Requiem for a Living World

It was the best of campaigns. It was the worst of campaigns.

At Gen Con Indy eight years ago, Living Greyhawk kicked off. It was big the moment it started and got bigger as it went. During the campaign’s run, it has seen perhaps eight to nine hundred different adventure modules, when all core, core special, regional, metaregional, introductory, adaptable, adapted and interactive modules plus mini and special missions are all tallied together. Maybe even more – I have no total figures, no complete listings of the massive amount of introductory modules that Nyrond released annually, or a full reckoning of the mini-missions of Sunndi. It is not outside the realm of possibility that now, in the end, the modules of Living Greyhawk have reached quadruple digits.

Living Greyhawk was global campaign, breaching, with its strong online support, language barriers and borders in a way its predecessor Living City never could. I’ve played Living Greyhawk in three different nations, with fellow players of seven different nationalities. If there is or has been another campaign in which this has been possible, I am not aware of it.

It was good while it lasted.

Dies Irae

At Gen Con Indy 2007, the axe fell with the announcement of Dungeons & Dragons 4E. We got a year to wrap up our regional storylines with a cut-down module allotment. Play numbers fell when the campaign’s finitude became clear. Module writers fled, triads lost motivation. There was and still is a great deal of bitterness and a feeling the final core storyline was poorly handled, as well as a perception that the campaign and the players were screwed over in what should have been the campaign’s beautiful swansong. What campaign infrastructure didn’t fade got mostly transferred over to Living Forgotten Realms, the supposed heir to the throne, and have had to divide their attention between ending Living Greyhawk with the dignity it deserves and kicking off Living Forgotten Realms less than two months from now.

And now it ends, with a bang, not a whimper, and the culminations of a dozen major storylines, some of them originating from the first years of the campaign. There has been great upheaval in other regions, with wars, fiendish invasions and planar rifts plaguing the land. A full reckoning of these end days will, I am sure, be forthcoming in due time.

The module database is still active until the end of the year, though all the triads will be let go of their positions at the end of today. After December 31st, 2008, it will be gone, like rain in the mountains, like wind in the meadow, behind the hills, into shadow.

Sanctus

Though I have had frequent harsh words for various aspects of the campaign, I have said them because I cared. It was a good campaign, one of the best. I have said it before, and I will say it again: in Living Greyhawk I have seen both the best and the absolute worst of adventure module writing. There have been magnificent epics, investigations that dared to be intelligent, exhilaratingly straightforward hack-and-slash adventures and even moral and ethical challenges.

I have played 149 Living Greyhawk modules. Most of them were pretty good, a few were pretty bad, and some were the finest I have ever played, putting many if not most of Wizards of the Coast’s and TSR’s published modules to shame.

Though I have called out the worst in the past, I must refrain here from naming the best – the list would simply be too long to be included here. It will have to be a future project.

Meanwhile, I ask that the readership name their own favourites among the corpus of Living Greyhawk adventures. My own experience is mainly limited to the Principality of Naerie, the Splintered Suns, and the core – though I’ve also adventured in both the Free State of Onnwal and the Kingdom of Sunndi – and I only came to the campaign in 2004. The rotation of adventure modules and the regional system make it so that no single man can know all that has been released for the campaign.

I consider this a feature, not a bug.

It fostered an atmosphere, a feel unique to each of the regions, giving the modules a context beyond the immediate. Done well, they felt like different places, with different peoples, customs, politics, and local concerns. As France is different from California, so is the Caliphate of Ekbir different from the Kingdom of Nyrond.

The other thing Living Greyhawk did remarkably well was create the sense of a truly living world. It is possible it came out clearer in Naerie with our relatively small population, but in Living Greyhawk, you felt you were truly affecting the world of Greyhawk, and even more, there were other people also affecting it somewhere out there in the world, and the stories began and ended, thrones toppled and rumours came to our distant shores from those lands without our characters ever intervening. The Liberation of Scant. Sewarndt’s coup in Nyrond. Iggwilv’s attack on Perrenland.

Agnus Hextorii

Of course, the RPGA has, all this time, had only a handful of paid employees. The vast, overwhelming bulk of the work done on Living Greyhawk has been volunteer or freelancing for a nominal fee. Regional and metaregional modules were, at least in my time, unpaid labour. So were regional websites, gazetteers, metaorganisations and cartography. While core modules were paid for, the fee was so small that I know at least one writer outside the United States had the checks framed instead of cashing them.

Thus, I thank these Stakhanovite heroes, who each did their part in making Living Greyhawk the best campaign it could be. While nothing is perfect, and I would be the first to admit the many imperfections of both the campaign and my own contributions to it, it was good. While often slowed down by bureaucracy and accounting, these did not detract from the experience once the table convened and the dice began to roll.

I thank the Circle, the metaregion representatives, the Triad members, the module writers, and anyone else who worked for the benefit of the campaign in these eight years, be they webmaster, playtester, moderator of a regional discussion forum, convention organiser, proofreader, or card-carrying judge.

Finally, I must thank the players. A campaign does not exist without players. By my association with Living Greyhawk, I have met many wonderful people, made new friends, gamed with a hundred different people. I couldn’t always get along with everyone, but when you put enough people in the same room, personalities will eventually clash. It’s been a great campaign, overall, and for that, I thank you.

Libera Me

And now it all comes to an end. We still get to play, sure, and the database isn’t going anywhere for another six months, but the campaign has reached its conclusion. There will be no more.

What now?

I, and I expect some others, will keep their Living Greyhawk characters and continue the campaign past December 31st, into the undiscovered country of home campaigns. The Principality of Naerie is not going anywhere, we have a backlog of modules from other regions should our characters wish to head abroad, and we can write our own adventures. So, in January 2009, we’ll release the Naerie Gazetteer 599 CY, tying up the plots concluded in our regionals and adding some new developments. We’re offering it as a fully fleshed region for anyone to use in their home campaign, ripe with adventure hooks.

