Why I don’t like D&D 5th Edition (nor 4th, and won’t return to 3rd)

Really not a lot to say here, but I feel like I just realized why the 5th Edition playtest of D&D lost me at about the second or third update. While I was reading the 1st Edition Wilderness Survivial Guide that has rules for a wide range of situations that may come up in a game, I had the realization that the rules in the 5th Edition playtest don’t seem to exist to be a mechanic to resolve situations, but to make the rolling of dice more varied and interesting. The approach does not seem to be “what would be a good way to get a result for this thing?”, but rather “what new reasons can we find to roll dice and make it fun?”. The 5th Edition playtest is far from alone in this, and it’s also been the reason I never wanted to get into 4th Edition once I saw the Player’s Handbook. And while I played 3rd Edition and Pathfinder for over a decade, I now see the same issue with them. It may not neccessarily have been the case at the inception of the d20 game. The original Player’s Handbook still seemed to be mostly concerned about providing mechanics to resolve situations that arise during play but do not have a certain outcome. But once the whole Splatbook wave got into motion, it started to be more rules for the sake of more rules.

It’s not neccessarily a bad thing. And I even think that in very early D&D, the game had already been about having fun rolling dice, as the books are all about clearing dungeons that simply exist to be challenging to adventurers. Roleplaying in the strictest sense of the world only seems to have really been given any attention once the Campaign Settings came around, which ended up the focus of the 2nd Edition. To some degree, I can see the appeal of tactical wargames, where the challenge lies in mastering the rules and exploiting them to your advantage. But personally, that’s not what I am looking for in an RPG, and neither what I enjoy to run for my players.

Fantastic Bestiary and Locations

I’ve been running a gallery for collecting pictures of exotic and interesting looking fantasy creatures for some time, and now added another one for unusual and evocative landscapes. With most of the images I have not the slightest ideas how I would use them for my campaign, but I’d really like to do so one day.

You can check them out here:

tumblr_mzkgx1CoqQ1r426wco1_1280Fantastic Bestiary

tumblr_n374rxTjKW1tx4l4ho1_1280Fantastic Locations

Jump into the deep end! – Starting Sword & Sorcery adventures

About a year ago I discovered a new appreciation for Sword & Sorcery fantasy, and when I started my new campaign this winter, I new that I wanted to take it into this direction. I did start with a fairly simple and straightforward idea, but soon I got all kinds of cool additional ideas where the adventure could lead to in the long run, how it could be part of a much bigger picture, and how some elements are actually connected to things the characters had been dealing with much earlier in very unexpected ways. It’s a really cool concept for what could be an incredible story. For a novel trilogy or a four season TV show. But for a pen and paper campaign it now seem very poorly suited.

Sword & Sorcery differs from the classic Epic Fantasy stories like Lord of the Rings and Wheel of Time not only in the setting and themes, but also, and possibly even more importantly, in its structure and pacing. Lord of the Rings spends chapters only on establishing two of the main characters¬†and we only learn about the actual purpose of the whole story halfway through the first book. It works, but I still don’t know anything about how Conan came to wander Hyboria or how Geralt of Rivia got his special powers. Might actually be told somewhere, but it’s entirely irrelevant to any individual story. Sword & Sorcery not only tends to be episodic, it also starts at the point where the actual story begins. And so should S&S inspired rpg adventures!

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Reactions, not Reflexes

One rule of thumb you very often get to see about planning and running a game and also writing stories, is that the characters should be “acting instead of just reacting”. But I think except for special cases in which the PCs are trying to establish a domain or something like that, this is not really a good way to describe the issue.

In virtually all cases, every story, both fiction and academic history, is about dealing with an extraordinary situation and returning things back to normal. What is considered “normal” depends entirely on the perspective of the people who are in the center of story. If you have a society in which group A keeps group B in slavery, and has done so for generations, the state of slavery would be the “normal” state of things for people who side with group A. But for those who are siding with group B, the situation would still be extraordinary. It just has been that way for 200 years. But when someone does start getting active in any way, to end the state of slavery, from his perspective it will be all about turning things back to what he considers normal. It does not matter if the extraordinary situation began 5 minutes ago or has been going on for centuries. Any character who feels he has to change things or stop an ongoing crisis does so because someone else, at some point, upset the normal state of things.

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Arbitrary Fantasy

As someone who’s been mostly interested in a certain kind of fantasy fiction, I’ve been having some struggle with the distinction between Sword & Sorcery for quite some time. These pasts days, I’ve had some good discussions with other people about it, but instead of getting some clarity, things got only more confusing.

