Welcome to the New Old School

Dungeons and Dragons 1981, by TSR
Dungeons and Dragons 1981, by TSR

My Dungeons and Dragons experience started in the first year of my university experience (some time in 2007, if I remember correctly), with me being invited to play in a D&D 3.5 game.  I’d played Exalted for years, but I was completely uninitiated into the wider world of roleplaying games.  One of my high school friends had simply asked me along to try this roleplaying thing, and I’d been hooked.  Of course, I’d seen D&D in shops and the like, but when I did buy a starter set and took it home, it seemed completely alien.

As a person who had only ever played one roleplaying game, it seemed incredible to me that other games would have so vastly different and, seemingly, more complex rules.  So I put any interest in Dwarves, Elves, Fighters and Rogues to the back of my mind, and stuck with Exalted, until late 2007, of course.

I’d been searching for a roleplaying game group to get into to get my gaming fix, and this was the only one accepting new players, so I went along and got stuck in.  I can’t say I loved my first experience with Dungeons and Dragons, but it certainly piqued my interest, and within a few weeks I had my own PHB and was exploring all the various character options and how the mechanics worked.  Discovering a new game is always fun.

Regardless, the above is all just a rather roundabout way of explaining that, as far as Dungeons and Dragons goes, I came late to the game.  3.5 always seemed old school to me, and in truth, and I never had any interest in delving backwards into D&D history.  4th was more to my liking than 3.5 ever was, and from there I’ve found other games that do a better job of hitting my fantasy adventure button (see Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay or Dungeon World).

However, this changed once again when a friend who now lives quite some distance away invited me to play in a game with him over IRC, another thing that I hadn’t done in quite some time.  I used to use it quite a bit to discuss roleplaying games when I was at home and the only other people to discuss such things with in person were the people in my weekly game.  Talking your master plan over with your players tends to take some of the suspense out of it.  So when my friend mentioned the idea of playing a game over IRC, I was pretty interested.  I think if he’d asked me 4 years ago, before I graduated and all my spare time became devoured by the unwelcome beast that is employment, I would have turned him down.  Why play online with people I barely know, when I could simply call a few friends and arrange a game?  I think having 8+ hours of any weekday devoured by work has changed my perspective regarding this though, and I was actually quite excited at the prospect.

When he finally told me what we’d be playing, I was somewhat taken aback.  Dungeons and Dragons, the 1981 Moldvay edition, is at least how he described it to me.  This friend of mine has always had a penchant for more old school and brutal gaming, so I can’t say I was entirely surprised, but as I said earlier, this kind of gaming didn’t really appeal to me.  The idea of having multiple characters, because it’s pretty much accepted that one of them is going to die, or at the very least having henchmen/hirelings, not to back you up or provide skills you don’t have, but instead to either act as an ablative meat-shield, or to once again step up when your character inevitably takes one for the team, doesn’t exactly thrill me.  Wizards with 1 spell per day, rolled randomly.  Having to make a serious choice between food or a weapon.  It all pretty much sucked the life out of it for me.

But I’d like to think I’m not one to let a friend down, so defiantly I showed my face, or nickname at least, in the chat and set about creating a character, a necessarily brutally short process.  We rolled stats, slotted them in the order which we’d rolled them and then picked a class that made as good a use of them as we could.  As concepts grew, I found myself growing fond of my character, a burly but smart fighter from the cities, come to a small town as a hired sword to aid some adventurer’s raid a sorcerer’s castle.  The fondness worried me.  Every time someone spoke of long term plans for the adventure, it was pretty much assumed that one, if not all of us, would be dead at that point, replaced with a henchman or hireling who inherited their mission, and their share of the treasure.

It was as alien a game to now me as D&D 3.5 was to me back then in 2007.  Few of the concepts I held true about roleplaying games seemed to exist.  This wasn’t about the characters or the story, it was about the adventure as a mechanical device.  There was little in the way of great heroes or deeds.  We were more like a group of thugs seeking to raid a historical landmark.

I should have been dismayed and left disappointed.  Not so.  I actually enjoyed myself a great deal  The game’s lack of mechanical complexity in many areas was filled in by players interacting with each other and the landscape, and while I was certainly fond of my character, the knowledge that I could easily throw another one together in as long as it took to roll 3d6 six times and pick a class cheered me up considerably.  And if I didn’t like that character, I doubt he’d exactly last long either.

