Monthly Archives: October 2011

Changes I Want to See in D&D 5e

Last week, I wrote about my predictions about D&D 5e. This week, I’d like to share a few things that I wish Wizards of the Coast would include in D&D 5e, but that I doubt would ever happen. Still, at least I can hope.

  • Hindrances: Heroes are not just defined by their strengths, but also by their flaws. Consider Superman with the constant need to rescue Lois Lane. Iron Man with his struggles with the “demon in a bottle.” Boromir (movie version) being so loyal to Gondor that he was willing to forcefully take the Ring from Frodo to use it to defend his homeland. Han Solo with, at least initially, always being “in it for the money.” I think that it would be really great for D&D heroes to be able to take a few hindrances in exchange for mechanical benefits, further making them memorable and less about being a walking bag of attacks. Which is more interesting, a flawless fighter or a fighter who is wanted by the law and is driven to find his lost love?
  • Action Points Like Story Points/Drama Points/Bennies: To me, Action Points just aren’t actiony enough. One additional standard action (usually an attack) every other encounter. Yawn! Other games do this much better with some sort of points that let you take extra actions, reroll bad die rolls, or alter the story. In my D&D games, I take a page from other systems and give them out for good role-playing and allow them to be used multiple times per encounter (but no more than once per turn) to get additional standard actions, reroll d20 rolls, or alter the story in a minor way. The result: more action in the points. It’d be nice if it were core.
  • Combined Skill & Attribute Checks: So the party wants to persuade someone? The silver-tongued devil who wants to fast-talk him like a used car salesman would roll a d20 and add her bonuses from Charisma and Diplomacy. If she fails, the opulent dwarf may be able to convince them by having a drinking contest and convincing the drunken loser to go along with their plan. He’d do this by rolling a d20 and adding bonuses from Constitution and Diplomacy (probably making an opposed check). Systems like Cortex and Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space do this well. I think it’s an interesting mechanic that allows more flexibility, more storytelling and more interesting characters. (That said, of all the things on the list, this I think is the one I could most easily do without).
  • XP Not Based on Killing Stuff: This is probably something I should devote an entire blog post to, but it’s important enough to mention here. Although the DMG does try to encourage the DM to give out XP for completing quests and finding non-violent solutions, running into a room and killing everything inside is the surest way to gain XP and therefore many players make that their default action. I think we’d have much more interesting (and less bloodthirsty) characters if XP were given out regardless of what happened in a session, or based on some other metric. It also might encourage players to run away from the monsters every now and then (ever seen that in 4e?).

Sadly, I doubt that these are going to happen. Things like XP for killing stuff are “sacred cows” which Wizards of the Coast has refused to kill. There are a lot of people who don’t want D&D to undergo drastic changes, but sometimes I really wish it would.

So that’s what I wish would happen in D&D 5e. What would you like to see?

Predictions About D&D 5e

Recently the PlatinumWarlock wrote a blog post predicting what changes we might see in the next major revision of Dungeons & Dragons. Margaret Weiss has directly stated that a new edition of D&D is in the works and there is other evidence that substantiates this as well (Source). So just like I predicted what a new Star Wars RPG from Fantasy Flight Games would look like, I’ve decided to make a few predictions about what we’ll see in a future version of D&D. When the final product comes out, I’ll revisit this to see how well I predicted.

