Last night I had the pleasure of running my first ever Warhammer 3 session at my local FLGS. Because my local FLGS is run by a Japanese man in Japan, I naturally had to run the session in Japanese. This obviously raises a lot of challenges, including:

  • Explaining the rules
  • Helping players use cards in a language they don’t understand
  • Choosing language for a whole bunch of things I am completely unfamiliar with

So, here is a brief description of how I handled this stuff.

Brash Young Fools indeed!

The group Our group of Brash Young Fools is shown in the picture, from left to right – Mr. 123, Mr. Shuto, Mr. Ringtail (the shop owner) and Mr. Kaede. Mr. 123 has previously GMd Warhammer 2, using the Japanese version, so is very familiar with a lot of the world, and Mr. Ringtail is a big fan of warhammer wargames, which have been translated, so he’s familiar with the world too. Both Mr. Kaede and Mr. Shuto have played in Warhammer campaigns at least once, so the background didn’t have to be explained so much. The characters they played were:

  • Mr. 123: A 14 year old Initiate, called Suzette (a girl, related to the adventure he ran for me)
  • Mr. Shuto: An apprentice wizard
  • Mr. Ringtail: A thief
  • Mr. Kaede: A soldier

It should be pretty obvious that these characters weren’t chosen randomly – I selected them to give maximum exposure to the rules, maybe not such a wise plan, since it meant a lot more language-related work (and rules-learning). We played on level 2 of the FLGS, and we were running a kind of introductory hack-and-slash that was going to run into a reason to play the adventure from the adventure book, An Eye for an Eye. I’ll give a game report separately. The language problem Unlike pathfinder, which involves a lot of transliterations and has an online wiki from which I can learn all the language I need, the tradition in warhammer is to give often quite prosaic Japanese translations to all the details. With so many careers, actions and talents at hand, this makes for some translation difficulties. The attributes, careers and skills are covered partially by Warhammer 2, which gives these translations (even bone-picker is translated!) However, the action cards and all the specific language of the progress meter, dice etc. I had to cobble together. I also had to find a way to explain all this. I bought the Japanese version of Warhammer 2 but it only arrived on the day of the game, so instead I had to make a lot of headway on preparatory work myself. I approached this in the haphazard way I approach all my Japanese language tasks, and basically it went like this:

  • I scanned in the reckless side of the action cards the players would be using, and inserted them into a word document with translations along the same structure on the same page (you can see an example in the photo).
  • I cobbled together language from the pathfinder wiki[1], and using JDIC and the only Japanese RPG I know, Double Cross 3, which meant that some of the work I did was a little off-beam, and some of the words I found unusual or archaic
  • I assumed that my players would be able to read some basic sentences, so we could work out the details of the differences between red and green cards as we went (this only created a problem once)
  • I did some pre-translation work for the players to read on my blog, with an example, here and here
  • All the key language I used I put into tables of words to distribute on the day (which I then only made one copy of, because I’m stupid)

Based on this, I was able to give an explanation of the basic rules when we started, and leave the players to muddle through the cards without making too many suggestions. For the soldier and the thief it was pretty much plain sailing, but for the wizard and initiate it was harder, especially since I don’t know the spell rules very well and they aren’t … um… clear in the original document. Game flow Things were a bit slow at first, primarily because it took some time for people to work out what to do, and I had to check the odd rule (particularly about magic). The first opportunity at a skill check – getting a “dirty woman of unclear profession” to leave the thief alone after he was responsible for driving away her, ah, business associate – ended in disaster because Mr. Ringtail didn’t want to test out his guile skill; but then Mr. Kaede took on the leadership skill very well and constructed a skill check to influence their informant which he was well able to stunt – I added a few fortune dice to his roll, and everyone immediately became aware of the role-playing benefits of the dice system. They used this well later on, with the thief mimicking an animal, the wizard using a cantrip to confuse matters, and the soldier hiding ready to ambush the goblin they were luring. This was a great stunt, and also enabled me to use the fortune pool in the party sheet well. So in terms of grasping the broad concepts, the players caught on well. Mr. Kaede’s use of his soldier’s reckless cleave was good, and he grasped the details pretty quickly, as did Mr. 123, though sorting through all his Initiate’s cards was a bit of a challenge. The main challenges to flow came from establishing how to use magic, which seemed to involve a lot of different types of check with very little clarity about the order. I revised that today and will give the players a brief list of what they have to do to help with that. Otherwise, we managed to fit in all of the following in 4 hours:

