Monday, May 18, 2009

A Rough Homecoming

So on Friday we did character creation for the Is This Fair sequel that we're playing this summer. Or, I should say, started character creation. Spent five hours and no one's done.

Now, part of that is that the characters the players are making are fairly complex. We're using Arcana Evolved plus a couple skill tweaks from Iron Heroes and items from the Magic Item Compendium, and everyone's running one 10th level character and one 20th level character. About half the group already has a lower level version of their 20th done, but even if the idea's cooked up they've still got all the numbers and fiddling to do. One guy finished his 20th level while on site, but everyone else is still partway through one or both characters; those without pre-existing characters from the last game haven't even started their 10th levels.

Some of the player's really dig the complexity. That's why I decided on 20th level in the first place: one or two of them have been bugging me to run "epic" for a while. Others get kind of lost. They're not as experienced with the system, and what's fairly and simple and fun for the ones into rules-tweakery (and I go into that category; I'm not much of an optimizer but I do enjoy building characters) becomes an ordeal.

Which is what it was. Five hours, and we still weren't halfway done. I've been running Traveller and Swords & Wizardry for the past year, and playing Labyrinth Lord, and it kind of blew my mind. I'd forgetten how much of a pain it can be, wrangling all the skills and feats and everything. Until now, I hadn't fully appreciated just how fast early edition D&D is, compared to 3e. And while Traveller's not quite that fast, at least it's fun, and no one gets lost. You're discovering your character as it goes along, and all the decisions are fairly simple and come one at a time. There's no math, no calculation, no flipping through books and figuring out how much all your magic items cost.

The worst part, though, is that we spent those five hours figuring out stuff I fundamentally don't care about. Fancy combat tricks, largely. Arcana Evolved is not nearly so bad about that as 3.5 D&D proper, and not all of it was combat, but even in the non-combat area, there's a level of calculated codification that, I've realize, I neither want nor need.

What I care about, with these characters, is where they're from and what they're doing in Xanadu. I care about their goals, their enemies, and (for some of them) how they feel about their parents. I care about what they're good at, what they're bad at, what they like doing and what they'd rather avoid. I don't need to know all the situations where they get a +1 bonus to whatever to know any of that, but that's what we spent those five hours figuring out.

I still feel pretty fondly towards the system, and I'm sure things will get better once I'm actually running it, once we can focus on the things that matter and I'm back to running the system I know better than anything. (Though that's another thing that bugged me on Friday. I don't know the system as well as I once did, and what's easily handled if you know it well isn't necessarily so forgiving to someone who's knowledge is a little rusty.) And if we were starting out at 1st level, or somewhere in that neighborhood, I doubt I'd mind at all. But this? This has me just about ready to swear off the high-powered end of the game, at least as a starting point. I doubt the compensations will be worth the trouble.


  1. Personally I'm not fond of how numbers dominate character creation at high levels, whilst actual character concept tends to get sidelined in favour of cool tricks and spells.

    Unsurprisingly this is a problem that only increases in Fourth Ed. and its proliferation of powers and the like.

    The problem is that the maths is endemic of the system and can't be divorced from it; which would be a good reason to play a simpler system with more focus on the characters than their mechanics (Although I appreciate that due to previous events you're tied into using 3.5).

    Personally I'm looking forward to seeing more of Xanadu, partly because having spent a day reading the campaign notes it looked like alot of fun and partly because I'm thinking of stealing the idea; lock and stock, for my own group.

  2. This sounds terribly discouraging. I hope that your group manages to move into awesome epic adventures nonetheless!

  3. Despite the complexity of character creation (which I think you'll agree is hampered quite a bit by our only having the two paper books and e-versions) I'm really enjoying this. I've got enough skill points and whatever to put them in places that make sense roleplaying wise for my characters, whereas starting at first level I often end up choosing the most useful / most likely to keep me alive stuff.

    Are you going to post more of the background info? I read through the isthisfair blog, but this is set quite some time later, isn't it? What's happened in the mean time?

    ...Also, I may be creating a more complex culture for Litorians as I go. Just warning you.

  4. JP: Pretty much. Most of the campaigns I had planned for after this use much simpler systems (Traveller, Encounter Critcal, nWoD, S&W) but depending on how this one goes it may be the last time I use 3.5. I'm getting the feeling that it just doesn't do what I want it to do.

    Steal away! The last campaign was pretty awesome, and while that was mostly due to good playing, the whole "find a lost civilization" thing didn't hurt. I do need to write up some more geographical/political info for the campaign, and when I do that I'll be post it here.

    Alex Schroeder: As do I. Thanks!

    maggienotmegan: There is a problem with books, but I've run character creations with far fewer resources that went a lot faster. (S&W. 1 book. Half an hour, most of that equipment. My love of that system knows no bounds.)

    As for background info . . . considering that the events of the past 20 years were shaped largely by PC decisions, I'm going to need player input to work that all out. I have a rough sketch of what's happened, but one of the things I wanted to do on Saturday was sit down with the Xanadu crew and figure out what was up with them, and then get the non-Xanadu people to help sketch out the rest of the world. That didn't happen, which is one of the reasons why I was frustrated with how long mechanical character creation took/is taking.

  5. I feel your pain as a DM of a 3.5 campaign that is getting higher in level. Adding a new character is a serious chore.

    Character creation pain is one of my main drives to try other systems. If a character dies, are you ready to go through another marathon of character creation?
    That cramps my play style.

    As for 4e: I disagree that the choices are as complex as 3.x. Skills are chosen once, at first level. Power choices are usually one of three to six every other level or so. True, feats still have myriad options. But add the Character Builder to the mix (WotC finally produced a useful electronic aid) and creating characters is relatively painless.

    Not as painless as the stats>race>class choices of old school games (loves me some Castles and Crusades) but I've found 4e character creation to be a relief compared to the work in my 3.x game.

  6. Oddysey: Yay for theft! Or should I say a 'found campaign'?

    Anonymous: Looking back perhaps what I said was misleading, 4th Ed. at higher levels is alot easier than 3.x; but the proliferation of powers does seem to further sideline actual character development.