also speak clearly now, that 5e will never be what I want it to be. No matter how much Mike Mearls or  I try and AD&D-ify 5e it will never be AD&D. If you want the AD&D feel you have to play AD&D.

And Mr. Poire is doing an awfully good job of explaining what that feel is about and from whence it comes. Thank you sir.