More reactions to D&D5e

The Known World of early D&D
Mystara, an early D&D world

As I noted yesterday, the big news in fantasy role-playing was the announcement of Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition and even early playtesting. I hope that gaming can still thrive, albeit with fewer fans than in the 1980s or early 2000s. Technology, rules systems, and playing styles have evolved, and I’ve enjoyed the social side of the hobby for almost 30 years.

My groups have been speculating about D&D5e for a few months now, and initial reactions among them and various bloggers were wary. Some people, who like D&D3.x and Pathfinder, hope that Wizards of the Coast can return to something like the D20 Open Game License rather than D&D4e’s more restrictive Game System License. We debated whether WotC should try to widen its audience and pursue younger gamers or whether it needs to win back lapsed role-players and those who stuck with earlier editions. It should try to do both as the industry leader.

Others, who like how D&D4e tried to be more balanced and streamlined, hope for a more modular approach to the complexity level of the rules as characters and monsters advance. I’d like D&D5e to offer more support for role-playing, world-building, and pickup and one-shot games. German designers and Lego have been successful with board games that are potential entry points into the hobby. Dungeons that you can drop a random group of players and characters into, evocative settings, and the potential for long-term story and character development are all important.

I think an introductory D&D5e boxed set is likely, with more focus on pregenerated elements and online character management. Tactical combat will continue to be important, but I think the “fantasy punk” flavor will be dialed back in an attempt to win back some people alienated by the massively multiplayer online (MMO) style of D&D4e. As I said yesterday, WotC will still need to prove that D&D5e is better than already available prior editions and competitors such as Pathfinder.

In addition to the rivalry among fans of D&D4e vs. those of Pathfinder, I’m also still following the development and debates around rules-light and retro-clone (or “oldschool Renaissance“) games. I may not have minded memorizing the AD&D1 Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide about 25 years ago, but I now want to spend less time worrying about rules and be able to run fun games easily. For example, based on the success of the “Broken Chains” scenario during Byron’s visit, some of us are considering using FATE 3e Legends of Anglerre instead of Pathfinder for telecom fantasy games.

Free RPG Day and space opera support


Just over a week ago, Janice and I drove to the Compleat Strategist in Boston and Pandemonium Books & Games in Cambridge, Mass., for Free RPG Day. The proprietors of the shops were happy to see us, although they were probably disappointed that we didn’t stay for any of their game demonstrations.

The Strat has a good selection of tabletop role-playing games and board games, while Pandemonium has used books and wargames. I wish that they and comic book shops would carry and run more of my kind of games rather than host so many collectible card tournaments, but that’s what brings younger folks in.

Of the free products I picked up, I liked the nicely retro Dungeon Crawl Classics preview, the “We Be Goblins” fantasy scenario for Pathfinder, and the Stellar Horizons space opera sample the best. Since I’ve been running my “Vortex” campaign again, I’ve been looking for science fiction support for Game Masters.

As much as I like Traveller, I’ve often found that science fiction classic a bit dry for my tastes, which veer from pulpy planetary romance to transhumanist speculation. (See recent updates for examples.) At least numerous supplements are available for Traveller.

What do I look for in a science fiction game? Simple character generation with varied development options; streamlined and cinematic combat; and rules for gadgets, vehicles, planets, and aliens. A single rulebook is nice, although it doesn’t have to be thick enough to stop a bullet, like Star Hero or Starblazer Adventures.

An implied setting is helpful, especially if a game is based on a book or movie series, but it’s not as important because I tend to run homebrew campaigns such as “Vortex.” (I have been hunting for good 2-D, hex-based maps of all the real stars within 50 to 100 parsecs of Earth that are likely to have inhabitable planets, however.)

As readers may recall, before my current Boston-area groups chose Fantastic Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment (FATE) Third Edition for “Vortex‘s” latest iteration, we also considered rule sets including Basic Action Super Heroes! (BASH) Sci Fi Edition, D20 Star Wars: Saga Edition, and Generic Universal Role-Playing System (GURPS) 4th Ed.: Space. Any one of these systems was a fair contender.

Even after coming to a consensus for FATE 3e Starblazer Adventures, I’ve incorporated other FATE sourcebooks, including Mindjammer for psionics, Diaspora for some skills, Limitless Horizons for occupations, Strands of Fate for some gear, and soon, Bulldogs (formerly D20) for aliens. I also routinely consult my GURPS, D20, Serenity, and other references when trying to stay ahead of two Player Character parties.

Following my recent interest in retro-clone games, I’ve picked up several for space opera, including X-Plorers, Forgotten Futures (more retro than clone), and Humanspace Empires. Although neither is a true retro-clone, I’m a big fan of Star Frontiers Remastered, and Galaxy Command is based on D20 Future. Stars Without Number is one of my go-to references, partly because it’s so helpful for sandbox campaigns.

The rise of Internet self-publishing, open game licensing, and niche games has been a boon to role-players. I confess to having “gamer attention deficit disorder” — looking at lots of systems for ideas. While I wish that more systems were as polished as Star Wars or Traveller, I still appreciate the effort that went into Ad Astra, Astral Empires, Dead Stars, Frontier Zone, Fspace, Galactic, Space Rage, Star Mogul, and Terminal Space.

