Build-your-own RPG?

Your world, your game, your rules.

(No, this isn’t a terrorism site explaining how to build a rocket launcher, my apologies if you were misled by the article title. )

First off, go read this for context – http://www.neogrognard.com/article/352/bag-of-feats, as it’s full of good points I couldn’t make anywhere near as elequently.

Leaving feat mechanics aside, I’m going to focus on two specific thing touched on in the article: “the game as imagined vs the game as played”, and “most RPGs are designed with the idea that they are unified theories of what the game world looks like”.

RPGs tend to be written around how the developer(s) believe it should be played.  That’s a fairly obvious and redundant statement, I guess, but there are often people that will poke through the rules, looking for any exploit they can find.  These people usually try and pass this off as “optimizing” (admittedly there’s a grey area between the two), when they’re just annoying the hell out of everyone else.  Well, they’re annoying the hell out of me, and that pretty much means the same thing in my book :P     You can usually tell when the line is crossed when someone pulls out a rulebook and has to point to a specific rule to back up the incredibly stupid thing they just said they were doing.  Generally, if it doesn’t seem right to the DM and the players, it’s probably not, whatever the rulebook says.

Sometimes, this isn’t such a bad thing.  Sometimes it leads to ludicrous situations such as “druids being ridden by the gorilla animal companions decked out in full plate and a lance” mentioned in the aforementioned article.  However, this is why we have a DM – if RAW (Rules As Written) really was enough, you wouldn’t need someone in the DM role to act as final judge on their execution and to attempt to ensure the game was fun and balanced.

Now, I’m not talking about House Rules here – they’re a great thing, and sit parallel to mods for computer games – they let people play the game they want to play as opposed to the almost-but-not-quite-perfect one they bought.  I’m in danger of going off in a rant here on Rules Lawyers and the ninety-nine best ways to cause them to die painfully, so time to get back on track.

Lets take the other thing I pulled out of that article – the idea of the rules essentially being the “physics” of the game world.  You can go a bit further, and take them as being the physics of a movie set in the game world, because the main characters (the PCs and the major NPCs) are often capable of things normal inhabitants of that world are not and will be focusing on non-mundane tasks.  The rules often reflect this, either directly or implied.

You can see this in the differences between various game systems.  D&D mechanics are geared towards combat, because it’s assumed you’ll be playing combat-orientated stories.   Call of Cthulhu is written more towards the assumption that PCs will be utilising academic skills.   The various Star Trek RPGs over the years tend to have focused on skills for operating starships and various other pieces of technology.

I’ve always loved taking a system and turning it on its head, placing its focus elsewhere than the designers originally intended.  The various D&D versions over the years have spawned unofficial “Sage” classes, for example, that give players the option of a non-combat-orientated character.  This may have been the polar opposite to the direction the game rules went with 4e, but it shows that groups have always been empowered to play the game they want, without having to throw the rules away and play something else.  It’s also why a real RPG will always beat a computer RPG, at least until we have Star-Trek-style holodecks that allow us to give them instructions in plain english to modify the game rules.

The “bags of feats” idea from the article I mentioned at the beginning is a big step towards giving groups their game world, as opposed to the game developer’s one.  I don’t think this actually goes far enough – you need a full “plugin” system of feats, skills, and optional game mechanics (including a “sanity” rule à la CoC is a good example of this) so the game can focus on the type of story the group wants to play.  No matter what you may have been told, a non combat-orientated variant of D&D is not an impossibility.  The more I think about it, the more I think d20/D&D 3(.5) went in the right direction here when you look at some of the innovative addons third-party publishers built into the system (just look at Mongoose’s d20 Babylon 5 RPG for an example), but at the cost of bloat and complexity.  4e is a far neater, organised system, but doesn’t have the flexibility.  We’ve seen both extremes – maybe now it’s time to meet somewhere in the middle?

Essentials Dungeon Master’s Kit vs the Dungeon Master’s Guide

I’ve been using the new Essentials Dungeon Master’s Kit for about a week now.  Something I was curious about originally (and therefore figured others probably are) is whether it is simply a rehash of the existing 4e Dungeon Master’s Guide or has enough new material for veteran DMs to want to pick it up.

