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.

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.

D&D5 For Free

And then there arose an interesting development regarding the D&D5E Starter Set and its suitability as a stand-alone game system for long-term play. There is, as always, good news and bad news.

It’s always my habit to drop the bad news first, so here goes. At this point the Starter Set appears to be what it says on the tin: levels 1-5 and a canned adventure or two (Mearls says “campaign.”) Very similar to the kind of introductory sets we’ve seen since the cancellation of the BECMI line. It doesn’t sound like the kind of thing that can keep people playing for all that long, although the components might well be useful later on.

The good news, though, is a biggie, spilled by Mike Mearls early this morning. Alongside the 5E rollout we’re going to see a product called Basic Dungeons & Dragons, which will be distributed as a free PDF. It will contain the four core classes of Cleric, Fighter, Rogue and Wizard, and will include the Halfling, Elf, Dwarf and Human races. And levels 1-20. Mike compared it to the Rules Cyclopedia, with the three D&D5 core books being the equivalent of AD&D.

As new “storylines” (which I read as “modules”) are released, there will be PDFs of any extra material not already in basic D&D but needed to run the adventure, also for free. So the guts of D&D will be available entirely for free in a presumably accessible and newbie-ready format, along with at least some de facto supplimentary material as time goes on.

Another implication is also that 5E adventures in general will be more or less fully BD&D compatible, eliminating any need for a separate line of support products (although it’s kind of getting that anyway.)

This is the kind of introductory version of the game that I was talking about the other day. We’ll see how lean it is when it releases, but it sounds very promising, and as a number of the retro-clones show, you can fit a lot of game into a relatively low page count. As Mearls says, it could provide “a lifetime of gaming.”

The fact that it’s free is important but the whole thing sings to me of a bravura marketing move. It should drive sales of both the supplementary products and the core books. If compatibility with pre-4E editions is high enough (and I think it will be, by and large) it will drive sales of legacy PDF material through D&DClassics.com. The price of zero dollars combined with D&D’s brand recognition will lower the entry barrier to the whole hobby. And it will be an attractive option for those of us who want to play D&D and prefer that it be the current, supported version, but who would rather use a rule set simpler than the whole 5E enchilada, or say 3.5 or Pathfinder. If it’s good enough and clean enough it might even win over some of the asthmatic old geezers of the OSR.

D&D is sort of free already, of course. The 3.x SRD is still out there, not to mention the Pathfinder version. That particular Efreet is out of its bottle and can’t be put back in. But 3.x is a pretty damned complex game, and the SRD is not at all a rookie-friendly delivery system for it.

Now, there are still questions. Will Basic D&D release at the same time as the Starter Set, as Mike’s post seems to me to imply? Will there be a print edition of any kind? How will the licensing conditions for BD&D differ from those of balls-out 5E, if at all? Will there even be licensing, or will WotC contract out design work like they’re doing with the initial range of adventures? Of such questions are future blog posts made.

The D&D5 Starter Set: Complete or Crippleware?

The venerable Tobold wrote a response to last week’s article on the D&D Next reveal, in which he disagreed with me. At least he says he did; after several passes through his most excellent article I’m not sure I see where.

Tobold says that D&D4 is a great game. I agree. He says that it might have been better titled something like “D&D Tactics.” With that I emphatically agree. Indeed, I think D&D4’s biggest failure was one of branding. Had it been produced as its own distinct line with some iteration closer to the D&D mainstream still in production, many of the ill feelings surrounding it might have been avoided. Tobold says we need a true introductory product, and that neither D&D4 or D&D3.x are very good for that; with that I agree as well. Tobold actually seems to disagree more with Wizards of the Coast rather than my piece. However, had I elaborated on a few points perhaps we’d have found more fertile ground for battle.