RPGA is moving on to Living Forgotten Realms. I’m not, for a variety of reasons that I shall not elaborate here. It is an option for those who like 4E. I wish RPGA luck with it. They’re going to need it.

Finally, there’s the next global campaign for me – Pathfinder Society, by Paizo Publishing. It uses the Pathfinder RPG rules, developed from Dungeons & Dragons 3.5. It is run by Nicolas Logue, one of the finest adventure writers whose work I’ve had the pleasure to peruse, and the campaign’s faction system would seem to be straight up my alley, offering ample opportunity for skullduggery and developing some friction between party members, which I find creates better roleplaying. Reading their forums, the campaign staff’s enthusiasm is contagious, and I cannot wait to get my mitts on the rules and the setting book – significantly inspired by Greyhawk, by the way.

It’d seem I’m not the only one feeling Paizo’s love – there’s a couple of familiar names to be spotted on their forum already.

Though this is the end, there are great many new beginnings in the works.

Game on.

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What’s New

First, an item via Geek Related (who wonders why he’s getting so much traffic from Finnish sites… heh heh heh)… Chris Pramas, the bossman of Green Ronin Publishing, who’s coming to Ropecon this summer, wants to know what we want him to talk about.

Second, Paizo Publishing keeps getting more awesome by the minute. Now they’ve gone and hired Sean K. Reynolds. Mr Reynolds, for you Johnny-Come-Latelies, was with Wizards of the Coast around the turn of the century, and wrote good stuff. Reynolds’ The Scarlet Brotherhood sourcebook for AD&D 2E has been a major reference work for Principality of Naerie module writers in Living Greyhawk. He also worked on the 3E Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting hardcover, which in my mind is damn close to the Platonic ideal of a campaign setting book. Later, he’s notable for the Core Beliefs article series in Dragon (in Paizo’s time), where he fleshed out the Greyhawk deities from the Player’s Handbook, and among other things, made Pelor cool. For Paizo, his first product seems to be Gods & Magic for Pathfinder Chronicles.

Paizo also released a sneak peek at character generation guidelines in Pathfinder Society a couple of days ago. They previously announced Taldor as the final of the five factions.

EN World, the esteemed D&D news site and community that’s been around in some form or another since the heady days of the 3E announcement, has unveiled “EN World 2”, a completely updated and revised site. There’s a lot of technical stuff I’m sure is very slick and all that, plus a wiki for reviews, a blog system, and so forth. Also, the forums, which I can heartily recommend. I’m one of the operators are EN World’s chatroom, #enworld, on the OtherWorlders IRC network. Not that they seem to be admitting it anywhere on EN World. The continued status of the chatroom is a bit unclear at this point, but come on in and say hi.

Media Influences

I haven’t yet done a meme on this blog, but that’s just because there haven’t been any good RPG-related ones making the rounds while it’s been up. This changes now, with Jim_LotFP’s Media Influences (via Monsters and Manuals).

The concept is to name five influences on the campaigns and adventures that you run and to tell the how and why of it.

Babylon 5

To me, the science fiction TV series Babylon 5, created by J. Michael Straczynski, is the father of the continuous story arc. When I first watched B5 as a kid, it was pretty mind-blowing. They referred to stuff that’d happened previously in the series! Everything wasn’t reset to status quo! I know this isn’t exactly his invention, but he did popularise it in television and unlike most of the stuff that was on back then, Babylon 5 was actually good. Though B5 is largely responsible for how I think of longer campaigns, I would never write out one from start to finish unless the intention was to publish it. Player characters have a strange way of picking up on trifling things and hunting them to the ends of the earth, and of derailing the most carefully laid plots.

Ed Greenwood

Regardless of what you think of the Forgotten Realms or the Elminster novels, Greenwood is a master at world creation. While Tolkien or the game designer Greg Stolze might also be good fit, it was with Greenwood’s work that I first realised that it’s a big world and even if the characters walk off the path the DM has laid for them, they don’t run into the matte painting backdrop but into a new place, with its own adventures, peoples, cultures, languages, and local customs. Greenwood’s FR writings have always involved that sense of a living, breathing world, which I strive to bring to my games – though that’s probably as much because of FaerunMUD, which was a living, breathing world based on the Forgotten Realms. I’ve spoken of it before. It’s also a major cause for my fondness of Living Greyhawk. To me, Greenwood also taught the craft of the sandbox campaign.

H.P. Lovecraft

The neurotic pulp writer Howard Phillips Lovecraft created the Cthulhu Mythos and, some 70 years before Creative Commons licences, made it available for other writers to develop and add to, to create a large mythology of horror, of elder things that no mortal mind can comprehend, and purple prose. Thus the prevalence of tentacled, amorphous masses in our fiction. I like to trot out his stuff or stuff inspired by his stuff, regardless of the game. I’ve done it in Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play, I’ve done it in Dungeons & Dragons, I very nearly did it in Godlike. When I (rarely) run horror, I tend to take my pointers from Lovecraft, even when the party faces more traditional adversaries like vampires or werewolves.

Alan Moore

A comic book writer, and the mind behind Watchmen, From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and V for Vendetta, among other things. Moore’s work instilled in me a fondness for Victoriana and steampunk, and his descriptions of society and politics tend to be close to how I do things. Moore is at least partially responsible for that, too. The allusion-happiness of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was also contagious, and I’ve even based a one-shot game on it (it ran off something I kitbashed from D20 Modern).

Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson is the author of Cryptonomicon, The Baroque Cycle, the cyberpunk classic Snow Crash and Hugo Award winning The Diamond Age. Though I can only wish I could craft a plot half as well as he does, his works have had a significant influence on how I write (mostly in straight-up fiction, but also in adventure modules). There’s also a similar allusion-happiness thing that Alan Moore has got, though Stephenson takes it even further, as demonstrated here.

