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.

Re-Evaluating AD&D’s Second Edition

Wizards of the Coast’s upcoming release schedule has, slated for May 21 2013, premium reprint versions of the AD&D 2nd edition Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monstrous Manual… much as last year they released fancy editions of the earlier 1st edition books. Relative newcomers and those nostalgic for the old days ought to be pleased.

2ephbNow, I don’t know that I am personally in the market for these. I didn’t pick up the 1E reprints, for example, although I was tempted. And I have quite serviceable copies of the AD&D2E core books on my shelf. Two sets, actually. And a shrinkwrapped copy of the first Monstrous Compendium. But that itself is noteworthy because I always thought it was AD&D2E that chased me away from D&D for nigh on two decades. The old line was that 2E didn’t solve any of AD&D’s problems but sucked out lots of flavor — assassins, demons and devils, all that stuff. Even the innocuous monk was cut. In the years that I disliked D&D I hated 2E, and I was vocal about it in the local gaming community and on the internet.

But, you know, stuff looks different in the cold light of passed years and you start seeing features instead of problems. I’ve been looking over my 2E books lately, and I feel very differently about it after moving in a direction more favorable to 2E for several years. Sure, the AD&D2E DMG was less useful as a general reference than its 1E counterpart — but we have the internet now. It contained some suboptimal GMing advice — but so did its predecessor. And granted that during the 2E era the game crufted up a great deal with a bazillion settings and broken rules addenda like Skills & Powers, but the core — the game in the Player’s Handbook — is really quite nicely designed and retains virtually all of the character of the editions of D&D that preceded it.

2edmgSecond edition gave us a Bard that was playable, partially alleviating that hard feelings causued by cutting two classes. A lot of things I found objectionable at the time, like non-weapon proficiencies, are clearly marked as optional, although it was hard to see that at the time. It cleaned up a lot of little broken things and streamlined some other stuff. Most importantly, it’s the same game, only tighter.

I still don’t like THAC0, that crime against Man and God. But in going over a lot of the old systems and thinking about designing what would be a customized retro-clone, starting with AD&D2E as a baseline really isn’t all that bad an idea. Drop proficiencies entirely, work back in tidied-up versions of the lost classes along with maybe the Barbarian, provide attack matrices alongside THAC0 for those who want them, and maybe flip a switch or turn a knob here or there and you’d have a rock-solid and pleasingly old-school game engine to work with.

I was where I was for those years, and all that time away is probably part of the reason I’ve changed my mind. I don’t actually regret choosing to play Rolemaster during most of the 2E era, but I do regret not keeping some of the considerable amount of 2E (and other D&D, to be sure) product that passed through my hands over the years. The current D&D climate filled with retro-clones offers has helped to show just how close AD&D1E and 2E really are: closer than AD&D1E is to B/X or BECMI, for example. Now that the first generation of retro-clones is part and all of the other old versions of D&D systems are thoroughly emulated, maybe we ought to start taking a closer look at 2E.

Adventurer Conqueror King: The Capsule Review

From the very beginning there was an idea that D&D would have an endgame, a point at which after a long career of adventure and dungeon-delving the player characters would clear out some patch of wilderness, build a stronghold or a tower or whatnot, and settle down to ruling a domain either mundane or magical. This idea would persist through AD&D 1st edition, whose Dungeon Master’s Guide contained a lot of detail about clearing wildernesses and what it cost to build strongholds. The D&D Companion Set, released in 1984, provided some fairly solid rules for this kind of thing, while in AD&D support was pretty sketchy, and it atrophied pretty quickly, to reappear in a redirected way in 1995’s Birthright for AD&D2e. In recent years, and in an environment where many have rediscovered the older iterations of D&D, the idea has resurfaced. And in the recently released Adventurer Conqueror King system from Autarch, it’s back with a vengeance.

ACK is being called a “second generation retro-clone,” meaning that it has been constructed, with the tools made available through the OGL, to resemble in play an older edition of D&D — in this case, largely the Frank Mentzer-Revised Basic/Expert/Companion sequence with some additional inspiration from AD&D1e. The guts of the system should be accordingly familiar to anyone steeped in pre-3.x D&D. However, ACK does not stop at emulating one of the crusty old variations of D&D but is in many respects a significant evolution of them in its own right.