  • rules explanation
  • adventure introduction
  • one incidental encounter with the woman of dubious profession
  • one social challenge to get information
  • one physical challenge, using a progress tracker to pursue a goblin scout (resolved well, at night, by the elven thief with the help of everyone else) followed by a brief and bloody end for the poor greenskin
  • two combats, the first an ambush outside the goblin lair, and the second a vicious bashing fest inside

So even though things went quite slowly in individual encounter moments, overall the adventure fitted in quite a bit of material, and some really good role-playing opportunities. The players have taken home their action card explanation sheets, which they can study, and I’m going to forbid them from spending their advances on new actions or talents until they’re more familiar with the basics (and I have more time to translate cards!!!) Kaede san’s soldier certainly needs some more wounds anyway. Some final observations As I’ve noted before, Warhammer’s blend of dark fantasy and European realism seems to really appeal to the Japanese RPG sentiment, and everyone really got into the grotty winter world of Bogenhafen. They also seemed to appreciate the role-playing opportunities in the dice, which is good. We’re meeting again in two weeks. A few other notes:

  • The probabilities can be a  bit skewy. My goblin underlings concentrated fire equally on the soldier and the mage, and over 4 or 5 rounds they nearly killed the soldier but the mage was unharmed. That’s weird!
  • The rules are vague in places and sometimes I’m not sure whether I’m house-ruling well
  • I can’t tell how challenging an adventure will be, which is a problem I’m not used to. I need more experience with dice pools, but even then the unique mechanics of Warhammer 3 mean it will take some time before I know what’s going on
  • This game is cool! The dice give a lot of role-playing opportunities and the rules have liberated Warhammer from the two grinding problems that made Warhammer 2 so hard to enjoy: the inability of beginning PCs to actually do anything, and the intense, grinding tedium of the battles.

I think my players agree with most of that, and are getting into the gaming quickly. I’ve got a feeling that the warhammer 3 system may be very well designed to encourage the type of GMing and gaming I prefer – loose adherence to rules, stunting of actions, descriptive content and encouragement of diversity in outcomes from individual rolls. It also has the kind of death spirals and critical-heavy combat system I like, without bogging it down in detail (as far as I can tell). I think it may also have resolved the issue of henchmen vs. main enemies. Both D&D 4 and Feng Shui have a system of henchmen (“mooks”) and main enemies, but the henchmen serve only to bog down and slow the game, rather than to add quickly-overcome challenges. In this session, at least, the henchmen were both a threat and easily killed, which is what henchmen should be. Game report to come. — fn1:The pathfinder wiki is useful because like most translations of foreign RPGs into Japanese it puts the English names next to important Japanese phrases (for things like skills and feats), so it makes it really easy to find the right word for the concept I’m looking for. I know Pathfinder well, so I know for example the difference between “proficient” and “specialised” and I can be confident that the translations in the wiki will be useful for me. Then I get around the problem of millions of kanji I don’t know very simply using rikaichan, which has to be the most useful software ever invented[2]. You wave your mouse over a word and it gives you the reading and the English translation, so then you can type it yourself. fn2: This has to be an example of the benefits of whatever licensing procedure is being used by the firefox team. I don’t like firefox much, but until someone comes up with a version of rikaichan for safari or chrome, I am only ever going to use firefox. This, I think, is why Windows is ubiquitous – for years the only functional spreadsheet was excel for windows, so windows spread through the corporate world regardless of its inherent crappiness. Excel is the best there is, and that’s all Microsoft needed.

I posted this initially as a comment over at Zak’s blog, but thought I’d put it here too.

