Wednesday, September 24, 2008

4e General First Impressions

So I got to play a proper session of 4e yesterday. This is opposed to the, supposedly, improper session I played last week. My group, separated by a couple hundred miles, plays over Skype. Skype was acting up last time due to the slow connection of one player, and so made the session not fun.


So the first 'real' session of Fourth Edition went pretty well. I've heard complaints from here and there about various game bits of 4e, and frankly I don't bother internalizing that sort of thing. I prefer to do something myself before I go and judge it. One thing that really struck me as different about 4e, on a fundamental level, is how differently the game plays in combat. My group has never been heavy into long conversations with NPCs, so basically the captain of the steamboat we were working for passage on lectured us about the nature of the world a while, and we sat in a bar and listened to other people apparently lecture each other on the nature of the world for a while, before attacking some goblins when we floated by a town that was getting attacked.

Ok, so at this point the PCs started actually paying attention. The Captain told us his nephew (in his twenties) was in a certain building, and that he'd be appreciative if we'd go help. The party Ranger/Rogue (Actually Ranger with one or two Rogue abilities, per 4e 'multiclassing') negotiated pay, a trifle silly given the circumstances, but eh. We marched into town and shortly were in a combat with a couple gobbos.

Now the setup was a little weird to start with. Level two party of five characters, fighting five goblins, three of which were minions, as we found out shortly. Suffice to say, it was not a terribly challenging fight. What was interesting, however, was that immediately everyone started helping each other. Now, this might sound trivial to some people, but it's a weird shift for my group. We end up, usually, by level ten or so, with a party of five individuals who act like they aren't even in a party. We've never had a team, per se. However, this time, every ability gave an ally some sort of bonus. Marks would help your ally as well as helping yourself. The goblins couldn't do what they wanted, because if they did, they'd take damage, miss terribly every time, or fail in a myriad of other ways. The teamwork surprised me, even in the stupid low-challenge first encounter.

After that, we continued down the railroad, to fight more goblins. The next group was three minions, three warrior guys of some variety (Skull splitters?) and two casters. This encounter took a while longer, but I still don't think anyone in the party was in any danger. What interested me in this encounter was the mobility everyone showed. In 3.5, combats tended to devolve, at least for fighters and their ilk, to "Ok, I swing again" at first level, to "Ok, I swing six times again" at 20th. In 4e's combat, people moved around. The goblins shifted from here to there, the players had enough HP to take an Opportunity Attack here and there for better positioning. The goblin casters could shift effects and attacks to their minions, which made it interesting to try to combat them. People were knocked prone commonly, but it wasn't unfun; you could get up and attack again readily. The combat felt much more dynamic.

The third encounter, as well as the penultimate of the evening (Which averages encounter time to roughly an hour and a half each, though that's not accurate since some were longer than others, as well as having noncombat time), was a combat against a pile of Hobgoblins, as well as their dozen minions scattering about. The party isn't built for stealth, so we ended up just running in and hitting things. The thing is, in the first round, everyone blew action points. All the minions died to our dragonborn as well as our Forgotten Realms spellsword guy. Area of effect knocked them all down. Then, everyone ganged the leader. I don't think the DM expected the number of horrible effects on the poor hobgobbo. Anyway, the combat was fast-paced, laced with teamwork and helping one another, and generally fun.

We talked to the nephew and he gave us some heirloom sword he had (Seventh level magic item, I got it as other people had decent weapons/didn't use swords), and we ended the session.

Overall take? 4e combat seems like a lot of fun, and I haven't run into the "Padded Sumo" issue I've heard people talk about. The combat was quick, fun, and generally well paced. So far, I'm fairly bully on 4e. I'll grant that from a simulationist perspective, a lot of the rules don't make sense, but the game is fun, so I'm fine with it. Just my two cents.

Monday, September 22, 2008

4e Organization

So I had the experience of creating a PC for a D&D 4e campaign recently. Our Night's Dawn Trilogy based World of Darkness game ended, somewhat abruptly, and we are on to the next game and system. I've poked through the books a few times for fourth edition, but I haven't really looked at it. After rolling up a character, I gotta say;

This book is a piece of crap.

Now don't take that as a slam against fourth edition in general. I haven't played it much. Sure, they made a lot of changes, and some of them seem to be just for the sake of making changes, but I'll reserve judgement until I've run a character to 30. You don't really know a system well enough to judge it until you've played it through and through. What I meant by the above statement is that the layout and design are awful. Simple things, like "How many powers do I start with?" are mentioned in sections that have nothing to do with powers and little to do with character creation. Information on character creation in general is spread all over the book, in nonsequential order, jumping from chapter to chapter. Nothing is fully explained in any one place, and doing the simplest of things requires looking on a half dozen pages.

