Thursday, November 3, 2011

My own personal edition wars

In preparing for a new game, I have to decide which system to run. It isn't an easy decision.

Pathfinder? In the next week I am expecting to receive a copy of the Pathfinder starter box, and I plan on picking up the core book if it is not under the tree this year. Am I going to run Pathfinder? Maybe. I have heard good things about it and it seems to address some of my concerns with three dot five.

Four-eee? I recently was confined to a small home in Ballard, given stimulants and piloted a Kenku Rogue for about 21 hours. Our DM, Mr. wh40d6 ran a fine game and I had a good time. I didn't feel as much frustration with the abstractions of fourth edition as I have in the past (I played once for about an hour and became extremely ill, but I can't prove that 4e was to blame).

This system has a lot of safety rails - the dungeon master has guidelines on how much xp an encounter should have, character classes have well-defined roles, players manage resources in the form of power cards which add a great dell of homogeneity to the game. A player only needs to learn one or two mechanics, like marking a foe, to play a new class or role. A wizard has a sharply limited list of combat powers and rituals, which is easier but feels limiting.

There are also some excellent simplifications. A monster has a level, and a set xp value, which makes dungeon stocking and xp allocation much quicker for the DM. Single-hitpoint minions provide a great source of dungeon fodder that is quicker and easier to run. Movement, much as it pains me to admit it, is a lot quicker and easier when you just say that diagonal moves are also 5 feet.

Aggregated skills - "perception" is spot, listen, and search rolled into one. This is great unless one is playing a rogue, as it is wisdom-based. More on this later... "Stealth" is hide and move silently together. "Thievery" covers removing or setting traps, and pickpocketing. Similar reductions are made in social skills as well, I am told.

4e also turns saving throws into resistances, so the attacker rolls against fort rather than the defender making a saving throw. Interesting, but I could take or leave it. It is, I suppose, more consistent.

In short, many little changes that make the game easier (but more limiting) to play, and remove DMing headaches. I can't bring myself to embrace 4e. I will happily play it in the future, but just not ready to call it my game. Maybe I'll like what Monte is Cook-ing better.

Retro-gaming/OSR I should have a card printed up saying "I believe that newer does not necessarily mean better, and embrace the themes of classical gaming." just so i can claim to be a card-carrying grognard.

That being said, I don't like old-school saving throws and descending Armor Class. They are more work than they are worth to keep track of. I do like simple character sheets and large, forbidding dungeons.

The "old school" scene is alive and kicking, but my players just aren't excited about it. Sites like jrients, bxblackrazor and grognardia are good jumping off points if you are curious.

Three-dot-five Third edition, so they told us, was the most researched and playtested system ever. Until they came out with 3.5 to fix all the broken stuff.

I like 3.5, I really do. I have run or played more of this edition than any other version of D&D. It is a comfortable, well-worn suit, but it also has some annoying holes that I keep meaning to patch.

I. Lots of source material, which different abilities and options for players who want to really give the DM a headache. Even the official material is pretty questionable at times. However plugging this hole is tough. Despite the headaches of the material that is unbalanced, there are plenty of fun, well-balanced classes, feats, and spells.

II. Complicated experience. In order to figure out how much a combat is worth to the party, one must take the number of enemies defeated, and their CRs, and consult a table in the DMG, to determine what the overall CR of the encounter was. If two monsters are in a fight and they have different CRs, the rules are a little murky, but it is touched upon. Then, after finding the CR of the encounter, the DM must find the CR on a table (cross-referenced by party average level) and divide the experience points by number of players. I got pretty fast with this, but it really makes the static XP in Pathfinder/4e look appealing.

I had actually made this part tougher on myself by figuring experience separately for each character based on their level (the theory being a 2nd level character would learn more from an encounter than a 5th level one). This is probably a bit wrong-headed as the points needed to level up grow at each level, and I never had player characters more than a level different from one another. It suited my desires for granularity and fairness.

III. Movement - In 3.5, most characters move 30' per round, which is 6 squares. Feels limiting, but it works pretty well. But what about diagonal movement? Let's see.. 5^2 +5^2 is.. 50, and the square root of 50 is 7.0710678118655 or so.. Yeah lets go with 7.5, which means every other square moved diagonally is 15, which doesn't leave you with a decimal after moving 28.28 feet.

This approach appeals to my math geekery, but even a simple count-off like 7.5, 15, 22.5, 30 will trip me up in the heat of battle. 4e makes it 5 foot movement, which is more than a little broken (whee, by moving this way I can move fifty feet per round!) but it really makes things go quicker. For the sake of an easier quicker resolution of movement I sacrifice logic and physics, and after running a long 3.5 campaign .. 30, uhh.. 37.5, 45, 50... 2 point 5.... Yeah I think it is a price I can pay.

IV. Boring critical hits.. Well perhaps I won't fix this, but I keep wanting criticals to do more than double damage. Not triple damage, but stuff. Limbs shattered, heads removed, weapons and armor destroyed, the carnage of a fantasy battle.

The problem is that players will inevitably, and rightly feel screwed by this. Player characters are almost always outnumbered by enemies, so the DM has many more chances to roll those devastating criticals. And a player character has to live with the consequences. That owlbear you removed two limbs from probably won't be coming back for revenge, but the DM can just pull two more from the nether for the next battle. Monsters and npcs generally don't survive battles, so never walking again simply doesn't matter.

V. Battle management - Stealing minions from 4e sounds like a good idea, but 3.5 doesn't work the same. There are Area of Effect spells that deal so much damage that even a successful save should kill them. If I use them, I plan on having a "threshold" hp level -do this much damage and the minion simply doesn't get a saving throw. Also I can't easily use minions with "damage sponge" monsters like gargoyles, so I may likely limit their use to battle fodder, orcs who keep the party busy while the bigger bads ready the nukes.

VI. Too many skills – see what I said about 4e above aggregating skills. If I do this I will be strongly tempted to let characters (like rogues) with Trapfinding use intelligence for perception rolls instead of wisdom. It isn’t a huge bonus at higher levels, but it remove the fear of straying from the party that I felt as a 4e rogue.

What will I run? Not sure yet. The nice folks at paizo have released an SRD that allows me to read through most of their rules-set, so I will be spending time poking through that. I plan to go through the various 3.5 sourcebooks and see what, if anything, I feel strongly enough to ban from my game. The “spell compendium”, as it contains a large amount of suspect fan-created material from Dragon magazine, is unlikely to make the cut. I may go into that book in more detail in a future post.

What do you run?

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