Dragon+ Magazine

Dragon+ magazine has some interesting content, mostly in the maps and some paintings (Hasbro can certainly afford good artists).

But the reader is a cruel joke. What is Hasbro doing? There’s an iOS app, Android app, and web version, but no PDF. It’s free-as-in-kittens content, why do I have to page thru this abysmal UI they’ve cobbled together? Or why can’t it just be a series of static, usable web pages, which might even be searchable?

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D&D Survey

Hasbro has a D&D Survey which you should take, if you think the current edition’s direction needs adjustment.

My feedback comment:

Lack of PDF editions of 5th edition makes it a complete non-starter to me. I have the SRDs, which are fine for understanding the game if I’m ever in a group which will only play it, but if Hasbro can’t be bothered to publish in the format I use, I won’t buy. Meanwhile I can get every other game and module ever made as a PDF on my iPad.

While I liked Greyhawk back in the ’80s, I’m not a fan of necrophiliacs digging up Gary’s grave looting his setting and breaking everything because they didn’t take the time to understand it. Most of Hasbro’s would-be module or setting writers are hacks who can’t publish a novel, so they wreck settings or write linear trash adventures.

Compare basically anything published for 5th ed with anything by Lamentations of the Flame Princess or Venger Satanis, and it’s just laughable that anyone would choose Hasbro.

Do better or stop trying.

Beyond D&D

Just a quick note, the D&D Beyond site is now up.

Character creation seems OK, though I was unable to pick a multiclass before rolling ability scores, so the workflow there is backwards. It exports a decent PDF form, but only listed my “prepared” spells, leaving off two known spells. Still some work to do.

Compendium lets you buy digital rulebooks… Which seem to be only on the site, not PDFs, and rather hilariously have all the subclasses as DLC/addons/Pay-to-Win. No shit, you pay $1.99 to be an Assassin. Or $3.99 to choose from backgrounds like Charlatan, Urchin, or Pirate. I can’t even tell if this was a joke that went too far, or what. It’s a fucking role-playing game, man, you can write whatever you want in your background.

The entire set of “content” is $279.99. I am, uh, kind of awestruck at Wizards of the Hasbro’s chutzpah and greed.

Old-School Modules, Part I

I need to post more often. A new update of Stone Halls & Serpent Men is coming, but needs some more work and testing, since I’m making a significant change: Level 1 characters will only receive 2 Professions, they’ll get a 3rd at Level 2. There’s also a major gameplay & player control tool, and some other goodies.

In the mean time, I thought I’d go thru the collection of ancient modules, and see which ones are suitable and interesting to run with Stone Halls & Serpent Men. Since I expect most people don’t have the oldest rules (even though you can buy all but Holmes currently on DriveThruRPG), I’m just going to include their maps to show what they’re like, but I won’t do that for the standalone modules. All map rights held by Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast/TSR, except Outdoor Survival by The Avalon Hill Game Company.

This first installment will just cover original D&D, Holmes, Moldvay, and B1.

Dungeons & Dragons Book III Underworld & Wilderness Adventures (TSR, Gary Gygax & Dave Arneson, 1974)

The underworld adventure consists of a side-view of 6 levels split into several parts with interconnections, but no key.

There is a partially-keyed map for level 1. Not really usable as an adventure by itself, and the other levels are not detailed.

The outdoor map is the Outdoor Survival boardgame, with some features changed into fantastic equivalents, but it’s unkeyed.

Rating: ★☆☆☆☆ Barely a sketch.

D&D Book 3-pg 3
D&D Book 3-pg 4
Outdoor Survival

Dungeons & Dragons, Basic Set (TSR, Eric J. Holmes, 1977)

There’s a much better side-view map of The Great Stone Skull Mountain, 7 levels including a domed city. But again there is no key.

The sample dungeon has a setting (sadly not the interior of the Great Stone Skull), a nearby town, and is fully keyed, with stats for the NPCs. I’ve only used this dungeon a couple times ever, but it’s nearly a modern adventure. Interesting points are the multiple entrances (stairs, tower, and sea cave) and multiple loops; it’s unreasonably hard for a defender to hold this dungeon, but that’s good for a starter adventure, where an overly powerful enemy can be avoided.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ Acceptable, if bare-bones.

D&D Basic-pg 39
D&D Basic-pg 42

Basic Dungeons & Dragons (B/X), Basic Set (TSR, Tom Moldvay, 1981)

The side-view doesn’t even have named levels.

