Tag Archives: D&D

The (Chaotic) Evil Empire

Eddy at ICC 2001For once, the picture on this blog post is actually relevant to what I’m talking about. The guy in the center is me ten years (and probably forty pounds) ago, playing my Brujah Anarch at the International Camarilla Conclave. More importantly, that’s me ten years ago playing in Vampire: The Masquerade, a part of the World of Darkness. Now, I’m the World of Darkness developer for the new WoD RPGs. One of the many things that means is that I’m helping to make more game material so that more people can make more memories like that for themselves.

But that LARP isn’t some isolated incident in the past, a wistful look back to the time when I used to game. Last night I played in a Sabbat-focused Masquerade LARP. Last weekend I made a character for a Dark Ages: Vampire game. The weekend before that I played in a different Masquerade LARP (this one centered around the Camarilla and the independent clans). I may be making the games, but I’m still a fan and still a player. I love Masquerade and Requiem (and all the other games) with different levels of passion and intensity, but I do love them.

A couple of weeks ago, Mike Mearls posted on the Internet about Dungeons & Dragons. Now, many people post about D&D on the Internet, but Mike is the Group Manager for the D&D Research and Development team, which is probably a title roughly analogous to my own. He posted his love of the various editions of D&D, and some of the sentiment he expressed mirrored a lot of my own thoughts about editions wars, so I didn’t think much of it except for giving Mike a mental fist bump before moving on.

Then Russell posted about the fan reaction to this:

There are, however, those who doubt Mike’s sincerity. He’s just making nice for the Pathfinder players, they say, in order to lure them insidiously into his brand-new gingerbread house D&D products. The ones that look like candy, but are soaked in cyanide. And WoWcraft.

There’s more, and I suggest you read it, but Russell’s zeroed in on a point that’s bugged me for a while: folks like us don’t get to be in charge of projects like this without having a shit-ton of passion for these games specifically, or for games in general. We’re not corporate drones designed to kill everything that’s awesome in gaming. Quite the opposite: in every interview for a game design position I’ve given or received, at some point there’s the question of “what games do you play?”

And it’s not just Mike and Russell and me. I play D&D with my boss once in a while. The president of CCP North America has an ongoing game. Our CEO once chatted with me about the best way to go about becoming the Prince of Reykjavik. Every time a new video game launches, the office will be full of people talking about it the next day. Some of the guys in the kitchen staff have a Requiem tabletop game. Even people we’ve hired from outside the game industry who don’t game seem to become gamers before too long.

So it’s hard for me to look at something that someone like Mike Mearls wrote and find any malicious design behind such a passionate love letter. It’s hard for me to attribute negative corporate decisions to faceless “suits,” because there aren’t many in most of the game companies I know. Granted, there are more and more businessmen in the video game industry as it continues to make (and spend) a staggering amount of money, but more often than not someone who works for a game company probably owns a set of polyhedral dice or a video game console and uses them.

Game companies might be more chaotic than we should be at times, but we’re probably not as evil as some folks think we are.

Edition Wars are Stupid

Belc, my human fighter in S&W

Since the start of 2009, I’ve been in one regular and one infrequent Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition game. During that time I’ve also run a short campaign of Mutant Future, and played in a game of Labyrinth Lord and Swords & Wizardry – all of which are various simulacrums of the very first edition of D&D. I played another game of Swords & Wizardry this past Friday, and aside from various observations of the merging of 1974 sensibilities with 2011 technology (just about everyone at the table used a tablet or a laptop to read the rulebook, for example)1, I realized something.

The so-called “edition wars” between D&D players, and indeed between 4e fans and the self-proclaimed “old-school renaissance” are utter bullshit.

We played a specific version of Swords & Wizardry, the “Complete” version put out by Frog God a couple months ago. I didn’t have it, but because I liked S&W, I bought the $10 PDF sight-unseen so I had it to play. I also have a printed version of the S&W White Box from Brave Halfling games, and I purchased the revised edition of Labyrinth Lord, so I’m putting money towards this old-school revival. At one point I also worked on notes for my own LL/S&W background. I’ve also dropped a fair bit of cash on D&D 4e and the new Gamma World stuff, and I’ve noodled around with ideas for a Masque of the Red Death-like conversion to 4e. The conclusion is pretty simple: I like both editions, and I like supporting both editions.

And it’s not just me. Every person I played with in the Swords & Wizardry game is in a regular D&D 4e game. Russell was the person who got me the S&W boxed set as a gift. Granted, I am using a statistical sample of “people in my office,” but I know the few times I’ve talked to my friends who weren’t aware of LL or S&W, they seemed at least interested to try it, even if they were playing 4e.

