The D&D 5th Edition Basic Rules Reviewed

It’s time to give my thoughts in detail on the new D&D Basic Rules. This will be a long one, so settle in. The current version of the Basic Rules is v0.1, so I’d expect some details to change over the next several months as the document is added to and tweaked — and I can see a number of things that need tweaking, as you’ll find below.

The first four pages of the document are an introduction to Roleplaying games, going over all of the basics of RPGs and how they work for the newcomer. Now, I highly advise directing actual newcomers to the Starter Set (which I’ll be talking about in depth in what will likely be the next post,) but if you’ve played a session or two this should be plenty of information to get started with.

In particular I like the discussion of the “three pillars of adventuring,” named as exploration, social interaction and combat. Veterans will recognize that there is plenty of nuance left out of this equation, and some game angles (political intrigue, mystery and horror, for example) left entirely absent. But it’s a good start, and the section as written probably describes an optimal mix for many tables.

The following sections get into the mechanics, starting with character creation, which is laid out in an orderly step-by-step fashion. This is where players of earlier editions will start to notice the differences.

Character abilities (the traditional six) are rolled on 4d6 (drop the lowest and arrange as desired,) which has been around since 3rd Edition — earlier, really, but 3.0 made it part of the core rules. You also have the option of spending points to raise scores or distributing a set array. The average in the array is 12, which is about a quarter-point lower than the average you’d get from rolling the dice. Note that you determine your ability scores after choosing a race and class. Which has howls of disapproval coming from some quarters, but it is, I think, the way most people have played anyway at least since 3.0.

DDNextLogoInstead of just choosing a race you pick a subrace as well. For Dwarves, for example, these are Hill Dwarves and Mountain Dwarves. Some of your stat modifiers come from the parent race, while the rest come from the subrace, and each also has some side benefit as well. High Elves, for example, get a few extra weapon proficiencies (in the Longsword, Longbow, Shortsword and short bow,) a free Wizard cantrip and an extra language, while the Wood Elf gets the same weapon proficiencies as the High Elf along with an increased movement speed and a situational ability to hide. Each race also has a number of abilities from the parent race; Elves get their natural longevity, a size and speed, darkvision, proficiency in the Perception skill, advantage (more on that later) against charms and an immunity to sleep, and the Elven language.

The races available in the Basic Rules are the Dwarf, Elf, Halfling and Human. It’s known that Half-Elves, Half-Orcs, Dragonborn and Tieflings will be in the Player’s Handbook, and probably Drow as well, as a subrace. Humans have no subraces, but a number of different cultural groups from the Forgotten Realms (which is 5E’s default setting) are briefly described. All of the races have lists of common names, and each also explains their outlook toward the other Basic races.

On the whole, I find this way of handling races to be highly agreeable; it builds in a way around the standard demi-human monoculture problem, and one could very easily create new subraces for a homebrew setting without much system overhead, since much of the work is already done along with the parent race.

The classes (Cleric, Fighter, Rogue and Wizard) are handled in a similar way. Each class has some sort of specialization available to it; Clerics have Domains, chosen at first level, while Fighters pick a fighting style at 1st and then a martial archetype at 3rd. Rogues also have archetypes, while Wizards have Arcane Traditions, chosen at 2nd level, which are analogous to the schools of earlier editions — at least so far.

In theory the specializations should obviate the need for discrete classes like the Assassin, and possibly the Ranger or Paladin as well, but since there is only one example given for each class, representing the most common image of that class, it’s hard to say what we’ll see done with this down the line. Too, they are more intricate than subraces, so making custom versions could be awkward with only a single example to work with. The PHB will doubtless contain more, but those also might rely on other options — feats, for example — being used.

Chapter 4 is dedicated to “Personality and Background,” which encompasses the character’s name, physical description, languages and alignment, but also some new stuff: personality traits, ideals, bonds and flaws, which all stem from the character’s choice of background. This represents his or her early life before embarking on an adventuring career. There are five available (the Acolyte, Criminal, Sage, Soldier and Folk Hero,) the first four of which are each aimed at a specific class (Cleric, Rogue, Wizard and Fighter, respectively,) with the Folk Hero serving as a kind of catchall. But I can see doing some interesting things with a Fighter with the Acolyte background, for example, or a Rogue who goes with the Sage. Each background also gets some social benefits as well; Criminals, for example, have an underworld contact that they can use to access criminal networks. There’s a lot of possibility here, especially when you can tie it to a subclass. Together, the subclasses and backgrounds function kind of like 2E kits, except that half of the equation isn’t class-specific. This is another area where I can see a lot of room for additional and customized backgrounds.

Next up is equipment. You won’t find anything foreign in the actual lists, but each class and background has some default equipment that you can take instead of buying stuff the traditional way.

Both armor and weapons have some changes, however. Light armors allow you to apply your full DEX bonus to your Armor Class, while medium armor caps that bonus at +2. You get no DEX bonus at all while wearing heavy armors, and suffer a 10′ movement penalty unless you meet a minimum STR requirement.

Some weapons have special properties, like two-handed or reach. The finesse tag allows the wielder to use either their STR or the DEX bonus with the weapon. Versatile means that you can use it in either one or two hands, with the latter providing higher damage. The longsword is the archetypical such weapon; the bastard sword is nowhere in sight.

Now we get into the meat of the game system with a discussion of how to use ability scores. Which covers a great deal, including saving throws. You now save with your ability modifier directly, so that you are saving against a specific stat. This is an idea that dates back to Bard Games’ Arcanum system, and it’s one that I have always favored. It opens the save system up for new kinds of rolls, like saves against INT or CHA, although there really isn’t any discussion of this.