Product Packaging

  • The first Player’s Guide will be in book form: I’m tempted to think that the Player’s Guide will be a box set containing books and some fiddly bits, but at the end of the day, I think that it will be in a book form due to cost. A lower price point means more potential players.
  • There will be one core product for Dungeon Masters and it will be a box set: D&D Essentials currently has the “Dungeon Master’s Kit” box set, containing a book with rules and DMing advice along with a book of monsters and some fiddly bits, like monster tokens. By doing this, it will be easier for a DM to obtain everything that he needs to run a basic game. And for what its worth, a DM needs both a Dungeon Master’s Guide and a Monster Manual, so it makes sense to sell them together.
  • Either the above two will happen OR it will be sold in one box set: I’m cheating a little bit, but I’m going to make a different prediction about this too. I think it’s somewhat likely that D&D 5e will be packaged in one box like Gamma World with everything you need to play inside. By being packaged like a board game, it might appeal to new players. Or at least old timers who fondly remember the original D&D colored box sets.
  • There will be a starter set providing a simplified D&D: This is a pretty sure-fire guess. There was a starter set for D&D 3.5, D&D 4e, and D&D Essentials. So it makes sense that there will be one here too.
  • There will be some sort of card deck that will be a necessary component for playing: Especially if it all comes in one box set, I think this will happen. Gamma World did this to limited success. I would guess that it would be something like a “special event” deck that modifies the battle. Whatever it is, the real reason it will be used is that it makes piracy more difficult. After all, having a PDF of cards doesn’t do you any good on your computer and printing it off on cardstock results in an inferior product.
  • Digital versions of the books will be available for sale, but will only be viewable with proprietary software: In 2009, Wizards of the Coast decided to stop selling PDFs of their products, citing piracy concerns (of course, this didn’t prevent people from pirating the book by scanning it in). It’s a bit of a strange thing to do in this modern, digital world and I think that they will finally cave in. But instead of being PDFs, they will sell files that can only be read through a proprietary program to limit the potential of piracy. Digital copies of school textbooks often do this and I think Wizards of the Coast will too.
  • There will be roughly the same number of classes, but more sub-classes: The way I see it, classes reflect what your character looks like and what they do, sub-classes reflect how they do it. In 4e, there was some support for sub-classes by this definition. If you made a Rogue, you might choose to make him an “Artful Dodger” or a “Brutal Scoundrel,” but this only had a minor influence on the game. Paragon Paths and Epic Destinies similarly provided a little bit of a sub-class. On the other hand, Essentials has classes like the Slayer which is a very distinct form of Fighter. I think that that we’re going to see sub-classes in the style of the Slayer in the Player’s Guide.
  • Powers as they appear in 4e will remain, but there will be fewer choices for each class: Powers were an interesting concept in 4e. Unfortunately, there became way too many of them as more supplements were added (some classes had as many as 15 to choose from at any given level). Plus I can only imagine how many hours Wizards spent making and play-testing the powers. I predict they will not disappear, but will be greatly reduced in number.
  • Instead of powers, many classes will get class abilities at certain levels: This was present in 3.x, but dropped from 4e except for Paragon and Epic destinies. However they did begin to reappear in the Essentials classes. I think they’ll become more prevalent in 5e.
  • We will have at most one new player-character race: There’s more than enough races to go around in D&D at the moment and I don’t expect there to be more. D&D 4e upgraded the Tiefling, Eladrin, and Dragonborn to player races, which previously existed as monster races. I think that at most we will see one new player-character race and the rest will be ones that have been seen before.
  • Human, Dwarf, Elf, Half-Elf, and Halfling will be player-character races: After all, they’re the archetypical fantasy races and have been in virtually every version of D&D. (Okay, so this prediction is just to pad my correct prediction ratio, but I made it anyway).
  • Dragonborn will stay as a PC race: Some people hate Dragonborn. Personally, I can’t figure out why. Sure, they’re not Tolkien-esque, but I think that’s what makes them appealing. I think they’ll stay as a core race and be included in Player’s Handbook 1 (or as a worst case, in Player’s Handbook 2).
  • Attributes scores will no longer correspond to 3d6: This is a sacred cow that I think is ready to be slaughtered. In the old days of D&D, you got your attributes by rolling 3d6 (or 4d6, drop the lowest) and then deriving a modifier from that. So an 8 in your Strength would give you a -1 modifier, a 10 would be +0, and a 12 would give you +1 and so on by steps of 2. D&D 4e still acknowledges that you can roll 3d6, but it strongly recommends using a point-buy system instead. So I predict they will take one more step away from the rolling and just make the modifier the same as the stat. So a Strength of -1 gives you a -1 modifier, a 0 would be +0, and a 1 would be +1. Much simpler! Mutants & Masterminds 3e already did this and I think it’s a simplification for D&D 4e too.
  • There will be a return to degrees of training (skill ranks or otherwise): In D&D 3.x, you bought skill ranks to add a +1 to a skill, which could be bought multiple times. In D&D 4e, you could be “Trained,” which gave a +5 bonus and could only be purchased once. Although it simplified things, I think it made trained characters a bit too similar. I’m predicting either a return to the old skill rank system or a happy medium. Maybe for different skills you could be one of four things: Untrained (+0), Apprentice (+2), Journeyman (+4), or Master (+6). Simpler and still with enough granularity.
  • Feats are here to stay in roughly the same forms: Feats seem to be one of the aspects of D&D that are least in need of a fix. They provide a small mechanical benefit that distinguish characters from each other. They’ll stay.
  • Percentile dice will still not be used for anything: I can’t think of a reason to use them over the other dice. Apparently the designers of 4e couldn’t either. This isn’t going to change.
  • Splat books will provide more character archetypes and fewer modifications for existing archetypes: We’re not going to see books like “Martial Power 2” or “Arcane Power.” Instead, we’ll see books that add new classes (or sub-classes).
  • By the time 5e is released, Forgotten Realms (in some form) will be announced as a setting: Forgotten Realms is the biggest D&D setting and ia the most likely candidate for one of the first settings. It will probably be Forgotten Realms as a whole, but may be a smaller part of the whole setting, like the new Neverwinter setting for 4e.
  • One other setting will be announced by the time 5e is released: Thus far with 4e, there have been 4 settings released (Forgotten Realms, Eberron, Dark Sun, and Neverwinter). Ravenloft was also announced as a setting, but was cancelled. I think that they’ll pick up the pace with releasing settings in 5e and we’ll see more of them.

