Monday, January 30, 2012

The New Death and Others

About two weeks ago, I received a copy of the ebook The New Death and others by James Hutchings. The author asked whether I could find the time to review it and give it a nod on Howling Tower if I found any gaming inspiration in its pages.

I didn't recognize Hutchings's name immediately but I should have, because I've enjoyed his work for years. Hutchings is the force behind, a website that every DM ought to be familiar with. Age of Fable is one of those online funhouses that offers so much quirky creativity it's tough to decide where to explore first. The centerpiece is Age of Fable, a fully illustrated, online choose-your-own-adventure game. Are the illustrations inspired by the text or vice versa? The truth is a mix of both, I suspect. Its roots go deep into those Tunnels & Trolls solo adventures from the '70s and '80s, and that's not a bad thing at all. Age of Fable is great fun, with almost every click leading to something surprising, whimsical, deadly, or all three. 

Along with Age of Fable, the website offers a dungeon generator that churns out labyrinths for both Dungeons & Dragons B/X (and its retroclones such as Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, or Swords & Wizardry) and Tunnels & Trolls, along with hundreds of tables for instantly creating anything from monsters and treasures to character backgrounds to fantasy nations. The useful tools at are simply too numerous to list.

So what about The New Death and others? The book is a collection of 44 stories and 19 poems by Hutchings. All of them are very short; only a handful are more than a few hundred words long. They fall into two distinct styles. One group evokes the writing of Poe, Lovecraft, Howard, and especially Clark Ashton Smith. Some of these, such as "Under the Pyramids" and "The Garden of Adompha," are straight-up homages, being poems unabashedly based on the short stories of the same names. Others do an excellent job of mimicking the style of those writers while covering original ideas. Stories in the second group are written as fables and myths, frequently with the Fates themselves or characters from well-known fairy tales as their chief actors.

The surprise is that so many of these stories and poems are humorous. That's not to state that they aren't dark, gritty, and tragic, but Hutchings also mines them for all the satire, parody, absurdity, and cynicism he can dig out. And he digs out a lot. 

Most of the stories in The New Death and others are parables on pop culture, fame, human foibles, money, relationships, life, and death, couched in the language of Lovecraft and Smith and the Brothers Grimm, with a heavy dose of Douglas Adams mixed in. A few examples:
  • In "Construction Workers of Telelee," citizens are disturbed by robotic workers that don't hoot and whistle at women, but instead challenge passersby with philosophical conundrums.
  • In "The Doom that was Laid Upon Fame," a Fate who's gone Hollywood searches for a loophole in a pronouncement from Justice.
  • In "The Adventure of the Murdered Philanthropist," an unnamed but familiar consulting detective and his long-suffering chronicler visit a parade of famous figures in the course of solving a locked-door mystery ... with puns.
  • In "The End," a monster planning to terrify and slaughter a group of teenagers learns to his chagrin that the world is a changed place.
  • In "The Apprenticeship," a man who makes a bargain with Death to stave off loss quickly finds the price too painful to bear.
  • In "Rumpelstiltskin," the storybook character gets schooled in modern marketing technique.
Wondering if any of this is for you? Here's an example of one of Hutchings's shortest poems (one of my favorites), "If My Life Was Filmed."

If my life was filmed, it would 
go straight to DVD 
and someone who was famous once
would have the role of me
and if five stars meant 'excellent
you'd give it two or three
and most of those who rented it
would watch ironically.

Years later they would track me down
and do an interview.
They'd say "I heard you died," and I'd
say "Yeah, I heard that too."
"Is any of it fictional?"
"Perhaps a scene or two.
There weren't as many ninjas, but
the rest is mostly true."

It's not perfect. There are typos, and a certain redundancy to some of the tales. It's best if you read just a few at a time, then put it away for a bit before coming back. But those are minor flaws.

As to the original question -- whether these tales provide fruitful inspiration for DMs -- I'd say yes, but no more than you'd get by going straight to the primary sources of Lovecraft, Smith, and traditional mythology. Really, that question misses the point of the book. While the pure fantasy tales are enjoyable and well written, they're secondary to the cynical, satirical, hilarious parables about politics, religion, and human interaction. I laughed out loud at Hutchings's humor and clucked over his insights more times than I can recount while reading The New Death and others, and my verdict is unequivocal -- Grab a copy. For 99 cents, it will be the best entertainment purchase you make in 2012. 


"The New Death and others" is available at Smashwords, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble, in most ereader formats.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Drama is Unruly

I've tried to show some of the interplay between armor class, hit points, and attack bonus in previous columns. Anyone who's played D&D more than once has at least an intuitive notion of how intertwined those are.

