Tuesday, January 20, 2015

AD&D 2nd Edition Was the Best Edition

An opinion piece, obviously.

My opinion, that is.
I don't have a ton of scientifically-based reasons for this.  I wouldn't even say I have good reasons for this.  I have only my own reasons for this.  One of them would be simply that it was my edition.  It was the edition I learned to play and given its lifespan it was the edition I have played the most.  I knew it and knew it well.  It had enough options to allow me to create scores of characters that were all unique and yet playable.  I didn't have to comb through 8 million supplements to find a new prestige class or feat to make my character special and when it came time to min/max to achieve the best possible mathematical outcome I didn't have to put all my efforts into some lame-ass feat path that would give me super specialization in one specific type of spell while robbing myself of all other skills, abilities, or powers.

I like the layout.  Compared to the 1st edition PHB, the 2nd edition is much easier to read with information presented in such a way that I could always find it.  I like THAC0.  I've heard people slag THAC0, but I think it is far preferable to BAB and what came later.  I like the chart matrices from previous editions, but THAC0 is just the logical mathematical outgrowth from that.  Whereas BAB is bullshit.

I like that demihumans are restricted in their levels.  What?  I'm a big racist?  I think you mean speciesist.  And no, I'm bloody well not.  It was the trade off for all the cool powers that demihumans received that they be limited in class choice and class level.  I like that paladins can only be human and only be lawful good.  That's how it should be.  Am I suggesting that elves don't have an equivalent to paladins in their culture?  Yes.  I am definitely suggesting that.  No; I am definitely declaring that as a fact.  I also know in my heart that a dwarf wizard is just wrong, wrong, wrong.

Did it have its problems?
Sure it did.  Everything does.  It is not common knowledge that much of the 2nd edition's initial content was consciously designed to remove the things that had gotten the older game into so much trouble with insane parental action groups and wrong-thinking religious action groups, like demons and moral ambiguity, but the loss of the barbarian, monk, and assassin classes and the half-orc race only improved the game in my opinion.  Eventually those things would find their way back into the game through publications such as the Complete Priest's Handbook (monk) and Complete Thief's Handbook (assassin) as kits.  I liked the initial historical focus, seen in the PHB and DMG in terms of what armor, weapons, and settings should be, providing backgrounds for the classes (such as could be provided) and prompting the publication of the greenback historical setting guides.  The game had moved away from its sword and sorcery roots drawing from Howard, Moorcock and Leiber and had stepped into its own roots, so to speak.  Also, that dillweed Drizzt Do'urden hadn't become the fecking Wolverine of the setting yet.

The Complete Handbooks line was a mostly great idea.  The kits offered in those tomes gave a player a few bonuses, a few hindrances, and some player perspective.  This is far different from the bollocks prestige classes of later editions that featured only bonuses, and some of those so specific as to make the character practically unplayable.  Want to put your DM into a wall-banging* rage?  Play a prestige class.  You'll be constantly trying to engineer that perfect bonus moment or so utterly useless that he'll be positively** apoplectic as he tries to run the game.  Yes, the Complete line bulked up the game with options, which might be a problem, but most of the kits and information in those books was a minor change, not the campaign destroying bollocks of even the initial 3rd edition feat list.  And when TSR felt it was time to bring psionics back into the game proper, it did so in such a way as to create a unique class with its own rules and playing style, not just a mage by another name (like 3rd edition's psion bollocks...and let's not talk about the  Psylocke ***Soulknife class).

Finally the 2nd edition had some insane, but inspired, campaign settings.  The standards were there like Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms (before that Spellplague nonsense) but 2nd edition brought us so much more like Ravenloft (movie and literature inspired gothic horror...before Vampire the Whinging) and its spin-off Masque of the Red Death (Victorian D&D before everybody was all Steampunk and stuff).  2nd edition left behind the terrestrial boundaries and took D&D to space with Spelljammer!  It ripped of Frank Herbert's Dune series and gave us Dark Sun!  For those of you that wanted to play in an analog of Earth's own historical medieval milieu, dealing with dynastic intrigue as well as dungeon exploring there was Birthright (also suitable for people that liked Games Workshop's Warhammer setting but didn't want to deal with Warhammer's rules and standards).  No matter what you did, however, you were sure to have ADVENTURE!  For ADVENTURE was the name of the game.  Well, actually Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition was the name of the game but if A-D-V-E-N-T-U-R-E could be spelled I-N-D-I-A-N-A J-O-N-E-S then it sure as Hell could be named AD&D 2nd Edition.

*With his head, you perv.

**Strictly speaking, I don't think being in an apoplectic fit is ever a positive thing.

***I hate Psylocke so, so much.  Eat a psi-dick, Marvel.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Back In The Olden Days

Magic was once a subtle and mysterious thing, in the olden days.  The number of absolute damage nuking spells were few, and powerful, many were the spells that did something.  The most important spell of all, however, was Read Magic.  If you take a look in your current D&D 5e Player's Handbook you won't find it.  It wasn't in the 4th edition either.  The lack of that particular spell says much about the nature of the game as it is played today and the nature of those that play the game.

In earlier editions, such as the glory days of AD&D 1 and 2 (as opposed to the glory hole days of 3 and 4), when D&D was not trying to be something for everyone, the life of the magic user was not easy.  The acquisition of new spells was determined by the DM using any number of methods, but generally was not easy for the player.  Intelligence limited the number of spells a magic user could know and provided a percentile roll to determine if a magic user could learn any given spell he found.  As a result the magic users were the most idiosyncratic, and often eccentric, of the characters.  While optional rules existed that could force other classes to pay for training rather than simply leveling up to more power, the magic users had a fairly concrete set of requirements to increase their knowledge and power.  The two essential spells that every 1st level magic user should have in his spellbook were detect magic and read magic.  Of these two read magic was the one spell no magic user could ever live without.

