Friday, December 12, 2008

Electronic rule books OF THE FUTURE!

I'm proud of my substantial collection of game rule books. But they do take up lots of space. And they can hurt my back when I haul a portion of them to and from game sessions. All of us know that sooner or later we'll be using those PADDs from out of Star Trek. Some of you might not know that the future is now!

Never mind's Kindle device. Although it is swell for reading novels, the screen is too small for use as a technical manual. If we want to consult tables and charts from a game rule book, we need to be able to see it clearly without a magnifying glass. I'm not knocking the Kindle. It's a good device. And it looks like it's selling well.

What would really be useful is a device similar to the Kindle that has a large screen and that you can load up with your own PDF files. I think the Plastic Logic Reader is what we gamers have been waiting for.

Just look at it! The device itself is the size of an 8.5"x11" pad of paper. The screen is about the same size as the content of a magazine page. And it's actually thinner than most hardbound rule books. Imagine this thing holding all of your core rule books and splat books from all editions of all of your games.

Well, to be honest, the Reader won't be able to hold that much information. And it's in black and white. But this is only the first model. It's only a matter of time before memory capacity is dramatically increased and the screen is replaced with a color one.

I think that this sort of device will change how pencil-and-paper role-playing games will be played. Not only can you keep copies of your game rules handy, you can keep character sheets, treasure lists, campaign journals, and so on. I imagine that this device could be used in tandem with a laptop computer, but not replace it. The Reader is useful for referencing documents. Not for running programs or entering data records. I've used a laptop as reader, but it's a little cumbersome. I'd rather read from something as light as a magazine and as easy to handle.

This reader is small, lightweight, and serves the specific purpose of reading documents. And it can make that stack of heavy rule books go away.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Ramblings about Pathfinder vs. 4E

I haven't been posting in a while because of work. But I've been reading the RPG blogs every day. Today I noticed a link to a very interesting blog entry at Chad Perrin: SOB titled How Paizo Fixed D&D. Then I noticed a response to that blog entry at The Core Mechanic. So I've come out from under my rock to post some of my thoughts regarding this issue.

I am no longer enthusiastic about 3.5E. And I'm even less interested in 3P, as the Pathfinder system is being labeled. The set of D&D rules that accumulated since the publication of 3E back in 2000 became a bloated mess. D&D is an exception-based rule system and the amount of exceptions became monumental and sometimes contradictory. The amount of preparation on the part of the DM became too much. The game's complexity is a turn-off to newbies.

When I returned to gaming in 2005, it was with D&D 3.5E. But even though I had decades of experience with playing RPGs, I was constantly at a disadvantage because I didn't have the level of skill with the 3.5E rules as my fellow gamers at the table. The group I was with was very unforgiving and lacked patience for newbie gamers. I saw several newbies come and go from that group. Newbies who had the time to play but were either rejected because of their seeming "unwillingness to learn the rules" or either just plain lost interest. Right before I left that group, it was suggested to me that I should just play a fighter since it was the simplest character class.

Good grief! There shouldn't be this massive learning curve for RPGs!

When I started my own gaming group, I DM'd in the fashion that I thought would be friendlier and more accommodating to newbies. But there was still that barrier of rule complexity. One fellow who joined my group was a really great guy who knew the 3.5E rules very well. Even though I was the DM, I found myself deferring to his wisdom regarding rule mechanics. Since I wasn't running a store-bought 3.5E module, I had to write up monster and NPC stats for each game session. The amount of time I spent preparing materials was massively disproportionate to their amount of game-time use.

This is the part where I start raving about the virtues 4E, right? Well, maybe.

When 4E was announced, I was excited about it. The more I learned, the better I liked it. The folks at WotC seemed to be mirroring many of my opinions about the shortcomings of 3.5E. They rebuilt the entire game from the ground up. Monsters are much easier to create from scratch. The skills are simplified. The classes are now balanced in a very precise and consistent manner. I like how the system of PC powers, feats, and tiers easily guide development so that you can have butt-kicking fun at all levels. This is in contrast to 3.5E, where you eventually discover that you have to meticulously plan character development in advance through careful examination of Byzantine rules in God knows how many splat books in order to make manifest your perfect snowflake. Massive programs have been written by third parties to assist with 3.5E character creation. 4E character development isn't nearly as complicated.

4E has some drawbacks, though, in my opinion. I miss Vancian magic. Most of the rules for PCs only relate to combat. Many aspects of 4E, so I've been told, strongly resemble World of Warcraft and collectible card games. The game now seems entirely focused on the goal of elevating PCs to inevitable apotheosis.

Nevertheless, 4E is simpler than 3.5E. But its style is heavily influenced by the popularity of computer RPGs and I'm not sure I like that. Ever since 4E was published, I've been wondering what this role-playing game thing is really all about.

I'm an old-timer who started gaming when the hobby was becoming mainstream. Only a few years after I started gaming, the adventure path style was beginning to coalesce in the form of Dragonlance, as James over at Grognardia recently pointed out. Although pre-generated characters following a scripted story repelled me, I eventually found myself buying into the idea that all good RPG adventures had to have a story arc. I convinced myself that I couldn't be a good GM unless I was a good writer. I've come to realize that this idea was utter nonsense.

As I recounted in an earlier post, I learned about the term, "sandbox campaign." I was also turned on to various blogs and forums pertaining to the "old school" gaming style. Since then, I've decided that old school sandbox campaigning is my preferred way of playing any RPG.