Those earlier columns addressed monster defenses but ignored offensive power. Offense is far harder to assess, at least for AD&D and other early editions. In 4E, monster damage is as reliable as monster defenses, with special powers to spice things up. In AD&D, trying to quantify a monster's "threat level"--its combination of attack bonus, number of attacks, damage per attack, and special powers--conjures up an image of Aleister Crowley intoning "do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law."

Drama demands ups and downs, lulls and rushes, major and minor chords, easy victories and demoralizing defeats. A tough pitcher throws curveballs, changeups, sinkers, sliders, knuckleballs, screwballs ... and the occasional lazy meatball and skull-cracking beanball. 4th Edition seems to coach a steady stream of fastballs, and eventually they get easy to hit. What's worse is they get dull.

Monsters in 4E are too skillfully regimented. Special powers give them a lot of offensive flavor, but their defenses, attack bonuses, and damage output are predictable. It leads to a sense of flatness in combat.

Contrast that with a setup where some monsters have very low hit points but very high AC, or vice versa. Or where some monsters have pathetically low chances to hit but do tremendous damage while others hit almost all the time but their attacks are mere pinpricks. 4E's monster roles--soldiers, brutes, etc.--address this, but they don't go far enough.

To illustrate the situation, I've concocted two graphs of the "threat levels" mentioned above. The plots are hypothetical; they're graphic depictions of the difference between the linear math of 4E monsters and the chaotic math of AD&D monsters. I believe that they're accurate in concept even if the specific numbers aren't. The horizontal axis is monster level; the vertical axis is our hypothetical "threat level."

4E's line is easy to predict and manipulate, which is why 4E is a very DM-friendly game. AD&D's plot is elusive, unruly, even aggravating for DMs--and much more dynamic and dramatic. That dynamism is what I believe too many DMs and players missed from 4E, and what I'd like to see make a return in D&D Next.


Thursday, January 26, 2012

Traveller Mobile MMO in Beta

ingZ and Far Futures Enterprises have released a beta version of Traveller AR ("Augmented Reality"), an MMORPG for iOS mobile devices. It's interesting to see an old-school RPG--Traveller is almost as venerable as D&D--make the MMO leap, and to a mobile platform.

Traveller's presentation and design vaulted it years ahead of the competition in 1977. Those three little books are RPG icons, with their minimalist black-and-red covers. The rules hit a near-perfect mix of elegance and comprehensiveness that few games before or since have matched.

In the trailer, the game resembles an upgraded, multiplayer version of Space Trader, which I played obsessively on my Sony Palm device six years ago. Of course, Space Trader was an obvious homage to Traveller, so the similarities are no surprise. I don't use iOS, being an android myself, but I plan to insist that all my Apple-using friends install the beta and then borrow their toys to take this for a test jump.

Traveller AR

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

"To Hit" vs. Armor Class

Enough theory! How do attack bonuses really compare in use?

In 4th Edition, that's easy to answer. Monster defenses scale smoothly by +1 per level. Character attacks scale by approximately +1 per level, though not as smoothly as monster defenses. Still, the relationship is tight and balanced.

In AD&D, the relationship is complex. Character attacks (for fighters) scale at approximately +1 per level or a fraction more. But monster defenses are all over the board. Here's a plot of AC for all monsters from the AD&D Monster Manual that have 20 or fewer hit dice.

Scatter Plot of AD&D Monster AC by Hit Dice
The first thing you'll notice is that it's a scatter plot. AD&D has no smooth correspondence between a monster's hit dice (level) and it's armor class. The line is the closest approximation Excel can draw to this mess of data points.

What's important about the plot is the slope of the approximated line when compared to the slope of the attack bonuses. At 1 hit die, the average monster AC is between 6 and 7. At 20 hit dice, the average monster AC is 0. That's a spread of only 7 points. Yet the AD&D fighter's* attack bonus increases by 20 or more points between level 1 and 20. That's a huge discrepancy.

AD&D Fighter Attack Bonuses
* (By comparison, the cleric's attack bonus increased by 11-15, the thief's by 10-14, and the magic-user's by 9-13. The range depends on how much of a bonus the character gets from a magic weapon, which could vary from 0 to +4. I assume any +5 weapon was given to the fighter.)

So in AD&D, as characters advance up the level scale, they constantly gain ground against the monsters' defenses. A 15th-level fighter doesn't just hit lower-level monsters more often; he hits all monsters, even those of his own level, more reliably than before.