There is a common view, I think, amongst role-players of all stripes, that later and newer editions of role-playing games encourage more “story-based” gaming than older ones, or that people who prefer to play later edition games are more likely to be “story-based” gamers. I don’t think that this is a result of system changes encouraging the development of story-based gaming, but a lot of people believe it is due to a kind of gamers’ version of the anthropic principle. When the game started it drew from wargaming, and story wasn’t a big part of it. As it developed over the following 10 years, particularly with the magazine-based theorising (in Dungeon, etc.) story-based gaming became more common. At the same time the systems developed, new ones were released, and obviously products were also released to cater to the wider range of gaming styles available. I think that this diversification, and particularly the interest in story-based gaming and character development, came with the increased maturity of the systems, and the development of the teenage audience into young adults looking for more meaningful social interactions than could be provided by gaming in which each player had 5 or 6 characters that died rapidly (again, I recommend this book as an insight into how the early games were played).

So, when the OSR decided to turn their backs on the later editions, they associated them with this “story” problem. But really the two developed side-by-side. I was doing story-based games with AD&D 1st edition in the 80s, and my reasons for switching to Rolemaster had nothing to do with story – neither did my reasons for switching back to D&D3.5 in the early noughties. I’m pretty confident I’m not unusual in this development process, I’m pretty confident as well that most people who switched away from AD&D 2nd edition did so because it was pretty complex, and more interesting (but often less playable) systems were coming out at that time. We grew up with the game and we diversified with the game.

Similarly this idea that OD&D is associated with regular PC death is also representative of the style of play at the time, not the system. Back when it was a wargaming spinoff, death was all the rage (e.g. the 5 or 6 PCs at a time phenomenon). As the gameplay styles diversified, DMs learnt to balance adventures to match the frequency of death they thought players would bear. It’s perfectly easy to play a D&D3.5 adventure and kill your PCs by the minute. But again, when the OSR decided to return to their 80s roots, they also returned (partially) to that wargaming style, and they associate (probably in some cases blame) the other styles with later game editions – not with, as is probably more likely, the maturation and diversification of a gaming crowd that was largely teenage when the hobby first developed.

Also I think when modern DMs dip into OD&D gaming, they often do so to experience that wargaming style of play, so when people sample OD&D, they often sample it with a particular historically fixed style of play. This doesn’t mean OD&D has to be played that way, or has to be representative of that punishing style of gaming. Compared to pure Rolemaster, OD&D is quite soft, for example. It is exactly the uncompromising harshness of RM which taught me to fudge dice rolls, something the OD&D crowd are very down on. Playing OD&D or AD&D, you can afford to be down on DM fudging (although the AD&D rulebooks are very supportive of this). Playing Rolemaster, not so much…

Anyway the point is that these two phenomena – story based play and the TPK – are not system-specific so much as era-specific. But, because the systems developed with the eras, they two are easily confused.

I am a regular reader of and occasional commenter at the left-wing political/academic blog Crooked Timber, though I don’t usually link my blog to them (the American political blogsophere is a bit scary). Recently, however, I discovered this post on the new Dante’s Inferno computer game, where anonymous commenter noen makes this great claim:

The repetition [in porn and in WoW][1], the dross, is important. It is through the repetition that one realizes the value of the object of one’s desire by failing to achieve it. There is a great deal of the obsessional repetition of “dross” in religious observance also. That’s the whole point.

The goal of religion, porn and gaming is the grinding. It is the core that is the real distraction.

This is surely meant to be an amusing aside, right? But it got me thinking about sandbox gaming, story-gaming, and the oft-repeated claims that D&D 4e has been designed to be like an MMO. Particularly, I notice in the role-playing blogosphere a really serious dislike of story-based gaming. Old-school gamers (who seem to dominate the blogosphere outside of 4e bloggers) are really anti-story. They seem to have a strong preference for individual modules, and for sandbox gaming without a plot. Stand alone modules are often (especially in the early days which the grognards valorize) just a vague story and plot-hook to get the PCs on a treasure hunt – i.e. a kind of pen-and-paper based version of World of Warcraft’s grinding. Story is often associated with the “faggy” elements of the newer games like the “storyteller” systems by White Wolf, not with the “pure” older systems (and yes, I have heard them contrasted in this way). So what’s going on here?

