Wednesday, March 16, 2011


I forget where already, but some time in the past week or so I remember reading on a blog where someone was using Fudge Dice in order to flavor up some random encounters in D&D. Fudge Dice, as we know, are 6-sided dice that have two blank sides, two + sides, and two - sides, and come in packs of four. I really liked that idea; it ties in to really what the FATE system is all about; that the dice don't so much determine exactly what will happen, but rather that they will slant the outcome one way or the other. In the case of Dungeons and Dragons, something that 4th edition doesn't really preserve as well is the idea of the random encounter. You're a group of adventurers, blazing the trail and rediscovering some lost or forgotten temple, or underground lair, or some ancient magical forest, or whatever, but you go from space to space, or room to room, and there is another group of often homogeneous monsters. But why? To ensure that the time and work spent exploring the area provides enough experience points to reach a certain goal at the end of the major quest? I have to admit that I myself design games around a set XP goal and then everything else pours out of trying to make a reasonable situation to place the encounters in, but another part of that is that I am dreadful at making believable skill challenges. But besides the standard gamut of dungeoneering, stealth, perception, whatever skill rolls determining whether or not the group of goblins detects you walking past, or whether you can find some way around the dragon's lair, why not use Fudge Dice to determine whether the dragon is even there at all. Why shouldn't there be a chance, like in the Hobbit, that it's simply out for the moment, terrorizing villages, devouring virgins; whatever dragons do. In other words, have something a little bit more dynamic than a d10 or d8 or d20 roll to determine what sort of situation they may find themselves in. I like the idea of having the players themselves roll the Fudge Dice; they're the adventurers after all, and then they can all see what sort of situation they are getting themselves in to. While it would make sense that the party leader, or at least the person in front or taking the "active" roll would make these sorts of checks most often, there could be other situations where someone else, perhaps in a failed assist roll, instead does so poorly that they "trigger" a roll, which in game terms could mean something along the lines of "you knocked the suit of armor down the well and it made a very, very, very loud noise for a very long time. Fool of a Took." In terms of actual rolls, at this point a - - - - would probably mean, if still using the Dragon Lair example, that the dragon feels like returning just at that moment, and that the entire party is right in the middle of an open space, and all the doors suddenly close, and they all simultaneously realize that they forgot to put on pants that morning. A + + + + would mean something more like the dragon decided that the weather was just not to its liking and it went on vacation for a couple weeks. In skill challenges, they could be implemented in a way to be an attempt to subtly alter fate, which would be determined by what sort of character they are like. For instance a Paladin or a Cleric character may make a sacrifice to their deities in the form of not being able to use a power for an encounter, temporarily losing access to their class features, or something like that; or a fighter would lose a healing surge or two. In exchange, instead of accepting that the critical roll on the skill challenge just failed and the entire party is going to be in a world of hurt, they can roll the Fudge Dice and instead see if the fates are actually in their favor. Something like a very positive roll could mean that even though they technically failed, they failed in such a way that accidentally made things still turn out right. And a really negative roll would mean that they failed even more spectacularly and the situation went from really bad to absolute worst. And either way, they'd be out whatever they chose to sacrifice for the encounter or situation that that event might have triggered. I see no reason why this also couldn't be used in combat, a la Fortune Cards-style meta play. Use an action point, roll the dice. Do you recover so quickly that you get to swipe your sword up ferociously and get bonus damage on a roll that at first failed? Or do you accidentally fall face-first into the magical brazier and become blinded by magical fire? For something that is such a crap shoot, I can't imagine that people would want to do it very often, but in a do-or-die sort of situation, it could mean the difference between a TPK and a clever escape; a sort of release valve to free players from their own potentially bad decisions. I can't wait to try it out.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Disfigurement and Dragons

Open Grave: Secrets of the Undead is one of my favorite volumes of addon material for D&D4. Not only is the premise of it delightfully hilarious (that it will teach you, among other things, the physiology of how undeath works in the D&D world, and justifications for it), but that they nevertheless manage to treat the subject matter so well (in my opinion).

I've decided to page through it again, and it's gotten me thinking about the mechanics of heroes in D&D. A lot of other, more high-stakes, RPG systems have rules regarding permanent disfigurement or mental damage from dealing with situations that are beyond the control or ken of the character, and even past editions of D&D had creatures that permanently sapped levels away from characters that they then had to earn back. D&D4 (as evidenced by the new "Fourthcore" movement) leaves a little to be desired in terms of high-stakes, high-impact encounters (in terms of theoretically-winnable-but-not-without-cost) sorts of situations.

Open Grave I think does a pretty good job at jarring me back into the notion of "oh yeah, undead are actually potentially really scary. There's something about the abstract, mechanical nature of 4e combat that ends up in making me a little jaded about the sorts of encounters that people can fly in to.