We paid a boatman to row us to a mysterious isle and disembarked on a beach adjoining a mighty castle, with a small hut and a chapel built on the sands.  Accosted by three cultists in robes carrying maces we had our first encounter.  And our first character died.  Our cleric, spell-less and who started with 2 hit points was blundgeoned to death by a crazed cultist in short order, which was something of a shock to me, but it only added to the game; we went onwards speaking the name of “Flock-Father Ignatius” as a deceased friend.  So we had 3 maces, procured from our dead enemies, and we found an ambiguous magic sword in their hut, which I, as the burly fighter, claimed for myself.  Then we went inside.

That was, by and large, our first session, and in the end, I was pretty excited about the whole thing.  I think there’s a certain joy in playing something completely new, that you don’t know enough about to be able to spend hours planning your character, or at least that’s simple enough that there’s really no planning to be done, and I think some of my enjoyment came from the fact that my first character was a pretty good one, I rolled well across the board for my stats and I ended up playing a Fighter, which is something I’ve been interested in doing for a while (I’m jonesing for some sword and board action).  I survived and I prospered, and there was something exciting about that.  The game felt less safe and I felt better for succeeding in spite of the danger.  How I would have felt had it been my character who had rolled poorly for his health and died in the first encounter, I don’t know.  I like to think I would smiled and carried on, but in reality, I think that I might have gritted my teeth and felt rather chagrined about the matter.

This isn’t really a review of Moldvay D&D, or even a send up (or down) of the session that I played in; although both were very much enjoyable, I don’t feel I have enough of a grasp on either to talk about their quality.  Instead I think I’m really just being a proponent of trying something new once in a while, even if the thing itself is something now quite old.  Getting stuck in a rut in anything, even the things you do in your free time that you enjoy can really be a death sentence.  If you’ve made it all this way to the end of this post, then I commend you and would ask you to do one thing that I think would make your last 10 or so minutes of reading worthwhile and go and find yourself a new game, or at least a game that is new to you.  Gather some friends, whether in reality or digitally, and delve into something you haven’t done before.  Even if you never play it again, I don’t think you’ll come away without having learned something.

Restrictions in Choice; or Why I Prefer 4th Edition

I’ve written before about how I prefer D&D 4th to 3.5, and, at this point, I’ve played both enough to really have a feel for both systems. I feel like 4th Edition is simpler, but definitely more restrictive. There’s less freedom to mix and match abilities and classes, and to create something truly unique with the mechanics. 3.5 is a game that you could play in almost any fantasy setting; want a game where magic is rare and unknown to players? Then restrict it to certain classes and have everybody simply walking round, using feats and swinging their swords with max base attack at everyone. Same if you want to go in the other direction; magic users only game? Well, there’s a magic user for every possible eventuality and even just the standard wizard has enough variety in its spell choice to let you play a party of them without stepping too much on each others toes.

The same cannot be said of 4th Edition. Even with the classes that have had the most time to build up a variety of powers and feats, once again such as wizard, there is little room to have multiple members of the same class in the party. Sure, your Daily powers might be different, but 60% of the time you’re probably going to be using the same At Will powers. Even with the Essentials products or variant classes from certain sourcebooks, there’s just not enough choice regarding powers or change to the class’s base mechanics to enable multiple members of most classes in a party.

As an example of this, in my current 4th edition game, a new player was looking at his options for building a character, and was really interested in the class of Sha’ir, which I personally love and think is a great class for flavour that I’m glad they ported over from 3.5. However, we already have a classic wizard in our party, and when I looked at Sha’ir, all it really was is a wizard with a cool familiar and a few unique mechanics; fun stuff, but when it comes down to the session to session business, he’d be throwing much the same stuff out as our wizard friend.

But, I hear you cry, Sam, I thought you liked 4th Edition? And in truth, its lack of ubiquitous variety is actually the very thing I like about it. I don’t want my D&D to have the potential to be any setting with any combination of characters. I actually want my D&D to be just that; high fantasy adventure. If I want to play a game of badass wizards doing wizardry, I’ll play Ars Magica, or Mage (either the Ascension or the Awakening). If I just want to be a group of sword swinging adventurers getting by on their skill and wits, I’ll play Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. However, if I want to be a diverse party of adventurers who go questing, with a wizard, a cleric, a fighter and a rogue, then I’ll play D&D, and, in fact, I’ll play 4th Edition, because it has plenty of options but only for doing the things that a D&D game should be about, and to be honest, I feel like I could do with more structure in my roleplaying games.

