Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Diceman Cometh

I like rolling dice. I like making my players roll dice. Part of it is that I'm easily bored and rolling dice means that Something Is Going On both in the game and in the mundane world. Another part is that I like a character-centric game, which includes regular use of characters' mechanics to help resolve game situations.

And we brought all these dice with us anyway. Might as well use them!

So one of my favorite things about the 5e playtest is the advantage/disadvantage system. Getting to roll 2d20 and take the better one when you have an advantage, or having to roll 2d20 and take the worst one when you're at a disadvantage, is simple and neat and fun. It's like a house rule that made it to the big leagues -- a more entertaining option than the interminable bonus-stacking of some previous D&D editions, and more dramatic than the no-modifier-but-the-GM's-judgment of even earlier editions.

Have other games done this already? It's so simple than I can't believe nobody's done it yet, especially with the proliferation of systems that use a single die roll to get results. But I haven't run across it before.

Advantage/disadvantage also makes things more random... or are they less random? Mechanically, this will swing your chances in a predictable non-random way. But the execution of the mechanic will vary in a meta-random way. Some GMs will stick to offering it when the rules say so, i.e. The Boring Method. I'll offer it when characters and environments make it seem plausible and sometimes when table dynamics are such that we'll be more entertained, i.e. The Awesome Method. The key is that randomness helps the underdog. Most GMs like underdog PCs -- will we deploy this mechanic in a way that reinforces this? Will our PCs be able to use ad/dis to challenge ridiculous odds?

I hope so.

On the other hand, most PC parties are actually the overdog, capable of steamrolling the individual rooms and encounters and traps and everything else they stumble into. Event by event, they're the ones most likely to be hindered by randomness. Could be a fun dynamic.

It's a spiffy little mechanic. One thing does bug me. This is a Matt-specific complaint, I think, rather than a broad existential problem: I don't like mechanics that carry over. If something grants advantage/disadvantage, I want it to happen RIGHT NOW. Mechanics that you have to remember through X actions or keep track of for X rounds annoy the bejesus out of me. Having written a couple of (poorly-received) modules for Iron Heroes, I know that Mike Mearls is a huge fan of carryover mechanics, so I'm sure that this is just the way it is.

I can live with that. Maybe it'll grow on me.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Caves Of Chaos

Drunken dwarvish architecture.
Maw Of The Beastmen.
Mimeographing your setup.
Not-sense is not nonsense.

Sentence fragments bounce around my head when I look at the Caves of Chaos. Classic module, repurposed for the 5e playtest, I've never seen it before, no idea if it resembles the original, wouldn't run it as-is. I like the notes on Why PCs Are Here, and also the encouragement to play through it however you're inclined. That never hurts.

DRUNKEN DWARVISH ARCHITECTURE: Phrase coined by my wife to describe floorplans like this -- bad flowcharts of random boxes connected by random lines. Spaces nobody would live in; spaces that don't take life into account.

MAW OF THE BEASTMEN: I'm reskinning most of the inhabitants to manimalist hybrids -- ratmen, boarmen, etc. Not especially original either, but more exciting than yet another warren of orcgoblinhobgoblingnollblaaaarrgh. Plus assigning them to familiar animals will make it easier to improvise details about their lives, lifestyles, living quarters, preferred food, and all the other stuff that my players will want to know. Please let's not keep moving PCs through arbitrary underground deathtraps populated by the same old same old. Sucks the sense of wonder right out of the room.

MIMEOGRAPHING YOUR SETUP: This place is Levittown for humanoids. Entrance, guardroom, another guardroom, maybe storage, chief's quarters, big warren for everyone else. One race might live that way, maybe. Six wouldn't.

NOT-SENSE IS NOT NONSENSE: There's a difference between "dungeons are different and weeeird and reflect our unconscious surreal fears" and bad layout. This is bad layout. It just doesn't make sense, and it's not interesting enough to be nonsense.

I'll still run it for the wife and kids. We'll test-drive the proto5e mechanics. I hope that the next playtest phase moves out of the dungeon -- an updated Isle Of Dread would be pretty sweet.

What would also be sweet is the inclusion of the Keep On The Borderlands that was originally near the caves.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Here's why giant centipedes need a Strength stat

The older kid, home from college for the summer, says to me "I feel like making a D&D character." There's not an active game right now; she just likes making characters sometimes. I do too. So we sit down with our supplies.

First thing she reaches for? The  3.5 Monster Manual. We have a lot of D&D 3.0/3.5 stuff around the house, courtesy of my freelancing. It's a good system for people who enjoy making characters. She flips and flips and flips through the pages. Options are scrutinized. The relative playability of the carrion crawler is discussed. Eventually the shortlist falls into place: centaur, gnoll, mummy. I'm a bit surprised by the mummy. For a few minutes, we look for an easy way to make a gnoll mummy. It's not easy.

The kid settles on a gnoll. Then, and only then, does she reach for the PHB to consider classes.

It's one thing to say "I want to play a gnoll!" It's another thing to have some mechanical skeleton on which our gnoll can be draped. With the latter approach, the gnoll feels different when you play it. You get some of this, you lose some of that, and you end up not being identical to the elf or the hobgoblin or the human. Race, with some mechanical definition, sends you spinning on a particular trajectory. The character sheet looks different, and the imaginary experience feels different.