The sample dungeon of the Haunted Keep has one tower mapped with a few small rooms but a sort of interesting maze, fully keyed with example rolls from the tables. The scenario backstory about wererats, the second tower, and the 2nd-3rd levels are not mapped. I’ve never used this, and it’s kind of a sad little stub of an adventure.

However, note the dungeon key, by this time dungeon notation’s become standardized.

Rating: ★½☆☆☆ Incomplete.

Basic D&D-pg 58
Basic D&D-pg 57
Basic D&D-pg 58-key

Basic Dungeons & Dragons (B/X), Expert Set (TSR, Dave Cook & Steve Marsh, 1981)

The sample wilderness is the Grand Duchy of Karameikos with a hex map and 3 barely-described towns, and an unkeyed “Gnome Lair”. But it does have a terrain notation key.

Rating: ★☆☆☆☆ Nothing there.

Expert D&D-pg 61
Expert D&D-pg 62-gnome lair
Expert D&D-pg 62-key

B1 In Search of Adventure (TSR, Mike Carr, 1979)

Two complex maze-like levels, completely filling a page each (starting the very artificial pattern of an 8.5×11, north-facing dungeon map, easily predicted by players), with about 8 themed areas. Quasqueton is a funhouse trap dungeon built by an obviously unstable wizard and his murderous militant partner. The descriptions are often evocative of the tone of a well-run facility degraded into the den of a few scavenging monsters. This is not a “mythic underworld”, it’s not Gygaxian Naturalism with ecological notes and political interactions mapped out, but somewhere in between.

There is no side-view, and it’s not absolutely needed, but there are multiple connections between the levels. A more 3-dimensional dungeon would probably be too hard for novice players to map.

The monsters and treasures are given in separate lists at the end of the module, not assigned to specific rooms, whether to throw off players who have read the module, or because TSR was trying to teach novice “Dungeon Masters” how to distribute items, though I don’t think they succeeded at that.

There’s a good section of character lists (12 of each class), for pregens or henchmen, with randomized personality, arms, armor, level, and spells.

The handout/background sheet including a Sutherland illustration and adventuring tips is interesting. And the occasional interior art, mostly by David C. Sutherland III and some “DIS & DAT” with David A. Trampier of Wormy fame, is both informative and a little wacky.

In general, this dungeon is less deadly and more forgiving than one designed to test experienced players. It is designed to be fairly challenging, however, and is by no means “easy.” Careless adventurers will pay the penalty for a lack of caution—only one of the many lessons to be learned within the dungeon!

The dungeon itself is ready to run, and I think it’s an interesting challenge even 38 years later. I’d replace the every-monster-in-the-book tables entirely with a smaller number of themed monsters, and work out patrol paths and zones where they can hear alarms and come running. Make the dungeon a living community instead of a prison where you murder inmates. The treasures are almost acceptable in value (maybe halved, with the really good ones hidden or guarded better than usual), but there’s no flavor text for any of the magic items, which I consider unacceptable, so I’d have to expand those.

Rating: ★★★½☆ The page-fitting maps and fill-in monsters & treasures hurt an otherwise respectable challenge dungeon.

B1-pg 31

If all attempts to escape fail, the persons trapped will be doomed to their fate.

Indeed.

Next time I’ll look at Blackmoor’s Temple of the Frog and B2.

Non-Human PCs

Ken St. Andre (@Trollgodfather) was musing on Twitter:

Gamers, did you know that Monsters! Monsters!, a direct spinoff from Tunnels & Trolls published by Metagaming in 1976 was the first frpg to allow–nay, it required you–to play monsters as your protagonist player character. Not just humanoids, but any monster. Dragon anyone?

Monsters! Monsters! is pretty straightforward, Tunnels & Trolls with a giant list of monster stats instead of a few puny humanoids, how to fight humanoids, a sample village full of enemies (that STR 20 Miller is a beast!). It’s very much a sandbox, where your monsters go out and do whatever malevolence they want before returning to a nice safe dungeon.

It’d be a great game to run Yet Another Fantasy Gamer Comic (sort of NSFW), where half the characters are monsters from Black Mountain, half are humanoids from stupid fantasy kingdoms. Or mix it up with the old Dwarfstar boardgames as maps & scenarios.

(Speaking of which, I need to write a serious review of Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls; I meant to do some tabletop or online play first, but that’s not happening, and I do play solos with it.)


