Monday, February 13, 2012

D&D Next and "not getting it"

"For example, it would be difficult to imagine that THAC0 would make a comeback. Armor Class values going down to represent them getting better. System shock rolls. Racial level limits. Gender-based ability score maximums. Lots of bonus types. And so on."


I'll admit, this one paragraph I'm quoting from did a lot to make me feel discouraged at the future of this project, because it points, yet again, to the idea that WotC's design teams in general and Cook especially just don't understand what made the older editions tick.

More importantly, they don't understand that the rules shape a very specific sort of (A)D&D game world. This is where racial level limits and system shock rolls come into play.

a) Racial level limits establish the racial power balance of an archetypal game world. Using AD&D as an example, the best magic-users, fighters, and clerics in a given game world will always be humans, due entirely to the fact that only humans have unlimited level advancement in these three classes (and most of their subclasses). On the other hand, the world of thievery favors the demi-humans due to their combination of unlimited thief class advancement and special racial abilities like infravision. It's highly likely that this archetypal world's most legendary pilferer is a halfling or an elf. Further, half-orcs can rival humans as assassins and half-elves can be among the most powerful druids. Rules like this that set a strong baseline for how a D&D world works lead to shared assumptions among players, shared expectations, and a picture of D&D as something other than a "generic fantasy game" (which it's never been any good at all at being, anyway).

b) System shock rolls enforce the idea that magic is a double-edged sword that can sometimes be as dangerous to its wielders as to its targets, thus simulating a grittier sort of fantasy where magic is frightfully powerful but not fully reliable and understood. It also helps to put the brakes on consequence-free gameplay via unlimited, foolproof resurrection without eliminating all tolerance for the occasional failure. Dropping this aspect simply because "Dude, my spell didn't work like I wanted! Bummer! That, like, totally should never happen." is the perfect example of ignorantly throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I'll cut this one short before I start in about how Fireballs that always fill a specified square footage and reflecting Lightning Bolts fulfill a similar function and make for less casual, "dumb" magic use....

In addition, I worry that the D&D Next team doesn't sufficiently understand how distinctive mechanics can be just flat-out cool.

Take descending AC, for example. I remember in the classic Nintendo 64 FPS game "GoldenEye 007", the player who took the least hits during the course of a multiplayer deathmatching session would often be gifted with the "AC -10" award. And you know what? That sounds so much cooler than the "AC 30" accolade! Why? Damned if I know, but it just does! And it's exactly the same sort of cool as a 6th level fighter being dubbed a Myrmidon or describing a thing as a "dweomer" when you could have just gone with "spell." The quirky mechanics and baroque nomenclature of classic D&D are a totally fucking awesome part of the hobby's heritage and worth preserving completely for their own sake alone.

So, yeah, I'm worried. It takes a real effort on my part to muster any kind of belief in the notion that people who fail to apprehend the game's greatness on such simple, fundamental levels can produce a product worthy of the D&D name and any classic D&D lover's money and time. Reserve final judgement I will, until there are actual products to review, but the outlook is grim indeed.


  1. I disagree on Racial Level Limits. Nobody I know used them back in the day and it did not imbalance the game due to all the other restrictions namely LOW split HPs. Many new player have turned their nose up on many of my attempts on playing Old school games due to Class and Race restrictions.

    System Shocks were never a problem nor THACO or descending AC. Heck THACO is far more simpler that To Hit +27 vs. AC 32.

    It may be a part of the hobby's heritage but Race and Class restrictions and Level Limits need to go in order for the hobby to grow IMHO.

  2. Disagree 100%, but I appreciate the comment!

  3. Racial limits were incorporated to promote the 'humanocentric' theme of the game. They really don't do much for game balance, as most groups I know of just ignored the rule anyway. Under the infamous 'Monsters as Player Characters' (AD&D DM guide pg21) section, Gygax dives ever deeper into a human dominated game world calling players who desire to play as monster races 'less intelligent' and 'inept'.

    System shock is also another one of those rules that a lot of DMs pass on and I was glad to see thac0 go. I tried explaining it to a first timer at last weekends session and he just stood there scratching his head.

    Now I'm not knocking classic gaming, I think it's great. The hobby as a whole still needs to grow and change to accommodate newer audiences though. Modern players expect ease of use and a feeling of reward to keep returning to the table and that's what newer editions are trying to achieve.

    As far as the future of DnD goes, I don't think it looks bad at all. WotC announced Monte Cook as lead designer for 5e. He did an excellent job on 3.5 and that rule set went on to become the basis of Pathfinder, todays top RPG.

  4. Again, I do have to disagree. I could also point to many examples of "today's top X" that I find to be horrible garbage. Insert the autotuned pop star or horribly-reviewed blockbuster movie of your choice here. Popularity is not quality.