DM: You are surrounded by a ton of decrepit skeletons.
Wizard: Oh, I use Burning Hands.
DM: Ok, they're all dead now. again. For real this time.

There's something really existentially threatening and horrible about the idea of something that is dead rising to its feet again, charged with malign energy, that is trying to kill you too. And if it kills you, you may be dead forever. Or you may lose your mind and rise up again as one of them. I'm sorry, but the first time you walk into a room full of dead people that stand up at attention again when you step to the side and knock over a cup should be a really jarring situation, even among so-called "heroes."

I'll probably get in to why I love Heroic-Tier games much better than high-level games at another time, but Paragon- and Epic-Level undead provide a way to raise the stakes without necessarily getting the adventurers involved in a battle of potentially cosmic import. It's amazing how much godslaying there is in 4e; you begin to wonder why the gods bother to keep coming back.

But anyway, taking a page from Call of Cthulhu, I don't see why there shouldn't be a variant rule in place that dictates having encounters with something so cosmically wrong as undead that it is difficult to walk out of the situation in some way unscathed. These, of course, should be mainly boss-type encounters, but as a lot of RPG video games have taught us, optional mini-bosses can oftentimes be more frightening and more damaging than the main course of the game anyway. And this isn't even limited necessarily to undead, either. I see no trouble at all with having variations for aberrant creatures or demonic creatures, or other types of things that are belched up from the Abyss that have no business at all existing in the first place and should be destroyed as quickly as possible for the safety of the entire world. And they don't even have to necessarily be high level, either. Something the size of a pea could eventually feed and grow to threaten the entire cosmos.

But here's what I propose: rather than bringing back level-sapping attacks from previous editions (because leveling is so gnarly in 4e to begin with, unless you want to also hand out more experience things/create more experience-generating situations), to introduce variant enemy attacks that instead cause a permanent decrease in a core ability score. Liches are, after all, what's left over after a wizard or sorcerer transgresses the boundary of what is possible, so it would make a reasonable amount of sense that they might occasionally have the ability to grab hold of someone and literally sap the life from them, permanently causing a reduction in constitution, or strength, or something. Or some aberrant beast from some unknown plane that slips through a dimensional crack and literally destroys the minds of its victims, creating crazed half-dead animals in what were formerly commonfolk, and effecting a permanent loss in wisdom, intelligence, or charisma in a heroic character.

Depending on how nasty the DM wants to be, these effects could literally be permanent, or instead symbolize a sort of deep sickness from coming into contact with something so deeply "Wrong" as ordinary reality and the natural order struggle to again right themselves and restore balance (where in game terms the lost ability point would be regained after a level, a few levels, or at the next tier). Not only would these sort of profoundly weakening attacks encourage more tactical gameplay (like oh my god keep away from that lich, don't let it touch you), but would force contact-based players like fighters to have to potentially come up with alternate strategies, since just standing next to it and whacking on it while acting as a meat shield puts your character in even more mortal danger.

Lastly, it could be used as a sort of plot point for specific characters. Meaning, instead of the stat loss being literal, like they've been scarred or damaged physically in some way, that it was actually a blow to the psyche, and constitutes a loss of confidence, or faith, and that they therefore need to undertake some sort of personally redemptive quest, or join a religion (an introduction to multiclassing?), or accept some sort of stricture in order to get their abilities back. This last bit I got from Shadowrun, which I think despite some of its other faults, has a lot of really good mechanics in place to encourage good roleplaying. This sort of mechanic could also be used, in the D&D world, to explain why characters gain certain abilities and not others as they level up: this traumatic event at level 3 was why the character has the ability to do this daily at level 7. Adds depth to characters.

Finally at last referring to the title of the entry, it is a time-honored practice when referring to permanent stat loss to reflect the stat loss in a type of corresponding disfigurement. Why did the person suffer a point loss in Charisma? Maybe because that fire elemental burned his face with some sort of special hellfire. This is a readymade plot hook, as well. Perhaps over the course of their travels the party get wind of a mysterious sorcerer who has created a healing salve that can repair the damage from these sorts of attacks, but the path is fraught with danger and the salve itself is a king's ransom. And then there's the matter of the little rumor that the sorcerer himself may actually be a lich...

