Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

The Next Thing: Thoughts on That Other Game

I am not participating in the D&D Next playtest, but I pay attention to bloggers that are. Here are four different posts on the topic that I thought were particularly good:


[1] The Rhetorical Gamer is kind of “meh” on it– sure there’s good and bad to pick over in the whole thing…. But R.G. likens the buzz to off season news coverage of a mediocre team that is doing all the right things, but that maybe stands to continue their disappointing streak. This is coming from a guy that “played the heck out of 4E D&D” before he realized that it wasn’t the game for him.

You know… for a guy that’s been outside of gaming’s main stream for a long, long time… I’d  have to conjecture that, for a lot of people, 4e D&D was the point where they woke up to to what they wanted in gaming and found the wherewithal to break from the herd, blaze a new trail, and try something different. Most people have found that there is life apart from the 500 pound role playing gorilla– and this has to be terrible for people that own the property. Based on the sales pitch they’re giving, D&D Next is trying to address just that issue– but the fact that they’ve had to stop the presses to do that… it just says so much about how weak their position is.


[2] I like the thoughts posted by Discourse & Dragons. These sorts of discussions are just so pointless if they are between people that don’t actually play but instead collect gaming books. Discourse’s run down shows evidence that he not only plays the game, but also that he thinks in game design terms– and even better, he acknowledges how his own preferences influence his criticism. That’s gotta be playtest gold right there. He concludes by stating that “quick painful death must be a part of the game to make it meaningful.” Wow. Yeah, I’d say most gamers see that as a bug of early role playing games when it’s really a feature.


[3] And speaking of the earliest days of role playing, Rather Gamey has laid out a great analogy comparing it to the kit computers of the seventies. He goes own to praise the eclectic nature of Dragon magazine back then… and then explains where 4e D&D went wrong for him: “I tried – I really tried to take 4e, learn it, run it as intended, then go and house rule it until the damn game felt like D&D again.  But no, it never did.  Like Dragon, D&D was just a shadow of itself.  The remaining skeleton wouldn’t even support changes I tried to make to it very well. D&D was no longer a KIT.”

I guess the old school vs. new school thing is mostly just about… D&D. Full stop. I play a lot of other old school games and it’s weird… but it seems like that in some ways, D&D has striven to be more and more like the 80’s tactical games I love to play so much. But this whole D&D-as-board-game thing… it isn’t necessarily what I want if I’m going to play some D&D. And as much time as I’ve spent trying to design the perfect CAR WARS car, I seriously have no patience for anyone that wants to make the perfect character build for a role playing game. That just goes against the grain of what I’m looking for in that…. Perfect builds make sense in a competitive arena combat game, but role playing has such a large cooperative element that character builds are at best a necessary evil…. At any rate, a complex build system is usually just something that increases the difficulty of teaching new players the game as far as I’m concerned. And you have to do something to make me actually care enough to invest. (Here’s a hint: crippleware doesn’t do it for me.)


[4] Finally… UAD&D has probably the best single post on this topic anywhere. In a nutshell… Wizards could totally have gone the route of Mayonnaise vs. Miracle Whip. Instead they are doing the New Coke thing. The unsolicited advice from this professional problem solver…? Stop… Just stop…. Get the hell out of the “making a new system” business.

Heh. That does about sum it up.


6 responses to “The Next Thing: Thoughts on That Other Game

  1. Earlburt June 6, 2012 at 2:10 pm

    The bit about a quick painful death being a bug vs. adding meaning got me thinking. In real life, life is extremely precarious– human being are super easy to kill. A small handful of games preserve that reailty in some form (Rolemaster’s crit tables, for example). But most games either start characters dweeby, and build them up to an impervious state. Or they start them impervious and make it more so.

    Car Wars does something else. Characters begin and remain dweeby for ever and ever. 3 hp with a breached side and no component armor invites instant death. It’s the cars that get beefier and protect the character. But CW matches are usually much better balanced than the average new school D&D scenario, where players can overcome almost any trial thrown at them.

    This was surely inadvertant on SJG’s end– I doubt they ever had this discussion around the design table. But maybe that’s part of what continues to fuel our fondness for CW. A quick painful death never stopped being part of the game, so it remained meaningful.

    • jeffro June 6, 2012 at 2:33 pm

      The distribution of outcomes is roughly the same for both Moldvay D&D and Amateur Night style CAR WARS. It takes maybe five successful outings to level up. Leveling up that first time is a tantalizing campaign goal in itself. Both games allow you to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Sound tactics give you better odds, but death is always a possibility. CAR WARS adds to this risky driving and pedestrians making a dash to a disabled car. Death is not so likely that you never invest emotionally… but success requires risk… and it takes multiple risky successes to advance.