Advantage and Disadvantage is perhaps the new system’s most compelling new feature. If you have advantage on a roll, you roll 2d20 instead of one, and take the higher die. If you’re disadvantaged you take the lower. I find this very clever for a number of reasons, the most important one being that it eliminates all other situational modifiers from the system, except for cover. Invisible opponent? Disadvantage on the attack roll. Flanking? Take advantage instead. It’s pretty granular — advantage gives you about a +4 to your roll on average — but it’s also pretty elegant.

There is also a proficiency bonus, which is used for many different things. It replaces Base Attack Bonus, for example, and goes up as you level — but it’s the same for every character. So a wizard gets the same bonus as a fighter as longs as she is proficient in the weapon… but fighters will be much more effective in physical combat for a variety of other reasons. You get this bonus in anything in which your character has proficiency, so it applies to tool sets, skills and spell casting DCs as well as weapons. The skill list itself is closer to the 4E skill list than the one from 3.5, and each is given a concise description free of bloat and endless tables of modifiers.

Importantly, though, the progression of this bonus is much flatter than it was in previous editions of D&D. It ranges from +2 at 1st level to a mere +6 at level 20. Progression is therefore more about additional hit points and new abilities. This design principle, touted as “bounded accuracy,” has huge ramifications all throughout the game system. Flattening the bonus curve should make it easier for GMs to balance encounters, for example, and in principle monsters remain viable for a far larger level range, because AC is assumed to be higher because a monster is harder to effectively hit, rather than simply because it’s balanced to be a tougher monster. A band of 30 orcs including some archers and a spell caster or two will still be a tough fight at high level, even if the PCs can reliably dispatch individual orcs with a single hit.

System difficulties remain static and don’t need to be scaled relative to the party’s abilities. There’s no expectation that a lock that’s DC 20 to pick at 3rd level will be anything other than DC 20 at 13th. Characters at the higher level will be better at this, but they’ll be 15% better rather than 50% better, and there’s no need to have DCs well into the 40s. The whole difficulty range tops out at around 30, which may as well be regarded as a hard cap.

This may create the impression that the overall power level of the game has been scaled down, but I’m not convinced (without having seen the MM and PHB,) that this is actually the case. What it does mean is that the balance of the game between PCs and their enemies is far, far tighter than it has been in previous editions, while at the same time being more forgiving to both players and GM. Bounded accuracy is one of the things about D&D5 that most impresses me.

One thing related to bounded accuracy that I noticed in my first pass at the rules is that progression in the early levels is really fast. It only takes 300 XP to reach level 2 and 900 to reach level 3 before the experience curve starts to become more recognizable. I disliked this at first, but have warmed to it for a couple of reasons. For one, it’s not quite as extreme as the numbers suggest. Level 2 is probably the end of the first session, for example, and level 3 is probably another session or two. The idea being that you don’t have to make as many choices when creating the character, and can make your decision as to which martial template your fighter wants, for example, after seeing her in play for a little while. Through level 4 the characters are essentially apprentices. At level 5 they become “mature” adventurers, with access to things like multiple attacks, level 3 spells and so on. In this context I think I can live with this progression speed, although I am still kind of tempted to triple all the numbers. I am a proponent of slow leveling, but I think I would want to see how it works as written in a campaign format first.

There is a downside to the new math that underlies D&D5, though, and that’s the matter of backward compatibility with the enormous library of D&D materials that have been published over the years. Both hit points and armor class scale very differently in 5E than they did in any previous edition, and this has to be taken into account when doing conversions. You can’t just drop a BECMI stat block into AD&D1E like you used to be able to. On the other hand, conversion shouldn’t be anything like a huge burden; it’ll just require a bit more finesse and system experience. And it’s certainly nothing like the conversion issues faced in shifting material to or from 4E; the structure of encounters in that version of the game is fundamentally different from that of any other edition.

The combat section comes in at eight and a half pages, which is a welcome relief from the 40+ pages that we had to endure in 3.5. Once again, this is tightened considerably, in large part due to not requiring a grid and miniatures by default, although there’s a sidebar explaining how to do this if that’s your preference. Attacks of opportunity are still present but the circumstances that spawn them have been radically scaled back. Overall the combat looks very clean and playable, with plenty of tactical options but little of the bloat that characterized 3.x (let alone 4E.)

Damage resistance is totally overhauled. Instead of the unintuitive stat lines found in 3.x and 4E, if a critter has resistance to a type of damage, it takes half damage against that type. If it has vulnerability, it takes double damage. This is a completely adequate way to model this type of thing with a fraction of the overhead. There is no longer any need to remember a specific number, or try to remember whether the listed damage type bypasses DR or resists it, something I personally had to look up at the start of every single campaign.

Damage is dealt as in previous editions, with a critical hit (a natural 20 — there’s no roll to confirm anymore, although fighters increase critical range as they level) doing double dice. At zero hit points you fall unconscious… but you never actually go into negative hit points. Instead, any excess damage in excess of your total full hit points kills you instantly, including excess damage from the wound which took you to zero. You don’t lose any more HP once you’re down, but you must make a death save every turn. If you pass three of them before you fail three such saves you are stabilized; if you fail three first you are dead. Rolling a 1 counts as two failures, while rolling a 20 gives you one HP back, which means you’re active again.

There are a couple of interesting ramifications to this, one I like and the other I don’t. The more obvious one is that because you never go below zero, healers don’t need to heal your negative HP anymore. This eliminates the weird problem that came up in 3.x and was made worse in 4E, whereby tougher characters, as represented by their CON scores (in 3.x and Pathfinder) or their total hit points (in 4E) are harder to heal. It just works better, especially given the bounded accuracy design paradigm as discussed above.

It does have a clumsy side, however, in that there is no coup de grâce rule. Some Orc hacking at your unconscious body still needs to equal or exceed your total hit points in a single attack. Damage at zero HP does force you to make a death save immediately, but it’ll be really awkward if you pass that death save and stand up after being gnawed upon by owlbears.