I love creating special magic items specifically for a particular adventure or campaign. Not only do I think does it make the adventure more immersive, but it also adds the level of surprise in case the players have been spending a little too much time reading the Adventurer's Vault. It is the latter reason that I also nearly exclusively create custom bosses for the climactic scene in adventures. Sometimes out of mixing together two or more enemies from the MM, or sometimes just out of whole cloth. It's especially joyous when I can successfully drop hints that misconstrue the true nature of the final enemy, so that the party is caught completely off guard. It would only add that much more depth to have an enemy that could potentially maim someone without having taken the necessarily precautions, which could even be hinted at all throughout the adventure leading up to it. Something to think about more fully, to be sure.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Rules Compendium, Dungeons and Dragons Essentials

After having paged through the Rules Compendium as well, many of my reservations about where Heroes of the Fallen Lands left me have been alleviated.  It seems that they basically split the PHB in half for the Essentials book.  The Rules Compendium copies and pastes a large amount of the material present in HotFL, but also adds in everything missing from it from the PHB.  I think, overall, it's again nothing new, but it's a much better book in terms of actual substance.  I think that even if you own a copy of the PHB, it may be worth getting a copy of the Rules Compendium as a "table book," because it's much better organized and contains all gameplay-related things, on top of being smaller and lighter than the PHB.  It does not, however, lie flat, so you need to prop it open or leave a bookmark if you want to keep a page in mind.

Overall, it's again nothing new, but as a tableside companion (or if your copy of the PHB has fallen apart, like they are so good at doing), it may be worth getting this as a replacement.  It's like the Quick Start Rules, except has all the relevant gameplay rules as well.  A handy reference guide, nothing more.

Heroes of the Fallen Lands, Dungeons and Dragons Essentials

The thing that baffles me most about Dungeons and Dragons Essentials is the question of "why?"  What purpose does this line have in the grand scheme of Dungeons and Dragons, 4th edition?  Why did they feel the need to "reboot" the edition, several years in, as opposed to reprinting the core books with errata and rule changes included?

Heroes of the Fallen Lands is the first book in the Essentials line of products besides the Starter Set, and is intended to guide players through the creation of low-level characters, as well as more broadly introduce new players to the world of Roleplaying Games generally.  It begins with a very verbose section of what a RPG is, what you need to play it, how you play it, and general questions that were already addressed, in an abbreviated fashion, in the Essentials Red Box, and are very similar to the introductory words of the Players' Handbook.  Heroes of the Fallen Lands does explain some of the basic mechanics better, and much earlier in the book, so it seems that their editors are not sleeping.

We are introduced to Dwarves, Eladrin, Elves, Halflings, and Humans in HotFL, and we are also told that in the followup volume we will also be introduced to Dragonborn, Drow, Half-Elf, Half-Orc, and Tiefling characters.  Then, most maddeningly, we are also told that there is another type of character, a Revenant, which is only available if you pay for a subscription to Dungeons and Dragons Insider, the nebulous online service that is not sold very well in the description.  We are also told that HotFL will tell us how to develop a Knight, a Slayer, a Warpriest, a Thief, and a Mage character, but for others (Sentinel, Cavalier, Hunter, Scout, and Hexblade), we have to buy the other book.  And again, if we want to learn how to make an Executioner type character, we have to pay for a subscription.  Then what follows is a very reasonable and straightforward step-by-step method of creating a character, something that the Players' Handbook completely and utterly lacked.  Largely a lot of information that the PHB waited for the closing chapters to introduce is up front and center in HotFL, and much better organized.

In the "advanced" sections explaining what each character class is like and what it does, it spends much more time than the PHB explaining why some races are better at certain classes than others, as well as gives personalized level tracks for what each class gets at what level; as this is very streamlined and there is a dearth of options, leveling is a purely mechanical affair that minimizes player decisions and resembles more leveling up in Final Fantasy.  While it walks each character build from level 1 to level 30, it is a purely linear progression.  There are very few variant builds for each broad class (Fighter, Cleric, Wizard, etc).  We are occasionally told that we could build a variant character if we had another of the books, but it seems pointless to add in little asides like that, as they do nothing but advertise for your own product.

There are slight differences in the races section, as pointed out in a previous post, but nothing radical or crazy.  Like I mentioned before, I don't see these as variant rules, as these alternate builds would work perfectly well with PHB-built party.  Hey, even the art is the same as in the PHB.  It's mostly just copypasta, with a little bit of extra stuff added in that doesn't really have much of an overall effect on how D&D4 handles races.

In the skill section, we see that DCs for different levels of challenges have been fiddled with (made easier), but other than that, more copypasta.  Perhaps the skill applications are explained a little bit better than in the PHB, with little examples peppered in for how each skill might be utilized in an encounter or a social situation.  Feats have been (strangely) categorized into what "realm" the feats fall under, so there is a group of feats dedicated to learning and lore, another dedicated to endurance and stamina, another to weapon and armor proficiencies.  So rather than just long lists as in the PHB, they are subdivided based on what the feat does for you.  The book ends with armor, weapons, magic items, and the like, that are largely lifted directly from the Players' Handbook.

What the Players' Handbook has that this book does not are lots of pictures of what Burst, Blast, Wall, and so on actually look like in terms of squares.  But that chapter from the PHB is available online from as the "Quick Start Rules" so that is not a big deal.  All in all, there is not enough changed to really justify buying this if you already have a copy of the PHB; if you get the Deluxe Dungeon Master's Screen it has all the updated DCs and damage levels, and so ignoring all the Wizards Weirdness about DDI and temporarily forgetting that that exists, there is no reason to get HotFL if you've already got the "other" player handbook.  It's much less information, in a smaller book, at a lower price; but which is also better organized, better explained, and easier to follow.