Moldvay BasicIt seems to me that Tobold’s position rests on the presumption that the upcoming D&D Starter Set will not be a good introductory product for new players, and he gives several reasons for thinking so. He may be correct; as he rightly points out, WotC has never successfully managed this. The danger in releasing such a product with the aim of drawing new players into the hobby is that such a product will be, essentially, crippleware, good for an evening or two of introductory play but then essentially mandating a step up to the “advanced” rules. Oddly, the introductory set that Tobold points to as a superior example was, to my recollection, exactly that — a hobbled game designed explicitly to drive players to AD&D, and containing only enough material for a few evenings of play at best. But perhaps he’s only talking about the price point and quality of components, whcih did land in a sweet spot.

Mentzer BasicWe have many questions about D&D5, chiefly about its method of delivery rather than the rules themselves, most of which have been in circulation for quite a while. The one to which Tobold spoke the other day and to which I am writing today is one of the bigger ones yet unanswered, whether the new D&D Starter Set will be a complete game in its own right. Tobold presumes no; I think it’s too soon to say, but I see his reasons for concern. Since my article was published I’ve learned that the D&D5 Starter Set will not contain character creation rules, a worrying sign. Those rules will, however, be made available online, for free. Personally, I would say that the level 5 cap isn’t as important as it might appear. The old D&D Basic Set (pictured in both its incarnations) only gave you three levels, and from personal experience you could get quite a lot of play out of those three levels before you felt obliged to step up to the accompanying Expert Set, and with that accessory you could basically play forever. But the assumptions underlying the speed of character progression were very different back then, and if you were listening to Gary Gygax’s advice on the subject you could spend months playing before your characters were in danger of reaching level 4. Not that everyone adhered to that, even Gary from what I hear.

Ideally, the D&D Starter Set would contain a complete RPG (even if character creation is shunted into some online document,) simpler than the full D&D5 rules, that would be suited to introducing new players to both the game and the hobby. Especially youngsters. And it would be supported by at least a few of its own adventures, and an add-on kit that would enable play through, say, level 10 or 15, while keeping the overall complexity level in keeping with what’s in the Starter Set. You could play forever with that. But I have no indication thus far that such a line of support products is planned, and indeed I strongly suspect that it isn’t. Then again, a great deal depends on WotC’s licensing plans for 5E. It may be that they’ll be open enough to allow some intrepid third party publisher to produce exactly that.

Tobold and I appear to have no substantial disagreements insofar as the points made in our respective posts. We do disagree as to the potential merits of D&D5 in general, but that’s a discussion I am unwilling to have until the actual products are released and in my hands. There is also, however, a matter of design and/or marketing philosophy that I may feel obliged to expound upon later in the week.

D&DNext Incoming

This week Wizards of the Coast announced the release schedule for the new edition of D&D, titled simply “Dungeons & Dragons” but referred to by all as D&D5 or D&DNext. My feeds and social media have been choked with the traffic ever since.

Some have squawked about the pricing, at US $50 per core book. The new price is a bit over four times what I paid for a Player’s Handbook in 1982, but it’s for a book with almost three times the page count and in full color. And the dollar ain’t what it used to be. Talk to your congresscritter about that.

Some have whined about the staggered release schedule, invariably in the same breath. In addition to the stated reason of giving the publisher better control over quality (as good a reason as any,) it also lets the consumer buy the new books on release without having to dump $150 all at once. Those of us with families and mortages can appreciate this, but even the youngsters should be able to appreciate spreading their money over three months.

There’s also the $20 starter set, which we’re assured will provide a complete (albeit low-level) experience by itself, without neccessarily forcing people to buy the full rules. D&D has needed such a product for many years, as the success of the Pathfinder Beginner Box suggests, and every effort since the demise of the BECMI line has fallen on its ass.

Some have questioned WotC’s marriage to the traditional three-volume presentation of the rules, citing Pathfinder as an example of how everything can be crammed into one volume. In answer I will point out that Pathfinder’s single rule book a) includes no bestiary and b) is awkward as fuck both at the table and durng GM prep. I much prefer the bulk of the rules to be presented in a player’s book with GM reference material in a separate volume where it can be presented in its proper level of detail. I question whether anyone who thinks folding all this into one 600+ page volume is a good idea has ever actually played this game.

