Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Well, Crap.

Do I need to say something about DriveThruRPG's new policy regarding offensive content?

Probably. But I'll keep it short.

As I grow older I find myself tending to become more conservative regarding a number of issues that, in the past, I was uber-liberal regarding. It happens, especially after you have a couple kids and you want to protect them from the insanity of the world that they, at this moment, are totally unequipped to deal with.

Even so, I understand that the best thing I can do to protect them is to provide good parenting, acting as a "gatekeeper" (of sorts) while they're young, and arming them mentally with good information and supplemental education drawn from my own experiences and reflections. Do I want my children to be pack-a-day chain-smokers (as I was for a decade)? No, of course not. But there's little I can do to stop them once they come of age...should they choose that path. The best I can do is model what I consider "right behavior" (I haven't purposefully put anything in my lungs besides air for 14 years), and share my experiences and knowledge, hoping that they'll make decisions that are beneficial rather than detrimental (for themselves and others).

It is unfortunate that there is a market for things that are, well, terrible in my opinion. Check out the documentary Hot Girls Wanted regarding the "professional amateur" porn industry. I disagree with some of the people interviewees that they are simply "fulfilling a market demand;" I believe it is possible to create market demand. But once that demand has been created, it's a pretty tough thing to turn off. The Prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s failed dramatically and, as far as I can tell, the War on Drugs is a continued failure after 30+ years of effort. Will banning something "bad" (physically, spiritually) stop people from wanting it? Generally speaking, no. And for many folks, forbidding something automatically ups the attraction of the thing.

I think I can honestly say that, 25 years ago, I would be doing all in my power to buy a book called Tournament of Rapists...just to see what's inside...the same way that, at age 11 or 12, I was doing my damnedest to get a copy of Purple Rain to hear the song Darling Nikki. And in retrospect, I'm glad I did, since the music of Prince is excellent and has led to much enjoyment over the years.

Ridiculously inappropriate.
The same could not be said of 2 Live Crew's As Nasty As They Wanna Be. It yielded a couple afternoon's worth of interest before being quickly forgotten, except anecdotally. At least it didn't permanently scar me or transform me into a misogynist. But, then, I had some good core values instilled by good parents...I don't think any piece of artwork (good or bad) could've overwritten my basic "programming."

So...I suppose I'm on the side of anti-censorship. But I'm not about to go all nuclear about it. DriveThruRPG is a private business, and they are allowed to cater to their customer base in a way that allows them to best make money and survive. If hot-button books are a turn-off for the people they wish as their clientele, I think it's fair for them to do some policing on behalf of their target demographic...Reader's Digest doesn't publish the same jokes as Hustler, after all. Having said that, I find myself disagreeing with part of their reaction, namely their intent to:
code more customer-facing options to allow customers to report potentially offensive content to us.
I would think the proper method of gatekeeping would be the way they responded to the complaints regarding Tournament of Rapists: allow offended folks to contact DTRPG and then follow-up with scrutiny (against company policy) and dialogue (when appropriate). Giving the public a "This Offends Me" button, seems a little too prone to abuse and/or overreaction misuse.

And that's as much as I want to say on the subject.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Stocking Per Moldvay (Part 1)

AKA Adventure Design, B/X Style

Looking back, I can see that up until June I was blogging away at a fairly good clip, on pace for my highest post output since 2011 (when my first child was born). Then June hit and *ppbbbtt* things started sputtering. What happened exactly? Travel, vacations, the slow ramp up that happens when transitioning a child to a new school...family stuff in other words. However, things are starting to settle back into some semblance of a "normal" routine, and I hope to get back to what I was doing pre-June. There is, unfortunately, a LOT that needs revisiting.

One thing I want to get back to is those abstract "treasure units" I was writing about. Remember these posts? Maybe not...they got very little "read" over here, per my blogger stats. That's fine, but I plan on working with the concept a little more (doing some conversions and such), so you can expect a little more blather on the subject in the near future. However, before I started blathering, I thought it might serve to write a bit on how I stock "dungeons" (i.e. adventure sites) in my games.

Usually, I'm a fan of all things owlbear.
It's funny...I was reading a recent post over at Raging Owlbear in which Marty states he feels 5th Edition does "Old School" better than many OSR games, including the original systems like (for example) 1st edition AD&D.

