In thinking about the next edition of D&D I’ve been looking through some of my older D&D rulebooks. I’ve got a set of the core books (PHB, MM, & DMG) of Advanced D&D, the one with the excellent cover by David A. Trampier. It’s interesting just leafing through the Player’s Handbook and looking at the old illustrations and rules commentary. My favorite area to read over is the class section and see how the classes have evolved and changed over the years. The edition of the game that I know best is 3rd edition, having played it since it first came out to until last year, so my barometer for what works and doesn’t work in terms of class balance is based on 3.5. Without getting into a full discussion about balance in 3.5, I’ll just say that the classes were not evenly balanced against each other, which was something that 4th edition worked to change.

My litmus test for fantasy rpg’s is the Fighter class. From years of playing 3.5 and having the fighter be overshadowed by over classes at being a fighter I look to how the Fighter (or Warrior) class is designed to see how it will hold up with the magic users at higher levels. Before 4th edition it was hard for Wizards to survive the early levels but once they started getting more powerful spells then the play dynamic changed from the Fighter defeating monsters while the Wizard hung back to the Fighter holding back the monsters until the Wizard could cast the right spell to kill the monsters. 4th edition changed that, of course, with each class being more or less evenly balanced against the others in terms of how effective they could be in combat, and the role that each class played in combat didn’t change as drastically as the party increased in levels.

As I was looking over the Fighter class in the AD&D Player’s Handbook I noticed a little note about Fighters, Paladins, and Rangers attack rate that really surprised me. On page 25 there’s a table for labeled “Fighters’, Paladins’, & Rangers’ Attacks Per Melee Round Table“. As the Ranger & Paladin were sub-classes of the Fighter, all three enjoyed multiple attack per round at higher levels according to the table, eventually getting 2 attacks per round at levels 13, 13, & 15, respectively. What surprised was the note below the table.

Note: This excludes melee combat with monsters (q.v.) of less than one hit die (d8) and non-exceptional (0 level) humans and semi-humans, i.e. all creatures with less than one eight-sided hit die. All of these creatures entitle a fighter to attack once for each of his or her experience levels (See COMBAT).

I sat there for a few minutes and imagined the likes of Conan and Richard Cypher being surrounded by lesser swordmen and the heroes cutting a swath through them. Considering that a long sword did between 1-8 points of damage and that these rank of monsters had less than a full d8 hit die, it’s likely that a single blow would kill them. I’d never heard of this rule before but the first thing that came to mind was 4th editions concept of Minions, creatures with only a single hit point. In 4e Fighters don’t get extra attacks against a Minion, but as they only have 1 Hit Point, any attack that deals damage will kill them instantly. Maybe this AD&D rule was a possible inspiration for the Minion concept.

I went searching through the AD&D Monster Manual to see what creatures qualified for this treatment from the Fighter. As stated in the Monster Manual, “Some creatures have hit points which are less than a full 8-sided die, and this is shown by stating their hit dice as a point spread.” As I imagined, some of the usual suspects showed up. Goblins were listed as having 1-7 Hit points. Kobolds had 1-4 Hit points. Bandits, Berserkers, Buccaneers, and Dervishes also made the list, but they all had another thing in common as well; they rarely fought alone. Each of the mentioned monsters were usually found in groups, and in groups of a certain size there would always be a few members with actual Fighter or other class levels. For example, Goblins appear in numbers of 40-400.

For every 40 goblins encountered there will be a leader and 4 assistants who are equal to orcs, each having 7 hit points and attacking as monsters with a full hit die. If 200 or more goblins are encountered there will be the following additional figures: a subchief and 208 guards, each fighting as hobgoblins and having 8 hit points, armor class 5, and doing 108 hit points damage.

This is an easy to overlook rule but it has huge implications for how the game plays. At higher levels in 3.5 a Wizard could clear a room of enemies with a well placed fireball, killing dozens of monsters at once. The 3.5 Player’s Handbook fighter doesn’t really have that same power, and it wasn’t until later supplements were releases such as the Tome of Battle that Fighting classes were able to compete with that type of raw power. But this rule from 1st edition paints a different picture. Sure, the name level Wizard can drop fireballs all over the battlefield, but the high level Fighter (and Paladin, and Ranger) got something that was similar in function, if not in power. The image of a heavily thewed warrior hacking his way through mobs of enemies is a classic trope in adventure fantasy and it pleases me that 1st edition had rules to support that.