Before anyone gets too excited, I need to point out another big facet of AD&D: the damage that characters do with their weapons doesn't scale at all across levels, aside from magical bonuses. Heroes' attacks need to get more accurate because hitting more often is the main way the characters do more damage to the monsters, whose hit points increase in direct proportion to their hit dice. 

The last conclusion I want anyone to draw from this analysis is that edition Y got it right and edition Z got it wrong. My goal is to establish some facts so we can talk about these subjects from a factual basis instead of from the vague and emotional impressions we form during the heat of play and across the haze of years. Early editions of D&D handled math very differently from later editions. I'm not about to pick a winner--not yet, anyway. That's a subject for Friday.


Monday, January 23, 2012

A Brief History of Attack Bonuses

The subject of the bonuses that characters earn for leveling up is a contentious one (in my experience, anyway). I believe that's because it goes directly to the heart of what a D&D character is at its most fundamental: a list of numbers and situation-based alterations to the rules. The arguments center on whether the benefits of gaining levels are too much, too little, or just right.

There's a sense that these bonuses have escalated across editions, and that's generally true, but only in certain regards. It's not true in one aspect that may surprise people -- attack bonuses.

I've graphed the "automatic" attack bonuses that fighters gained in early editions of the game (OD&D in 1974, AD&D in 1979, and D&D Basic/Expert in 1981) along with 4th Edition (2008). These comparisons are necessarily rough because of the game's evolution, but they're still important.

Before showing the graphs and drawing conclusions, I'll lay out some of the ground rules.

The modifiers that are taken into account are the bonuses from the attacker's level, from Strength, from magic weapons, and from the expertise feat that is considered so essential in 4E. Fourth Edition has a regimented scale for magic weapons and Strength increases, unlike earlier editions that left these things in the hands of the DM and the random treasure tables. In early editions, Strength rarely changed after character creation. When it did, it was an exceptional occurrence. The amount of magic weaponry in the hands of early adventurers could vary wildly from campaign to campaign. Those scales are based on my experience as player, designer, and publisher.

The D&D B/X graph covers levels 1-15; OD&D and AD&D cover levels 1-20; and 4E covers levels 1-30. These are the levels included in the rulebooks. You can argue whether all of these levels really are playable, but the rulebooks claim that they are, and I'll take them at their word for this comparison.

With all of that out of the way, here are the graphs. Note that these are additive graphs; each line adds its values to the line below it, so that the top line on the graph shows the total value of all modifiers.

Original D&D (1974)
Advanced D&D (1979)
D&D Basic/Expert (1981)
D&D 4th Edition (2008)
Finally, here's a graph that plots the four totals against each other. This one's not additive; each line is the top line from the preceding four graphs.

Four Editions Compared
What these graphs show is that in all four of these D&D editions, a fighter's attack bonus increases at approximately the same pace and is approximately equal to his level throughout his adventuring career. The exception is the low-level 4E fighter, who starts with an advantage thanks to the handling of Strength bonuses in 4E (and 3E, which isn't covered here, obviously). That initial advantage wanes as the character advances.

These are only the basics, of course. Fourth Edition injects the all-important class powers, which can boost  the attack roll when it really matters. That's a somewhat different class of inflation, however, and I don't think it negates the importance of the progressions shown on these charts.

From my perspective, none of this is the real point. As interesting as this analysis is, it's not an end in itself. Instead, it lays the foundation for a much bigger question: Is there a better way to reward characters and players for gaining levels? That's a topic for later in the week.


P.S.: A quick note on why I chose these editions to compare. 4E is obvious. 2nd Ed. AD&D was omitted because it's basically identical to 1st Ed. Both OD&D and B/X were included because they employ different progressions from AD&D, and OD&D offers no bonus for high Strength. I find it interesting that in the end, those differences turn out to be more superficial than they appear. 3E doesn't appear for the simple reason that all my 3E manuals are packed away in boxes at the back of the storage room, and I didn't feel like digging them out.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Illusory Math

Should dwarves get +1 with axes?

Monte Cook asked that question today in the D&D Next blog. I was surprised by the poll result, which (at the time I checked it) showed a strong majority in favor of rules backing up flavor -- 386 voters wanted rules to enforce flavor, 253 wanted flavor to be independent of rules. I probably shouldn't have been surprised by that, but I was.

This touches on a host of issues, but at least half of them boil down to the illusion of math. Everyone is familiar with this illusion, whether or not they've given it a name. It works like this:
  1. At 1st level, you have no bonus to hit, and most of the monsters you fight have AC 11-13.
  2. At 5th level, you have a +2 to hit, and most of the monsters you fight have AC 13-15.
  3. At 9th level, you have a +4 to hit, and most of the monsters you fight have AC 15-17.
The result is that you always need to roll 11-13 to hit the monsters. All those bonuses amount to nothing. They're an illusion.