[yeah, I know: "why are you bothering to read this kind of stuff, JB?" Two reasons: I have at least a passing interest in the ongoing development of D&D, and (as mentioned earlier) I'm having a bit of a curiosity/gaming pang that leads me to this kind of post]

Um, yeah...so one of the things Marty wrote that kind of stuck in my craw was this:
I don't know anyone who played Basic D&D or AD&D "by the book". That person doesn't exist. The fact of the matter is that we've always been house ruling D&D. That's also part of the DIY philosophy of the old school movement. So why is it that 5e isn't considered old school simply because one must house rule a few of the mechanics? That's a double standard. No OSR game is played 100% RAW.
I mean, I didn't even have to think about it. That person does exist...it's called me or, at least, was me for a number of years. I played B/X RAW when until I started adding AD&D books to the mix (circa two years in). My friends and I played AD&D RAW (including all those fiddly DMG rules...speed factor and helmets and disease tables and gem fencing and weapon versus armor, etc.), only spicing it up with the occasional add-in from Dragon Magazine. Later, years after I'd chucked AD&D (which for the record was about a year prior to the advent of 2E), I started a long-term campaign using the BECMI rules because (I felt) that RAW BECMI was the "most complete system" of D&D ever written. That party of 6 or 7 lasted through B2 and X2 before finally perishing, mid-level, somewhere on The Isle of Dread. When I started playing B/X again (a few months after starting this blog), it was once again Rules As Written, and while I've experimented with various "house rules" (and even wrote The B/X Companion for high level play), more often than not I've come back to Rules As Written, specifically because B/X is such a well-written game, regardless of the random gripes I've voiced and modifications I've put forward over the years.

In fact, the only "house rules" I've ever stuck to with any degree of regularity are:

  • Allowing clerics to choose their spells at the moment of casting (rather than requiring pre-memorization) in order to A) distinguish clerical magic from magic-user/elf magic, and B) to model the heartfelt prayer for divine intervention at the moment such intervention is required, and
  • Adding +1 to damage inflicted by two-handed weapons (since I use the standard D6 damage for all weapons). Sometimes this has been switched for a standard D8 roll.

However, even these rules only come into play when clerics or two-handed weapons are present in the game...and no, these rules aren't always used. "Straight B/X" like straight pool is a fine and under-appreciated game.

Sometimes, stripes don't matter.
But I'm digressing (and I realize I'm mostly preaching to the choir here). What I really wanted to talk about was how Moldvay has influenced my adventure design. See, one thing I realized in the process of playing B/X (and a lot of adventure modules either written for B/X or adapted by me for B/X) was how unfortunately sloooow my players' characters were advancing. After all, we were doing weekly sessions of 3-4 hours, getting through multiple encounters per hour and only seeing tiny incremental increases in XP totals. Considering the minimal power-curve combined with high mortality rate of your average B/X session, this was proving frustrating to all the participants, including myself. I wanted to expose the party members to greater threats and more deadly encounters, and their glacial rate of advancement was cramping my style.

So I checked what Moldvay had to say on the matter; from page B61:
PLAYER ADVANCEMENT: If no one has reached the 2nd level of experience in three or four adventures, the DM should consider giving more treasure. If most of the players have reached the 3rd level of experience in this time, the DM should consider cutting down the amount of treasure, or increasing the "toughness" of the monsters.
Keep in mind the term "adventure" in Moldvay Basic is defined as a single session of game play. In other words, enough XP-granting treasure needs to be placed within an adventure site ("dungeon") to allow the advancement of one level over three to four game sessions. "Treasure" is the good measure in this case because A) monsters award such an insignificant amount of experience in B/X play, B) treasure is always a "mission objective," and C) treasure acquisition as an objective encourages players to think creatively in how they go get it. It allows all sorts of interesting in-play dynamics related to risk-reward (what are you willing to risk to gain a great treasure).

[I should note that, for this latter reason, I'm not a big fan of the "fake treasure trove" in adventures: the gold-painted coppers, worthless "glass" gems, and paste-board jewelry. I tend not to stock such unless there's something in the dungeon that might tip the players off to the fakery]

With the aid of a simple spreadsheet, I can easily figure out how much treasure I need to stock in an adventure site in order to provide enough "score" to level up the characters. But then, how do I seed the treasure? Welp, I use a very nerdy, mechanical method developed from the stocking scheme Moldvay presents in the Basic book.

But this post is getting a little long so I'm going to have to make this a two-part series. Tune in tomorrow!
; )

[to be continued]

The Outer Presence

Venger Satanis asked if I'd be interested in reviewing his new book, The Outer Presence, and I said 'sure.' He sent me a courtesy copy and, well, I guess there's no such thing as bad publicity, right?

Here's hoping.

Bold art, bland system.
The Outer Presence is a 45 page PDF containing (per the fly leaf) "rules for an old school, investigative horror roleplaying game, as well as a Lovecraftian scenario that takes place in the 1970's." Truth be told, the majority of the book is the adventure ("The Outer Presence") which starts on page 13. As I am not hugely experienced in Cthulhuian-inspired adventures, I really don't feel qualified to judge the latter part of Venger's work. It has very nice maps and good art, but I can't even hazard a guess how it would play at the table. You can read a fairly positive review of the adventure over here. I'll instead concentrate on the game rules, pages 4 to 12.

