Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Back to the Hex Map

The idea of a hex map has been back on my mind lately. I've been thinking more generally of running an exploration-based game with no regular player group for a while, mostly because college gamers are flaky and I want to do something diametrically opposed to the dirty hippy indie games/Exalted that usually gets run around here. Since Swords & Wizardry came out, I've been thinking even more seriously about that, because I think it'd be a good fit, better than thed20 Modern that I was originally considering.

Plus, hex maps are cool. I had all kinds of fun making my first, despite never getting to run it. Game prep should be fun, and filling out a hex map is a good way to fill an afternoon.

I've already been doing a bit of thinking about what I would put on this theoretically hex map, despite really needing something other than a list of names from the 1972 census for my NaNoWriMo novel. Things that should be on the hex map so far:
  • Alien artifacts
  • Tombs of ancient tyrants
  • Temples to forgotten evil gods, preferably infested with snake-men
  • Several different tribes of goblins that the PCs can screw with and start wars between
  • Dinosaurs
  • Underwater Atlantean-analogue dungeons and relics
  • Robots gone berserk
  • Little towns with dark secrets
  • A mad wizard in a tower
  • Entrances to the Underworld, realm of the Twelve-armed God
  • Football-sized ruby
  • A dragon
  • A crashed spaceship
  • Carnivorous apes
  • Blind, death-cheese making monks
That covers most of the bases, but is there anything I'm missing?

Monday, October 27, 2008

Left Behind by Modern D&D

Every so often I go by RPGnet, just to check things out, and see what the latest word is on noisms's Monstrous Manual reading. I'll see this wall of [4E] tags, generally in front of character optimization threads or arguments, and occasionally I'll get this very strong sense of not belonging to modern D&D.

Which is weird, because it's not like the content is that different from the usual talk on 3.5 forums. While I do enjoy a bit of character optimization, my tastes usually run towards poking around the strange corners of the system rather than actual character optimization, and even for that I have a limited tolerance. So I never had much to say on the usual 3.5 forum, either.

But I still felt basically at home there. 3.x D&D was my game, the game that I started on, the game I knew and loved. Even when I wasn't playing it (which was most of the time, my major campaigns being based on d20 Modern and Arcana Evolved) I still basically understood it, and could discuss it, and cared about it.

But now? I go into the D&D forums and it feels like I'm not even on the same planet as some of these people. Even the people saying things I've said myself about the game in the past -- it's easy on the DM, combat's fun, fast, tense -- I just can't quite grok, because I keep wondering when they're going to notice that the tension is completely artificial. And the ones who are talking about this or that supplement and how humans are suboptimal and how this power combines with that other one--no clue, man. None.

Not that 4e is a bad game. On the contrary, it's a very good game. But--it's like this. I see someone say "D&D," no qualifiers. I know what that is, I've been playing that since I was twelve. Then I see the words like "starlock" or "dragonborn," and I have to do a double take. "That's not D&D," I think. But it is.

It's an unsettling feeling.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Swords & Wizardry, NaNoWriMo, and that Dang List

Who, exactly, was responsible for the decision to release Swords & Wizardry two weeks before National Novel Writing Month? I was getting ready to run an online game with some pals back home when I remembered that, in a week's time, my life will be consumed by that thing the innocent call a novel.

So now S&W is on the list of games I want to run, from which no man ever returns.

Okay, so Feng Shui returned. Also 4th Edition D&D. But neither of those were on the list for that long. Iron Heroes has been on my shelf for ages, and once came within a few hours of seeing play, only to have me decide I was insufficiently prepared and ditch it in favor of the madness that became Gnome Town. Traveller and Encounter Critical seem headed towards the same fate.

Someday I'll run all of those games.

But Swords & Wizardry is a little more than just "a game I want to run." It's a cleaned up, modern version of OD&D.

OD&D has been on my mind for a while. It'd be worth playing just for it's historical value, the game that started it all. But I've also been reading Sham's Grog & Blog and Grognardia, and drinking the rules-not-rulings, do-it-yourself, old school kool-aid. It reminds me of the way I used to play games, hacking stuff together at lunch that seemed like it would work, not worrying too much about game balance or GMing technique.

But OD&D, the three little brown booklets, is intimidating. I've put off picking up the PDF for a while, because I've had other stuff going on but also because I was worried about how much work it would take to piece together how to play. I know there's a lot missing out of the S&W PDF, a lot of the weird essential charm that makes OD&D what it is, but it's neat and it's clean and it's exciting. It's got me thinking some things that I don't always think -- not "how can I use these neat things in my game?" but "what neat things can I make for my game?"

That alone makes Swords & Wizardry too cool to just languish on the list. With any luck, I'll pick it up again after NaNoWriMo, in that post-novel rush of crazy ideas.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

All The Characters Are The Same! or Why I Spent Six Hours Reading The Expanded Psionics Handbook

As I hinted at the end of yesterday's discussion of some of 4E's limitations, there's another more important distinction between 4E and 3e. In the new edition, each character has roughly similar capabilities. Sure, there's the striker/defender/leader/controller thing, and the variations on each of those themes, but it's all pretty much doing damage and deciding when to use your encounter powers and whether to burn your dailies. Occasionally you stick some interesting effects on the monsters, and there's a fair bit of moving around, but it's all just variations on a theme. It's a fun theme, and if the DM is on the ball you can get a lot of mileage out of it by changing the environment and monster behavior, and even more by building different characters in different ways.