White box D&D (Gary Gygax & Dave Arneson, 1974) has Dwarves[sic], Elves, Halflings (“Should any player wish to be one”, as crappy max level 4 Fighting Men), and the following rules-less advice:

Other Character Types: There is no reason that players cannot be allowed to play as virtually anything, provided they begin relatively weak and work up to the top, i.e., a player wishing to be a Dragon would have to begin as, let us say, a “young” one and progress upwards in the usual manner, steps being predetermined by the campaign referee.

Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (ed. by Eric Holmes, 1977) has Dwarves[sic], Elves, Halflings (without the snark or level cap, alas), and again no rules, just advice:

ADDITIONAL CHARACTER CLASSES

There are a number of other character types which are detailed in ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS. There are sub-classes of the four basic classes. They are: paladins and rangers (fighting men), illusionists and witches (magic-users), monks and druids (clerics), and assassins (thieves). There are half elves. Special characteristics for dwarven, elven, and halfling thieves are given. In addition, rules for characters who possess the rare talent of psionic ability are detailed. However, for a beginning campaign these additions are not necessary, and players should accustom themselves to regular play before adding further complexities.

At the Dungeon Master’s discretion a character can be anything his or her player wants him to be. Characters must always start out inexperienced and relatively weak and build on their experience. Thus, an expedition might include, in addition to the four basic classes and races (human, elven, dwarven, halflingish), a centaur, a lawful werebear, and a Japanese Samurai fighting man.

By 1979, all such permissiveness is gone, and I’m certain this comes from Gary having burned out on convention tournament games being griefed by weird characters, and just locking it down. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide has a 2-column essay on how unacceptable monster PCs are, followed by 3 columns on handling PCs infected with lycanthropy, so that nobody would want to keep it.

THE MONSTER AS A PLAYER CHARACTER

On occasion one player or another will evidence a strong desire to operate as a monster, conceiving a playable character as a strong demon, a devil, a dragon, or one of the most powerful sort of undead creatures. This is done principally because the player sees the desired monster character as superior to his or her peers and likely to provide a dominant role for him or her in the campaign. A moment of reflection will bring them to the un-alterable conclusion that the game is heavily weighted towards mankind.

[4¶ on how great humankind is elided…]

As to other sorts of monsters as player characters, you as DM must decide in light of your aims and the style of your campaign. The considered opinion of this writer is that such characters are not beneficial to the game and should be excluded. Note that exclusion is best handled by restriction and not by refusal. Enumeration of the limits and drawbacks which are attendant upon the monster character will always be sufficient to steer the intelligent player away from the monster approach, for in most cases it was only thought of as a likely manner of game domination. The truly experimental-type player might be allowed to play such a monster character for a time so as to satisfy curiosity, and it can then be moved to non-player status and still be an interesting part of the campaign -and the player is most likely to desire to drop the monster character once he or she has examined its potential and played that role for a time. The less intelligent players who demand to play monster characters regardless of obvious consequences will soon remove themselves from play in any event, for their own ineptness will serve to have players or monsters or traps finish them Off.

So you are virtually on your own with regard to monsters as player characters. You have advice as to why they are not featured, why no details of monster character classes are given herein. The rest is up to you, for when all is said and done, it is your world, and your players must live in it with their characters. Be good to yourself as well as them, and everyone concerned will benefit from a well-conceived, well-ordered, fairly-judged campaign built upon the best of imaginative and creative thinking.

I love the trite sign-off of his Rule Zero caveat. When Gary was being nice like that, he was flipping you off.


In Stone Halls & Serpent Men, I allow anything with the “Monster” race, because it really doesn’t hurt the game if they’re levelled up just like anyone else. The limits on gaining abilities are a little tough, but they keep monsters from completely overwhelming the humanoids.

A monster PC will have social problems, but rarely kill-on-sight: A Gargoyle stomping through the streets of Glorien would scare the citizens, and the guards will keep a distance and get more competent help to find out what the monster wants, but a relatively peaceful monster’s gold spends the same as a Human’s.

Doomed

You may be feeling a little down right now. It can always be worse.