Overall I'd describe this book, and perhaps by extension Essentials, as being a form of "pregenerated characters plus."  Following the steps makes a very generic character, much like starting with a pregen, but there are a few small flourishes that the player can add.  With the linear level progression, it is again very pregenerated feeling, and a player can choose to follow the track for that character all the way to level 30 or, as I suspect the intention is, act as "training wheels" as long as the new player needs before they are interested in buying OTHER Dungeons and Dragons products, like the Players' Handbooks or the * Power books.  For this reason again I don't think that Essentials constitutes any reasonable step towards a "4.5" edition, but is rather a hyper-simplified form of the "real" rules and is intended exclusively for beginner players without any reasonable RPG experience.  It "essentially" (ha ha) walks players through the learning process (something that under the core rules is assumed to be under the purview of the DM), taking some work off of the DM's side, and I don't think that's a bad thing.

Is it something that somebody who has already been playing D&D4/has already invested in the 4e core books would want?  No.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Gamma World Dungeon Master Tools

I have no idea what the legality of this is, but I'll just put this here and if there are problems, maybe it will disappear from here.

A complaint I have about Gamma World relates back to my conjecture that Wizards is strapped for cash right now and is trying to generate revenue however they can. In the case of Gamma World, it's releasing the "complete" rules in a series of three box sets. While I like this in one aspect, which is to keep the cost of each one separate down (like packaging it all together would have probably had a 70 or 80 dollar price tag, which would not get a lot of buyers), it does create the problem of having disjointed rules. For instance, all you REALLY need is the main box, the green box. What the green box gives you is 20 character types, the basic character build rules, 80 alpha mutation and omega tech cards, tokens for most of the monsters in the book, and a level 1 adventure. However, there's more to it. The first extension, Famine in Far-Go is mostly a new adventure that continues where the first one left off, but also has a lot more monsters, as well as 20 MORE character types (40 options is better than 20 options, in my opinion). It also introduces cryptic alliances, which is an optional tool of helping the players betray each other and get benefits from it. It could be fun if you were doing a very merciless campaign. The second extension (probably the last) was Legion of Gold, which introduces only 8 more character types (making a grand total of 49 character options, which is weird... why not 50?), adds 10 more alpha/omega cards, and introduces "vocations," which are Gamma World's version of feats, and are awesome, as well as another adventure, more monsters, etc. For a serious Gamma World GM, it's really worth getting all 3, but it creates the problem of having a lot of information in a lot of different sources, making the GM's job more tedious in utilizing all of the sources.

To that end, I've created a few tools to make the GM's job easier. The first is the master card list. I've included all of the base set cards, all of the booster cards, all of the legion of gold cards, and all of the promo cards, so if a GM wants to create a custom deck for a specific campaign it serves as a handy reference guide. I've left off details on the cards, and so for a lot of them you couldn't just copy and paste and print off your own cards, it's not for that purpose. Just if you already have the cards and you can't remember what each of them do. That can be found here:


The next, probably more useful tool I put together is a published monster list by level, with its type, experience reward, and page number.  This includes the Gamma World Game Day adventure, Trouble in Freesboro, on top of all of the monsters in the Gamma World base set, A Famine in Far-Go, and The Legion of Gold expansion sets. If there are more releases in the line, the list will be updated, you can find that here:


Lastly, I've developed my own character sheet.  I don't like the "official" character sheet, not only because it uses a lot of ink from the printer, but doesn't have room for all that much information, especially not with all the optional features introduced in the addons.  Unless you print it really lightly and in black and white, there's not really even room to fit all the stuff about your character onto the sheet, and there are also not Gamma World power cards that you can use on top of that.  So my goal in creating the sheet was to have it very no-frills, require very little ink, have space to fit a lot of information, and so it can be rattled off quickly in the printer and make lots of copies that you could keep in the box with everything else.

It's in a pdf, and you have to tell your printer to "ignore page margins" or else it'll be printed off too small.  I gave it 1/2" margins on each side, printed landscape, so you can have two character sheets on one standard printer page, and you just cut it in half.  Soon I'll upload a "sample" version so you can sort of see what I was thinking when I made it.  Consider this the "1.0" version, as I'm not above moving things around and redesigning it.  For instance, I still don't have room for vocations on there, since I just got my copy of Legion of Gold a couple days ago.

That can be downloaded here.