The question I’d like to see answered now is how will D&Dnext handle this? In 4e we had Minions which may have been partially inspired by this 1st edition Fighter rule. I’d like to see it combine the two rules. I think Minions are a good tool to have in our D&D toolbox, but I’d like simpler rules for them than 4e used. I’d like to see Fighter classes get some ability like the old rule that lets them handle waves of minions with as much style as Conan cracking skulls and leaving lesser mortals behind.

The blog has been silent for awhile but I’ve been doing some quality gaming in the mean time. The word dropped yesterday that WoTC is releasing the next edition of Dungeons & Dragons and I’ve been fortunate enough to have playtested some of it. I’ve played three sessions so far and while I can’t speak about the mechanics, there’s still plenty to tell.

The group that I’m playing with is comprised of experienced players. I think I’m the newest to D&D in the group and I’ve been playing since the late 90’s. One member of the group has played every edition of D&D ever published and the rest have varying amounts of experience somewhere in between. Suffice to say, we all love D&D and take this opportunity to playtest D&Dnext seriously. Before, during and after each sessions there’s lots of discussion on what we think worked, what didn’t work, what’s awesome and should stay, and what sucks and should go. Of course we don’t all agree on everything but I think we’ve made some positive influence through the playtest.

The game feels different than 4th edition, but I think anyone would expect that. I haven’t played the older editions of D&D (got started late with AD&D 2nd ed) but I own a number of older manuals, including the Basic Set and the three core AD&D books released in 78/79. From reading through them and following a number of OSR blogs I think I’ve got an accurate idea of what those older editions felt like in play. The few sessions of D&Dnext that I’ve played have felt more like what I imagine those games to be, but in a way that isn’t a direct clone. Without delving into mechanics its hard to fully explain, but I’d advise those in the OSR community who may be wary of D&Dnext to at least approach it with an open eye.

One of the key elements that I think helped to give it that older edition feel was how the DM ran the game and I think that’s going to be a big part of D&Dnext, perhaps moreso than the previous two editions. Robert Schwalb has said on his blog that “…our primary goal is to produce a rules set that speaks to every incarnation of D&D.” I think that what they’ve got right now will do a good job of that. The player mentioned above that has played all the editions of D&D has stated before that 4th edition is his favorite of them, so I was interested to see how he reacted to this game. At my first session he was a little hung up on making the transition from 4e to D&Dnext and I think the feeling was mutual around the table. I play with the same group in a 4e Essentials game and we’ve played Heroic and Epic, so there’s a lot of 4e crunch in our heads. The experience of sitting down and playing D&D in a different way required some change but I think everyone has adapted well and is enjoying the game.

There’s a lot of speculation going around about what this game will actually be. Don’t Panic. From my experience it’s still D&D. There’s a great opportunity here to make one of the best editions of the game and I can’t wait to play again.

There’s been a lot of gaming going on in the time since my last post. The 4e Dark Sun game I’m in is still happening, though we’ve hit another long streak of cancelled sessions due to a variety of sickness and conflicting schedules. After concluding the initial adventure that brought us out of the wastelands and into Tyr we completed a number of shorter adventures, one within the city and another just outside it’s walls.

In both we were working for the Veiled Alliance, the first time clearing out the den of a Defiler in the city with the help of a Templar and the second being sent to an abandoned keep in search of an ancient Preservers documents. Within the underground chambers of the keep our 3 man party (Knight, Barbarian, & Bladesinger) encountered the deadly, vile and unholy Tembo.

It killed us in 4 rounds.

After a brief discussion we decided to rewind and try it again, this time with 2 companion character versions of PC’s that hadn’t made it to that session (A Shaman and a Bow Fighter). With the help of those 2 we managed to kill it…barely. It came down to the companion character Fighter and the Tembo. Everyone else was unconscious and close to dying, and the last 2 rounds were very climatic as both the Fighter and the Tembo were in single digit Hit Points; a wild swing or lucky shot would have sealed our doom, but in the end the Tembo was slain and the Fighter stood victorious. We were slightly chagrined that it was the companion character that saved the day, but we knew that we couldn’t have done it otherwise.