  • Black Sun Deathcrawl

    Nameless husks fleeing downwards in dungeons forever, watch everyone you ever meet die. Is this any worse than normal D&D? No more pretense of heroism or money-grubbing, the only excuse for levelling is escaping death a little longer.

    you are the Cursed, remnants
    of life in a universe of decay
    cannibalistic parasites you
    suck a meager existence from
    the corpse of a long dead reality
    once you had nations, races, goals
    now you are one, united at last
    in the unending struggle for
    survival in a reality that abhors you
    once you had love and happiness and light
    now there is only the crawl
    
  • Qelong

    Scavenging a lost weapon from the sidelines of a massive war you cannot understand or affect, doing nothing but spreading more misery among people you’ve decided are less important than your own profit.

  • Deep Carbon Observatory

    After natural disaster, and unnatural pollution and predation, you travel through an increasingly horrifying world and fail to prevent worse disasters, before plunging into darkness and horror forever.

  • Death Frost Doom

    A forbiddingly large graveyard, a creepy cabin on a mountain, a book of dead names. And a dungeon, there’s always a dungeon. Anything you disturb may be hard to put back down. What is it about these things that’s so hard to resist?

  • S1 Tomb of Horrors

    A tomb of an ancient wizard, full of death and just enough rewards to be worth going in, right? At one time, you could be that delusional. But you know now what it is, everyone in gaming’s heard enough about old Acererak’s lair. It’s in Ready Player One, it can’t be that scary. And still you’ll lose if you go in, and you have to go in.

I don’t usually run these kind of adventures, except at the end of a campaign when it seems like attention is flagging. But they’re among my favorite to read, and contemplate running, and steal bits of. The Crow siblings from Deep Carbon Observatory are of course to be found somewhere.

D&D 5E SRD OGL Acronym Soup

Hasbro of the Coast finally released the D&D 5E SRD!

(SRD = Systems Reference Document, the genericized version of the rules you can use to publish adventures or supplements; OGL = Open Gaming License, which makes all this not-quite-D&D stuff legally possible)

I plan to give this a good going thru, and see if I’d want to update Stone Halls & Serpent Men to be based on this instead of the D20 3.x SRD. I never did get around to a full review of D&D 5E Basic when it was coming out, and frankly it just bored me to death; it’s not liveliest awfulness like 4E, and not a hot mess of incoherent rules like 3.x or Pathfinder, so… snooze. They can’t have my money for 5E until they put out PDFs, which I guess now I don’t need. Cash being left on the table, Hasbros.

The one big change I see is that instead of 1d20 + stat (bonus) + Level rolls, D&D 5E uses 1d20 + bonus + Proficiency Bonus, and P.B. ranges from +2 at Level 1, to +6 at Level 20; this makes higher levels more playable, but everyone kinda sucks equally. Fighters don’t hit any better than Wizards, and nobody can hit an AC 30 monster. I’d rather have the game be a race to competence at Level 9 and near-godhood at Level 20.

P.S. Testing out the 2016 WP theme. I like seeing date & comment links up by the top of a post.

D&D Next Playtest Rules

Time Warp. Level 7 Magic-User Spell. Material components:

  • 1 bag of Cheetos™.
  • 6 bottles of Mexican Coca-Cola™ for that real sugar taste.
  • One set of soapy TSR dice. Alternately, razor-sharp GameScience™ dice (still my specialized weapon).
  • Pencils, lined paper, graph paper, hex paper.
  • Hawkwind’s “Space Ritual”.
  • One copy of D&D Next Playtest

    “Notwithstanding the foregoing, you may publicly discuss your thoughts regarding the D&D Next Playtest Materials and your playtesting experience.”

Mechanically, this looks a lot like a D20 retro-clone; a stripped-down D20 system. It’s not the miniatures wargame crossed with Magic the Gathering® card superpowers of pseudo-D&D 4E, at least. It’s a long way from being a completed game.

Skills There is no skill list! You use your ability scores for checks and saving throws, and some class/other features will give bonuses, but it’s not another damned shopping list. I guess they finally got over their GURPS envy. Exploration and the DM Guidelines have rules blocks with lists of DC targets, and classes that provide bonuses to these. But everyone can do almost any of the “thieves’ skills”, with the exception that only thieves can use actual lockpicks. Thieves are pretty close to totally irrelevant in this game, which makes me happier.

Advantages and disadvantages (anything a class/race is good/bad at) use a second die roll, and you keep the best or worst result; I’d have to see that in play or simulation to know how catastrophic a disadvantage is. It’s a unique solution to the problem, but I think a modifier of +4 or -4 (more? less?) would have been saner.

