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D&D, by any other name, would smell as sweet

As a gaming experience, Dungeons & Dragons is just too iconic for me to let go. There are plenty of other games that are tighter, more modern, or have a host of other benefits, but it doesn’t seem to matter. It wasn’t even the first game I touched! That would be the d20 Star Wars Roleplaying Game, while I was in high school — yes, I’m a youngun. So, I can’t precisely say why I’ve taken such an interest in “recreating” a flavor and experience I’m not sure I’ve ever had.

I played a bit of D&D 3.5 in college, and liked it fairly well. I think that had more to do with the GM and his setting than the rules themselves, which I always found too fiddly. “Use Rope” as a skill always seemed out of place to me in a game about adventuring heroes, and I think my group in the day had similar qualms. We played a lot more of Savage Worlds, for one, than we ever did of 3.5 D&D. One guy was even intent on developing a wholly homebrewed d6-based generic system to run any game that struck his fancy, and had the monster Word file drafts to prove it.

D&D’s Fourth Edition came out during the summer after my senior year when I moved back from Spokane, and after a long dry spell for me when it came to tabletop gaming. Parts of my old college group had graduated or moved away, and getting folks together reliably had been hard. Being back in my hometown of Portland and having access to some solid friends combined with the promise of a newly streamlined version of the RPG genre I loved was a sweet promise. I bought the 3-book set on a whim from my local gaming store on the day it released, and in my giddy excitement managed to rope a couple friends into rolling up new characters post-midnight — on a weeknight! Ah, those were halcyon days. We had a blast for a while (years, really), but the constant rollout of content led to feature-bleed between classes, and ruined some of the magic once we began to see all the raw math at work, repeated in every new power. We had grown as gamers, too, and had tried indie games that did fascinating social & storytelling things that made D&D seem lacking.

In my head, though, I was always on the lookout for a system that could be the D&D I wanted. I toyed with Savage Worlds for a time, as it’s a favorite for generic pulp roleplaying, but I found its social mechanics even less developed than D&D of any stripe. Running a Deadlands: Reloaded game with Savage Worlds also turned me off the system for D&D, as its feel wasn’t quite what I wanted in the end. Our group played a fantastic run of the Dresden Files RPG, set in an urban fantasy version of our own city (before it was cool enough for TV!), and for a while I was sure I had my winner. Even now, if I was going to try a story-focused game in a D&D style world, FATE and the DFRPG would probably be my starting point. It has a universal system for combat, skills, and social encounters that makes sense for each of those uses, which is impressive as hell.

It was playing DungeonWorld, based on Vince Baker’s ApocalypseWorld, that proved to be the real watershed moment. This, this was the ticket. A solid 90% at least of what that game is doing is what I want, and I’ll be psyched to see what the game looks like in its finished form. Its philosophy of interesting success & failure is one that more games should employ.

So DungeonWorld had a lot going for it. It was dead simple to play. It was fun. It was class-based, and those classes felt really cool in different ways. It did genius things with turning gear into a storytelling resource (the Adventurer’s Kit with spendable uses for undending purposes was a favorite). It pointed the way to the D&D I wanted to play… but it didn’t give me enough. A campaign with those rules, and I’d run out of room for players to advance pretty quick. Monsters were thin on the ground. And I still wasn’t totally happy with the social end of things. A near miss, but I was hopeful.

And then… I heard the rumblings. The blogosphere was disturbed. Could it be true, so soon? Wizards of the Coast soliciting player input for the next edition of D&D? Was this rumor, or fact? To my surprise, it was real. To my further surprise — I liked a lot of what I was hearing.

