So my last post blew up my Twitter and my blog traffic. I really should post semi-hyperbolic posts more often.
A lot of comments, critiques, and criticisms appeared on the interwebs. I am unable to address them all, but I am going to try and respond to some of them here.
“D&D 5E is doing quite well. Your claim that it is dying is wrong.”
Maybe that is the case. I could be wrong and I may have said that to be a little click-baity.
However, I think the model Wizards of the Coast (WotC) is doing is ultimately unsustainable. As JimFear138 said, in order to play, you need the Player’s Handbook, the Dungeon Master’s Guide, & the Monster Manual. That will put you back about $120 to $150 dollarydoos for the hardbacks. I don’t think a (legal) pdf is available. Many OSR games are have free or cheap pdfs and more modules than you can shake a ten foot pole at. As far as “bang for your buck”, you cannot beat the OSR. Once more people realize that, WotC will surely start hemorrhaging money.
Yet, once again, I could be wrong. History will tell us.
“The rot in tabletop RPGs started well before videogames!”
I’m a young’un in my early 30s. I can’t really remember a world without videogames, so if you are a historian of this sort of thing, I apologize for being wrong. However, I don’t think videogames helped at all.
“Bad GMs ruin tabletop RPGs. Modern RPG systems limit the power of bad GMs.”
The vast majority of GMs I have played under have been good, so while I have heard stories of bad GMs, I have not really experienced a power-mad GM, so that argument that limiting the rule adjudication power of the GM doesn’t stick. With the power of the internet, if you are in a game with a bad GM that shows no signs of improving, you can find any number of good GMs easily.
If everyone has a basic understanding of how the game is going to be played and the expectations are clearly stated up front, I think a lot of GM/player conflict would be fixed.
For more Bear Lore fun, check out this page at the sometimes NSFW 1d4chan.
But as far as D&D is concerned, I suspect that there will be “crash” in the near future. Wizards of the Coast are trying to avert it, but releasing 5th Edition product slowly and not flooding the market with a brand-new splatbook every 30 days. However, Wizards of the Coast has made a fundamental error with 5th edition.
I know that previously, I have written some pro-5th Edition posts. I was (and still am) an idiot. I will keep them up as a tribute to my idiocy.
The error is this: WotC is trying to replicate the videogame experience at the table. When D&D became popular, videogame adaptions were inevitable. Some of them were genuinely good games and are a butt-ton of fun. But, videogames have a fundamental limitation, in that the player can only do what is programmed. You can cleverly use game mechanics, but you are forever limited to those game mechanics. At best, with mods, DLC, and patches, new mechanics can be introduced, but the game is still limited to those mechanics.
This is not to say that video games are bad, just that they are fundamentally different from the tabletop roleplaying experience. If you try to replicate the videogame experience at the table, you might succeed, but why?
Here is my suspicion as to why this happened. The videogame adaptions of D&D influenced the designers too much. Are the characters in Baldur’s Gate or Dragon Age: Origins expendable the way that characters in B/X are? No. They all have complex backgrounds that create side-quests for the players to complete. This design philosophy has infected WotC ever since 3rd edition. Characters are harder to kill than ever and, in 5th edition, with the backgrounds mechanic, creating stories for your characters is built into the system. In a videogame where you are paying for the gameplay and the story that is told, this is okay. At the table, this goes south real quick. Most videogames have a “Skip Dialogue” feature, which is great when you read the subtitles faster than the characters speak. In real life, no such thing exists. There is a time and place for amateur hour story-telling. The D&D table is not that place.
Your character’s epic background? I do not give a flying fornication about it. I want epic gameplay at the table, not your story of being the seventh son of the seventh son of King Tlsdkjfbas the VII and his Queen O^*UTsfas’asgs. Oh, you are going to go over all of the names, ages, and the favorite color of the character’s siblings…
…and then the ogres burned down the village with everyone in it, but you got revenge by killing them all, despite being a 1st level nobody and that feat could not be replicated in gameplay, which, coincidentally, is why I came here…you know…gameplay…
I just want to play a game. Make our own epic adventure, not sit around and tell everyone about some cool ideas for your character’s past. If you want to write a fantasy novel, write a fantasy novel. Go with God! The D&D table is not a writer’s group. If I want to go to a writer’s group meeting, I will go to a writer’s group meeting!