Fragmentary social relations and the Grind

I don’t think this type of play is that popular with role-players. I have played and DMd in earnest since 1986, and I can safely say that I have played in very few sandbox games. The vast majority of gaming I have run or played in has been story-based. Not necessarily of the “kill the bad guy and save the world” kind – indeed some was quite nihilistic – but always with a plot. People like story, and our models for role-playing are mainly novels, which are pretty heavy on the story. In later years I have often played with friends who aren’t hardcore players, and I’ve noticed that the further I drift from the hardcore gaming community the less they care about randomness, system, and sandboxing, and the more they want story, description, description and story.

But my experience was in Australia, where role-playing is not that popular or common and one often has to take what one can get, player-wise and system wise. My best players have (with a few shining exceptions) been almost invariably those who were completely ignorant of system, or the RPG scene. Now, something these people have in common is that they aren’t dysfunctional nerds, and they value coherent, wholesome social interactions.

Then I moved to England, and had within 1 year three really bad role-playing experiences – shitty DMing and shitty playing. Two of these experiences occurred in a story-free, sandbox type gaming environment being run by hardcore old-schoolers (one shitty player was just a classic example of a violent British idiot, so doesn’t really fit due to culturally-specific retardation). It occurs to me that this style of play is very compatible with the fragmentary, meaningless style of interaction which characterizes the social relations of early teen boys – the exact environment in which a lot of players of my age grew up, and which is very nicely described in this book. These are also the style of fragmentary social relations which one sees in WoW a lot – join a group for 2 hours, fuck around, disappear. I think there’s a relationship between these things, and the grognard school of role-playing thought, which is all about trying to hang on to your old school roots, is also all about hanging onto a social milieu which we remember from our early teens, when this sort of fragmentary interaction made sense to us. I think the grognards are valorizing a style of play which is at best out of whack with what most people I have ever played or DMd with want to do, and which is tied to a socially disruptive and transient stage of human development which, let’s face it, a lot of nerd boys have never grown out of[2]. Those fat bearded know-it-alls at the pub who have an opinion on everything (and God, did I meet a lot of these pricks in the role-playing clubs in London) love this kind of teenage boy interaction – they’re still doing it at 40. Those of us who have moved on from that have also, I suspect, moved on from the stand-alone module plot-hook-for-a-dungeon-crawl random-monster style of play, to something a bit more socially and intellectually fulfilling. Grognardia essentially admitted this today with his little rant against change.

Story-free gaming as religious observance

The other noticeable trait of these grognard blogs, of course, is their worship of gary gygax. According to a commenter in the “I Hate Change” thread of grognardia, “D&D divorced itself from Appendix N entirely” when in 4e “Ioun has become the goddess of magic”. You certainly hate change if this is a problem for you. You also have elevated a single edition of a single game to the status of a bible, complete with appendices. This is religion at its heart, and what do all religions have in common? Hatred of change, unwillingness to tolerate dissent, they’re a haven for people who seek shelter from the consequences of their own social problems, they are full of bullies and disciplinarians, and they tolerate no narrative that conflicts with their own. This is why they suit the “grind” noen refers to in the comments at CT; and why their adherents are so fond of story-free games and suspicious of any later innovations which dilute a game-style that was developed for a feckless audience of socially isolated and emotionally stunted early-teenage boys.

4th edition gamers and the story

A common complaint I’ve read about 4e is that it has reduced the rules to a style of computer game, like WoW, with tanks, DPS characters, etc, and this represents the lack of commitment to real gaming of modern youth, their attention spans are short, blah blah blah. The irony for me is that the blogs which are most resistant to story-free play are the ones by 4e players. In the socially isolating and confrontational context of the British pub gaming scene, the most fun I had in a game I played in was a 4e game. Why? Because the person who chose to DM it had been lured away from previous editions by the promise of simplicity and freedom for the GM, and the character traits which drew him to 4e make a good DM.  It’s the focus on the story, the primacy of social interaction and the shared nature of the game which makes 4e alluring to these people. Ironically, this is what the grognards claim that OD&D encourages, even while they are eschewing the story and engaging in a complex grind, similar in fashion to the MMO they hate 4e for having “become”.