Well, there you go.

Were I to make a longer list, it’d probably also feature J.R.R. Tolkien, Peter Jackson, China Miéville, Robert E. Howard, Iron Maiden, Teräsbetoni, the musical Les Misérables and so forth. I also realize this all makes the games I run seem far more literary than they actually are. Oh, well.

A Time to Relax

It feels good to get a workload off one’s shoulders. NAE8-04 Bright Sun, Black Lion, the final Naerie regional for Living Greyhawk was just playtested and should be sent off for sanctioning tomorrow – with abundant six days left on the deadline, too. Got a little something back from my proofreaders and sent off to Roolipelaaja, too.

I’m not the only one who’s been busy with stuff, though. On Monday, Paizo Publishing put up their offering from Free RPG Day (an event that places in the world that were not Finland celebrated on Saturday – we had Midsummer, when the game store was closed and the vodka bottle open) as a free download – D1.5 Revenge of the Kobold King, by Nicolas Logue.

Very cunning, Paizo, to make it a sequel to D1 Crown of the Kobold King. Now I’ll have to get that one, too.

RPGA, meanwhile, has put up the “final AR” for Living Greyhawk. It is a questionably edited document that lays out your character’s retirement in a few words depending on what favours he has acquired. While I’ve got a good bit of those unplayed, it looks like Achmed ibn Fahdlan ibn Raschid ibn al-Hazred, my asherati bard/swashbuckler, will be joining Rary’s court. Possibly as the ambassador to Tenh. Apart from that, not much for my characters. A bit meh, that. We do have something similar in the Adventure Record for NAE8-04 Bright Sun, Black Lion, though.

They also put up the third issue of Greyhawk Grumbler, an in-character broadsheet from the City of Greyhawk, where some quick quill lambasts the powers that be. It’s written by Eric Menge, and actually good. Looks like old man Nerof Gasgal finally bought it.

Goodman Games, a third-party D20 publisher best remembered for their Dungeon Crawl Classics series, is the first company to announce GSL products – to be released at GenCon, before the October 1st date that the Game System Licence enforces. I’m unclear on what’s behind this, but apparently they have cut some sort of special deal with Wizards of the Coast – or they’re just trying their luck. I hope it works out for them.

ICv2 releases some comparative sales figures from the areas of roleplaying games, miniature games, card games and board games. It’s an interesting read, and confirms what I’ve long suspected – Dungeons & Dragons Miniatures has been outselling the main game. This goes some way in explaining why 4E is so heavily reliant on them – it’s not just the game, it’s WotC’s profit margins.

It’s the tragedy of D&D – to always be outsold by one’s own spinoff products.

And speaking of tragedies of D&D, WotC has finally got some of its act together and released the first part of Dungeons & Dragons Insider – The D&D Compendium. I am not impressed, and have yet to see anything on their site worth paying $1 a month for, let alone the $15 they’ll be asking if they ever get everything online.

A Portent of the Apocalypse?

Last night, Wizards of the Coast made an unexpected move that surprised everyone – they finally released the Game System Licence. Yeah, the one that they’ve repeatedly failed to come up with despite assurances that “it’s almost ready, we’ll have it out at D&D Experience”.

After making certain that all the waters had not turned to blood, that fire was not raining down from the sky, and there were no suspiciously emaciated riders on pale horses on the street, I set about reading it.

Of course, I am not a lawyer and I’m admittedly not very good at comprehending legalese, but essentially it seems to give WotC a whole lot of control over whoever is so foolhardy as to actually release something under it. It’s constrictive in its content and ambiguous in expression. For example, does Section 7 C mean that a GSL-compliant product cannot portray, for example, Nazis, the Soviets, or the Al-Qaida negatively?

7. Quality and Content Standards. The nature and quality of all Licensed Products will conform to the quality standards set by Wizards, as may be provided from time to time. At a minimum, the Licensed Products will conform to community standards of decency and appropriateness as determined by Wizards in its discretion. Without limiting the foregoing, no Licensed Products will depict in any text, graphical or other manner:

[snip]

c) existing real-world minorities, nationalities, social castes, religious groups or practices, political preferences, genders, lifestyle preferences, or people with disabilities, as a group inferior to any other group or in a way that promotes disrespect for those groups or practices, or that endorses those groups or practices over another.

There’s also that “poison pill” provision we had so much brouhaha earlier, in Section 6. Basically, it states that once a company has gone GSL for some product line, they may no longer publish stuff for that product line under the Open Gaming Licence.

The thing is, it’s never clarified what the hell constitutes a “product line”. Going by WotC’s stuff as an example, would Forgotten Realms and Eberron constitute separate product lines? Or is it a division by genre, as suggested by the promised modern GSL (ETA sometime around the heat death of the universe). If it is, why doesn’t it say so? Are you allowed to do non-fantasy stuff at all under this licence, with the modern licence on its way?

They also seem to have raised some eyebrows among the publishers. Here’s an EN World thread (and here’s another), where a number of D20 publishers have been voicing their apprehensions, including Clark Petersen of Necromancer Games, who was supposed to collaborate with Paizo Publishing and release material under the GSL. Now, he suggests he might come out with a Tome of Horrors for Pathfinder RPG (A product that I would buy in a heartbeat. I’ve got the original, and it rocketh mightily. Mightily, I say!).

I am curious to see if anyone will take WotC up on this. My prediction – one or two companies might, depending on how “product line” ends up being defined.

I can’t wait to see what their fan site policy will look like!

Ropecon 2008 Opens Its Website. Also, Other Stuff

It’s been a busy couple of days. I have been crunching numbers like mad for the last of our Living Greyhawk modules, NAE8-04 Bright Sun, Black Lion. Now, only the treasure calculations remain to be done before the rotter can be playtested and shipped off to the Circle for sanctioning.