This encouragement of too much background renders character death A BIG DEAL™, because death has to have meaning in the game, due to the high investment in the character’s background story. This, of course, can lead to GMs “fudging” rolls. No. No. NO!
Sometimes, characters due because of stupid decisions or bad die rolls. Deal with it like a gosh-darned adult. Just grab a fistful of d6s, a blank character sheet, and whip up a new character. Your motivation is getting rich with treasure plundered from deep, dark holes. There’s your new character idea. Heck, make your character the sibling of the dead one and you want revenge on the goblins for spearing your sibling. Everyone at the table understands this motivation, because they had investment in the previous character, due to their adventuring. No need to explain much else. The game can continue quickly.
Story rant over
At the table, your imagination (and fair judgments from the GM) are the only limit. The GM is free to adjust mechanics, remove them entirely, or replace them with new mechanics. Be honest, how many people have played a hardcore game where you tracked food, water, and encumbrance strictly? Maybe you have once, but it probably is not the norm. Most GMs will either handwave it, or just say as long as you pay x treasure a day, you bought enough food for the day and as long as you do not try to carry 17 cows, encumbrance is not carefully watched. And that’s okay! On the Autarch website (creators of the Adventurer Conqueror King System, the following statement appears:
“Every campaign is a law until itself…”
That is truth. I am in two different B/X games right now. Each one is a little different despite using the same ruleset. One is stricter about the rules and the other, less so. But, both GMs are fair and the players are not jerks, so it works. That is all you need, a fair GM and non-jerk players.
These games are not videogames. I enjoy both tabletop gaming and videogames, but they are different. Turning D&D into “real-life videogames” is a bad idea. Videogames do videogames better than non-videogames. It takes very little effort to play videogames. With the internet, I can download and play a game whenever I want for as long as I want.
Tabletop gaming, even if done via Roll20, still requires scheduling (and if you use webcams, the games require putting on clothes). Tabletop games have to compete for entertainment time with videogames. A good game should focus on what tabletop games do better than videogames: inventiveness, wacky off-the-wall shenaigans, and evolution of gameplay based on events at the table. If you want to ally with the hobgoblins and destroy the Keep on the Borderlands, you can do that at the table. A good GM will make rulings on the fly to assist you with achieving your goals. In a videogame adaption, you would need to hope and pray that the option would be programmed in and, even if it is, you may have wanted to destroy the Keep in a different way.
This is what will cause the downfall of modern D&D. Eventually, people will either drift into the OSR or go into videogaming full time. Either way, their time / money will no longer go to WotC. Modern D&D is walking a tightrope and I do not think that they can keep their balance forever.
Older editions of D&D and modern OSR games are more flexible in this regard than modern D&D. The older-style games encourage improvisation and intelligent play over “I roll to X”, which plagues modern games.
Here are some suggestions of games to play instead of more modern roleplaying games. I can vouch for the quality of each one.
In the cafeteria of fantasy we all sat together. Friends and hangers-on. There were not as many of us as there used to be. You had the RPG fiction but they just listened to us and stole lunch money on occasion.
I sat next to Wizards First Rule who was okay, but his sequel was basically S&M and made us feel a little uncomfortable. At the far end was LotR and she wasn’t as beautiful as we thought she was. She was sorta insistent but subtly. Anyways, about the end of the 90’s she showed up.
She was intriguing and dark. Thicc in all the right places. She made us all take a step back and watch. What would she do next? We were lusty. Filthy even. She turned those tropes right around and she was kinky as hell.
Everyone wanted her. All the ladies wanted to be her. I made my move and told her I’d walk with her in sickness and in health. On her face I placed a kiss. She admired my boldness and kissed back. Biting my lip a bit to let me know she would be pain and euphoria. I was spellbound.
She was glamorous and powerful. She told dark mysteries in a way that sent chills down the spine. We moved in together and things became hot and nasty. She spoke of things I thought were locked in the core of my being. I couldn’t be without her.
She had gotten a deal where men would make film of her.
So the pictures begin solid, showing her charms. She was gorgeous, but I began for the first time in years to notice holes. Maybe familiarity breeds contempt, and I was starting to have it in spades. She wasn’t as clean as I thought. There were pads in her bra and she wore the same panties everyday.