A seemingly boring spell, read magic, was the secret to all the magic user's power.  By means of the spell the caster was able, for a period of time to read magical writing.  Was that important, you ask?
Hell yes it was important.  By rule and convention magical writing was not normal writing.  The very fact that the thief class received the ability to read/use magical scrolls at level 10 should tell us something: you can't just pick up and read a scroll no matter how literate you are.  Scrolls are not just words written on parchment.  Scrolls are spells cast into a parchment ready to be released when they are correctly read aloud by one who knows and understands the encoded spell.  It's like a person with no programming knowledge reading lines and lines of code.  It means nothing to you and there is nothing useful you can do with it.

Strictly speaking before a magic user can use a scroll he has to be able to read it.  That's what read magic is for.  The party finally overcomes an evil magic user as part of a quest chain in the campaign and they loot the evil wizard's stronghold.  Among the loot with which the abscond are several scrolls, something that might or might not be a wand, and a book full of seemingly magical writing.  They party magic user greedily claims those as his own cut of the treasure.  Now he has to have time, and some peace and quite, to pour over these objects and determine what the value is.  For this he needs detect magic and read magic.  He will cast detect magic to determine if these items are indeed magical, and once done he will need read magic to begin his work of discovering what the items say, in magical terms.  With read magic the writing becomes understandable to him, especially as the game's standard rules are that wizards write their spells in their own codes.  Read magic allows the caster to understand the essential magical language encoded by the writer.  Without it the magic user would not be able to discover new spells and make those often disappointing know spell rolls.

3rd edition made it standard that magic users (wizards and sorcerers-a class I loathe) would gain 2 spells every level regardless.  Assumed magical research was the order of the day.  By 4th edition all life, flavor and uniqueness was drained from the game and especially the wizard class.  Magic was just a form of MMO ability and even the meanest of melee classes could use it.  Even the latest edition treats magic as some sort of birthright rather than something to be earned, yet still punishes the wizard with low hit dice.  This makes no sense.  None of it does, unless you count the sense of selling product to children (not necessarily by chronological definition) who by their very natures want everything handed to them immediately and have a twisted sense of "fair" play.

Am I saying it should be harder to be a wizard?  No, I'm saying that the rules were written such that non-wizards couldn't be wizards.  A potion is one thing.  It is a compact, limited effect, portable spell that anyone can use.  Scrolls, staves and wands (but not rods, any class could use a rod) were the tools of the wizard alone, unless they were specifically for clerics (and 10th level thieves could take a crack at a scroll).  This was the trade-off for not having armor, or weapons, or hit points, or a decent THAC0.  The read magic spell was not a hindrance to a wizard at all, it was the barrier to entry for the non-wizards, including clerics, a class that received their magic power directly from their gods, no study required.  Yes, it could mean a hassle for a wizard.  He couldn't instantly pick up a scroll or a spellbook and start blasting, but properly played the fighter didn't instantly pick up a sunblade* and know it was magical or how it worked.  All of that was part of how the game was played and gave the party something to do aside from sit around in taverns waiting for adventure to find them.  The loss of this spell and the need for it shows that the game has changed into something very different, and is a loss.  No longer is the magic user special or idiosyncratic and given the types of players, the types that don't want to earn their power and don't want to have a character that is the result of his adventures (they want to go in fully formed as their favorite Drizzt clone), the game attracts, we will never see its like again.  There is no proud claim that you have a 10th level magic user because where that once meant you had been a good player it is now just a matter of course, meaning nothing except that you showed up for 10 games.

You can keep it.

* A most excellent magical item, the sunblade was a good aligned magical sword that any fighter would covet, but its magical nature was not readily apparent.  Through the use of detect magic a wizard could determine that the blade was indeed magical, then the players could quest to find a sage that could test and identify the blade, or the bard would finally get to use his legend lore ability and perhaps recognize the blade by its markings.  Maybe they would be able to learn the secrets then or perhaps it would be found during play, but either way it gave the game a sense of something to do outside of hack, slash, gain experience, level up, kill dragon.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Only Good Things For You

"I want my money back.  And I want angels to give it to me.  And pixies to count it out, and a gnome or a hobbit or an elf to sleep at the foot of my bed and have - I just want them all over my backyard.  But no matter what happens with any of that, I do want my money back."-Jeff Goldblum, "Run Ronnie Run"

As I continue my exploration of the rules to D&D 5, I have come to the conclusion that the game is an enabler...of touchy feely new age sissy bullshit.
WOTC's attitude toward the player and the game in 5e can best be summed up by the phrase, "I want good things for you".  It's a nice sentiment, but what does it have to do with gaming?

Perhaps I'd better explain.  In years past, previous editions of the game have attempted to create a world of adventure by allowing players to generate a surrogate for themselves, a player character, and enter into a world of adventure where they might one day, if they are lucky with the dice and smart with their tactics, slay a mighty dragon, conquer a kingdom, or set themselves up as a master of the universe.  To create this feeling of adventure the game was designed to provide a reasonable amount of peril with an all too likely chance of failure determined by a throw of the dice and the whims of the referee we call the DM.  Tales of defeating a red dragon had a sort of geek street cred because it was understood by all geeks playing the game that such was no mean feat.  The dice were against the player and the advantage was to the dragon.  One bad saving throw could mean a total loss of hit points and death.
Players had to be savvy.  They knew that there were negatives and penalties to all manner of things.  Wizards had to deal with the reality of limited magical power as they searched dungeons and lichs' towers for scrolls and books to expand their magical knowledge.  These things didn't just come to a person, they had to be sought out.  The players accepted that they were not heroes, at least not at first, but that one day they could be-if they were lucky with the dice and smart with their tactics.