Calculating treasure, incidentally, is the most annoying part of making a Living Greyhawk module. Calculating Encounter Levels is another, because there’s a cap on how many Encounter Levels you can stuff into a module and the way the cap scales up with Average Party Levels (a module generally is written for three to six level tiers) means that it’s effectively going to be three moderately challenging combat encounters in every module. This gets predictable after a while.

But then, this is the last one. After this, no more.

Paizo has released their fourth Pathfinder Society preview. Qadira, as I predicted. Nick Logue confirms in a thread on the Paizo forums that members of different factions can adventure together. The final faction will be unveiled on Thursday. I’m guessing it to be Taldor.

Finally, Ropecon has opened its website for 2008.

That URL nearly gave me a heart attack. It reads “messukeskus.ropecon.fi”. Messukeskus, the Helsinki Fair Centre, was the location of Ropecon 1995, which is generally regarded as the worst Ropecon of all time.

Fortunately the con is still held at Dipoli, our beloved non-Euclidean labyrinth in the middle of the darkest Otaniemi, where the shadows lie.

This year, the guests of honour are Chris Pramas of Green Ronin Publishing, the freelance game designer Greg Stolze, and what I presume must be the LARP guest, Peter Andreasen of Denmark. Sorry, no link for the last one, since I can’t seem to be able to find his homepage, or anything that’s not in Danish.

A very good lineup, I think. Greg Stolze is a maker of many awesome things, such as a lot of Unknown Armies, a lot for Feng Shui, and my favourite superhero roleplaying game Godlike and my favourite WW2 roleplaying game Godlike. He’s also done a deal of work on the new World of Darkness, which I consider less awesome, but still a lot more awesome than the old one. His newest work is Reign, a fantasy roleplaying game. I’ve yet to get around to reading the damn book, but I’ve been assured that it’s also awesome. The reason I haven’t yet got around to reading the damn book is the City of Lies box for Legend of the Five Rings, also by Greg Stolze. Which is awesome.

Chris Pramas, on the other hand, has done some excellent work on the second edition of Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play, as well as on Mutants & Masterminds and on a whole load of D20 material, such as The Freeport Trilogy, a series of pirate-themed adventures released in the early D20 boom and recently rereleased as a fifth anniversary edition. You gotta love a module that starts with a Flogging Molly quotation.

You can tell I am excited.

Then, it is Ropecon. I am always excited about Ropecon. Best gaming convention I’ve ever been to. I think it’ll be my twelfth Ropecon, this year.

And really, how can you not love the convention that inspired this comic strip?

An Update or Two

Paizo got their third Pathfinder Society preview up yesterday. Here, we have Osirion, the Land of the Pharaohs – the fantasy Egypt of Golarion. Well, so much for that prediction.

I like these fantasy analogies of real-world cultures in my D&D settings. They make it easier to directly steal from real-world myth and legend and are immediately recognisable to players, who can safely assume a number of obvious things without the DM needing to use up time to explain how the locals dress or that slave labour is common. Also, you need to have that fantasy Egypt to place the Desert of Desolation series in.

However, could be please quit it with the mummy porn stars? I have a high tolerance for cheesecake in my fantasy art, but that’s… just… GAH!

On WotC’s side, they have missed yet another deadline for the Game System Licence. This news article was posted on June 6th. What was this, the fourth time? With the first being in January?

But hey, at least we got this incredibly shoddy Flash animation with a horribly bad metal riff on the background assaulting our senses when we enter the D&D homepage.

Also, we got the character generation guidelines for RPGA campaigns, except without the campaign-specific appendices. Not much in there, yet, though I note that amount of reward cards a character may use has been increased. Personally, I’d rather just see the whole concept scrapped.

They do make fine bookmarks for gaming books, though. Big and sturdy.

RIP Erick Wujcik

The esteemed game designer Erick Wujcik passed away during the weekend.

He had been ill for a long time, so it did not come as a surprise, but nevertheless, it is sad.

Wujcik is remembered for his work with Palladium Press, on Paranoia, and above all, on Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game. It is a pioneering work and surprisingly enduring – the game has been out of print for over fifteen years, and it still has a lively, active fanbase that most game companies can only dream of.

Wujcik visited Finland for Ropecon 2004. I never met him or heard him speak. Back then, I had no idea of Amber, a certain dislike of Palladium Press and really no idea who the man was. I do, however, have a dim and possibly incorrect recollection of him running a game on the other end of the hall when I was playing my first game of Living Greyhawk.

Nevertheless, in 2007, the first entry of Roolipelikirja was Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game, though written by my associate Kaj Sotala.

I still haven’t read the game, though it has long been on the list of books to acquire. Me being a bibliophile with a love of hardcopies and Amber being some sixteen years out of print, however, has made this something of an eternity project.

It has been a grim year for game designers, thus far, with first Gary, then the Judges Guild founder Robert Bledsaw back in April, and now Erick Wujcik.

Let’s hope the rest of the year is brighter. Rest in peace, Erick Wujcik.

Review: Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition Player’s Handbook

Well, it’s out, and I can talk now. Not too much, but enough.

I got my Player’s Handbook a couple of days ago, and have been poring over it.

And, well, it’s not as bad as I originally surmised, based on the two Wizards Presents preview books. A lot of the sheer stupidity packed into those volumes has been cut.

However, it’s still not a good game. Originally, I was going to just type out the word “Fuck” eight thousand times, but then I was told Warren Ellis did that already, so we’ll have to do this the old-fashioned way.

Let’s start with the cover. Yeah, it’s that bad.

I like the art of Wayne Reynolds. His best illustrations have energy and animation, and I like his use of colour, and light and shadow. In the cover of the PHB, though, we are greeted by something big, ugly and scaly that’s wielding something that looks like a piece the Fire Department had to cut off a Toyota Avensis to get the trapped driver out. It is accompanied by a scantily clad wizard chick.