Then there is Pathfinder. (Were you wondering when I was going to get to that? I was too.) It is the continuation of the 3.5E rule set and is ideal for people who are not interested in the drastic changes of 4E. Apparently, much work has gone into making it a fine product. But it is not for me.

One would think that an old-timer like myself would abbhor 4E in favor of 3.5E. Or perhaps it wouldn't be surprising if I called myself a grognard that would rather play OD&D or 1E. But I'm not too sure I will abandon years of gaming evolution and return to an earlier, simpler system. And Swords & Wizardry is just about as simple as it gets!

No, what concerns me the most about modern role-playing games is the idea of the adventure path versus sandbox campaigning. In my very humble opinion, I think this bifurcation of attitude towards playing RPGs is at the heart of many discussions dating back 30 years. I think that it's at the heart of the dissatisfaction of grognards towards modern rule sets. And I also think it's at the heart of the Pathfinder vs. 4E debate. But I'm not sure that many people realize it yet.

(Here's where I really go out on a limb and where I will probably start ducking rotten fruit flung at my head.)

The 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons is fantastic for old school-style sandbox campaigns.

There. I said it. Call me completely insane. But I think it's true. I'll try to explain why.

I've decided that story arcs are a bad idea. The adventure path is gaming entertainment and not actually a game. Paizo's Pathfinder is the culmination of that gaming tradition. It's in the name of their game, for God's sake. They've published not modules but adventure paths.

The premise of 4E is the "points of light" concept. This is as it should be. When I started my own campaign last year, I wanted it to take place in a period of time similar to that of the Dark Ages after the fall of the Roman Empire. That way there could be isolated settlements, perhaps a few warring kingdoms, and plenty of ancient ruins for dungeon crawling. I didn't want the campaign world to be too civilized like Greyhawk or other published settings. I wanted it to have as much wilderness as possible. After I dreamed up this campaign, I found out that this is exactly what was intended for 4E. In fact, the points of light premise inspired Goodman Games to publish a book detailing four sandbox campaigns in their Points of Light source book.

And then there is Mike Mearls himself who is running a sandbox campaign using the Wilderness Survival map, as suggested by Gary Gygax back in 1974. Hello? Did anyone else notice this? One of the lead developers of the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons is looking at the weird ways of old school gaming. Check out what he had to say about The Keep on the Borderlands. Even his blog is a play on that title.

4E is completely stripped down. Many have noticed that there is not much beyond combat rules in the core rule books. Is this a bad thing? Maybe. Or maybe it isn't. One of the virtues of old school gaming is the lack of rules. The DM and players of OD&D and AD&D were expected to make up rules on the spot if it was ever needed. Inventing house rules was part of the fun. Why is it impossible to take the rules presented in 4E and build upon it with house rules?

Another criticism of 4E is the lack of fluff in the Monster Manual. Well, there wasn't much more than crunch in the OD&D monster decriptions, either. Over the years, the lore regarding orcs and goblins became more and more detailed. Just take a look at the description of those monsters in the OD&D books and then look at how they ever so gradually expanded in 1E, 2E, and 3E. As of 3.5E, those creatures were fairly well defined in terms of fluff. In 4E, they are not. That's because it's now up to you. Again. As it was in OD&D.

So here I am, a quasi-grognard who thinks that 4E can be great for old school-style sandbox campaigns. The trouble is that almost all of the gamers playing 4E want video game-style "quests" handed to them on a silver platter so that the PCs can take part in the DM's scripted adventure path. And almost all of the gamers who want to play it old school want to do it using OD&D, AD&D, OSRIC, or Swords & Wizardry.

What's a weirdo misfit gamer like myself to do? Keep blogging, I guess.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Zagyg's gate to Barsoom

In E. Gary Gygax's Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works, I noticed that part of one of the room descriptions reads as follows:

If the CK desires, this cave can serve as a gateway to a SMALL RED PLANET (not unlike Mars), where a lesser gravity is in effect and where 4-armed green giants, blue men resembling plants, huge albino apes, and six-legged riding beasts dwell; the world by and large ruled by the green giants and various colors of humanoids. The Castle Keeper can either develop such a setting whole cloth, utilizing any and all appropriate fictional resources as inspiration (such as the novel John Carter of Mars by E.R. Burroughs) or wait until such a supplementary adventure to the Castle Zagyg pruduct line is released.

Did Gary loose his marbles in his final days when he wrote this? Absolutely not. In fact, it's entirely consistent. And very deliberate. Furthermore, the Peter Bradley cover illustration of the Mouths of Madness booklet included in Upper Works is a scene depicting the cave that connects to said gate to Barsoom.

James Maliszewski, in many of his recent blog entries over at Grognardia, has been discussing the various literary influences upon the work of Gygax. As James has pointed out, Gary was not influenced by Tolkien when he created his fantasy role-playing game. Instead, he was very much influenced by pulp fantasy writers such a Robert E. Howard, Jack Vance, and many others. Edgar Rice Burroughs is also one of the authors that Gygax cited as inspiration in the appendex of the Dungeon Master's Guide.

Many gamers assume that Tolkien's popularity in the 1960s and '70s was the impetus for D&D's invention. I confess that I made this assumption for a long time. Several years ago I discovered that this was not the case at all.

I've read Tolkien, of course. And I've read a few other fantasy novels. But not many of them. It's about time I took that dive into Gary's reading list. For me, it's long overdue.