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So Long, Dragon Magazine

posted Friday, April 20th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & Culture

If you didn’t hear it yesterday, Wizards of the Coast has pulled the plug on Dragon and Dungeon magazines. Paizo’s license to publish the magazines has been revoked, much to the surprise of the magazines’ fans, some of whom have reading Dragon since the seventies. The cited reason is that Wizards moving this sort of content to an online model, although nobody’s entirely sure yet what this means.

However, by the process of logical deduction along with some educated guesswork, we can devise some reasonable possibilities. We know that Wizards is planning on putting out some kind of online material, and it’s reasonable to assume that Dragon/Dungeon would have competed with whatever this is. Presumably they’ll be charging for this, otherwise they’re going to just soak up the cost and I don’t see the current WotC doing something so unprofitable without a good reason. (A less likely theory is that Wizards simply need the Dragon trademark back for something else and Dungeon was merely competing with their own adventure sales.)

Best guess? Wizards, hoping to compete with the ever-encroaching MMO market, are starting up an online subscription-based service in order to sell D&D material. Getting people to “subscribe” to the game World of Warcraft style would be a big step to emulating its success, and it’s a reasonable bet that Dragon/Dungeon would have competed directly with Wizard’s system. A subscription service would provide the consistent revenue stream that D&D has lacked, with the “buy the core books once” player mentality.

What does this mean for players if it’s true? Potentially, this means an online content delivery system will exist to offer players downloadable material. My guess is the sort of material Dungeon/Dragon already ran – significantly, Living Greyhawk style adventure downloads. Potentially this means that we’re looking at a return to the old days of shared experience modules where a significant portion of D&D players one year will have played the same big-name adventure, and be able to share stories. Ideally we’ll also see a lot of the same stuff that we would have seen in Dragon/Dungeon, such as the Demonomicon articles and Core Beliefs articles.

All of this is speculation, of course. I will say, that for killing the magazines not to have been an utterly disastrous PR move, Wizards ought to have something incredible planned.

Simplified Skills System

posted Wednesday, April 18th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Game DesignThird Edition

It seems that D&D’s sci-fi cousin Star Wars D20 is undergoing a revision, and one of the big changes is a simplified skills system. This is an interesting development, since the changes have potential implications for D&D – most the flaws with the skills system in Star Wars also apply to D&D:

  • Certain skills have unnecessary or confusing overlap, like Search and Spot
  • The difference between trained and untrained skills at high level is huge; while wizards get at least half the base attack and hit points of a fighter, a twentieth level fighter is no better at discerning lies than he was at level 1 and can be outfoxed by a low level rogue
  • Characters avoid using skills untrained, even at high level
  • Skills aren’t as powerful as other abilities, but take a lot of time to pick and handle
  • Some skills are almost never used (Forgery, Use Rope) or are eventually made redundant by magic (Climb, Heal), while others are important and frequently used (Spot, Concentration)

Star Wars’ solution has been to change how skills work by consolidating the skills into a smaller number of skills. There are interesting parallels with Mike Mearl’s Iron Heroes which uses a Skill Groups system to similar effect, splitting the skills into ten groups to achieve much the same thing:

  • Academia: Appraise, Concentration, Decipher Script, Heal, Knowledge, Speak Language
  • Agility: Balance, Escape Artist, Tumble
  • Athletics: Climb, Jump, Swim
  • Mysticism: Concentration, Decipher Script, Spellcraft, Use Magic Device
  • Perception: Listen, Search, Sense Motive, Spot
  • Robbery: Disable Device, Forgery, Open Lock, Sleight of Hand
  • Social: Bluff, Diplomacy, Gather Information, Intimidate
  • Stealth: Hide, Move Silently
  • Theatrics: Bluff, Disguise, Perform, Sleight of Hand
  • Wilderness Lore: Handle Animal, Ride, Survival, Use Rope

However, this setup draws from the low-magic, Conanesque implied setting of Iron Heroes, which is why Knowledge is considered weak enough to be lumped together into a category along with five other skills, in a category that’s only a class skill group for the book’s only (and optional) spellcasting class. By contrast, the absence of flight and travel magic makes climbing, jumping and swimming important enough to warrant a category of only three skills, which are considered class skills for all heroes.