The big ugly is, apparently, supposed to be a dragonborn, one of the game’s new races. It still looks bad.

On we move, through some preface blather, to page 7. Here, we have a sidebar titled “The History of D&D”. It says, among other things, this:

Throughout the 1980s, the game experienced remarkable growth. Novels, a cartoon series, computer games, and the first campaign settings (FORGOTTEN REALMS and DRAGONLANCE) were released, and in 1989 the long-awaited second edition of AD&D took the world by storm.

As every D&D player worth his salt knows, the first campaign setting was Greyhawk. WotC has even sold the setting with that tagline. So, what the hell is this?

It’s either an editing error, in which case they are incompetent, or intentional, in which case they are immoral. The tin foil hat wing of the Greyhawk fandom are already frothing at the mouth that WotC wants to destroy their setting.

Now, a few notes… Firstly, I’m usually not someone who’s interested in the crunch. I like the framework of rules, and I like having lots of crunchy bits like in 3E, because they allow me to customise a character on the rules level. Secondly, I think that a new edition of a game should be judged as part of the continuum, with emphasis on backwards compatibility, convertability and story continuity. These attitudes will be reflected in the review. Thirdly, I will occasionally ascribe motives or explanations for certain changes, that may sound stupid. I can’t vouch for them all, but most of them are from designer blogs, preview articles, interviews, and the like, and they’re real. I’m not linking them because trying to dig up stuff from the WotC website is a futile effort, Gleemax blogs don’t even do direct linking and because life is too short.

Also, as you may have figured out by now, this isn’t going to be very objective and doesn’t describe the actual content of the game much, just what’s wrong with it. There’s a lot.

Making Characters

Here, the basics of the game are explained. D20+modifiers for every check, ability scores and what they stand for, yada yada. Here we also have ability score generation. Method 1 – standard array, of 16, 14, 13, 12, 11 and 10. Yeah, can’t give people negative ability modifiers. That’s unfun. Can’t have unfun.

Then there’s a variant point buy, defaulting to 22 points but with the starting scores at 10, except for one that’s 8. Finally, there’s the novel concept of rolling dice for your ability scores, 4d6, drop the lowest.

Under the topic of “Roleplaying” we find the new alignment system, which they pruned down into irrelevance. Instead of the three-dimensional system of times past, we now have good, lawful good, evil, chaotic evil and unaligned. Especially the evil ones are rather one-dimensional, with chaotic evil as described difficult to imagine for anything but a mad beast.

Here we’re also introduced to the deities of 4E. Some of them are new, like Avandra, Erathis, Ioun, Melora and the Raven Queen. Then we have Bahamut, Corellon, Moradin and Sehanine, who are also new but stole the names of other deities from 3E, and finally, Kord and Pelor, who are more or less their old selves.

Here’s one thing that pisses me off to no end in 4E. They’re changing the setting material and background stuff for no good reason, and often only manage to make it more one-dimensional, less credible and creative. In addition to producing truly staggering amounts of subpar, uninspired fluff, they also produce irreconcilable continuity issues with old D&D material, rendering it unusable in 4E.

Another thing is that they clearly want to create new material, but for some reason feel obligated to make things seem like they resemble the previous editions in some fashion, and thus they take familiar names and give them new meanings. This generates more continuity issues and confusion between editions.

To top it off, they’ve been rationalising and trying to sell these decisions to the fans with a series of half-assed explanations on their website, claiming that things didn’t work they way they used to be, or this was constraining creativity, or that was just bad. I have never seen any of these problems in the game before they brought them up, nor had I ever heard anyone complaining of them. They made them up, out of whole cloth, to justify their changes for whatever reason.

I am somewhat tempted to make a comparison to Hitler and his vilifying of the Jews, but it wouldn’t be fair. I mean, in Hitler’s time, the problems actually existed, he just needed a scapegoat. The 4E designers scapegoated stuff for problems that were completely imaginary themselves. (Edit: okay, that was unnecessary, and I apologize.)

Races

For races, we have the dragonborn, dwarves, eladrin, elves, halflings, half-elves, humans, and tieflings. Dragonborn, eladrin, halflings and tieflings are the new acquaintances. Yeah, even the halflings. They used to be those lovable, larcenous crossbreeds of hobbits and kender, but in the new edition, they’re a race of riverboat-gypsies, and a full foot taller than previously, because apparently a little guy can’t be a hero. Sorry, Frodo.

The dragonborn are scaly Klingons, basically, for those who really want to play a dragon. It’s not an urge I’ve ever had myself or seen elsewhere, but guess it can happen. They get dragon breath, too.

It’s interesting to note that the name dragonborn was first introduced in Races of the Dragon, which, while not being a very good book, did the concept way cooler. In RotD, they were members of other races who were ritualistically sealed into an egg, and they would then hatch and be reborn as champions of Bahamut, the Platinum Dragon.

Now, they’re just the proud heirs of an ancient empire.

Much like the tieflings. In previous editions, tieflings were one of the planetouched races, halfbreeds who had a trace of fiendish ancestry. Not half-blooded, but a generation or a couple removed. Their celestial counterpart were the aasimar. Now, the tieflings are the heirs of Bael Turath, an evil empire whose rulers made pacts with devils and became the first tieflings. There are no aasimar, allegedly because one of the designers couldn’t spell the name.

Amusingly, the half-orc was cut because it implied a rape had occurred, only to be replaced by a devil guy with a tail and horns.

Eladrin, in previous editions, were the chaotic good exemplar outsider race, sort of like elvish angels. They were pretty cool. Now, eladrin are a PC race, taking over the “elves as masters of magic” schtick, while the elf race gets to keep the “elves as masters of woodcraft” thing. Apparently, someone thought it was paradoxical that they could do both, while everyone, including J.R.R. Tolkien, solved the problem with subraces. For those of you keeping track, in 4E, eladrin = gold elves, elf = wood elf.