Check back for updates.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Repost from elsewhere: D&D Essentials Starter Set, aka "The Red Box" from August 9, 2010

I picked up the new Dungeons and Dragons "Essentials" box, henceforth referred to as the Red Box (a bit of D&D nostalgia implied) because I was interested in the monster tokens and the choose-your-own-adventure style of character generation, as well as just to see what it did to try to make 4th edition even "more" accessible than it already was. The choose your own adventure game is surprisingly fun, but that may be partly because I was obsessed with those kind of books when I was young and added a bit more nostalgia into the package. It also presents a way to get introduced to the game mechanics including the battle system in a one-player capacity by having you roll as the enemies as well as yourself, which is basically what Dungeon Delve does and so it's not exactly new, but it is really helpful. It sure beats having to get together three or four other people just to learn how to play the game. The whole thing, if you actually roll through the adventure, can take up to about an hour if you're really determined to work through it, and it's not just idling, you're actually interacting with the story since your choices change the events like in any "real" choose your own adventure book.

The process is mostly straightforward and works through the different stats, starting with what are the most pertinent to whatever class you select at the beginning and going all the way through weapons and defenses, although there are some minor snags like if you end up kicking the crap out of the goblins as a wizard, you won't get a chance to fill out your constitution score, and then when you move on it tells you to fill out your hit points based on your constitution score and you don't know how to do that so you have to backtrack to find what happens if you missed the goblin so you can get that number. Not completely elegant. Just for fun I've worked through it making a Dwarf Rogue and a Halfling Wizard. The wizard, even with the wonkiness of halfling racial mods, was pretty easy. The rogue, on the other hand, was jacked to all hell. There was a LOT of backtracking to get all the stats filled out, then once you got one filled out the next step in the adventure changed the numbers so you had to erase everything and put in new numbers, and then the numbers weren't consistent based on what it told you before. Part of this may have been because I chose one of the weirdest combinations I could think of just to see how strong the character creation system was; I intentionally chose a race that was incompatible with the class. In 4ed, rogues are "supposed" to be halflings, like dwarves are "supposed" to be fighters. I ended up having to change so many numbers around throughout the process making my dwarf rogue that I'm really not sure at this point if they're anywhere near right, since the end result was a super-powerful, nearly 90 point build. When I made my halfling wizard, it turned out an 82 point build. Later, I tried to make another halfling wizard based on the instructions in the regular 4ed player's handbook and it cranked out a 76 point build; I added 6 more points to make it in accord with the Red Box one just for comparison of the "end result" as a whole.

I think the most jacked up thing about the Red Box are the power cards. It's cool that it comes with power cards, color coded for your conenience into At-Wills, Encounters, and Dailies, it makes keeping track of them a lot easier and it's fun to turn cards over. The problem with the Red Box power cards is that they are often at a great variance with the "official" rules; moving a Red Box build into the regular game would not be without casualties. For instance, Magic Missile in regular 4ed is 2D4+Int modifier vs. Reflex against a single enemy, giving the damage usually in the 4-10 range. In the Red Box, it is 2+Int modifier automatic damage, against one OR two targets. So depending on whether your Int modifer is +3 or +4, it always deals 5 or 6 damage. OK. And your target can't defend or dodge; you use it, it hits. And you can smack two people with it. It seems like they're trading power for reliability here, but what if after you've worked through the Red Box and you've got your level 2 or 3 wizard and you want to move into the full game and all of a sudden you're rolling dice on something that was previously a gimme. Apparently this was the quandary way back when between the Basic Set and AD&D, but I don't know why Wizards would want to introduce *that kind* of nostalgia back into the game. Another jacked up power card thing is with the rogue. In the set-up adventure, it's established that the rogue has a dagger and that deals 1D4+Dex modifier; that's fine, the rogue is a dex-based class, so trading str for dex and limiting it to small blades is totally reasonable. However, when you get to the power cards and get to the rogue's special sort of traits, which boil down to blade arts, the damage magically upgrades from a dagger to a shortsword and all of the powers become 1D6 plus whatever modifiers the specific skill adds instead of 1D4. Now, I am totally fine with being upgraded from a dagger to a shortsword, but it seems like they'd have mentioned "Well, now that you're done doing this build, you find a shortsword on one of the goblins and toss your dagger in in favor of that!"

A last little nitpick that I actually sort of like, but is in variance with the regular rules, is that they seem to have introduced alternate builds for some races. In the Red Box, you can build a dwarf with +2 con and wis OR +2 con and STR; in the PHB you only get the +2 con and wis type. On top of that, they sort of streamline the thief/rogue dichotomy in the PHB by allowing you to build your rogue on acrobatics OR athletics. I'm too lazy to see if they have dual builds on all races and classes or just these. If so, that's a potential 64 differently nuanced characters that could be generated (4 races, 4 classes, 2 builds for each class, 2 builds for each race); however I doubt this. And the changes are so subtle it hardly makes a difference for some builds. Whether you use a wis or str based dwarf wouldn't much matter with the wizard build, since all the wizard's attacks are int based. It certainly didn't matter on the dwarf rogue, since all those attacks are dex based. None of these variant builds come at odds with integrating the character back into the full 4ed rules though.

