Game changes, late summer 2012 edition

While I’ve been too busy with work lately to do more than post updates regarding my various role-playing games, I realize that it can be confusing to casual readers of this blog who aren’t in my current groups. Here’s some context.

Buckaroo Banzai
A motley but fun group of adventurers

Changing venue

Over the past eight years, my face-to-face groups got used to meeting at my apartments in Needham, Mass., because of their spacious basements. It was convenient to have an area dedicated to our games, with large tables, shelves of reference materials, and miniatures and dice all in one place.

Fortunately, Brian W. and Rich C.G. have graciously taken over hosting duties since my move to Waltham, Mass., this past spring. They both live between my office and home and are still relatively central for the rest of the gang. We may not have as much at hand, but the collection of people is more important than rulebooks or battle maps.

Strange new worlds

The eight or so people who meet on Monday nights have also dealt with the usual seasonal shifts in games. After running alternating crews in my “Vortex” homebrew space opera (using FATE 3e Starblazer Adventures/Mindjammer and Bulldogs) for the past two years, we’ve been trying one-shots and miniseries through the summer.

I’ve enjoyed playing with different genres and rules sets, including Jason E.R.’s “Glassworks” (superheroes using Cortex: Marvel Heroic Role-Playing), Rich’s School Daze one-shot, and Brian’s Dungeon Crawl Classics fantasy retro-clone demonstration. I also got to run a playtest of Dungeons & Dragons Next (Fifth Edition) and play in Rich’s Way of the Wicked scenario for Pathfinder.

We had more ideas than time in which to explore them all! I held off on returning to my “Gaslight Grimoire” steampunk setting, and we didn’t get to Bruce K.’s conversion of the OGL Conan to Pathfinder or Rich or James B.’s Call of Cthulhu or Arkham Horror game.

Telecom turnover

My Sunday night teleconferencing group has also endured changes in membership. Just as I had been running “Vortex” for the Boston-area people, the virtual teams had been playing in my “Vanished Lands” heroic fantasy campaign setting.

For the past few months, Josh C. ran his “Spelljammer: the Show Must Go Onswashbuckling fantasy, using FATE 3e Legends of Anglerre. Even though D&D(4e) and Pathfinder are the most popular systems right now, my groups haven’t used them much lately.

Because of busy lives and “gamer attention deficit disorder,” I’ve found rules-light systems such as FATE to be easier to deal with for character creation and running via Skype or Google+. On the other hand, after another break, most of us are eager to get back to longer-term stories where we can develop characters and settings.

The new normal?

We’re dealing with end-of-summer schedule snafus, but we know what we’ll be playing this coming autumn. The latest Sunday night telecom team has picked “Vortex,” with a few Player Characters continuing from the previous face-to-face crews.

On Mondays, I’ll be running the “Vanished Lands” at Brian’s place. This time around, the group chose D20 retro-clone Basic Fantasy Role-Playing and a carnival-themed adventuring party — about the 39th in that world!

Josh’s “A New Beginning: Mystic Adventures in the Big D” (modern supernatural/urban fantasy set in Dallas using FATE 3e Dresden Files) will meet on alternating weeks with my game. Jason plans to eventually run his “Barsoomian Adventures” planetary romance, probably using Savage Worlds.

I’m sure we’ll also try other tabletop RPGs when we have out-of-town guests or when we can’t get quorum for one of the regular games. Nobody can say that we don’t have a rich fantasy life!

D&D Next playtest review

I’ve already reported on my first playtest session for Dungeons & Dragons “Next” (Fifth Edition). Stepping back from the Player Characters and the events within that tabletop role-playing game, here are some thoughts about the rules.

The Keep on the Borderlands
The Keep on the Borderlands and the Caves of Chaos

First, let’s take a look at the participants. Jason E.R., Bruce K., and Rich C.G., the newest members of the face-to-face, Boston-area groups, sat out the D&D Next playtest, but we had some returning and new gamers to round out our face-to-face adventuring party.

