Thursday, June 26, 2014

You've Got a Nothic Thing Coming

WotC has released a sample page of monsters from the Starter Box. Keep in mind that the whole point of the Starter Box is to train budding new DMs. That said, I think there’s both good and bad in what I’m seeing here:

First, the bad: why no picture of the nothic? Maybe it’s on another page? This is clearly a bizarre thing. Does it have working hands? Legs? Or does it move about upon a giant slimy tail, like a slug?

Nothics have traditionally been goofy-looking critters with no more backstory than “humanoid that wants to eat your face and has wacky eye powers.” Clearly, WotC wants to change this, and I love the notion of them being mutated wizards who have peered too long and too deep into the abyss. (Though doesn't that better fit warlocks?  And how, exactly, does one turn into a nothic?  What should PC wizards do to avoid such a fate, and can a foe trick them into it?)

But there’s so much that’s left to the imagination here. Do they have opposable thumbs? What do they want? Do they serve some dark cosmic being, or are they all Gollums-without-rings, lurking about in dark places and going on and on about eating raw fish?

The answers to those questions can be happily campaign or even location-specific, with card-cheat, pants-wearing nothics in one location and feral, face-chewing nothics in another. But there are deeper issues with this description that cripple its utility at the table. How does their Rotting Gaze attack work? Is it a beam that shoots from the eye, and if so, can it be reflected with a mirror? Or does the nothic just manifest wild entropy in the flesh of its target? Or is it some sort of necrotic tear-spray?

In a computer game, the differences are fairly academic. In a tabletop RPG, they’re vital. Knowing something of how the attack works answers questions like:

  • can it penetrate magical defenses? Fog? Smoke?
  • can one character try to block the attack by leaping between the nothic and its target?
  • does the attack damage gear? Can it be used against inanimate objects like doors, ropes, chains, or blindfolds?
  • can the PCs harvest it and use it against foes after killing a nothic?

And that’s just what I can come up with off the top of my head about how players will tackle this odd critter. With only the (nearly complete lack of) clues in the description, it’s impossible to guess, which means nothics in one campaign will be fleeing at the sight of mirrors while in others they will be flinging necrotic tears with wild abandon.

Which isn’t that huge an issue in home games but is HUGE in organized play. And I kinda thought WotC wanted organized play to be a big thing now? 

And that all said, the weird insight ability is awesome! Can the nothic search for a secret in particular, or are they random? If the former, they’d make excellent interrogators and (ha-ha) private eyes.

Monday, June 23, 2014

An RPG Company (kinda) Performs Market Research!!!

This "living ruleset" thing looks like the stirrings of a tempest in a tea pot to me.  Quite frankly, it's the least most RPG publishers should do to take the pulse of their audience.  I see no difference between WotC's surveys and what Raggi does (though I suspect Raggi's attempts are more effective).  Neither option is terribly scientific, and both heavily favor those who regularly use the platforms on which the data-collection occurs and enjoy blathering about their own opinions.  (In short, people like me!)

Though now I'm curious if they do anything to collect data via D&D Encounters.  Sure, they collect "results" but do they collect what races and classes are played?  What about spells prepped and cast?  Abilities used?  How long certain fights take?  Solutions attempted in the face of challenges?

On the other hand, how useful would this data be?  There's long been talk about D&D being shaped by organized play in directions that are not terribly friendly to private games. 

At the end of the day, I'm happy to see folks performing any sort of market research on RPGs.   After decades of stupid and incorrect "conventional wisdom" (Box sets killed TSR!  Adventures are loss-leaders, necessary but a drain on publishers!) it's nice to see folks actually taking the time to find out what gamers actually think and want and use and buy. 

Right now, within easy reach of me, are the core dead-tree resources I use regularly in my weekly games: Moldvay's Basic, Cook's Expert, Vornheim, and 2e's Al-Qadim book (primarily for the equipment lists) and Monstrous Manual.  It's not a collection I think any market strategy team would ever devise.  It is, however, a collection of book-types that have served me very well over the years: basic rulebooks, a monster book, and a book of gear and services PCs should be able to purchase whenever they've returned to civilization.  Vornheim mostly gets used for generating NPCs and for its wonderful searching-a-library rules (among other odd bits in it).  The 1e DMG isn't at hand, but I pull it out when doing prep work.

This collection hasn't changed much since 1990.  Back then, the Moldvay/Cook books were replaced by the 2e PHB.  The Al-Qadim book was replaced by the Arms & Equipment Guide and Arora's Whole Realms Catalogue.  The Monstrous Manual was heavily supplemented with 1e's MM and MM2, largely for the demons, devils, daemons, and modrons, all of whom made regularly appearances in my college game.