Nota Bene: There are plenty of RPGs that can fit everything into one volume. But any such game, even a version of D&D, is going to be something less mechanically rigorous than any iteration of D&D 3.x. Call of Cthulhu would be one well-respected example.

Some have called the announced product covers boring and unevocative. Me, I like the art but will agree with Fred Hicks’ commentary over on G+ that the trade dress seems flaccid. That kind of thing is Fred’s business, so I’d be inclined to take his word for it even if I didn’t see it myself.

Some have questioned “whether we need a new edition of D&D.” The answer is obviously that “we” don’t. “We” are by definition the existing audience, with a plethora of different incarnations of D&D rules to choose from already. Some of us have been happily playing a favored edition for years or even decades. There’s no reason for someone in such a position to buy into a new edition. There never has been.

But the world needs a new edition of D&D, and always does. It needed a new edition back in 2008, and it got one: it’s WotC’s misfortune (if you like) that it was published by somebody else. We need something that’s going to keep bringing new players into the hobby, something 4E probably didn’t end up being very good at. Although anecdotally it seems to me like it brought a lot of people who’d long sworn off D&D in favor of other RPGs back into the D&D fold, 3.0 also did that without poisoning the atmosphere quite so badly.

Now, one of the initial stated goals of D&D5 (then D&DNext) was to unify the editions by being totally modular. So you couild have a fighter with 4E-style combat powers co-existing in the same game as an AD&D1E-style Magic-User, for example. Absolutely nothing that I have seen or heard about the actual mechanics suggests that the designers succeeded at this, and indeed this particular talking point got walked back long ago. I suspect that any design attempting to make fans of 4E and previous editions equally happy is doomed to fail. But this doesn’t mean that D&D5 will be rotten. The most damning thing I have heard about it lately is simply that it’s uninteresting.

Which actually is pretty damning, when you think about it. But the time is ripe to step into a new edition and put the divisiveness that characterized the 4E era behind us. And WoTC has been taking some smart, positive steps of late. The owners of D&D not even trying to make all fans of D&D their customers is spectacularly dumb, but that’s just what they’d been doing for years. The decision to reprint classic core books and sell PDFs of all editions of D&D via D&DClassics/DriveThruRPG/RPGNow was therefore huge, and signals that WotC is at the very least taking fans of every edition seriously.

I have no particular horse in the D&D5 race. I saw some of the earlier playtest draft material and wasn’t terribly impressed by it, but a big part of that was the unenviable situation WotC had placed themselvs in with regard to any new D&D edition by departing so radically with precedent.

Personally, I think D&D4 is very well-designed and worth playing. What I and a lot of people took issue with was that the D&D brand carries with it a set of associations built up over the last 40 years. Some of these associations are thematic, some are mechanical and some of them have grown up in the culture that surrounds the game. D&D4 tried to make a clean mechanical break with the past, fixing some long-festering apparent issues and implementing a number of improvements (which it does,) but in the process it severed thematic and cultural ties to older editions. This left many oldsters like myself feeling left adrift, like the D&D that WotC was publishing wasn’t created for them anymore.

While the edition wars are nothing new (I’ve been seeing this kind of bile since the Usenet days,) the controversy of D&D4 helped the rifts between fans of the different editions become deeper and more venomous. I’ve seen a reasonable case made that this is an inevitable result of an aging hobby, and thus 4E was just the catalyst. Perhaps this is so. Or perhaps WotC just bungled the introduction and post-launch development of D&D4 that badly; there’s a reasonable case to be made there as well.

Even so, the partition of D&D’s audience has not lacked an upside. D&D3.x survives and indeed thrives in a new incarnation as Pathfinder. Fans of older editions can find retro-clones to suit any taste from straight White Box D&D to Rules Cyclopedia to AD&D 2nd Edition, with everything in between. Most of these rule sets are avaialble in some form for free online. The so-called “Old School Renaissance” is alive and kicking vigorously, with top-quality products like Castle of the Mad Archmage, Barrowmaze and Lamentations of the Flame Princess. At the same time, storygamers who felt alienated by the mechanically baroque 3.x found themselves enjoying 4E or its ill-gotten bastard, Dungeon World. And D&D reached new hights of exposure through appearances on mass-media phenomena like Community and Big Bang Theory. Forbes and the Wall Street Journal reported on the death of Gary Gygax, for heaven’s sake, and D&D5’s release announcement got picked up the the New York Times and CNN.