I don’t intend to turn my gaming into a repetitive litany to Gary Gygax. Nor do I intend to reduce my DMing to a kind of sophisticated dice-rolling facilitator, or a disciplinarian high-priest of the Old School[3]. I will continue to DM for what my players want – an interesting story, in cool places, with high risks and high rewards, played in a way that is mutually satisfying for everyone involved, and not self-consciously situating itself at the heart of a geekish metaculture no-one outside of a few beardy opinionated fat guys gives two hoots about.

fn1: I think this is why you also see, in the threads of those blogs, a lot of comments about how players need to be “taught to be careful”, “disciplined”, “warned”, etc. For christ sakes, this is a game, something we do for enjoyment. This 80s British public-school model of “play” in which the bigger, stronger kids keep the smaller ones in line is not applicable anywhere in my life, and it makes me feel dirty when I see it being still enacted in my hobby.

fn2: I am a strong proponent of the claim that porn has important validity as a measure of social interaction and political currents. Porn has changed a lot over the years, and its current gonzo incarnation in the west is as much a product of industrial decisions and consumer powerlessness as is the current plot-free dross that we’re seeing in the computer game world. I inserted (pardon the pun) porn into this comment thread for that reason…

fn3: not that I’m suggesting anyone wants me to or is trying to make me do so. This is rhetoric by way of conclusion, ok?

This is a topic which has bothered me consistently since I first played Neverwinter Nights, and I was reminded of it today when reading the debate about unified game mechanics at Jeff’s Gameblog. I have been a fan of the development of unified game mechanics for many reasons for quite a while (that is what my own modifications of the d20 system are aimed at), but I was recently reminded by a friend, who is playing OD&D, of the richness and diversity of gaming experience in some of the early games, where every aspect of the system had a slightly (or wildly) different mechanic, and different rules and outcomes. I can still almost smell my Dungeon Master’s Guide and see the dense text describing what were in essence separate game sub-systems for every character and every spell. I wonder sometimes if unified game mechanics – even those with spells – can sometimes spoil this diversity.

What does this have to do with Neverwinter Nights? Well, I played Neverwinter Nights (NWN) purely and simply because it was by the crew who brought me Baldur’s Gate. Baldur’s Gate was a rich and diverse playing experience, with every scene, room and adventure section unique. Even game backgrounds differed from room to room. But NWN was, by contrast, disappointingly arid. Every room looked the same, every outdoor setting had the same sound and scenery, and although the mechanics were much simplified over BG, there was no sense of challenge or fantastic setting in it. The world was empty. I think this came down to the different design methods for the games. By the time NWN was released there was a rich library of graphics-cards programming methods, which I think were based on modern Object Oriented methods, which made it easy to produce scenery at a high level of interaction (visually in fact) using the editor – this sort of thing is facilitated very well by object oriented programming. These methods also enabled the consistent mechanics of action resolution. But in BG, the scenes and the monsters were built up piece-by-piece, using a more old-fashioned and time-consuming method (I think BG was from a previous generation of games which still used large amounts of specialised programming for each section). The result was art. For all the messiness of action resolution through toolbars and pausing so you could click and point and click again, there was a diversity of play and experience not present in NWN (or NWN2, IMHO).

Unified mechanics have, I think, something in common with Object Oriented programming. They essentially define a set of classes of objects, methods and properties for interacting with them, and provide the DM a toolkit for resolving actions smoothly and consistently at every stage of gaming. I think DnD 4e shows this, with every character having an “attack” method which is essentially resolved exactly the same way – only the look of it is different. Cutting out the diversity in favour of simplicity of resolution has removed some of the flavour, too. I think you can get this back through personal effort (I think the spells in my Compromise and Conceit world have a lot of flavour even though they use a common mechanic for resolution), and it is true that ultimately a lot of what happens in the gaming realm can be divided into attacks, buffs, effects or non-combat moves which simply beg for a unified resolution method. But I think it is subject to the same flaw as NWN experienced – it’s easier to bash out a very same-same set of rules, with no powerful descriptive properties or diversity, by favouring ease of game construction and task resolution over detail and the pleasure of developing a diverse and interesting system. Certainly I think D&D4e did this, and even 3.5e to some extent.