My first reaction upon reading VS's Quick And Dirty Rules For An Investigative Horror Roleplaying Game (the title of the section) is that there's a new contender for the owner of The Most Boring RPG Design of All Time trophy, currently held by Cadillacs and Dinosaurs (a game which, for its title alone, should scream "fun" and "interesting," but no...). That's my initial take, but upon a second read through...well, it's still pretty boring.

But I'll elaborate.

If you read my earlier review of Venger's Crimson Dragon Slayer, you'll see I had quite a few nice things to say about his rules light, D6-based system. Really...go back and check it out. The teaser on DTRPG led me to believe that I was getting the CDS system for a Call of Cthulhu-style game; here's what it says:
The system is simple. No attributes, skills, or weapon stats to keep track of. If you're playing an explorer, then you're the consummate explorer in the party. If your character is an occultist or professor, same thing. He'll have all the capabilities of that profession. PCs will also be defined by their weaknesses - just like in real life (heightened for dramatic effect). 
The principal game mechanic is d6 dice pools. It's a simplified, closer-to-the-real-world version of Crimson Dragon Slayer.
But the system is so streamlined as to cut out most of the interesting stuff one finds in CDS. Instead, we have a system that is highly reminiscent of Robin Laws's seminal RPG Over The Edge, combined with a resolution mechanic derived from Vincent Baker's Otherkind, but without the objective of apportioning narrative control in a non-arbitrary manner. And neither of these games, nor their approach to system mechanics are what I'd describe as "old school."

Now, while I like and appreciate those crazy story game people and their "antithesis-to-old-school-RPG" design sensibilities, this isn't what I was hoping for, nor expecting with The Outer Presence. I figured I'd see something like CDS, and I got some of it...but all the cool/neat stuff I praised in CDS was left out. The bonus dice for genre emulation appear to still be present (via Immersion), but it's neither explicit, nor clear as in CDS. The "dominance" mechanic is gone, and nothing fun replaces it. There are no "classes" (presumably in sticking with the Call of Cthulhu paradigm), which I think is a bit of a missed opportunity (see Beyond the Supernatural's OCCs or Horror Rules's archetypes). Alignment's out, there's no magic system in any form (for psychics and sorcerers, their skills are simply narrative color added to a standard dice roll), combat (and associated systems) has been rolled into the standard mechanic, and the neat advancement mechanic is absent. Characters gain bonus dice for surviving a game session (similar to OTE's "experience dice"), but they are a finite resource (they don't come back when spent) and require no justification for use. On the other hand, bonus dice are also awarded for portraying a character's weakness (like having the character show up drunk or running like Shaggy and Scoob at the sudden appearance of a sheet-wearing cultist), which to me would seem to encourage comedic (or non-heroic) role-playing...right up until someone needs to cash in those bonuses.

Despite the "light," abstract nature of the system there is one thing that's very "old school" about The Outer Presence: interpretation of dice results and narrative control rests squarely in the lap of the GM. Considering how abstract the system is, that requires a high degree of trust in the GM (and has the potential for abuse). The Insanity mechanic (the only "during play" system not based on the game's core mechanic) does have specific, objective results but the use and call for insanity checks is 100% subjective to the GM's whim...and the limited results, again, leads me to what I'd consider humorous role-playing circumstances. And I'm not sure that "comedic horror" is what Venger was going for with The Outer Presence.

[oh, yeah...there's a new doubles rule that allows dramatic editing outside of the normal results, but it's again subject to the narrative decision of the GM and, thus, at least a little redundant. How is a doubles result much different from a final die roll of 3, for example?]

Anyway, I guess I was more surprised than anything at the rules presented in The Outer Presence. Is it a lot less complex to use than, say, Call of Cthulhu or Trail of Cthulhu (the Pelgrane Press version using GUMSHOE)? Sure. Is it less deliberately jokey than, CDS or similar themed, light games (like InSpecters)? Sure. But it's far from a robust system that supports the genre. You might as well use Risus. No, I didn't think much of it...sorry, Venger.

Then again, the bulk of the book is the titular adventure included, which Venger (and others) have pointed out is easily adapted to a different favorite system. So it's quite possible that horror-fan GMs will still find something useful in purchasing the PDF. Hell, I could easily see adapting The Temple of Dark Secrets to a standard D&D game...as I said, very nice maps.

Friday, August 28, 2015

People Getting Killed...Again

There's been a lot of news the last couple days about the reporters that were murdered on live television Wednesday...hard not to miss it. Unfortunately, these were only gun deaths #8,513 and #8,514 in the United States this year. As was recently pointed out, the other 8,512 haven't received quite as much attention, though the end result...senseless death at the end of a gun barrel...has been the same.

And as of this morning (two days later) the total number of gun deaths for 2015 has risen to 8,548. Right now, we're on pace to hit 13,000 deaths by gun in The Greatest Country in the World, up from 2014's total of 12,560, which was up from 11,419 in the year 2013.

