Thursday, December 29, 2011

Hungover Heroes Guild, Part Seven

A summary and cast of PCs can be found here, at the beginning of Session 6's AAR.

Our heroes thought they were safe at Eagles Eyrie, resting and preparing to set off southwards. However, a report from the dwarven lookouts from their concealed posts told of Zhentilar--not the standard town watch, but actual heavily armed and armored soldiers--approaching the Eyrie. They ran afoul of one of the dwarves' traps then withdrew.

A debate erupted in the Eyrie--should the dwarves leave their newly-liberated outpost to the Zhents or defend it to the death? A few blamed the PCs for leading the Zhents there, but Baravis' devilish charm convinced them that it wasn't their fault. The dwarves were convinced to depart and gathered up the bones of Elshar Kurl and Dorn the Grim. During their sojourn, the PCs learned the lore of the dwarves' flight from Eagles' Eyrie:
Sending their kinsfolk to the halls of their cousins in the Mines of Tethyamar, Elshar Kurl, the priest, and Dorn the Grim, the chieftain, remained behind to buy time for their clan, knowing that they would probably die. They kept up the appearance of an entire clan resisting Colderan forces and the rest of the clan escaped.

The two dwarves sought to destroy the upstart mage and his curse by forging a sword of cold iron. They made the blade of dark ironstar steel and chanted sorcery with every strike of the smith's hammer, but ultimately the blade failed them. Their bodies are only skeletons now, clothed in remnants of chain mail armor.
The bones were gathered up and were taken to be interred at Anathar's Dell in a temporary tomb until the Eyrie could be retaken. Baravis led the escape from the Eyrie. The dwarves set out south on the Tethyamar Trail, disguised as simple traveling tinkers. The PCs stuck to the countryside. After two days, they arrived at Castle Daggerdale, where they spent the night, where Sven fell ill with filth fever. The next two days were rough on the PCs as they struggled to keep away from Zhentilar patrols on the road and reach Anathar's Dell as Sven weakened. They made a litter that Drog dragged through the fields and meadows as they wandered south.

Eragyn, swathed in flowing black robes, stepped into the illuminated dome of Eagles' Eyrie. Constable Tren Noemfor followed sheepishly, clutching a few papers and trying to avoid the steely gaze of the priestess of Cyric.

A Zhentilar trooper stepped forward. "The forge has recently been in use, priestess. It is uncertain if our quarry was here, but someone was until very, very recently. The coals are still hot."

Eragyn grimaced and turned toward Constable Noemfor. "Their papers?"

"Copied and sent away, as you ordered." Eragyn stretched out a hand and he placed the parchment into her hands. She looked at them briefly.

"Sven Lackman of Waterdeep, passport. An identification paper from someplace called Sigil for a certain Baravis. And we know the one was a Zhent traitor named Vlad, from whose sentence you apparently allowed to escape." She thrust the papers at Noemfor. "Your superiors in Zhentil Keep will not be happy at your incompetence." She sneered. "You underestimated them. I will not make the same mistake. However, I know their weaknesses better than you."

She turned to a sergeant of the Zhentilar. "I want those adventurers found. Send a patrol down every road leading out of the Dale. Send scouting parties to every town and village from here to the Dagger River and beyond."

The sergeant swallowed thickly. "Beyond, priestess? Even the Dagger River vale isn't safe--Randal Morn's Freedom Riders are active and hold the allegiance of nearly every river settlement and the entirety of the Dale south of it!"

She shook her head. "I understand your concerns, but they must be found. I want them and I want Colderan. Find them both!" She turned back to Noemfor. "If they escape the Dale, it is no matter. Every agent and spy from here to Westgate will soon know of them and know of the bounty I've placed upon them. We'll have them soon enough." She smirked. "Or at least their ears."

With the help of Baravis' Healing skill, Sven made a full recovery at Anathar's Dell. There, Baravis attempted to mend the breach between the Brightblade Clan and House Morn. An agent of the Freedom Riders met briefly with the PCs and took their concerns regarding an alliance between the two factions. He asked if the PCs knew anything about the whereabouts of the Sword of the Dales.

They departed, following the Tethyamar Trail to the crossroads with the Northride, where they spent the night with a patrol of Shadowdale guardsmen at the Shrine of Torm. Upon arriving in Shadowdale the next afternoon, they decided to investigate the mysterious trampling of fields in the northern village as well as question Lhaeo, Elminster's apprentice, regarding the whereabouts of the Sword of the Dales.

The PCs are at a crossroads--they can seek information on Finott, a wizard who disappeared before the Time of Troubles who was an expert on Shraevyn the Weapons-Mage (maker of the Sword of the Dales), or they can follow up on other adventuring opportunities in Shadowdale itself. We'll see what they decide to do this Friday.

The arms of Lord Mourngrym Amcathra
Lord of Shadowdale

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Book Review--THE JEWEL IN THE SKULL by Michael Moorcock

EDIT: I'd like to thank Taran of One Last Sketch for the link to this most excellent review of The History of the Runestaff. Check it out. It addresses some of the reasons why I was so disappointed by this book--mainly Moorcock wrote it as a potboiler in the space of three days. Basically, he wrote it to pay the bills while the bulk of his time was spent on more serious projects. Apparently the 1990s omnibus editions were corrected of inconsistencies and such, but still remain very disappointing.

Anyway, on with the review... .

I'd like to start out with a few quotes:

Théoden King of the Mark had reached the road from the Gate to the River, and he turned towards the City that was now less than a mile distant. He slackened his speed a little, seeking new foes, and his knights came about him, and Dernhelm was with them. Ahead nearer the walls Elfhelm's men were among the siege-engines, hewing, slaying, driving their foes into the fire-pits. Well nigh all the northern half of the Pelennor was overrun, and there camps were blazing, orcs were flying towards the River like herds before the hunters; and the Rohirrim went hither and thither at their will. But they had not yet overthrown the siege, nor won the Gate. Many foes stood before it, and on the further half of the plain were other hosts still unfought. Southward beyond the road lay the main force of the Haradrim, and there their horsemen were gathered about the standard of their chieftain. And he looked out, and in the growing light he saw the banner of the king, and that it was far ahead of the battle with few men about it. Then he was filled with a red wrath and shouted aloud, and displaying his standard, black serpent upon scarlet, he came against the white horse and the green with a great press of men; and the drawing of the scimitars of the Southrons was like a glimmer of stars.