Then, as you probably have guessed, shit changed.
I can't say for sure when it actually started, as it seems that the game was always in flux, with new rules and options always in the offing waiting for the next issue of dragon or the next supplement, but I can say that somewhere in the 3rd edition the attitude became about bonus stacking.  It was no longer good enough to be a wizard.  You had to be a wizard so supremely focused on being a wizard that every PC wizard was a Supra-Genius!  4th edition gave in to the full MMO experience and what was good enough for your father (one spell per day at 1st level, searching for magical knowledge) was considered so antiquated as to be not worth discussing.  Now everybody should be able to shit a magic light dart from their genitals every round.  After all, why else be a wizard...they whined.

And now we have the results of that; the fallout if you prefer.  5e has specialization, as have editions before it, but it's not about trading general spell power for focused power in a branch of magic.  It is about getting some neat bonuses to go with your at-will cantrips.  Because you absolutely need more power.  Death, formerly something that loomed threateningly at 0 Hit Points is now 3 failed Death Saves away after you lose your hit points, but that's okay because your buddy can always put a Band Aid brand plastic adhesive bandage on it and the Reaper just fucks off to a bar or something.  You are not needed today, Grim One.  The new reality is that the penalty is simply not getting a bonus.  But worry not, there are plenty of bonuses to be had.  You have penalties, I won't lie.  You might have a stat with a negative to it.  You might have to face DISADVANTAGE because you are in a bad situation, such as you are trying to shoot a person with a longbow that is standing 2 feet from you.  The person is standing two feet away.  You have the longbow.  The longbow is not standing two feet away.
I think you understand what I mean.

There are negatives, is my point, but they are not common.  Indeed it is far more common for the player to simply not have a bonus.  The issue is that there are just so many bonuses.  There are so many good things in the game that can happen to your player.  WOTC is like Santa Claus, your fairy godmother, and socialism all rolled into one big money grubbing package.  WOTC is like a drug dealer, really.
"Hey, you wanna try this?  It will make you feel gooooood."
It will make you feel good.  The feeling of can't fail is a good feeling.  The last thing they want to do is create a challenging set of rules because then the spoon-fed modern gamer would cry and go back to whatever pretty app on their smart phones has managed to hold their 7 minute attention span.  They will keep you feeling good until you've bought all their products or run out of money, and then there won't be anything left to make you feel good and they won't give a damn because there is always another kiddie out there who they can hook into their mamby pamby feel-good machine.

Save versus gullibility, and I'm afraid you will be at a disadvantage.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Give It A New Name

It still sucks.
I'm looking at you D&D Next, or Next Gen, or 5e or whatever the hell it is called.

I know it looks like you can do so much with it, but frankly you can't do enough.  It's like having some drugs, but not unlimited drugs.  If you'd just stayed off the drugs in the first place (you know, stuck with the old school edition(s)) you would have enjoyed yourself, but not now.  Now you are doing lines and lines of coke and getting really fired up and you suddenly realize there's just enough coke to keep you almost high.  But not enough to get you really high.  I mean, into the stratosphere high.  
You need a lot of coke.
But you don't have a lot of coke.  You have 2 adderall and a half a sixer of Bud Lite.  
That's D&D 5e.

You can do much, much more.  Be what you want to be; go crazy.  Have unlimited cantrips at first level that actually do things!  Resist death not one, not two, but three times before you lose all of your hit points!  Be a monk, a barbarian, a druid, a fighter that shoots fireballs!
Be a tiefling!

Can I be an undead cyborg with matched Colts Dragoons?


Sorry, then; your drug-fueled insanity fails.  Either go gonzo or go home.  Don't half-ass it, WOTC.

Because the old game, it was gonzo.  I mean that cave you are exploring is a spaceship that wrecked a century ago and you've just activated the defense robots with rayguns gonzo.  I mean the monster you are fighting has a face full of tentacles and will eat your brain gonzo and after you've found the secret door of the cave you learn that said monster is a time-travelling alien from beyond your galaxy but that's okay because those strange pistol grip wands you picked up on your adventure 3 sessions ago, the one where you ended up in a town of wooden buildings, dusty streets, and people with strange hats, seem to work just fine to open big holes in the wang-faced creeps.  Besides, your wizard has been saving that scroll he found last adventure for just such a situation.  The one that casts delayed tac-nuke and due to circumstances that aren't likely to be repeated anytime soon Aphrodite owes your thief a favor, so it's teleport out and send these monsters to the 9 hells time, gonzo.

I'm talking about the kind of gonzo where the only treasure in the game is attached to the floating evil skull and you have to destroy it to kill the bloody thing, gonzo.  Unless you just happen to be crazy enough to have thought of the one thing that nobody would think of in a million years but the DM has it in his back pocket just in case you ate as many paint chips as he did when you were a toddler, gonzo.

The kind of game that has 3 rules and a book full of guidelines all supporting the single important principle which is ADVENTURE!

Where galleons fly in space and hippos wear Prussian uniforms and fire black powder pistols at spider-eels.  