Long time readers know my stance on guns...if not, I'd direct you to my 2012 post on the subject. My opinions on the subject haven't changed...we need to get rid of all the fucking guns. Period, end of story. I know there are folks who vehemently disagree with this opinion...one told me quite explicitly that he wouldn't buy my products because I am a "moron" on this particular subject.

As if I was using the money from my product to fund anti-NRA campaigns or something?

Anyway, just felt it was time to mention the subject again in the wake of the recent news/publicity. I will now return to writing about game-related items (as much as I ever do). Hope y'all are having an otherwise happy, healthy summer.

Imaginary guns in RPGs still allowed.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

B/X Overlays - Revisiting the Beastmaster

Tim Brannan had some nice things to say about The Complete B/X Adventurer the other day, specifically with regard to the beastmaster class it contains. Rereading the entry (it's been awhile since I've had reason to skim through the book myself) I found myself a bit disappointed at the way I chose to handle the concept, specifically the whole call/befriend/master mechanic (not to mention the learned languages...a throwback to the original inspiration found in Stephan Sechi's Compleat Adventurer book). It makes for a wordy class entry which is quite un-B/X, in my opinion.

The version of the class found in Five Ancient Kingdoms (an optional Hero subclass presented towards the end of Book 3) is a lot simpler, and much closer to what I wanted to model: a knock-off of the cult classic film, The Beastmaster. It's a movie that I find enjoyable to this day for all its sword & sorcery sensibilities. The class found in TCBXA is a bit too much of an homage to the Tarzan/Sheena feral-child-raised-to-be-lord-of-the-forest archetype. Which, when you think about it, doesn't make a whole helluva' lot of sense for a dungeon delving game. Those types are homebodies (protecting The Wild), not restless wanderers in search of adventure.

In considering rewriting the class (for my own amusement...I have no plans to alter TCBXA or issue a "2nd edition"), I hit upon a slightly different idea from doing the "one-more-new-class-for-B/X" thang: Class Overlays. Figured I'd share the idea with y'all.

A class overlay isn't a new class; instead, it's a set of conditions added to an existing class. Subclasses are a bit like this (at least, they were in the original D&D supplements). However, while a subclass is a set of conditions applied to a specific class (for example, ranger as a subclass of fighter), a class overlay is a set of conditions that can be applied to ANY class.

Dig it?

For example, a beastmaster is simply an individual who has a supernatural affinity with animals. There are many examples that don't resemble Marc Singer's oiled body: Radagast the Brown, St. Francis of Assisi, Dr. Doolittle, Voldemort, Mowgli, those kids from A Game of Thrones, Marko from Wizards & Warriors, some of MZB's Darkover characters (I know there are others I'm forgetting at the moment). These individual "beast masters" have a wide range of skills and attributes, and few of them are cut from the rough-and-tumble Tarzan mold. So rather than try to create a single class that encompasses the wide range of disparate examples, we just create a conditional class overlay that adjusts the existing character class.

"He senses danger, m'lord. Also, he wants a carrot."
[BTW: for my money, I'd probably only apply class overlays to HUMAN character classes in B/X; i.e. fighters, clerics, magic-users, and thieves. But if you want your dwarf to ride a giant mole or whatever, feel free to knock yourself out]

Below I've written up the conditions for the Beastmaster overlay. Other overlays I'd strongly consider for B/X would include Summoner (think pulp-style sorcerer), Witchhunter, Bard, and half-blood types (like Ogre/Giant or Elf). Yes, I am aware that most of these were classes I wrote-up for The Complete B/X Adventurer...I think they'd all work excellently in a variety of styles.

BEASTMASTER OVERLAY

"Beastmaster" is an overlay that can be applied to any human character class. Beastmasters have a natural affinity for, and deep rapport with animals, though this is limited to the vertebrate classes of mammals and birds (lower lifeforms...reptiles, amphibians, fish, insects, etc...are too primitive and/or alien for the human mind to touch). Communication with giant or prehistoric animals (smilodons, mammoths, cave bears, etc.) is possible; it is up to the DM to determine if a beast master's powers apply to magical or mythical animals (like a pegasus or griffon).

Beastmasters automatically understand, and are understood, by the animals in question. It is not necessary for the beastmaster to speak like an animal (hooting and howling); the animal simply understands what the beastmaster is saying. Beastmasters are thus able to interact with any animal encountered (normal reaction rolls apply, modified as necessary by charisma and circumstance). Beastmasters suffer a -2 reaction penalty when attempting to communicate with prehistoric animals.

A beastmaster may proposition an animal to join the character as a retainer/follower. The animal may not have more hit dice than the beastmaster (note: all B/X characters are limited to a maximum of nine hit dice). Animal followers count against the beast master's normal number of retainers, as determined by charisma. Animals whose hit dice exceed the beastmaster may still be friendly and offer temporary aid, as determined by a positive reaction roll.