Then Théoden
was aware of him, and would not wait for his onset, but crying to Snowmane he charged headlong to greet him. Great was the clash of their meeting. But the white fury of the North-men burned the hotter, and more skilled was their knighthood with long spears and bitter. Fewer were they but they clove through the Southrons like a fire-bolt in a forest. Right through the press drove Théoden Thengel's son, and his spear was shivered as he threw down their chieftain. Out swept his sword, and he spurred to the standard, hewed staff and bearer; and the black serpent foundered. Then all that was left unslain of their cavalry turned and fled far away. --J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

How about another quote?
And then, as the horde writhed and coiled upon itself, Amalric's lancers, having cut through a cordon of horsemen encountered in the outer valley, swept around the extremity of the western ridge and smote the host in a steel-tipped wedge, splitting it asunder. His attack carried all the dazing demoralization of a surprise on the rear. Thinking themselves flanked by a superior force and frenzied at the fear of being cut off from the desert, swarms of nomads broke and stampeded, working havoc in the ranks of their more steadfast comrades. These staggered and the horsemen rode through them. Up on the ridges the desert fighters wavered, and the hillmen fell on them with renewed fury, driving them down the slopes. --Robert E. Howard, "The Black Colossus"
And for comparison, this final quote:
From the remaining ranks of infantry, arrows flew thickly toward them and flame-lances sent searing fire. Count Brass' archers retaliated, and his flame-lancers also returned the attack. Arrows clattered on their armour. Several men fell. Others were struck down by the flame-lances. Through the chaos of fire and flying arrows, the infantry of Granbretan steadily advanced, in spite of depleted numbers. They paused when they came to the swampy ground, choked as it was with the bodies of their horses, and their officers furiously urged them on. --Michael Moorcock, The Jewel in the Skull
One can see a vast difference between the first two and the last quote, both in temperament and quality of prose. I would expect much more from the man who would later pen the essay "Epic Pooh," blasting Tolkien for the "sentimental, slightly distanced, often wistful, a trifle retrospective" prose that "contains little wit and much whimsy."

Tolkien's description of the Battle of Pelennor Fields and Howard's description of the battle at the Escarpment are both written extremely well. Tolkien's description eschews the sleepy quality that Moorcock describes as reminding him of A.A. Milne:
There is an element of conspiratorial persuasion in his tone that a suspicious child can detect early in life. Let's all be cosy, it seems to say (children's books are, after all, written by conservative adults anxious to maintain an unreal attitude to childhood); let's forget about our troubles and go to sleep. At which I would find myself stirring to a sitting position in my little bed and responding with uncivilized bad taste. --Michael Moorcock, "Epic Pooh"
True, Moorcock provides quotes to compare portions of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to back up his argument. But Tolkien does not maintain a consistent voice throughout the novels. Indeed, he alters his voice depending on the circumstances and the Battle of Pelennor Fields reads more like Beowulf or The Iliad than Winnie-the-Pooh. Granted, Moorcock deals with these shifts and injects a good deal of politics into his assessment of Tolkien's supposed anti-industrialism and anti-democratic romanticism.

But this review isn't about "Epic Pooh." If you want to read a full rebuttal to Moorcock's essay, check out "Knocking Some Stuffing Out of Moorcock's 'Epic Pooh'" by Brian Murphy of the Silver Key. It's about The Jewel in the Skull and how I was profoundly disappointed by this book by the man who wrote "Epic Pooh."

Now, I've read Elric of
Melniboné and remember enjoying it. However, I wasn't quite so profoundly moved or invigorated as I was by Tolkien's or Howard's prose. Indeed, the prose in The Jewel in the Skull is so weak that I had difficulty making it all the way through the book. I was profoundly disappointed by this work. Indeed, this book is weak in more than simply prose, but also in characterization and plot.

Firstly, let's discuss characterization. The main character, Dorian Hawkmoon, isn't introduced until fifty pages into the novel. This isn't bad in-and-of itself, however Moorcock fails to utilize it effectively by building a very compelling opening. Dorian could be easily played by Keanu Reeves as he's almost completely bereft of emotion for much of the middle of the novel. Granted, Moorcock was trying to use his strange emotionlessness as a vehicle, but he handles it so poorly that it fails completely. Our protagonist is absolutely unsympathetic and the reader is utterly incapable of identifying with him. Therefore, we don't really care if he lives, dies, wins, or loses.

The villains are cardboard cutouts, especially Baron Meliadus. The Dark Empire of Granbretan, which is uniting the continent of post-apocalyptic Europe, is evil... and engages in wanton slaughter and rapine of conquered territories... and that's about it. Oh, and it has an immortal god-emperor. Wow.

Moorcock establishes Baron Meliadus' villainy so clumsily that it comes off almost as a laughable parody of Robin Hood-type heels like the Sheriff of Nottingham. Of course he's going to try to abscond with the princess! Of course he's going to wound the aptly-named warrior-poet Bowgentle with villainous swordplay. Of course he's going to betray Count Brass' honorable hospitality. Of course he's going to swear vengeance and rant over every defeat like Skeletor, Cobra Commander, or Megatron.

Count Brass is likewise such an archetype of the honorable warrior-knight that he, also, becomes a laughable stereotype. Moorcock introduces him and develops his character but in so doing makes Count Brass so predictable and noble that he comes off as a flat caricature and not a character.

The plot is not much better, although it does have its moments. At least the opening sets the stage for the later conflict correctly enough. The Dark Empire wants the Kamarg--a portion of what used to be southern France--either with Count Brass' vassalage or through outright conquest. Count Brass, being honorable to a fault, refuses to become politically involved and thus cannot support Granbretan, although he feels that the unification of Europe under one banner and the ending of all the incessant warring (of which he's a renowned hero) would be a Good Thing, even if Granbretan is at the helm. This makes very little sense--he wants to see Europe unified, doesn't want to get involved, and yet is the ruler of a state that is a part of Europe and must eventually be incorporated into any unified whole. The entire time I'm reading, I feel that Count Brass is Lawful Stupid--noble and honorable at the expense of any real rationality. At least Ned Stark wasn't stupid--his honor and nobility got him a pretty rotten result, nevertheless.

Baron Meliadus, in comparison, behaves Retarded Evil. You'd think a Dark Empire ambassador would be much more subtle, but no, that would actually be interesting. Instead, Baron Meliadus tries to steal Count Brass' daughter and kill his best friends when Count Brass proves himself too stupid to live. He doesn't spend time scouting out the defenses or planting a spy network or finding ways to sabotage the forces of the Kamarg.

Enter Dorian Hawkmoon, a lord whose state was conquered by the Dark Empire of Granbretan and is now a prisoner. The defeat robbed him of his emotions and has left him a cold automaton who just doesn't give a damn. When Meliadus makes a deal with him ("sabotage the Kamarg and we'll give you your state back"), Dorian basically says, "meh."

Then comes the eponymous MacGuffin--a plot vehicle that is so weak and positively stupid that I nearly put the book in the trash. The black jewel implanted into Hawkwood's forehead is basically a magical camera that is connected to a machine in London that shows only what is in front of Dorian and provides no sound. The sorcerers of Granbretan assure Hawkwood that if he betrays them, the jewel will basically fry his brain. It's the tool they're going to use to blackmail him and ensure his loyalty. But it has immensely profound weaknesses. So, in the end, instead of Lawful Evil, the leaders of the Dark Empire of Granbretan has demonstrated how they, like their Baron Meliadus, are entirely Retarded Evil.

At least Count Brass and his friends aren't so stupid as to not see through Granbretan's ploy. They use their own technomagic to prevent the stone from frying Dorians brain, but it will only last a little while--the only place Dorian can go to get the jewel removed without killing him is somewhere out in Persia. But the armies of Granbretan are marching for the Kamarg. Now that Hawkmoon has met Count Brass' stereotypically hot daughter, he's starting to get his emotions back, but the presence of the jewel makes him feel hopeless enough that he refuses to allow himself to fall in love (although she has, predictably, fallen head-over-heels for him).