That's what it takes, WOTC, and you just missed the 60s, so you don't have the chops.

Enjoy your rules.  Sell some books.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Not A Paladin

Carries a sword.  Smites the wicked.  Defends the weak.  Powered by faith.  Wears heavy armor.  Carries a shield.
Not a paladin?
A cleric.
My first, to be exact.
Well my first not in a video game.

Rex de Rumble, cleric of Torm the True, the Loyal Fury.  Righter of Wrongs, for a modest fee.  Leader of Free Drinks Party of Four, if you are in trouble, and you can find the Chestnut Mare, they can help.  Bah buh bah bah, bah bah bah, ditty bom bom bom bah, BAH bah buh bah BAH...

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Argument For A Single Saving Throw

I've played many games and read the rules for even more than that.  I enjoy doing rules comparisons even if I don't play the games and as I've gotten older I've become an advocate for simpler rules more and more.  Nothing too simple, mind you.  I don't want the sort of game where everyone just says they are doing something and the GM says, "flip a coin" and that determines everything.  Although I've seen some humor games that work on that principle and they do have their charms, I must admit.  One area of simplification that caught my attention some time ago was the Swords and Wizardry (OSR Retroclone of D&D) method of having a single saving throw for each class rather than multiple categorical saves.  It works by having each class and race receive a bonus to certain types of saves rather than having a chart of different types of saves.  For example the magic-user class receives a +2 bonus to saves against spells, including spells from wands, staves, etc.  His actual saving throw does not change, just his chance of success.
The key to this is the secret of d20 systems, which is a secret anyone can figure out and many of you probably already have, but I will state it anyway so we are all on the same page: every +1 bonus equals 5%.  That's it.
When combined with the 1 and 20 rule of d20 it all falls into place.  The 1 and 20 rule, of course, sets the absolute maximum chance of success or failure at 95%.  No matter how many bonuses you stack up or how many penalties you are forced to accept you will never have anything less than a 5% chance of success or failure.  Your system is, effectively, closed.  Open systems where you can simply keep adding bonus after bonus, plus after plus, are abhorrent to me.  It is one of the main reasons I loathe Pathfinder.  It's all too complicated.  Classes exist because many of the qualities that make a person a wizard are the same for all wizards, like the casting of spells and the lack of armor.  They aren't there to prevent you from making the character you want with all the special bells and whistles.  If given the freedom to do what they want people tend to copy something else anyway.  All potential wizards will focus on the things that make a successful wizard at the expense of the things that make something else.  Like a fighter.  All a class does is codify and standardize those things for you.  Keep it simple and keep it fun, I say.

Let us take a quick look at comparison.  You have a S&W Magic-User at 1st level.  The saves for such a character, using the old multiple category method are:
Death Ray/Poison: 13
Wands (all): 14
Turned to Stone: 13
Dragon's Breath: 16
Spells and Staffs: 15
So our M-U needs to roll 15 or better on 1d20 to succeed in a save against spells.  That's a 30% chance of success.
In the standard S&W single saving throw system, however, the 1st level M-U has a Saving Throw of 15.  This is the same as his normal save for Spells, better than his Dragon Breath save (a dex/stamina based save) and worse for the others by 5%-10%.  However, using this single save method the M-U gets a +2 bonus (10%) to all spells including spells from wands and staffs.  So now his 15 is actually 13 for spells and staffs (10% better than the multiple category version) and 5% better against wands (15-2=13 vs 14).  The trade-off for this is to be worse at Death Ray/Poison and Stone by 10%.  It evens out across the board.  By comparison the Cleric gets a +2 to Paralyze and Poison specifically, both of which require fortitude and willpower to overcome.

Your D&D 3.X and Pathfinder editions brought the saves down to 3 types: Fortitude, Reflexes, and Willpower, which they felt covered all bases.  What it did was fuck wizards who tending to lack high stats in Constitution (buffed FORT), Dexterity (buffed REF) and Wisdom (buffed WILL) found themselves once again paying an over-inflated price for the ability to make a feeble light for 10 minutes once per day.  Essentially the ability to recognize a magical spell and use that knowledge of magic to help counter it through a saving throw (the previously employed Save vs Spells) no longer counted for shit.  Well done WOTC.  Dicks.

5th edition now has 6 saving throws, each keyed to an ability.  So instead of making an old school save you are, effectively, making an Ability Check.  There is some virtue to that, I think.  If for no other reason than it gives the abilities some meaning in terms of saving throws, but again a good DM would already take that into account when the situation warranted it.  It also removes the Ability Check as its own method of conflict resolution by making it the saving throw, essentially.  Against whatever DC is set by the DM or the action itself.

Now my argument is FOR a single saving throw system.  Using the S&W system the lowest any class's saving throw value will get is 4 (for Fighters and their ilk).  All the non-warrior classes (Magic Users, Clerics, Thieves, etc.) will go down to 5 and stay there.  At a saving throw of 4 you can only fail on 1, 2 or 3 (that's a 15% chance of failure) and on a 5 you fail on 1-4 (so 20%) and you always have your bonuses.  Using the multiple saves system a Magic User at level 16 would have a 3 for his save against Spells.  With a +2 bonus for the single save system he effectively has a 3.  On the other hand that same M-U would have an 8 against Dragon Breath under the multiple saves system and no bonuses.  Under single save he has a 5, which is 15% better.  Yes, mathematically it benefits the players more to have a single saving throw and it is also easier on the bookkeeping.  It also means that a fighter, who never gets better against spells than 8 on the multiple saves system gets to face them at a 4 on the single save system.  And all the classes get this good score much sooner.  Is that too easy?