As we left the keep we encountered a small band of men waiting outside, led by a Templar of Urik. After the Tembo these guys were a cakewalk, but they were a setup for the current adventure we’re on: The Road to Urik. Our DM is a huge Dark Sun fan and likes to convert the old adventures for us. I’m not sure how long this adventure is, but we’re a few sessions in and it’s been interesting to play a 2nd Edition adventure after years of playing and running 3rd edition.

In the few sessions we’ve played this adventure it’s been mostly running around the city of Tyr and talking to people, trying to influence, persuade or do jobs for them. Our Barbarian failed in the one on one combat versus the leader of the Gladiators in order to win control of that faction. We were also manipulated into securing an incompetent figurehead as the leader of the army, something our characters weren’t happy with. One thing that has made this adventure interesting is that it’s just been our 3 man party and between us, my Human Knight is the only one that is trained in a social skill, and it’s Intimidate.

So it’s been amusing, going through the mainly social parts of this adventure with three fierce warriors that lack the finer aspects of social graces. However, we did manage to discredit the Urik spy that had been rallying people in the streets. Through a combination of Intimidate and evidence of the Urik cape taken from the dead Templar outside the keep we were able to convince the crowd that he was lying and we chased him down and captured him. Old school tip: always take any clothing or insignia from dead enemies that bears an official marking. Never know when you’ll need to use it as a disguise or as evidence.

That’s where we currently stand in the adventure as we haven’t played a session since then, but I think we’re all eager to being the interrogation of the spy and take the fight to Urik.

As we haven’t played the Dark Sun game in about a month and a half I’ve had time to play with another gaming group in town. We started out with one DM (Dan) running his homebrew world setting in the Heroic Tier. We’re 4th level in that game and I’ve been playing an Essentials Assassin. The Executioner is a mixed bag in that it’s definitely a striker, but it lacks the big hits like a Barbarian or steady damage of a Thief. I knew this going in though and have settled into a niche of stealth and garrote attacks. I’m enjoying the character, both mechanically and role-playing. We’re currently on a mission to save a Paladin that got himself into trouble…but my character has been secretly ordered to assassinate him. So we’ll see how that goes.

That game happens every other week and in the by weeks we’ve started playing an Epic Tier game. One of the players has taken up the DM screen and is running a game based in Sigil using a variation on the old Great Wheel cosmology. Sigil is again at the top of the Infinite Spire, and I think it’s a shame that 4th edition got rid of that. We’re starting at 21st level and we’ve had 3 session so far. It’s been an interesting experience.

The party consists of a Dwarven Slayer/Warlord (me), Minotaur Cleric, Eladrin Summoner Wizard, and an Eladrin Bladesinger. The Bladesinger is crazy at Epic tier. It was amazaing to see the amount of battlefield mobility via teleportation that he had. My Slayer is no slouch either as I went with the Halberd and the Polearm Gamble feat. He gets a lot of off-turn attacks from other feats like Agile Opportunist and Stonefoot Repisal. Through the few sessions we’ve had I’ve learned a few things about Epic tier.

1. Before play begins, have each player go over their main combos or tricks.

I redesigned parts of my character before we even started playing. Through a combination of feats & magic items, I had basically made my character immune to any melee attack that wasn’t a reach attack (Polearm Gamble + Polearm Momentum + Knock-Back Swing + Rushing Cleats). The DM and I talked about and both agreed it was overpowered. The current setup I have is a small version of that, letting me keep some of the tricks but I’m in no way immune anymore. So it’s important for both the players and the DM to vet the characters for potentially game breaking combinations, whether intentional or not.

2. Know your characters abilities.

One of the players had a full page printout of an MS Excel spreadsheet listing his attack and defense options. Another had a 3/4″ binder with various notes and cheat sheets. I was able to fit my notes on a large index card, but that’s partly because I was playing a Slayer. They are both easy and fun to run and I anticipated that at Epic levels it was going to be a lot to keep track of, and I was right. For players and DM’s that are going into Epic Tier for the first time I strongly recommend sticking to Essential classes unless you’ve been playing your characters since Heroic tier. If you’re starting the campaign at Epic it’s almost overwhelming trying to remember and understand all the things your character can do. On the other hand if you’ve been playing your character for 15 levels you probably have a solid understanding.