By this point, I want to bang my head against a wall.

The rest of the story consists of a couple of rather better chapters describing guerrilla raids on the Granbretan forces and a decent set-piece battle before descending into Hawkmoon's journey toward Persia, his gaining of a companion, and a very uninspired arrival in a Persian kingdom and his participation in a battle. I say "descend" because the rest of the book is just as uninspired as the beginning.

The problems with the plot are not the actual contents but in how they are handled by Moorcock. Coupled with his lackluster prose (which I will address below), Moorcock's storytelling is simply lacking. Other authors have written equally derivative works but did so with style and/or panache that Moorcock, as of 1967, did not seem to possess. Every opportunity he had to make the story more interesting he did not seize. As a result, the book reads like a dull attempt at parody. If parody it was, then Moorcock failed at this as well because there is no wit whatsoever in his writing. There are no moments where we realize that he's presenting these events to us tongue-in-cheek. It simply plays out dully, uninspired.

The prose simply serves to drive this point home:
Sparks scattered into the darkness of the hall as the two big men dueled, the broadswords rising and falling, swinging this way and that, every stroke parried with masterly skill. Sweat covered both faces as the swords swung; both chests heaved with the exertion as they fenced back and forth across the hall.
George Orwell said it best when comparing pulp boxing stories by British authors to those of American authors in "Boys' Weeklies:"
Notice how much more knowledgeable the American extracts sound. They are written for devotees of the prize-ring, the others are not.
An honest comparison of this to any combat scene by Robert E. Howard demonstrates this. The American writer wants the reader to experience the combat. I could also compare it to Zelazny's description of combat, which benefits heavily from his excessive knowledge of fencing. Moorcock's description is vague and frankly blasé. Obviously, Moorcock doesn't know anything about sword-fighting, but he doesn't even attempt to guess. Tolkien's description of combat is much more energetic for all his dreamy let's-all-go-to-sleep prose.

Moorcock also is guilty of the tell-not-show sin.
A conflict was beginning to develop in Hawkmoon's breast--perhaps a conflict between humanity and the lack of it, perhaps a conflict between conscience and the lack of conscience, if such conflicts were possible.
If such conflicts were possible? You tell us, you're the author! This is just clumsy writing, but it continues.
Whatever the exact nature of the conflict, there was no doubt that Hawkmoon's character was changing for a second time. It was not the character he had had on the battlefield at Köln, nor the strange apathetic mood into which he had fallen since the battle, but a new character altogether, as if Hawkmoon were being born again in a thoroughly different mold.
One of the advantages of writing a novel is the author can actually develop these changes through showing how the character behaves and actually describing a bit of their thought processes and feelings. George R.R. Martin does this very well with many of his characters, especially ones like Arya, Jon Snow, and Jaime Lannister. Moorcock is writing one of the very, very short SF novels that proliferated the discount bookracks of convenience stores (like my own antiquated DAW Books copy pictured below) and the like during the mid-twentieth century, so he has to deal with page limitations. However, I don't feel that is a legitimate excuse, especially since these problems are rife throughout the narrative and detract from the interest factor.

I could provide more examples of the disappointing writing, but I'll refrain. Suffice it to say, for the most part, The Jewel in the Skull reads like a rough draft or perhaps an extended summary of a story that could have really benefited from some greater detail and less derivative narration.

I don't know if I'm going to read any more of The History of the Runestaff, the four-volume series of which this novel was the first. Indeed, this makes me want to go back and reread Elric of Melniboné to see if it suffers from the same weaknesses in narration, characterization, and prose.

As I said, this book was a disappointment. I was very interested in reading it but when I finally did, it most certainly did not live up to expectations, especially considering the vocal criticisms its author leveled against other, noteworthy and accomplished, authors. There's a kernel of a good and exciting story here. However, in this volume at least, Moorcock doesn't deliver.

The Jewel in the Skull by Michael Moorcock Style: C
Substance: C-
Overall: C-

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Hungerover Heroes Guild, Part Six

Baravis: Played by Luke. A tiefling warlock 1/favored soul 1 from Sigil, he knew something strange was up when a few guys bearing pendants with a black sun and white skull tried to kill or kidnap him. One day, walking through the streets of Sigil, he did something to annoy the Scratcher who basically portaled him to Faerûn. He wandered through the forests until he found Drog encamped by a path. Resigned to his fate, he seeks an answer to why the Cyricists (whose symbol he's identified as theirs) want him dead. He's become a follower of Marthammor Duin, the Dwarven god of wanderers, with whom he's made a pact.

Drog: Played by DJ. A Rashemar barbarian 2 who is on his dajemma--his coming-of-age journey into the lands outside of Rashemen. A stalwart warrior of honor who has a way with the ladies (who admire his rugged looks and massive muscles).

Sven Lackman: Played by Shaun. A half-elven rogue 1/urban ranger 1 from Waterdeep whose parents were Harpers murdered by the Cult of the Dragon. He has devoted himself to Hoar, god of vengeance and swift justice. Sven is being a bit retooled by Shaun (with DM consent). Sven is a bit reckless and impatient, but is developing into a powerful finesse fighter.

Vlad: Played by Alex. Vlad's parents were Zhents who died during the Banedeath, when the priests of Cyric murdered (or forcibly converted) all followers of Bane in Zhentil Keep. Left for dead, a nameless god approached Vlad and made an agreement with him--Vlad would become a dread necromancer (see Heroes of Horror) so long as he kept the Pact. Vlad seeks for the truth of this unknown deity while swearing vengeance against Cyric and all of his followers.

The PCs met in Shadowdale, where they heard rumors of a Dream Fever in Dagger Falls, chief town in Daggerdale. Forty or fifty years past, the Zhentarim (a.k.a. the Black Network) ousted the rightful rulers of Daggerdale and backed a usurper, Malyk. Then, twenty years past, Randal Morn and the Knights of Myth Drannor slew Malyk and retook the Dale. Zhentilar forces then invaded and captured all of the Dale north of the Dagger River. Randal Morn leads his Freedom Riders and only controls part of the Dale, while the Zhentarim controls Dagger Falls and the Zhentilar (the army of Zhentil Keep) extorts or raids villages between the Tesh and Dagger rivers.

They set off, encountering the Brightblade dwarven clan at Anathar's Dell and learning that two hundred years past, Colderan Morn, Lord of Daggerdale, exiled them from their home in Eagle's Eyrie, overlooking Dagger Falls. They encountered a patrol of Freedom Riders, who took them to Randal Morn. They were tried for being suspected Zhentarim (Vlad's accent gave him away as a Zhent), but Tunfer the Stout's zone of truth spell exonerated them. With Randal Morn's favor, they arrived at Dagger Falls and cleared out the Eagle's Eyrie.