Healing is different, and it’s another one of the parts of the system that I do not much like; it’s one of the only areas in which 5E is visibly more convoluted than 3.x. Essentially you have Short Rests and Long Rests, the exact durations of which are determined narratively by the GM. So far so good.

After a short rest, you roll a number of your hit dice and regain that many HP, adjusted by your CON modifier. After a long rest, you regain all of your lost HP and also regain up to half of your spent hit dice. So you actually have to keep track of your hit points as well as any hit dice you’ve used during your short rests. This strikes me as unnecessarily convoluted, gamey and just plain weird and I have yet to see a good justification for it working this way.

The default encumbrance system is as simple as it’s possible for such a system to be — you can carry up to your weight allowance and no more. There are no encumbrance levels and no penalties, just a flat limit. Unfortunately that limit is fifteen times your STR score. This means that a character with STR 10 (slightly below average) can lug 150 pounds around all day with no issues. While it’s very simple, this math makes no sense to me.

Thankfully, there is a variant presented which I find much more workable. Under this rule, if you are carrying more than 5 times your STR you get the encumbered condition, which gives you -10′ to movement. If you’re over 10 times your STR you are heavily encumbered, which not only inflicts a bigger movement penalty but also puts you at disadvantage on ability checks, attack rolls and saves based on STR, DEX or CON. I personally would use this rule, even though it’s slightly more complicated, with the caveat that I wouldn’t necessarily levy the save disadvantage on CON saves.

Magic is also significantly changed from the standard Vancian model. You now prepare spalls separately from casting them, and you can use any level-appropriate slot to cast a spell. So essentially the wizard now works exactly like the cleric. The spells themselves, while they retain the look and feel of their older versions, are also substantially changed. Most of them no longer scale with level, but some of those that used to can now be cast using a higher-level slot, with increased effects. There are also ritual spells, similar to those in 4E, which don’t use up a slot but which require time and/or expensive components to cast.

As before, spells have verbal, somatic and material components. A caster can use an arcane focus or holy symbol in lieu of any non-costed component, but it seemed to me that many of the spells’ components do have a listed cost and are thus ineligible to be cast this way.

The spell list itself — 59 cleric spells and 68 for the wizard — is not exhaustive but it covers all of the basics one would expect, and then some. I plan to treat it as the “common” spell list of stuff that’s easy to obtain access to, with anything else something you would have to go out of your way to find or buy. Built-in story hook.

The visual presentation of the book is clean and tidy, but there are no illustrations, something I would hope will be remedied at some point. It’s not as though WotC hasn’t already paid for the art, after all. But I found a professionally laid-out and fairly complete games system that gave me just the rules without any distractions to be somewhat refreshing. There is no word as yet on a printed version of these rules, but I kind of expect to see one appear once they are more complete and mature.

As I mentioned in the last post, the book currently lacks a bestiary, XP guidelines and rules for building encounters, but these are slated for inclusion as more product comes out. And even now there’s some help in this regard online, HERE and HERE.

So that, girls and boys, is the whole thing in a (large and windy) nutshell. As I said before, my overall impression of the D&D 5th Edition based on both my reading of the rules and my limited play experience is very positive. Although there are a few areas I would houserule or possibly replace with options from the PHB, I think it eminently suitable for my purposes, and plan to develop (and post) material for it.

D&D5: First System Impressions

As I’ve already mentioned, the new D&D rules have been released into the wilds of the internet, and so they are fair game for commentary above and beyond what I’ve already said based on my play experience at Origins. This isn’t a formal review, but a rundown of what’s in the game and my preliminary opinions about it.

index First, though, we’d better cover what the new product is and is not, so far. What we have right now are two items, the D&D Starter Set and the D&D Basic Rules. The former is a boxed set which includes a 32-page rulebook, a 64-page adventure, five pregenerated characters, a blank character sheet and a set of dice. The latter is a PDF currently available for free from the Wizards site. They are the same rules, but the Starter Set is aimed clearly at new players and contains a stripped-down and simplified version of the game, with enough material to take characters to level 5. But it does not contain character creation rules; if you want to play with anything other than the stock pregens you’ll need to download the PDF.

The D&D Basic Rules contains the core of the new game system up to level 20. It comes in at 110 pages and is currently at version 0.1. What this means is that it’s subject to revision, but it also does not currently include a bestiary or the rules for handing out experience and building encounters. So as of now D&D Basic is not quite a complete game. However, the Starter Set includes those monsters and NPCs which appear in the adventure, and there is text in the adventure that explains how to hand out the individual awards for each encounter. There are also some additional monsters HERE from one of the late playtest drafts (which need to be checked for balance) and some preliminary encounter-building rules HERE on Mike Mearls’ blog on the WotC site. So an enterprising and moderately experienced DM could hash this into a workable campaign even now. This stuff is supposed to be added to the Basic Rules as the hardcovers release. Down the line, the Basic Rules are intended to be a living document that will be added to as new adventures and other support materials are released that require additional rules. Considering that the July 3 release contained much more than was originally announced (it was supposed to have been just character creation,) I have no reason to doubt that this will occur.

It should be noted that the Basic Rules PDF is the core game, not the full game with all the bells and whistles and options. It gives four character classes (the Cleric, Fighter, Rogue and Wizard,) four races (the Elf, Dwarf, Halfling and Human) with basic options for each representing the genre-typical vision of that race or class. It also includes what I imagine to be a limited subset of the spells, although at a good third of the book I’d say there’s aleready plenty to go with. The three hardcover books (Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual and Dungeon Master’s Guide) that will be released in August, September and October respectively will be expanded versions of the core game described in the Basic Rules, containing many more options and expansions. But the Basic Rules is supposed to be (and right now looks like it will be) a complete and playable game in its own right if you don’t want any of that cruft. It’s actually pretty complete already, aside from the aforementioned omissions.

