January 08, 2008

4th Edition...Alignments

In case you haven’t heard, Wizards of the Coast is coming out with Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition. I state this early so that you will know this is a gamer article, with little to no non-gamer use, save perhaps as a sociological study or a modern history piece.


I’m pretty much against it. My base rule is to wait at least one year after its release before I seriously consider playing it. This doesn’t mean I won’t purchase the books or protest the online community (I’ll more than likely join it).


Of course it’s too early to tell for sure one way or another and the reasons for hating and loving it are legion. More flavor for the fighter classes, civilization as points of light the vast darkness, and rules simplifications in some areas are three examples that get me excited to see the new edition.


The idea of roles, the defender, striker, controller and healer are rather neutral elements in this getting to know 4th edition journey. If fighters can work at being controllers or healers (though obviously not as good as other classes) and wizards can take on defender or striker roles, then I’ll be excited. Based on current information, it would seem that this is the way that it is going. There are some fears that the rogue will become the primary damage dealing class, which I distain due to philosophy that rogues, in a table top role-playing game, should be better suited to social situations and sneaking around (which includes “striking” in fast and quick at unsuspecting targets) and the fighter should always outclass the rogue when it comes to dealing damage. But the idea that the rogue will outclass the fighter seems to be born more out of online fear than hard facts.


But the more I read, the more I hear, the more I dislike what is coming, or at the very least I dislike the idea of what I think is coming.


Take recent revelations about the wizard class:


“Even though we want wizards to have a little less "concept sprawl" into all forms of arcane magic, that doesn't mean that every necromancy, enchantment, or illusion spell will be stripped out of their spell lists. You won't be able to really build a specialist Enchanter, but you can still build a wizard with a couple of handy enchantments.” January 7th, 2008.


This implies that either “some” or “many” of the necromancy, enchantment and illusion spells have been stripped from the wizard’s spell list. Previously, the wizard class was the epitome of magic use (1st edition even named the class “magic-user” and only when those characters reached higher levels could they call themselves “wizards”). A wizard could develop a wide assortment of spells to cover every situation and the player was left to his or her intelligence and creativity in preparing the best choices for a given day or encounter. With three “schools” of magic stripped down, that leaves only 5 left; abjuration, conjuration, divination, evocation, and transmutation. In classical fantasy, such as Howard’s Conan works, the archetypal wizard bad-guys were necromancers, enchanters and illusionists (with conjurers as well). So from a Dungeon Master’s view, his archetypal foes for the player’s have been stripped of their powers. Perhaps other classes, such as the bard and warlock, will take up the slack, but gone (apparently) is the ability of the DM to have some peasant describe the inhabitant of the dark tower as a vile ‘wizard” giving rise to the fear of either fighting a foe with a large assortment of spells or fighting a foe specialized in one of the classic schools of magic.


Alignment is another area that is being changed;


[Wizards of the Coast] are greatly reducing [alignment’s] scope because of the harmful pigeonholing it's done in the past.”




“One major change to this system in 4E is the fact characters can choose to be “unaligned,” having no significant impulses towards good or evil. Characters can still choose to be good or evil (law and chaos are not mentioned), but most characters and monsters will be unaligned. Unsurprisingly, most spells and powers that revolve around alignment are now gone.”


“Harmful pigeonholing”… perhaps, maybe with inexperienced players. To the more experienced players this is idiotic. Dungeons & Dragons has always been about heroic battles, good vs. evil, and the vanquishing of terrible foes. It’s always been stated that alignment is a general outlook for most people, with the common populace often being neutral under a particular social alignment (often dictated by the structure and nature of the ruling class). In other words, those in power dictated the national alignment while the population generally remained neutral (or slanted to the alignment of their species – I’ll use ‘species’ throughout as I prefer it to ‘race’). Only when player’s start claiming that their character needs to do something stupid because they are chaotic, they can’t have fun because they are lawful, they can’t be angry because they are good or they have to be a serial killer because they are evil does alignment become an problem, but it’s a problem of the players, not the system.


“Unaligned”. Neutral by any other name would still play the same. While it is true that the neutral alignment is often implemented as a “balancer” philosophy (which is then extended to nature and the idea that a neutral character seeks balance in the natural order), it has also been used, quiet effectively, for the common man.