They made contact with Loudon the Cooper, a supporter of Randal Morn, at the Red Rock tavern, but were captured later at the Teshford Arms inn resisting a summons by the Constable. Sven's attempted knifing of a mercenary in the Constable's employ and Vlad's spellslinging got them booted from town without their gear and Vlad slated for a caravan back to Zhentil Keep. But all was not lost--the Brightblade dwarves, on a pilgrimage to the Eyrie disguised as traveling tinkers, discovered the PCs had cleared it out and began to restore it in secret, giving the PCs a base of operations. They staged a daring rescue on Vlad's caravan, then snuck into town, headed for the ruined Temple of Lathander, having learned that all the troubles with the Dream Fever and the strange wood-woses (mysterious dwarf-sized night stalkers) had begun shortly after Eragyn the Dark, priestess of Cyric, had disappeared in the Temple crypts.

The PCs battled several wood-woses and a juvenile hook horror, befriended a nixie, and even met Colderan Morn himself--not 200-years dead as they had once suspected.

Session Six
The PCs made their way to Colderan's headquarters, centered around his crypt, and a great battle ensued. Colderan was ready for them--4 skeletons attacked as they entered the anteroom. Colderan created a wall of thorns and ordered his remaining wood-woses to gather his things and help him escape. The PCs managed to kill most of the wood-woses, but during the battle (which was fought in several rooms and corridors) Colderan escaped, trapping Sven in another wall of thorns and nearly killing him (negative hit points). Baravis stabilized him with a cure minor wounds orison, Drog hacked him out of the thorns, and the PCs discovered eight sleepers, several corpses, a strange net, a treasury, and Colderan's library and notes. After reading through his notes, the PCs destroyed the net of dreams (the cause of the fever) and the sleepers began to awake. Among them was Eragyn the Dark and a Zhent guardsman. Eragyn had been bound and gagged, but Baravis and Vlad disagreed on what to do with her. Vlad wanted to kill her outright--she was evil and served and evil god. Baravis wanted her to stand trial for her wickedness. They quarreled and Drog broke it up. Baravis tried to talk with her, but gave up all attempts at diplomacy when Vlad vocally advocated killing her outright. Eragyn saw the PCs as traitors, especially considering they were still wearing the Zhentilar tabards with the arms of the occupying forces.
They followed a passageway to a wall of masonry. A dwarf victim of the Dream Fever, Boront, found a secret door into a room full of confiscated contraband--including the confiscated masterwork studded leather Baravis had commissioned, Sven's masterwork dagger, and Drog's masterwork greatsword. Franter, the Zhent guard, exclaimed that the secret door led into one of the basements of the Constable's Tower! Baravis, hoping to make peace with the Constable (at least, for now) sent Franter up to the Constable. The plan backfired. Zhentilar troops opened the trapdoor with crossbows trained on the PCs. Eragyn was freed by the troops and the PCs fled through the secret door. They closed it, hoping the Zhentilar wouldn't locate the opening mechanisms. Just to be sure, Drog jammed a sword into the doorjam to block it.

The situation looked hopeless. The Zhentilar would be waiting at the temple entrance for the PCs. So, they decided to escape via the underground river.

Led by Boront (to whom Drog had given a longsword), the townsfolk fled through the tunnels and out of the temple, while Drog, Vlad, Baravis, and Sven (whom Baravis had healed with cure light wounds to demonstrate the power of a benevolent deity to Eragyn) managed to escape the tunnels via the stream. When I revealed (using Maptool) that the stream had spilled them out at the waterfall, the players cheered in triumph. Yet another seemingly hopeless situation turned into a victory by the PCs.

Colderan had escaped. Eragyn was attempting to seize control of Dagger Falls from Constable Tren Noemfor. However, the Dream Fever had been ended and the townspeople were safe from the depredations of the wood-woses. Colderan's plans to take over the town were foiled, as were any hopes of him allying with (or being backed by) the Zhentarim. The PCs had made some enemies, but as they rested the rest of the day in the Eagle's Eyrie, they knew that they had succeeded at something worthwhile. Now, they had to contact Loudon the Cooper for their reward, try to find Randal Morn to warn him of Colderan, his thrice-great grandfather, and return the holy relics of Lathander that they had discovered to the Temple of Lathander in Shadowdale. Baravis leveled up (now a 3rd-level character). However, Sven may have contracted filth fever from the swarm Colderan had summoned beneath him. The path ahead is murky yet filled with possibilities.
Arms of the Zhentilar
Army of Zhentil Keep

Friday, December 23, 2011

Hungover Heroes Guild, Part Five

Well, the current adventure (in case you're wondering, I'm running, or trying to run, the Doom of Daggerdale adventure, which you can peruse in order to see just how far the PCs have deviated from the adventure) is drawing to a close. Our heroes have finally made it into the catacombs beneath the Temple of Lathander, seeking out the Priestess of Cyric, Eragyn, hoping to put an end to her and with her, the Dream Fever that's been plaguing the folk of the Dale.

We had to split this session into two short ones because of Alex's (Vlad's player) work schedule.

Session One
Having successfully rescued Vlad, the PCs and their dwarven allies flee into the forest as an Zhentilar patrol heads toward the scene of the combat. They'd seen the ambush from the parapets atop the River Gate in Dagger Falls and sent reinforcements to see if they could save the caravan. They arrived moments too late.

The PCs and their allies fled into the forest, but Baravis managed to sneak back to spy. He managed to hear that the patrol misidentified the tracks (their scout rolled a 1) and thought that goblins had attacked the caravan. Once they realized the caravan wagons had managed to escape, they returned to Dagger Falls. Sighing with relief, the PCs and dwarves walked two more miles downstream and fashioned a raft to cross the River Tesh. They returned to the Eagle's Eyrie by nightfall.

That evening, Baravis received a vision from Marthammor Duin, the dwarven god of wandering, living aboveground, and friendship with non-dwarves. Baravis pledged to aid and protect dwarves wherever they may be and to serve Marthammor Duin faithfully. He awoke with a level of Favored Soul (see Complete Divine) and immediately cast cure light wounds on any dwarves injured during the caravan fight. He then tended to his party members.

The dwarves were impressed by this. Kuldar, the chief of the dwarves, gave Baravis a copy of their holy texts to guide and shape his newfound faith. It was like roleplaying the birth of an apostle or saint of some sort. The Brightblade dwarves finished the chitin armor for Drog (DJ's Rashemar 2nd-level barbarian) as a gift for the PC's clearing of the Eyrie and returning it to the Brightblade clan. However, they feared for the safety and secrecy of their new outpost so they wished for no further risks, what with the Zhentarim so near in Dagger Falls.

After a few days of spying on Dagger Falls from the Eyrie, the PCs planned to infiltrate the town and sneak into the Temple at night. As they approached the Teshford Arms, they saw two off-duty Zhentilar ambushed and killed by the strange, short night creatures. When the creatures began to drag the bodies toward the woods, the PCs ambushed and killed them. They discovered that the creatures bled sap, and that sap was also coating the copper spearheads the creatures wielded. Baravis realized that it was a poison. Drog took two of the spears for future use. Vlad and Baravis donned the tabards and chain mail of the fallen Zhentilar and hid the bodies in the woods. Then, everyone snuck across the river. Drog and Sven took a long, circuitous route through outlying fields to avoid any Zhentilar in the town beyond the walls; they witnessed two more of those creatures sneaking into a house. Sven advised inaction: "We can't save them, we have to stick to the plan." They watched from the distance as the two creatures exited through the window of the cottage with a shimmering net or web. They then vanished into the night. Drog and Sven met up with Vlad and Baravis near the Forest Gate of the town. Using their disguises and Vlad's native Zhent accent, they convinced the two gate guards that they were their relief. Happy to go and drink, the Zhentilar left, allowing Baravis to open the portcullis enough for Drog and Sven to crawl under.