-Beruk A.: Our font of pop culture references, Beruk is one of the first gamers I met in the Boston area, and all of his characters have strong personalities and terrible luck. Since Josh had already claimed the pregenerated Half-Elf Wizard, Beruk played a human Mage.

-Brian W.: Like me, Brian is a 40-something grognard who has fond memories of games from the early 1980s. He likes lighter rules sets such as Savage Worlds more than recent editions of D&D. Brian is a proponent of Dungeon Crawl Classics, which is part of the retroclone movement and the so-called Old School Renaissance. He has been hosting our face-to-face gatherings since I moved from Needham to Waltham, Mass.

-Sara F.: Sara is the youngest person in my current groups (under 30) and an experienced role-player, with a preference for non-human characters — we “reskinned” her Halfling as an intelligent raccoon — and simpler systems such as Fantastic Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment (FATE 3e).

-Josh C.: Sara’s boyfriend is a Game Master who came of age during the 1990s, when White Wolf’s Storyteller: the World of Darkness was dominant. Josh has played and run AD&D2, D&D3.x, and Pathfinder, among other systems. His “Spelljammer: the Show Must Go On” miniseries, using FATE 3e Legends of Anglerre, is just winding down on Sunday nights.

-Thomas K.Y.: Primarily a player of video games and massively multiplayer online (MMO) games such as City of Heroes, Thomas did play D&D3.0 and D20 Mutants & Masterminds 2nd Ed. with us a few years ago.

-Kai-Yin H.: A novice to tabletop role-playing games, Thomas’ girlfriend is a good sport and has attended several genre movies with us. Of the pregenerated characters, I gave Kai-Yin the Dwarf Fighter because it was the simplest.

How did D&D Next play? As Dungeon Master, I was glad to be able to use flavor and statistics from the oD&D (BECMI), AD&D2, and D&D3.x versions of the classic Keep on the Borderlands module. I had no difficulty combining Non-Player Characters, maps and scene descriptions, or monsters from the different editions of the “Caves of Chaos.”

We used mostly pregenerated characters, with the notable exceptions of Sara’s raccoon Rogue and Beruk’s human Wizard. I didn’t make any mechanical adjustments to their statistics — we just described and role-played them differently. Since we had two Wizards and two Clerics, more example spells would have been helpful for distinguishing and developing them.

I would have liked more guidance in the playtest PDFs of how to create or customize P.C.s in the event of a larger group or to avoid duplication. If I continue this playtest with my Sunday night telecom fantasy group, we’ll have more tweaking to do.

I thought that D&D Next‘s backgrounds (similar to “aspects” in FATE) and themes (similar to combat roles in D&D4e) added a decent layer to character’s origins and abilities without too much complication. It looks like feats from D&D3.x/D20 will come in here. I wanted to see Bard, Ranger and Paladin options, whether as backgrounds/themes or as full occupational classes.

I liked using D&D5e/Next‘s ability score checks and simplified skill list, but Thomas and Josh said it would have been nice to know the math behind some of the playtest‘s precalculated bonuses.

The Player Character record sheets could have been clearer for novices like Kai-Yin, and Wizards of the Coast (WotC) could have provided more guidance for alignment/motivation. Josh noted that Pathfinder‘s alignment descriptions are particularly clear. Equipment and weapon descriptions could have been more specific or interesting for modern players unfamiliar with fantasy tropes, such as different types of armor and weapons.

Combat ran reasonably smoothly and faster in D&D Next than for any edition past AD&D1. Smaller stat blocks for opponents were definitely a plus. Hit points and damage seemed initially high — 100+ for an Owlbear — but if the advancement curve is flatter, that might be OK. Thomas mentioned that simple D20-derived rules for firing into melee/friendly fire and certain conditions would have been helpful.

We liked D&D Next‘s advantage/disadvantage method of rolling 2d20, but we didn’t care for its healing, which was almost as easy as in D&D4e. Thomas also pointed out that more of the rules should have been in natural language with more explanatory sidebars.