3. No retcons.

One of the rules that our DM laid out was that there’s no going back. If you forgot that a power had an extra effect on your turn, too late. With the amount of craziness flying around it’s chaotic enough without having to go back a few turns and adjust from there. This rule applied to the DM as well as the players, so it was an across the board ruling. If you forgot it, keep rolling and try and remember it next time. I’m sure this saved a lot of time and helped to speed up the combat time, which seems to be the golden ticket in 4e.

There’s more gaming to report on but it’s not D&D. Next post: My first campaign of Legend of the Five Rings!

There’s a good group of D&D players at my D&D/board games FLGS (there’s another one that does wargaming) and we usually have two full tables for the weekly  Encounters games. I’m playing in the current Neverwinter season, but I agreed to DM the follow on adventure Evards Shadow, a continuation of the Shadowfell season. We ran the game Wednesday and our first reaction is that this adventure is brutal.

At the table there was a Blackguard, Hexblade, Warpriest, Binder, and a Thief. There was some good role playing during the first skill challenge, but we always find skill challenges to be slightly awkward. It’s hard to disguise the mechanical nature of them. They succeeded on the challenge, but only one character spotted the hiding wraiths.

The party handled the zombies well, with the blackguard and the binder controlling the zombies effectively. The wraiths were a different matter. One of the two waited until the second round to attack, so for the test of the fight the wraiths were staggered in their appearances (one this round, the other next round, etc). With their at will power to turn invisible and teleport after taking damage they were impossible to lock down. Add in the insubstantial quality and it was a nightmare for the PC’s.

The first PC to die was the Warpiest, as he got critter by their special “when invisible” damage. The next round the other wraith finished off the unconscious warpriest. The wraiths used the same tactic when they dropped and killed the Hexblade. The Binder was their next focus fire victim, buy the party killed the wraiths before they could finish off the unconscious Binder.

Using the Encounters rules for dead PC’s the warpriest and Hexblade spent 4 healing surges to come back to life, and then had to spend more to heal themselves. Those two characters are almost out of healing surges and there will be 3 more fights before they can take an extended rest, unless they flee and run back to town.

The players had fun, as did I, but I’m seeing at least one TPK in their future before the adventure is over.

Last weeks Dragon Age session went great. We had two players, though there will be three tonight. Last week the guy playing the fighter made his character in about 5 minutes and after the session he was really pleased with how effective his warrior was at being the tank. Right out of the box he had meaningful damage reduction and a good knock back effect.

It was a short session so we had 1 fight, an ambush on the way to the Keep. The combat was fast and interesting. The only thing that slowed it down was the lack of copies of the stunts for each player to see. I’ve got photocopies of the stunt chart so that should go faster this time.

The session ended with the party arranging with the Keeps Priest to go into the Caves of Caos to help him find a religious artifact that was stolen. I’m adding house rules to make a Priest class. It loses arcane lance, and gains a Lay on Hands type ability and the ability to vast in armor, along with some bludgeoning weapon proficiences. The other characters are a Thief and a Mage, so we’ve got the 4 basics covered. I’m really excited about running this old school adventure using the Dragon Age rules because they have an old school feel to them without having to mess with Basic D&D.

Greetings gamers!

Tonight I’m taking my seat back behind the screen and running an old Dungeons & Dragons adventure, Keep on the Borderlands.

Cover of Keep on the Borderlands

This adventure originally came in the Basic D&D Box Set. I found a copy of the box set (minus the number tokens) at a used book store a few months ago and the adventure was in good shape. Someone left in the box a 3×5 card with the stats for a young black dragon that supposedly lurked in Room 52. I wonder if they defeated the dragon?

I’m not going to use the old D&D rules for the game tonight thought. I picked up the Dragon Age RPG Box Set 1 a few weeks ago and I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to test out the rules. The rules system appears to be lean and friendly and after reading the Players Guide book once I was able to make a character in about 5 minutes. The bulk of my gaming experience is with 3rd Edition D&D, so being able to complete all the crunch for a character in 5 minutes and not be worried about making an unoptimized sack of crap was refreshing.