Hit Points are inflated: They start equal to your Con score plus one hit die. I think that’s too much for a game where a spear still does 1d6 damage. Hold still while I stab you with a spear, Mr Dwarf Fighter (20 HP), stab 5 stab 3 stab 2 stab 2 stab 1 stab 5 stab 3, so it took SEVEN successful stabs to get you unconscious. In the old days, it would take just two, maybe 3. Oh, quit bleeding on my carpet, you damned Dwarf.

Level is vastly deflated and deprecated. There’s no experience table beyond the 3 levels on the character sheets, and the XP awards listed in the Bestiary, so who knows what maximum level looks like. But tasks don’t use level, the game looks far more mortal than it’s been since OD&D where 9th level was a good retirement point.

Combat is vastly simplified. Surprise costs you -20 Initiative (they don’t say “for the first round”, so basically being surprised is a total clusterfuck). Initiative is rolled once at the start of a battle, but other than a single-serving ready action, you can’t change your order. On your turn, you get a move and one action and shut up, that’s it.

Critical hits are a natural 20 doing maximum damage, no second rolls and then faffing about with weapon type.

There’s no rules for wrestling or other unarmed combat. In the weapons chart, there’s damage for an unarmed strike (1d4), but no bolas, whips, nets. Is this an oversight or deliberate avoidance of a complex subject? The Strength Saving Throws section mentions grapples and bindings.

Equipment. Man, those ridiculous copper pieces are still there, but Electrum is back! Party like it’s 1974! Values of each coin in CP by edition:

Edition         CP      SP      EP      GP      PP
----------------------------------------------------
OD&D            1       5       25/100* 50      250
Holmes          1       5       25      50      250
Cyclopedia      1       10      50      100     500
AD&D 1st Ed     1       10      100     200     1000
D20             1       10      -       100     1000
D&D Next        1       10      50      100     1000
UK 1660-1971    1       12      -       240**   -
Harry Potter*** 1       17      -       493     -

* “If Electrum is added it is optionally worth either twice or half the value of Gold.”

** 1 Pound Sterling was worth 20 shillings, but actual gold coins varied radically as gold/silver exchange rates changed.

*** CP = Knut, SP = Sickle, GP = Galleon. Makes no less sense than anything else.

For a similar tale of inflationary confusion, see Roman currency.

Armor has better variety. Light armor adds Dex mod, medium armor adds half Dex mod, heavy armor adds no Dex mod. There’s 4 armors for each weight, plus light and heavy shields (+1 and +2 AC). There’s non-magical fantasy armor at the top of the price charts, so you still have something to spend loot on.

Weapons are most of the usual list divided into Basic, Finesse (can use Dex instead of Str), Martial, Heavy, Missile, and Complex Missile. But some classes still have arbitrary lists of allowed/proscribed weapons, such as the Wizard has “Daggers, slings, and quarterstaffs”, even though the Cleric has basic weapons including hammers, maces, handaxes, spears, etc. So no blunt weapon restriction? Still quite awkward and unlike any real (non-D&D-fanfic) fantasy literature.

Adventuring gear list is insanely long (4 pages in a 31-page booklet!), still has a 10′ pole, but no chalk for marking your way. Do you think anyone looks at these items anymore? Or is it cut-and-paste?

Encumbrance is still in pounds. Are we not past that yet? Hey, at least it’s not coin-weights anymore. I’m used to modern games which use “X items” capacity and common sense.

Magic The Wizard example can cast 3 x 1st level spells, plus unlimited cantrips (Detect Magic, Light, Magic Missile, Mage Hand, Ray of Frost, Shocking Grasp — no little non-combat cantrips? I miss Color, Fart, and Stinkeye (may not be actual cantrips)). The Cleric examples can cast 2 x 1st level spells, plus unlimited orisons (Detect Magic, Radiant Lance, Death Ward shown). I think this may be an overcorrection, but at least nobody will call a Wizard “fire and forget”. You still have to prepare specific spells, so your least popular spells will never be cast even if they’d be useful.

The spell list makes no real distinction between arcane and divine magic. Spells once again have verbal, somatic, and in some cases material components. It’s not clear if you have to gather sand for Sleep, but it is clear in cases like Continual Light’s 50 GP of ruby dust(!).

I’ll look at the Bestiary and Caves of Chaos tomorrow, then try an actual playtest when I can kidnap some players.