Dwarves are Gimli, elves are Legolas, humans are humans, half-elves are Tanis. Nothing new here.

Interestingly, the concept of negative ability score modifiers has been dropped. All races get +2 to one physical score and +2 to one mental score, except humans, who only get +2 to one score, which they may choose. Humans also get a bonus feat, a bonus skill, and a bonus at-will power from their class.

The gnome of the previous editions was cut and shoved into the Monster Manual. Interestingly, the 4E gnome seems to be based not on the classic D&D rock gnome, or the elusive and shy forest gnome, or even the Dragonlance tinker gnome. No! It is based on the whisper gnome, from Races of Stone, which I held even then to be a shining example of bad games design, stupid in both concept and execution.

Leave it to these guys to be given a world of options and then unerringly pick the worst one.

Back when the tiefling race entry was released as a preview, there was a bit of noise about how stupid the example names are. Especially the modern tiefling names sound horrible: Art, Carrion, Chant, Despair, Fear, Gladness, Hope, Ideal, Music, Nowhere, Open, Poetry, Quest, Random, Reverence, Sorrow, Torment, Weary.

Yeah, those are pretty bad. However, there’s worse (there always is) – the human female names: Ana, Cassi, Eliza, Gwenn, Jenn, Kat, Keira, Luusi, Mari, Mika, Miri, Stasi, Shawna, Zanne.

Those don’t sound like competent adventurers. Those sound like the new releases for the Bratz toy line – except for Mika, which is a male name in Finland, and Stasi, which was the DDR secret police.

Classes

For classes, we have the priest, the warrior, the hun- sorry, I mean, the cleric, the fighter, the paladin, the ranger, the rogue, the warlock, the warlord, and the wizard.

The classes are all tied to their party roles, a concept copied from MMO’s. You’ve got the controller, who nukes big groups of enemies; the defender, who manages aggro and keeps the monsters off the squishy controllers; the leader, who buffs the entire party and keeps them alive; and the striker, who does the most dps.

All classes have a set of powers. These powers are either at-will, once per encounter, daily, or utility. For the divine classes cleric and paladin, these are called prayers; the martial classes warlord, fighter, ranger and rogue call them exploits, and the arcane classes wizard and warlock have spells. There’s an assload of powers, but still only a small selection for every level, and little variation. Pretty much all powers are combat powers – the useful utility stuff has mostly been moved to the rituals, which have casting times measured in hours or tens of minutes, making them impossible to use in combat. Goodbye, creative casting.

In the classes chapter, the game is kinda schizophrenic. On one hand, the classes jealously guard their schticks to the exclusion of common sense – the rogue can’t sneak attack with a bow, while slings and crossbows are fine, because archery is the ranger’s schtick. So is two-weapon fighting, and nobody but a ranger can do it. Then, on the other hand, most of the powers are pretty much the same. Deal damage, plus something extra, like deal more damage, or move the enemy, or prevent the enemy from moving, or the like.

I wasn’t kidding about that aggro management thing, by the way. The fighters and the paladins have “marking” class abilities. Each round, they can tag an enemy, who has to then attack the fighter or the paladin or take combat penalties or damage.

While I see the sense in taking certain inspiration from MMO’s – they sell well and there’s some genuinely good design in World of Warcraft – it’d be better if they utilised some sense in what to take. See, aggro is a function of MMO’s, developed as an artificial intelligence because there couldn’t be a human being controlling every monster the players come across. However, D&D, last I checked, had a DM. Additionally, the mechanic makes no sense in itself. It’s moronic – Dungeons & Dragons can’t compete directly with World of Warcraft. It should emphasise its differences, the stuff it does better than WoW, instead of pandering to the lowest common denominator and trying to be more like a MMO, an endeavour that is doomed to fail.

The clerics and paladins feel redundant. They’re both described as divine warriors who get their powers from a ritual of ordainment. Their powers are very similar and neither class no longer needs to follow any ethos or code to retain their powers. Also, paladins can now be of any alignment. Both classes’ powers are flavoured for the vanilla good-aligned healer/crusader archetype. The only thing to mechanically differentiate cleric of a goddess of love from a cleric of the god of death is a Divinity feat, which are deity-specific and give new powers. If they choose to take them.

Every class has two build options, which are basically two different ways you can optimise your character, based on different ability scores. For example, the fighter’s options are the great weapon fighter and the guardian fighter. One is optimised for dealing damage, the other for taking it. They’re called “options” and “suggestions”, but really, they’re more or less hardcoded into the system through the power selections. I consider especially amusing that the trickster rogue build is optimised for dealing damage with high Charisma score.

The warlord is badly named. None of his class exploits gives him an army, and because of how “allies” are defined, he wouldn’t be much good leading one. Nevertheless, someone apparently thought the name sounded cool, or something, and decided there’s no chance anybody will confuse it with the warlock – which is strange, since every other part of design seems to assume the reader to be stupid. The warlord is a martial leader class that’s a mixture of 3.5’s marshal class from the Miniatures Handbook and the White Raven school from Tome of Battle: Book of Nine Swords (which I consider another example of piss-poor design work – which isn’t surprising because they designed it under the 4E design tenets and philosophy, not 3E).

And finally, there’s the wizard, the arcane controller. Or not. There’s no wizard. The wizard class is dead. What we have is more reminiscent of the 3E sorcerer – limited in variety but unlikely to run out of magic missiles. As I stated, most of the utility spells like Tenser’s floating disc, or knock, or water breathing have been moved to the rituals section in the back of the book. What’s left for the wizard is just different ways to blow things up, with stuff like a gimped expeditious retreat and shield filling his utility slots.