“Each race seems to have a clear “homeland”.


Okay, so in the core books they are using the whole civilization as “points of light” and as such Wizards of the Coast feels the need to separate the species into different areas. I dislike where it’s heading here, though there isn’t enough information at hand to argue one way or another. If it’s used as a guideline, as a general idea that elves prefer the woodlands and humans prefer the open plains, then fine. If they build and structure abilities and powers around these homelands then I’ll be annoyed.


One of the core issues with 4th edition is the removing of “fluff” powers. They started this with the demons and devils and their transition from 3.0 to 3.5. In 3.0, many of the more powerful demons and devils had a vast array of magical abilities, some useful in combat, others not. In 3.5 they removed many of the powers, scraping away the non-combat abilities more often than not.


A typical monster has a lifespan of five rounds. That means it basically does five things, ever, period, the end.

Giving a monster detect thoughts or telekinesis, for example, makes us feel like those monsters are magically in the minds of their minions and are making objects float across the room all the time. But they aren’t! Until the moment they interact with the PCs, they’re in a state of stasis. And five rounds later, they’re done.”


And they are correct about the five round lifespan. But that’s five rounds once initiative is rolled (or, possibly, five rounds counting the surprise round). What about the “role-playing” time. PC’s may scry or spy or just outright visit the creature in question, it’s not in stasis, it’s living. The monster may stalk the characters, detecting thoughts when it can…living. It may escape from the battle to live beyond those five rounds. The whole move of 4th edition to streamline combat, make it exciting, fast, and fun is great but it is being done at the expense of role-playing possibilities.


“If a DM can’t quickly find and easily adjudicate the five interesting things that monster is going to do, then the whole at-the-table experience suffers.” Ibid.


Which, like the alignment issue, is the problem of the players (specifically the DM) and not a problem with the system.


This is the issue that irks me the most, as the prices of the books continue to increase, as the demographics continually point to older (and therefore more self-sufficient and able to afford the books) audience, they are dumbing down the game. And while any experienced DM can add or subtract what he wants, why take away the “fluff” powers which would help new players think outside the box.


It is a terrible thing, that box, that thinking only of the five rounds of combat that an opponent plays upon the field of battle. It reduces the game to a complicated form of chess. It lays out the five things that creature will do, that all creatures like it will do, each round every time it is encountered. And if the creature escapes to fight another day, the players will have no surprises, there will be no awe as the creature cannot tap into different abilities, change its approach, learn from its mistakes. The box is shrinking, and as it does it creates more work for the DM to tailor encounters, so much so that a DM is better off playing 3rd edition or creating a new role-playing game herself.


Of course, 4th edition isn’t yet released and I don’t know the whole story. Perhaps the good will outweigh the bad. Perhaps the bad only appears to be so now amidst all the speculation. In six months we’ll see.

January 06, 2007

My Eden is your Hell: A ramble of d20 delights

Friday night. My wife, dressed up, comes into the garage/office and says, “I want to go out, nothing major, but I feel like being out of the house.” I sit back from staring at the slow rendering in Bryce of a topographic fantasy map I had been working on and look at her. Pull down menus of possible replies display on my retina, most of them very inappropriate to say to ones wife. “Okay,” is the reply that I finally choose. A few minutes later, my daughter is dressed as well as her mother and we’re on our way. From the neck up I feel like I fit in with the fashionable women in the car. From the waist down I’ve created the illusion that ripped jeans are back in style and I’m leading the pack with my creaky leather hiking boots.


We drive into the city, Santa Rosa with over 150,000 humans living within its bounds deserves to be called a city, and hit our favorite hole in the wall restaurant. After a fine meal of grilled fish chimichangas we head out side. The women are discussing whether to hit Barns & Nobles first or the mall, when I say, “lets go to the game store first. I have the gift certificate from the unholy holiday to spend.”


Three blocks later, and with much complaining about the cold, we reach the game store. From outside, I’m the first to peer through the windows at the glorious sight. Over forty, mostly teenage, men are gathered around tables playing various sorts of games, from Magic the Gathering to D&D. I grin widely and said, “Oh! Get ready for this!” I pull the door open and step inside, inhaling deeply the odorous cacophony of all forty-plus, non-deodorant wearing, boys. Sugar coated sweat from the games’ excitements hangs in the air like a brick wall.


