Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Combat Rounds

I'll give you my thesis up front: One-minute combat rounds - at least where melee combat is concerned - are ridiculous.

How do I know this? Well, I've been irregularly sparring with one of my friends for a few months now, using various wooden and polypropylene practice weapons. As time goes on, and we acquire more and more Martial implements, the level of physical strain being placed on our bodies increases. My friend lives out in the middle of nowhere, has two horses and a stable of standard poodles, and works as a furrier; the result is someone who is more accustomed to physical labor and exertion than a Dungeon Master with a liberal arts degree. Despite this, even recreational sparring with arming swords and hand-held bucklers (and hopefully other weapons in the future - check out my list of budget-priced practice arms, if you're interested) is a massive effort; I can't imagine doing so in full maille or plate armor, on a hot day, after a mile-long march.

After one especially intense list, I estimated the total duration of that match-up: two minutes. In AD&D terms, two combat rounds. Ridiculous.

Granted, neither of us are in the kind of shape required of a medieval (or present-day) mercenary soldier, let alone a knight trained from birth. But I'd estimate that I am at least in good shape as the average 0-level human, or an especially kapable kobold. Let's measure two minutes out in combat rounds, by edition of D&D.
  • Basic/Expert D&D: One round is ten seconds, so two minutes translates to twelve rounds. Not too shabby in game terms, as this would be a tough and grueling fight for low-level characters.
  • D&D 3rd Edition (and onwards): One round is six seconds, so two minutes translates to twenty rounds. I could buy this, if the pumped-up nature of d20 System heroes is taken into account.
  • AD&D 1st or 2nd Edition: One round is one minute, so two minutes translates to... two rounds. One set of attack rolls on each side, except for fighters with weapon specialization or those using ranged weapons.
See the problem? Even if a combat round has more than one "attack" being made in it - as Gygax argued in AD&D - how fun would it be to require a full turn or more spent resting every two rounds?

Being the literal stubborn bastard that I am, I set out to fix this. The simplest solution seemed to be to change the rounds to ten seconds long. This keeps the idea of segments intact (even if they're never mentioned by name in 2e, they're still there), only reducing them to 1 second and thereby removing the need for a specialized term; 1 round = 10 seconds, 1 turn = 10 minutes. It also allows everyone to continue using a low d10 roll for initiative. But a big problem immediately comes up: rate of fire.

In AD&D, certain ranged weapons can make multiple attacks per round. Additional melee attacks (for fighters of sufficiently high level, or those with weapon specialization) are no problem, since they start off pretty low at 3 attacks for every 2 rounds. But weapons like the bow (2 attacks per round) or the dart (4 attacks per round for specialists) start getting a bit out of hand. I saw only two solutions to the suspension of disbelief that would snap like a guitar's high E string if the ROF was left intact: limit all weapons to the number of attacks granted to melee weapons - thus still allowing for specialists to shoot faster - or just limit everything to 1 attack per round, the way they are in B/X.

But then the thought occurred to me: if I'm going to change the whole combat system to be like B/X, why not just run B/X? This ties in with my previous post on my issues with excessive house-ruling. In the case of AD&D, it's even worse, because I want the Player's Handbook to still be a useful reference for players in as many cases as possible. The more I change about the fundamental mechanics of the game, the more of that book (that somebody paid good money for - I wanted to eventually give several of my players their own copies) becomes dead weight, useless to anyone who delves into my campaign.

The poor correspondence of one-minute combat rounds to the realities of melee battle (more irritating than the continued classification of maille as being lighter in weight than field plate armor - one of the few areas in which I grudgingly concede that 5th edition did something right) is one of the reasons I might convert my campaign over to B/X or Basic Fantasy. From Basic it came, and to Basic it may yet return.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

"Break Out Your Wallet and Buy About 30 Games"

This snippet is originally from a comment I was going to make on this post by Alexis; I excised it because it started to get a bit long for a comment. Still, it perfectly sums up my feelings towards the current "market".
Even worse, there's this almost universal fixation on the current, inaccurately-numbered "edition" over virtually anything else; I keep telling my sympathetic friends that what the hobby really needs is gamers who can sit still for five minutes without chasing after the nearest shiny object. These same players, rather than using things that are quite visible within the books they already own (and that see little use as is - gnomes, anyone?) feel compelled to buy the latest expensive hardcover that is literally a repackaging of something that came out 20 or 30 years ago.
A lot to unpack here. Recently, the tabletop club at the university of which I am an alumnus was all abuzz about the live stream of Wizards of the Coast's presentations at some industry convention or other. Much excitement about this stuff that brought back some character or other from 2nd Edition.

Me? I realized several years ago that it's not necessary to keep buying things for a game in order to continue playing it. At least, that's how a game should be designed. From what I understand, this is still largely true with 5th Edition; after buying the Player's Handbook, and then the Dungeon Master's Guide and Monster Manual if you're a DM, you're good to go. (The original intent was to have this also be true of the free Basic Rules PDFs, but evidently those are less useful to DMs than they should be.)