So those are my predictions. Perhaps some of them were influenced more by what I personally would like to see, but overall I think that it’s a fair guess at where D&D is going. Perhaps the best way to sum it up is that D&D 5e will be more of tune-up revision of D&D rather than a major overhaul.

Please comment and share your predictions. Anything you agree with? Anything you flat out disagree with? Anything you predict that I didn’t? I’d love to hear what you think!

Multiple Campaigns in the Same World

Lately I’ve been catching up on TV shows like Alphas and Warehouse 13. The first is a show about a group of people tracking down people with extraordinary abilities (somewhat like the show Heroes). The second is about finding “artifacts” that are possessions of historical characters that have been imbued with mysterious powers. What I find is interesting is that although they have different premises and tones, those two shows, along with a third show called Eureka are all in the same fictional universe.

Fargo (from Eureka) and Claudia (from Warehouse 13) work together

The three aforementioned TV shows take place in the present day United States and occasionally there are characters from one show who will guest star in another show and be involved with that episode’s plot. For instance, one episode of Warehouse 13 had Douglas Fargo, a computer expert from Eureka, show up to perform a computer systems upgrade on the Warehouse (and help fight against a sentient security measure nobody knew about that accidentally got invoked). The same thing happened in Alphas where Dr. Calder, the doctor for the Warehouse, came to investigate a series of mysterious illnesses in a town (she was no doubt looking for an artifact, but it was actually an individual who had an “Alpha ability” that was causing it).

It made me wonder a bit if maybe campaigns could cross over. This could happen in one of two ways: two campaigns in the same setting cross over or two campaigns in similar settings cross over. For instance, you might have a Deadlands session where a member of the posse from the campaign you all played in last year shows up to help the current posse out (or clean up their mess). Maybe your Epic-level, plane-hopping D&D campaign might take a quick trip to the Dark Sun plane and run into the group you all played in the last campaign. Even little allusions might go a long way to making things interesting:

A newspaper clipping like this wouldn't be out of place in a modern-day game of any genre. (It refers to a previous campaign where the Watchmen-style superheroes had terrible luck and died in a car crash).

Obviously, the crossovers should be done only if the players are going to get a kick out of it (i.e. it may be fun for the GM to bring in a character from a previous campaign, but if the players aren’t going to care, then what’s the point?). Also, the crossover needs to imply that the two campaigns can somehow coexist in the same setting.

Also, the crossover shouldn’t disrupt the tone and flow of the current campaign. For instance, if you were playing a spy campaign and there’s a character from the mafia campaign you played last year, the focus should still be on the spy part. In other words, the problem should be solved by tactical planning and stealth, not by going in guns blazing like in the mafia game.

Finally, I firmly believe that the current characters should be the star of the story, not the guest characters. No matter how awesome they were in the other campaign or how equipped they are to solve the current problem, they shouldn’t be the ones to save the day. Otherwise, you run the risk of having a powerful NPC that overshadows the players, like Jackie Wells in Deadlands.

So to sum all that up, campaign crossovers can be fun, whether in the same setting or just similar ones. But the focus should still be on the current group. They should still solve problems their own way and they should definitely be the heroes.

Picking a System to Evoke the Setting’s Feel

I’m a fan of different role-playing game systems. Each one offers a unique way of playing your game and each focuses on different aspects. One thing I’ve noticed is that some systems do a better job at evoking the “feel” of the setting as others. By evoking the feel I mean setting the general tone, encouraging the characters to do the things that are important, and allowing sessions to focus on the important themes of the setting. That’s not to say that a system that evokes a certain feel forbids characters from acting contrary to it, but it makes it easier to do the things that the setting are all about.

Saving the world since before you were born!

Consider Doctor Who, the popular British sci-fi show about a time traveller and his companions who, unbeknownst to the world, saves Earth time and again from alien creatures. A big aspect of this setting’s feel is that it’s generally upbeat. Although there are certainly times when things get serious or when things turn out irrevocably for the worse, generally the Doctor saves the day and the wrongs are righted. This is almost always accomplished through ingenuity (and often a deus ex machina). And combat is virtually non-existent, you either run or use your ingenuity to defeat the bad guys, rather than resorting to violence.