I’ve got 3 players for tonight’s session. One of the players is an experienced gamer, with many years of D&D and WoW under his belt and he’s playing a Dwarf Mage. Another is new to gaming and I made a City Elf Rogue for him. The third player is a veteran of 3rd Edition D&D and other RPG’s like Rifts, and he’ll be rolling up a Human Warrior. As someone familiar with the Dragon Age RPG might have noticed, Dwarves can’t be Mages according to the rules for the system. Well, we’re playing a D&D version of the game, so I’m relaxing the restrictions on what races can be which classes. The only other mechanical change that I’m making is to modify the short rest mechanic (or breather, as DARPG calls it). During a breather Mages will get back 1d6+Magic mana points. I’d rather not have the group rest for an hour just so the Mage can cast a few more spells.

One of the things that the DARPG Box Set is lacking is a wide selection of monsters. I’ve found some excellent fan material that I printed out and will use for the game. The 3 Volume free PDF’s are called Esoterica from Thedas and present new rules, materials, monsters, spells and more, all done in a very nice style that mimics that game’s original art. I also found some alternate versions of the maps that came with adventure and will use the updated map for 4th Editions Chaos Scar Keep (Thumbnail at the bottom for those without DDI).

I’m looking forward to the game tonight and think the DARPG rules, or AGE system, will work well with the Basic D&D style of play the Keep was meant for.










Greetings gamers!

I’ve been away from the blog for a bit, focusing on real life random encounters that have taken time away from both blog writing time and actual gaming time. But I haven’t stopped thinking about D&D and I’ve been mostly pondering the mechanical side of the game. Today I want to write about the base mechanic in D&D and offer a different way of doing things.

The current mechanic is simple to grasp: Roll a d20, add your modifiers and try to meet or beat a target number. Higher numbers indicate a harder task, whether it’s attacking an enemy or making a skill check. The basic mechanic for representing adventurers becoming more powerful is to give them a higher modifier on their d20 roll. This in turn requires a higher difficulty number to ensure that the level appropriate monsters and challenges are in fact a challenge. As the target number of the task increases (Difficult Class for skill checks, Armor Class for attacks) the adventurers must continue to increase their own bonuses in order to keep up with the tasks facing them.

So of the three parts of the equation (d20 + modifier > or = target number) the only numbers that are increasing at the modifiers and the target numbers. The d20 roll remains the same in that you’re always going to roll between a 1 and 20.

There’s a few problems with this setup. One problem is the possibility that target numbers and modifiers don’t scale at the same rate. If the target number is increasing by +2 each level but the adventurers only gain a +1 modifier each level, it will be increasingly harder for them to succeed at tasks. The reverse is also true. If the modifiers are increasing at a faster rate than the target numbers then tasks will become trivially easy. So it’s important to maintain an even relationship with respect to both of the numbers advancements.

If those numbers aren’t advancing evenly then a player may be forced to spend character resources (such as feats) in order to fairly compete with monsters of appropriate level. A number of the feats in 4th edition are referred to as Math Tax feats, as they usually provide simple +1 bonuses to attacks with certain weapons. Adventurers without these feats can find themselves falling behind their allies that do have them when attacking monsters, through no fault of their own except for failing to take a feat that works to correct a flaw in the progression of modifier/target number advancement.

Gamma World takes a different approach and simply has the adventurers add their level as a bonus on attack rolls. This eliminates the need for Math Tax feats (indeed, there are no feats in Gamma World) but doesn’t fix the need to make sure the modifier/target number advancement is even.

What I’m proposing is something similar to other task resolution mechanics, such as the one used in the Serenity RPG. In that game you roll your dice, add them up (rarely do you add a modifier), and see if you’ve beat the target number for the task you’re attempting. The target number is assigned by the GM prior to attempting the task and it follows a scale with an adjective description of the difficulty rank. Easy tasks have a target number of 3, Average tasks are a 7, Hard tasks are 11, Formidable tasks are 15, and so on. The scale continues with Heroic, Incredible, Ridiculous, and Impossible, adding +3 each time to the target number.

One key aspect of this system is that’s level independent, which is a good thing as Serenity RPG doesn’t have character levels. So whether you’re a greenhorn just out in the black or a seasoned veteran that fought on U-Day, an Easy task is always difficulty 3. Hard tasks are always difficulty 11. Without levels, character advancement is handled by increasing the die type you roll for attacks, so if you roll a d10 for Shooting Things and you advanced your characters Shooting Things ability, you’d be rolling a d12 when you Shoot Things.