It’s immensely disappointing. Wizards used to be nothing if not versatile.

Every class has four paragon paths (except the warlock, who only has three). These are the spiritual successors of 3E’s prestige classes, except that they’re not optional, as such – though you can also choose to multiclass, which isn’t worth it. A paragon path is a pile of powers and class features that you get during levels 11-20, which is the paragon tier.

It’s organised in tiers, see. 1-10 is the heroic tier, 11-20 is the paragon tier and 21-30 is the epic tier. At the epic tier, you get to pick an epic destiny, of which there are four. Total. One of them is the wizard-only archmage, another is the deadly trickster for rogue and warlock types, and then there’s the eternal seeker who gets other classes’ powers, and… the demigod. Yeah.

The epic destinies are also campaign enders. Every one of them assumes you to go on a destiny quest and to complete it at level 30. That’s when you become immortal. And the demigod ascends to godhood.

While this stuff isn’t a bad idea in itself, the way the book describes it is immensely cheesy. D&D doesn’t do the high-level, god-fighting stuff very well, from a flavour point of view (and the new edition doesn’t really do anything well from a flavour point of view, but that’s another story). I prefer to use Exalted for that. It retains the proper sense of myth and epicness.

The whole power level seems to have been jacked up from the beginning. A first-level character is already a hero, a power to be reckoned with. Characters no longer grow into powerful individuals, they grow into more powerful individuals. Someone on EN World described this as the death of the Bildungsroman, and I’m inclined to agree.

Skills

Pretty much every change in the game that isn’t for the worse is in this chapter – though I dislike the way the whole system was simplified. Some changes are good. Hide and Move Silently were folded into Stealth, Spot, Listen and Search into Perception and Climb, Jump and Swim into Athletics, among other things. However, beyond these, many of the necessary things were dropped from the skill list. Craft and Profession skills are gone, which annoys me.

Another workable concept is the idea of the passive skill checks. When you’re not actively using a skill, such as Perception or Insight, you’re assumed to default to taking ten on opposed checks involving that skill. Thus, when there’s a monster hiding in the room, he doesn’t need to roll behind his screen, ask for everyone’s Perception modifiers and whistle innocently when someone asks if there’s a monster hiding in the room. This is a useful thing. However, the implementation could be better, as Mzyxplk noted in his own review. With the passive skill defaulting to ten plus modifiers, there’s a 50% chance of doing worse when you’re actively trying to spot someone. This doesn’t really make sense, and defaulting to taking five instead would work better.

Insight, by the way, is the new name of Sense Motive, and also used for disbelieving illusions.

I also like the idea of the skill challenges (covered in the DMG). It works, though it’s hardly the awesome innovation they tried to sell it as. I’ve seen similar things in several D&D adventures before 4E. Basically, the idea in a skill challenge is that there’s an objective and you must net a certain amount of successes with a limited set of skills before you amass a certain amount of failures.

Skills, by the way, have been simplified in execution as well. You gain a certain number of skills you’re trained in at level 1, depending on your class but not modified by your Intelligence. If you’re trained in a skill, you gain +5 on checks with that skill. You get half you character level as a bonus on all skill checks.

Feats

Then there’s the feats chapter. This is a really boring read and I didn’t like to devote much time to it. Here, you’ll find stuff like the Divinity feats, which are the only way to customise your cleric to give off the illusion of your deity choice mattering. There are class feats, which boost your class features and racial feats, which boost your racial abilities. Then there are plain ordinary feats that generally boost your combat ability. The feats are organised into Heroic, Paragon, and Epic tiers.

The flavour descriptions that 3E feats had are gone. Now it’s only feat name, prerequisite and benefit. I dislike this change.

Here, you will also find the multiclassing stuff. It’s done by feats. First, you pick a class-specific multiclass feat, which gives you skill training in one skill, and a bonus related to the class. The warlord’s multiclass feat, Student of Battle, for example, gives you training with any of the warlord’s class skills, plus a single daily use of the warlord’s inspiring word power (an encounter power that all warlords have). Then, once you have that, you can take power-swap feats at 4th, 8th and 10th levels, to swap your encounter, utility and daily powers with powers from the other class. Once you’ve done all that, at paragon tier, you can skip the paragon path and multiclass instead, effectively taking powers from the other class instead of a paragon path. This means you’ll get four powers from the other class over ten levels.

Personally, I think calling this multiclassing is stretching the definition.

Equipment

On to the equipment chapter, which is a bit of a disappointment. It opens up with armour descriptions. Armour types have been cut down to the light armours cloth, leather and hide and the heavy armours chainmail, scale and plate. All armour types have masterwork versions with stupid names like godplate and starleather for higher tiers.

Then there’s the weapons. The weapon illustrations aren’t as good as they were in the 3E books, but they are more accurate. No strangely curved rapiers here. After weapons comes the mundane adventuring gear, which is just the bare bones, and shamefully lacks the blanket, a necessary tool for all adventurers since the days of Sir Robilar.

Finally, there are magic items, moved here from the Dungeon Master’s Guide, which I think is a good decision, because I’ve checked out the DMG and while it is actually a pretty good guide for a newbie, an experienced Dungeon Master should save his money, even if he, for some strange reason, likes this turkey.

Like with the powers, there’s an metric assload of these, with decent variety in effects.

Interestingly, you can also disenchant magic items with the proper ritual. From this, you get “residuum”, which can be used as currency or a component for certain rituals. This is another WoWism, and one I think sucks. It’s too convenient and easy. Too much like a game.

Adventuring

This is a brief chapter, starting with a note on quests. I dislike the way 4E codifies quests. It reminds me of World of Warcraft with its quest log and promised rewards at the end of it. In a tabletop game, it can lead to constraining imagination, predictable adventures and bad gaming. This section’s counterpart is one that I would excise from the otherwise rather good Dungeon Master’s Guide (along with Fallcrest, but that’s another story).