Apparently the Fighter has some jacked up stuff but I haven't worked through that build yet. I DO like how supposedly the fighter just... fights. One of the big complaints about 4ed was that the fighter was given so many extra things that the spirit of the fighter, the "I want to hit it with my sword" mentality, was quite far away. So the Red Box fighter apparently just hits things with his sword. Probably has some powers like cleave and double strike, but no triple luxe spins with a battleaxe while singing Gilbert and Sullivan. Clerics are honestly pretty straightforward in 4ed, so I can't imagine the cleric OR the fighter being as jacked up as the rogue or to a lesser extent the wizard.

As I mentioned earlier, I did do a side-by-side comparison of the PHB method and the Red Box method, and I gotta say I like the Red Box one a lot more. What the Red Box DOESN'T have is a quick summary of what it did through the adventure to get you to those stats, so if you want to create a new character you have to go through the adventure again. I think they really could have just slapped one more page in there that explained what each step meant and how it was used to build the character, since it leaves those sort of up in the air and esoteric and are quite content with "just follow the adventure again." Of course, the PHB has a similar problem, which may even be worse. You've got to trudge through all three hundred or something pages to get all the information you need to put the character sheet together, and it saves how to calculate your AC, Fort, Ref, and Will until near the very end of the entire book. Making a character out of the PHB means you have to actually READ the PHB cover to cover at least once, and then if you aren't bookmarking the relevant tables and boxes for putting a character together, you've got to flip all around to find it again since the index is not very great. At the end of it, the Red Box creates a more powerful character than the PHB; you get more attacks, better stats, and a first-level feat (Jack of All Trades is the greatest thing in the entire world), but at the cost of having a less versatile character. At the end of the Red Box adventure, I felt more entertained but less "involved" with my character, since there weren't any ways to make the character unique. I found myself sort of screwing around by the end to try to make it stand out by being funny, coming up with absurd names and marking "Alignment" with things like "straight" or "bi-curious." With the PHB method, it takes a lot more time, you have a lot more options (especially if you've got the supplemental books that have EVEN MORE powers and feats for all levels) and the pen hits the paper more; I feel more "scholarly" when I do it "longhand," which I suppose is probably exactly the opposite of how a lot of people will feel about getting the chance to interact with their character as they create them with the Red Box adventure. Overall though the two characters came out evenly enough matched and I don't feel like one method is "superior" to the other one, just different. I did sort of like my Red Box wizard a little bit more despite the differences, but I was working out of just the PHB, I don't have Arcane Power so the choices for first level wizard powers are super limited. And I like not having to wait until level 2 for my first feat.

I think overall the Red Box succeeds exactly where it wanted to: to be a really great, solid piece of D&D introductory material, the "gateway drug" to the full game, as it were. They're coming out with enough Essentials line stuff over the next few months that you can keep the training wheels on for quite some time. I don't expect that the slight mechanics and rules changes from Essentials to regular 4e will be all that jarring or surprising once someone gets familiar enough with gameplay in Essentials, and maybe as with the case of magic missile, a wizard will be glad to have the thing do a little more damage than just an automatic 5 (which is, incidentally, the sort of damage a minion does). Essentials takes its place about halfway between the ultra-simplistic D&D Miniatures Game rules and the full 4th Edition rules, and the Red Box rules are elegant enough for new players and hardly require any time-consuming rules disputes, which are the speed train for pissing potential new gamers off so bad they never want to tabletop again. I'm looking at you, Rifts.

In the end, I think that having the Red Box is an awesome way to start on D&D, and I think it is a savvy advertising move for Wizards to make. The Red Box just doesn't have enough options to make it really fulfilling past level 2; unless Heroes of the Forgotten Lands has a LOT more stuff to spec out the characters with, it's going to sort of force players who want to continue to buy at least the PHB ($34.95 MSRP). I'm sort of curious to look at the new Essentials "Rules Compendium" book to see how they've fiddled with the PHB for the "complete" Essentials rules. I don't think that Essentials constitutes a "4.5" build of D&D at this point, not like what happened between 3 and 3.5. I see absolutely no major conflict at all with working Essentials into regular 4ed, slight mechanics changes be damned.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Opinions on Gamma World

Recently Wizards of the Coast has been publishing a sort of goofy amount of Dungeons and Dragons, 4th edition themed products.  I honestly think this is a good idea.  After retiring the D&D Minis game (and more recently, D&D minis, period), there were not a lot of options for "low impact" play, and I think that Ashardalon and Ravenloft fit into that niche nicely (because Three Dragon Ante, let's face it, was not to everybody's taste).   I think that the best innovation of the D&D4-themed board games is that they both allow for solo play, which is just downright awesome.  How WELL they implement solo play, however, is not something that I've seen; i'd love to hear some comments on that.  I haven't gotten a chance to take a look at either of them in depth.