But it's all one kind of fun.

There are a lot of different ways to generate varieties of fun -- call those ways the dimensions of fun, if you like fancy phrases -- and 4E drops a lot that 3.x had. One of the big ones, the one it had to give up to get the tactical complexity it's designed around, is variation on the mechanics behind character powers. 3.x has feats, skills, Vancian magic (of divine and arcane quality), psionics, incarnum, shadow magic, truename magic, binding, whatever that dang Tome of Battle stuff is, plus a bunch of class specific doo-dads like bardic music, rage, and dragon shaman auras all stuffed under "special abilities." All of which makes characters a lot harder to build, and a lot harder to predict how everything in the greater system will interact, but it allows for tremendous variety in the way the game plays. It also opens up a lot of headspace, creating a convenient source of ideas on how societies and environments might interact with the powers that drive them.

4E has one way. It's a good way, but it's not the only way.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

It's Like the Best Apple Pie in the World When I Want More Than Just Those Damn Apples

Okay, so maybe being over 4E doesn't quite mean I'm going to stop thinking about it. Particularly, I've been trying to figure out what exactly it is that bugs me about it. This is a game I had all kinds of crazy fun running, and could easily have all kinds of crazy fun running again. So why don't I have much interest in it anymore?

That has more to do with obsession cycles than any intrinsic feature of the game, but my gut feeling answer is that it's much more limited than 3rd edition and its variants.

This is mostly nonsense. 4th Edition isn't significantly less complicated than 3rd Edition, it just increases tactical complexity at the expense of character complexity. With the exception of fighters, rogues, and other non-magic-using characters, 4E characters have fewer moving parts than their 3.x counterparts, and there's much less variety in the kinds of parts they use. However, this reduced complexity means its easier for the designers to ensure that all those moving parts have interesting interactions with each other, and that the characters have interesting interactions with the rest of the party. 

Which means, for pure combat, and even combat with motivational doo-hickeys (I'm fighting for the queen!) backed up by interaction scenes, 4E is superior. 3.x characters have an unfortunate tendency to find one best strategy and use it in every fight, to suck up table time with calculation, and to blow through opposition, though that last is mostly because the CR system rests on some assumptions that aren't supported by the game as she is actually played. On the DM side, 4E has much better support for making fights interesting, from making monsters easier to tweak and run to gearing its environmental design advice towards making terrain that gives players interesting choices.

On the other hand . . . 4E doesn't do a whole lot beyond that. There are precious few non-combat abilities, and it's impossible to build a character that doesn't focus on combat. It does have the skill challenge system, which I like a great deal and could see using to use to run a game by itself -- because it's a seperate system that's been bolted on to the main, power-based core where most of the game's complexity resides. 

If you want to run a game that revolves around exploration, or bullshit hi-jinks, or anything else where the point of combat isn't to have fun with the fight itself but to cause problems for the players, then whenever combat does come up it will invariably pull attention towards itself and away from the main point of the game. And if you don't use combat much, you're looking at a character sheet that you never use and making lots of character decisions that are never meaningful. 3.x often has the same problem, especially when you start adding in splat-books, but that's a function of the particular moving parts in the system -- what spells your wizard picks or whatever -- rather than being cooked into the arrangement of the moving parts themselves. It doesn't intrinsically assume, no matter how you build a character, that the character will be about "combat and occasionally some other stuff."

When I wrote this post, it ended up being crazy long, so tomorrow I'll pontificate about another, related difference between 3.x and 4E. As a player of mine used to say, "All the characters are the same!"

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Now It's Time to Think About Something Else

According to the blog, my period of mild excitement about 4e D&D ended up lasting, at most, 13 months. From the first "hey, this is cool," post to . . .

Right now. Yeah. I am over 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons.

The period of active, this is the coolest game ever excitement was even shorter. Hard dates puts it between the awesome, tactical craziness of my first session and the realization that all the tension in combat is artificial. Comes to about sixty days. At least it lasted longer than Feng Shui.

It's not like I won't go back to it. Right now I'm seriously thinking about going back to 3rd, after being off of it for most of that 13 month period. Or d20 Modern, which I've been falling back in love with. (First game on the other side of the screen. I'll never get completely over it.) So I will probably play 4th edition again.

But not now. Not while I feel like, to get the most out of it, to get the complete experience, I'd have to buy a bunch of books that I'm just not interested in buying. Not while I'm thinking about just how much I've got invested in 3rd and 3.5 and d20 Modern -- in memory, money and knowledge -- and how much gaming I have left to do with them. And not while I still have a lot to learn from the older editions of the game -- not to mention all the stuff that's not D&D.