Whether by design of Wizards or by player demand, D&D Next is shaping up to be something a lot more like my ideal D&D than any previous version. Its classes remind me of that feeling I got looking at DungeonWorld class booklets. It has a skill system that seems both stripped down and versatile. It’s got modular systems to add complexity where your game might want it, but doesn’t lump it in by default. It encourages more free-form play. It weights non-combat mechanics evenly with combat ones (best shown in the excellent background benefits). It restores interesting-ness to mundane equipment, and special-ness to magic items. As of this writing, the math for some things still seems a bit off, but they’re still in early stages of the design & development process. I kind of like how bumpy and unpolished the experience is thus far, though — it gives a genuine sense of seeing a game designed in real time, and with your feedback helping guide that evolution. I have high hopes for the finished product it becomes.

Someday, I need to run Primetime Adventures, and see how good a fit that might be for a D&D game. I tend to conceptualize my games as TV series or movies to begin with, so using a system meant for that is something I really need to do. Alas, the original version is out of print and the new one is still in a limited playtest (last I checked).

Right now, and somewhat ironically, there’s another take on D&D influenced by modern indie games, and that’s the one I’ve chosen to kick off a new campaign this month: 13th Age, being designed by former Wizards honchos Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet. It too is still in playtest, though it is an order of magnitude closer to being published, as is the expansion book currently being Kickstarted (three more days — get in on that!). Heinsoo helped design D&D 4e, Jonathan Tweet did 3.0/3.5, and the game feels like a smart hybrid of what each version did well. It also incorporates some baked-in social roleplaying & storytelling elements to give players & GMs more hooks from the get-go.

Why start my campaign with 13th Age and not D&D Next? Frankly, from a pure numbers standpoint, it has a load more finished classes & monsters for me to use in my game. I’ll let D&D Next continue to percolate and evolve in the meantime. I’m still very new to the 13th Age system, as is my group, but so far we’re definitely enjoying the game it offers. It has a nice mix of the familiar and the new. How close will that mix be to my ideal D&D? I don’t know. Between 13th Age and D&D Next, I’ve got a lot to look forward to, and only time will tell. You can certainly expect to see more information about how 13th Age is panning out, as our campaign develops.

In pursuit of the ideal D&D experience

I first started the ball rolling on this particular blog in 2008. The four years between that year and this one have seen an awful lot of edition-warring and soul-searching about the nature of D&D. What defines it? What makes it tick? Some of discussion has been pedantic and rage-filled, but plenty too has been insightful and thought-provoking.

I know these debates aren’t new, even to the internet, but I wasn’t much of a BBS or list-serv person when the 2nd edition AD&D transition into 3.0/3.5 D&D happened, so I can’t speak to it. I’ve heard tales it was every bit polemic as the flame-wars during the lifespan of 4th edition. But with social media making the broadcast of opinions (and yes, rage) easier for the layperson to follow, I think the community has felt the impact of the debate more keenly this time around. Few probably took the whole ordeal more to heart than the D&D team at Wizards of the Coast.

When my own dissatisfaction with D&D 4th Edition set in, our gaming group was starting to get antsy in general. We swore off d20 systems for a time, and enjoyed long-running campaigns with Shadowrun and the Dresden Files RPG. If d20 came up as an option, it was usually for old-school D&D with the 80’s-style Rules Cyclopedia, or for a night’s one-shot in the Tomb of Horrors, or a special session for those who’d never actually touched 3.5, being late to the hobby (halflings, you have my continued sympathy for your truly cruel jump penalty). So while we weren’t doing much D&D, we were still exploring that space a bit. And oddly, we never got back into a regular game with “medieval fantasy” as the genre until this year’s foray with Burning Wheel.

Partly, I think that’s because I’m the guy with the biggest love for the typical D&D milieu, at least as RPGs go. And I had run enough 4th Edition to know it wasn’t my top choice, nor were any of the other variants of 3.0/3.5 D&D & Paizo’s Pathfinder. The editions older than those had too many arcane & counter-intuitive systems to sit right with me. So I kept casting about, trying to find my ideal system and define what the D&D touchstones are, in my mind. I never sat down & wrote up a list, but I did have things rattling around in my head that still won’t leave…

D&D is class-based. The iconic D&D classes are key, so classless systems are a dealbreaker (much as I love them). If I weren’t so attached to classes, FATE/DFRPG would probably be able to pull off being a top-notch D&D impersonator.