Classes in D&D

D&D 5th Edition’s (#dndnext) classes seem to be varying between 4 and 50. I think there only need to be 3, just like in Original D&D, or Swords & Wizardry White Box.

Fighting Men: The Fighter fills every non-magical combatant role from heavy knight, to barbarian, to hunter, to thief. Which weapons and armor the Fighter uses determine what else they can do. A knight in full plate and a half-dozen heavy weapons needs a heavy mount to get around, and the expense of this implies either a feudal system with dozens or hundreds of peasants supporting the knight, or massive treasure hoards protected by dragons, that only a knight can extract. A barbarian’s few heavy weapons and medium armor make movement important, and probably sailing or riding to strike with surprise at undefended enemies. A thief uses light weapons and light or no armor to get maximum speed and stealth.

Magic-User: The essential traits of a wizard, from Merlin to Thoth Amon to Elric to Gandalf, are direct attack spells, and information gathering: Detects, identify items, ESP, clairvoyance, and languages and lore skills. I’m no fan of Vancian magic, but for D&D it’s traditional and mandatory. To make up for the very limited low-level spells per day, I use the cheap scroll-making system from original D&D (100 GP/level, 1 week/level), and gift starting Magic-Users with a few 1st level and maybe one 2nd level scrolls. An alternative solution is to have cantrips which can be performed for free; this makes Magic-Users more true to genre, and a weak attack cantrip (1d4 damage at most) or Harry Potter-ish Stupefy and Disarm charms keep them in the game. Magic-Users in myth and literature wear no armor, but often have weapons, especially swords.

Cleric: Clerics cover the range from pure spell-using priests to combatant paladins, Brother Cadfael to Roland. Holy men healing people is a common fantasy trope, all the way back to that weird “Bible” anthology some people take so seriously. Turning the undead makes Clerics useful even when their spells run out. Scrolls can fill out low-level healing abilities, as with Magic-Users. Clerics wearing heavy armor is unusual, but some paladins like Roland and Turpin did; the old “blunt weapons” restriction only makes sense for one segment of priests of one religion at one point in history, and should be discarded.

Not Included: Thieves are just very weak Fighting Men, they do nothing special, if you have even the simplest skill system or stat checks. Rangers are just Fighting Men with bows. Paladins are just Clerics who fight more than cast. Cavaliers are Fighting Men with horses. Assassins are just Fighting Men; killing people is what Fighting Men do. Druids are just neutral Clerics.

My thoughts on races may be seen even more radical, but that’s because they are based on history and mythology, not the incestuous Tolkien-D&D-novelization-pseudofantasy cycle that ends in Salvatore’s “Good Drow” bullshit books.

Dwarfs: In Norse mythology, Dwarfs were maggots in the body of Yggdrasil, and only mentioned being powerful Fighting Men or having dark magical power. Wagner’s Ring Cycle reinforces these roles. Tolkien’s adaptation is peculiar for having no practical magic, but their role as heavy fighters was set. I’d prefer if they could only be Fighting Men, but wizened Dwarf Magic-Users like Alberich are appropriate. Is it too late to dump the anti-magic nonsense?

Elves: In Norse mythology, the Alfar are either of light or darkness, and do healing or cursing magic depending. In Celtic mythology, the Elves do mostly illusions and sometimes healing magic. In Tolkien, Elves do healing magic, there are no Elven battle mages, that’s what they use bows for. So I’d prefer if they could be Fighting Men or Clerics, and not Magic-Users. Certainly I see no precedent for the multi-classing element.

Other Non-Humans: Genocide. Hobbits, er, “Halflings”, are vermin, an abomination to be wiped from gaming. Gnomes are annoying, best used as nuisances by the DM. Half-breeds aren’t as good or interesting as their full-blood parents. Orcs, Ogres, Goblins, Lizard-Men, etc. don’t fit well in a Human-centric campaign, which most fantasy literature reflects. These could well be statted up in the Monster Manual so the DM can allow them in unusual campaigns, but in the main book, only Humans, Dwarfs, and Elves have any legitimacy.

Hasbro Announces Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition

The breaking news of the day is that Hasbro’s D&D 4E [1] is dead, D&D 5E is on the way, in a NY Times article by Ethan Gilsdorf.
Over at Forbes, David M. Ewalt talks about playtesting the new edition.

