Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Review: Dungeons and Dragons (5th Edtion)

Yep. It's time to finally address the elephant in the room. The giant in the industry. I'm speaking, of course of Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition. The game which started it all has been reborn from the ashes of the debacle that was Fourth Edition.  I have to admit that I went into 5th Edition with a negative bias. The previous incarnation of D&D just turned me off in every way possible. Overly streamlined, entirely too high-fantasy - it just didn't feel like the game I had come to know and love over my life as a gamer. So when they announced play-testing had begin for 5th Edition, I was skeptical to say the least.

Well, I'm not afraid to say it: I was wrong.

D&D 5th Edition is a very good game. It's approachable to new gamers, yet offers depth enough for experienced players to enjoy playing. It's cleaned up, well executed and looks good - except for that hideous Halfling art (but I digress). Wizards of the Coast has created a game that's modular. It's as complicated or simple as you want it to be, to a reasonable degree.

By the time a player selects their race (and sub-race), class and background, they've got a solid idea of exactly what kind of character they're playing and who exactly that person is - which is great. As a gamer, I've always been more interested in role-playing over statistics and this does a great job of combining the two and making both aspects engaging to the gamer.

Reading over the combat rules they seem fluid and consistent and for the first time since 2nd edition AD&D combat feels genuinely deadly again. There's a legitimate risk of death when you draw your sword and I feel like that's been missing for quite a long time. Again, good stuff.

So, in short - I think D&D 5th edition is a great game that will appeal to a lot of gamers. I'd certainly play it, but I don't think I'll run it all that often. There's a critical aspect of traditional D&D that is missing for me: Resource management.

No, I'm not talking about copper counting an encumbrance management. That's an aspect of the game that's fun to only a select type of gamer - but not me. Spell casting is no longer on the Vancian "Fire and Forget" system. If your wizard memorizes a 1st level spell at the beginning of the day, he has that spell all day. Now this is cool and doesn't leave your wizard sitting around bored if he's out of spells, which has benefits of its own - but there's no sense of increased tension through a reduction of resources. To me that sense of having your back to the wall and being forced to think creatively in the face of danger is beautifully expressed in traditional Vancian magic.

But it's more than just the change in the magic system that seems a bit "off." Characters automatically get a collection of gear that includes weapons, armor and necessary gear. There's very little concern that you've not got the right tool for the task at hand. Players are given what they need and there's no sense of accountability or learning from one's own mistakes as you play the game - or at least there's less of that present. While this is a nice safety net for new gamers, it feels like it removes the opportunity for gamers to really shine under pressure. It's a subtle element of D&D that seems to have been circumvented. In short, it feels like it diminishes opportunities to have that a sense of accomplishment a player often experiences when they're back is against the wall and they overcome an insurmountable situation through their own creativity.

So, is 5th Edition a good game? Yes. Is it a great game? I'd venture to say so. Does it feel like D&D again? Absolutely. But, I think I'll stick with Labyrinth Lord, Dungeon Crawl Classics and AD&D 1st Edition. The unexpected is an important part of the game for me, and fewer things are more fun than pulling one's fat out of the fire by the skin of your teeth. Those are the stories we tell years after the campaign has ended and I think with 5th edition, there are going to be a bit less of that.

*This review is based on reading of the Player's Handbook only.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Players' the Thing: Why Gamers Matter More Than Games

Everyone's got a "worst game ever" story, and this one is mine. It's got love and loss, reckless battle, and narrow escapes. No, wait - I'm not going to sugar coat this with some pulp window dressing. This story is pretty damned dark, so you've been warned.

Somewhere around thirteen years ago I was dating a lovely young lady gamer named Clarissa. We were both in our early twenties and our relationship was built on the idle fancies and dreams of young love. But there were cracks in the ivory pedestals upon which we'd set one another. She was beautiful, yes. But she didn't engage my intellect or challenge me. I was noble, yes. But I was immature, proud and angry. We had love, though - and that was all we needed, right?

Well, not quite. You see, Clarissa had seen me destroying myself with anger. I was never physically or emotionally abusive, but I was self-destructive. I was physically injuring myself and unable to hold a job due to my own anger and pride. She asked me to seek help - professional help. And I did. I did it for the wrong reasons. I didn't do it for me. I did it for her.

During this time, we were playing in a Rifts campaign. The vast majority of these players were friends she'd known from before the time we had gotten together - which was fine. They all seemed like stand-up folks. Except for one. His name was Eric. He was smart and witty, with a quick sense of humor. He was also mean spirited and enjoyed making others the butt of his jokes. He liked reminding folks of how little they are compared to him. I did not get on well with Eric.

Now, given my own anger issues and Eric's gleeful desire to inflict petty insults on those around him, I realized that gaming with him was a Bad Idea (tm). But he was Clarissa's friend and in spite of three weeks of telling her  I didn't want to game with him, I followed her request for me to endure his slights. Whether it was, as she said, "my own over-reactions," or the ultimate trump card of "do it for her," I continued going to games with this player who only brought out all my anger and insecurities. I did it for her. I did not do it for me.

Well, the inevitable came to pass. My character (a cyber-knight named Patrick Stavenger), was rendered mentally incompitent by a critical hit to the back of the head. I believe all his mental attributes (IQ, ME, and MA) were reduced by half. So, Eric looks across table at me and a wry smile slithers across his face.

"Finally," he says with a hiss, "a character you can play on your own level."