God forbid you want to use the default character sheet to actually describe a character and his/her gear. There's no location on the sheet to write up mundane weapons, especially if you want something trivial like "Information about what it does" rather than just a name. There's a full column on the back of the sheet for magic items, but that doesn't help much for a first level character. Even so, it's worthless in the future because the most you can squeeze in is the item name and a page number. You expect to have space to write down what it does? Ha.

Now, with all that said, I do want to add a couple positives. The book has a lot of decent info for new players, rather than just rules. I've heard a lot of buzz about fourth edition being a miniatures game rather than a roleplaying game proper. Of course, I'll admit that most of the diplomacy is presented as rolling dice instead of talking. Bluffing, etc, the same way. Fine. However, unlike 3.x, this PHB has a large section (ten pages?) dedicated to fleshing out your character as more than an alignment and class/race combo. The book encourages you to pick a few personality traits, as well as some common mannerisms. It suggests you think about how your PC reacts to dangerous situations, and how decisive he/she is in such. That's a good thing to see, and helps new players realize that maybe it's not just WoW repackaged without a computer.

Anyway, just a shortish sort of rant/review on it. I don't care for lots of flamewars over edition changes. Play what you want to play. However, in the future, WotC should really put more effort into organization.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Prejudice in Fantasy Worlds

I was thinking today, while bored at work, about human history with regards to prejudice and war. Yes, I think about topics that are a little overly complex when I'm bored.

Anyway, this got me thinking about aliens and also fey races. Humans, over history, have used almost any excuse to make everything a situation of "us vs. them". It's commonly referred to as outgroup Bias. Currently, in the US, you find a lot of this directed towards Muslims, or worse, Arabs in general. I've heard numerous people say that all Arabs "want to kill everyone", whatever the hell that means. They are basing their outgroup prejudice on nationality, skin color to an extent, and certainly religion. Humans use these flimsy excuses to hate people that are, in all the ways that really matter, just like them.

Now take that knowledge of basic human nature, and think about a world where there are sapient races that aren't human at all. Elves, Dwarves, Halfings, Orcs, Goblins, Angels, Demons, etc are all intrinsically different than humans. Many D&D worlds, sort of the 'standard', in fact, has a largely dominant human culture. Humans breed more quickly than elves or dwarves, have shorter lives and thus strive harder to get things done, etc etc. So you have a world where humans are the dominant military and social power, and you have major philosophical, psychological, and physiological differences between the sapient races. Think about how much effort, money, time, and creativity has been wasted in humanity's past just on killing people with a different skin color or creed, and think about how much different fantasy races are from humans. Is it really at all reasonable to assume that the D&D world is that much more tolerant? Tolerance and acceptance have never been the norm in any society, not even today.

What does this all boil down to? I think it might be interesting to think about having more prejudice and general... speciesism(?) in D&D. We don't really have a word for it, since we don't know of any other sapient species, but the idea fits. Call it racism I suppose. Humans deal with other races, sure, in a trading sense. However, it's entirely possible that the tavern you are dining at just doesn't serve nonhumans. "Not that we don't like you, y'see, but we know how Dwarves like to hoard gold, and we've got a bit of it as decoration. Also, we know the Elf might flinch at us having killed all those trees to build the place. Eh, there's a bar a few streets over that might serve your kind, gents." Maybe the elven wizard that runs the local scroll shop, or what have you, doesn't like half-elves; he doesn't like the idea of the proud elven line being sullied with human blood. Dwarves have a sort of traditional antipathy with elves in high fantasy worlds, but what if a recent raid on a dwarven settlement by a rogue group of elves has put the relationship on edge even more so? Suddenly, when an elf and a dwarf pass one another on the street, both of them have a hand on their weapons. It's not attack-on-sight, but there's tension. Your fighter, aiming for membership in the Blades of Ammeron, a knightly order local to this town, finds himself rejected for membership due to his traveling with a half-orc. In an extreme case, Tieflings or such may be entirely hated in common society. Tieflings can't own property, have next to no rights as people, and have to cover their more telling racial identifiers. Dragonborn have to wear muzzles to keep their weaponlike teeth and breath weapons "sheathed", or might be arrested for brandishing a lethal weapon in the city. I think it might add a bit of diversity to the world to have people in it that don't care for diversity.

That being said, this sort of thing is easy to offend people with. Know your players. If you've got a group with a few people that are going to get all offended over fantasy racism, it's certainly not worth losing a friend over. However, if everyone can handle it, it might be an interesting sort of spin on the normally happy go lucky sort of world.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Grimy Dungeons and the PCs That Are Covered In Them

This article is much less high-handed than my norm. It's just a thought that amused me.