      This is the Master Control Program school of game design: “I’ve got a little challenge for you, Sark — a new recruit. He’s a tough case, but I want him treated in the usual manner. Train him for the games… let him hope for a while… and blow him away.”

      But if you don’t get blown away… you really feel like you accomplished something. Likewise… losing that character you invested 16 hours of precious game time into… it’s painful, but the narrative of that character crystallizes at the point and becomes something of a gaming treasure.

  2. RogerBW June 7, 2012 at 4:48 am

    To me, it looks a lot like a retreat from 4e, but really only as far as 3e; the rococo structures of 1e and 2e, which confused people but forced them to think and added flavour, don’t seem to be coming back. Speaking as someone who abandoned AD&D when you didn’t have any choice about which version to play, I don’t find anything compelling here.

    Will it bring back the people who’ve abandoned 4e to run 3/3.5, retroclones, and other things? I don’t see why – I don’t even see it being a better 3e than 3e.

    What interests me more, as a player primarily of GURPS, is the effect the new game will have as an entry point. For all of my gaming career, some sort of D&D has been by far the most common first RPG (I mean here true RPG, not computer), and people’s attitudes are shaped by that. For example, when I meet people who’ve only played 3e/4e, they’re much more narratively- and gimmick-focused: they expect a carefully-controlled and gradual escalation of power within the dungeon with a boss fight at the end, and they expect to have a vast array of powers and items with lots of complex special effects (but only one each).

    From a commercial point of view, the core system had traditionally been if anything a loss-leader for the endless stream of upgrades. That seems to be what the UAD&D post is suggesting. But players who are aware of more than 4e will be aware of the way 3e and 3.5e – and even 2e, to a point – collapsed under their own weight of add-ons and new super-powered “you must have this book or your character will be uncompetitive”. When I as a mature gamer – yeah, I’m not Hasbro’s target market – think about the game I’ll buy into, I look at not just the cost of the core book but at the cost of the supplements I’m going to be using, and at how easy it’ll be to integrate those supplements into my ongoing game. (This is something that GURPS 4e gets very right: a combat character created using just the Basic Set isn’t at a huge disadvantage compared with a combat character created with Martial Arts, say. GURPS 3 had problems in that regard, and SJGames learned from them.)

    I hang with a fairly old and cynical bunch, and “planned obsolescence” was what we thought with 3.5e, never mind 4 or 5.

    As I’ve gamed, I’ve certainly moved towards systems that allow instant death: Rolemaster and GURPS are probably the two I’ve used most. I don’t have a lot of character deaths these days, but that’s largely because people are prepared to run away from fights – and/or I’m running games in a modern setting where medical attention isn’t too far away…

    • Peter June 7, 2012 at 4:08 pm

      I like the chance of quick painful death in my systems, too. I just disliked that point in D&D where it stopped – right around the 5th to 7th level area. When you could survive a sword blow to the head by surprise just because of having plenty of HP. I play GURPS precisely because it maintains that chance of sudden lethality all the way through unless you’ve got some kind of supernatural way to stop it.

      My interest in D&D Next is the same – how is this going to affect incoming players? Would I play it in a pick-up game? Will there be supplements I can read and raid for ideas? One of the things I like about OSR stuff is they are written in an old language I still know (pre-2e AD&D) or close enough. If D&D Next is like that, I’d be very happy.

      Thanks for the compliments on GURPS Martial Arts. If we did it right, a character created with Basic Set only will get better when you bust out Marital Arts, and all Martial Arts does is give you more fine-tuning on a character. It’s designed to be anti-splatbook, really – a basic Step and Attack is still awesome, the additional options are for things that came with Basic Set, and the detailed ruled let you turn up or turn down the graininess of the character design/combat resolution as needed. It seems to work that way. :)

      • jeffro June 7, 2012 at 4:21 pm

        This is how Martial Arts worked for me:

        1) Player describes their action in extremely specific terms.
        2) Game Master looks it up in Martial Arts… and wow… there it is.
        3) Game Master realizes that the rule is better than what he could have made up on the spot.
        4) Game Master realizes that it only took seconds to do this thanks to the organization
        5) Game Master decides to respect the optional and encyclopedic approach of the GURPS line.

        Now that I know it’s an anti-splat book, I like it even more…!

      • earlburt June 9, 2012 at 3:15 pm

        This is kind of off-topic maybe, but this thread reminded me of an example of a martial arts combat in a diceless system that I ran across years ago. It’s old (I found it using Metacrawler), back when I first heard of diceless gaming and got intrigued:

        I’ve always wanted to be the kind of player or GM capable of that level of on-the-spot detailed narrative. I think that combat in almost any system gets real monotonous and boring without a strong descriptive component…. unless combat is a kind of minigame as it is in D&D 4e.

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