One could make a case, especially considering a booming Pathfinder a part of the umbrella “D&D hobby,” that we’re in, or are about to enter, a new golden age of D&D. It has visibility and social acceptance far in excess of any time in the past. It would be tough to sell that to the OSR crowd, it’s true. But D&D5, especially if the starter set is as strong as reports indicate, could catalyze a new generation of players getting away from the video games and sitting around a table amid piles of spent Mountain Dew cans and bags of Cheetos. Imagine that.

My prospects for actually playing D&D5 aren’t all that great. But I’ll buy the starter set in July, and I’ll surely own the other core books sooner rather than later. I’m upbeat about the whole thing.

Neverwinter Soft Launch Impressions

April 30 marked the start of the “open beta” for Cryptic Studios’ Neverwinter, an MMORPG based loosely upon D&D 4th edition and set in a corner of the Forgotten Realms. This is, of course, a de facto launch — they’re taking your money and not wiping your characters, so it’s a launch, despite being labeled a beta for marketing reasons and so that can be used as an excuse for any major issues.

And there was a major issue early in the day — lag. Which shouldn’t be and wasn’t surprising, but in a game that plays like Neverwinter, which is a bit twitchy and where timing and positioning are very important to one’s effectiveness, it was exceptionally harmful, to the point where anything remotely challenging may have been impossible. A mid-day backend patch solved the lag issue at the cost of introducing (rather lengthy) login queues. But if you ask me, dealing with a queue is preferable to a shitty experience in the game.

Neverwinter, though it cries out for more, has five launch classes. My selection was the Great Weapon Fighter, but due to the lag and that the character felt a bit clumsy and underpowered to me, after about seven levels (beyond which, for all I know, those issues would go away) I switched back to Control Wizard, which was the class I played the most back in the closed beta.

Neverwinter is a contemporary themepark MMO, which is to say that it’s got linear content along with scaling, instanced and one-off content that’s available to you at whatever level, so you have the ability to mix it up. This can give a game a bit of sandbox feel if you squint hard enough at it, but I’m not sure that’s really the case here. This content structure feels more or less like that of Star Trek Online and Champions Online, Cryptic’s other offerings. I find that generally agreeable.

And the game, too. Neverwinter is fun to play, with fast, fluid combat that manages not to be too twitchy for arthritic graybeards like myself. It’s set in a world (D&D’s Forgotten Realms) virtually unmatched in depth of lore and the game seems to have enough stuff to keep one busy for a little while. How well it will hold up over the long term… well, we’ll see, but if the login queues are any indication there’s lots of folks wanting to play right now.

A compare and contrast could and should be done with the other D&D MMO, Turbine’s D&D Online, but that’s beyond the scope of this opening day post. Offhand, DDO is far deeper but Neverwinter is slicker and more modern in just about every respect. I’m not sure there is a real need for there to be two D&D MMOs, but then, neither really captures the open-ended nature of a tabletop game. No video game does, of course, but titles like Skyrim or EVE Online can come tantalizingly close.

But anyway. Neverwinter is worth checking out. Nice graphics and good gameplay and if it’s a touch rough around the edges you can tell yourself that it’s technically still in beta. I have new episodes of Ardwulf Presents dealing with it and more on the way, so check those out as well.

Levels Reassembled

Levels have an important function and heritage in RPGs. They are a feature disliked by many and dismissed without understanding the reasons why they are looked on favorably, and without articulating why they are objectionable. The use of level as a measure of character power harkens back to Dungeons & Dragons, of course, from which all RPGs in whatever media ultimately spring. Even early on, however, there were games that did not feature them — 1977’s Traveller and Chaosium’s RuneQuest spring immediately to mind — and their use or disuse has driven many a controversy and feud over the decandes.