I’m going to punt the in-depth specifics of the two products a future post, but for now I am going to give my general impressions of the game system.

D&D5′s rules as released thus far represent sort of a return to the roots of the game. The Debbie Downers of the RPG world are calling it warmed-over 2E, or 3E or 4E depending on who you talk to. Which ought to tell you that they haven’t looked at it very closely . There are elements here which first appeared in Fourth Edition, but it’s built on a 3E chassis and the overall effect is of a melange of various editions, with none being especially dominant. It does, however, depart completely from the laser focus on combat and extreme codification of every combat-relevant mechanical effect that was a hallmark of 4E. So the fans of that version are tending to be, from what I’m seeing, it’s harshest critics. Also not appearing in this picture is the default assumption from 3.5 and 4E that you’re playing with miniatures; while you could play 3-4E without them, the rules assumed you were, and the difficulty of doing without them ranged from irritating tedium to major pain in the ass. D&D5 does away with this; all the info you need to play with minis is in there, but the compulsion to do so is gone. The overall complexity level being perhaps comparable to a pre-bloat AD&D2E — so it’s pretty lean. It isn’t as stripped down as Moldvay Basic, as some had hoped and/or feared. It’s pretty loose but with substantial structure, which is a sweet spot from where I am sitting right now.

There’s a lot of open questions about 5E; I’m not sure I understand the thinking behind the XP requirements for leveling, for example. At a glance it looks like you rocket through the very early levels really fast —— like maybe to level 3 in the first session. My gut instinct is to hate that… but it’s incredibly easy to houserule, and there’s a chance I might be sold on it anyway. We’ll see what happens with the next additions to these core rules, but what I see now looks like a robust and appealing system in its own right, without any real need for additional supplements. If that’s the intention, and I gather it to be, then I approve.

On the D&D5 Credits Controversy

The free PDF of the new D&D Basic Rules hit the WotC website over the holiday weekend. I’ll have words to say about the new rules in future posts, but right now, because it’s the raging topic of conversation in my circles, I feel obliged to comment on the controversy.

Yes, controversy. About the new D&D rules. Well, not about the rules, but about two people who appear to have contributed to them.

Now, I have resolutely managed to steer clear of political matters in the seven years I have been writing this blog. I’d rather talk about gaming on this outlet. In this case, however, matters of gaming and politics are intertwined, so you’re going to get some of my politics if you continue reading. So be warned, and stop now if you don’t want to know.

With that out of the way, though, and because folks who don’t follow me on social media may not be aware of it, I am a staunch and vocal supporter of both LGBT rights in society at large and inclusiveness within the gaming community. It is our community, and, imperfect though it may be, we should make every effort to make everyone in it feel welcome and included, no matter their race, creed, religion, gender identity or orientation, sexual or otherwise. However, I have friends on both sides of this argument.

Now, the individuals in question are Zak Smith and John Tarnowski, who goes by “The RPGPundit,” both of whom get credited in the new rules’ “Additional Consulting by” section. The allegations start with these people being “hostile to inclusiveness,” whatever that means. Specifically, that they are hostile to LGBT people. Some have even called for a boycott of the new edition over the inclusion of these two as (allegedly) paid consultants. Now, if those credits bother you that much, I say it’s your time and money, so knock yourself out. But this strikes me as an asinine over-reaction for several reasons.

Both figures are fairly well known within the tabletop RPG community and within the OSR movement in particular, and both have some designer cred as well. Both are unquestionably controversial even outside of this specific squabble.

If the allegation was that these two guys are assholes, well, that’s not a charge I will defend them against. Zak, for example, has some hot-button issues on which he will argue very aggressively, to the point that some people feel cornered by him when he asks them to clarify or defend their views and won’t let them dissemble. Among those issues are freedom of artistic expression, censorship and hypocrisy. And also people throwing out wild accusations with no proof or documentation. Yes, he can be “needlessly aggressive” as one commentator put it, but to my mind he is also right on every one of the issues listed above. He is also right to push back and demand clarity and/or documentation when this kind of thing comes up in his circles.

But being an asshole isn’t the accusation against him, which has ranged from being LGBT-unfriendly to having a “hit list” and calling people in the middle of the night with death threats. The former is laughably implausible considering Zak’s line of work, even without taking into account his numerous statements indicating otherwise. The latter is criminal menacing, not a charge you want to throw around without evidence… and yet, without exception, when the accusers are asked for documentation all they can come back with is “it is known,” like they’re some kind of GoT robots. There isn’t the slightest shred of evidence of any kind corroborating any of this, of course, just hearsay that seems to originate from three specific people on G+ whose stories are highly suspect, and who have known axes to grind with Zak.

Tarnowski is rather a different case. He has a long history of online misbehavior, a laundry list of places where he’s not welcome and a blog where he posts juvenile screeds fairly regularly. Unlike Zak much of this conduct can be corroborated with a simple Google search even without digging for any of his former aliases, and level-headed people I know and trust can relate stories of said improper behavior. He also has a pretty good eye for RPG design, is clearly not the moron roughly 25% of his posts imply him to be, is certainly capable of holding down his end of an adult conversation when he wants to, and his blog is home to some compelling articles and insights, which I why I follow it. But he is, to my mind, a far more problematic character than Zak. You might say that he is indisputably an asshole, and I wouldn’t argue with you — but neither would he, I’m guessing. It’s part of his schtick.

In this case, however, the specific transgression he’s been accused of — that of being LGBT-hostile — is also untrue. And he’s been vocal about it, and one of the characters on the cover of his historical RPG Arrows of Indra is possibly the first transgendered character to occupy such a place.