Beginning at 4th level, a beastmaster may use a type of animal clairvoyance, limited to any animal retainer possessed. The beastmaster may utilize all the animal's senses, directing the creature telepathically, at a range of one mile per level of experience. There is no limit to the number of times an animal may be possessed and utilized in this way, but only one animal may be used at a time, and the beastmaster may take no other action when so engaged.

Conditions: a beastmaster loses all abilities when wearing armor of any kind ("scent of man") or carrying any type bow, crossbow, or sling ("the hunter's weapons"). Spell-casters may not learn or use magic that inflicts damage at range, nor any spell that manifests fire or lightning. Animal retainers will temporarily leave the beastmaster if the character uses forbidden equipment, and must test Loyalty (as per page B21) to see if they permanently leave the beast master's service.

DMs may OPTIONALLY choose to include cold-blooded beastmasters, whose powers only function on reptiles, amphibians, and fish/sharks. All conditions apply but, in addition, spell-casters may use neither cold nor water magic.

Just can't get enough, can you?

Monday, August 24, 2015

Dissing Dexterity

AKA The Usual Futility

This is not the post I was originally planning to write. What I had planned to write, what I was working on formulating (somewhat) in my head last night, was a post about the ability score called Strength (STR) that we all so love and over-rate, and some ways in which it might actually be used to garner more love, even from the softer (magicky) section of adventurers. But while formulating, this little problem child kept sneaking into the forefront of my brain and annoying the heck out of me.  So let's deal with that little bastard first: Dexterity (DEX).

First a little history (just roll with me, folks...the 'why' of it will be explained in due time).

DEX first appears in Men & Magic (volume 1 of OD&D) with the following description:
Dexterity applies to both manual speed and conjuration. It will indicate the character's missile ability and speed with actions such as firing first, getting off a spell, etc.
That's all it says. It's sole mechanical effect is to give a +1 bonus to firing missile if the score is 13+ and a -1 penalty if the score is less than 9. The Greyhawk supplement expands this, stating it is also "affects the ability of character to act/react" and allows fighters of high (15+) DEX to "use their unusual manual dexterity to attempt to dodge or party opponents' attacks," reducing opponents' attack roll by 1 for every point of DEX above 14.

[this translates to the standard AC bonuses...not penalties...found in the 1E PHB]

Greyhawk also made DEX the prime requisite of the thief class, first introduced in the same volume.

Holmes Basic states simply that DEX "applies to speed and accuracy" and while it retains the ability as a prime requisite of the thief class (now, apparently, standard), it ignores the defensive bonus while keeping the missile fire bonus of the original book (Holmes does offer an alternate "parry rule" that is available to all classes and not dependent on DEX). Holmes takes the ability's description of speed as a mandate and uses DEX as the sole determinant of ordering actions in combat...a mechanic never repeated in later editions.

Gygax further expands the ability in AD&D, writing that:
Dexterity encompasses a number of physical attributes including hand-eye coordination, agility, reflexes, precision, balance, and speed of movement.
Which is a very broad definition indeed, if one is used to the idea of dexterity being synonymous with  manual dexterity, the most usual "real world" use of the term. Regarding mechanics, DEX provides the Greyhawk fighter bonuses, though now for all characters, along with a similar bonus against certain types of saving throws that can be "dodged;" there are also equivalent penalties for low DEX scores. The bonus/penalties to missile fire have also been expanded to a range on 1-3 and apply equally to surprise situations (as a number of awarded segments of action).

Moldvay Basic (B/X) has a smaller range of bonuses/penalties, though they apply over a broader spectrum of DEX (anything outside the 9-12 norm). Combat rounds in B/X are not the segmented affair of AD&D and so the reaction adjustment doesn't apply, but Moldvay offers the option of allowing DEX to adjust individual initiative, if the DM is using the more complicated "pair combat" (the real precursor of individual combat order as found in 3rd edition+). Moldvay's definition states:
"Dexterity" is a measure of speed and agility. A character with a high Dexterity score is "good with his hands" and has a good sense of balance.
Note the "good with his hands" phrase would seem to refer to manual dexterity...this might not be what the original author intended (we'll come back to this).

I don't have copies of BECMI/RC or the 2nd edition PHB at hand, but my remembrance is that their definitions and adjustments are unchanged from B/X and 1E (respectively). If I'm mistaken, I apologize.

Likewise, I don't have a 3rd edition book available here in Paraguay, but the on-line SRD for D20 defines DEX as follows:
Dexterity measures hand-eye coordination, agility, reflexes, and balance.
It's adjustments apply to armor class, ranged attacks, reflex saving throws, and DEX related skill rolls...these latter being skills that pertain to agility, balance, or manual dexterity,

Jesus Lord, how this shit morphs over three to four decades.