One of the most stressful things for me is when I play in a game with a million different options, because I’m one of those people that wants to find the best character for me in a game; I don’t want to make something and just go with the flow. I’d actually prefer to be able to do that, but what can I say, I’m something of a perfectionist. 3.5 is a game like this for me; there are probably a hundred books for that game, each with 5+ different classes or prestige classes in there, and I can spend literally weeks of stressful late nights pouring over books and pdfs, trying to find the right class or combination thereof, to make the character I want. With 4th Edition, I just take a look at the index of available classes and pick what I want to be. I can choose which type of that particular thing I want to be, but I can be sure that whatever I make, it’ll fit comfortably within those classic roles.

Everything else aside, I think it’s this quality that draws me to 4th over 3.5; it seems like a more directed game. It knows the experience it wants to give to players, wheras 3.5 wants to be, or at least ended up being, a little of everything, and not really succeeding at any of them, at least to me.

Recently, I’ve been lucky enough to be a player in quite a few games, which is something of a novel experience for me. In the past, I’ve been the much-lamented “forever-GM”, and so being a player in no fewer than 3 roleplaying games on a weekly basis is some pretty unusual. I’m used to running 3+ games a week myself, but I don’t think I’ve ever been a player in more than 1 game at a time, and I think this strange convergence of events has made something very apparent to me that I don’t think I’d ever really come across before; GM fatigue.

For those who’re unclear what I’m talking about, GM/DM/ST/Whatever Fatigue is, in truth, the gamekiller and is probably the number 1 cause of the collapse of roleplaying games, at least in my experience. It’s when the person who actually runs the game, creates the game world, keeps track of the course of the adventure and makes the world actually come to life gets, at best, a general feeling of ennui about the adventure they’re running, or at worst, comes to hate the game and world that they have to devote large amounts to time to keeping alive. You come to care less and less about your game and its world; you stop planning your sessions a week in advance and filling all your spare time and paper with notes, and instead your sessions become hurried things you slap together a scant half hour before your game starts. You’re no longer enthused to tell your story or make your world live, and in the end you tend to simply go through to the motions so that the weekly game that’s been running now for 6 months doesn’t die a death. And then it does anyway, because eventually you get to that session where you’ve got nothing planned, and you’ve got so little inspiration for your game that you can’t even come up with something new on the spot, so you tell your players that you’re taking a break this week, or you’re not feeling well, or your parents are visiting, or whatever excuse comes to hand.

Sometimes that’s it. Sometimes, you just need that little break. Sometimes you just need to think about something else for a couple of weeks, and then your enthusiasm for the setting bubbles back up. You’re watching a film and something a character does makes you think about how you could do it better, or it just inspires you to want to finally get to your climactic conclusion. You plan a session or two, fired up again, message your players, tell them it’s on again, and everything picks back up.

And then sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes that first week break becomes two. You realise you didn’t write a session this week either, and since you’ve already skipped one week you’d rather not rush a session now. You’d rather take two weeks, but have a great session when you’ve had time to think about it. But then, you still can’t think of anything, you still can’t get inspired, so you push it back another week, and now your players are asking questions. They know what’s going on. Anyone who owns their own set of dice has seen it before. They’re enjoying the game, but they’re your friends too, so they don’t want to push. And so it ends, not with a bang, but with a whimper, as you all just stop talking about the game, and life goes on.

In my experience, GM Fatigue is a simple result of something as all consuming as world building being on such a demanding schedule as a weekly game, or even a monthly game, especially after your initial adventure idea has been used up. Once you’ve beaten the orcs threatening the village, you might have some vagues ideas about killing the orc king, or stopping the hordes attacking the kingdom, but it’s not as clear as the original idea any more, and it’s less exciting. You’ve just had your hack and slash, dungeon crawling fix, and so you either need to up the ante, or change what’s going on, or you’re just rinsing and repeating the same game again. So you move further away from your original ideas, the things that interested you about the game. It’s kind of inevitable.

So, why, you ask, have I started experiencing this so much recently? I think that, in truth, it’s because I’ve suddenly become blessed with so many awesome friends who’re volunteering to run games for me, and throwing ideas around for games, that it’s just easier for me (and some of my other friends as well) to hang up our GM hats. In the past, when I was one of the few people in my circle of friends regularly running a game, I felt that I couldn’t just give up on games, even if I, as a GM, was totally bored with them.