The illusion takes a second form that's more germane to Monte's question. It works like this:
  1. Dwarves get +1 to hit with axes.
  2. Some people who like dwarves want to play against type and use spears, but they feel they're being punished for not using axes (as, in fact, they are). So ...
  3. The rules inject a slight tweak that lets dwarves get +1 with spears if they never braid their beards. 
The net effect is that everyone gets +1 with everything, all the monster ACs are hiked up a point to compensate, and the outcome is a wash rinsed in unnecessary math.

It's easy to dismiss this sort of escalation as the admission price for a game that relies on levels to measure character advancement, but it doesn't need to be. D&D would be a more satisfying game if it blew the smoke away from this particular mirror. Characters could fight orcs all the way through heroic tier and feel challenged. And I'm talking about standard level 1 orcs, not orcs that are powered up every level to keep pace with the heroes. Ever-evolving orcs are another relic of illusionary math -- one of the most blatant and annoying, in fact, because they are so symptomatic of design-for-effect rather than design-for-cause.

Each edition of D&D has escalated the payoff for leveling up over what the previous edition offered. In early editions, some characters got nothing besides a few hit points when they popped up a level. Characters who could use spells or pick locks fared a little better. The curve got smoothed a bit in 2nd edition, at the cost of slight class power inflation. The curve was smoothed a lot in 3rd edition, but it also got a lot steeper. And 4th edition offered a beautifully modulated power curve, but it's steeper even than 3rd's.*

If that curve was brought down to a gentle slope, then 8th-level characters tangling with 1st-level orcs could still feel the thrill of danger. There are any number of ways to accomplish that without robbing players of the feeling that they're progressing when they gain a level, or by tricking them into believing that they're gaining something when they really aren't, which is what D&D has been doing for ... well, for pretty much it's entire history to one degree or another.

Jacking up the level rewards has always carried the taint of bribery, in my mind. If people need to be bribed to play D&D, then something's wrong with the game. Level rewards are good, but keeping them to the absolute, bare minimum would lead to a healthier and more vivid game at all levels.


* This assumption turns out to be not as true as I believed it was when I wrote this blog. I don't think the difference alters my thesis greatly, but it needs to be pointed out.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A New Front, Part 2

The number of comments left on last week's essay tells me that plenty of people are as interested in this topic as I am. 

One of the people who offered his thoughts was Will Mistretta. Will posted a fuller response on his own blog, "It's OK; Gary Sent Us." I don't mean to pick on Mr. Mistretta, because I think he raised some interesting points. I'd like to borrow a few of them as jumping-off points for today.

Will wrote: 
But I guess two things come to mind:
1.     4E's reception and marketplace performance are completely, 110% WotC's responsibility (or fault, if you don't feel like being charitable). The audience did not do the product a disservice by not being willing to overlook its lack of quality and fidelity to the D&D tradition. Rather, it's the product that let the audience down.
2.     One man's "hooliganism" or "attacking" is another's "honest, passionate disagreement" or "sincere attempt at dialog/debate."
I don't believe in attacking players of a particular game, either. But is that really a that common a problem, or are some defensive fans engaging in the classic geek fallacy of equating criticism of their hobbies to criticism of their persons?
I take no issue with the first part of point 1. D&D is WotC's product, and its success or failure in the market is wholly WotC's responsibility. If bad word-of-mouth becomes a problem, it's up to WotC to counteract that with positive marketing. That effort was only partly successful with 4E, but it imparted some important lessons that will be invaluable in the D&D Next playtest and rollout. (History, of course, is filled with examples of lessons that were obsolete by the time their teachings were brought into play.) 

As to the second part of point 1, whether 4E lacked "quality and fidelity to the D&D tradition" or "let the audience down," those are subjective evaluations. Clearly a lot of people feel that way. I don't begrudge them their opinion, and no one else should, either. I like some editions better than others, too. There are a few RPGs that I passively dislike, meaning that they don't appeal to me and I have no interest in playing them. There are none that I actively dislike, meaning that I revile them, consider them a knife in the gut, or think the world would be a better place if they'd never been published. No game--not even an international soccer match--merits a riot, whether it's in the streets or on your computer. I nearly added a YMMV at the end of that statement, but thought better of it; it should stand as an absolute.

"Passionate disagreement" is where we get into really interesting ground. I've read many variations of this argument: "The intensity of my response is just a reflection of my passion, and that passion should be appreciated by others." Let me rephrase it the way it plays in my head: "It's OK for me to be offensive and antagonistic, because I'm angry." To which I respond, "no, it's not OK." 