A post over at Trollsmyth, as well as couple of preceeding posts by the same, got me thinking about the effects that the kind of insane pyrotechnics, cryotechnics, and... electrotechnics(?) would have from the way wizards tend to spam spells all over the place in D&D. Now, in a place like a dungeon, where there is frankly little to burn, it's not a big deal. Scorch marks on the stone wall only mean so much to the future orcish occupants. That's not what this silly article is about, but it's still fun to think about. However, thinking about spell effects got me thinking about the lingering effects of combat and adventuring in general.

Let's set a short scene here. The party, having delved into the ancient system of tubes and pits used as a sewer, comes back up with the Eye of Gruumsh or whatever other thing they went down to get. They've flung spells back and forth with the death cult down there, slaughtered dozens of orcs, and are also lightly carrying the forty thousand gold they found. Fine. So they come up from the hidden entrance to said sewers, behind a building, and promptly walk to the royal castle to turn in their quest item.

Imagine, for a moment, how patently ludicrous these people look. For one thing, they are wearing adventuring gear, and associated dangerous weapons, to an audience with a noble. To be certain, they wouldn't even be allowed in the castle. You'll show proper respect by wearing nice things, not that patchwork of random magical items and armor you've found as you tromp through the underworld. Also, you'll be leaving that axe behind, thank you, and that 'parting an old man from his walking stick' bit isn't going to fly either.

Secondly, and this is something that gets glazed over pretty often, the party would be covered in goop, blood, scorched clothing, sewer matter, and numerous other horrible coverings that no one wants to see. One does not go wandering through a sewer for hours on end and not pick up at least a smell. The fighters of the party have been hacking apart animals, monsters, and sapient beings with their swords. They are drenched in blood and viscera. They have open wounds on their bodies that have not only other people's bodily fluids on them, but also the general rot and filth that a sewer accumulates. The wizards have been flinging spells, and their hands are covered in bat guano and diamond dust from their spell component pouch. The party was hit by a Flame Strike spell by an opposing cleric of Nerull, and though the magic armor they are wearing is still fine, their clothing underneath is little but scorched rags. Even ranged combatants and/or noncombatants like bards still have the general grime, sweat, and sick all over them that comes from such an expedition.

These are the people that are strolling through town, carrying the fifty axes they looted from the orcs. Saying that people would recoil from them is putting it beyond lightly. They would likely be arrested, explainations would have to be made back at the station, and they'd likely be required to clean their idiot selves up before they step out again. They certainly can't just drag a cart full of weapons to the blacksmith without generating a few questions. For God's sake, they look like mass-murderers.

Now granted, cleaning up is a relatively trivial matter, and probably should be treated as such. As long as the party goes and finds some water source to wash in, and gets some decent clothes for their audience with the Count, things should be ok. There's no real reason (excepting story or silly points) to make them roll a "Knowledge: Court Fashion" roll or anything. (Profession: Noble?) Still though, describing the effects of their ridiculous profession might add a bit of color to your typical dungeon crawl. It's at least valid to make the castle guards refuse to admit mercenaries wearing non-pretty armor. A full suit of plate mail with matching shield and tabard? Sure, that's reasonable, you look the part of a mighty knight. The +3 studded leather you picked up off a dead bandit the other day, a buckler that you've been carrying but ignoring since level one, and your Helm of Fireballs? You look like a fool and would be treated as such; go home and change.

Anyway, just a few thoughts that occurred to me.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Fluff vs. Crunch: Magic Items

"Fluff" and "Crunch" probably require definition, because I don't want to assume all my multitudes of readers know both terms.

Fluff, here, is basically description from an in-game sense. "Opening the chest, you find a sword with a gilded hilt, wrapped in leather that seems untouched by time. The scabbard is made of bent and polished pine, inlaid with sparkling gems. Drawing the sword out, a dim glow runs along the length of the thin adamantine blade. Your arm immediately feels energized and stronger."

Crunch is description from a game rules sense. "In the chest you find a magic sword. It's Adamatine and plus two."

Now either way works, of course, and for most situations you need a touch of both. For instance, the top description is fun for opening a chest. It provides a neat but also somewhat loose description of the sword, from a visual and tactile sense. It places the sword as fairly obviously magical and probably plus-something, but you don't know what it is exactly. It's a little mystical and full of unknown. That works, it's good. The problem is, the mage says "Ok, I'll cast Identify." Suddenly, the DM is faced with an issue. The spell tells the party what the sword is. The sword, as an item, is exactly a +2 Adamantine Longsword. The problem is, that is exactly what goes down on the loot sheet. The party fighter will take the sword you just lovingly described, and write it down exactly as a +2 Adamantine Longsword. Next week/month/whatever, when you play the next session, no one will remember what the sword looks like or feels like.