    And I'm more than a little skeptical of the idea that great games "need to change." Prove it, I say. Chess doesn't need to change. And while there are a lot of people who might want to change the culture around professional sports like baseball (steroids, etc), there are very few who advocate really big changes to their *rules*.

    I'd venture to say that great games are in large part *defined* by timelessness; the lack of a "need to change."

  5. Agreed about that quote -- I was cringing too when I was reading it :(

    But I think the main thing is whether WotC come up with a business model for D&D which can accept or even support / encourage people (like us in the OSR for instance) who aren't playing the latest iteration, don't want to buy the new books, but still have a lot to give to the hobby as a whole.

  6. I think the crux of it is that gaining new customers is hard, while getting existing customers to buy the next product is easy.

    Then, creating new content is hard, while revising existing content is easy.

    Finally, easy things are usually cheap and generally done at least competently (that's why they be called 'easy'), while hard things are risky in terms of both expense, result, and effect on reputation.

    So WotC is going to do...

    the easy thing: sell revisions of existing material to existing fans, rather than

    the hard thing: create new fans for existing products (say by creating exciting new content for those products)

    The short form is that reprints followed by new modules and accessories should be WotC's business.

    New rules should be the business of new companies.

  7. Preach it man. I responded in length on my own blog.

  8. Did you apply system shock every time someone was affected by magical "aging, petrification (including flesh to stone spell), polymorph any object polymorph others."? pg 11 PHB

    Combined with, pg13 DMG, list of unnatural aging which includes being hasted, and casting spells such as wish, resurrection, restoration, gate. There should be a hell of lot more System Shock checks.

    Haste is deadly!

  9. absolutely do, when I'm running AD&D. If that's an aspect of magic use that I didn't want in the game, that would be an argument for going with B/X, for example.

    And I wouldn't recommend using Haste as an offensive weapon. Even if the DM is kind enough to assume merely average Constitution for your foes, you still have a 70%-80% chance of making them twice as deadly rather than killing them. The gambler in me positively recoils from such a horrible bet! :)

  10. Actually, I really dig Haste in AD&D. No other spell punches so far above its weight class, potentially. A single casting can turn a combat that would be a sure rout for the PC group into a total pushover...but only at great risk.

    I love tough decisions. And I love it when the risk/reward ratio of spells varies so wildly. A Magic Missile is always a sure thing; a known quantity. On the opposite end of the spectrum is something like Haste.

  11. Like your post here, and like your reasoning as well. I prefer ascending AC, but I can understand the "cool factor" argument for descending.

  12. I don't think there's really any hope of Monte or the Wizards people "getting" what fuels the Oldschool Renaissance because we (I use that collectively to refer to everyone that likes oldschool gaming for whatever reason) no longer fall on the spectrum of customers for the updated D&D.

    We are an aging demographic, generally, and Wizards is owned by a toy company. They need to get young people interested in D&D and they need a continuous influx of customer cash. The Oldschool Renaissance is driven by the desire for content that works on older, more Byzantine looking systems (that are somehow simpler, even though they rely on scary things like math and charts).

    To return to the days where the game was less accepting of mistakes and where the rules were slightly more difficult to pick up would mean educating their audience and expecting them to meet a higher standard; that is a sure warning that loss of market-share is going to follow, since no consumer base ever makes the shift over completely when a new product appears that is less approachable but perhaps works better.

    Besides, a generation of D&D players have now been trained on the notion that they have "rights" as players. They have the right to be victorious, to be awesome, and to expect a fair fight (where fair here means that the DM has thought carefully about their strengths and weaknesses and balanced out to make sure they feel like they might lose but are never actually in real danger.) Wizards wants D&D to be an amusement park, not a dungeon, because in a dungeon sometimes people die from their wounds or starve to death and that's not "fun."

  13. I can read this and look for what you're saying, then agree with it somewhat... but I see a lot of trees for forest, I suppose.

    Is ascending AC less flavorful? Maybe, but it doesn't change how the game lives and breathes at all... it's just less slick for a base-10 number system.

    It's the differences in tone and approach that make AD&D-back different from 3e-foreward. The esoteric, the common and difficult were traded for the multitude, the tactical and the superheroic long ago.

    WotC's article and your response are all too specific I think. What are feats but General Skills and Specializations? The same effect on customization and rules-load.

    They didn't come out and say they will make D&D simulate the same kind of world it did in the 1980s, instead of 4e's comic book hero fantasy. They'll change the rules, sure, but "Healing Surges by any other name will smell as Dragonborn" I believe Shakespeare wrote. When they describe the sort of world they want to model, and it is truly different than what has been offered before, I will be much more interested.