An additional irony is that the new rules contain an unprecedented (at least for D&D) passage that explicitly states that players should feel able to apply definitions of gender to their characters that are different from the so-called cultural norms. Both Zak and Tarnowski have explicitly stated their support for this passage, although some people — including the same people throwing around wild-ass accusations against Zak — have taken issue with that for supposed insensitivity to LGBT concerns, and alleged that obviously the authors didn’t consult any transgendered people about it. Except that, as it happens, we now know that the passage was written by a man with a transgender daughter and edited by a gay person with a trans sibling. So there goes that allegation out the window as well.

As I said above, if you feel like avoiding the new edition of D&D over this, that’s your prerogative. I don’t buy from Hobby Lobby or Chick-fil-A because of the repulsive bigotry of the people running those corporations. I don’t read Orson Scott Card because he is a cretin who has stated publicly that gays should be killed. Where you make your own stand is up to you, but I caution you to make that decision based on the facts, not on hearsay from people with grudges.

I will note one other thing before I close this discussion. Neither Zak nor the Pundit have any connection to Hasbro, WotC or the D&D design and development team, other than being asked to look over the rules and give their input. And there are 85 other names listed in the D&D Basic Rules credits, none of whom have the slightest controversy attached to them. Do you check to make sure there’s no bigots or assholes with a similarly tenuous connection to say, Radio Shack or Hot Topic before you shop there? If not, then you should consider whether your response is proportional and appropriate.

I will not be writing another post on this subject. Feel free to offer your opinions in the comments, but be warned that I will be policing them very strictly, so be polite.

Origins 2014 Wrapup Part 2: The Games

Here’s my breakdown of the games that I played at Origins.

Full Thrust (Thursday)

IMG_20140612_150017Full Thurst is a generic-ish starship minitaures combat game that I’ve had my eye on for a number of years. Unfortunately there were two games of it running at the same time, and I picked the table that wasn’t full. So it was basically me and the GM running through a fairly quick space battle. I had fun, but I’m guessing that the folks at the full table had more. I did win the game, however.

The Full Trust rules play a little bit like Star Fleet Battles Ultralight (more like a cross between Starfire and Mayday, actually, but that’s a more obscure comparison) and even large fleet battles with lots of big ships can be resolved in a reasonable amount of time. There are also hacks available to port the rules to Star Wars or BSG or Babylon 5 or whatever. The minis themselves are pretty nice. After having played it it’s not a game I am dying to buy into, but I’d play it again.

13th Age (Thursday)

IMG_20140612_20453713th Age is essentially an evolution of D&D4 with a great deal of the mechanical baggage pared away and less focused on combat encounters. I found it very enjoyable. What I did like most about the system, though, were the tools to encourage player investment in the campaign structure. These are nothing earthshakingly innovative by storygame standards, but they’re well-executed here and eminently stealable for other games. This particular event was a town bit followed by a wilderness encounter and a brief dungeon crawl, so we got to see most of the moving parts in action, except for those interesting storygame bits that only really shine in campaign play.

D&D BECMI, B4 The Lost City (Friday)

IMG_20140613_084355This classic is one of my all-time favorite D&D modules, so I was really looking forward to it. Unfortunately, the skeletal system lacked player options under a GM unable to provde them narratively, and as a result the players, including myself, seemed bored. This could have worked, and worked well, but to be honest about it I considered bailing. There were a number of character fatalities followed by immediate replacements, usually with a nigh-identical character, but I’m happy to say I survived. We got far enough into the pyramid to get some needed supplies, and then departed. I’ll have more to say about why this game didn’t work for me in Part 3 of this report.

D&D Next, The Legacy of the Crystal Shard (Friday)

The most successful of my three D&D events, this game was well-run and enjoyable. We didn’t play using the final D&D5 rules (which are already at the printer,) so under the late playtest rules that we used there were some pretty obvious balance issues. Nevertheless it played well and smoothly.

What I took away from the new ruleset in actual play was the impression of a blend of about 50% 3.x and 50% other versions of D&D (including 4th,) with the overall complexity dialed down to about a quarter of what you’d see in 3/4E. It was a good mix, and I continue to look forward to the new version of the rules, but I remain uncomitted to it as a rules platform for my own use… but I’ll have more to say about that in the next post as well. We only played through a small fraction of the published adventure.

Artemis Spaceship Bridge Simulator (Friday)

I could write a whole post explaining what this is, but instead I will have you watch the video below. Essentially it’s a computer-assisted LARP in which you play the bridge crew of an Enterprise-like ship. Actually participating, it’s tremendous fun and I will happily sign up for a few slots of it next year. It’s not the kind of thing you’d want to do every week, but I wished I’d gotten to play it once or twice more. It take about 45 minutes to play through a single scenario.

D&D BECMI, X2 Castle Amber

The GM for this was extremely good. Unfortunately, by that time I was running on 40+ hours without sleep, and my play reflected that before I crashed in a corner of the hall after about an hour in. My wife retreived me once the event was over, but she assures me she had fun.

Pathfinder Society, Destiny of the Sands, Part 1

IMG_20140614_110913Of my three Pathfinder games, this one was the least enjoyable. Not becuase it was a bad event, or becuase it wasn’t run pretty well, but because it was a home group (GM included) with me as the tacked-on sixth player. This is always damned uncomfortable, but there were also too many mousy players at the table, and me providing the only active personality was really awkward, especially in this group, in my first Pathfinder game in ages and my first Pathfinder Society event ever. But it wasn’t so bad for all that, and the adventure was good.