When I categorize fantasy fiction for myself, the main categories I am thinking in are High Fantasy, Low Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, and Heroic Fantasy. Simple categories that seem perfectly clear to me. But as it turns out on a closer inspection, not to everyone else.

Low Fantasy seems to be by far the biggest problem child. Part of it is because what it really means is “Not-High Fantasy”. Assuming Lord of the Rings is the archetype of High Fantasy, Low Fantasy could be two different things: By far the most common use of the term describes a setting that is an alternative present day Earth (though “present” in this case means at the time of writing), while High Fantasy is a completely different reality that at the most may be set in the “Mythic Past” of our world. However, there is also another use of the term, that seems to have become common enough to cause some serious problems. Alternatively, Low Fantasy could mean a work of fantasy fiction that less glamorous, more gritty, and with a lower prevalance of magic. Which can overlap with the other definition, but also be two completely different things. This second use of the term seems to have become so common that the term Low Fantasy has become pretty much useless. (Though I have doubt if it ever really was that good to begin with.)

But now I did some research on the term of Heroic Fantasy these last days, and I ran into another problem. My idea of the term Epic Fantasy, has always been a type of works that revolve around large scale events, like the end of the world or a global invasion of demons, and tell the story from the perspective of the key figures in these events. In contrast, Heroic Fantasy is all about specific characters and their personal stories. They might rise to positions of power and take important roles in larger conflicts, but the story is still about their personal experiences and not so much about how the details of the conflict or how it might turn out in the end. Again, this is a perfectly serviceable and easy to grasp distinction. But then, I ran into a couple of comments in a number of different places, that stated Lord of the Rings to be a prime example of Heroic Fantasy. And that seemed very odd to me. After all, it has all the important traits of Epic Fantasy, which makes it the oposite of Heroic Fantasy. At first I thought someone just got it wrong, but soon I found more and more cases of it, which use the term Heroic Fantasy as something else than the opposite of Epic Fantasy.

There’s also the term Dark Fantasy, that has been thrown around in recent years, which I think is even more pointless. And now I really think that this whole categorization scheme has lost any usefulness it may once have had. Categories are not bad and they are very helpful and important ways to talk about certain styles and group similar work together. But categories only work if everyone uses at least roughly the same definitions, which in the case of fantasy genres, seem to be entirely arbitrary. So I think that at least for myself, I won’t be using these terms anymore. When talking about these sub-genres, instead of throwing around a fancy sounding term, I’ll have to go back to using a whole sentence to tell people what kind of fantasy fiction I am talking about.

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Watching Star Wars and the Machete Order

I recently noticed that I havn’t been watching Star Wars in quite some time, and having been thinking a lot about running a Star Wars campaign, it felt like the time to do it once more. In these days, that always raises the question in what order you should watch them. There’s the Release Order (4, 5, 6, 1, 2, 3) and the Narrative Order (1, 2, 3, 4, ,5, 6). By now a few years ago, someone sugested another order, that you could call the Flashback Order (I think it has gained an actual commonly used term, but I can’t remember it now), which is “4, 5, 1, 2, 3, 6”. The main issue with the movies is that Episode 3 spoils Episode 5 (Anakin becomes Vader and is not killed by him), and Episode 6 spoils Episode 3 (by telling us that in the end Vaders turn to the Dark Side will be reversed and the Emperor defeated). Not only does the Narrative Order solve this problem by putting the prequel trilogy between Episodes 5 and 6, it also makes quite a bit of sense. After the end of Episode 5, Luke has to come to terms with the revelation of Vader and wants to better understand how that situation could have happened. Then Episode 6 comes along and it seems that Luke has put the shock behind him and becomes stronger in the process. The prequel trilogy are basically an elaboration on the short talk Luke has with Obi-Wan after Yoda dies at the beginning of Episode 6. It’s not a perfect match, but for the rest of the movies Luke could have learned from Obi-Wan what happened in the prequels, so it makes sense for the audience to get that knowledge at roughly the same time.

Now some guy at No Machete Juggling suggested a variation of that order, which is known as the Machete Order, and goes 4, 5, 2, 3, 6. It’s skipping Episode 1 completely, on the grounds that it’s not a good movie and doesn’t actually contribute anything to the rest of the story. All that really happens and becomes relevant is that there’s a seperatist uprising (which we are told by the opening crawl of Episode 2) and that Anakin and Padme once met each other for three days or so when Anakin was a kid (which Episode 2 also tells us, and doesn’t really matter).