Admittedly, this was the first session in a while or ever for some gamers, but money, movement, and some spell descriptions caused confusion even though they were on the character sheets or in the rules packets. I agree with Josh that a one-page “cheat sheet” of rules summaries would have been helpful, and should in fact be all that’s required (with page references) for a fully playable game.

Overall, as other reviews have noted, this playtest of D&D Next feels a lot like stripped-down D&D3.x/D20, with bits from D&D4e. It ran smoothly, allowing for some player creativity and D.M. discretion, but as a mostly combat-oriented module, we haven’t gotten very far with character development or problem solving yet.

I know I’m a little late to the party with these observations, but readers and fellow role-players may find them helpful as we compare notes on the D&D Next playtest.

We’ll see whether WotC can live up to its promises for more online support, easy session prep, rules modularity, and the ability to appeal both to nostalgia and the desire for novelty among gamers of all ages. D&D5e/Next still has a ways to go before it can be more than a Hasbro brand, compete with Pathfinder and other games, and dominate our now-shrinking hobby as its predecessors did.

D&D Next playtest, Session 1

Fellow role-players, here’s part one of a report on my playtest session for Dungeons & Dragons “Next” (Fifth Edition). As I’ve mentioned previously, my regular Pathfinder: “the Vanished Landstelecom fantasy and FATE 3e “Vortex” space opera campaigns are on hiatus while we try other games for the summer.

It was nice to be back in the Game Master’s chair to run this retro/preview scenario. Brian W. hosted the group in Newton on Monday, 11 June 2012. My next post will discuss our observations about D&D5e/Next.

>>Player Characters for the “Caves of Chaos,” playtest scenario for “Dungeons & Dragons Next” (5e), June 2012:

-“Salami” [Brian W.]-male Mountain Dwarf Cleric of Moradin, god of smiths (background: Knight, theme: Guardian); Alignment: Lawful Neutral; at Experience Level 1

-“Gerald” [Beruk A.]-male Human Wizard (Sage, Magic User) and student with a mongoose familiar; Chaotic Good, Lvl. 1

-“Uldor” [Thomas K.Y.]-male Human Cleric of Pelor, sun deity (Priest, Healer); Neutral Good, Lvl. 1

-“Gug” [Kai-Yin H.]-male Hill Dwarf Fighter (Soldier, Slayer), mercenary; Chaotic Neutral, Lvl. 1

-“Kada Theron” [Sara F.]-female Raccoon-folk Rogue (as Lightfoot Halfling; Commoner, Lurker); Chaotic Good, Lvl. 1

-“Pergamoy” [Josh C.]-male High Elf Wizard (Sage, Magic User) with time to spare; Chaotic Good, Lvl. 1

The Caves of Chaos
Player map of the Caves of Chaos

Six would-be adventurers seeking fortune and glory found their way from disparate origins to a keep on the borderlands. Kendall Castle sits along a road between the human-dominated plains and a dark forest and high mountains.

A gruff Dwarf nicknamed “Salami” heads straight for the inn, where he orders an ale from barkeep Will. Wandering student Gerald browses in the market, while wily thief Kada Theron sticks to the shadows and looks for easy prey.

Blond priest Uldor pays his respects at the local chapel, and taciturn mercenary Gug notices the keep‘s stonework on his way to the tavern. Patient Pergamoy sees posters advertising “coin” in return for monster-fighting and exploration services.

Will complains to Salami that the distant king hasn’t sent reinforcements to the castle, which has resorted to hiring freelancers after some farm lads went missing. Barmaid Calista brings more food and drink for Gug and Gerald, and Pergamoy negotiates for a free night’s room and board, plus some provisions.

Uldor finds Abercrombie asleep in the dusty chapel. The older Cleric tells the newcomer that he is glad for any help and will offer blessings on any expedition. Stealthy Kada eventually follows Uldor to the inn after deciding that he’s not worth pickpocketing.

Will tells the six travelers that he is also a member of the militia and that with no men to spare, all of the castle’s regular inhabitants must keep an eye on the roads after nearby farms were attacked. Livestock was taken, and no survivors have been left to describe the humanoid raiders. Anyone who defeats the bandits can keep whatever booty they find, he says.