Not as far as I am concerned as this is an OSR system and therefore deadly in so many ways that a modern system is not.  The old school mentality does not hold with giving a player multiple chances to not die simply by rolling a magic d20 and ignoring whatever happened.  It expects the player to be smart about play, in its anthropomorphic way.  It does, however, mean that the player automatically knows his save in any situation.  It is up to the player to apply that class bonus and remember it, but that should not be too big of a chore since the categories are rather small.  It also speeds up play and keeps the players playing instead of consulting charts all night.  Ultimately this is ideal, this playing instead of looking up the rules constantly and having to make 5 rolls for every action.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

I Loathe Pathfinder

It's true.  I despise it.  I find it bereft of any value as a game system and find the art regrettable.  I have many reasons for this, such as that it has too many options that don't substantially alter the game's core classes and it's spurious improvements to the 3.5 system are merely poorly designed constructs adding to the weight of an already bloated and poorly designed system.  It reminds me of programming where fixes are done by adding more lines of code rather than removing bad code because the program is so poorly designed that any removal would break the whole and nobody wants to take the time to do it right.
shower of bastards

One of the most egregious sins of 3.5 and thus Pathfinder, however, is the open nature of the math.  Prior to 3rd edition the D&D game was a closed system, mathematically speaking.  No ability could be above 25, and indeed the rules explicitly forbade characters from having stats above 18 without major magical enhancement, like several wish spells or the actions of an extra-planer entity.  Ogres had 19 strength, which made Gauntlets of Ogre Strength pretty damn self-explanatory and useful.  Fighters loved to get a pair because it dramatically increased their mathematical advantages in combat and outside of it when it came time to lift things or bend them.  When you know that 25 is the strongest anything can get and you know that you will never get there it makes things like Titans quite impressive.
In those days the rule of 1 and 20 was also in effect for EVERYTHING, combat, proficiency checks, saving throws, you name it.  Because of this rule the best chance you could ever possibly have in any action was 95% (every pip of a d20 is a 5% chance of success/failure).  Also this meant that the worst your chance of success could ever be was 5%.  You had a hope of success in even the most dire situations.  Every +1 bonus was a 5% chance increase subject to the 95% cap of the d20, and the same was true in reverse with the penalties.  With an AC range that was quasi-capped at -10 to 10 you also knew that things were never going to be absolutely out of control.  I say quasi-capped because occasionally you'd see a -11 on some truly nasty beast just to keep you in your place.  Those were rare and special moments.

The 3.X/Pathfinder method is open-ended, however.  Magically enhance some raging barbarian and see a massive Strength value of 26, 28, maybe in the 30s...it doesn't have to stop as long as the bonuses stack.  The practical result is that you can have monsters with Strength scores of 60, 90, 145 if you like in direct contravention of the square-cube law!   Let me put that into perspective.  A Purple Worm is a Gargantuan size beast meaning it is between 32 and 64 feet long weighing 16 to 125 tons.  It has a Strength score of 35 (that's +12 to hit and damage) which means it can shift a lot of weight.  Only it should really be more vulnerable and weak, comparatively, to a human due to its volume versus its surface area and its bulk.  Effectively it takes more strength to keep this monster, which is terrestrial, moving giving it less strength to apply to things like combat.  Oh, it is absolutely stronger than a human, but comparatively not so much.  The ability scores are absolutes, however.
Aaahhhh, toothy asshole attack!

I know, so I'm going to stop with the physics and get back to the main point about an open system, which is that the open system becomes all about stacking the bonuses.  While the d20 is still subject to the 1 and 20 rule and the +1 is 5% still, the action of it changes.  When you have a reasonable -10 to 10 range of AC you find capped 25 ability scores to be fine.  However if AC has no upper level limit (and it does not in 3.X/Pathfinder) then you must keep looking for those bonuses and asking yourself, "Just how does that guy get such a high AC?".  But the rule of 1 and 20 is still in effect so now there you are with an AC of 48, meaning that an attacker of BAB +2 must roll 46 or better on a d20 to hit and he rolls a 20 which always succeeds and you've just been hit.  Why did you spend all that effort getting such a high AC?  Was 46 not good enough?
Well if your foe was a 20th level Fighter his BAB would be +20 and his strength bonuses by that time would probably give him a +5 to hit (+25) not counting magical bonuses for weapons and such.  See, now all he needs to roll is 24 and we haven't done magic weapons.  This leads to problems where a +1 magical sword, previously nice to have, is not some sort of booby prize.  Nothing less than +4 to begin (+20%) and you won't really be happy until you have a +6 sword of flaming burst that does +8 to undead and purple worms.
It becomes a mathematical arms race.  The monsters need MORE HIT POINTS to be a threat and so the players need more HIT POINTS and bonuses to keep up.  Except wizards, of course, who still keep taking it in the ass with the d4 Hit Die.  No wonder so many of them become liches...they need the Hit Points.

It's not just the open-ended abilities and bonuses either.  It's the endless FEATS and CLASS ABILITIES and the SUPERNATURAL ABILITIES too.  Tons of 'em.  Why have classes at all?  Just give people a list of abilities and feats and powers.  Just play superheroes.  That's what you are trying to do anyway.