In addition to FATE, I’ve been favorably impressed by rules-light (and often pulpy) science fiction games such as Danger Patrol, Lady Blackbird, Rogue Space, and Vanguard. By contrast, noteworthy longer and more polished indie games include Icar, Imperium Chronicles, Star Quest, Stellar Winds, Terran Trade Authority, and Valence. I’d put StarCluster 3 in this category, and its random-generation tables are as useful as those in Stars Without Number.

I’m looking forward to still more space opera games, such as Thousand Suns Revised, Ashen Stars, Cthonian Stars/Void, and Infinite Futures (for Pathfinder). Beyond nostalgia and wanting cheaper and easier games to run and play, I have a wealth of options for speculative fiction!

27 February 2010: Rules-light and other RPGs

Furry fantasyIn my previous blog post, I discussed the one-shots and miniseries that I’ve participated in with other Boston-area gamers. As I noted, Dungeons & Dragons (D&D4e) is still the most popular role-playing game (RPG), but recent trends include the digitization of social games, the “retro-clone reaction, and the rules-light movement. Fellow blogger Ken G. has discussed similar phenomena in computer games.

Some hobby observers predict that emerging tools such as laptops, smartphones, micropayments, and modular programs will displace and replace conventional dice, miniatures, and Game Masters. Multiplayer online games (MMOs) have undeniably increased in popularity, but board games and face-to-face RPGs have retained their appeal, and grognards (old-school gamers) have kept up with Web publishing even as they look back to 25-year-old books.

To follow a software analogy, Wizards of the Coast’s D&D4e is like Microsoft’s Windows — ubiquitous, restrictively licensed, and overloaded with features. The “rules-lite” movement is an attempt to create and use rules sets like Linux that take less time to learn and teach (and being fan-written, often free). As with some retro-clones, the hope is to find systems that facilitate collaborative storytelling and evoke a certain mood or style.

Based on my own history with past editions of D&D, I like the retro-clones Labyrinth Lord and Basic Fantasy RPG, and the rules-light MicroLite20, which is a condensation of the D20 Open Game License. Smart game producers often publish “quick-start” guides, such as GURPS 4e Lite, Savage Worlds “Test Drive v6,” and the upcoming D&D4e boxed set.

New and promising games are still being published in book form. Where D&D4e arguably took some terminology and concepts from miniatures skirmish, collectible card, and MMO games, Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play Third Edition combines board games and role-playing. Unfortunately, its high initial price tag may discourage people from trying it.

I recently picked up the beautifully produced Shard fantasy game, which features anthropomorphic animals rather than the usual Tolkienesque races — not unlike last year’s award-winning Mouse Guard RPG — and Eclipse Phase, a “transhuman” science fiction game. While I don’t think I’ll be able to get my current gamers to try these rule sets (although Josh C.’s group just expressed interest in having me run Shard), I’m sure they’ll provide much inspiration for my campaigns.

Coming soon: Avatar review and science fiction RPGs!

24 February 2010: Winter games and retro-clones

College D&D charactersFriends, I hope you’ve had a good fortnight. Janice and I have been busy watching the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, leaving me to catch up on recorded genre television on the weekends. In addition, I’ve been comparing notes on comic books and graphic novels with new fan David I.S. and playing various games.

Since wrapping up my “Vanished Lands: the Faith-Based Initiative” fantasy campaign, which used Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition (D&D4e), the current role-players have been involved in a series of one-shots. While I’m taking a break from serving as primary Game Master, I’m trying to encourage the Boston-area group of about eight people to try other genres, rules systems, and styles of games.

Wizards of the Coast’s D&D4e is still the most popular tabletop (or pen-and-paper, or dice-and-pizza) game on the market, thanks to 35 years of leading the hobby, brand recognition, and wide distribution. However, the boom of the past decade thanks to the D20 Open Game License has been replaced by economic recession, a move from print to online publishing of PDFs, and fragmentation of the market.

Locally, Greg D.C. has run InSpectres, a rules-light horror/humor game, and Paul J. used D20 Mutants & Masterminds 2nd Ed. for his “Vaguely Interesting People — the Four” comedic superhero scenario. Brian W. demonstrated collaborative storytelling with FATE 3.0 in his “Spirit of the Caribbean!” pirate one-shot. In addition to a “Paranoia” cyberpunk comedy one-shot, Brian ran Savage Worlds: Hellfrost, a Nordic-themed fantasy. So far, all of these games have gone well, although we’ve had some debates about what system would be the best fit for a longer-term campaign.

These “indie”-style games are good examples of the alternatives to D&D4e. I’ve already blogged about my ongoing Pathfinder: Holy Steel” teleconferencing team and the “Gaslight Grimoire” steampunk/fantasy homebrew using D20 “Lite.” Another trend among face-to-face (F2F) RPGs is “retro-clones,” or games that emulate older editions of D&D and other games. I have fond memories of my early years as a role-player in the early 1980s.

Although I’d be the first to acknowledge that game design has developed since then, I’ve downloaded several retro-clones, which remind me of a time when magic was rare and mysterious, monsters were unpredictable and deadly to Player Characters, and the games tried to evoke folkore and literature rather than second-hand adaptations into other media such as movies or computer games (not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that if it’s your preference).

Coming soon: Space opera, the “rules-light” movement, and newer games!