Detractors say that a level-based game makes certain assumptions about the nature of starting characters that might be undesirable; if you try to model Elric in D&D at first level, for example, he’s going to not only be very weak, but a key element of his character is neccesarily going to be absent. Thus too with Conan, the Gray Mouser, Gandalf and other classic fantasy characters. Similar characters built in systems without levels might be no more powerful but at least the conceptual barrier of making such a character “at 1st level” is torn down.

Proponents of levels point out that they provide a balancing mechanism which can be handy if implemented well, and that they provide convenient achievement benchmarks to feed players’ sense of accomplishment. And when we start talking about fantasy RPGs in particular, it’s hard to dispute that, no doubt at least in part due to the example and expectations set by D&D, the game just doesn’t feel right without some kind of ordinal advancement ranking. Level-less FRPGs have historically gained very little traction in the tabletop marketplace unless they are very specialized, like White Wolf’s Exalted — and even that has indirect leveling in the form of the Essence characteristic, which has a heavy effect on overall character power and tends to be increased in a fairly predictable way by players.

I’ll stipulate that fantasy games ought to have levels in some form, but not necessarily in the form proferred by D&D, while games in science fiction and other genres can get away without them, and may in fact be better off doing so. But let’s break that down and take apart where levels really come from.

In the D&D model, shared by numerous tabletop games and virtually all fantasy video game RPGs, you get some kind of currency as you play, typically called “experience,” and when you’ve built up enough, you level up. This brings with it some concrete benefits that increase the character’s power; more and better abilities, additional endurance currencies such as hit points or mana and increased success chances are all typical. There are also less quantifiable benefits, in that you can accomplish things at a higher level that you couldn’t at a lower level, and have added a pip to the Brag-O-Meter.

The actual specific mechanism of advancement and the benefits of additional levels aren’t important here, and of course there are also achievement metrics like money or reputation that exist strictly outside of the leveling ladder, the value of which varies from game to game. But then you have the offbeat example of the Elder Scrolls series, in which leveling is an elective process that you can in principle skip, as indeed in Oblivion you were indirectly encouraged to do. But for that very reason the series provides an interesting example, in that some metrics directly relevant to character power are tied to level, but not all of them are.

I do not think there is any a priori reason why one could not extend this idea to its logical conclusion by making levels irrelevant to character power at all, as Lethality suggested in a comment on the last post. But that displaces one of the primary reasons for having levels at all, as mentioned in the proponent’s argument above, as useful method for the game or the game master to judge character power for balance purposes.

However, a different approach might be to make levels the result rather than the cause of character power. You don’t level to improve your abilities, you level because you improved your abilities. This is sort of how things work in Skyrim, for example, but in that game there a number of things that still increase or are attained because of level, namely health/mana/stamina and perks, and those have a large tangible impact. In the mechanism I’m talking about you would have some kind of formula based on total skills or average skills or wharever, possibly with some other factors involved as well, and when that calculated figure hits a certai point, you level to a fanfare or back-slaps or something. (I’m especially fond of the White Tree animation you get when hitting certain levels in LotRO.)

One could in principle graft this kind of system onto any level-less game like Burning Wheel or GURPS or whatever, but you would need to mechanize it very carefully to minimize ways in which you could increase your character’s power without also increasing the challenge-increasing metric of level. This is exactly what occurred as the result of a halfhearted implementation in Oblivion, for example. You might also want to hide the details of the calculation from the players, or possibly include some randomizing factors that would vary leveling time by some degree. This all sounds like a big pain in the bookkeeping ass for a tabletop RPG, but a programmed or program-assisted game could do it for you.

This is, I think, part of one potential solution to the problems common to many RPGs, MMOs that suffer from the additional hindrance of finite content in particular. I’m hashing out ideas here rather than writing a manifesto, though, so if you have feedback to offer, I’d love to hear it.