However you would like to house rule your skills systems, the choice is up to you.

Fairer Ability Score Rolling, Addendum

posted Tuesday, April 17th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering AdviceThird Edition

I’ve been discussing the virtues of rolling ability scores versus points-buy, and it’s interesting to consider the reasons people prefer one or the other.

In terms of fairness, players are better served by points buy than rolling. Whereas most rolls a player makes only affect the outcome of a single action, ability scores affect a character over his or her entire adventuring career. Too much is decided by a single incidence of chance. It’s like flipping a coin to decide who gets the best chair in your weekly D&D game* – it’s fairer to flip again each week than to flip once and stick with the result. After all, we don’t force players to roll once at character creation to determine their Initiative rolls, their attack rolls or how lucky they will be when they find magic items. If one single roll has too great an effect, it becomes bias, rather than luck, which is not the effect dice should have.

Points buy is often considered fairer since it gives players a way to compromise between power in different areas. That’s essentially what’s done with other character choices – picking a character class is a compromise between abilities such as magic aptitude and combat skill, and choosing feats is a compromise between which talents you wish to improve upon. Point-buy changes ability score generation from random chance to a kind of resource management, which is a big part of strategy in D&D. It becomes a matter of choice, rather than luck.

Why do many players still prefer to roll their characters, then? A big factor is that when you roll a good score by chance, it’s like finding a piece of treasure. By random chance, it’s possible that you’ll come up with several high ability scores that points buy couldn’t have afforded. Of course, the risk is that you can also end up with low scores. But then, that only make it more exciting. It’s almost a sort of gambling, in that you risk loss for the hope of winning big. The payoff is worth it.

Another reason is that characters come out more “natural” when rolled. Points-buy characters almost always have even ability scores, since an odd score is no more beneficial except when ability scores are used as prerequisites for feats. Points-buy systems usually allow no ability score below an 8 (since useless ability scores would be dropped lower to beef up the good ones), so characters tend to be either boringly well-rounded or all eights and eighteens.

Points-buy: it’s fairer and less open to cheating, but it’s more work and less exciting.

* It is dungeon master’s opinion that the “good chair” is naturally reserved for the dungeon master himself.

Fairer Ability Score Rolling

posted Saturday, April 14th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering AdviceThird Edition

Here’s an interesting way to allow your players to roll up a character.

If your players prefer the randomness of rolling for characters’ ability scores naturally instead of using point-buy or a set array, try this approach. Using whatever rolling method you prefer, roll twenty sets of ability scores and number them 1 to 20 in order. Each player simply rolls a d20 to determine which line of your chart they use for ability scores. If a line is weak or mediocre, you might consider giving that line a compensation bonus such as some bonus skill ranks, a piece of starting equipment, some minor special ability or special social standing.

This method has two main advantages. One, it puts everyone on an equal footing because players can’t cheat. Two, it’s a lot quicker, which is always a plus when generating characters, especially if game time is limited and you don’t want to spend too long on character generation.

Obviously, you shouldn’t let your players see the chart in advance, nor should you let two players roll the same number – it looks quite suspicious if one player gets good ability scores, only for another to have rolled the same. Avoid the temptation to make ’20′ the best set and ’1′ the worst, since you don’t want to have to demand a reroll when someone suspiciously rolled a twenty when you weren’t looking. Don’t grant too much in the way of compensation abilities (why play a human when a dwarf with 4 Wisdom gets a free compensation bonus feat?), but make sure players are going to be reasonably happy with what they get. Lastly, always let players “arrange as desired” unless your group isn’t too fussed about picking their own character class.