Manual dexterity, the real world term generally used when one hears the word "dexterity" outside of a gaming context, refers to a person's ability with their hands, specifically how skillful (deft) they are with their hands. In the "old days" a person with good manual dexterity might be skilled at a (hand) craft...like carving or sewing. These days, we'd probably use it when discussing someone's ability to mash the controller of a console game. If you look up the term "dexterity" in wikipedia, it redirects you to the entry for fine motor skill...hand-eye coordination, in other words. This is the common definition of the term.

However, there is a broader use of the term "dexterity" which applies to mental adroitness...the skillful and clever handling of any complex situation can be done with dexterity, even if its not done with one's hands. The word comes from the latin word dexteritas meaning aptness or readiness.

But we'll come back to definitions in a moment...let's focus on what the damn stat does, and maybe then we'll be able to reconcile it with the meaning (if necessary). 'Cause, at the moment, the thing is a bit of a mess. To be clear, there are three main mechanical effects that have been used over the years with regard to this thing called "DEX:"

- a measure of proficiency with ranged or "missile" attacks
- a measure of combat reaction/speed
- a measure of defensive bonus in combat

The way these mechanics are handled from edition to edition varies, but that's pretty much the list. Let's blow 'em up one at a time.

Missile combat: using a ranged weapon, whether you're talking rifles or archery or knife-throwing, is only minimally a matter of "hand-eye coordination." The more important factors are proper technique, a good eye/depth perception, and (and longer ranger) and understanding of physics and environmental factors. Perhaps hand-eye coordination (which is a part of "fine motor skills" and thus manual dexterity) might be more pertinent to short-range, non-assisted shots (i.e. thrown weapons as opposed to shooting with a bow or crossbow)...this can be observed by a "coordinated person" having  a better basketball shot, for example. But, at least with regard to knife-throwing (I have no experience with spear/javelin throwing), such coordination is of minimal use...proper technique is required to throw a weapon with the accuracy needed to achieve an effective "hit" (i.e. one capable of inflicting damage). This is best modeled (in D&D) by class and level. Perhaps more coordination will help one to learn faster (like a prime requisite adding an XP bonus), but since D&D handles advancement in broader strokes (at least, with respect to combat), it would seem little worth to draft such mechanics.

Combat reaction: in (American) football, they have a couple sayings regarding speed. "You can't coach speed" is one; "speed kills" is another. But unless you're doing an Old West style showdown (or attempting to pull the trigger of your automatic firearm faster than the other guy), straight-line speed is not a huge factor in combat. Hell, sometimes making a brash attack is a good way to get suckered into the other guy's attack. Timing and distance is important, knowing when to be aggressive and when not to, and (for purposes of accuracy and effectiveness) keeping a cool head, are the most important factors in determining who's going to damage (or kill) the other person first. Training and experience (again, best modeled by class and level), followed by a good combination of level-headedness and controlled aggression are the most important parts reacting quickly and effectively in combat...as opposed to panicking, stumbling, and fumbling into a massacre or route. In the "primitive" non-modern combat found in D&D, physical speed and dexterity should have no part.

Defensive bonus: much as we might romanticize the swashbuckling swordsman in cinema, dodging and weaving isn't really a big part of hand-to-hand combat with weapons. Timing, distance, and technique...all of which come, again, from training and experience...are the things that will keep you from harm's way. And in cramped quarters (like, say, fighting a squad of goblins with fellow party members in a subterranean chamber) the idea agilely dodging is laughable; you're more likely to "dodge" into the attack of a different foe (or one  of your buddies!). Discipline, armor, good use of cover, and shields are all things that will serve to protect you from harm. A certain amount of manual dexterity could, I suppose, help you in batting aside ("parrying") a spear with your hand axe...but for me, this is best modeled with training and experience: class and level dependent hit points. Whittled away hit points can model the fatigue that comes with parrying blow after blow, not to mention the bruise caused by catching the haft of an axe with your shoulder (instead of the sharpened business end).

Agility, by the way, isn't generally necessary in hand-to-hand combat. Most fighting techniques focus on bringing the pain, in the most expedient manner possible, closing distance as soon as a good opening is found. Moving quickly with precision (i.e. accuracy) is a matter of practice, practice, practice, in order to move smoothly. That was the mantra of my old fencing master, anyway: slow is smooth, smooth is fast. And we'd practice handwork for 20 minutes trying to be slow, precise, and smooth, all in aid of training the fast (smooth and precise) hand.

[and that, of course, was sport fencing. In real combat, you're not worried about "precision;" you're worried about killing without getting killed. Practice and experience become so much more valuable, then, to act with minimal thought]

Going through these, it makes me wonder why one would even need such an ability score, even in the earliest edition. What makes it so necessary to add an additional descriptive measuring a character's dexterity, when it had so little effect on the mechanics of the game (compared to the prime requisites and the very important mechanics of CON and CHA). It feels like the designer(s) were harkening back to school days, and the drafting of teams for the playground activities. I'm sure most of us have had the childhood experience of encountering kids who excelled in hitting and throwing the ball, kids who could naturally (as a gift of good genetics) run faster and farther than others, even from an early age without training. If we were lucky, we might have been these kids...but there's always someone faster, who can throw/hit farther, jump higher, swim better, etc. As children learning our place in the world, we often find ourselves measuring ourselves against our peers, asking ourselves "where do I rank?"