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.

Drafting a Dungeon Map

I went to college, the first time, to be an architect. Architecture turned out to be a more artistic and less mathematical field than I’d anticipated, and it didn’t work out since I have very, very little artistic talent. But thanks to four years of high school drafting in preparation for architecture, I can knock out a fairly decent dungeon map.

I’ve dug out some of my old maps and may be posting them later on, but for now I’m starting a new map that I’ll be doing a step-by-step walkthrough on. Maps should have names, at least, to hang a concept on: this one is Thorngate Manor. I have some more specific ideas in mind for it, but that’s all we need to get started.

I’m going to go old school here and not use any electronic aids — I’ll draw by hand, like they used to in the days when DMs drank the tears of players before breakfast. Nor will I use any fancy gadgets like a drafting table or a t-square. I have a pencil, one ballpoint and one gel pen, a Sharpie and a piece of what looks like 4 square to the inch graph paper I had laying around in a random notebook. I collect graph paper notebooks with an almost fetishistic passion; sometimes I’m afraid to write in them for fear of “ruining” them with a project that turns out badly or unfinished, but this one’s already been partly used, so it’ll be okay.

I start by sketching the map in pencil, starting with the basic floorplan as shown below. I draw this kind of thing fairly light as I’ll erase it later after it’s inked, so it may be hard to see. I stipulate that Thorngate Manor has three floors: a ground floor, an upper floor and an attic/roof level. I’d thought a doing a cellar underneath the place, but I’d need either a second page for that or to drop the attic level. As you can see, the sketch takes up pretty close to the whole page. An underground dungeon map can end up looking kind of artificial if it fits the page more or less exactly, but for a three-level, rectangular outdoor structure it’s not a problem, and this kind of this is pleasingly old-school anyway.

I next begin to sketch the internal layout of each level. Obviously, I’m going to sketch the entire layout in pencil before beginning to ink, although any dressing like beds, tables and such I will just draw directly in ink. I need to make sure to line up the interfaces between levels correctly; there’s some math involved to do this strictly accurately, but I won’t bother, and will merely line them up by eye and according to the grid. I will use hallways to make the layout makes sense to the modern eye, even though architecturally hallways are a relatively modern invention – take a look at ancient and medieval floorplans sometime and you’ll notice the lack of them.

The attic is a little tricky, since I’m going to assume that the roof is pitched rather than flat, which means that parts of the attic will boast less-than-ideal headroom. Which I want, because it’ll make for an interesting encounter or two in cramped confines. But it means I have to figure out where the confined areas are. But — and this is the trick — the slope of the roof can be anything I want. I’ll “just so happen” that I will set it up so that everything works out based on my grid.

I will (more or less arbitrarily) draw the ridgelines of the roof. There will be three of these, one for each wing (drawn vertically) and another for the center section which is horizontal. The center section’s roof will intersect those of the wings at some angle which will in turn project down onto my flat paper at some different angle, but I can again draw this arbitrarily because I leave the roof pitch undefined. (The whole thing would be moot if I’d just declared “there’s a roof” and screw the attic.)

From the ends of the ridgelines in each wing, I draw straight lines to each corner of that section of the manor. For the center section, I stipulate that the roof peak is higher than on the wings, and cut the central ridgeline two squares short of the wing ridgelines. I then draw straight lines to the corners of the center section from its ends. Since the slope of the roof is arbitrary, I decide that two squares, around the edges of the attic, are the cramped confines, so I draw a hashed line to reflect that. And I place a couple of walls; this is all nominally storage space (no doubt now inhabited by some kind of natsy) so I don’t want a bunch of rooms in it, but neither do I want the whole attic to be one huge open space.

I also jotted a few notes on the map and added some details to the grounds: some trees and shrubbery, the groundskeeper’s shack, a stable and a small smithy and a small orchard. At this point I could easily number some encounter areas and populate the place, considering it done enough for government work. But hopefully I’ll get around to Part 2 later this week, where I will ink the thing and make it look slightly more professional.