So a system for Doctor Who would need to emphasize all that. My go-to system, Savage Worlds, would be a terrible choice for it. Most of the rules in Savage Worlds are for combat. Consequently, characters that are created are generally going to be good at combat. The problem is that they’ll probably use that first. After all, why run when you can pull your sidearm out and shoot at the creature chasing you?

It could work with a skilled GM, but I think it would be more trouble than its worth to make a Savage Doctor Who feel like the TV show. Fortunately, there’s Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space, which I’ve talked about several times on this blog (I’ll write a formal review some day). A lot of that comes from rules that are specifically designed to capture the feel of the TV show. For instance, there are lots of rules for solving problems (especially through talking, moving, and doing), but characters lose all their story points when they engage in an act of unprovoked violence.

My name is Michael Westen. I used to be a spy until...

Lately I’ve been catching up on Burn Notice, a TV show about a former CIA spy who has been blacklisted. Along with a few of his companions, he uses his training to do jobs of questionable legality, but he has a strong code of conduct; he will do all he can to right the greater wrongs in the world. For instance, he’ll sneak into a corporate facility and steal classified data if it will help root out a corrupt businessman who is harming someone who has come to him for help. Combat is not out of the realm of possibility, but it is usually a last resort.

One of the things that makes the show fun to watch is seeing some of the creative solutions that the characters have for their problems. For instance, one episode had them temporarily hiding a tracking bug by putting it under the hood of a car next to some metal, then grounding it to the car’s sound system in order to create an EM field strong enough to disrupt the transmission (unfortunately frying the sound system in the process). So to capture the feel of the show, you’d probably need a system that allows for that kind of granularity. Savage Worlds might be a poor fit because a single Repair roll to pull off the aforementioned trick just isn’t quite as satisfying as actually creating the plan and making it happen.

I don’t know of any systems that are a perfect match for this kind of behavior, but I think that Cortex by Margaret Weis Productions would be a closer fit. One of the things I like about it is that to do a task, you pair up an attribute and a skill. So to fast talk a guard into letting you inside, you would use Intelligence and Persuasion. But trying to lower the price of a car by giving the salesman a Bernie Mac handshake would be a roll of Strength and Persuasion. The combinations of the attributes and skills provide more varied actions and would encourage the more creative solutions seen in Burn Notice.

At the end of day, I think that a skilled GM and a willing group of players can make any system work with a particular setting. It may not be an optimal fit, but I think they could make it work if they put the effort into it. But it’s still worth trying to find a system that supports the overall feel of the setting.

Knowing When to Avoid Combat

So this semester, I’ve been running a game of Necessary Evil, a plot-point campaign for Savage Worlds in which all the players are supervillains. Last session I had every player character, save one, die and if she didn’t have the power of Invisibility, she probably would have too.

Their mission (Plot Point 3: The First Family) was to head to a military outpost where the V’sori, the big bad aliens who have taken over the world, are holding the president of the (now obliterated) United States and his family and are scheduled for public execution. Although they are villains, they had to rescue them because one of the family members new the location of Hydra’s secret base. Plus it would hopefully bolster resistance support if the family were to escape instead of being publicly executed.

The team arrived at the outpost and, seeing only six guards outside, went in guns blazing. But two rounds in, the doors to the facility burst open and 12 Drone Soldiers, 6 K’tharen Troopers, 4 elite K’tharen bodyguards, and a V’sori warlord came out of the compound to aid in the fight. The team stayed, fought, and died.

But it didn’t have to be that way. The scenario listed a lot of ways to completely avoid such a difficult combat. If they waited, they would have seen a few guards come out to check the spacecraft, who they could have quietly incapacitated and stolen their armor. Alternatively, they could have had the team’s gadgeteer sneak up to one of the ships and rig an override to make it under her control. Having one part of the team make a distraction while the other part went to rescue the family would have worked too. But the scenario did say that if they went directly into combat, they would have to face a really tough battle with all the soldiers at the outpost.

I’m guessing the group partly chose their course of action because they were used to the D&D mentality of bursting into a room and killing everyone inside. Usually those are “balanced encounters” where the team has reasonable chance of winning. Avoiding combat because it’s too difficult or running away are rare in D&D and I think my players were in the same mindset. Hopefully this experience has taught them when to fight and when not to.

But all is not lost. Since this is a comic book world, hardly anybody ever dies for real. The V’sori have taken the villains’ unconscious bodies to one of their motherships and are going to be experimenting on them. The remaining survivor and another Omega cell (a guest group of player characters) are going to be going on a mission next session to rescue them. Raiding a mothership is absolutely suicidal, but Dr. Destruction has a few tricks up his sleeve to get them on undetected. Once they’re on though, they’re going to be on their own. Should be a very interesting session where going in guns blazing is definitely NOT the answer!

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