D&D has fun fights with cool monsters. Every group is going to swing the pendulum on the social/combat continuum where they like, but fights are always going to be a big deal. The fights should be fast-moving, tense, and cinematic. Meaningful fights should be the norm, but there should be room for surprise a la wandering monsters, without obvious appeals to XP-grinding.

D&D has simple & versatile core rules. I understand well the allure of having subsystems that better represent actions like driving vehicles, fighting in the sky, grappling, and so on, but until mastery is achieved I find these kinds of detailed rules a real bother. Solid rules that apply to many situations and smartly allow for innovation and improvisation are where the action is.

D&D heroes are badasses. This hasn’t always been true in D&D’s history, but it’s true to me. Lots of games exist that drive home how precarious battle really is for all involved — instant death is a terrifying possibility. In D&D, this is true for the common folk, but much less so for adventurers.

D&D promotes fun & complex social encounters. And this is where so many systems fall apart! The games with social/exploratory rules that are as well-designed as combat rules are few & far between. The problem is only compounded when multiple linked skill rolls are standing in for meaningful complexity. Does this contradict my “simple & versatile” note above? A little. But that’s pointed at the core of a system: I expect some situational complexity on top of that core. Class features & combat get this kind of attention; skill & social systems often don’t.

D&D has interesting failures. The “skill roll with binary outcome” doesn’t go far enough for me by a long shot. Failure shouldn’t be the boring result that “nothing happens”. Dwelling on repeated failures that do little beyond expend player resources (hit points, abilities/spells, turns attempting skill checks) is mostly wasted time. Success shouldn’t be guaranteed, but if failure lacks a real consequence, a roll is probably unnecessary. The best handling of failures is to introduce new complications for the players into the situation, whether they be immediate or delayed.

That’s six rough points that cover a lot of what I want; wanting to have them all in one game has meant trying a lot of RPGs and never finding the one that seems quite right. As quests go it may be a little quixotic — especially since there are ineffable qualities about my ideal D&D that are hard to pin down, but easily noticed in their absence. And there’s a few qualities that are on the fence… I think a list of “is not” qualities is far less useful than trying to figure out what something is. These are the things, though, that I’ve found I don’t need.

D&D does not require d20. I love and hate the d20. It’s fun to roll one; the thrill of the natural 20 is unparalleled; it has remained a constant throughout D&D’s history. But at the same time, it’s probably a bigger die than it needs to be, and it’s hard to ignore that one die with so much variance decreases the impact of a character’s skill & ability scores. (I’ll probably write more in the future about how well the FATE system avoids this with its Fudge dice rules.) A D&D system that can use the d20 well & address its shortcomings is tough to do, and very welcome at the table.

D&D should not demand minis or a grid. Minis are another thing I love, as a person with strong visual/kinesthetic tendencies and an interest in crafts. But, they can do more to restrict the imagination than open it up, and bog the action down with more petty realism and “how would this work in real life” tangents than I’d like. There’s also the logistics impact. Being able to play just fine without opens up a lot more real world spaces for play.

D&D shouldn’t be driven by strict realism. This is another “personal preference” area, and one where I distinctly come down in favor of “rule of cool” decision-making. Suspension of disbelief is important for everyone involved, and I certainly don’t want the mood at the table to be cartoonish in a typical D&D game. But I do want the adventurers to feel exceptional, and for encounters to have lots of stylistic highlights. Putting mechanical limits on this one is hard. I like the at-wills and dailies of 4th Edition overall, but find that encounter powers mostly rub me the wrong way. The associated/dissociated mechanic divide plays a role, too. Mostly, I just want my games to play out like episodes of great TV, no matter what system we’re using.

So what games fit these lists? Not many! More on which ones come close (and which ones fall far short) in a future post. 