After all, there’d be no-one to take over. If I stopped running, that adventure, that slot in the week, that chance to get together with my friends and roll dice, would disappear. But now, if I decide to take a break (which I just have with one of my games that’s run for a few months now), one of my friends immediately steps up to run something else. It’s a pressure release valve that I just didn’t have before, and I’m not 100% sure whether it’s a good thing. Obviously, in general terms, it’s great. Having a circle of friends who share my interests to the extent that they’ll happily step in to run something is wonderful. But in a personal sense, I’m not sure if that release of pressure isn’t making me a worse GM. Am I missing out on experiences and great games that could go on longer, by taking the easy way out and ending it? Or am I just giving something it’s due and ending it while it’s in its prime?

If you’ve got any thoughts, please let me know in the comments!

Steamforged for 3.5 D&D

Originally put together for when I was trying to make a Warforged Artificer for my friend’s D&D game in a custom setting, Steamforged are a take on Warforged (originally from Eberron) with less wood and more billowing clouds of steam! I’ve always thought that Warforged are instantly made less awesome when you realise they’re some armour strapped to a load of magic timber, and I really wanted a steampunk, clockwork variant, especially because it fit in better with the world I was playing in. With the help of the wonderful guys from RPG.net, I put together the following:

In all respects apart from as mentioned below, Steamforged would operate like Warforged.

– Required to drink the same amount of water as a medium sized humanoid, daily, as well as ingest an amount of coal, firewood, or other suitable flammable material in the same quantity as a medium sized humanoid would food, daily. They can have all of this intake at once (they are not required to eat 3 meals a day, or stop for water once they’ve taken the required amount). This is necessary to keep their inner workings correctly operating to produce Steam Points.

– A Steamforged produces Steam Points, to represent the steam-power in his inner workings. Providing he has taken in the proper amount of fuel and water for the day, his boiler produces 1 Steam Point an hour. Steamforged can store a number of Steam Points equal to their hit dice. Any additional Steam Points is bled off through vents, as if the Steamforged had used the Steam Blast power (see below). In addition, the Steamforged loses 1 Steam Point a day through standard operation.

– Providing a Steamforged still has a single Steam Point left in his system, he operates normally, suffering no penalties. If at any point he has 0 Steam Points left, he is put into an inactive state, and can only perform a single action: Stoking the Furnace.

– Stoking the Furnace is a full round action that requires a DC 15 Fortitude save; a failure indicates that no Steam Points are gained, a success garners 1 Steam Point. After Stoking the Furnace succesfully, a Steamforged suffers the penalties for Fatigue (even though he is normally immune), until he intakes at least 1/3 of his required daily amount of fuel and water. If a character proceeds to Stoke the Furnace multiple times without refueling, he suffers cumulative penalties, until he cannot move from lack of fuel (being reduced to 0 Strength or Dex). Then only an ally can revive him by refueling him. Intaking 1/3 of his required fuel and water will remove all penalties for Furnace Fatigue.

– Steam Points can be spent in any of the following ways. If any of these effects require a caster-level, the caster level is the amount of steam points spent to fuel the action.

  1. Light of the Forge: A Steamforged can spend a single Steam Point (or more), to produce the burning light of the forge from their eyes. This is spell like ability which functions as the Light spell, with a caster level (and likewise duration) equal to the Steam Points spent to power it.
  2. Burst of Steam: A Steamforged can forcibly expel steam from his body to assail an opponent. This burst is a conflagration of superheated steam, heat and flame from the Steamforged’s furnace, and is a spell-like ability that operates as the Burning Hands spell, with a caster level equal to the Steam Points spent to fuel it.

– Due to the steam-powered inner workings of Steamforged, and the small blasts of smoke/steam and pressurised air they intermittently let off, Steamforged suffer a -4 penalty to all move silently and hide checks.

– Unlike traditional Warforged, Steamforged are not susceptible to Warp Wood, or any other effects that would normally damage the wood in a Warforged. Their inner workings are entirely steel and steam.

So, there we go! The Steamforged I ended up playing was a really good laugh, although I’ll admit that perhaps I did go a little too much Marvin the Paranoid Android. Anyways, just a little bit of crunch to fill the time, enjoy!