And yet, the other club people were SO FREAKING EXCITED that they might get an official gunslinger class. As I've repeatedly stated to several friends, why is there a need for a separate gunslinger class? If the DM is one to include firearms in their campaign (for the record, I'm not), then why not just have the gunslinger be a ranger and have the character buy a gun? Or, in 2e, even a plain old fighter - who could take advantage of weapon specialization to have a further bonus to hit with their gunshots?

Even worse than this was one 5e game I played in where, apparently, fighters didn't exist... but gunslingers did. Because a cast piece of steel with moving mechanical parts and explosive powder is more common than a stick. (I really need to write a full post on this yahoo's game soon.)

One GM whose Pathfinder game I played in for a while was in the habit of bringing their rulebooks with them in a milk crate. And apparently Paizo has rewritten part of the dictionary and included it in one of those tomes, since the very definition of "core" has apparently changed in Pathfinder. Core classes are not just the ones included in the Core Rulebook, no ma'am; core classes also include the ones from the Advanced Class Guide, Advanced Player's Guide, Occult Adventures, et cetera. It baffles me that anyone would voluntarily subject themselves - and worse, their players - to this level of rules bloat.

If the original D&D rules were released today, they would be seen as mysteriously backwards. Not only with how primitive some of the mechanics are, or the poor art, or the laughable lack of organization. I can imagine a modern "conspicuous consumer" type gamer looking at it:

"You mean that's it? Just three booklets in a box, and you don't have to buy anything else? How are you supposed to keep your players' interest, if you're not constantly adding new shiny books and buying more elaborate dice?"

Someone else would then step in and try to explain the value of, you know, running a game that people actually want to keep coming back to because they're having fun, but without a literal sales pitch hawking TSR's reheated leftovers, the CC gamer would quickly lose interest.

There is enough stuff here already. There are more RPGs on the market, past and present, than any one person or group would ever be able to play. I read an interview with Bob Dylan where he said something similar about music, and I tend to agree. RPGs are an even more special case; a huge portion of the product is pre-written modules and settings, which back in the old days were not as widely used. Instead, the DM would actually write their own material.

Now, the simple fact of a DM creating their own campaign from scratch - rather than just reading boxed text out of a hardcover book with boring artwork* - is bizarre to people like those that make up my gaming club. They refer to such strangeness as "homebrew". They spent over one hundred dollars on tools allowing them to make their own games, and rather than do so, they continue to pay other people $50 at a time to make the games for them. And not just once or twice, so they can see how such a thing might be done; they have to invent a label to "other" those weirdos who actually sit down, pay attention, and put in the necessary work to make something of their own.

It's depressing, really.

*The artwork for most of the 5e books is not bad from a technical perspective, but it's so boring. Curse of Strahd and Tales from the Yawning Portal both just have a person sitting or standing there, Dungeonology (yeah, not technically a rulebook, but a lot of people in the club have bought it) shows a picture of a monster that most characters will not meet until much later in the game, and all of the core books except for the Monster Manual fail to give an impression of what actually happens in the game. Compare them to the original Players Handbook (or even the Rules Cyclopedia) and you'll see what I mean.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Boons and Banes of House Rules

As I obliquely hinted at in my previous post, part of my search for "the perfect game" - not the one rules set that will be perfect for everyone all the time (because there isn't one), but the one that best fits my needs and the needs of the players in this particular campaign - is finding a game that requires the least house-ruling. If I was so desperate to attract new players that I ran 5th edition, but told them "no dragonborn or tieflings, and no sorcerers or warlocks", and altered the rules for the amount of space taken up by creatures on the battlefield... why not just run 3rd edition?

My general policy with new rules systems has always been to try them 100% Rules As Written - at least for the first session or two. If there's something that proves problematic in play, then I'll make a note of it and bring a solution to the next running (either from a different iteration of D&D, from the Web, or from my own rapidly-decaying positronic brain). When I ran Drunk D&D, I made sure to stick to RAW as closely as humanly possible, and I ultimately succeeded without any of the PCs dying.

I doubt that anyone under the age of 50 (besides me) will laugh at this.
This also allows me to easily introduce new players to the game. "Here are the rules," I say, showing them a book with a (hopefully) cool illustration of intrepid adventurers on the front cover. As their eyes grow to a size usually reserved for tennis balls, I chuckle a bit. "Don't worry - you don't have to know all of them at the start. That's my job; you'll be able to learn as you go."

(You might notice that my above description specifically excludes certain iterations of the game; if you've read my past posts, you'll know which ones they are without my having to name them here.)

Referring to the rulebook in all but the most fringe cases also gives an important impression to new players: this is a game. Games have rules, and it's sticking to them that gives a game its challenge. When I was a kid, I made liberal use of cheat codes and external devices in my video games, but as I grew up I understood that I never really beat those games - I had cheated my way through the game, and by doing so I cheated myself of some rich experiences. (I have no regrets about a few of those, though; to steal a line from El Santo, Super Mario Land sucks so hard it has an event horizon.)

One particularly glaring issue came up for me recently in AD&D 2nd Edition, thanks to some experiences in both the game world and the "real" world... but that's a topic for another post. Probably the next one (if my own laziness doesn't catch up with me), so stay tuned!