ACK starts with the four basic classes of Fighter, Mage, Cleric and Thief, but expands on them with two classes for each of Elves and Dwarves and four additional human classes based mostly on classes from AD&D — the Explorer, for example is reminiscent of a spell-less Ranger, the Assassin and Bard are essentially BECMI iterations of the 1e and 2e versions, respectively. The Bladedancer is a new class, an all-female caste of temple warriors with both fighting ability and proficiency with clerical magic. Using the existing examples it’d be easy to design new classes or adapt something like the Druid to fit into this loose structure.

The ACK Mage and Cleric cast spells in a similar way to 3.x Sorcerers, limited by slots castable per day rather than by what’s been memorized or prepared, but with a limited selection of available spells as suits the much more compact BECMI-derived spell lists. Spells above level 6 (for Mages, and 5 for Clerics) are powerful but demanding and costly rituals instead of the kinds of things that can be cast in the context of a fight. Creation rules for magical items, constructs and undead are well developed.

One novel rule is that of spell signatures, which lets casters customize the cosmetic appearance of their spells, but which can also allow others knowledgeable in arcane matters to identify them by their aftereffects. It’s an elegant implementation of an idea some older groups had long used that removes such objections as “why can’t I play a fire mage?” and allows a caster to give more character to his or her repertoire of spells.

ACK also brings back AD&D’s proficiencies, but here they provide largely static bonuses to specific activities. In a way they resemble the feats of 3.x, and some of them have concrete combat effects, but they are scaled correctly to a system that tops out at level 14 and which is much less gonzo and anime-esque than later official D&D versions. The feel of the whole package is very old school but not strictly old school D&D per se — there are sprinklings of Tékumel and RuneQuest in its implied setting, and room for the kind of technomagic that we saw in something like Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, if the DM chooses to insert such things.

Combat works pretty much as you’d expect out of red box D&D, with a few notable enhancements. For one, it uses ascending Armor Class, no doubt causing the most regressive grognards to shudder in horror — but this is a good thing in my book. For another, there are critical tables very reminiscent of those in Rolemaster, and similarly entertaining — but you’ll only roll on them when characters hit zero or fewer hit points or when they’re resurrected, which is a nice balance of having the interesting charts but not making you reference or roll on them too often. There are also some straightforward rules for special combat maneuvers and environments, but generally the modifiers are kept to a minimum.

The included bestiary is pretty lean, limiting itself to a bare-bones selection of mostly stock critters. ACK has gotten some mild criticism for this, but I have to think it was done for carefully thought-out reasons. By giving us a picture of how the basic monsters are handled, DMs should be encouraged to create their own foes, which is easy to do since the system is so loose anyway. And of course, most creatures from BECMI or AD&D1e products should be trivially easy to import, and there’s quite a wide selection of those. For those wanting weirder but still pre-generated monsters there are a number of retro-clone resources available which should be similarly easy to implement.

Henchmen are embraced in ACK, and there are extensive but loose rules for hired NPCs of all kinds, fit neatly into the game’s reimagined D&D economy. Henchmen are also valuable to domain rulers, and can be used as replacement PCs should one’s main character meet an untimely demise.

The largest enhancement that Adventurer Conqueror King brings to the D&D canon is in the way it establishes a mode of play at high (9+) levels. At this point, common adventurers become Conquerors and may aspire to become Kings. Fighters can build castles, Mages can erect towers, Thieves hideouts, and so on as was described in the AD&D1e and rules, but here we’re given an array of subsequent things for them to do. It’s elegantly developed, structured without being confining and evocative of player and GM creativity. It plays like high-level D&D instead of Civilization in a D&D world, as was the case with other approaches to similar subject matter like Eden Studio’s Fields of Blood. It is unfortunately not quite complete, and the book’s lack of mass combat rules — the kind of thing that GMs running domain-level games would really want — is its greatest flaw. These are slated for release in the line’s second volume, Domains of War, which is supposed to be out fairly soon.