The advantage of this system is the consistency of the target numbers for the different degrees of task complexity. What I want to do is take that idea and use it in D&D.

Here’s a chart.

1 – Automatic Failure

2,3,4 – Simple

5,6,7 – Easy

8,9,10 – Common

11,12,13 – Average

14,15,16 – Tough

17,18,19 – Hard

20 – Heroic

Rule 1: Level Appropriate tasks are Average.

Rule 2: Tasks above the parties level increase the Difficulty Rank by 1 rank per level above party. Ex: Level 6 monster vs a level 5 party: The monster is +1 rank, so it’s a Tough task. Level 7 monster vs a level 5 party: the monster is +2 rank, so it’s a Hard task.

Rule 3: Tasks below the parties level decrease the Difficult Rank by 1 rank per level below the party. Ex: Level 4 monster vs a level 5 party: The monster is -1 rank, so it’s a Common task. Level 3 monster vs a level 5 party: The monster is -2 ranks, so it’s an Easy task.

In order to succeed on a task, the adventurer must roll equal to or higher than the difficult rank. So if it’s an Average task, he needs a 11 or above to succeed. For Tough tasks, he needs a 14 or above.

Note: This applies whether it’s the player making the roll or the DM. Monsters use this to determine how hard it is to hit the adventurers as well. More on that later.

So now the base mechanic looks like this: d20 versus difficulty rank. There’s no modifiers to add, no armor classes to configure. If it’s level appropriate, you need an 11 or higher. Lower level tasks are easier and higher level tasks are harder. To answer a question some of you may be asking: What about a monster that is 3 levels about the party, thus making it a Heroic task? You need a 20 to succeed. In the cases of monsters that are higher than 3 levels above the party (off the chart), you can only succeed on a natural 20 (and you probably shouldn’t be fighting that monster anyway). For tasks that are more than 3 levels below the party, you still need a 2 or higher: 1 is always an automatic failure.

There’s the main mechanic. It scales with levels in the sense that higher level monsters are harder to fight, but the target number for task difficulties don’t change. You don’t need to have math fixes in order to give your character a boost to attacks or worry about whether a particular monsters armor class is fair for the given party level. This mechanic works for any kind of task resolution, including attack rolls (versus armor class and the other defenses), skill checks, and any other d20 check you might need to make.

The change in mechanic brings up other questions, such as: If everyone is the same difficulty rank to hit, where’s the differentiation between the classes? In other words, how can this system represent different class abilities, like Fighters being able to hit in melee better or Rogues being able to dodge better. In brief, this can be accomplished by class abilities that shift the difficulty ranks around. For example, let’s say that a Fighter has the Weapon Focus class feature. It allows him to attack creatures as if they were one shift in rank lower. So if he’s swinging his sword at a Hard ranked monster, he only needs to succeed on a Tough difficulty to hit. If you don’t want to shift a whole rank, you could add a bonus to the roll. So now Weapon Focus adds a +1 whenever he attacks with a weapon (Note: this modified system isn’t opposed to using modifiers on d20 rolls, but it doesn’t use them as the main mechanic for determining a characters ability to succeed). It doesn’t change the difficulty rank a whole shift, but now he can hit a Hard creature with a roll of 16.

For that fast Rogue, his ranking could go up one shift when he’s attacked. Say he’s attacked by a Hard monster (monster is 2 levels above the Rogue’s level); the monster normally only needs a 5 to hit the Rogue (since the Rogue is two levels below the monster, the Rogue is an Easy task for the monster), but because of his Rogue ability Uncanny Dodge, the monster treats him as one level higher, making the Rogue a Common task for the monster (thus needing an 8 or higher to hit the Rogue).

One immediate consequence of this change is that it is relatively easy for higher level creatures to attack lower level creatures. Any monster 2 or more levels above the party is a serious threat. Conversely, any monster 2 or more levels below the party is barely a challenge.

Another consequence is that a lot of the class features and abilities from classes become relatively meaningless. I’m aware of this and specific class features is something I’ll be talking about in a future post. In the meantime, I’d like to know primarily whether this makes sense and secondly whether you think it’d be a good mechanic.