So, I think the trick with a unified mechanic is to use the simplicity it presents to enable smooth resolution of the detail of conflict which can be missing or difficult to rule on in systems which rely on sub-systems and exceptions to function. For example, I have some ideas for balancing large and small weapons in combat which would make combat a much richer and more tactical experience, but which I think wouldn’t work well in D&D pre- third edition, a system in which differences in weapons really weren’t used even if they were in the rules. The idea I have in mind uses the unified mechanic naturally to enable users of light weapons to take risks in order to close range on, and gain an advantage over, users of longer weapons. The unified skill-check system I use makes this easy to resolve without needing any special mechanics, just perhaps a sentence or two of advice. In general DMs should be using unified mechanics in order to broaden the range of circumstances in which PCs can act, and to diversify play. But I think in reality most unified mechanics are too clumsy or not well-enough explained (or not really sufficiently unitary) for people to do this easily. So they end up feeling arid, like NWN2.

Maybe this is food for thought in game design – don’t privilege unity of mechanical resolution over house-ruling fun stuff. Or, don’t assume that the unified mechanic will be sufficient for every DM in every circumstance, and don’t be afraid to tinker with it for the key parts of the system (i.e. combat). Or maybe it just means that those of us who think unified mechanics offer improvements need to explain how we use them and how they can work better. I might work on some examples of this from my system over the next few weeks…

Over at Grognardia, Sir Grognard had a long-standing objection to the Thief character class, primarily on the basis that it takes a single character out of play for a short time and leaves the other players twiddling their thumbs[1], and he slates this as the cause of the ultimate play-wrecker, the Cyberspace hacker character, which basically has its own little side-adventures in astral space every couple of sessions. Sir Grognard’s objection and his willingness to blame subsequent RPG developments like the hacker on the Thief seem to rest heavily on his critical attitude towards the inclusion of anything resembling a skill system in the rules.

Over at SOB, Chad Perrin has a brief discussion of a common point presented in favour of 4e by its defenders: that combat is quicker than 3rd edition, and “we can have more than one combat per session”. I agree with Chad that combat is not quicker in 4e, but I think part of the reason that 3rd edition games only had one combat per session is that the 3rd edition skill system was rich and detailed, and provided DMs and players alike with a wide range of opportunities to do many non-combat things. This inevitably leads to more varied adventuring and as a consequence less combat. Of course, at times the skill system gets bogged down in its own complexity (it has many idiosyncracies) but this is not the main cause of its time-eating properties. D&D 3rd edition had less combat per session because it encouraged other activities.

Now, I think I anticipate Sir Grognard arguing that this is not better, because any skill system adds a layer of abstractness to the actions one performs, and makes them less fun. I think I have read him argue,  for example, that traps should be disabled by players working out a solution based on what they see, social interaction should depend on interactions between players and DM, etc. But the problem with this in practice is that it relies too much on the DM and players’ imagination[3]. Consider, for example, the trap. In order for a trap to be a fun challenge in the Grognard vein, it requires that a) the DM be able to design it creatively and coherently, b) the DM be able to describe it in a way that the players understand, and be able to develop hints they are likely to get, and c) that the players aren’t stupid[4]. The less said about c) the better, but I can’t build or design anything myself and any trap I designed would be completely shite, so a) is out of the window, and though I’m good at b) it can be very tricky to do in general. In these instances, abstraction enables DMs to set a rich range of non-combat challenges which the players are guaranteed to be able to interact with, and as a consequence DMs put in more challenges of this sort. The abstraction makes them slightly less endearing, I supppose, but if one is going to rest on this argument, I feel a need to point out that Grognards everywhere will cheerfully defend OD&D’s combat system, in which the hit roll doesn’t actually represent a single attack, but a full minute of dodging and feinting and taking tea with the neighbours.