On the other hand, part of ACK’s approach is to allow domain conquest and rulership to develop organically through play, rather than simply handing the character a domain when the campaign begins as was done in Birthright. The game’s economic model, which has been rebuilt a priori, supports this completely. It’s not a real-world economic simulator, but it takes the pieces of the D&D economy and fits them together in a way that both makes internal sense and shouldn’t fall apart as play progresses. In this sense, not having mass combat rules immediately might not be a deal-breaking flaw, since games starting at first level won’t need them right away, but they had better be out before too long.

Campaigns in ACK are strongly oriented toward the sandbox hexcrawl — the GM sets up a largely unexplored wilderness, scatters adventure sites, dungeons and interesting encounters all over, and turns the PCs loose on it. This is a style of play that’s been around since the very early days but seldom have there been such good guidelines in print for actually running this kind of game. You get strong advice on setting up the map, managing encounters and stocking dungeons, but the game never strikes a tone of “this is the official way it must be done,” always subtly encouraging GMs to tweak and modify as they see fit, both in the rules text and in the very cleverly crafted examples. In this way, by the time characters start hitting the “name” level, they’re already familiar with the lay of the land and have probably traversed much of it, and have developed friends and enemies within it. This should allow plot threads to develop in the late game in a very organic way.

Graphically, the book is not a masterpiece, although it’s attractive by indie standards. The cover art is very striking but the interior pieces range from decent to mediocre, and the layout is workmanlike. I’d wager a simple and clean layout was something the creators were going for, though. The table of contents and multiple indices are well-done, but the PDF suffers from a lack of bookmarks for easy flipping to well-used sections of the book, though there are hyperlinks within the text itself.

Adventurer Conqueror King definitely captures old school ideals in their broadest sense. Although it doesn’t strictly emulate any particular elder D&D, it sticks quite closely to everything up to and including AD&D1e and conversion of those materials to its format should be very easy. For those that want a lot of tightly-defined rules infrastructure, look elsewhere; ACK leaves a great deal to player and GM imagination and interpretation. Those wanting a solid core rulebook presenting a system akin to elder forms of D&D with a little bit of 1e/2e flair, plus a broad but solid and playable framework for running high-level games involving domain rulership should give it a very serious look.

Personally, picking a particular iteration of D&D to run is something I’d been pondering lately, and I mentioned the other day that Wizards of the Coast, with its upcoming D&D Next, might make the choice easy for me by, in their words, “unifying the editions” in the same way Mongoose had with their version of Traveller. To my mild surprise, I find that Autarch has already done that — Adventurer Conqueror King is the edition of D&D that I want to run. I’m not sure I can praise it more highly than that.

Disclaimer: This review, though lengthy, is a capsule review of ACK. I have not playtested it, but I’ve given the rules a thorough going-over and have a reasonably good idea of how they will shake out at the table, especially since I’ve played a number of domain-level games in the past. The version reviewed was the PDF version.

Adventurer Conqueror King is available through GameSalute in Hardcover ($40) or PDF ($9.99). It is also available via DriveThruRPG in PDF format for the same price. Physical copies should be available in retail shops through the Bits and Mortar program.

Picking a D&D

Re-approaching tabletop RPGs after some time away, I feel like I have missed a lot. The “new wave” of RPGs as exemplified by the current dominance of talk FATE and systems like The One Ring. Games with strong simulation aspects have always been my forté, anyway, as evidenced by extended periods involved in things like Rolemaster and Ars Magica. In a sense, my games have very often stuck fairly close to the D&D paradigm as it relates to campaign approach — but not in story or adventure design, where I have typically tended toward a much greater reliance on roleplaying and politics than is probably typical in D&D games.

These days, for a number of reasons that I may eventually get into (I’ve a long post brewing that will touch on some of these subjects in greater detail,) I have decided to focus, more or less, on D&D. The broader roleplaying hobby is an outgrowth of D&D anyway, and even games which vary wildly from it are almost always designed as responses to D&D, whether the authors intended them that way or not. Exceptions exist but they’re rarer than those who are deeply immersed in hobby crosstalk think.

So, D&D then. But which D&D? There are now a huge number of flavors available, segregated into three primary sub-communities with some overlap between them. There’s the Old School Renaissance bunch, which gravitates toward pre-AD&D2 systems or clones thereof, the 3.x community that includes fans of Pathfinder and the 4th edition people with their newfangled system that seems, on its face, to depart very radically from previous iterations of the game.