They snuck through the town, sticking close to the town wall, then saw the two night creatures climb into the ruins of the Temple of Lathander ahead of them. The PCs followed, sneaking past the guards stationed at the temple and going down into the darkness.

Session Two
They descended the stairs in the ruin, avoided fighting two osquips (territorial rodent-creatures) in the wine cellar and crept through the catacombs beneath the temple. There they discovered a secret door leading to a room containing the holy items of Lathander's temple--silver censers, golden candlesticks, and a holy symbol. They agreed to return these to the temple and prayed to Lathander before they took the objects.

They found a hole in one crypt that led to tunnels. They followed the twisting path until they encountered a young (medium-sized and not-so-powerful) hook horror. Despite its size, it still gave the PCs a good pounding, but luckily Baravis could heal. However, the noise of the fight drew some of the night-creature scouts. Soon, a battle ensued, and the PCs had slain five of the creatures, with Drog and Sven managing to avoid the effects of their poison blades. Baravis took the head of one as evidence in case they encountered the Constable on their way out.

They eventually found a small pool in a cavern. Baravis threw the head into the pool, wanting to make certain there wasn't an evil creature there. The head flew out and Baravis was harshly reprimanded by the fairy spirit of the pool, a nixie named Mara. Casting purify food and drink on the pool as a penance, Baravis gained her good graces. Drog, familiar with the worship of nature spirits and things fairy, charmed the nixie with conversation. Indeed, DJ admitted his character wanted to sleep with Mara, but I told him he's lucky because she could have charmed him and he could have ended up living with her for a hundred years or until she got bored of him.

Anyway, Mara told them about the night-creatures (she called them wood-woses) and said they were the most unseelie of things. Ever since the evil priestess came down into the catacombs, things have been going bad, but the wood-woses avoid Mara's pool.

Judging that it was safe, the PCs decided to rest here. Around the end of the eighth hour, though, a wall of thorns blocked off both exits from Mara's cave. A booming voice demanded, "Who are you and why are you here?"

The PCs identified themselves and their quest. "I am Colderan Morn, Colderan the Razor, Mage-Lord of Daggerdale, Conjuror of the Dark Wood. You have entered my house and slain my servitors!"

"We only seek to help. Your people are suffering because of the Dream Fever and your servitors."

"It is unfortunate, but necessary. I will tell you this once, leave or perish." The PCs protested. The voice repeated, "You will leave my house or you will die here!"

Then... across the table from me, Shaun said it. And everybody just stared at him with dropped jaws. "F--- off!"

Whomever it was wasted no time, immediately casting summon swarm. A boiling surge of rats erupted beneath Sven's feet. Baravis pleaded (successfully) for the caster to stop (which he did, although the spell's duration is concentration +2 rounds). The swarm dispersed eventually, leaving Sven with 0 hp and possibly filth fever. When Baravis mentioned the Brightblade dwarves, the caster's voice grew accusatory.

"You are allied with the dwarves! Treacherous thieves and murderers! They slew my beloved Bellessaria! I will have no truck with their allies!" With that, the voice was gone.

The PCs used one of the vials of alchemist's fire to destroy one of the walls of thorns. They came to an abandoned circle of poisonous mushrooms (destroying 13 of which looked like wood-woses in fetal form), found a passage that descended toward a river, and eventually came to another wall of thorns that blocked further passage. The PCs hacked their way through the wall and came to a locked door with a guardian watchdog. Sven (who had been healed back up to half his hp) befriended the dog with wild empathy (he's now a 1st-level rogue, 1st-level urban ranger). Without thieves tools (they'd been confiscated in Part Four), they couldn't pick the lock, so Drog spent four rounds noisily chopping the door down. They entered a small antechamber with arrowslits and another door. Upon opening the second door, Baravis (who had gone ahead) found himself met with four skeletons.

And that's where we stopped. Play resumes tomorrow night where we will use Maptool on our laptops at the table instead of miniatures. Most play will use pen-and-paper, though. Maptool is simply to help us navigate through the logistics and movement aspects of gaming more quickly than miniatures, but I must admit, it takes a lot longer to set up and prepare adventures and campaigns (at least, at the level of detail I prefer). It has the potential to speed up games quite a bit, and allows for online gaming, but unfortunately, it takes a LOT of prep time.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What's Wrong with 4th Edition, Interlude

This article came to my attention, recently, about modern RPGs on the console or computer being too easy.

Keynote section:
His comments echo a popular sentiment amongst core-gamers. That in an attempt to appeal to a wider audience, games are abandoning any semblance of challenge and, quite frequently, treating players like brain-dead automatons.
Wow. Pretty much backs up what I said in my last post, doesn't it? I mean, 4th edition... treating players like brain-dead automatons. This actually jives with criticisms regarding how 4th edition reads like the designers think the reader is an idiot.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

What's Wrong with 4th Edition, Part 1

Esper's Endorsement and My Response

This is a topic that I've avoided for quite some time. It's a topic that gets really, really under my skin. I'm not surprised how many "greybeards" who started with old-school gaming, nor how many young kids who grew up with Diablo and World of Warcraft love 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons. I've watched a dozen youtube videos and read two dozen blogs both praising 4th edition and telling the viewer/reader to "convert" (as if it were some religion) or vilifying the new system and calling it "tabletop WoW," "WoW-lite," or any other permutation of a "WoW" reference.

Now, I'm going to sit back and explain, calmly, rationally, why 4th Edition, despite how fun it may be for a player, game master, or whatever, is not a role-playing game. I'm not saying it's a bad one, what I'm saying is that Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition fails as a role-playing game on every level. Period.

Lots of people disagree. They claim it's fun. Fine. I'll address that near the end. Suffice it to say that I have heard all of the arguments, read the books, talked to friends who've played and both enjoyed and hated it. I've watched it played on YouTube and in real life. I have no interest in playing it whatsoever. I cannot emphasize more how much I find it to be un-fun. I cannot even make a character without becoming frustrated by the game. If I cannot get excited about my character, then I cannot play the game. This is literally a game that I find impossible for me to play. That is why I've never personally playtested it myself. I cannot explain it any better than that. Part of the game is rolling up a character--it is literally a stage of play, when you roll one up you are already playing--and if I cannot even complete that stage without wanting to douse the book in gasoline and light it on fire because it is not only un-fun, unexciting, and uninteresting, it is downright frustrating in a way I have not experienced since that goddamn vulture in Ninja Gaiden.

This is why I have to scratch my head and wonder if something is wrong with me or with all of the people that love 4th edition.