Lets put aside for now the maps, counters, DM screen, and adventure included in the box (although to be honest I was happy getting it for those alone), and focus on comparing the books directly.  I’m not approaching this as a review of the ‘Kit – there will be enough of those by now.  This will be a true comparison of the two books for those wondering whether it’s worth having both, or who want to decide which to get.

First off, the Dungeon Master’s Book (the title of the book in the Kit – we’ll use “DMB” and “DMG” to differentiate between the two) opens up with an introduction to the game for new DMs, rather than assuming you’ve just finished reading a player-orientated rulebook.  It then heads into what appears to be a heavily-edited version of “The Gaming Group” from the DMG.  At that point the direct comparisons appear to end, as the DMB then dives directly into how to run the game through encounters, exploration, and turns.

Just as you’re getting used to that however, we run into an almost-verbatim copy of “Table Rules” from the DMG, followed by an only-slightly edited version of “The D&D World” (DMG Chapter 9) and “Fallcrest” (DMG Chapter 11, minus the “Kobold Hall” adventure and – somewhat disappointingly – the character stats).  An amalgamated list of deities from the PHB and DMG can be found in this section, too.

“Running the Game” (DMG Chapter 2) follows from this, with the notable omissions of preparation time (quite possibly mentioning a four hour preparation option was putting prospective DMs off!), improvising (initial eek!), and troubleshooting (initial sigh – but keep reading for good news).

The next 1/3 of the book is an abbreviated set of D&D core rules.  Obviously you’ll need the Rules Compendium for the comprehensive version, but to be fair it is more than complete enough for beginning players and certainly enough for veterans to have the most-used rules handy.  Happily, the aforementioned sections on improvising and troubleshooting have been moved here!

We head next into “Building Adventures” (from DMG Chapter 6, with Encounters text from DMG Chapter 4), and finish off with “Rewards” (DMG Chapter 7 plus what appears to be the Magic Items section from the PHB – something I felt really ought to have been in the DMG in the first place).  The new treasure system is included here too (for those still using the DMG, don’t worry, its just another system and theres no need to dump the existing one if you prefer that!)

All in all, I’d still recommend this for veteran DMs simply because the rulebook format is a heck of a lot easier to lug around (obviously not an issue if you always host the game yourself), and for the rules updates.  Plus as mentioned earlier the additional material outside of the book is worth the purchase price alone for me.

For new players, it is also worth pointing out the “dollar buy-in” mentioned by James Wyatt in the preview at http://www.wizards.com/dnd/Article.aspx?x=dnd/drfe/20100817– with this product, DMs no longer need to buy a full set of core rules – obviously many will want to anyway in order to play a character too, but to get started you only need this one box, plus the upcoming Monster Vault when you want to go beyond published adventures.  The reorganised layout is also far better for new players, I feel.

Alelsa Zauber, D&D4e Edition

Alelsa-DND-FeaturedAlelsa Zauber, level 1
Human, Warlock
Build: Scourge Warlock
Eldritch Blast: Eldritch Blast Constitution
Eldritch Pact: Infernal Pact
Human Power Selection: Bonus At-Will Power

FINAL ABILITY SCORES
Str 12, Con 18, Dex 10, Int 14, Wis 11, Cha 13.

STARTING ABILITY SCORES
Str 12, Con 16, Dex 10, Int 14, Wis 11, Cha 13.

AC: 14 Fort: 15 Reflex: 14 Will: 13
HP: 30 Surges: 10 Surge Value: 7

TRAINED SKILLS
Religion +7, History +7, Bluff +6, Arcana +7, Intimidate +6

UNTRAINED SKILLS
Acrobatics, Diplomacy +1, Dungeoneering, Endurance +4, Heal, Insight, Nature, Perception, Stealth, Streetwise +1, Thievery, Athletics +1

Alelsa’s 28mm Alter-Ego

FEATS
Human: Improved Dark One’s Blessing
Level 1: Action Surge

POWERS
Bonus At-Will Power: Eyebite
Eldritch Blast: Eldritch Blast
Infernal Pact: Hellish Rebuke
Warlock encounter 1: Vampiric Embrace
Warlock daily 1: Curse of the Dark Dream

ITEMS
Leather Armor, Adventurer’s Kit, Rod Implement