Many versions, all of which have things I like and things I dislike, is a terrible place to be. It’s the same thing I suffered with Traveller until Mongoose came in and made the choice easy. WotC may do the same with D&D Next, but that’s ages away and uncertain as well — I’m getting mixed signals out of the talk from the demos held at DDXP a week or two ago.

Of what I have available at the moment, the three selections I’m inclined towards are Castles & Crusades, Pathfinder and D&D 4th edition. Which is rather a wide variety, really. Since what I am currently envisioning is a lengthy one-shot rather than a full-blown campaign, I’m inclined to select 4th edition and see how it actually shakes out with me running the table. It may be that I will find it very confining, and it may not. I did manage to play in a D&D Encounters session some time back and liked it, but that’s been my only actual tabletop D&D4 experience.

Of the other two choices, the leanness of C&C appeals to me, but it may be a bit too lean. Pathfinder, on the other hand, may be too bulky, but it does offer top-notch support in the form of rules expansions, a dynamite selection of adventures and a ready-to-go campaign world. But I think I’d rather devise my own setting and adventures, at that, and I’ll be chronicling that here as I go.

Sometimes A Step Forward is a Step Back

I have been playing MMOs since 2007. That’s not a long time compared to many MMO bloggers who came into the hobby with EverQuest or Ultima Online, but it’s five years, which is a while. Coming in I bought into the Big Dream of an immersive virtual world, but that’s gone nowhere, and major publishers have opted instead to chase the Big Money by making a relentless series of nigh-indistinguishable themeparks.

At this point, while I have certainly had some good times with MMOs and have no intention of abandoning them entirely, I feel like I’m wasting my time in making them the sole focus of the gaming I do. It would be an oversimplification to say that Skyrim is the culprit here, although it did highlight for me just how much MMOs lack and how much video games in general lack in comparison to tabletop RPGs.

In that hobby I go back thirty years, and am inching into old-timer territory. I can go on for hours about memorable events in tabletop games that happened ten or fifteen years ago. My experiences in MMOs simply can’t match that. I am, to be blunt about it, largely bored with MMOs at this point, barring something new and radical coming along (and there are some upcoming titles that may fit that bill.) Too, there’s the issue of MMOs eating up huge quantities to time, often just to get to the parts of the various games that are alleged to be fun. I spend more than my share of time parked in front of a computer, and would like to spend more of what I do have with Mrs. Ardwulf and doing social things with actual people and not avatars.

I have played very little on the tabletop in the past year or so, just due to an incredibly tight schedule that allows me very little opportunity to do much else. MMOs have been okay for that, since I can log in at odd hours and get a few things done. But I’m becoming a cantankerous hermit in so doing, and I’m tired of it. So I have decided that it is time to refocus. Games are always going to be a part of my life, it’s time to make tabletop games a part of it again, and if that means I spend less time n MMOs (which is already happening anyway,) so be it.

So what does this mean for you, Gentle Reader? Well, less than you might think, actually. I will still be posting about MMOs (I am still playing a couple) and assorted video games of interest to me, but the volume of such posts will go down a bit. I will also, however, be posting about tabletop RPGs. This is something I have written about here very occasionally and have tried to do in a more serious way a couple of times, but I’ve never managed to quite find my “blogger’s voice” for tabletop games, which is just weird. I think I now have a good hook to develop that, and that’s what you’re going to be seeing more of around here in months to come.

An Epic Year For Dungeons & Dragons

2012 is shaping up to be a fairly big year for Dungeons & Dragons, so far — both online and on the tabletop.

First off, we have the news that a fifth edition of the game is in development. This surprised no one — the writing was on the wall when Monte Cook was brought back aboard as a “special consultant” — but it’s gotten a lot of very high-profile attention from places like the New York Times and Forbes.

It’s also no secret that the current fourth edition of D&D isn’t doing as well as it might. It is, in fact, being beaten out by Pathfinder in many markets. In my own opinion, as stated many moons ago, it’s a good and cleverly designed game that happens to not resemble D&D very much except as an emulator of one particular style of D&D play. Part of the reason it didn’t catch on is that the designers failed to fully appreciate that they weren’t designing in a vacuum, but in an environment with a very strong sense of history and heritage. Too, there was no widespread clamor for a new edition at that time — many people had issues with various aspects of 3.5, but relatively few people felt it was a fundamentally broken and crappy system. This is in contrast to the late 2e era, when it seemed almost everybody felt that way, even those who were playing it. In changing the game so completely, WotC badly misread the community and fractured the community far worse than it already was.

