Forgotten Realms, it’s not me, it’s you

We had a bad experience at Gamehole con with our 5e game and it wasn’t completely because the GM was terrible (he was tired, wasn’t too great at adapting to three extremely experienced players at the table) but more because the module he was running was completely derivative crap. Orc attack on a village, cave with orcs in it, Zzzzzzzz….

Since the game I’ve been thinking of what the main issues with that session and did the 5 whys with myself to suss it out.

  • Session sucked, why?
  • Adventure was boring, why?
  • Generic ho hum: Orc attack, Orc cave, why?
  • In a setting where that’s obviously common and accepted. why?
  • Forgotten Realms.  Why?
  • It’s the default setting for all D&D 5.

The root cause of this, and it’s not my normal whipping boy Pathfinder, it’s Forgotten Realms.

I started D&D when there was no real campaign world,  it wasn’t even slightly defined for us when we bought the box sets at Hobbyhorse. There was Greyhawk and Blackmoor and stuff like that, but unless you looked hard for it, kids starting with Holmes or Moldvay didn’t get that full in the face– it was OUR world to create and it started small with the first adventure. Whether it was X-1 (I worried about where on my world map that island was quite a bit in grades school), Hommlet, or with just characters at the entrance to a made up dungeon or trapped in a chateau that had no fixed location or full placement in a realm at all,  the setting grew outward from the first adventure as the DM and players desired or required from that initial small kernel adventure and became more defined by other kernels like Castle Amber or the G series. The monster books also defined our world, with tons of odd things on my map coming out of the acquisition of the Fiend Folio.  Death Knight empires were now laid down on hexes! What we had was a ton of space for imagination and very little constraint by over definition of the setting by the modules at the time’s authors.  This is exactly how Greyhawk came into being. Dungeon first, then local environs, then out from there.   I really appreciated in INTO THE ODD how the author has the first expedition start at the dungeon entrance and has a local map on pages after that and the larger area maps/keys after that in the book; implicitly stating that this is the order in which players should encounter such things.  Dungeon – near environs – realm.  The onion is peeled from the inside out.

While I was vaguely aware and mildly interested in Greyhawk, I never much looked at it while in my very hardcore grade school and early middle school days of playing D&D.  Later came Dragonlance and while people must have loved it, I felt all of it was garbage in a really shitty setting.  Dragons can be cool and horrifying (see Dark Souls and Glorantha),  I run them in my 13th Age game as either incredibly violent fiends or …something totally different.  But when you have dragon men and little dragons and big dragons and an empire of dragon men it’s all just shite to me.  The closest I got to it was the gold box games on the Apple 2E, which were quite good.

Dragonlance must have sold a lot because next we got Forgotten Realms and D&D has suffered for it ever since. Yes, this likely had to do with Gygax’s ouster from TSR in 1985, and the end of Greyhawk at that point, but Dragonlance had paved the way a couple years before for a default, shytte setting.

I’m certainly not the first person to say this, but Forgotten Realms is the absolute essence of generic fantasy.  It has every trope one can possibly imagine rolled into one ‘land’, every race is represented, all screaming out ‘potential’ for great adventure, but ending up absolutely mundane. The pseudo-medieval culture, architecture and technology levels are extremely trite, and border on the shear horror of steampunk.  For awhile there I thought I was just jaded and had experienced too much to enjoy such simple things in Forgotten Realms (for example, the lackluster Neverwinter nights games), but then I thought back about how much I disliked Dragonlance as a kid, wasn’t interested at all in the Greyhawk box-set after I got it and had switched instantly to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay as soon as I became aware of it.  This was as a pre-teen, so it’s not like I had some eclectic, jaded taste or anything.  I just looked at the WFRP cover with it’s punk-esque adventurers in a vicious Early Modern setting and found it incredibly awesome compared to some Clyde Caldwell, Elmore or Jeff Easley’s unicorns and dragons paintings that adorned Forgotten Realms stuff.  Not surprisingly, I don’t think my tastes have changed that much since late grade school, and if anything the forgotten realms has gotten more generic, less interesting and certainly more treadover trite!