Now, I've heard all of the arguments as to why 4th edition is not only good, it's the best incarnation of D&D yet. Esper actually does a very decent review of it on YouTube and makes a solid case for adopting it. However, his discussion is full of very, very prominent flaws. Go ahead, watch his review before continuing reading.

First, Esper does NOT possess credentials. Having started with 3rd edition does not equate to having credentials by a longshot. He's been playing for 10 years, but I've played for nearly 20 and I know of people who have played since the 1970s and knew Gygax personally.

Second, he does not explain how 1st and 2nd edition AD&D are archaic from a design point-of-view. He just says it, no qualifications, no explanations, just an axiomatic statement that those systems are "out of date." This is extremely telling in that it inadvertently reveals a very prominent bias, making it apparent that he is not approaching it from a purely analytical standpoint. Simply put, he didn't think the game's mechanics before 3rd edition were up-to-date. I could assume he means "not like video-games enough" but that would be assuming (although his statement that he's "been a gamer" since he "picked up an NES controller" indicates that he equates tabletop role-playing with video games on some level). His lament that he felt things in 3.5 were "outdated" again begs the damn question, "What do you mean by 'outdated'?"

To truly understand why he converted to 4th edition we need reasons why he felt 3rd and 3.5 were so flawed and archaic. His complaint that "everybody uses the same stuff" in 3.5 is confusing when, basically, all of the classes in 4th edition are relatively all the same in their mechanics. His discussion of why demons and devils don't teleport out of combat makes sense, but there are spells to prevent that (I guess he forgot about dimensional anchor and similar spells). "NPCs, monsters, and character classes all use the same rules," is his lament. However, from a design standpoint, that is actually a strength because it simplifies things! Otherwise, you get things like White Wolf--where you basically need to throw open your Werewolf the Apocalypse book if you're running a coterie in Vampire the Masquerade and they get jumped by a garou (if you want to represent them accurately and not just use the stats in the back of the Vampire book). But this also ignores the point that we do have hordes of different rules, feats, spells, and more, despite the fact that he put all of the supplements that describe them on display as his favorite additions to the game!

By now, I'm confused. Did he house-rule D&D 3.5 so heavily that he forgot what the actual rules were? Okay, that's a bit harsh. Regardless, I see where he's coming from when it comes to a single spell-list, but I've played games like Rifts and Palladium Fantasy, so I see a definite advantage from a design point-of-view to streamline spells as a result of my experiences. "My cred" if you will. Which stretches back to "Classic D&D" and the Rules Cyclopedia in the late 1980s/early 1990s. If you lived in the Philly area, you were listening to Color Me Badd's "I Wanna Sex You Up" on Q-102.

Then, he talks about the PC's classes "filling the role in the game that they're supposed to fill." Again, I have an enormous problem with this. I've run VERY unconventional games in D&D. Entire campaigns were run in 2nd edition without clerics or fighters or thieves or mages. Seriously, my Dark Sun campaign sophomore year of college basically consisted of a bard, a gladiator, and a psionicist/defiler. That's it. No cleric. Although the gladiator was a bit of a tank, he wasn't as versatile. The bard was a poisoner, not a thief, so breaking and entering was limited. The defiler had to keep his arcane magic under wraps due to the fact that if anyone knew, they'd kill him, so he stuck mostly with psionics. Yeah. No fighter, thief, mage, cleric roles in that party at all. My current party has a warlock, a dread necromancer, a barbarian and a rogue. No cleric (yet). No standard arcane spellcaster with utility spells. And the party is doing fine. The idea that there are roles to fill is bunk. Hell, plenty of people have blogged about how you don't need a cleric. The idea that a character is supposed to fill a predetermined role is what frustrates me so much about 4th edition. I've played games without classes whatsoever, where you simply developed a concept and built it (like White Wolf or D20 Call of Cthulhu) and had a blast. It's myopic, narrow-minded, and unnecessary. Hell, lots of gamers absolutely hate the existence of classes and frankly quit D&D back in 1st or 2nd editions because they think classes are out-of-date! If that is the case, 4th edition is a step backwards, not forwards, because it shoehorns every character with no flexibility or customizability! 4th edition was outdated before it was even launched!

Esper's lament about how he was unhappy with losing a level is also extremely telling. I know a lot of old schoolers who ran during the Gygax days of White Box and Red Box D&D would sneer at Esper. "Tough luck, pal. It's a consequence. You died." 4th edition is about not having to pay the piper. There are no lasting consequences for a lot of effects. And that is a problem. But I'll get to that later. Anyway, yeah, saying that the level was gone and he couldn't get it back is so skewed. "Your level is gone. You can get it back, though... through adventuring until you get enough XP to get it back." Levels are fluid, in a way. But anyway, I digress.

The item creation costs are stupid. Yes. Spells that cost XP make a bit of sense (you're sacrificing a part of yourself). Small XP costs for item creation may make sense too. Not the exorbitant costs, though. I've had problems with item creation costing XP. I don't like it. It balances things out... a little. But I've allowed players to buy feats and powers with XP, powers and feats they wouldn't have gotten as quickly, or in as much abundance. But item creation? Yeah, you should GAIN XP for that--you did in 2nd edition! It simply shouldn't be so easy as blowing gp and XP, but should take time to gather components and rare objects that both enhance the flavor of the world and make the item itself more special.

Esper's complaint about non-spellcasting classes being boring is also bunk. Fighters can be amazingly powerful and versatile, and are damn good if you use wandering monster tables and random encountes. Rogues can forge documents like passports and royal writs and warrants that can get the party into places without combat. They're incredible skillmonkeys. My favorite rogue of all was a halfling archeologist that I created. Archeologist! Not a thief, but something more akin to a pint-sized Indiana Jones. He was basically what Indy said Marcus Brody was when he lied to the Nazis, "He's got a two-day head-start on you, which is more than he needs. Brody's got friends in every town and village from here to the Sudan. He speaks a dozen languages, knows every local custom. He'll blend in, disappear, you'll never see him again. With any luck, he's got the Grail already." Yeah. Only Brody was a joke. My halfling, however, was exactly that. High charisma, high dexterity, high intelligence. Yeah, he was shit in combat. But he wasn't built for combat. (This is one of the reasons I hated 4th edition--I couldn't build my halfling archeologist.) With enough finagling, you could built a barbarian from Mongolia or Northern Africa who raged and rode horses. A finesse fighter with a rapier like a Musketeer was entirely possible and at high levels a fighter specializing in longsword could go about saying, "I'm the greatest swordsman that ever lived" like Mad Martigan. Creativity made these classes interesting.