This “edition war” among the D&D-playing community was always evident, but it became especially fierce when WotC put out a radical new edition that effectively disinherited old players and the 30+ years of materials they had accumulated; one of the greatest crimes of fourth edition is its total lack of backward compatibility. So deep was the chasm that opened up between the proponents of the various editions that there’s now a dedicated Old School Renaissance, dedicated to promoting play and producing product up to the scale of full “retro-clones” in the style of the pre-D&D3 era on back. While guilty of certain excesses along the lines of “This Is The One True Way,” this community has proven to be creatively fecund, releasing outstanding games like Adventures Dark and Deep and Swords & Wizardry and Castles & Crusades, which helped kick off the whole movement but which has been largely disowned by it for sticking too close to 3e.

The clamor for materials in the older style has apparently been noticed — finally — at Wizards of the Coast. PDF versions of older material have long been unavailable, but now they’ve committed to bringing back the original three AD&D 1st edition books in April, albeit in a limited edition. Part of the proceeds from the sale of these books will go to the Gygax Memorial Fund, which is trying to raise enough to erect a statue of Gary in his (and TSR’s) hometown of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Personally, although I have multiple copies of the original books, I lust after these, and I figure it’s for a good cause. I have absolutely no doubt that these will sell out very quickly, and hopefully WotC will take notice and start to make more of the older stuff — tens of millions of words and thousands of products — available in print or electronic format. This would erode prices in the collector’s market, but that’s not WotC’s problem.

Too, Cryptic’s Neverwinter, a second D&D-based Online Multiplayer RPG, is almost certainly going to release in 2012. While MMO-playing folks aren’t taking it very seriously at this point, and neither are tabletop fans since by its own admission it’s not going to lean much on any version of the tabletop game, it has the potential, if popular, to help to raise the profile of D&D again in the video gaming world. It used to be a popular and powerful brand, and then it just seemed to wither away, for which we can probably blame Atari.

More promising still, though, is Turbine’s Dungeons & Dragons Online, which is a high-quality, well-produced game invigorated in 2009 by its industry-shaking shift to free-to-play. DDO is based closely on the 3.5 rules and 2012 promises to be a titanic year for it. There’s a major content update coming in February that will include a free adventure pack, a cosmetic pet system and other stuff, and slated for the summer is the game’s first full-scale expansion, Menace of the Underdark.

Yes, you’re reading that right. While DDO is set in Eberron, the expansion will take players to Cormyr in the Forgotten Realms, and thence to the titular Underdark. Too, Druids are finally going to make their long-awaited appearance in DDO, and the level cap is increasing to 25 — which will be epic levels.

Even if, as I expect, D&D5 doesn’t release this year, it’s looking like D&D will be a very active property in 2012 — and it’s only January. And there’s also Pathfinder Online in the works, which I’ve discussed previously, which will effectively be another D&D MMO as well.

The End of the Old School

One of the problems that I’ve had with the “old school” tabletop RPG movement has been its overwhelming affection for and indeed utter reliance on the early D&D rules. The old school – my old school at least – was a lot more varied than that. While I like D&D as a system and do indeed feel some nostalgia for a youth spent planning and playing it, I’m not at all attached to the purist’s vision of the early rules system. Indeed, my old school ideal of D&D remains the first edition of AD&D, and I laugh at those making the stipulation that AD&D1 was too newfangled – such an argument could only be true by applying criteria under which not even white box D&D – as it was actually played after the first year or two and how it actually evolved at the table – would satisfy. Too, such an argument ignores the reality of the gaming community at that time, which departed from the older iteration of D&D in droves in favor of AD&D, and saw its peak years under that rules system, both creatively and in terms of popularity.