If you start with "It's a plus two adamantine longsword." then that's what you get. It kills any fun in opening chests that isn't present in a videogame. Your players will look at the stats of the weapon and decide if it's worth keeping, and simply throw it out if it isn't. They'll listen to treasure hoards with bored mathematician's expressions, doing mental math to see which item is better and which item is vendor junk. Items that you thought were interestingly crafted or at least a somewhat amusing mental picture come out as stat blocks that the players promptly ignore and forget if it's not immediately useful (Although I did get a "Loincloth of Venom Spitting" randomly generated in a videogame at one point, and I suppose I still remember that ten years later).

What is the solution here? Is there one? I've tried a few things in games and also given some thought to other solutions, so I'll list a couple here and also open the doors for feedback.

The first idea is to just deal with it. Magic items are mystical and unknown exactly as long as it takes the players to cast Identify or whatever your favorite game system calls the spell. This has the advantage of being easily written down for impatient players, as well as working to give the DM a chance to write flowery descriptions. The fighter can write down "+5 Vorpal Sword", but he may still have the memory of picking it up, feeling suddenly as though he had practiced with the sword for years, and deftly slicing the head off of the training dummy later.

This works so long as you can tolerate seeing the players gloss over during descriptions, waving their hands dismissively and interrupting with "Yeah, shining blades and crackling wands and whatever. I'm spending the next six hours casting Identify on everything."

Another idea I've toyed with is removing Identify and it's brethren from the game, or at least making them high level spells. This means that the players will have to experiment with the items and listen to the descriptions for clues. In the dust, on the floor of the ruined cathedral that the party is exploring, the halfing rogue finds a small ring. The ring is made of silver, and engraved with a feather motif. The rogue, having no magical rings currently equipped and with the mage's decision that the ring is magical, decides to wear it. The next day, scaling the walls of the cathedral to get at the shining gem in the eye of the bronze image of Erythnul, a bit of old stonework breaks away and the rogue slips. Instead of careening downwards at nearly ten meters per second per second, he floats gently down and lights on the ground without any injury. He deduces that perhaps the ring is one of Featherfall.

The obvious advantage here is one of atmosphere and experimentation. The party encounters magical items in much the same way one encounters a strange room in a dungeon. They are described, and the party has to decide what to do with that. Dark blades that drip blood and glow with an evil light can't just be filed away as a "+3 cold iron sword with will checks to avoid domination". They suddenly represent an unknown danger, and that makes magic item treasures that much more interesting. The down side is that the loot sheets get silly after a while, with a dozen unidentified rings that had no obvious effect, and the DM has to keep track of who all has what and when it would affect them. It also means that past about level ten in the old 3.5 parlance, no one knows what the hell their attack mod is anymore. It's all mysteriously affected by items that are unknowable.

Since it's good to do things in threes, I'll mention a sort of compromise between these two that I've considered in the past, and seen implemented with some success. Now, this takes cues from a videogame, so bear with me. In Diablo, a game that any gamer has heard of, you play a Fighting-Man, Magic-User, or Thief. Of course they use different names, and a different ruleset, but the game is as close to old-school endless dungeon sort of play as possible. Anyway, magic items you find while tromping around in the dungeon are all unidentified when you get them. In the game, you can't use them until they are IDed, but eh. Anyway, the core concept is that there is exactly one NPC that can identify items. He stands around in town and charges you for the service. This might work for D&D as well, particularly if travelling back and forth from dungeon to town is nontrivial. The party finds magical items, but can't ID them by themselves, in the dark of the dungeon. They can use them and try to work it out, but they can't just cast the spell.

Back in town, at the Order of Cuthbert, the identifier guy can do it. Why can he cast it when the party can't? Stretch those DM fiat muscles! Perhaps there is a large, immobile spell focus. Maybe a caster needs a place sanctified by one of a few specific gods to be able to ID items. Perhaps the identification isn't magical so much as research in grand tomes that catalog specific types of magical emanations and pulses, that cannot be memorized in a sense that provides any help whatsoever. In any case, a group of combat-based adventurers just can't solidly identify items in the wild. This approach encourages a longer period of experimentation before the identification, and also allows the players to eventually condense their loot sheets to a more readable form.

Tell me, what do you guys use? How do you handle this issue? It's not exactly a huge show-stopper for general play, but it's still interesting enough to hear about.