Where I'm at in 2012

Hey! It’s been a while. Funny how parts of your life get can be eclipsed by other people without your even noticing. I’ll hit the highlights:

  • Met a girl. Dated the girl! Broke up with the girl. (Repeat steps 2 & 3. And again. Aaaand again. Yikes.)
  • Got laid off  again! Got re-hired  again! Made it through a teacher’s strike. (Mostly, it was boring.) Finally got to the end of a school year with my job intact, which was sweet, sweet relief.
  • Got transferred. Got secretly transferred again, at the last minute. Wasn’t happy. Loving the new school, though!
  • Watched an embarassing number of TV series from start to finish.
  • Went to PAX Prime three years running. Played a lot of games.

Those are the pieces that stick out to my brain, anyhow. So what is this? What to make of this place, now I’ve got it up & running again? Used to be I pretty much talked about games & stories. Small sample size, I admit. But the theme is there. And even when my brain wanders away from strange habits like frequent blogging, it’s pondering and doing those things.

Back when I was last posting here, my sphere of gaming was much narrower. I’ve always been a tabletop fan, but in the last 2-and-a-half years I’ve had the chance to get to know the genre even better. We’ve been playing Luke Crane’s Burning Wheel these last months. We’ve tried out Mutants & MastermindsFATE (via the excellent Dresden Files RPG), ParanoiaCall of CthulhuDeadlands (using Savage Worlds), Void VulturesApocalypseWorldMouse GuardDungeonWorld, Microscope; with established favorites like D&D Fourth Edition and Shadowrun popping up fairly often.

There’s probably more games liberally sprinkled throughout — my memory ain’t so good! We’ve added Fiasco to the regular one-shot rotation. Done a few sessions of the D&D Next playtest. One of us is writing and playtesting his own indie games! And four of us went off the deep end (most everyone at least getting their toes wet) and got big into Magic: The Gathering, our wallets all the lighter because of it.

So, I’ll be focusing on those things I love: games and stories. I’ll try to think about how one medium speaks to another, and ramble about those electric, nebulous intersections. I’ll geek out about geek things, think out loud, veer onto tangets, and drill down on the littlest details. It’ll probably be erratic… but also, it maybe won’t.

Locking Yourself Out, Then Trying to Get Back In

by Raymond Carver

You simply go out and shut the door
without thinking. And when you look back
at what you’ve done
it’s too late. If this sounds
like the story of a life, okay.

It was raining. The neighbors who had
a key were away. I tried and tried
the lower windows. Stared
inside the sofa, plants, the table
and chairs, the stereo set-up.
My coffee cup and ashtrays waited for me
on the glass-topped table, and my heart
went out to them. I said, Hello, friends,
or something like that. After all,
this wasn’t so bad.
Worse things had happened. This
was even a little funny. I found the ladder.
Took that and leaned it against the house.
Then climbed in the rain to the deck,
swung myself over the railing
and tried the door. Which was locked,
of course. But I looked in just the same
at my desk, some papers, and my chair.
This was the window on the other side
of the desk where I’d raise my eyes
and stare out when I sat at that desk.
This is not like downstairs, I thought.
This is something else.

And it was something to look in like that, unseen,
from the deck. To be there, inside, and not be there.
I don’t even think I can talk about it.
I brought my face close to the glass
and imagined myself inside,
sitting at the desk. Looking up
from my work now and again.
Thinking about some other place
and some other time.
The people I had loved then.

I stood there for a minute in the rain.
Considering myself to be the luckiest of men.
Even though a wave of grief passed through me.
Even though I felt violently ashamed
of the injury I’d done back then.
I bashed that beautiful window.
And stepped back in.

—from Where Water Comes Together With Other Water

New year! New domain!

Welcome to twenty-ten!

After more than 2 months of waiting around, I was finally able to transfer an old domain I’d let lapse into poverty and make it useful again. Word to the wise: whenever you renew a domain, there’s a waiting  of between 45 and 60 days before you can fuckle with it, transfer-wise.