Pathfinder Society, Destiny of the Sands, Part 2

IMG_20140613_150433A highly enjoyable game. The GM was relatively unseasoned but carried herself very well despite a few rough patches in the rules, including one instance when myself and another player fucked something up (failure to notice that we had already used our AoOs that round) and we had to back up half a round. But a fun, fun event with rock-solid players who remained highly engaged the whole time.

Pathfinder Society, Library of the Lion

I broke out my Wizard for this very combat-light event, which I enjoyed enormously. The one fight was against some animated books and the rest was skills roles and puzzles which were at just the right level of difficulty for such an event. The GM was not good with boxed text but was otherwise excellent and the people at the table were fully engaged, except for one player who sat at the table silently knitting socks the whole time. Don’t ask me.

Pathfinder Society Play

As I mentioned, this was my first whirl with Pathfinder Society stuff and my first time doing any kind of organized play in many years. It was great fun especially for the third event. This despite the fairly chaotic marshaling process, which was not aided by the on-site book misprints which had incorrect start times, incorrect event prices and variuous other cockups. Now that I have a better understanding of how this works I can plan better for the next time and tweak my characters to be more effective in this kind of play.

That’s the wrapup of games played. In the next installment I will have some additional thoughts about how and why the Pathfinder events generally beat out the D&D events.

Origins 2014 Wrapup Part 1

Origins 2014 has come to an end, and a great time was had by (mostly) all. Here is part one of my show wrapup thoughts.

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The Games

Origins is all about games, and I’ll have detailed thoughts about the things that I played in my next post. In general, however, gaming at Origins is thriving. The Pathfinder and Shadowrun rooms, driven by organized play, were booming. The Indie RPGs on Demand room was also hopping the whole time, and the cavernous D&D room was better-attended than it looked. As usual there were a large number of Call of Cthulhu events. Even oddball games like Traveller and Rolemaster were sellouts. Massive tournaments dominated the board gaming area, and deck-building card games like Ascension and Dominion were very prominent.

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I’ll have a separate post up about the events I myself participated in.

The Exhibit Hall

The dealers’ room this year was a paradise for boardgamers. So much so that some prominent publishers like Mayfair and Asmodee got their own sales areas — but in the Board Gaming hall.

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The dealers’ room was not so strong for RPG players and wargamers of either the hex-and-counter or miniatures variety. Many major players, including WotC, Paizo, Games Workshop and GMT did not exhibit, but the Steve Jackson James/Atlas/Chaosium booth had a big presence, and they were dealing both Paizo product and Numenera. Kenzer also exhibited, and there were both sellers of indie RPGs and a number of smaller publishers on hand. The big booths selling old and out of print RPGs and wargames were entirely gone. Columbia Games and Decision Games were there to represent old school wargaming.

As Origins evolves, the number of dealers selling cosplay and LARP stuff continues to increase.

Organization

As in previous years, show management was very disorganized. Lines were long and slow for those unfortunate enough to try to get in on Saturday morning, the events book suffered from many, many misprints and many events had to be moved at the last minute, with no notices posted. Thankfully, random people on hand were generally happy to point you in the right direction. Events were frequently listed in the book at the wrong times or with the wrong prices, so folks kept showing up early or with the wrong number of generic tokens in their pockets.

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Origins is changing — not necessarily for the worse, but it is changing in directions away from where GAMA’s expertise lies. Wherever that is. Every year, for example, there are more and more cosplayers, and GAMA has no idea how to deal with or appeal to them.

The Origins Awards, which should logically be the gaming hobby’s equivalent to the Oscars, were again bungled. Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop, which is both a great and entertaining show and is driving large numbers of people into boardgames, won a well-deserved award, but when folks started congratulating Wil on Twitter, it turned out that nobody had told him he was even nominated. This kind of incompetence would be laughable but something like it seems to happen almost every year, and for every step forward there seem to be two steps back.

What GAMA needs to do is hire a professional event management firm to run the show for them. They did so before, and in comparison the convention was very well-run in those years, but politics of the anti-WotC variety caused GAMA to end their arrangement with Andon.

Now, I’ve seen worse, at both Origins and Gen Con. It was better than some years, and no issue was so devastating as to completely torpedo the whole show. But it was very sloppy in a number of places, and the Origins Award thing is just a goddamn embarrassment.

The Food

There are many, many worthwhile places to eat around the convention center. My schedule was so compact, however, that I didn’t have the opportunity to go anywhere but the Hyatt’s food court, where the grub is merely serviceable but very cheap by con food standards, with a sole jaunt to North market on Friday, where I had some excellent curry followed by ice cream. Alas that I did not make it to Barley’s or the Flatiron, my two favorite places to eat in the area.

Overall

GAMA’s blundering aside, in general I had a great time. I did not get to spend as much time playing or attending as I would have liked, but that’s par for the course for folks with adult responsibilities.

Origins has historically been and remains a great show to attend to play actual games. Get gamers together and the magic happens, despite whatever mistakes the convention organizers made.

Lessons for Next Year

Every year I find some things that I would have done differently, and that list reflects changes in the hobby, changes in the show and changes in personal circumstances. But here’s what I’d like to do differently next year:

  • Budget more money for the convention. This year I bought very little aside from dice, but my food budget could have been bigger.
  • Play more Pathfinder. I’ll have more to say about this in the next post, but I found the Pathfinder Society stuff to be very enjoyable. But I still want to do other games as well, so…
  • Budget more time for the convention. This means taking two days off from work, which I have not done for the last few years. This would give me, minimally, a full day to play games on Thursday as well as the opportunity to get in on stuff on Wednesday as well. There were things I wanted to do but couldn’t because I had to go to work on Thursday night.
  • Maybe run a game or two. It occurred to me that I have never done so at Origins. There are all kinds of available avenues for this, but stuff for Indie Games on Demand would be a possibility, or I may try to do Rolemaster or Traveller or something else similarly underserved. It would be nice if my RPG was finished by then, but that’s very unlikely to happen by next year.
  • Have a better way to do online blogging from the show. Partly this is a function of time, but there were also equipment and battery issues, and I didn’t do as much reporting from the show as I would have liked.