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Good artists borrow, great artists steal – Laying the foundations for the Ancient Lands

When I started working on the Ancient Lands, I wanted of course to create a world that contains many of the things I already love in other settings, but would wish to be more explored or developed a bit differently. Not all the things I love, because that doesn’t really lead to consistend and belivable world, but rather to a mess of randomly thrown together pieces. But still a selection of a good amount of things from my favorite settings that I have come to love a lot. Here, I want to provide an overview of the major geographic areas of the Ancient Lands and the works that inspired them. These don’t cover the whole world, or even the whole continent, but are the selection I made for those regions I want to develop in detail, while leaving the rest simply untouched. There’s something there, of course, but I don’t know what it would be either.

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What I learned from reading Fate Core – Part 2: Starting a campaign

One thing most GMs will realize probably quite quickly is that you can’t really start a great campaign with “You are all meeting in a tavern” (unless you’re going for a pure treasure-hunting dungeon crawl, I suppose). Even if you have an overarching story in mind, it’s often difficult to slowly build up to the really big issues that will define the campaign. At first you get to kill some rats in the basement and then slowly work your way up until you eventually get to explore a goblin lair where the actual hook for the major part of the campaign will be found. And as easy as it sounds, it’s quite difficult to make it work well and be exciting and enjoyable for the players.

Fate presents an interesting take on this: Every new campaign should start with at least two big issues (though don’t overdo it or it gets too cluttered and confusing). These can either be current issues or impending issues. Impending issues are the things I just mentioned. The definitive story with a clear villain and a specific goal for the PCs. But something that seems to be usually overlooked in RPGs are the current issues. Instead of dropping the players into a world where everything is mostly fine until they run into the plot hook, you can (and I think should) also start the campaign with some kind of major conflict or other problem already in place. It’s something that is very common in fiction and in many videogames as well. Take for example, once again, Star Wars, where there is already dissent against the new public order and rebellion brewing in secrecy before Luke and Han get involved in the actual plot at all. It’s the background environment in which the specific adventure of delivering the Death Star plans and saving the princess takes place. It’s the context for what they do and makes that simple delivery run matter, even before they end up joining the rebellion and taking up the goal of defeating the Empire. The game Skyrim is also a good example. You get the Dragon storyline as an Impending Issue that slowly builds up during the first three or four hours of the game, but there is already the Stormcloak uprising against the Empire as the Current Issue, which has been going on for quite some time before the players character gets drawn into the story.

Now I really wish I had been thinking about this a week ago, so I could have made use of this simple method to start my new Castles & Crusades game, but with only the first session played so far, it should be easy enough to do this retroactively.

What I learned from reading Fate Core – Part 1: Environment Zones

While I was pondering whether the new Star Wars RPG by Fantasy Flight Games might be something worse purchasing instead of sticking with Star Wars Saga Edition (the FFG game require three $60 books, of which only one has been released yet; but SE is a d20 game with all the baggage that includes), I considered giving another chance to the generic class-less games that are out there. There’s a lot of praise for Burning Wheel and Savage Worlds, but Fate Core brings with it the huge advantage of being entirely free for download.

I have to admit that I am still not a big fan of Fate Points (Action Points, Bennies, Force Points, Luck Points, whatever you want to call them) and I can say outright that I think using Fudge Dice only has the purpse of selling special dice to me (though the game appears to be perfectly playble with 2d6 instead), but there’s really a lot of ideas in that game that frankly should be in every pen and paper game ever published! It’s not even strictly mechanical stuff, but really just some basic ideas how to approach the creation of character personalties, campaign setups, and encounters. Things that can be applied to probably every RPG that exists.

One thing that I really, really like – as someone who thinks miniatures have no place outside of tactical wargames – is to define the battlefield for encounters as a number of zones. The idea is, that you come up with a location for an encounter and divide it into a couple of zones that represent different kinds of environment. For example, an attack of a small hut could have the zones “Inside”, “Front Porch”, “Back Porch” and “Roof”. On each characters turn, they can move from one zone to another one and still get to take one action. In the first round, you could enter the “Front Porch” zone and then throw a smoke grenade through a window, and in the second round you move from “Front Porch” to “Inside” and try to tackle the enemy. The effect from the smoke grenade would now also affect only the “Inside” zone.

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