The "1 player" option described on the new Essentials Red Box was the character creation choose-your-own-adventure game that was not only short, but limited.  Perhaps it would have been more satisfying if there were multiple different "adventures" that you could choose between to the same end. The "Dungeon Delve" book from a couple years back was much more successful at solo D&D, but still had the distinct flavor of playing chess with oneself; you ultimately realize that you're favoring one side over the other.  You have the choice of trying to make good tactical choices for one side over the other, or running it purely mechanically, and both options result in passing time, but devoid of real fun.  I suppose that's why RPG video games exist; KotOR is just straight 3e D20.

But the real point of tabletop RPGs is the social component.  This is why solo is always so unsatisfying, and why PBeM/PbP is also so unsatisfying.  Not only do they take forever, but there is nothing dynamic or interesting about the game.  It's purely an exercise in mechanics, and I find that dreadful.  It is that reason too why I never found AD&D very interesting, nor Warhammer Fantasy/40K, nor Warmachine, nor Pathfinder now.  I'm just not a rules-heavy person.  The more time spent looking at charts, the less time spent having fun.  This is the core of the doctrinal conflict revolving around the "Edition Wars" going on right now as far as I can see it, and why they will never be won.  Some people are interested in the system, other people are interested in the game.  The only "rules-heavy" system I really got in to was MERP, since the tables are hilarious and they actually made looking things up on tables and pawing through the books over and over again entertaining, like part of the actual gameplay.  I'll always prefer simple rulesystems, despite how abstract they render the "immersion" of the game (i.e. what is "bloodied" and what does it have to do with anything except as an arbitrary signifier?  probably nothing), because simple rulesystems to me showcase the social component, rather than the "scientific" component.

It's not to say that I don't understand wargaming or the more mathematical types of games like Warmachine and 40K, it's just not something I am interested in, even ignoring the cost aspect (like even reasonably small Warhammer mechs can cost 50 bucks, and they're sort of required for play).  Could my mind eventually be changed about this?  Probably.  Grognard I am not.

For these reasons above, combined with a love for postapocalyptic things in general, I must profess my undying love for the newest edition of Gamma World.

Not only do I think that it is a great introduction to D&D4 rules to begin with (much better than even the Red Box, I think), but the high level of abstraction in character creation allows for a bafflingly huge amount of flexibility without having to accommodate for weird obscure rules, which I think is tedious.  Character creation itself in Gamma World is fun, and in fact I spend a lot of time rolling up random characters just for the zany joy in seeing what craziness pops up.  I'm not familiar with previous editions of Gamma World at all, and in fact I had never even heard of it until they started talking about it as a D&D addon about a year ago.  I understand that not even it is immune to Edition Wars, although this essay points out why the GW edition wars are downright frivolous (in addition to just being entertaining to read, whether you care about Gamma World edition wars or not).  It does seem evident that the D&D4 Gamma World (which is technically Gamma World 7) does take quite a radical departure from previous editions, but I don't know if that's necessarily a bad thing.

The most important thing to recognize about Gamma World is that it's hilarious.  A lot of people who have reviewed it have suggested that that is a downside, that the humor limits it to being a "casual" game, rather than something that would be the subject of a multi-adventure campaign, but I disagree.  The mechanics do apparently preserve the deadliness of previous editions, where character death is not only common, but ultimately almost inevitable.  Character creation accommodates for that, and so if your character dies, you simply roll up a new one (the whole process takes 5-10 minutes tops) and claim that this new character walks up and joins the rest of the party after the previous encounter had ended.  So while characters may come and go, a consistent campaign can continue unless the encounter ends in a TPK.  The hallmark of D&D4, balance, also helps with characters in GW, although there are still some situations where one character is just downright better at the get-go than others, but there is also never any reason to use the excuse of "taking the character behind the barn and shooting it," like in previous editions if faced with a terminally sucky character.

The other huge benefit to the D&D4 treatment is modularity.  It is, officially, called "D&D Gamma World," and that's what it says on all the boxes.  It uses D&D4 rules, that are only slightly modified (even from the Essentials rules, which are themselves modified from the full version).  But there is no impediment to reskinning any monster out of any of the monster manuals or the monster vault and making it something appropriate to Gamma World, on top of the already 167 monsters published in the three Gamma World rulebooks.  And you can use the Dungeon Master's Screen (or the new Essentials-keyed Deluxe Dungeon Master's Screen, which is honestly a worthy upgrade from the original) to figure basic damage for random attacks.  You can even use the Screen to quickly come up with new monsters on the fly, which only takes a few minutes to flesh them out, avoiding the necessity to reskin anything at all; just apply the abstract rules that already govern character creation to monster creation.