Years of training...not DEX.
Even though DEX need not serve any great mechanical purpose in terms of the adult fantasy adventurers we portray in the game, it feels based on a measure of which character would be better at softball. Or, to put in less snarky fashion, which characters are more athletic than others. Even though the importance of general athleticism was pretty small in medieval life (and D&D is usually gauged as pseudo-medieval). And even giving it importance, it means little when it comes to adult, trained adventurers...who's to say the wizard hasn't become proficient at a thousand yoga postures as part of his mystic training, or engaged in some sort of acrobatic bootcamp similar to Jedi Luke on planet Dagobah? Sure, the fighter knows how to ride and joust in full armor, but he's got a lot more important things to learn than how to touch his toes or throw a tight spiral.

My default presumption is that D&D adventurers are hardy individuals that can ride, climb, swim, and hike for miles over rough terrain. Athletics and hand-eye coordination (except as it pertains to an individual's training and class abilities) is of little use to me. If it was especially important to be (for example) a strong swimmer or agile climber, the easiest thing would be to have a feat or talent called "naturally athletic" that would provide a small bonus over other (non-talented) characters. But otherwise, I have a hard time justifying the inclusion of the ability score, based on its physical description alone...too little mechanics to justify it.

Now, as a prime requisite for a thief character, and using the broader definition of "dexterity," I can see it as potentially useful. But that's for another post.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Serving Players and Game Scale

There are a couple different ways to play Dungeons & Dragons...

Boy. How many times over the years have I started a post like that. More than a few, most of which (if not all) I've erased without publishing to Ye Old Blog. Fact o the matter is, there is a shit-ton number of ways to play D&D, some of which (in my Not So Humble opinion) are better than others.

Which is not to say that there aren't many ways to play that are good (there ARE)...but some ways of playing aren't as effective as others. And by "effective" I mean in a way that allows all participants to experience a greater degree of enjoyment or "fun."

In my opinion, as said.

However, for purposes of this post there are only a couple (broad) ways that I want to discuss (or, rather, opine about). Since time is limited (as usual) and I've been drinking a little wine (also as usual), we won't be too fancy in coming up with new verbiage. Let's just call these two methods Serial Adventurism and Virtual World Living. Just for giggles.

"Serial adventurism" is what I call on-going campaigns in which exploration is limited to site-based adventures that don't give much of a shit about what happens in between each new excursion. Players create characters and are started outside the mouth of a dark cave, or an abandoned ruin, or a short range from a forbidden temple and told, "go there, accomplish objective;" said objective being anything from acquiring treasure to killing a Big Bad Guy to liberating prisoners or some sacred artifact needed to save the Greater Good or whatever. Any consideration of a greater campaign world (outside and away from the adventure site) is a secondary consideration at best. The closest town is simply figured to have all the items on your Standard Equipment List available, as well as a place to pawn items or cash in treasure (gems, jewelry) for easily divided coinage, and probably a place to hire various specialists, whether we're talking torch bearers and mercenaries or sages and alchemists.

This is the world of the random table, though the degree of randomization certainly varies by taste. On the high end of randomization (what might be considered the lowest end of consideration for anything outside "the dungeon," i.e. the adventure site), we find "carousing tables" as well as the town wandering monster of the 1E DMG, featuring everything from street walkers to vampires lurking in the crooked alleys of our semi-historic burg. But even on the low-end of randomization, you're still dicing to see which specialists are available and what percentage of value the character is going to get in exchange for that giant ruby. Gate guards and taverns and liege lords are little more than generic cut-outs, despite often having fanciful names and the occasional hidden secret to be discerned (the guard that's easily bribed, the tavern with the secret cellar, the lord that's practicing necromancy). These things matter only insomuch as they offer another potential adventure...they are otherwise left un-dealt with. 'Who cares?' asks the players 'What's the next mission?'

The main concern for the Serial Adventurist campaign is getting to the next site, accomplishing the mission, and "leveling up" in power and ability...whether through the acquisition of XP and level or new spells and equipment. For those who say, "we explore dungeons not character," this is your game. It's almost (almost) the oldest of Old School play. The adventures need only the slimmest of justification, if any...if there is exploration of character, it's often limited to exploring the limits of what the character can do/accomplish based on class-race-level and (permissiveness of) the DM. For the Serial Adventurist, mechanical character options and interesting sites (and site challenges) are the most important facets of the campaign.

It's sport D&D, pure and simple.