I bring this up to speak of the limits of the sort of market research I see WotC performing.  They're looking backward: what did we do right and what did we do wrong?  A stronger focus on utility would probably serve them better, but they need to take a broad view of utility.  I replaced two books narrowly focused on my need (the Arms & Equipment Guide and Arora's) and replaced them with a book that, ostensibly, has little or nothing to do with that need (Al-Qadim).  Utility has nothing to do with what's on the cover and everything to do with what's inside and what can and does get used at the table.

How do you capture that data?  Maybe by asking DMs to take snapshots of their gaming table at the end of the game so you can see what books and resources are there, having been used.    

Friday, June 20, 2014

DMG as Hackers Guide for 5e D&D

From an interview with Mike Mearls over at the Escapist:

Mearls: The DMG is, well - going back to Basic D&D as a starting point - if you think of the Player's Handbook as for the player who is looking at character classes and played a couple of them and wants more options or wants to fine-tune what their character is, or who says "I want to play a paladin." The DMG serves the same role for the DM. Basic D&D hits core fantasy, it's stereotypical fantasy adventuring. If you're the DM and you want to do something more exotic, you say "I want to add technology to my game" or "I want to have more detailed rules for a grim and grittier game, more of a horror game." That's where the DMG comes in, it's for really fine-tuning your campaign, and creating a different type of experience than your standard fantasy campaign. It's also for expanding the scope of the game. So we've talked about things like ruling a domain or things like that. The more detailed rules for that would be in the DMG. We've talked about having some basic rules for things like that in Basic D&D but we're not 100% into it either way - is it confusing to new players or is it nice that it gives them a clear progression? We're still not quite decided on that yet. It's for if you want more depth on specific topics.

The DMG also has a lot of utilities in it, like for dungeon creation, adventure creation, creating monsters, creating spells, even if you wanted to create a character class. It's not quite the point-buy system from 2nd Edition, but it does say things like "Well if you want to create a class for your campaign then here's a good way to approach it."

So it's really for getting under the hood of how the system works and building up your campaign.

Bolding: So really, besides maybe Unearthed Arcana, there's never really been a hacker's guide, as it were, for D&D.

Mearls: No, exactly. And that's what we were inspired by. People like to tinker with their campaigns, and especially if you've been DMing for a while and you kind of want to do something different. Really going into in-depth [changes]. And now, it's not going to be deconstructing everything, but it's giving you the tools you need to make your own changes. And there's always going to be art to it, like monster creation, we can't give you a formula that's perfect. What do you do with a monster that has one hit point, one AC, and can cast harm once per day? How do you balance that? There's no simple answer, but even just telling DMs that helps.

I'm actually pretty happy to see this.  Others may disagree with me, but I've found the advice for DMs in post-Gygax-era D&D to be of questionable value.  ("Here's some problem players you may run into and some passive-aggressive methods for dealing with them, since expecting you to act like adults never occurred to us!")  Getting at what the rules are trying to do and how tinkering with them might affect things would have been great advice back at the beginning.  Having these sorts of assumptions and ideals spelled out in advance will give new DMs a leg-up on understanding what the game's about and what they'll need to do to make it be about something else.

Monday, June 16, 2014

EN World Interviews Monte Cook and Shanna Germain

In which we learn that gaming is rising in popularity among 30-something women, D&D nearly didn't survive the '90s, and OD&D is utterly lacking in a resolution mechanic.

  • How D&D nearly didn't survive the '90s and (some of) the thinking behind the OGL @ 10 mins & 17 mins.
  • Thoughts on Kickstarter and how it's changing the RPG industry and landscape @ 35 mins.
  • OD&D and what the early years of RPGs were like @ 43 mins.  
Lots of good stuff here, worth a listen though you don't necessarily need to watch it.  So perfect for doing the dishes or as a break from your usual podcast feed.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Not sure if this would be hella cool or just annoying.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

An OGL for 5e

So, assuming WotC decides they want an OGL of some flavor for 5e, what should it look like?

The original OGL was intended to encourage DMs to publish their adventures. At the time, the conventional wisdom was that adventures were necessary to support an RPG, but in general cost more to make than they brought in. As with “box sets killed TSR” it was part of the conventional wisdom that turned out to be untrue as Paizo and James Edward Raggi IV proved, both building empires on a foundation of adventures.

Granted, the OGL and d20 license didn't work as planned. Instead, they resulted in a rash of splatbooks. If WotC is lucky, they'll get that again with 5e.

It's pretty obvious that WotC is following Paizo's lead with their linked adventure “storylines” like Tyranny of Dragons. They want to continuously publish entire campaigns worth of adventures, teased and supported by their weekly play Encounters program. And they want to keep the barriers to entry into the game low, hence the free-to-download Basic D&D PDF.

And because of that, they need to avoid 4e's new-hardback-every-month policy like the plague. It didn't take long for that to result in needing software to actually generate a character. Keep that sort of nonsense up, and D&D will lose its status as gateway product into the hobby.