The same system might be used to dole out character classes, if you’re running a traditional dungeonny game and need to make sure your players get the right party mix instead of sticking with their usual favourites or mucking around with dumb ninja classes from the latest splatbook. Take four playing cards and let each player choose one at random, assigning each card to a party role – warrior, mage, priest and thief. Warrior includes barbarian, fighter, paladin and ranger. Mage includes wizard and sorcerer. Priest includes druid and barbarian, and thief includes only the rogue (since nobody else can find and disarm traps). For a fifth player, include monk, bard and all those wonky splatbook ninja classes in an “optional extras” category. This way, you’re guaranteed to have a balanced group. (Remember, of course, that “balanced group” isn’t the only way to play.)

I’ll see if I can write a web program for pregenerating rolls automatically. That ought to save even more time.

Enough With The Cliches!

posted Tuesday, April 10th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering AdviceGame Design

Adventure writers and Dungeon Masters, listen.

Back in July I linked to Dungeon magazine’s advice to avoid stereotypical material when writing adventures. Battling insane wizards at the top of towers, rescuing kidnapped daughters, that sort of thing. Having read some of the adventures of the past three years, I’m going to have to extend that list a little.

Under no circumstances should you write, or even ad-lib, an adventure in which the following occurs:

  • An evil, insane, robe-wearing cult is hiding in the sewers/mines/caves underneath the town, where they have somehow built an elaborate temple
  • Members of an evil religion attempt to summon their deity to the material plane (this never works)
  • A wise, bearded old man, who is usually a wizard and always friendly, helps the player characters out by doing arcane research at a nominal fee (call this the Gandalf rule)
  • A statue suddenly comes to life and attacks

That last one is a real pet peeve of mine. Stone golems, gargoyles, animated objects, normal statues protected with animate object traps, normal statues possessed by demons, angry petrified creatures who revert when you enter the room, brand new statue-monsters. There’s nothing wrong with any of these – unless you expect your players to be surprised by such an overused technique. My players now routinely destroy all statues on sight rather than risk one of them being a monster.

Are there any other ridiculously overused adventure ideas you guys are sick of?

The Sage is Dumb

posted Wednesday, April 4th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Game DesignNone of the Above

I’m sorry, Sage, I don’t really mean it. Normally, you’re bang-on the rules, honestly, and where would we be without your wise assistance to sort through what’s a fairly complicated game? Still, sometimes you come off with rulings that are a little thick.

Apparently, you can get half-dragon dragons – that is, a dragon with draconic ancestry. Buh? While the rules never prohibited the half-dragon template from applying to full-blooded dragons, it’s a ridiculous concept. At best, it could be argued that dragons simply refuse to breed with other colours of dragon as a matter of pride, and that while half-dragon dragons do exist – and are significantly stronger, due to hybrid vigour – they are universally hated by existing dragons and exterminated as a matter of racial purity. I suppose that’s sort of feasible.

Another dumb ruling, related, is the idea that polymorph can be used to apply templates. You would really have to be a rules lawyer to pick this out of the spell description, but as I mentioned in January, it’s technically possible. Of course, no sane DM would allow this under most circumstances, unless he’s fine with his players using a fourth level spell to assume a paragon, half-dragon, half-fiend, werebear version of themselves.

What’s the Break DC of a Planet? and Other Stumpers

posted Sunday, April 1st 2007 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & Culture

Kevin asks: Do the power word spells really take up spell level + 1 pages in a spellbook? After all, if they’re just one word…

Gilbert asks: It states in the Player’s Handbook that a monk’s fists can do up to 2d8 damage. Can one dismember the fists and use them as improvised weapons for the same damage?

Joe asks: Can a water elemental surround a vampire and prevent it from moving? I already know a vampire cannot strike it, for that would make it mad and a vampire cannot cross running water.

All these and more at the official site: Ask Wizards Stumpers: The Unanswerable Questions.

Other April Fool’s hilarity from Wizards this year includes Creatures That Cannot Be, II in which the Sage thinks half-dragon dragons are rules-legal (if stupid), and at long last, official stats on the the Head of Vecna!

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