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Converting the Campaign Yet Again?

As my campaign has gone on (yet another) unintended hiatus, there are a few things I've been wondering about the structure and style of it. I've tried to do a sandbox campaign, but the players are so used to "story" campaigns that I have had to throw in a few more linear settings for them to explore. I've tried asking the players what they want to do, and gotten no useful response, forcing me to assume what they might want to do, and whipping something up to fill that space. Then, come game time, one or two of the players all but refuse to do the thing that I prepared for them to do.

I shouldn't be surprised, but I am frustrated by it. First, they refuse to tell me what they want to do; second, they say "no" to every option that I have spent time preparing (in some cases, several hours of time). As for what one player in particular actually wanted to do, I still have no idea; and now, the point is moot, as the player in question has dropped out of all of my campaigns due to this unsolvable conflict between DMing style and playing style.

(I should elaborate on this in a later post - and I probably will - as this is getting way off topic.)

Anyway, another issue that has cropped up is that my DM skills - as far as rules mastery are concerned - have grown rusty due to disuse. In the last abortive session of my 2e campaign, I had to stop several times to look up pretty common rules. Were I to have more interested players, I would simply delegate some such duties to them. Unless I can get back into a situation where I'm running 2e every other week (if not more often), I cannot keep up my usual "flow" without the players meeting me halfway. Some of them are mild powergamers, so I just need to convince them to brush up on the rules in between sessions - or even during sessions, as this would be a far more productive task than simply watching magical-girl anime or playing Heroes of the Storm while I'm trying to run a game. Heck, this is the exact reason that I gave one of my closest friends - who was also, at one point, one of my most loyal and consistent players - a copy of the Player's Handbook for her birthday.

I realize that some may be reading this and scoffing at my lack of skill. AD&D 2nd Edition, if run without most of the optional fiddly rules (as it is at my table), is not that complicated. Certainly not as complicated as 3.5 or - Gods help you - Pathfinder. And indeed, as I hinted above, when I'm at the top of my game I can wrangle it rather effectively. But in the face of player disinterest, lack of preparation time (mostly my own fault), and frequent interruptions, I can't stay afloat.

I've been preparing a contingency plan for both possible outcomes to this situation. If I can gain the commitment of enough players - players who are willing to help me, and each other, keep the game moving efficiently - then I'll stick with 2e. But if not... well, that's where it comes down to a tough decision.

There are three basic options I'm looking at. B/X (my perennial favorite iteration of D&D) has a lot of advantages: character creation is fast, combat is fast, and its deadliness belies its newbie-friendly nature. In fact, I recently ran a second round of "Drunk D&D" for three players: one who has played in a few sessions of my campaign; one who has previously played in a D&D Fast Play Game (run by me); and one who was both completely new to RPGs, and had completely failed to understand the concept of pen-and-paper RPGs. This third player was also the most drunk out of the three.

On the spur of the moment, I retrieved my "trusty" laptop, bought some cheap six-siders on a grocery run, and helped everyone roll up their characters and write down their information on blank printer paper. Running them through a Fast Play module, they played fairly smart, the drunk newbie (playing a cleric) got to use his Turn Undead ability, and they narrowly escaped with their lives before they got to the boss. Little experience or treasure was gained (although the fighter managed to sell an ancient dagger she grabbed from the skeletons for 5 gold pieces), but a grand time was had by all. I was especially proud of them because I did not fudge in their favor, except by invoking my table rule of one re-roll per player per game, and extending it to the DM as well (this resulted in the thief being injured in a pit trap, rather than immediately killed).

This, to me, illustrates why I love B/X. It's simple enough for complete neophytes to pick up in a single short session, yet challenging and deep enough to keep veterans on the edges of their seats. The downsides are the extreme lethality and the limited selection of classes; this is one reason I've been wringing my metaphorical hands over it, as one of my players (and closest friends) has a druid character that she's very attached to.

The second option available to me is Basic Fantasy. I like it, always have; it's based on B/X and has most of its simplicity, while having many optional supplements to add things (like druids). But the supplements present another problem: supplement bloat. If I allow the Druids supplement, why not the Gnomes supplement? Or the Half-Humans supplement, or the Necromancers supplement, or, or, or...

(And it doesn't hurt that every single one of the four or five variants on the bard class for Basic Fantasy sucks... although the jester class, which swaps out inspiring songs for demoralizing taunts, is something I've been wanting to try out in its place.)

The third option is original D&D. This one has the issue of supplement bloat as well, and I've looked for a compilation of all of its Supplements into one book that didn't have to modify things for the sake of the OGL. Fortunately, Mothshade of 3d6, Traps and Thieves recently came out with something that solved that problem right away, and I realized some things I hadn't before - like the fact that half-elf druids in oD&D are technically allowed without houseruling. The problem with oD&D is that the rules are pretty vague and incomplete, which would require me to either have a binder full of houserules or mix-and-match from other editions.

So, if I convert the campaign, I'll still have to do a lot of work. But at least B/X is small enough that it's okay for the entire burden of knowing the rules to fall on the DM; after all, it's a lot less headache to flip through 128 pages over two books than 500+ pages over three books.