But wait a second, in Part Two of his review, Esper says, "Now, you build the class the way you want." Then he turns around and says each class has a role, and mocks those who think that's constraining. So, wait, you just contradicted yourself and attempted to dismiss that contradiction by logical fallacy--you make a funny voice and attempt to discredit anyone who disagrees by imitating them, and then say, "shut up." Sorry, man, that doesn't fly. And the roles he assigns to the classes? Who the hell did he ever play with? For me, the cleric was always the man BEHIND the leader (who was most often the fighter or paladin). He was the Archbishop Turpin to the paladin's Charlemagne, or to reference the amazing Flesh + Blood, the cleric is Ronald Lacey's "Cardinal" to Rutger Hauer's fighter, "Martin." (As an aside, Ronald Lacey's character is such a great example of how a cleric should be role-played in a party, I feel the movie should be required viewing by DMs and cleric players alike). By-the-way, the fact that the fighter fit on ONE PAGE is actually his strength and he's the most versatile and customizable class in the entire damn game (with the possible exception of the rogue). Seriously, Esper's laments that fighters were "boring and generic" in 3.5 just shows how little imagination he had. Yeah, if you wanted to optimize your fighter, they're all the same. If you didn't care about min/max-ing, you could make a truly unique fighter in a party of truly unique fighters and they'd all be pretty awesome, have different weapons, and fight in interesting ways. I hear more complaints about how the classes are generic in 4th edition (especially since min/max-ers can quite easily optimize their classes and it is just obviously stupid not to do so).

Yeah, that statement about half-dragon-half-minotaur-barbarian-fighter-ranger was just... so telling. So very telling. The more we watch, the more of Esper's tastes in gaming are revealed. In fact, the further I got into watching his video on 4th edition, the less I wanted to play it (if that is even possible) and the more I realized how much he misunderstood 3.5 and all previous editions of D&D.

Esper's statement that he has a solid understanding of the design of previous editions is questionable, because so far we've heard beefs he has with those designs, but not any reflection on what those editions were designed to accomplish. They weren't designed to do what Esper wants. But Esper's playing Dungeons & Dragons, a game that never had him as a target audience. Until 4th edition that is.

I won't say his criticisms are illegitimate. They are! However, Esper is not able to look beyond his own tastes and desires and understand what kind of play the game is designed to facilitate. Like I said, Esper was never the target audience of any edition prior to 4th. And I'll go on to explain why after a few more paragraphs.

Esper then goes on about how the old methods of marketing and open-source materials were gone in favor of loyalty programs and general, overall consolidation of media sources such as print. His tone makes this seem like a Good Thing, then he shows the evolution of Mario from NES to the Wii. That was a not-too-subtle metaphor for progress. And if there's anything I learned from postmodernism, its that positivism and the idea that "progress" (i.e. change brought about by technological developments) are definitely something that is up for questioning. I mean, technological progress enabled millions to die in two World Wars (that very fact spawned the postmodern movement and brought about the questioning of positivism by-the-by). Besides, these new marketing strategies sounded to me like Wizards of the Coast was trying to cash in on new trends in marketing and things like downloadable content. I don't blame them--they're a business and CEOs keep their jobs by pleasing stockholders (just like the CEO of United Fruit when he arranges to have economic hit-men crash the planes of South American presidents who won't sell-out their people). Okay, that's a bit of a logical fallacy for me to equate Wizards with economic hit-men, but you get what I'm trying to say (I hope). These changes are not necessarily Good and in fact, I'm highly suspect because I know that Wizards and Hasbro (by extension) are after MONEY. And as a capitalist, I believe it is my duty to invest my money in products that I believe have a specific standard of design and quality of production. As the first video comes to a close and Esper basically brings up natural selection, it has now become clear that he is being didactic--4th edition is new, therefore superior. The period in which D&D didn't change was it's stagnant era, when TSR was almost destroyed by bankruptcy. Esper has gotten on a soapbox and is basically calling anyone who doesn't "change with the times" a Luddite and is implying that its time for those people to die off. Maybe he doesn't realize he's saying that and doesn't mean it. But it is a not-too-subtle subtext to everything he is saying openly, whether he is conscious of it or not.

When Esper says Kobolds are bland in 3.5, he's obviously never DMed them right. They're like Viet Cong--they're trap-making machines who live underground! I've seen people run encounters with Kobolds that nearly killed 5th-level parties! Attacking by night, using missile weapons, employing false retreats to lure PCs into trapped areas (falling spiked logs, pit traps, etc) and kill-zones, Kobolds can be very ungeneric and... here's the killer... realistic. Let's be honest, if a bunch of 3-foot tall dog-people (2nd edition) or lizard-people (3rd and on) wanted you dead, they wouldn't fight you toe-to-toe, even if they were savage and primitive.

Everything Esper says about his first Kobold encounter sums up what he wants out of D&D--a miniature war game. He wants Necromunda with some roleplaying and grid square maps instead of measuring tape. "Movement was more tactical," he says. That sounds like a miniature wargame to me. This is regression alright, like a lot of 4th edition's critics claim. Gygax and Arneson created D&D because their players wanted to actually pretend they were the figures they were playing with in Chainmail, for crying out loud! And if Esper actually had any real cred and an understanding of the design based on purpose, he'd understand that! Indeed, I try to run 3.5 without miniatures because it slows the game down and I prefer to use my imagination and ability to describe a scene effectively. Everything Esper says about building encounters, calculating XP, statting monsters, etc., just drives the point home--the problems with the game that Esper had all focused on combat. And the visuals make it absolutely undeniable--everything during this opening sequence is a picture of people at miniature-grid tables and mats. I try not to use miniatures and mats as visual aids--I prefer my own descriptive abilities and the use of pictures and photographs to build a sense of atmosphere and environment, not tactical positioning and obstacle-placement.

Anyway, moving on...

Esper is entirely right about how 4th edition was designed as a whole new car as opposed to a remodeled old one (ignoring the fact that old cars are often worth a fortune in good condition). He is right when he says the system is more consistent. He is 100% right about everything he says is strong about 4th edition.

It is designed for a new generation of gamers. A generation of gamers that were weaned on Diablo, World of Warcraft, and other computer games. A generation of gamers that has been brought up being told that they're a precious snowflake, individual and unique. A generation of gamers to whom their schoolteachers have been told "you cannot say the student is wrong" and "you cannot mark their answers with red pens" because of their precious little feelings. A generation of gamers who goes online and makes gay and racist jokes while playing Call of Duty multiplayer. A generation of gamers who cannot associate their actions with the logical consequences that come about. A generation of gamers that got a trophy just for participating. A generation of gamers that are occupying Wall Street because they don't have a job and want a hand-out (not because they think banks and corporations need to be more socially responsible). A generation of gamers who are used to having the government, school, and computers take care of everything for them.

A generation of gamers that are and will be perpetually spoiled children.

I know that sounds harsh, but hear me out. Yes, I know it is hyperbolic, but generations have trends (anyone remember how solipsistic the "Me Generation" of the baby-boomers has been for the past 50-60 years?) and I'm talking in generalities. I'm allowed to. I'm a historian. So what if there are statistical outliers that don't match the norm? When everyone I read or watch who loves 4th edition gives reasons that all lie within one or two standard deviations of the mean, I'm allowed to start making blanket statements. Likewise, when I observe personal tendencies that all seem to conform to the average, I'm again allowed to speak in trends, groupings, and generalities.

Anyway, if you want encounters to be more interesting, don't use game mechanics. That simply reduces every opponent to combat tokens meant to be killed and little else. Yeah, I understand how the powers and stuff 4th edition gives to opponents makes them interesting to fight. What about other forms of interaction? The game is a system that encourages a certain style of play, and that style is to consider every encounter a fight.