Finally there is the problem, again caused by open-ended ability scores and bonuses, of focusing on a single ability above all others to achieve a supreme mathematical advantage.  A wizard, for example, or a sorcerer, simply has no chance in melee combat.  There is little point in engaging in it when the monsters are beefed up for the arms race but they are not.  To compensate these casters put more and more focus on their casting stat (intelligence and charisma, respectively) becoming highly proficient in a single area at the expense of all others.  High intelligence and charisma means bonus spells for these classes and their spells become more potent.  Naturally GMs must compensate to keep the game interesting (read: challenging for everyone).  Now some bloody kobold, always the starter monster for a new adventurer, is a 10th level shaman (sorcerer) or maybe even has a kobold prestige class designed for NPCs.  Sure, it adds flavor but for whom?  The GM?  He's the only one that is going to take the time to care.  The PCs are going to start their kobold killing routine because that's where the experience and treasure live.  Congratulations, you've made kobolds a threat to 5th level characters.  Proud of yourself?  There are other monsters to threaten 5th level characters.  We are never going to get to the Purple Worm if you keep doing that.
Oh, thank St. Cuthbert, it's not a toothy asshole anymore.  Whew.

When you take all this ubermath and combine it with far, far too many base classes, core classes, and, Torm help us, a metric asston of prestige classes (I hate prestige classes) you end up with far too focused characters with far too much math in a game that is supposed to be about heroics, or at least the chance to become heroic, and fun.

So sod it.  This is why there are so many Retroclones out there, by the way.

Save Versus Minutiae

Understanding the Saving Throw.
Over the years of discussion, game play, and reading blogs and articles, it has come to my attention that not everyone really understands the Saving Throw rule of D&D.  I've seen it countless times, some player gets hit with an effect and is either told to make a saving throw or if he is not he asks/demands a saving throw.  The saving throw seems to be an ignore game annoyance ability.  Well it's not.
Per the second edition AD&D DMG:
    The saving throw is a die roll that gives a chance, however slim, that the character
    or creature finds some way to save himself from certain destruction (or at least
    lessen the damage of a successful attack).
    More often than not, the saving throw represents an instinctive act on the part of
    the character-diving to the ground just as a fireball scorches the group; blanking the
    mind just as a mental battle begins; blocking the worst of an acid spray with a shield.
    The exact action is not important-DMs and players can think of lively and colorful
    explanations of why a saving throw succeeded or failed.  Explanations tailored to
    the events of the moment enhance the excitement of the game.
Save versus Dickbaggery-failed.
The original set of saving throws were shown on a table that also listed their precedence (that is which saves came first if there was a question as to what save should be rolled).  For example if an enemy wizard attacked a player with a petrification spell cast from a wand the save for Rod, Staff or Wand should be used as it takes precedence over the save for Petrification or Polymorph, even though the magical spell is one for petrifying the target.  Easy, right?
Each category had a broader range of application than the name would suggest as follows:
(In order of precedence)
Paralyzation, Poison, or Death Magic-Also used when exceptional force of will or physical fortitude is needed.
Rod, Staff, or Wand-Also used for magical attack from an unknown source.
Petrification or Polymorph-Also used when the character must withstand some massive physical alteration of his entire body.
Breath Weapon-Also used where a combination of dexterity and physical stamina are critical factors to survival (and useful for area of effect saves as well).
Spell-Used to resist spells and magical effects not covered by a higher precedent and for attacks that defy any other classification.
In this situation the reptilian monster (maybe a dragon) would make a save versus Polymorph unless of course the wizard is using that staff to cast the spell, in which case Rod, Staff or Wand takes precedence.  Also, how cool is that?  He's turning his foe into a unicorn and seriously freaking it out to boot.
When combined with the Ability Check (a classic catch-all roll where the player just rolls a d20 and tries not to exceed his ability score) the Saving Throw covers every possible random thing that could happen that is not an attack roll or a proficiency check.  The Saving Throw (and Ability Check) precedes all skill roll nonsense, being the original method of interacting with the world via dice.  Everything else is conscious choice on the part of the players and DM.  Essentially the saving throw is a check to see if the actions of the player character succeed, not a magical "nuh uh" button.

So why is this important in any way?
I believe there are two reasons.  The first is that the game should be ACTIVE.  The players need to describe their responses to situations and come up with cunning plans to deal with threats that do not involve saying, "I attack the goblin with my sword" 500 times a night.  Combat has no saving throw.  The saving throw of combat is actually the attack roll of the enemy versus the defense score (Armor Class in the old days) of the combatant.  Some things can improve this AC value, like defensive fighting techniques, but essentially every attack roll is a Save vs Not Hitting Opponent with the Save number determined by the opponent's AC.  Saving Throws are for Non-Combat actions that have a chance of failure.  Is a fire jet in a wall a fireball (Spell) or is it a cone of damaging flame (Breath Weapon)?  Typically you avoid it in the same way you'd avoid a dragon's breath attack, so make a save vs Breath Weapon.  By the same token if a player describes some action to mitigate damage or tragedy and it looks like something that would match a saving throw you can call for a saving throw to determine the success of the action.  As a character improves in level so too do the saving throws, to reflect improvements in physical and mental abilities and experience/knowledge.  In the days when abilities scores did not go up with levels and only got worse with age, the benefits of leveling were all the more important.