Now we have 5th Edition D&D established, dare I say loved, and clearly superior in all ways to Pathfinder, yet as much as 5E has going for it, the game has a core problem that for me make it much less appealing than it could be– it’s still stuck in Forgotten Realms. It may not be forever, but for now, everything out for it is set squarely in the totally generic fantasy, risk free, “base” D&D setting.

What’s also sad is that the sandbox adventures that are being put out for 5E are exactly what I want in a campaign: sandboxes, cool optional encounters, lots of characters, gazetter shit when you need it and not just gazetter shit for the sake of gazetter shit, and a huge lack of railroading in most of the adventures.  The two that are IMO the best: Strahd and Out of the Abyss, are the least Forgotten Realms of the set.  Strahd actually feels very out of place in the context of Forgotten Realms, which is solved by it being a pocket dimension rather than a real part of the map (which is stupid).  I’m not saying any of the adventures are automatically bad because they are set in FR, but I am saying that they are automatically generic, mundane fantasy in many ways, and will take work to rip them out of FR.

With the newest Against the Giant’s 5E module, I think it’s time for Forgotten Realms to be left behind by 5E forever, with the exception of the Demonweb pits.  There are other settings from the TSR era that are far more compelling, notably Dark Sun, and I would really like to see something sword and sorcery, maybe Stormbringer /Hawkmoon, maybe at this point WOTC could get the WFRP license and meld that and 5E.  Others have suggested stuff like Pendragon.  Low fantasy works well in 5E.   Or shit: STAR FRONTIERS!  Despite what 5E has done with clinging to the high fantasy, generic setting, D&D is not Forgotten Realms in the same way that Vampire the Masquerade is set in the World of Darkness and only World of Darkness.   It’s not just a craving for OSR or nostalgia to openly state I’d love to see more of THIS:

meazel2

and less of THIS:

larry-elmore-031

 

Fantasy Flight and GW – there goes Talisman

Fantasy Flight and GW are no longer working together.  The announcement is here.  

talisman

Basically the only thing I really care about is that Talisman will go out of print again. I will have to care for my stuff instead of abusing it as this level of support for Talisman we probably will NEVER SEE AGAIN. I just picked up the Harbinger Expansion to make sure I had everything (except Dragons) that was out for 4th Edition.

Other stuff that was good from FF: Chaos in the Old World,  Dungeonquest (updated version, not the first FF version) and Chaos Marauders.   Dracula was cool, but not my favorite game.  Other stuff, like the 40K and Fantasy CCG’s, the 40K Talisman version and Blood Bowl manager were all totally forgettable.

RPG wise, this is going to fucking sting for people that liked the 40K RPG.  Since it was closer to WFRP and had a TON of support from FF, I can see people weeping about this.  It wasn’t anything I was interested in, but I can see this as a loss.

FF not having the WFRP licence anymore is FUCKING GREAT as the 3rd edition of the game was an experiment gone wrong. Yes, it had some very very good adventures (witches song and the new version of the enemy within are notable examples); yes, it begot Edge of Empire which is a fine game attached to a boring ass license, but WFRP still is one of my favorite RPG settings and 3rd edition with all it’s pieces and chits and crap was just too much to deal with.  I’m fully aware that both 1st and 2nd edition’s rules are not great as well, but you can play it with the book, some paper and pencils and regular D&D dice….  GW: Give the WFRP license to DESIGN MECHANISM and be done with it.

Some 5E thoughts while stroking the variant human dongle

I am in a Strahd game with Matt and others and we made characters from scratch and dared each other to roll (which happened) rather than points buy. Since it’s 4d6 out of order and pick the best, you are going to get some good rolls, and fuck yeah I did.

I made a fighter, rolled 18 str, great weapon combat style and great weapon master feat via the Human variant (+1 to two stats, +1 skill, +1 feat).  It turned out every player went Human variant, and we all have extremely different characters.    I can’t see a reason why anyone would play anything other than this.  You want to make a fantastic assassin?  Variant Human.  Awesome sorcerer?  Variant Human.  Basically a two-hander rivaling GUTS? Variant Human.  This is at 1st level.