The girls cringe, but follow me in. I smile wider and make my way past the rows of gamers to the back where the game books are. After a minute I turn to see the girls whispering. “He’s in one of my classes,” my daughter says. “The one over there?” my wife asks. “He’s the one that plays D&D?” I ask my daughter to which she replies, “yeah, and I’m one of the only ones that is nice to him.” I nod, and consider telling her, “but don’t lead him on if you’re not interested in him, don’t be too nice, it will crush him.” But I decided to keep my own experiences and insecurities to myself, plus what daughter wants to be lectured about boys in the middle of an overflowing game store on a Friday night? “What will you say to him if he asks you in school about why were you here, if he asks if you play D&D what will you tell him?” my wife asks. “Yeah,” my daughter replies. The grin only gets wider.


“Can I help you?” the manager says. I look at him and ask, “you’re all out of the Colossal Red Dragons aren’t you?”


“No,” he says, “we have one left.”


I’m able to resist all but five minutes, when finally I lean over a few of the gamers and gently take down the last box containing the colossal red dragon. I only make it five steps towards the counter before I have three of the gamers standing around me, “he’s taking the last red dragon!” “Our last one is going?!” The next thing I know I’m handing my gift certificate and credit card over to the manager while being pulled into a conversation that I don’t even know how it started. “Don’t feed it chocolate, they’re allergic to chocolate!” one of the boys instructs me. “They’re not allergic to chocolate,” the manager replies. “It might be allergic to dragons,” the boy replies and then corrects himself, “no, it wouldn’t be allergic to itself.” Then, without power, I’m pulled back fifteen years and reply, “well, maybe…Vulnerability to Self, take 1 ½ times damage from self.” No! I didn’t just say that. Quickly I sign the paper, grab the receipt and I’m about to run, but the manager says, “we don’t have a bag big enough for the box, but we do have a trash bag.” Good, I’m thinking, a nice black Hefty bag to hide the dragon while I’m walking in the mall. I say, “that’s fine,” and to my horror he pulls out a cheap, very clear, trash bag and puts the dragon inside. The boys are talking; I can’t hear what they’re saying. I grab the bag and one boy says, “treat him well.” “I will,” I reply, “he will kill many adventurers,” and I’m out the door.


Around the corner, across the street, and we’re in the mall: My wife, daughter, me and the red dragon. So large is the box I have to walk behind the girls so it doesn’t bang into their legs. Ten minutes of standing in Victoria’s Secret with a red dragon hanging at my side, and I’m actually starting to feel comfortable there. If I didn’t have two attractive women talking to me about pink and blue sweat pants the stares from the other patrons alone would have killed me.


I reflection, I realize that I exist in a world that few of you know, and most of you that do know it have left it far behind, ten or fifteen years behind. While I shower and wear deodorant every day (okay, sometimes a Saturday goes by with a natural stench in the air), have a job, and amazingly not in school anymore, I’m still a gamer, with all the gamer abilities and enchantments, including Immunity to Gamer Stench.

April 19, 2006

Virtual? Worlds

I’ve been eating and drinking “virtual worlds” lately. Not sleeping, mind you, that’s where I’ve found time to write this bit of floss. At work, I’m working on an article about educational computer-game design. This has led me to read article after article on games, from board games to role-playing games to computer games to MMORPGs. I’ve just seen the latest two fantasy movies. I’m working, in what spare time I have, on creating my own fantasy world (I have been for years). I play Dungeons & Dragons with “pen & paper” and World of Warcraft with an internet connection. Occasionally I even dabble in Second Life. The better part of my reality is focused on the unreal, I’m existing in a shared non-existence.


Virtual is no longer virtual. It was virtual, when it was a base concept being passed from one mind to the next to be mulled over in the possibilities of what could come to be, yet now the virtual is real, existing, affecting as much as it is effected upon by the mind. So, either virtual needs to be redefined in the light of what is, or we need to move away from calling them virtual worlds, they are now simply worlds where we exist, play, fight, flirt, and experience. Transcendence is a luxury of the dead; the virtual is laid to rest.