First, the message of the medium: The Rise and Fall of D&D is in the NY Times and Forbes? It’s not a big-money business. It’s not even a medium-money business. There’s a few tens of millions of fans, who play a huge variety of RPGs, some of which are labelled “D&D” and some of which are not. Are NY Times and Forbes editors or readers big D&D nerds?

The things that drove D&D down are pretty simple, but they don’t really address them, just a facile “videogames did it”, which misses the forest full of ravenous trolls for a pixie stabbing them in the ankles. And if they don’t understand them, they can’t fix them.

First, Wizards and then Hasbro made each new edition more complicated, annoying, and less RPG-like than the last; 4E isn’t even really an RPG, just RPG stats attached to a boardgame. The “Ravenloft” boardgame is just 4E cleared of unnecessary mechanics like role-playing and a GM. Hasbro seemed almost determined to discard settings with any character, like Greyhawk, and switch entirely to generic brand “Forgotten Realms”, or just a “points of light” non-setting between dungeon crawls.

Casual D&D players haven’t had a simple, usable, complete game from Wizards since 1983. The 2010 “Red Box” was just a demo, with only level 2 advancement. The new edition desperately needs a starter set that is not crippled. Pathfinder’s Beginner’s Box is an excellent game, which I’ll be reviewing here soon, and it has a full, simple game up to level 5. If Hasbro can’t make a better starting experience, they will continue to fail and be dead on arrival.

Second, they wasted time and money on new technology that didn’t matter, instead of the only one that does: ebooks. Which makes this line hilariously ironic:

“Even if players increasingly bring their iPads, loaded with Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks, to the gaming table.” —Ethan Gilsdorf

There was a brief time when Hasbro allowed PDFs of older editions of D&D to be sold, and I have a large set of the modules and a few books. But Hasbro has never sold current editions in PDF, and seem dedicated to never doing so. Not everyone is so blind to the “future”, Paizo sells all of their Pathfinder books in PDF, print, or PDF+Print bundles. So do most other publishers now.

Third, they have to compete with everyone else who makes RPGs, either cheaper or for free, almost always with better, faster, simpler mechanics, and more interesting settings. Would you rather hack through a series of setting-less dungeon crawls with hours of counter-twiddling per battle, or role-play in A Song of Ice and Fire or Dragon Age, and complete an adventure in a night or two? The latter two combined will cost you less and be infinitely more fun. Even if you unreasonably played a new game every 6 months, it would cost less than keeping up with modules and supplements for D&D 4E.

Fourth, they have to compete with older editions and retro-clones of those editions. My preference is for Swords & Wizardry, where it is 1978 and always will be. Others prefer AD&D and OSRIC. If you have a rules set you like and a GM with a modicum of imagination, you never need to buy another book. That spells doom for any game company that tries to make it “big time” like Hasbro.

Fifth, MMOs. The people who “leave” for MMOs don’t generally stay gone. They often play both, or come back to tabletop. Having a branded D&D MMO that wasn’t terrible would help retention, but that didn’t work out (I have no real opinion of DDO, as it doesn’t run on Mac OS X, while World of Warcraft does; but that’s failure enough). But if you left D&D 3E for a few years, there’d be no compelling reason to buy into 4E and start over, when you could pick up your old books, or Pathfinder, or Dragon Age RPG or anything else, and carry on.

So What Now?

Mike Mearls is the guy who drove 4E into the ground, but he’s still in charge. Monte Cook has returned to Hasbro, and is an excellent game designer (though D20 didn’t always show good design, it sold very well indeed), but if he’s not able to call the shots, I don’t see how this situation will improve.

Hasbro’s “D&D Next” is trying to crowd-source ideas and get wider playtesting for the new edition, which apparently is playable but still so malleable they could take it in entirely new directions?

And finally, Jeff Rients has an excellent suggestion: Release old editions as PDF so they can be studied and learned from. Hasbro not selling PDFs hasn’t stopped people from playing retro-clones and other RPGs. They might as well make a little money off those players, and try to make the next edition enough better that a few come back.

I Had In Mind Something a Little More Radical

I have another solution, though. Repackage the Moldvay/Mentzer D&D Basic Set and the D&D Cyclopedia as “Fifth Edition”, add some new art, and sell those. They’re better games, and the work’s already done.


[1] Hasbro owns Wizards of the Coast, which owns TSR, which has the same initials as Gary Gygax’s former company Tactical Studies Rules, and Gary Gygax created D&D with some assistance from Dave Arneson. Calling whatever Hasbro sells “D&D” is kind of weird.