I think this is by design.  My limited exposure to 4E, 3rd edition and Pathfinder lead me to believe no one ever chose humans because those games are games solely of ‘testing your stats’ optimization, and the other fantasy races did this better.  Optimization matters quite a bit less in 5E because it’s not trying to be the beardy twink game that 3E is.  What’s attractive about the variant humans in 5E is specialization.  You could (should?) play a game only with human PC’s and you could have a ton of very different characters, even at first level and it would be great.  By design? Remember, as a human, you are unique, just like everyone else.

Secondly, while 5E isn’t explicitly a miniatures game, they will get busted out from time to time.  I ain’t playing with these shit assed Pathfinder/D&D pre-paints. They are terrible. Reaper bones are a slight level up, but still not great.  Given that, and the fact that my brother will do the same thing, I’ve upped the aesthetic a bit and built a couple guys tonight for this weekend’s game from a company that actually knows how to make miniatures.

5egame

Yes, they are not painted yet, yes they are still drying from being glued, and they need flash removed, but look at those badass landsknecht motherfuckers, compared to this shytte:

shytte

Next I’m looking at either Frostgrave or some of the Perry Twin’s foot knights box sets if I’m feeling a bit more 15th Century.

Edge of Empire – first play

I got to play Star Wars: Edge of Empire Saturday with Matt and run by Dan at this benefit thing.   We could pay $$ for rerolls or the game’s version of bennies so it was good.

Thoughts:

I have a fucking sore spot for Fantasy Flights ‘special dice and cards’ style of RPG/board game after they fucked up Warhammer Fantasy 3rd Edition with one of the most complicated RPG’s that it could have only come out in 2009.  I wanted to like it, bought a bunch of stuff in the fire sale but it was VERY difficult to learn, VERY difficult to play/GM and covered the table in crap.  The core dice mechanic wasn’t terrible though, it was everything else surrounding that which had the suck.

Secondly, while I like the new film a lot, I’m not a big star wars GAME fan. Yes Xwing vs Tie fighter was awesome but I pretty much stick to the movies and that’s it. There’s just not much there that’s gameable to me.  Two factions, one is on the run, the other one is cool for the movies, but otherwise boring.

Naturally when Edge of Empire came out I scoffed at it since it was a version of WFRP3.  However, having played, it’s not that bad.  Gone are all the stupid cards for attacks, and though the character sheet is about 4 pages of crap long, it played fast.

What’s more, while it uses some elements of those lame-ass story games like FATE and Dungeon World, it can be played entirely ignoring that type of stuff on the dice, and use those sides for entirely mechanical effect.  It has some blammo sides to the dice (triumphs) but their effect is completely dictated by the GM, it’s basically a reason for GM fiat to hurt or help the players.  This is without any mechanics if you want, unlike FATE which piles every fucking thing about everything in the game world into ‘aspects’ that are really just wholly mechanical +2’s.  So if your group has realized that the FATE-style games are a total waste of time like ours has, you can roll and not care about that stuff.

We played with minis, but it was very abstract, like Numenera, 13th Age, etc.  That is very good.  No nurpling around with goddamn squares and five foot steps and all that 3.5 bullshit.

So, I have a plan, that may or may not happen. I want to run a 1 v 1 JEDI fight using Edge of Empire, the Star Wars West End D6 game from the 90’s and … Design Mechanism’s free Mod for Runequest 6 and see which is the most fun.  I know where my hypothesis would tell me, but let’s see what happens. Volunteers?

Star Wars

Chaos Warbands! First play since 1993!

Last Saturday, Mouth was in town and we dragged Dan and Amie into a 4-square of the old-school Chaos Warbands using 8th Edition rules and a mish mash of stuff from the two wonderful and awesome Realm of Chaos books.

For those that don’t know about these, they are absolutely essential to any gaming library, whether you play Warhammer Fantasy Battle, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Warhammer 40K or none of them.   You simply must own them both even if you have to pirate the PDF’s.  Inside each are rules for the four major demons of the Warhammer world, plus rules to make your own, plus a kitchen sink of rules for all three of the systems listed above.   These are both a MEGA supplement, one that these days would have had content split across 16-20 separate books.