Consider the full range of activities which a 3rd edition party can undertake at will: setting and removing traps, tracking things, interacting with strangers the DM hasn’t come up with a coherent plot for, spotting hidden bastards, hiding and stalking, understanding local lore, climbing walls, and more esoteric things like analysing battles to see who will win, etc. This diversity of skills means that the players can suggest actions to the DM which he didn’t expect, setting new directions to the adventure, circumventing big challenges, etc. It also means that in a pinch the DM can come up with new challenges without having to fear being uncreative on the spot, and can set multiple different adventure directions which are chosen by a roll of the dice (e.g. if the Thief can open the door they get in easily, otherwise they have to visit the sly witch, etc.) [5]

Skill use also gives a framework for the resolution of non-combat actions which enables DMs to pull off plot hooks and force players in a certain direction without looking like they are using DM Fiat. This is a good thing. I think all of these elements of skill use appealed to a lot of players around the time 3e was released,  which is why systems like world of darkness, Ars Magic etc. were starting to take off. Rolemaster has a terribly complex combat system but its skill system kept me away from AD&D until I discovered the 3e. I think D&D has always been a bit cannibalistic, taking ideas from other places, and they did this in 3e too. In fact they did it so well that the d20 system became the monolith of  the gaming world.

Of course, 4e is ripping off the computer game world, and as a consequence it is going to be skill lite. Certainly the two sessions I played only used two skills, stealth and perception (from memory) and everything else was just slaughter. I think that some people defending 4e like this, because although they enjoyed the skill-use aspects of 3e, they mostly just love killin’ shit. I certainly have had players throughout my DMing life who essentially sit out the conversations, the complex problem-solving and the political interaction, and only get interested when the blood starts flowing. For these people 4e is a better balance of combat and skill-use; but for me, based on my limited experience of 4e (and my long experience of AD&D), a slightly abstract skill system with a good engine and a good framework within which DMs can make judgements is the key to a diverse and interesting gaming experience.

[1] I reference no particular post in support of this claim, and my apologies if my interpretation of the justification is wrong.

[2] I think Sir Grognard is right about the play-wrecking properties of the hacker, but wrong to say the hacker itself is a bad character: it’s essential to the cyberspace milieu and the cyberspace milieu is a good place to play. I also don’t think the hacker’s problems can be slated home to the AD&D Thief either.

[3] I know that sounds really bad, but it’s true. Every DM has had an experience where the players can’t quite get into the adventure because they can’t see things his or her way, or they think something is unrealistic, or the idea he or she thought was clever on paper on Sunday doesn’t work in practice. Everyone’s imagination is limited, which is part of the reason why so many role-playing adventures consist entirely of fightin’ and lootin’. Giving people an imagination-lite way of diversfying their activities seems to me to be a good thing.

[4] I would add too that when they aren’t being stupid, players tend to spend a lot of time being argumentative, and the Trap is the classic example  of this. Before you know it, some prat who couldn’t write an adventure if he had a module beside him is telling you that your  cunningly thought-out trap would never work because of blah blah blah and couldn’t we just do blah which is what the prat in question wanted to do all along, i.e. he didn’t get your hint so he blames you.

[5] I would add that this happens a lot, where the cunningly laid plan a DM set is completely wrecked by creative skill use, and in my view that is a good thing.

My post on how I don’t like 4th edition D&D (apparently I mustn’t call it AD&D anymore!) was reddited a few months back and has received 4 comments, the last of which claims that I don’t know what I’m talking about because “There’s no Orc race in 4e”. Now, this is very hard for me to believe because Orcs are the meat and drink of D&D (how else would we get our genocidal mojo on?), and if there were no Orc race there would be 6 million generations of pissed off D&D fans (can you imagine the emo-style whingeing that would evoke?)

But more importantly, I was there and I played it and there were Orcs. Now I don’t recall if they were officially Orcs or not but I definitely played one – and then I definitely slew some. That was the whole point of the two sessions I played. I have references, dammit (but they’re mad, and Scottish, so I don’t want to actually use them, so don’t ask for them). I don’t know for sure if the game I played was part of an official module or not (I get a sense it might have been but I wasn’t the DM so I don’t know).