The reality is, the more you go to each end of the D&D experience, the more they become distinct. AD&D First Edition to D&D 3.5 are a spectrum of complex rules involving a middling amount of simulation and a middling amount of tactics, but at each end you have low simulation and tactics, and high simulation and tactics. Some times, I really like the idea of a very lean set of rules that get out of the way and let me craft the experience I envision with the other players, and other times I like the heroic feeling of my resources and tactics carrying the day against a cadre of villains.

What was most telling to me is where the two games are similar. I’m not talking about aesthetic similarities like the six core attributes on a 3-18 scale, or a numerical representation of hit points. There are more philosophical similarities. Specifically, 0e and 4e both approach the DM with the idea that it’s their world, and make it as easy as possible to let him “reskin” or reinterpret pieces of the game to suit their fantasy world. 0e does this by its sheer minimalism – you have to add texture to the game, and S&W Complete actually turns this into a feature and makes the game a little more reskinnable and toolkit-like to maximize this. Meanwhile, 4e builds this in as a feature and designs around it, so that the relative complexity of the rules give way to allow this reskinning and focus on acting as a well-oiled framework to practice your tactics in.

But even the differences aren’t bad. I like the ease of character creation and the implied fatality that 0e brings – there’s something interesting about taking a random creation and trying to make it work. It was one of the elements I liked in the most recent version of Gamma World, but I had envisioned that 0e was still unbalanced in this regard – certain builds are just better than others. And yet, for whatever reason S&W Complete showed me the truth – you don’t need characters with lots of stats above 13, because there isn’t a whole lot of difference between 13 and 18. Your weapon only does 1d4 (and indeed you might only have 1d4 hit points yourself), but each point of damage means something, and a +1 to damage is a massive thing. I really like the efficiency of that scale, even if I’m still terrified to make a magic-user.

Sadly, I don’t like participating on many D&D forums, because it inevitably breaks down into edition wars. The most inspirational D&D blog/community for me was, surprisingly, Playing D&D with Porn Stars. Zack takes an immensely DIY approach to his own games, combining AD&D with D&D 3.5 and whatever else seems cool to his own games. It does seem like he’s sliding a bit more towards old-school purity lately, but he’s pretty good about making design wank ultimately come back to something he can use at his table. But many other communities break down into edition wars, even if the editions have names now:

  • 0e: Swords & Wizardry, et al.
  • 1e: Labyrinth Lord, et al.
  • AD&D: OSRIC (a surprisingly small community, it seems).
  • D&D 3.0/3.5: Pathfinder.
  • D&D 4e.

It feels sometimes that each edition getting broken off and branded individually has made the conflict worse, although every pre-Pathfinder edition has come under the banner of the old-school Renaissance (but don’t be fooled – I’ve seen some flamewars of Labyrinth Lord vs. Swords and Wizardry that are blistering). But I’m not seeing a lot of people talking about taking all of these marvelous toolboxes and putting together the best experience for their players. And that’s a shame, because outside of the Internet, I’m seeing these editions co-exist quite peacefully.

  1. I’ll talk about using a table in gaming in the eventual review of the Galaxy Tab that I’ll do.

Rasenna and the Realms

Michelle's first game of D&D 4e as DM

(“Rasenna and the Realms” sounds like a cover band name.)

Today I originally wasn’t going to play D&D. Then I said I could, which led to it possibly happening, which led to it definitely happening, which led to it not happening. So, I’m left with some unexpected free time tonight, so I thought it would be worth talking a little bit about the two D&D games I’m in and comparing and contrasting them. Both games are using D&D 4e (or the fourth edition of the Dungeons & Dragons rules, for those who don’t speak fluent nerd).

The Realms

The first one is the game that Michelle (my wife) is running for about 6-7 of us. I don’t know if she ever gave the campaign a title, but it’s set in the Forgotten Realms, so in my head it’s just “The Realms”1 Since most of the group were 4e newbies and this is the first time Michelle’s been DM in, I believe, ever, we’re keeping it simple – only PHB and the Forgotten Realms Player’s Guide, and she’s running a pre-constructed adventure (Scepter Tower of Spellgard). We’ve been running off and on since around Thanksgiving with a group of people with a variety of experience – from those who started in the late 70s and early 80s to those who know about this D&D thing, but haven’t really gotten around to it yet. Michelle’s been really open about taking it slow and making sure we learn the game.

Continue reading Rasenna and the Realms

  1. When it’s not “Michelle’s D&D game, that is.