Even so, a couple of the key hallmarks of old school play are elements that were at the heart of D&D from the beginning: classes and levels and graded ranks of spells. But are the Palladium Fantasy RPG, published in 1983, or Rolemaster, released from 1980-1983, which include those same features very prominently, less “old school” than AD&D1? For that matter, is Champions from 1981, with its point-buy character creation? Is 1978’s RuneQuest with its skill system? Is Traveller, from 1977?

Ultimately the answer depends on the personal experience of the oldster in question. Me, I played plenty of D&D back in the early 80s, but my formative experiences happened mostly in those other games I mentioned instead (excepting Palladium, which escaped my notice for a good decade.)

So I’m annoyed by the old school “renaissance” as it currently stands, because I am not as fond of D&D, especially early D&D, as is required to embrace the movement, and because a lot of the newfangled features that one is commanded by Holy Writ to reject exist in other titles with, to my mind, just as much old school cred. I love the idea of “old school” gaming but am obliged to reject any environment in which there’s a serious discussion about whether the inclusion of the Thief somehow ruined the game. Defining “old school” such that something released in 1978, thirty-three years ago, is somehow disqualified as not old enough or pure enough is a symptom of a movement that’s disappeared up its own ass.

Now, I suppose that one has to determine (for oneself) some line or date when the end of the era of old school gaming occurred. The old school people often point to 1983’s Ravenloft and the beginning of the Dragonlance brand in 1984 as the time when the gong of doom began to ring. Within the context of D&D being the only RPG that mattered, this did indeed represent an important shift away from skeletal sandbox settings and toward detailed backgrounds and metaplot.

While I absolutely see the appeal of gaming in the sandbox era and tend to dislike canned plotlines handed down by a committee, I also reject any paradigm in which D&D is the only important RPG. I am personally inclined to place the end of the old school era in 1987 with the release of Ars Magica, the first RPG overtly focused on “storytelling” as a major game element, a full four years before Vampire: The Masquerade would popularize it. But here’s a fun fact for you – the first published discussion of RPGs as a storytelling device appeared, near as I can tell, in the Foreword to 1977’s Chivalry & Sorcery – another game with strong old school chops.

Somewhat paradoxically, I also think Ars Magica is kind of old school itself; it’s got the crunch and the sandbox attitude to make it fit – although later editions of the game, especially the White Wolf-produced third edition, would wear away at this to varying degrees, and I think there’s no question that, by being centered on one specific type of character, it pointed RPGs in the more focused direction they’d take in later years.

Even after that, though, a smattering of other games were released that, to my mind, exemplify the old school feel; Lace & Steel springs to mind, as does Dangerous Journeys by Gygax himself for that matter, as well as the excellent Castles & Crusades from the D&D clone camp, a game disowned by the “old school” movement at large because of, as far as I can tell, the perfectly sensible inclusion of ascending Armor Class. Too, there are some old games that probably don’t qualify as old school despite long predating my arbitrary line in the sand. The most obvious of these is 1975’s brilliant Empire of the Petal Throne for its inclusion of a detailed and wonderfully weird setting.

All of this is intended to illustrate where I personally am coming from on this issue rather than handing down a manifesto of what should and should not be considered old school, and to show that RPGs in the early era were more varied than the current “old school” herd would care to admit. Where one draws the line is arbitrary and up to each individual. If you really think that the only game worth playing is the one hand-assembled by Gary Gygax in his living room, then I suspect that you and I are going to have a fundamental disconnect, because I think Golden Age-ism is a load of bollocks. Not to mention that I was actually around in the old days and for the life of me cannot remember even the rumor of anyone playing White Box D&D after about 1979. I believe in progress; fits and starts and dead-end paths it may have but in the big picture I think RPGs are better now than then, even and perhaps especially those games that try to play in the old school sandbox. There’s room for old school, but there needs to be more room in old school, too.

The Heritage Factor

There’s one MMO that has name recognition beyond that of others, and which reaches outside the typical MMO audience. And that game is not World of Warcraft.

In 2010 WoW is getting long in the tooth at 6 years old. EverQuest is venerable at 11 years. And Ultima Online has been running for an astonishing 13 years, the oldest extant true MMO I’m aware of – unless Meridian 59 is still running (and I think it is.)

Dungeons & Dragons has been around for thirty-six years. Granted, D&D Online isn’t all that old, but that is to some extent irrelevant, since D&D Online aims to – and in many ways succeeds at – recreating the tabletop experience in an online, massively multiplayer way.