What’s more, there’s a fucking GAME in these books that’s separate from all three games they supplement where you roll up a character and his warband and fight it out to get favor from the dark gods. I played this in college a bunch, probably 50 or so battles with multiple warbands and only one guy “won” the game with his champion becoming a minor daemon.  The rest of us either got turned into spawn, or died in pools of blood and urea. And that was fun as shit.

chaos2

My champion was one MAGROK ROCKSLIDE a chaos dwarf with FITS and a flail.  Pretty weak to start except he was accompanied by a Dragon Ogre!  After four battles, I ended up with a chaos weapon, four chaos spawn who gave people the evil eye, and eight beastmen.  My spawn had 6 chaos attributes a piece and here is where the old Chaos warbands rules start to fray a bit.  You can end up generating demon weapons, attributes, spawn inside other spawn that transform into other types of spawn longer than you end up playing out the fights!  Now a bit of this is a ton of fun, and the randomness is one of the fantastic elements, but based on the recent play, there would need to be a cap on the amount of chaos attributes at least.

In addition to the chaos attributes, all entities in your warbands that get wounds have them applied individually.  What this means is when you have a unit of beastmen or humans, you need to know which one has -1 toughness and which has a busted leg.  This gets tedious as hell.   More modern designs like Mordheim (which had it’s own terrible problems*) and Legends of the Old West, solve this issue by differentiating between Champions and minions. Minions are treated as a group and have less complex rolls associated with them.

Overall, it was a fun day of gaming.  I only got four games in, and probably could have had a bunch more if I had just an hour or so more.  I worked on an updated set for Mordheim ages ago (here is the PDF) and I think based on rumors of 9th Edition WFB being skirmish based, it may be a good time to rewrite them for 9th Edition in the coming year.  Note, statements in the PDF are contradicted below.  We learn stuff over the span of time…

chaos3
Dragon Ogre vs Minotaur!

 

*Mordheim is a fantasy game with swords and stuff should have a focus on close combat, naturally , and yet, it’s sci fi brother with lasguns and bolters and stuff, Necromunda, has much, much better close combat rules.  I wouldn’t say Mordheim’s close combat rules are bad, I’d say they are terrible.

 

RPG’s of 2009 – the year of mega-complexity – part 1

I was pondering my own desire for a Great Simplification in my RPG playing and GM’ing over the last few years and it lead down a path of wondering what year was the height of RPG complexity across the board? Now, sitting in 2015, the OSR is going strong, Numenera’s cypher system is still rolling forward (and the Strange) and has some very simple mechanics, 13th Age has stripped away the grid of 4th Edition and created an extremely playable D20, people are swinging off the nuts of the extremely simplified, deconstructionist spoof of D&D: Dungeon World. What’s more, Hasbro’s D&D v5 released last year, and while still fairly complex compared to the latter three versions, it has also undergone a great simplification compared especially to the two previous iterations. The pendulum has swung to the simple, but when was it at it’s apex of complexity that gave the current trend momentum?

The year I feel people were playing (and had an appetite for) the most complicated RPG’s in the history of the hobby is 2009. Since that year, I gut-feel (I ain’t going to track down sources) like the RPG community, as well as myself has been yearning for a simpler style of play, one that invokes more imagination and less about mechanics and OPTIONS. Yet, in the early 2000’s, I firmly believe that myself and many other people wanted nearly infinite complexity in our RPG games, and anything less was ‘just fucking shit we played as kids.’

Where did this desire for complexity come from in the first place? Why did we need so many character/monster/spell options and all this minutiae? People designed and produced these complex games hoping they would sell, and there was obviously a market for each being as complex as possible. But why?