Probably the best addition to Gamma World though are the cards.  The box itself comes with 40 "Alpha Mutation" cards and 40 "Omega Tech" cards, which you can shuffle up and hand out as rewards to players, as well as one-off power bonuses to players in battles.  The most effective way to use them is to make relatively smaller sub-decks out of the whole mix out of things that may help (or hinder, if you're a sadist) the players during the adventure, but leaving everything in makes it a lot more random (and occasionally hilarious).  There are also 10 bonus cards available with the Legion of Gold expansion, as well as randomized boosters (it is Wizards of the Coast we're talking about) containing 8 cards each.

The boosters themselves are a terrible idea, mostly because I, and I'd guess either a lot of or most RPG players, hate random boosters.  Why would you want that?  You invariably end up with tons of copies of worthless, stupid cards that you spent too much money on and don't want to throw away, and they don't do any good for anybody.  Boosters are a waste of time and money, and if I wanted to play Magic: The Gathering, I'd play that.  But I don't, because I hate Magic: The Gathering.

Enter the internet, where people are occasionally selling the entire 120 card set of booster cards, or else sets of the 40 commons, 40 uncommons, and 40 rares.  In this way I was able to get all 80 commons and uncommons for about 10 bucks on ebay, and depending on whether I could get the rares for 20-30 bucks I'd get those too, but they seem to sell out whenever they appear really fast.  I don't want to buy them in any other way, because why would you?

But anyway, the boosters are not necessary for gameplay, but they do allow you to increase the number of crazy things you can have happen in the game, and I think getting the non-randomized sets of boosters is a good way to get an instant expansion, and they are mostly inexpensive.  I know Wizards is probably desperate for money and boosters are a good way to generate lots of revenue on impulse purchases but come on guys, know your market.  Don't cross-contaminate.

The other component to Gamma World is the concept of "Ancient Junk."  Ancient Junk is just that...  junk.  Stuff left over from before the apocalypse, in whatever form it ultimately came (the story in the new GW is that an accident at the Large Hadron Collider caused a collapse of all possible realities, which explains why there is so much crazy crap everywhere).  Instead of having money or ammunition or anything like that, commerce is made abstract.  You can trade types of Ancient Junk for other things in a barter system that can be hilarious, as well as do Fallout-esque customization of junk to however you can imagine.  You either "have" ammunition or "not," and the rule is basically if you are conservative with ammunition use in an encounter, you still have it at the end, but if you go crazy during the encounter, you are out of ammo and need to find more.  This is so you can be more creative with weapons (at character creation you don't choose from a list of weapons, you choose something like "light one-handed melee weapon" or "heavy two-handed gun," and then make up what it actually is) and not have to worry about what type of ammo you need.  So at the end of an encounter, GMs can reward the party with more ammunition, a couple rolls on the random junk tables (or a click on the junkulator), or a draw from the Omega Tech deck.

The last thing I like about Gamma World, overall, is the low level cap.  I don't know about anyone else, but I prefer low level games to high level games.  I think that at low levels things are still really interesting, dangerous, and compelling.  Once you hit Paragon and Epic tier in D&D4, it becomes more of the same (although some Epic-level encounters can be fun to come up with because you are just SHOWERING the party with damage), but low levels are deadly and exciting.  The level cap in Gamma World is 10, and you level up much faster than in D&D4.  You get new powers and abilities at each level, so there are no filler levels, which keeps the excitement about leveling up high.  I prefer dangerous games (like Shadowrun, Call of Cthulhu, Cthulhutech, etc.) so this is right up my alley.

I'll probably get in to specific aspects regarding Gamma World in later posts, but this is me being broad about largely what I identify as some of its highlights and upsides.  Gamma World, given the terse rules and only abstract guides to character creation, as well as the speediness of character creation and very little time necessary to come up with quick encounters, makes it a more "low impact" alternative to D&D or other "big" games, so it can easily stand in for a weekly game, but I hope I've already helped to point out a few aspects to why it should also be taken more seriously as a long-term game (since really the only limit is the imagination of the GM).  There is really no need to shrug it off as frivolous fun, despite the zaniness. Who says a serious game can't also be funny?  And this is coming from someone who's favorite genre is (humor-free) eldritch horror.
Greetings and salutations and welcome to My Very First Post™ where maybe soon real content will grow and flourish like the noble ragweed.

For now, an obscure reference:

Along the shore the cloud waves break,
The twin suns sink behind the lake,
The shadows lengthen
In Carcosa.

Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies,
But stranger still is
Lost Carcosa.

Songs that the Hyades shall sing,
Where flap the tatters of the King,
Must die unheard in
Dim Carcosa.

Song of my soul, my voice is dead,
Die thou, unsung, as tears unshed
Shall dry and die in
Lost Carcosa.

—"Cassilda's Song" in The King in Yellow Act 1, Scene 2