This is a lot more important as a selling point to people like myself, with a long history of tabletop play. And it might even serve to dissuade some people from becoming regular players. But there’s no question that the D&D brand has penetrated the popular consciousness more than any other. Even more than WoW.

This, however, is not the element of the actual game which makes it stand out – it simply gives it more name recognition than other games. Which is nice, but it won’t keep anybody for very long. What really makes DDO special is the history and depth that those thirty-six years give it.

Most MMOs have simplistic mechanics even though they may have complex equations in the code. The math is complicated, but the way that all the numbers interact at the fundamental level is pretty simple. This phenomenon became far more prevalent with the rise of WoW and the tendency among other providers to ape its success by rolling for the Lowest Common Denominator.

DDO has, bluntly, the deepest mechanics of any fantasy MMO; the only thing that may surpass it is EVE Online, although the venerable Asheron’s Call is pretty credible in this regard as well. “Character customization” in most titles is limited to fiddling with your character’s looks or to the choice between a small number of talent trees with very low flexibility. And your choice of class determines the shape of your abilities forever, although EQ2 gets some props here for having more breadth in its AA system than most, and the ability to swap alignments and thereby switch to an alternate version of your class.

In DDO, as in the D&D 3.5 rules in which the game is rooted, you may start out as a fighter, then move into Rogue for thieving abilities, then into Cleric for healing. Even within each class the possibilities are very wide, and a particular focus doesn’t automatically exclude you from doing other things. Want to wield a two-handed sword as a WoW Mage? Tough. In DDO you take a feat to do it, or use the spell that grants you the proficiency – you don’t even need to take a level in another class. But if you do, you can choose to switch back and forth as you wish.

So too the matter of ‘lore’, which even in the deepest and most storied fantasy MMO I can think of (EverQuest,) is pretty superficial. Eberron is the youngest of the many settings devised and published for D&D, and yet the amount of detail in its background absolutely dwarfs anything else in MMOs.

Both are the result of the game’s tabletop heritage. MMO designers program content – they only develop lore and mechanics for what they need, and sometimes for what they think would be neat to include. The designer of the tabletop setting (Keith Baker in this case,) doesn’t have that luxury, knowing that individual DMs will take what they’ve written and run with it, so the material needs to be much more exhaustive. There’s a CD of in-world music from Eberron, for example, and a cookbook full of recipes from the Dragonlance setting. Cultures, social mores, customs and important personalities all get fleshed out because somebody might use them at some point.

Not all of this makes it into DDO, of course – the online arean of play that an MMO can provide has its limitations. But the MMO’s content designers have years of lore and a wealth of sourcebooks and novels to draw upon, even before they start – and then there’s the general heritage of D&D to take inspiration from, thirty-six years of non world-specific content, creatures, magic and adventure.

But I have to admit that, to me, a lot of this is incidental. The game’s fun and looks good, and has an engaging setting despite the limitations of the MMO format and the technology behind it. But the thing I really get a thrill out of is when I see, in game, some timeworn tidbit of D&D lore brought to life. In no other MMO have I been so delighted as when I see a low-level spell like Hypnotic Pattern cast for the first time, bedazzling a crowd of mobs, or when I catch of glimpse of a Mind Flayer in a 2nd-level adventure, knowing that the thing would eat my brains for lunch, literally – but being set against its evil schemes anyway. Or when facing down a stronghold of Hill Giants as a doughty dwarf, or when putting on a shiny new suit of Plate Mail +4 for the first time. Or even when just seeing screenshots of Pit Fiends and Bearded Devils. The first time I see a Githyanki in-game I’m gonna hit the ceiling.

All this gives me a sense of groundedness that I’m missing in something like WoW, which as fine a game as it is, has a bland genericness about everything in it, from the places to the monsters to the abilities of the races and classes. DDO, like D&D, is not and has never been generic (although it has often been called so.) The tabletop game carved out for itself a niche within the fantasy genre in which it alone sits comfortably, and DDO fits right alongside it.

Weaned on this stuff as I was as a lad, seeing them in DDO impress the wonder of the D&D subgenre upon me. No other MMO compares in this respect, and only LotRO can come close, even in principle.