My Origins Event Schedule

Origins 2014 has begun, and today I picked up my badge and signed up for as many events as I could fit into my schedule (below.) I will be reporting on each event as the con proceeds, in addition to tweeting under the #OriginsGameFair hashtag, plus as much else as I can get in.

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Thursday

  • 2 PM – 6 PM: Full Thrust (Miniatures)
  • 6 PM – 10 PM: 13th Age

Friday

  • 8 AM – 12 PM: D&D BECMI, B4 The Lost City
  • 1 PM – 5 PM: D&D Next, Legacy of the Crystal Shard
  • 7 PM-8 PM: Artemis Spaceship Brudge Simulator
  • 8 PM – Midnight: D&D BECMI, X2 Castle Amber

Saturday

  • 8 AM – 1 PM: Pathfinder, Destiny of the Sands, Part 1
  • 1 PM – 6 PM: Pathfinder, Destiny of the Sands, Part 2
  • 7 PM – Midnight: Pathfinder, Library of the Lion

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Sunday’s up in the air, as the 8-hour marathon Pathfinder game I’d planned to be in was sold out.

Origins 2014

The Origins Game Fair, one of the country’s largest hobby game conventions, takes place in Columbus, Ohio each summer. It starts this Wednesday. It’s a great show and I have fun every year. I’ve only missed two shows since 1995, one due to scheduling issues and the other due to a health problem which is thankfully cleared up now.

As in previous years I will be posting on social media about the show while it’s happening and I’ll have blog posts regarding it as time permits – hopefully each day, but when it’s over if nothing else. I plan to take as many photos as my batteries allow. Unlike previous years my intention this year is to game my ass off. We’ll see what I can get into on Wednesday, but I have a full slate of games planned, with alternates in case any of my first choices are filled. I will be hitting D&D and Pathfinder hard, filling in the gaps with goodies from Indie Games on Demand. I may also try that Artemis thing if I get the opportunity. I even have a miniatures game on my alternates list.

Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Reviewed

Almost as old as roleplaying games are boardgames that try to simulate them. Back in the day we had TSR’s Dungeon, and later came games like Talisman, HeroQuest and Descent. In principle, such games try to provide some elements of the RPG experience without the prep, bookeeping or scheduling concerns, becuase they can be played in a single session.

Roleplaying games today are a bit different than they were back in the days of yore, however. And there’s been a lot of analysis over the past decade or so that tried to isloate what the components of RPG play are and how to enhance them. This has spawned many novel RPG designs, but few boardgame emulations of the subject have tried to break the genre loose from the dungeon. The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (hereafter PFACG) does that. It’s a card game that plays like a board game that plays like an RPG. Specifically like a Pathfinder Adventure Path. It’s also a cooperative game; the players try to beat the game itself rather than each other.

pathfinderPathfinder, for those who don’t know, is an iteration of the D&D Edition 3.x rules, produced and adopted by Paizo Publishing after D&D 4th Edition caused an exodus of players who preferred the previous version of the rules. It’s been wildly successful and routinely outsells D&D proper, depite the latter’s far wider name recognition amongst the general public. The Adventure Card Game is a spinoff that incorporates elements of the deck-building games that are currently popular. Note that while there are expansions for the PFACG, it is NOT a “collectable card game” in the style of Magic: The Gathering. Aside from a couple of promo cards, what comes in the kits is what’s in the game, and there’s no random packs or anything like that.

The Base Set comes with a lot of pretty cards, a basic set of dice, the rulebook and a nice card organizer tray that seats inside the box. This tray, or something very like it, is almost neccessary for play of the game, becuase on many occasions you’ll need to pick random cards of one type or another from the box, and you’ll want those oprganized into cvatgeories and ready to go. Some kinds of discards also go back in the box, while others go into your dicard pile or to the bottom of your draw deck.

One starts playing the PFACG by picking a character (one of the Pathfinder iconic characters, of which seven come in the Base Set,) who gets a starting deck that you can design yourself from the cards in the box. This deck represents both your abilites and your life points, and is subject to a number of restriction on what can go into it and what can’t. You can also just use some preconstructed decks that are provided in the rulebook, although in my opinion these are not that great but easily improved upon.

You also pick a scenario card. This can be a standalone scenario or part of a larger “adventure” consisting of several scenarios intended to be played in order. Two such adventures are provided with the Base Set: Perils of the Lost Coast, which consists of three different scenarios, and Burnt Offerings, which contains five scenarios and is the first part of the Rise of the Runelords Adventure path, a series of six linked adventures. The other five parts are found in expansion decks for the game.

Each play session is a single scenario and can be played in roughly 30-60 minutes, or maybe a bit longer the first couple of times. When the scenarios are linked into a campaign the characters can grow over time and between adventures, gradually improving and exanding their decks and gaining new abilities. While the PFACG is fun played just as a one-shot, it’s in the campaign mode that it really shines.

Aside from the character decks, each scenario will have a number of locations, as given on the scenario card. How many locations you use depends on the number of characters playing. Each location gets a deck of its own, constructed randomly using the rules in the book from the card categories listed on the location card.

Characters, alone or together, explore these locations by drawing cards from their decks, encountering challenges like monsters, traps and parleys and possibly accruing treasures like better gear and abilities. You win the game by defeating the scenario’s end boss,— but the boss can escape to another location that hasn’t been cleared out unless you cut off his escape route, which means you’ll need to find where’s he’s gone to challenge him again.