Plus, she wasn’t moving to any kind of future. She put a bit of weight on and refused to get off the couch. She opened up her computer everyday but not to write. She just gloated over her many awards and the love of everyone. Secretly I began to resent her. The veil of infatuation lifted I saw the cold sores and the lack luster grooming.
I was wounded but didn’t want to go. Was I being selfish? She made me happy for so many years… was I the bad guy? I talked to her. Asking maybe to move forward a bit. The pictures had surpassed her and she hadn’t bathed in five years. She was furious and told me any man would dream of having her.
In my anger I decided to go for a walk. I couldn’t go back. I wouldn’t. So I went to the mall. Bought three pairs of jeans and five black turtlenecks. I threw my old clothes out and decided to go on a medicine walk.
I took a flight to Europe. She hadn’t even texted me. When I landed in Ukraine I started hitchhiking. I smoked clove cigarettes and brooded as I travelled. Though I kept my iPhone charged she never called.
Being away from her let me breathe. I began sitting on walls over looking muddy rivers and smoking in my turtlenecks. This was about when I made it to France. I kept thinking back to the old days. When I was smitten. Hell, when everyone was smitten.
Was it even love? Or had I just been so lusting for something different? I drank a lot of wine and decided right then to be a vegan. I felt good, this was curing my spirit of the animal I had become.
So I kept traveling. I had walked through Germany and Switzerland. I stopped being a vegan on account of how expensive adult diapers were but kept smoking. Also my turtleneck game was on point. Kerouac would have been proud. I stayed in the Alps for months at a hostel. Looking out windows and looking forlorn.
I didn’t like what I had become. Why couldn’t I just be happy with Elves and Dwarves? So many others were! Had I forgot what fantasy meant to me? I think I did.
This continued on and on till one day, I got a letter. The handwriting was beautiful. The language was poetry. “We’ve missed you in the cafe. There’s hardly anyone here anymore. Come back, I want to see you. -Tolkien”
My heart raced again. I took the first flight home and rushed there. Tolkien sat at the same spot. I couldn’t believe how beautiful she was… like the aurora borealis she washed over me in waves of radiance. She beckoned me closer, and I realized how stunning she was. How stunning she had always been.
She brought me close for a chaste Catholic kiss on the cheek and told me welcome home. I got rid of my turtlenecks, my cloves. I looked one last time at my iPhone. She had texted weeks ago. I didn’t even open it. I fell back into the arms of Tolkien and knew I never loved GoT.
I loved the idea of her. I had projected this rebellion of fantasy on her and fell in love with the projection instead. She wasn’t lusty. She was gaudy. Crass even. John Carter pulled me aside and said,
“People want a beautiful woman so much they’ll paint her likeness on any old thing. I’ve been around friend, never pass up a beautiful tradition for a perverted display.”
He winked and jumped on the back of a flying dinosaur. Dejah waved a farewell and I turned back to LotR. She wasn’t a projection… she was the real thing. We went home together and I proposed but not with a ring. Didn’t want to start problems.
I’m happier now. GoT is still on that couch I wager. I don’t think of her anymore. I have to go, I hear the elves playing in our woods and they have parties that are not to miss.
As I prepare my adventure “Tomb of the Mad Jarl” to be run, I have spending more and more time in the the core ACKS rulebook and the Player’s Companion.
The more I read them, the more I appreciate ACKS as a system. I sometimes refer to it as “Advanced B/X” and I think that is an accurate description. If you like B/X, I highly recommend you check out ACKS. The mechanics feel unified, even the detailed domain mechanics and wargame mechanics. Nothing is haphazard or thrown in randomly.
If you want to run a simple dungeon crawl, ACKS has you covered. It is a solid fantasy old-school roleplaying game that just plain works. Even character creation is simplified with the template system.
Don’t feel like picking proficiencies and equipment for each new character?
Grab a template. It has those already picked out for you. Don’t like the single template in the core ACKS rulebook? The Player’s Companion has even more templates for you to choose from.
Even if you don’t want to play with the high-level domain rules, ACKS works just fine. You can drop some players in a 50 level mega-dungeon and there will be no issues.
If you want to run a more detailed campaign, this is where ACKS shines. It has rules for owning castles and equipping armies that seamlessly integrate into the familiar dungeon-crawling gameplay. Stronghold rules are not just some tacked on after-thought (looking at you 5E!).