I still draw a line between biophysical abilities like Darkvision and envirocultural abilities like Stonecunning; races are applied biology, so the former works while the latter should instead be part of the character class or background or something.

But that's a tangent. Our throughline is that the kid, looking for an interesting D&D experience, wanted to start with a non-standard race. This task was easier for us because we had some fun numbers alongside the implied cultural notes. If she really wanted to make that carrion crawler into a PC, it would have been fine, and the numbers make it possible. Anything sentient is a potential PC -- and in a high magic game, possible sentience is all over the landscape. That's how the kid and I like it.

She picked a cleric, by the way. A gnoll cleric of Vecna. Her family was destroyed by mysterious beasties, so she wanders the landscape seeking knowledge of these beasties. By "seeking" she means "killing various people and then eating them to gain their knowledge." Because that kind of thing is also how the kid and I like it.

While all that was going on, I finally made that minotaur rogue I've been talking about for years. He does his best to fulfill the usual thieflike functions. Not so good at hiding, but really, who's going to call attention to a minotaur that looks like he doesn't want to be noticed? Couldn't afford thief's tools for him -- I doubled all my equipment costs on the assumption that it needed to be custom-made -- so instead he bought a portable ram that he calls "Lockpick." I might run a game just so that we can play these characters.

I like having stats for my monsters. Pretty often, they aren't monsters at all. They're the other PCs.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Stonecunning summary

It should be as easy to make a D&D dwarf who's a totem-channeling steppe-dwelling bear-riding spearman as it is to make a dwarf who falls into the easy, lazy, traditional axe-stone-gold-beer model.

You and me and 5e

We need to talk about the 5e playtest. We need to talk about...

  • Stonecunning
  • The Caves of Chaos
  • Which pieces of 4e we need to keep (hint: none)
  • The advantage/disadvantage system
  • Monster writeups
  • Endless Magic Missile
  • Stealth and Perception and Common Tasks
  • Always rounding down

That's plenty to consider. And that's before I've even run a session of it for the wife and kids; that may happen this weekend if we can fit it in between seeing The Avengers and playing Risk Legacy and watching Community from the beginning and... man, I live in the utopia imagined by my 12-year-old self. It's a good life.

But that still leaves us with stonecunning. It's not new to 5e; stonecunning is like a persistent ugly rash that manifests in every edition, and no amount of scratching or ointment can make it go away.

Why am I complaining about stonecunning?

Ya gotta grasp the inherent duality of existence. No matter how holistic you are, ya gotta grasp that the things you are is a list that doesn't totally overlap the things you learn. Nature is not the same as Nurture. You remember the Enlightenment, right? I'm not asking you to sign on to Locke's tabula rasa here, just to grok that what your body does is not the same as what your mind knows.

If a dwarf has wondrous abilities related to stones and earth and underground-ness, where did it come from? Is it some kind of Spidey-sense tingling, some odd biological/mystical thing that's inherent to being a dwarf, something that even an orphan dwarf raised on the high seas by dwarf-stealing pirates can do under the right circumstances? Or is it something that comes after being raised underground by miners and stonecutters, something that even an orphan centaur could learn if it was adopted by subterranean folk?

Stonecunning strikes me as #2, something you learn. That's how it works in the actual world. Sure, we can also posit some biomystico affinity for rockwork, but it's entirely possible to learn this kind of stuff through repeated exposure and practice, the same way that after 5 years of professional clerking I could cut a ream of papers to the exact page you wanted. Anyone raised by stereotypical dwarves could have stonecunning. It's cultural, not biological.

Why am I still complaining?

Because stonecunning has been something every dwarf gets. Balthazar the silk merchant, Applefeather the monk, Durgan the Axeblighter, Katada Demonbeard the wizard -- in a typical D&D game, all of them get some variation of this ability whether or not it fits. It's just what happens to dwarves. This means one of two things:

1) The designers believe that all dwarves have a fundamental affinity for stonework, something bred so deep into them that it's as dwarfy as shortness.

2) The designers just threw in a bunch of stereotypes that were swiped from Tolkien, possibly dressed up with a paper hat labeled "Traditions of D&D."

Neither of these is a compelling case for its presence.

Stonecunning is something that a character could have. No problem there, chief. We can bicker about the exact way the ability works -- letting stonecunning folk know "how to retrace their path" when underground is full of problems, especially in a game heavily influenced by the Dungeons Must Kill You crowd -- but it's legitimately something that could be fun. Stonecunning is NOT something that every dwarf and nobody else should have. That approach doesn't make sense the way that, say, a racial immunity to poison does make sense. It's just a lazy handwave in the direction of a pointless tradition.

In earlier versions, we fixed this by letting PCs swap abilities around until they got 'em right. Looks like that's what we'll have to do again. But a man can dream big dreams, dream of a game that takes things like stonecunning out of the "racial" category and puts them in a "background" or "training" category where they belong.

We'll talk about this again if we get to the playtest monster writeups. We may contemplate Justin Alexander's phrase "dissociated mechanics." The difference between simulation and emulation might even be considered at painful ponderous length. But the key thing is this:

Dwarf is something you simply are. Stonecunning is something you would learn. And if you'd learn it, it's not racially innate.

...unless, I guess, the intent has always been that stonecunning should be intrinsic to a particular race, and I'm just not reading the fine print closely enough to catch that. Which moves it from "wrong" to "stuff I think is kinda dumb." I guess we'll see.