The second reason is that magic is already hard enough.  Some spells have their saving throw listed, like fireball.  Others have no saving throw attached but do require some kind of attack roll.  In the case of the attack roll the spell typically does not allow a save (but it might, some do) because the chance of failure is in the roll to hit.  Where there is no chance of failure in casting (such as Wall of Thorns, which has no save associated) you are usually not looking at a direct damage spell or a combat spell.  Light does not have a saving throw.  Why not?  Well in a meta sense all it does is create light.  That's nothing to save against, but in an "in universe" sense it is because nothing a player can do can effectively avoid the spell.  Light makes light.  That's it.  There is no saving against it.  On the other hand a spell such as Acid Arrow does damage and requires an attack roll.  Should it also get a saving throw?
Bitchy warriors will say, "Yes, it bloody well should," but that is because they are a bunch of brainless entitlement monkeys who think that all magic should have some mystic resistance applied against it for those that don't do magic.  The wizard already has to roll to hit.  That's the "saving throw".  The same one that punkass ranger made when he made his attack roll with a non-acid arrow.  The wizard usually has less of a chance of success on these combat attack spells already given his lower attack values and physical abilities, why must we insist on punishing him with another roll for success or failure?
The truth is we do not.  Many spells do not allow a saving throw and badgering your DM to allow you one because the attack was a spell is failing to understand what a saving throw is and how it works.

If the ranger fires an arrow from his longbow he must roll to hit.  The AC of the target is resisting him.  If he meets or exceeds his required roll the arrow sinks into the target and does damage.  The save that the target made was having an AC.  The target failed.  He doesn't ask the DM for a Save Vs Arrows.  He doesn't look at the DM and demand a Reflex Save (3rd edition) or a Dexterity Ability Check to see if he could dodge the arrow.  Combat is a well-understood process.  The arrow hit, damage is rolled.
Yet many a player, in my experience, would argue that they deserved some sort of resistance check against the Acid Arrow.  The wizard already had to overcome the resistance of the target by making an attack roll, just like the ranger.  The AA hit, now it does its damage.  That's how it works.  There is no simply ignoring it because it was a spell.  The spell creates an arrow made of ACID.  The target had his chance to defend just as he had against the real arrow and he failed.  No Reflex saves or Dexterity checks are involved at this point and simply arguing that a saving throw Vs Spells exists and therefore should be allowed is bollocks.  But I've seen it happen.
Quiz Time: What is the Saving Throw applicable in this instance?
Answer: None.  Roll for initiative and deal with the hentai monster in your usual fighter way.

Finally I'd like to put forth the idea that the Saving Throw and Ability Check can, with a good DM that knows when and how to give out a reasonable bonus/penalty, cover all your skill needs too.  Saves get better with levels, reflecting the overall improvement of the character which, along with hit points, makes the character more viable in the apparently dangerous worlds of D&D.  While it is attractive to say that your character has a particular facility with animal training does it require a skill roll?  Does it require putting points into skills, even?
The old school Secondary Skills concept where a PC had a job aside from their class, probably what they did before they decided they'd rather rob monster homes than work for a living, covered a loose set of skills and abilities associated with the job itself.  A sailor would be assumed to know sailor things and a DM would have final ruling (after a good, long argument that being a sailor somehow qualifies a player to know trigonometry) on what that meant.  If some manner of roll were then called for a simple Ability Check (in the case of non-life threatening situations) or a Saving Throw would easily cover your needs.  Remember that in some way the Saving Throws are highly physical or mental and instinctual actions, yet they get better with experience.  They are not purely instinct then but also represent training, muscle memory, and good judgement.  What they are not is a standard "second chance" to avoid anything you don't like happening to you in a game.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Bitching About Skeletor

Remember when I wrote that huge article on Skeletor?  No?  Refresh yourself HERE.
Well for diverse reasons I don't want to go into because nobody needs to go down that rabbit hole, I was thinking about Skeletor again and came to this conclusion:
I don't like Keldor.
What the hell is with the van dyke?  Is he French or something?
Let me explain, so it doesn't seem like I'm a crazy person.

Before the Masters of the Universe toys hit the shelves there had to be concept drawing and prototype work.  As is common in toy design the concepts and prototypes rarely look like the finished products.  The original look for Skeletor was a hulking brute, more like Beastman would come to look, with a skeletal face covered in a huge beard.  He was pictured with a flail and a sword and with a horn on his head.  The face was not purely skeletal either.  He was more monstrous, essentially.  The final product was the figure we came to know and love that appeared on toy store racks in 1982.  In keeping with the style of children's toys of the era there was not too complicated of a backstory to deal with.  There were good characters and evil characters and Skeletor was the Lord of Destruction.  Thus children were given a plain, simple, easy to understand bad guy.  The He Man figure came with the first minicomic which detailed He Man's origin and mentioned Skeletor's as well.  At this point He Man was the greatest warrior of a jungle tribe who set out to save the planet Eternia from evil and rescued the Sorceress (who was green and wore snake armor, not falcon dress) who gave him his armor and weapons and a flying ram that could warp space.  I shit you not.
Honestly Masters of the Universe had a John Carter vibe to it back then.  Very sword and planet type stuff.  Great Wars, technology and magic side-by-side while swords and blasters are considered of equal martial efficacy.  He-Man's little S&M bondage straps generate a force field.  Which is the only saving grace of that creepy submissive attire, let me tell you.
Some He-Man examples.  I am not showing it here but in that first comic He-Man was a bit of a jerkass as well, given to sarcasm and roid rage.

In that minicomic we were introduced to the being that would become He Man's greatest nemesis: Skeletor!  Skeletor had the two basic motivations of all evil villains of the genre: conquer the world and forcibly marry the girl from the good guy team.  Yes, I'm not making any of this up.  World conquest and rape, subjects you'd think would not sit well with parental action groups.  This was real Snidely Whiplash type stuff.
A missed opportunity from the minicomics.