I’d like to divide RPG players into two (overly) broad groups. First, the 70’s set– people that were born in the 70’s and played OD&D when it was actually published. These are the Holmes, Moldvay, Metzner kids. The second group (again this is broad) are the Lord of the Rings kids that played or started playing D&D 3.0 when the LoTR movies came out. The boost of those films to D&D and RPG’s as a whole was simply huge and there is an entire generation of people that jumped into the hobby, starting again with fantasy, during this time. What were these two groups both influenced by to make them want exceedingly complex games in 2009?  How did D&D 3.0, designed by the same guy that did Everway and 13th Age, end up being so complicated and by extension– all these other complex games!

Magic the Gathering. MTG had a huge effect on all gaming everywhere from 1993 on. I would say MTG had as big an effect as the creation and propagation of Dungeons and Dragons itself. What MTG did for gamers and game designers is to create a desire and acceptance of a vast array of asymmetric powers. A MTG deck is essentially a collection of powers that players need to know, memorize and combo. Not only do they need to know their own deck, they need to know as much about all the other cards in the game that may be played against them as well. Roleplaying games hence started having massive amounts of variable powers– especially Exalted and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (who even had all the player skills on cards).  MTG primed gamers minds for mass asymmetry and a desire for the same in their RPG’s.

CONFORT
CONFORT–with 71 credits…

Anime, and fighting games. Especially Ninja Scroll for starters and EVERYTHING else since and by extension ALL Japanese fighting games. I spent food money in college playing Virtua Fighter and Samurai Shodown 2 and the adoration of those games culminating in Guilty Gear and Virtua Fighter 4/5 created an appetite for a system where your character fighting opponents gave the players tons of options, tons of character styles and special powers, conditions, everything. I believe fully that Anime and Fighting games were extremely responsible for the rise in complexity over the course of the 90’s and 2000’s. People eschewed the muddy murderhobos crawling around in dungeons for scraps with just a few stats and a single damage rating– they wanted heroes that could SHIN SHORYUKEN!!!  Combat, never a strong point or focus of old D&D (despite how we played as kids) became absolutely critical to RPG system design.  Once you understood what was going on in the fighting engine of King of Fighters or Samurai Shodown, it was hard to look at your PNP RPG combats the same way.  Reinforcing the trend from D&D 2nd edition– anime propagated that characters should be ‘heroes’ and not just some git with a sword and some rope stealing stuff from a tomb or abandoned dwelling.

Vampire and the D10 system. This is called the storyteller system but compared to story games these days (Hillfolk, Fate, et al.) this was really a ‘universal mechanic’ RPG more than anything. The really awesome thing about Vampire, which no one had done before well, were the variable player powers based on caste/clan.  Suddenly players were able to take a fairly straight forward (and broken until the Trinity version of the game fixed it) difficulty/successes system and layer in THEIR characters variable powers, and see how the whole mess worked together. As much as I am not a fan of the vaguely gay (remember it was still only the early 90’s–it couldn’t be blatantly gay which would have been much better!) vampire soap opera stuff myself, I, like many other, viewed the system with some sort of awe, but just wanted it to be turned loose on a genre that wasn’t so…. goth and metaphor for being a closeted gay dude. (this ended up being Trinity/Aberrant and Exalted). Because the system was easy to add options to–they did– so much…

Warhammer 40k/Fantasy: Especially the 70’s gamers started spending MASS cash on 40K and Warhammer stuff in general in the late 90’s and early 2000’s.  The game was extremely pervasive in game stores, being the bread and butter of many stores along with MTG.  Warhammer is all about army/unit asymmetry and tons of variable powers for everything, with customizable characters to the nth degree (we rip on “herohammer,” but that shit is fun both on and off the table as long as it’s balanced).  Since D&D was derived from miniatures games, 40K has a similar root.  Warhammer is the natural hardcore extension of Swords and Spells and Chaimail, both of which are awful in comparison.

Now, there have been many complicated RPG’s before 2009, especially in the realm of ‘universal’ systems such as GURPS and the HERO system (starting with Champions) as well as, arguably, TMNT (actually a really good game for it’s time!) and Rifts which really wasn’t that complicated except for all the character options and SDC/MDC bullshit (and mass addons). Phoenix Command, Twilight 2000, Rolemaster from back in the day were all COMICALLY complicated simulationist style RPG’s. These last three are games that, if you accidentally buy at a gaming flea market for a couple bucks, end up not on a shelf or drawer for later ‘research’ fodder or toilet reading, but get fired directly into the recycle bin. Yet, these games came out of an era where I think no one knew jack shit about how to design an RPG in general, the medium being all so new after all, so you have to give them a bit of a break unplayable as they were compared to (most) games of today.