Wow. I was cut. That was cold, brutal and downright embrassing. In front of my friends and my lady he had just blatantly insulted me and it has hurt. But I took a deep breath and sighed, letting it go. Sure, he had gotten to me - but I promised her not to get angry. To be in control. So, with that sigh I tossed my pencil on the table.

That's when Eric leaned in, his smile sharpening. "I'm sorry." He looked me straight in the eye, unblinking. "That's giving you too much credit."

Well that was it. My face twisted in anger and I just snapped at him, "Fuck you!"

That's when the shit hit the fan. With a bellow of anger, he grabbed a chest pole from a nearby set of free weights and swung it across the gaming table at me. I scrambled backwards and narrowly avoided the blow. I thought only of getting away and not getting angry. I couldn't get angry. I had promised.

So I turned my back on him and moved to leave the trailer. I heard the clatter of the gaming table tossed or broken, but I didn't look back. Get out, I told myself. Get out. That's when his arm whipped about my neck and he pulled me into a choke-hold. As he strangled the life out of me and pulled up over and over again in an attempt to break my neck, I scrambled for what to do. How was I going to get out of this without fighting back? Without being angry?

As my vision began to tunnel into darkness I did the only thing I could think of. I dropped my weight. Well, it worked. In surprise, Eric let me go. I stumbled towards the door, thinking only of escape. I didn't look back. I didn't dare waste a second.

Then I heard it: SHINK

I turned back as my hand touched the door knob to exit the trailer to see Eric being held back by three other people, his arm raised high to deliver a wicked stab at my back with a butcher knife he'd managed to grab. He was literally going to kill me.

I got out of the house. The rest of that night is still a blur. But the next morning Clarissa and all the other gamers at the table blamed me. I should know "that's just Eric's sense of humor," or "not be so sensitive." His attempt to kill me was my fault.. Well, you can imagine my sense of betrayal. All of a sudden, I was abandoned by my friends and the woman I loved.

This would lead to a rather dark period in my life. For several months I lingered in a genuine depression. But time heals most wounds, and this one is counted among them. A decade later a very dear friend of mine who I'd met some time after the Butcher Knife Incident (as I came to call it), asked me to play Rifts. Well, you can imagine my reluctance. I told him I prefered not to and told him why. I said he totally understood. Our friendship continued for many years (and still does to this day), when he asked me if I'd reconsider playing Rifts. He aid he really enjoyed gaming with me and loved to run Rifts, and asked me to have a little bit of faith in him.

So, I did. I set aside my dark memories and played Rifts. And you know what? I had a helluva good time. I still don't like Rifts. I think it's an over-blown kitchen sink setting with badly writen, inconsisent rules that are in terrible need of a re-write. The game has no internal tone or sense of purpose. It's just a hot mess. But those players I gamed with in that new Rifts game were men whom  I trusted as friends and brothers - and to this day I count each of them as friends.

I guess this long rambling story is just an example of what really matters. It's not the games we play that make the difference. Its the gamers we play with. A great group of players can make a terrible game into an absolutely magnificent experience. A great game cannot make a terrible group into a magnificent group of friends. Games are simply a vehicle for he human experience, a glue to help create a bond between people. Whether its Rifts, Dungeons and Dragons, Vampire: The Masquerade, Yahtzee, or countless other games doesn't mean a damn thing without friends to share the joy. If we can remember that, damn near any game is worth playing.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Rust Monsters and Enlightenment

Tell an adventuring party that there is a lich stowed away in a haunted castle atop a high cliff with an endless horde of undead servants between him and the player characters and they'll charge off with holy symbols raised and swords drawn. Let them hear rumor of an ancient dragon who has turned countless would-be thieves into a pile of ash before casually returning to its slumber, and they only see magical trinkets and shining jewels. In over 25 years of gaming, I've discovered two words that strike absolute fear into adventurers from Oreth to Toril, from Krynn to Mystara: Rust Monster.

Most players seem to feel like Rust Monsters are the DM's attempt to take a "cheap shot" of parting the player characters from their gear. They flail, they panic, they complain, and of course they swear.The thing is, I feel like all this malice towards the DMs who use Rust Monsters is a bit unfair. I've always felt that this monster is a perfectly valid, perfectly fair monster to use against a party - regardless of level.

Yes, they destroy precious swords and armor - even magical ones! But they're more than just an easy way to part a party from their arsenal. The true danger of a Rust Monster lay not in the creature itself, but a party's reaction to them. Rust Monsters are not, by nature, aggressive. Their attack does not even inflict any damage. The touch of their antennae destroys metal objects instantly, but causes no damage. These two traits mean that in most circumstances the party is under no obligation to fight these feared creatures. They can run away and plan an ambush, prepare ranged weapons such as slings or bows, or even cast a few magic missiles or fireballs to deal with a Rust Monster.

A Rust Monster is a creature who is so feared because he forces player characters to think outside the box. They can't simply kick in the door and attack the monster. Instead they're forced to think tactically and truly consider the nature of their current situation. In my own observations, more experienced (and level-headed) players are able to handle these creatures without too much panic. It's the players who rely on the same old song and dance when it comes to monsters that over-react.

What does this mean as a DM? This means that the Rust Monster (and other unorthodox creatures) can be used to gauge exactly how comfortable and knowledgeble your players are with their given characters, as well as how confident they are. Confidence is important, but if its untempered it can become arrogance. But when it comes to things like Rust Monsters, arrogance leads to a naked adventurer.

So, as a DM, I say go ahead and use the Rust Monster. Sure, your players will probably piss and moan - but more importantly, they might learn something about their character and themselves.