But here’s the weirdness – I google 4e Orc and I can’t find much info, when I do a search on the D&D website I don’t get any 4e info (but then, there doesn’t seem to be any 4e info on the website, it’s all legacy stuff), but I do find references to half-Orcs.  You can’t get a half-Orc without the assistance of an Orc (yuck). But on DeviantArt there are pictures of 4e Orcs selling for 200 pounds. So what gives – do they exist or not?

And if there are no Orcs, is D&D still D&D? What do 1st level characters cut their teeth on?

It’s still boring though…

For the past few weeks I have been playing AD&D 4th edition at the pub, first with an excellent group of players who were actually nice, and then with the same group of players but a different DM. The first few sessions I played a first level rogue, followed by a first level warlock. The last session I played a 7th level Orc rogue. My first impressions are:

4th edition AD&D is really, really boring.

Everything which makes fantasy role-playing interesting has been stripped away, leaving a bunch of tired computer game characters. It’s like playing Dungeon Siege. One player introduced 4e to me as “turning AD&D into a MMO”, and that is undoubtedly the long and short of it. But MMOs have pretty pictures. Fantasy role-playing relies on imagination for its spark, and imagination is killed by having every character the same. In the 4e rules, every character just has a different way of rolling damage. It’s designed for rolling through battles, and it doesn’t even do that efficiently – last night’s session was an orc raid on a human village and it took an awfully long time. There is no sense to it of a game system designed for the diversity and breadth of experience which fantasy role-playing demands, just for lots of fighting. 

On top of that, it’s even more rules heavy than before. In AD&D 2nd edition, you could still say things like “I duck past the wagon and strike the Human in the face with my axe.” Now this simple interaction goes something like this:

Orc: Does the Human have partial cover? I have Killer Eye, so I can ignore it if he does.

DM: No, you have a full line of sight.

Orc: okay, so I can use my at-will melee power. I’ll use my minor to give a verbal command to my minion, then make a move action into an adjacent square, and for my attack I’ll use [insert meaningless action here]. Does that provoke an attack of opportunity?

DM: Yeah, this guy here can do an attack of opportunity.

Orc: Okay, well that’s no good. For my minor I’ll shift to the other side of the wagon, then I’ll make a move action and strike as my standard.

DM: That’ll give you combat advantage. Will you mark him if you hit?

None of this makes any sense to me. It also doesn’t read or sound like adventuring. To me it sounds like… programming, or something. And all the quibbling over shifts, slides, pushes, moves and minors takes a lot of game time. I mean really, who invents a “rule” which says that, if someone hits you in the face with a great axe, diverting your attention to attack someone else is a bad idea which will probably make your life harder? I thought this was what DM’s were there to do…

Mages in the new rules also seem to be awesomely bad. We had a newbie 2 weeks ago, a woman called Julie who had drifted in off the street to give role-playing a go for the first time in her life. That’s brave! She was playing a wizard that never hit anything, and when it did it got 1d6+2 damage. That was pretty much it for her powers, though she could maybe reel off a sleep once, and do a burst on the odd occasion. Meanwhile my rogue was doing 1d6+2d8+7 damage every round, never missing, and laying the bad guys out like they were wet towels. Hardly encouraging. This week, we were super-scared of the possibility of mages so my rogue scouted ahead, identified the two mages and gave a signal to the other orcs. They charged in to overpower the mages, with our minions doing 1d12+3 damage and hitting half the time. What did our super-scary mage opponents have? 1d6+2 that hit 1/3 of the time. 

woooooo, scary.

So now we have a new version of AD&D where everyone has roughly the same number of powers and abilities, but for some reason wizard powers are eternally useless, and rogue powers are super-super-nasty. At least in v3.5 wizards are interesting but weak. Now they’re boring but weak. And don’t even get me started on healing surges, warlocks or the fact that one of my fellow players managed to put a flesh golem to sleep.

So far I don’t think I like it. And I don’t think it’s going to win the battle against World of Warcraft.