There’s also a section on rewards – what you can expect for completing encounters, milestones (two encounters without taking an extended rest), quests, and so on. This is bad, because it creates an expectation and may lead to a false sense of entitlement in players. Here, we’re also introduced to the action points, which you get every milestone and can use to take an additional action in combat.

Then there are some tables on overland travel speeds, illumination and breaking doors.

Finally, we get the rules on resting. You can take a short rest of five minutes to spend healing surges, or an extended rest of six hours to heal up completely and regain all your healing surges.

My feelings on this are mixed, but I guess it works. Hit points have always been an extreme abstraction, and I suppose this works just as well as the 3E interpretation. It does change the tone of the game, though, since now characters are never badly wounded or need to recover their strength for long. Any hits you take will be gone by morning.

Combat

Finally, we have combat, the main (and only) attraction of 4E.

The combat chapter is very neatly laid out, logical, and easy to peruse. It’d have to be, you’ll be using it a lot.

The game emphasises combat and interesting tactical setups. It recommends the use of terrain and environment effects. There are intricate rules about movement – shifting, pushing, pulling, sliding, charging, and so forth, and area effects – bursts, blasts, walls…

Thus, if anyone claims you don’t need a battlemap and miniatures to play 4E… well, he may be mistaken, or he may be lying. The game assumes you have all those – and hey, why shouldn’t it? It’s a miniature combat game at its heart. It’d be foolish to pretend otherwise. This is the one and only thing it does well.

I’m not even opposed to using miniatures. I like miniatures. They bring clarity to the field of battle and facilitate tactical encounters.

By the way, when they said they’d simplify the combat, speed it up? Yeah, right. I’ve only eyeballed it, but the amount of variable conditions, bonuses and penalties that shift from round to round and combatant to combatant is much greater than in 3E. Trying to remember all that is difficult, and it pisses people off when they rememer that they had a bonus they’d have hit with two rounds after missing.

Rituals

This is the final chapter of the book. The rituals are magic that anyone with the Ritual Caster feat and proper levels can use. They take long to cast and usually have a cost of some sort. Here are all the useful things we used creatively in combat in the days of yore, now excluded from the field of battle by virtue of taking ten minutes or even hours to cast.

Here we also have raise dead, which is cheaper than in 3E. It costs only 500 gold… for a heroic tier character. For some reason, they’ve made the interesting metagame decision to tie the cost to character tier. Paragon tier characters pay 5,000 gp and epic tier characters 50,000 gp (but then, they have abilities that start “Once per day, when you die…”). It irritates me to no end when metagame elements impinge upon the game world like this, and breaks suspension of disbelief and verisimilitude.

While the rituals themselves are a cool idea, the execution just plain sucks.

After that, it’s just playtester credits, where they misspelled my name, and the index.

In Conclusion

This is not Dungeons & Dragons. Yeah, I know, it’s a cliché, but it’s true. This game is not the Dungeons & Dragons that I know and love. It’s Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Miniatures, maybe, and even that’s a stretch. It’s a game for simpletons that abandons all pretense of depth in source material and deliberately cuts itself off from over three decades of its own history in order to pander to the lowest common denominator and attract players of online multiplayer games. It is no more Dungeons & Dragons than World of Warcraft is, or Final Fantasy, or Tunnels & Trolls. The inspiration is obvious, but at its root, it is a different game.

Of the other books, Monster Manual is a travesty, consisting of stats, stats, and more stats, with a sentence or two of background material, at best. This is a game where monsters exist to sit in a dungeon to be killed. The Dungeon Master’s Guide is better, and actually can be recommended to newbie Dungeon Masters – as long as the section on quests and Fallcrest are cut out, because that crap is just embarrassing.

All the crimes committed upon the setting that was Forgotten Realms have yet to come to light, but from the previews we know there will be little left of Ed Greenwood’s intricately woven campaign setting in the books that come out a couple of months from now. I quake for Greyhawk, and have only morbid curiosity for their takes on Ravenloft and Dark Sun, two settings that have been named for possible 4E development and at their very core run against the basic philosophy of 4E. Horror and survival adventure run on character disempowerment, and if you pull that on 4E, there’s really not going to be anything left.

Would I play this? Well, sure, as a miniature combat game. For a roleplaying game, I own, without exaggerating, a hundred better candidates, including all previous editions of the game and several adaptations of the D20 system.

I want my money back.

The Fiend-Worshipping Cheliax: Pathfinder Society Preview

Paizo released the second preview for Pathfinder Society. It tells us about the second of the five factions, the Chelaxians, who are a bunch of decadent demonologists and tend to the Evil end of the alignment spectrum. The preview also confirms that I wasn’t entirely off my mark the other day, when I predicted how the missions and adventures were going to work.

Let’s see if I can guess the rest of the factions, too. I’m gonna say they’re Taldor (a fallen empire, resembles ancient Byzantium), Qadira (the westernmost province of a huge, Persian-style imperium), and possibly the city of Absalom itself. I found the Gazetteer’s map online so you can check out their locations.

I’ve signed up as a campaign volunteer.

Meanwhile, the Living Forgotten Realms guys have this and the list of admins as the full extent of information publicly available on the campaign. Beyond that, the official line is: “We cannot comment on that at this time.”

I know it’s not the campaign adminstration’s fault. They’ve got their gag orders from higher up. Still doesn’t make LFR look good, though. And at least, they could give us the names of module authors. While rummaging around on the message boards reveals that the first modules of every region were written by their Writing Directors, I’m gonna go out on a limb here and assume that they’re not gonna be responsible for every module released. Thus, author names. Please.

If the author is good enough, such as Pierre van Rooden, I might even play a 4E module again. As long as there are no crippling module writing guidelines. Which we don’t know. Since they’re not public yet.

As for 4E… more on that in a bit.