So now, with those 60 days finally passed, The Nth Degree resides at, making this all professional and shit. Being a perfectionist, I loathed to post here until I could do it up right. Incredibly petty, or amazing resolve? You decide!

I don’t know that I’m going to keep doing the long-format posts that have been the only things here for the last 6 months. Squarespace offers a highly-classy iPhone app for posting to your site & tinkering with various things, so I shouldn’t be surprised if posts begin to approach soul-of-wit length.

It’s nothing astounding, but the wheels in my life keep turning even as I let this house moulder and decay. Here’s some things that have happened between posts:

I kind of forgot to keep playing Dragon Age! I have a bad attention span with videogames; I probably “finish” less than a third of the ones I buy, which isn’t a big number to begin with. The last game I recall completing was GTA IV — and even then, just the main storyline, not the side stuff. Anyway, maybe I’ll finish it? I guess?

I also let World of Warcraft die naked and alone! Not tragic, just my usual binge-purge cycle with the game. I’m sure I’ll be roped in again come Cataclysm.

I started playing Mass Effect 2! It’s pretty great! I don’t think I’m going to get into any real detail about it here on the site, but it’s a definite step up in terms of gameplay, visuals, and best of all: storytelling. I’ll probably even play it all the way to the finish.

My job is more different! At the time of my last post, I was working in a “special behavioral classroom” (or SBC) at an area middle school. I now work one-on-one with a student at an elementary school, and it is AMAZING the change one year makes (the 6th graders I was with, to the 5th graders I o now). It’s about to change again soon, as I transition into supporting a student with autism, as well. I shouldn’t be surprised if the topic of ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorders) comes up in the future; it’s pretty fascinating.

Thanks to that job, I have my eyes set on getting a place of my own! In this economy, it’s not as shameful to live with your folks as it might be, especially for the recently-graduated (and those poor fucks still trapped with the intestines of higher education). But I want out bad. I’m building up a nest egg to make it happen.

I bought an iPhone! That much should be obvious from my remark about the Squarespace app, but it happen just about a week after my last post. This is also thanks to the job; I got two paychecks at once, in essence, and flush with cash I decided the time was right. I love the little bastard. I’m past the gadget phase, and it’s now just a ridiculously useful tool. (And mobile Scrabble platform for all my properly-equipped friends.)

Still doing the D&D thing! Not DMing at the moment, as I’m letting a good friend test out the waters with a homebrewed campaign of his own. It’s only had one session so far, but I think it’s been pretty great.

I submitted a proposal to Wizards of the Coast and never heard back! They say they have a 60-day turnaround time for the submissions they’re interested in, and I never heard back. Didn’t stop me from tweaking the email a bit and sending it in again! I figure, until I see the article in Dragon that makes mine obsolete, I’ll just keep resubmitting the fucker until they accept it out of pity, disgust, or the simple desire to make me go away.

Some interesting prospects on the horizon! This is all speculation, but I’m crossing my fingers that a nice change of pace is headed my way soon. I’d go into more detail (and maybe I will later), but I don’t want to jinx it just yet. And actually, I’m being so vague this really applies to two totally different things. Developing!

I am become adult, destroyer of childhoods! My job is actually full-time now: benefits, retirement options; the whole she-bang. From what I understand, they want me to stick around fairly long-term. Multiple school years, if I understand the plan they have laid out for the students I work with and the training they’re giving me. It’s not public radio, and that does leave a weight on my chest some nights. But I’m hoping that maybe, doing this is what will pay the bills while I work public radio in around it; better still, maybe this will just be the stop-gap I want it to be until The Stars Are Right and I get my job at PRI and Cthulhu awakens within his lost city of R’Lyeh. Anyway, I’m also managing and paying my student loans on my own now, and I’m getting my taxes prepped without as much help as usual. With getting a place of my own looming in the near-distance, it’s a pretty heady brew.