As a fellow reader of an online forum, I'm not the source of your anger, but you're making me its target. If D&D Xe doesn't live up to your expectations, that isn't the fault of Conan_the_Beerbarian, HedgeGizzard, or Drizzt129 up to Drizzt953. Even if your fellow forumgoers and tweeters disagree with your opinion, that doesn't make them the cause of your frustration. Once that's acknowledged, it should be obvious that treating fellow roleplayers as if they are the problem won't get you anywhere.

If you're angry at Wizards of the Coast, then let them know. Call or send an email to customer service; the phone number and address are on the website. Send a tweet to the publisher, make a comment on their Facebook page, or even post in one of their forums about your dissatisfaction; social media are gaining validity as avenues for customer feedback, as long as the feedback is directed properly.

Just don't turn your disappointment with a product or your anger toward a publisher against fellow D&D players. That's where the line needs to be drawn. 

Humans yearn to belong to groups. We identify ourselves by the groups we belong to; we congregate and take on the collective aspects of the group by dressing alike, talking alike, eating and drinking alike, watching the same TV shows, listening to the same music. We also define ourselves by the groups we're aligned against: mods vs. rockers; Coke vs. Pepsi; dog lovers vs. cat fanciers; Mac vs. PC; Star Wars vs. Star Trek. Most people will look at that list and think, "eh, so what. Nothing's wrong with some good-natured rivalry and ribbing." Such pairings seem innocuous to most of us, but every group includes a strident minority that wants nothing to do with members of the opposite party. Who gains from that situation? Dog lovers and cat fanciers have more in common as pet owners than they have in conflict. How much is lost when D&D players vs. D&D players winds up on that list? 

I'll close by reiterating the two key points from my previous post. I support spirited debate, even argument, about the pluses and minuses of different games and editions. But when spirited debate crosses into malicious flaming and trolling, it tears us all down and harms the hobby as a whole. No publisher or game makes people act like jerks. The fans who engage in that sort of behavior are responsible for its negative effect and should be held to account for it by the rest of the community. 


Friday, January 13, 2012

A New Front in the Edition War?

Shawn Merwin raised an interesting point today in his Critical Hits blog, "How the Internet Changed a Game." I'd like to expand on it a bit.

D&D Next has set itself two noteworthy goals. The first is to offer something to fans of every D&D edition and get them all to sit down at the same table in one big Dungeons & Dragons inn. The second is to harness the power of fandom and the internet to help build that inn, through public playtesting and open feedback.

Both of those goals are challenging. The first is ultimately the responsibility of the very capable design team. The second places enormous power in the hands of a collective with the capacity to be energetic, enthusiastic, and effective -- but also vindictive, vicious, and downright malicious.

In the months leading up to 4E's release, online forums lit up like a Ukrainian geiger counter with hate for the concept, the art, the cosmology -- for anything new at all, in some cases. Those reactions were met by counter-hate against the haters, and Edition War III was on. (Depending on how you count them, I suppose.) Once the core books were published, the situation only got worse.

It’s fair to say that WotC did a poor job of managing expectations, reactions, and the raging arguments that erupted. But that failure didn't cause the problem. The great irony in the current divided state of D&D fandom is that while WotC created a schism with 4E, as every new edition of D&D inevitably does, it was overzealous, overreacting fans who turned that schism into a religious war complete with fanatics sworn to persecute and destroy the infidels. The validity of someone's opinion doesn't seem to matter; if you can't win an argument with facts, then you can at least drive away your opponents by being louder, more vehement, and more obnoxious.

Most grownups manage their disappointment without spitting on strangers and spray-painting hate onto public buildings. Away from the internet, that type of reaction is considered sociopathic. On the internet, it's commonplace, almost accepted.

As noted above, more than a little responsibility for the fractured state of D&D fandom can be laid at WotC’s doorstep, but the edition warriors can’t duck their share of the blame. To let them do so allows the same sort of dishonesty that lets the wife beater claim “she made me hit her.” No one stood to gain by turning the D&D community against itself; everyone had something to lose, including the people who stirred the pot with the biggest spoons.

Where does that leave us? With this: The next iteration of D&D has given itself the goal of reuniting as many players as possible in the town inn, regardless of whether their currently preferred edition is 4th, 3rd, 2nd, 1st, original, B/X, Pathfinder, or one of the many old-school retro-clones. D&D Next is not going to appeal to everyone, and plenty of people will stick with whichever previous version they know and love. But wouldn't it be grand if those who don’t come to the reunion would at least adopt a live-and-let-live attitude toward those who do and refrain from actively seeking to burn down the inn?