Now Skeletor takes a moment, as all good villains should, to recount his origin on page 10 of that comic where we learn that he is not native to Eternia, coming from another dimension and that he was forced into Eternia when the "Great Wars" breached the dimensional wall and threw him into Eternia's dimension.  His stated goal is to break into Castle Greyskull, find the two halves of the Power Sword (neither he nor He Man have either piece it seems) and open the gateway to his homeworld to lead his people to Eternia where they will conquer it.  Easy peasy.
Classic evil villain.
How bitchin' is this?
Then shit changed.
I blame Filmation.  One year later (1983) the cartoon He-Man and the Masters of the Universe premiered.  As a devoted player-with-the-toys I sat down to watch it.  From the opening narration with Prince Prissypants telling us how he used his magic sword to become He-Man I lost my shit.  I had a thrombo.  My buddies just didn't understand.  They weren't what you would call "readers".  They had not read the original minicomics that came with their toys.  The dumb bastards did not realize that we were being lied to by the stupid cartoon that apparently thought we needed shit dumbed down for us.
Worse than that, Skeletor was some sort of whinging twat.  His voice was stupid, his plans were stupid, and he was likely to run like a coward when anyone, even Orko (don't get me started on Orko) stood up to him.  This was not Skeletor.
So time passed and no new episodes were produced (a blessing) but the toys were still being made.  By 1987 the minicomics were reflecting the cartoon's canon and in a comic entitled The Search for Keldor the king, Randor, is searching for his missing brother, the titular Keldor and Skeletor is worried about this because if they find out what happened to Keldor it could destroy him.  Or so he claims.  At this point Keldor had not been positively identified as Skeletor.
In 2002 the Mike Young Productions re-imagining of He-Man had it that Skeletor had been a man named Keldor that trained in evil magic under Hordak (who was the villain of the She-Ra cartoon but not in the She-Ra toyline...I don't want to go into that right now) and had his face burned off with acid by Randor before Randor was king.  You know, that old story.  So to save his life Hordak made him into Skeletor.
Yeah.  Bullshit.
Fast forward to 2009 and Mattel released a new Skeletor through their Masters of the Universe Classics line for members of their super-secret collectors club.  The packaging has a short bio for Skeletor.  Mattel seemed to decide to weave all the various media together-their original minicomics, the Filmation cartoon, the MYP cartoon, the various full size comics written by multiple companies, fan service-and came up with the line that Keldor was the half-brother of Randor, he rebelled against the family, got his face burned off, and Hordak, his dark arts master, saved his life by MERGING HIM WITH AN EXTRA-DIMENSIONAL BEING FROM DESPONDOS.  The being was named DEMO-MAN.

Look familiar?
Go back and read the description of the prototype drawings for Skeletor above.
In 2011 the Demo-Man figure was released and on his packaging it adds to the Skeletor backstory by saying that after the merging of Keldor with Demo, Keldor went batshit loco and thought he would open the portal to Despondos to free what he believed where "his people".  Just like in the first ever minicomic.  See how they did that?  Hardcore fans and collectors eat this stuff up, by the way.
"With my new green balls I can finally defeat He-Man, aha ha ha ha <cough> ha!"
Oh, yeah, Demo-Man came with an extra head in case you felt like being a fucktard.  Yet Skeletor, as he was now known, managed to tame the great green beast inside, much like Banner (or an addiction to NyQuil), and became the lovable blue villain we all know today.

Why this Shakespearean drama?  Keldor was Randor's half brother, and the elder brother, but their father did not wish to give him the throne because of his half-breed (Gar, for the record) blood.  So why was daddy dearest getting his freak on with a Gar woman in the first place.  Was he trying to unite the tribes of Eternia?  Was she a mistake from his college days?  Was she a <gasp> concubine?  Fantasy racism is what it is.  Gar are blue therefore evil?  Is this where Skeletor gets his rapey proclivities?  This is unsavory stuff, my friends.
Since He-Man is Prince Adam and Adam is the son of Randor and Randor is the half-brother of Keldor and Keldor is Skeletor this means that Skeletor is He-Man's uncle.  And he wants to kill him.  That's some Hamlet shit right there.  And you thought you needed a genealogy chart to watch Game of Thrones.  And don't forget that She-Ra is Adam's sister but raised in another dimension and that their mother is an astronaut from Earth.  Am I the only one getting an uncomfortable Lucas vibe?  Like the Mattel people put on flannel, grew beards and completely forgot how to write?  Just me?

While I give Mattel their due for blending all the disparate elements together into one origin narrative, because that sells product, I prefer the original Skeletor.  This tragic origin of family betrayal and forbidden love (Evil Lyn for all you shippers out there) is fine but not necessary.  It is a result, more or less, of nostalgia in children now grown to adulthood who, being fans of a geeky genre, obsess about continuity, as all geeky genre fans do-your humble author included.  As he was originally presented Skeletor was like Doctor Doom, a conqueror.  Also he was not of Eternia, but there by an accident of fate and determined to conquer it for HIS PEOPLE.  While he is a tyrant at heart he probably would have been a better monarch than old Randor though.  All the crazy shit that goes down under his administration would not be tolerated under Skeletor the First, overlord of all Eternia.  To me that is better.  He's an alien, not some lich.  Because I know everyone thinks he's a lich.  Pretty buff and healthy looking for a lich, don't you think?

That's my gripe.  Had to get it off my chest.

The single best resource for all of information you could ever want to know about Masters of the Universe across all media is He-Man.org, by the way.  I highly recommend checking it out if you are at all interested in this sort of stuff.
"That eezz, 'ow you say, all mes amis."