Next post, three RPG’s that define 2009’s complexity to a C!

AMA with Mike Mearls

Lead developer on D&D 5.

Couple of Quotes:

“Probably the only mechanic I’m not crazy about is XP and leveling. If I could, I’d build a system where gaining a new class feature is driven by story-based prereqs. Like, you can’t learn to cast fireball until you’ve defeated a fire elemental and captured its essence, or after slaying the orc king a fighter can master a new battle axe technique.”

“More dice, fewer static modifiers. I’d use a die in place of the proficiency bonus. I like rolling dice and find it easier to teach that way.”

XP itself sort of sucks for STORY games, I loved when Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay came around and the GM just assigned a logical number of points after a session or couple of sessions.  And of course 13th Age where levelling up is completely via GM fiat — which is excellent.

Back to the old school though, I DO enjoy Lamentations/Moldvay style of XP where creature killing gives very minimal XP (fuck all that tracking) and the big haul of XP comes when silver and treasure are safe in some place outside the dungeon. Then you can take a natural break in the action and count out all the XP at the same time players are focused on counting out their silver coins.

 

Army Fucked

This is like a train wreck that I couldn’t look away from.  I watched nearly the entire 2 hours.  There are two videos, skip through some of the army review once you get the gist.  Mouth you will fucking love this.  This guy is being GENEROUS with his critique of these paintjobs splattered across such an amazing army to boot.  All of it looks like absolute hack shit–the vehicle models– my god what an atrocity against those sculpts.  I have no idea who the painting service is, but they won’t be around long.

Happy 40th D&D!

Ye old blue book....
Ye old blue book….

Wow.  If I was to point to one single thing that influenced me more than anything else, it would be D&D, both playing it as a kid, trying not to play it as a teenager (to be cool) and then moving on to better games as an adult (better being Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay for the most part) and just all around gaming– D&D was the gateway drug!  I’ve spent some of my tiny amount of leisure time this week going through some of my old RPG shit and trying to ID the path I took through the hobby.  I think it’s this (bold means I feel it was a huge influence):

D&D Basic (blue book) > Moldvay Basic (boxed sets) > AD&D (sort of, since it really fucking sucked and we just used the Basic rules with the AD&D monsters) > Gamma World (ahem…shoplifted copy I shamefully admit..)> Champions > Star Frontiers > Paranoia > Call of Cthulhu > Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles > Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay  (this lasted all through college and beyond) > Werewolf  > Feng Shui > Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2nd Edition > Exalted (this got me back into RPG’s seriously around 2006) > Dresden Files/FATE > Marvel Heroic Roleplaying > Carolina Death Crawl > ???

Now, of course, it’s all about the narrative style games and I haven’t played a D20 in years.  13th Age will be the first delve into a modern D20 since a single session of Pathfinder about 4 years ago.  Of course, 13th Age IS a mash up of narrative and D20 crunch, so we’ll see how it plays  vs FATE and vs 3.5.

That said, there have been many awesome RPG’s that came out in the last couple years and even just last year besides 13th Age:  Fate Core, Numenera, Fiasco, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, Carolina Death Crawl are all huge additions to the genre that are moving the ball forward– it’s really tough to pick what to even run!

Looking forward to 2014, we’ll have D&D Next, Exalted 3 and what looks like a crazy interactive game by Robin D. Laws: HillFolk.  While I feel the new version of D&D is already out and it’s called 13th Age, I’m interested to see what D&D Next is able to do.  Let’s face it, Pathfinder has the ‘miniature heavy’ version of the game locked so Next will either bring it back towards the OD&D versions already handled by Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess or try to take Pathfinder head on (which is sort of 4th edition after all).

I know some of you have already been roped into many of my experimental games (playtest of fate core, carolina death crawl for example) and it will continue…