The game works on a timer; you start with a deck of thirty Blessing cards and each player turns one face up at the start of the turn, so you have thirty player turns in which to complete the adventure. If the Blessings deck runs out or all the characters die, the players lose. Various card effects can add to the Blessings deck or take away from it.

The Base Set contains enough stuff for four people to play; not just the character cards but gear, spell cards and such that are needed to flesh out the decks. The optional Character Add-On Deck contains enough cards to add two more players and provides four additional characters to play (the Barbarian, Druid, Monk and Paladin.)

The game is probably at its best with four players, but can be played solo with one character or several. And it can be fairly challenging; my first game saw my Fighter Valeros face-planting in his first location. Not all of the characters are well-suited to playing solo with a single character; the Rogue is the preferred class for this, but it looks to me like the Ranger would be pretty good as well.

My own imperfect understanding of the rules at the time didn’t help, either. The rulebook is not lengthy but a lot of details are on the cards themselves, as is common in card games these days. On the whole it’s fairly intricate, but not impenetrably so, even for kids. It’s probably about as complex as the rules in the Pathfinder Beginner’s Box. But there’s no simplified version of the game to start out with, or a gradual learning curve. You’re all in until you figure everything out, and there are a number of layers of rules that you could potentially forget, like the sepacial rules for the scenario or location, from the those cards, or the special rules for your character.

On the whole, though, the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is a great deal of fun, and not a bad substitute if you have the RPG itch but can’t get players together for a campaign or if nobody wants to GM. In the same amount of time it takes for one typical 4-hour session of D&D or Pathfinder you could get through an entire Adventure, store the built decks in the box, and pick up where you left off at a later time with the next adventure in the Path. Because the Adventure is randomized and there are different ways to build the character descks, replayability is high even using the same two adventures that come in the box.

Some vague guidelines are given in the rulebook for developing your own characters and Adventures, but no rigorous rules; it’ll take some expereince to get the balance and feel right, and there is support from online communities for doing this kind of modding.

At $60 for the Base Set and $20 each for the Character Add-On and additional Adventure decks, plus additional accessories if you want them, the buy-in price is fairly high… but as I mentioned above, you can get a pretty good amount of play even just out of the Base Set, you can play it even solitaire, and it’s entertainment dollars well-spent, in my opinion.

The final installment for the first PFACG campaign is due out in June. The next product will be a whole new Base Set and campaign based on the pirate-themed Skull & Shackles Adventure Path. If you’re going all-in on the game I do recommend adding some extra dice to your set. It’s likely that a lot of potential players will have those laying around anyway. And if you’re also into Pathfinder or another fantasy tabletop RPG that likes playing with minitaures, you might think about picking up the Pathfinder Pawns NPC Codex Box, which contains 300+ heavy cardstock standups that include the eleven iconic characters from Pathfinder, the same ones used in the card game. Using the standup Pawns is more fun and tactile than using the token cards that come with the Base Set and Add-On Deck.

Before the Empire

My extant version of the Arashálinu Enáthaga began with the first Emperor and only briefly mentioned Alénach, who had arisen as the leader of the White Alliance before the Empire’s founding. Nevertheless the early history of the Dhéruhir is fairly well-detailed in my archives, with an account of the migrations of the then-nomadic Laghá into the region, their assimilation of the Vádzh already living their, and the development of city-states and in time a loose alliance to ward off incursions by still-barbaric tribes dwelling to the west.

It seems to me that the chroniclers would not have started their account cold, as it were, especially given that the dynastic history was begun a century or two after the Founding, and was likely intended to be a history of the Empire to that point. So I’ve written a prologue along with additional Editor’s Notes which I may well expand at a later time.


Long years before the Empire the Laghá came to the lands of the Dhéruhir from the west and brought with them the faith of Kórbrak. They settled among the lands of the Vádzh, and soon they were one people. They grew millet and wheat after the manner of the Vádzh, and their numbers swelled, and soon they built cities where all manner of tradesfolk might gather behind high walls in safety. Yet to the west there were still the unlettered tribes of the Laghá who were called the Rekóna, with whom they warred. The great chief Hásteka led the western clans against all the cities, and Verékha and Henésta fell to them. So the Lords of the cities made the league which is called the White Alliance, and defeated the western tribes on the banks of the Menúr. Yet Hásteka fled and lived many years yet, often raiding in force though he feared to come once more against the whole army of the Alliance with his sworn tribes, so the Alliance endured for three generations.

In the last of these arose Alénach, a man of Dravá, and he became most prominent among the Lords of the cities, and the other Lords were coerced to do his bidding, lest all fall to the Rekóna, among whom yet another chief had arisen who thought to weld all the tribes into a great horde. It was Alénach who led the armies of the Alliance against the tribes, and in a campaign of six years subdued them and forced them to submit to the will of Dravá, yet not to the Alliance. After this none could gainsay him, and he set about gathering all powers to himself in Dravá, which had grown to be largest and mightiest of the cities of the Dhéruhir.

Editor’s Notes

There are reasons to think that the transition between the loose mutual defense league called the White Alliance (for so it seems in the fragmentary records available) was not so abrupt as the tale in the Arashálinu Enáthaga would seem to imply. But records of that time are extremely scarce and have often been subject to revisionism and reinterpretation over the centuries, and a full account of the theories of historians of that age is beyond the scope of this work.

What can be known is that the people of the cities of the Dhéruhir (the claw-shaped peninsula that juts out from the eastern Surathan coast into the Luésh Alén (the “Green Waters” in Draványa, called the Sea of Doorways by many other peoples living on its shores,) were literate from at least BF 200, and possibly earlier. It is thought that the migrating Laghá and the indigenous Vádzh formed a unique cultural union to which the Laghá brought a warrior ethos and cultural pride and the Vádzh instilled agriculture, literacy and many other endowments of civilization.