Entry for September 02, 2008: Labor Day and gaming

Friends, I hope you had a good Labor Day weekend. On Saturday, 30 August 2008, I met Thomas K.Y. and Ken G. at Thomas' condominium in Lexington, Massachusetts. Thomas and I "respecced" "Scarlet Saber 2," one of my characters in our City of Heroes online supergroup, and Ken tried out the video game Portal.

From there, we had a tasty dinner at Punjab, an Indian restaurant in Arlington, Mass., and Lanes & Games, a bowling alley/arcade in Cambridge. We then screened Mummy 3: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. The cliffhanging adventure flick was entertaining, if not quite as good as its predecessors or similar movies such as the "Indiana Jones" series. I'd give it a 7 out of 10, or a solid B.

Janice and I also caught up on housecleaning, reading, and recorded episodes of Psych and The Middleman. Speaking of genre television, I found out that my earlier listing for Sanctuary was incorrect: The new SciFi Channel show actually starts on Wednesday, October 3, at 9:00 p.m., after ABC's Pushing Daisies. Also, the computer-animated Star Wars: Clone Wars will be on the Cartoon Network on Fridays at 9:00 p.m. We walked up to Bertucci's in Needham, Mass., on Monday.

In addition to the usual City of Heroes virtual session on Sunday morning, I hosted a ribald D&D4e "Vanished Lands: the Faith-Based Initiative" fantasy game on Monday night. The D&D3.5 "Vanished Lands: Holy Steel" teleconferencing team may be moving from Tuesdays back to Thursdays because of Dexter V.H./"Faelonia's" academic schedule.

Speaking of role-playing, how do I like Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition (D&D4e) now that I've been using it for a few months? Although I have fond memories of each edition since the boxed sets I first used in high school in the early 1980s, the world's best-known role-playing game (RPG) has changed significantly in its latest iteration.

Wizards of the Coast (WotC) has attempted to streamline some of the rules from D&D4e's immediate predecessor, the popular D&D3.5, and it incorporates some of the terms and style of massively multiplayer online games (MMO), which themselves in turn were once inspired by D&D. But like each new version of Microsoft's Windows operating system, D&D4e adds some features at the expense of other things, in this case backward-compatibility and portabity to genres other than high fantasy.

I do find monsters easier to run and battles easier to scale, and Player Character (P.C.) creation is a bit simpler. Most of my current Boston-area pen-and-paper (or dice-and-pizza) group has embraced D&D4e. Although the so-called powers add maneuvers for combat, they may restrict gamers' imaginations. Like in MMOs, players can select from a menu of moves in each encounter, but they have relatively few to choose from at first, and I find that some of the mythological/literary flavor of traditional fantasy role-playing is underrepresented.

Noncombat and background skills were overly streamlined, in my opinion, but I got used to skill-based games such as Steve Jackson Games' Generic Universal Role-Playing System (GURPS, now also in its fourth edition) back in the 1990s when I lived in Virginia. EnWorld.org is an excellent source of information for D&D, and it may take months to sort out the best publisher and edition of D&D.

D&D3.5 had arguably become too complex and imbalanced between spellcasting and weapon-wielding occupational classes at different levels, but the D20 Open Game License allowed third-party publishers to create a wide variety of easy-to-learn variations on D&D3.5 in genres such as steampunk, historical fiction, horror, and space opera. The Star Wars: Saga Edition RPG is a good example of both the possibilities of D20 and of how it could be streamlined. The Boston-area groups also enjoyed my Mutants & Masterminds 2nd Ed.: "Drake's Port" superhero scenarios.

WotC has announced that it will modify its Game System License System Reference Document in response to criticism from third-party publishers, and I hope that D&D4e will be well-supported by the industry, which has crashed after the D20 boom of the past decade and faced increasing competition from other types of games, such as collectible card games, miniatures/wargames, and of course, video games. Interestingly, some of the D&D4e marketing strategy of WotC owner Hasbro is no doubt tied to its popular board games.

On the other hand, grognards who prefer D&D3.5/D20 can try the Pathfinder RPG from Paizo, once the publisher of Dragon magazine. Unofficially referred to as "D&D3.75," it remains to be seen whether Pathfinder can sufficiently simplify enough rules, remain backward-compatible, and be a strong alternative to WotC's ubiquitous D&D4e. It is now available both in print and online. Several friends in Virginia and elsewhere are trying out Pathfinder. Brian W. and I have also been evaluating other systems, such as Savage Worlds, True20, and Fantasy Craft.

Interestingly, while most of my local gamers like D&D4e, many of my friends in metropolitan New York, Washington D.C., and elsewhere are interested in Pathfinder. Although I doubt I'll go back to D&D3.5, I'm interested in finding the game that best suits my long-running "Vanished Lands" campaign setting, is easy to get players for and to learn, and enables us to collaboratively tell the sorts of stories we want to tell. Speaking of Virginia, I'll be visiting family and friends down there this coming weekend.