Dwarves Salami and Gug readily agree, especially once Will says that the attackers are likely coming from a nearby cave complex. Uldar feels obliged to protect the human peasants, since he is from a nearby village, and Kada is curious about rumors of monsters in the woods.

Wizards Gerald and Pergamoy need money to continue their arcane research, so the adventuring party agrees after some discussion to set out early the next morning. Will provides a sketchy map of the area. Uldar returns to the chapel for a quick blessing.

Kada leads the way along the rutted road, with Gug close behind. Gerald and Pergamoy are less comfortable roughing it, but Uldor and Salami note that they should be able to afford pack animals — if they survive. A few hours later, the group finds a ravine deep in the woods.

Furry Kada follows a stream to a cave mouth, one of several in the gully’s limestone walls. Gerald casts Light on his ferret’s collar so that he and Uldor can keep up with the demihumans. The spelunkers are horrified when they realize that the crunching sound underfoot isn’t from pebbles or acorns but rather bones!

A large Owlbear lumbers toward them. Uldor invokes Pelor to cast Searing Light, drawing first blood. Pergamoy recites an incantation for Ray of Frost, stopping the unnatural beast in its tracks. However, the Owlbear uses its long arms to swing at Gug, biting the Dwarf.

Salami moves up and swings his warhammer, while Kada’s first sling stones miss. Gerald also casts Ray of Frost, but Uldar’s Radiant Lance and Pergamoy’s next Rays of Frost spells miss the Owlbear, which tries to rake at Salami.

The Dwarf Cleric shouts Moradin’s name in a battle cry and again strikes the Owlbear with his warhammer. Gug coordinates with Salami, timing his great axe’s blows. Kada slings more stones at the monster and then acrobatically slides between its legs to help wounded Uldar, who leans heavily on his staff.

Gerald casts Grease on the Owlbear, which doesn’t trip but is also unable to grab anyone in a bear hug. The wise Mage steps back as Pergamoy fires Magic Missiles. Gug is caught by the Owlbear’s claws, but Uldar blasts it with another Searing Light, felling the foul beast.

The explorers quickly search the cave, claiming electrum pieces and the Owlbear’s claws and beak as trophies (mainly for the Wizards). Salami notices that a pool in one corner leads to another cavern, so he ties a rope around himself, gives the other end to his companions, and wades in.

Salami surfaces in a stench-ridden cave, and he feels something slither past his legs. He hustles to a twig-covered shore and realizes that he has found a nest with another Owlbear! The ooze in the water has eaten the Dwarf’s rope, but Salami manages to hustle back to the rest of the party before it or the second Owlbear can catch him.

The party retreats from the caves and sets up camp for the night just outside the ravine. Pergamoy wonders why Will didn’t offer tents or bedrolls as Kada builds a campfire for Salami to dry out. Gug notices movement in the brush and warns her friends.

Six small Kobolds attack. Uldor calls upon Pelor as he casts Radiant Lance, while robed Pergamoy incinerates two of the doglike reptiles — or reptile-like canids — with Burning Hands. Salami, who hates all Goblinoids, smites another Kobold.

The three remaining creatures try to flee, but Kada drops one with a well-aimed sling stone. Gerald’s Ray of Frost takes care of another Kobold, but Gug misses wildly with his crossbow. Salami interrogates the last Kobold, who mentions that there is an Orc chieftan in the Caves of Chaos.

Gug dispatches the Kobold (demihumans and humanoids tend not to expect or grant quarter). Pergamoy asks whether the Owlbear nest is somehow connected to the humanoid tribes, but Uldor thinks that it is unlikely. Gerald recommends caution before returning to the caves, and Kada asks Salami to help keep watch while the injured attend to their wounds….

I hope that everyone who participated in this playtest enjoyed it, and I look forward to discussing and posting more feedback regarding the D&D Next rules. Depending on scheduling, we may continue with this scenario and these characters, either face to face or online. Don’t forget Free RPG Day, and take it easy, -Gene