"Virtual World Living" is on the opposite side of the campaign spectrum. In this game, the main consideration is escapism in exploration of a fictional fantasy world, whether created by the DM or purchased as a boxed campaign setting. The characters are a part of the setting, and the extent of their impact on that setting is a secondary consideration to the setting itself, which should be a living, breathing world with a sensical history and geography.

"Sensical" is a relative term, of course. The Virtual World campaign can still be subject to random whimsy, whether created by dice rolled tables, arbitrary DM decree, or both. The point is the extent of the world available for exploration and habitation by the characters. There may be dungeons available to plunder, but locating one and getting to it can be its own adventure; whole game sessions can be taken with journeys and environmental interaction, including the exploration of urban developments not considered traditional sites for adventure. Yes, most of the campaigns referred to as "sandbox" fall under this heading.

What's interesting to note is that the main distinguishing factor between these two types of play are the scope and scale of the structure being explored by the players' characters. Both the adventure site and the fantasy world are imaginary constructs through which the characters travel. In the first, we find the party traveling from room to room (or encounter to encounter) via 10' wide corridors; in the second they travel from site to site via roads or paths, whether already existent or blazed by the characters...and yet the latter game contains within it the former, as scale is "zoomed" upon arrival by the party at a site that offers conflict/reward/interest. A hostile encounter in the wilderness is handled exactly the same as an encounter in the dungeon environment...despite the scale of wilderness travel being in days and miles, not ten minute turns and five foot squares.

That's because D&D itself is small scale by default. Combat is man-to-man (or man-to-monster) with traded blows and momentary decisions (do I open a chest? do I cast a spell? do I search for secret doors?) having immediate dramatic impact on the players (do I lose hit points/resources? does my character die ending my participation?). This small scale immediacy allows players to escape into the excitement of the moment, to become (via shifting perception) their imaginary characters in that moment. Do I want to pull this level? Do I want to draw my sword and attack?

The purpose to creating, running, and/or playing in a Virtual World game would seem to be providing the players with a more immersive experience...that the escapism of fantasy gaming is aided by making players think about and account for the world in which they travel (Do I need a guide? How do I locate food in the wilderness? What are the politics of this kingdom? Which region offers the best source of adventure/income for a character of my experience level?). Dealing with these large scale concepts...WHY is this dungeon here?...tends to get a game labeled as "more real" (i.e. "more readily escapable into") than the Serial Adventure game with its freestanding "funhouses." Despite the fact that in both types of play, the escapism is most easily found in the momentary, small scale decisions of the player characters. The Serial Adventurists just don't find as much enjoyment in momentarily haggling with an armorer over the price of chain mail or deciding which drink to order at the tavern.

And yet, without these non-adventure moments, the game loses some of its fantasy luster. If the game is only about the best marshaling of resources and wit to "beat" the dungeon, how does that make the game much different from an overly complex game of Hearts? The soul of the Dungeons & Dragons game doesn't rest in the overcoming of challenges through the best tactical (i.e. small scale) decision making. It's in those all-too-human instances that occasionally arise during game play eliciting real emotional reactions: humor, fear, anger, greed, joy, etc. Instances not based on the mechanics or external objectives of gameplay (for example, not the "joy" of leveling up or defeating a Big Baddie), but instances where we momentarily forget we're playing a game, and have a real human reaction to the imaginary circumstances occurring at the table.

Those instances generally come only in the small scale (individual character interaction), with the possible exception of events that shake (or shatter) an entire campaign setting. And yet, I'd hazard that these latter events only elicit real emotional response when players are deeply invested in the setting itself. Otherwise, who cares if the "world" is overrun by Old Ones or a gigantic horde of frenzied undead (for example)...we can always just start a new world, right? And deep investment in a setting doesn't come easily for players except over long-term play when they've become part of the setting...you know, high level, endgame style play? With landowners and political shaker characters?

Which is NOT the usual style of play these days. Many times have I heard from people that play beyond a certain mid-level number isn't "as fun" or satisfying. Or that their games usually end by or around level 8. And hasn't the most recent editions of D&D aimed their design (in part) at making even high level play viable in a "small scale" arena? With powerful individual character abilities designed to be used at the man-to-man, tactical scale?

If you're only going to do small scale (even small scale at high levels), is a Big Ol' Wide World really necessary? Can you not get sufficient "buy-in" from players without a detailed world setting? I'd think the answer is "no" given the degree to which players can suspend their disbelief (with tiefling fighters and dracoform warlocks fighting side-by-side...or Old School parties that contain characters of diametrically opposed alignments). The fantasy excesses of D&D are already ridiculous...does it really serve the players to craft up such a "big picture" setting?

Unless you're going to provide a way for PCs to invest in that setting, I don't think it does. At least, not enough to justify attention such world building commands. That doesn't mean there aren't good reasons for world building. I'm just saying that there's a lot less pay-off in your average D&D game than focusing on other areas of campaign/game management...like making the small scale pay more emotional dividends with your players.

Anyway, them's my thoughts of the day.
: )