(In comparison, notice how Paizo, in the 6 years they've been doing the Pathfinder thing, have only released two additional books of character classes. Frankly, even that may be a bit fast; it'll be interesting to see how far they can ride this train. Conventional wisdom says that they'll need a reboot via a new edition in the next two years, but Paizo's made their money by bucking the conventional wisdom.)

Letting third party publishers generate extra character classes and feats and all of that would allow WotC to keep the core of the game simple and approachable, but still have the variety people will start to desire once the new has worn off.

That said, I do agree with Mythmere that sooner is probably better than later. After all, part of the appeal of 5e is that it's back to being the sort of game we all know and love. So some of us are going to want some sexy newness or oddness right out of the gate.

Which is why I disagree with Matt Finch. The whole purpose of “open sourcing” is to invite variety and adaptability. If the goal is to get as many people as possible playing D&D, then they want a 5e version of Carcosa and they want Zak's nephilidian vampires and Aos' sci-fantasy Metal Earth and Jeff's rule-of-cool Saturday-morning-cartoon fueled insanities.

Because that sort of stuff is where enthusiasm and excitement come from. Because that makes D&D more than just Middle Earth with the serial numbers filed off. WotC can handle Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance just fine. But while they want a 5e Death Frost Doom, the last thing they want is to actually publish it themselves. Letting others do that via an OGL gives them the best of both worlds: edgy and exciting content AND plausible deniability. D&D can be “dangerous” and cool (and weird and silly and steampunky and sci-fi and...) without WotC needing to actually dilute their core product by publishing it.

More importantly, it would allow for a plethora of splat books with variant character classes, spells and magic systems, skills, and whatnot. Again, WotC gets the best of both worlds: the 3rd party splatbooks give D&D the variety experienced players crave, but since they are 3rd party, the game doesn't get buried under a mountain of official material that makes it increasingly harder for new players to join in on the fun.

This would free up WotC to focus on setting material and adventure “storylines,” and the supplemental material players want to make the most of playing in them. It also allows them to focus more heavily on profitable “side projects” like Lords of Waterdeep and novels which grow and strengthen the IP.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

The No-news on the 5e OGL

Mr. Mearls' Legends & Lore blog continues to be the place for breaking news about 5e. Only, in this case, the news is nothing will break before autumn, and nothing will actually be happening until 2015 sometime.

The official reason given is quality control; they want folks to have the DMG in hand and time “to absorb the rules and how they all interact.” That seems a bit odd to me, considering the open beta testing period and online discussions about the rules organized by Mearls & Co.

So, being the suspicious git that I am, I suspect that WotC really doesn't know what they want from an OGL at this point. On the one hand, everyone expects them to have something, and they may actually feel they could benefit from one. On the other hand, they want to take the time to do it right because doing it wrong last time allowed the worst thing possible to happen: Paizo's Pathfinder RPG.

Make no mistake, WotC's fumbling about with an OGL for 4th edition is entirely responsible for the creation of the Pathfinder game. They should have been bending over backwards to get Paizo on-board with 4e. Instead, WotC left them dangling in the wind and forced them to remain with the 3.x OGL. It could have been, and should have been, handled differently.

So the big question is, does WotC understand this? It'd be easy enough to blame the whole situation on the mere existence of the 3.x OGL. After all, without that, Paizo wouldn't have been able to scoop up all those players who didn't want to migrate to 4e.

I think that's missing the point, however. After all, nobody's talking about True20, or Hackmaster, or Dungeon Crawl Classics, or Castles & Crusades, or even all of them combined threatening D&D's dominance of the market. The real threat is Paizo. And that's because Paizo has something that WotC lacks: an effective marketing juggernaut.

People know about Pathfinder, people are excited about Pathfinder, people love showing off their Pathfinder stuff. Pathfinder is bright and shiny. Paizo is seen as friendly and excited about gaming and eager to promote new talent and neat ideas. Paizo oozes cool; people may doubt whether or not they'll like Paizo's next adventure path, or think that Golarion is too generic or mish-mashy, or worry they're putting out too many hardcover rulebooks, but nobody doubts that the next things coming from Paizo will resonate. They will look cool, they will feel cool, and lots of people will be interested in reading them.

Paizo's tapped the same lightning that Games Workshop has held bottled for so long now. Sure, there are other games out there, but Warhammer and Warhammer 40k are the ones that fire imaginations and induce passionate obsessions (both pro and anti, as we also see with Pathfinder). In both cases, the rules barely factor into things. In both cases, the aesthetics created by the companies are gripping and inspiring and enticing.

And that's what WotC needs to worry about. They should fear looking like also-rans, which is why the discussion of their covers does matter. They wallowed for six years in the New Coke debacle that was 4e marketing and trade dress.

5e is a chance for WotC to start over with D&D and it certainly looks like they're taking. A strong and focused OGL would be another potent arrow in their quiver, so I can absolutely understand them taking their time in crafting one.