Do your players want to create a custom class to represent a particular character idea or do you want to make up a new class to reflect something special about your game world? It’s relatively easy with the class creation rules in the Player’s Companion. Every aspect of a character, from Hit Die to spellcasting ability to weapon selection has an XP value associated with it. You could create an “ultimate” class, but it would take forever to level up. Because of the XP value for building a class, your “ultimate” class would be relatively well-balanced among the other classes.
The skill system and proficiency system are well-designed because all the rolls are based on being able to roll a certain number on a d20. For example, to open a lock, a thief might need to roll a 15 or higher. Therefore, the player can make an intelligent decision on whether or not to try. The player knows that they have about a 25% chance of success and can make the proper risk/benefit analysis.
Compare this to 3.X or 5E. In those systems, you roll a d20, add all your modifiers and ask the GM if you succeeded. The GM secretly sets the difficulty of the task, so you don’t know your chance of success. With this method, the GM can more easily fudge the difficulty to get a desired outcome, whether for your character to succeed or fail. Or, the player could incorrectly add, thus giving the GM a false number. I don’t know why simple addition stumps people, but I have seen far too much of it at the table.
In ACKS, the dice decided your success or failure. No fudging is possible when your character sheet says that you open a lock on a roll of 15+. If you roll a 14, too bad, so sad. That lock stays locked.
In conclusion, ACKS is a great system that is well worth your time to check out.
I have been thinking about my previous post about dinosaurs and the fact that many module designers do not include them in their adventures. I suspect that it is because dinosaurs are animals, and from a fantasy-roleplaying-game-perspective, animals are generally just Hit Dice with no special abilities. Good monsters contain some or all of these traits:
1) Intelligence (as in sentience)
2) Magical powers
3) Sense of the unknown
Unfortunately, dinosaurs do not have any of these. As animals, they are not sentient, like a human, elf, or kobold. They are not magical, because they are based on real-world creatures. And while we know relatively little about dinosaurs, as animals, we fill in the gaps with what we assume are their modern-day equivalents, so the sense of the unknown is lost.
Until I remembered the book and movie Jurassic Park. Specifically, the Dilophosaurus.
We have no evidence that the Dilophosaurus could spit venom or had a colorful frill around its neck. However, it made the book and movie much more exciting!
So, if you want to use dinosaurs in your games (which you gosh darn well should!!!), here are some ideas to give them some natural “powers” to surprise your players:
Camouflage. Hide in Shadows like a Thief of same level / HD (2 HD dinosaur hides like a 2nd level Thief) Fear. The dinosaur roars and all opponents must save vs paralysis or run in fear for 1d4 rounds Leap. The dinosaur jumps 40 feet and makes an attack on an opponent Poison Bite. Save vs poison or die Poison Spit. Range 40 feet. Save vs poison or be blinded for 1d4 rounds
Quills. Opponents take 1d4 damage when striking the dinosaur in melee
And if you want to go more “magical” with the powers:
Fire Breath. 3d6 fire damage in a 30-foot line, save vs dragon breath for ½ damage (Some say that legends of dragons came from dinosaur bones…so let’s make that a reality) Launch Spikes / Horns. The dinosaur launches their spikes or horns at an opponent and, if it hits, 2d6 damage Tail Whip. The dinosaur whips its tail at supersonic speed and all opponents within 20 feet must save vs paralysis or fall to the ground as the sonic boom hits them
Growing up, I was that kid that was a little too obsessed with dinosaurs. Okay, maybe not a little. Up until my junior year of high school, I was considering paleontology as a career, but my difficulties in a senior-level human anatomy class helped disabuse me of such a notion. Also, an article I found stating that only a fraction of people with paleontology degrees actually find work as a paleontologist was a strike against pursuing that career.
To this day, I still love dinosaurs and I wish more D&D modules used them. I know that they do not perfectly fit the psuedo-medieval world most D&D games take place in and with creatures like dragons and wyverns, I understand the reluctance of game designers and GMs to drop dinosaurs into their campaigns (X1 being a notable exception). After all, there is only so much room in a game for so many big lizard-like critters to fight.
I have always been fascinated with how artists have re-created dinosaurs based on the (often incomplete) skeletons that have been found. I found a website with a few modern-day animals drawn the way artists often draw dinosaurs. These pictures could be inspiration for making new creatures to throw at your players.