Want to make those kobolds more interesting? How about all creatures (not just the PCs) go to negative hp? When the fighter deals that 4 hp kobold a hit for 6 damage, don't have it just die. It collapses, bleeding out. The kobold out of a threatened square with the next initiative then drags his dying friend out of danger by the arm. Next turn, he and another kobold hoist the body onto their shoulders and flee to a safer place where they can try to stabilize him or at least comfort him as he dies. He's their friend. They aren't just evil base-attack bonuses worth 1/2 CR, they're living creatures when you do that. Think realistically. Think the magic words "suspension of disbelief." (I'll probably go deeper into the whole "suspension of disbelief" in my next post on 4th edition.) And read what Justin Alexander has to say about how it is not difficult to design better encounters in 3.5 D&D so long as you approach the text without all your erroneous preconceptions about design purposes.

Anyway, to continue, a lot of this comes from the schizophrenic nature of D&D. It's always been a role-playing game built around a combat engine, an engine derived ultimately from Chainmail back in the 1970s. It isn't a role-playing game with a combat-resolution system as a part of its greater problem-resolution system, like, say, White Wolf. The D20 system addressed this, but the inclusion of miniatures and tactical rules, like attacks of opportunity, actually reinforced the combat elements, as did the removal of the ecology and society segments of every entry in the Monster Manual. More and more classes, toys, and feats all helped to create a combat-heavy bent to 3rd edition and 3.5. The idiosyncrasies this brought about play a huge role in Esper's dissatisfaction with 3.5. They also play a huge role in why the OSR was established.

Esper wants D&D to be primarily a combat engine, with all role-playing elements taking place outside of the actual pages of the rulebooks. Don't deny it, watch Part Two of his review. Every aspect of the game he raves about (except for the online and computer stuff) has to do with combat. Monsters have stat-blocks that describe all his abilities, attacks, and powers? Combat. Races have one good ability that you can use once per encounter? Combat. At surface level, this appears to be what the OSR is about. So why don't they convert to 4th edition? Why do they continually stick with an "outdated" system?


Esper seems to be a bit more mature than a lot of the people I'm going to take aim at, but I'm going to do it nonetheless. Most 4th edition players I've met are geeks, nerds, and dorks. Alright, fine, most gamers period are geeks, nerds, and dorks, but I'm talking about a specific kind--the kind that has a lot of deep-seated insecurities. They were bullied as kids. They sought solace in their hobbies and interests and developed a superiority complex and as a result they act like little Napoleons when they talk about comic books, argue over whether Kirk or Picard was a better captain, or play D&D. I saw this kind at Captain Blue Hen in Newark, DE one day while I was shopping for trade paperbacks of Sandman. They were recording a podcast and were trashing Joe Satriani for calling himself the "Silver Surfer."

"How dare he? Who is Joe Satriani to call himself that?"

I wanted to call them sad, pathetic little virgins, but they've probably got girlfriends (geek girls exist now) or wives (they're old enough to be married). Joe Satriani surfs, he has a silver guitar (upon which he surfs the frets), and he's one of the best guitar players alive. Frankly, more people will benefit from his musical talents than will ever read the damn comic. Grow the f--- up.

It's called a Napoleon complex. I saw it all over the gaming community in Newark, DE, when I was in graduate school. Their self-esteems are so fragile, they have to haze newcomer gamers. They play nigh-unkillable characters. When they die, they whine when they lose a level upon resurrection. They don't like to face the consequences of failure because it subconsciously reminds them of when they couldn't do a single sit-up in gym class or couldn't get a date to the prom.

I've had characters die. I rolled up new ones. If I was purposely f---ed over by the GM, I left the game. If it was just how the dice went, nobody was to blame. If it had been a product of incautious behavior or overlooking an important detail, the fault was mine. Hell, once I had a samurai who was defeated by a treacherous PC in such a way that he felt he had dishonored his ancestors and his lords. He committed seppuku. I basically killed my character because it was what my character would have done. And I rolled up a new one. It's how the game is played.

Actions have consequences. The players of my Forgotten Realms campaign are fully aware of that. Sometimes, they make bad decisions. Hey, if Star Wars was being roleplayed by the kind of gamers who complain about setbacks (like losing a level for having been killed and resurrected), what do you think they'd say when Luke's player got Luke's hand chopped off by Vader and lost the lightsaber duel against a more powerful opponent in The Empire Strikes Back?

Consequences make a game believable. Otherwise, it's just a mentally masturbatory game where you live out your fantasies of revenge and empowerment in a make-believe world. It ceases to tell any kind of entertaining or meaningful story. Some people can't get through John Updike's novels because all of his main characters are assholes. If that is the case, why do I want to watch a bunch of nerds and geeks who are angry about getting bullied turning around and bullying others?

MovieBob covered this pretty damn well in regards to video games, but the "Hard Truth" applies to D&D. Check around 8:35 and listen to what he has to say about Six Days in Fallujah.

Basically, 4th edition isn't challenging. "Balance" is so darn important because every single damn encounter is resolved through fighting (at least, that's what the system lends itself to and how the game is designed to be played). (As an aside, Justin Alexander's essays on "Fetishizing Balance" and balance types discuss how people approach balance wrongly in 3rd edition.) Yeah, you can run it differently, but the point is, because Ron Edwards is right and SYSTEM DOES MATTER, the system has an effect on the player's approach to the game and if it is designed for combat to resolve encounters then playing it any other way is going to bring about just as much house-ruling, inconsistency, and idiosyncrasy as every single previous edition.

The OSR method of playing is incredibly unbalanced and lethal because you're supposed to be smart, think outside the box, and find ways to avoid, kill, trap, or negotiate with the monster in order to get the treasure. Killing creatures earned next-to-negligible XP. Treasure earned lots of it. How to play OS D&D? Think outside the box, dammit! Solve problems! Exercise your damn imagination!

D&D 4th edition isn't designed for that. Since balance is so overly fetishized, it's designed to be the sort of "fun" that comes from "pwning n00bz" not overcoming actual challenges through brains. "Oh, but there's tactics!" Yeah, sure, fine. If I want to play a tactical game with miniatures I'll play Warhammer. I want to solve problems and how to separate the ancient red dragon from his hoard as a third level mage is a damn difficult challenge, but it's worth a whole hell of a lot of XP. If self-esteem, real, true, actual self-esteem is built through accomplishment, then it becomes apparent that OS D&D actually does more to build self-esteem than 4th edition does.

Esper's claim that from a design-standpoint 3rd edition and 3.5 is bad was basically refuted even before it was written by Justin Alexander in "Calibrating Your Expectations." Here's a quote:

I’ve been working and playing with the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons longer than most. Ryan Dancey sent me a playtest copy of the new Player’s Handbook back in 1999, almost a full year before it was released at GenCon 2000. I had been an outspoken critic of AD&D for several years at that point and, more recently, been involved in a number of heated debates with Ryan over the OGL and D20 Trademark License.

By the time I was done reviewing the playtest document and sending my comments back to Ryan, I had basically done a 180-degree turn-around on both. Wizards of the Coast had assembled three incredibly talented game designers – Jonathan Tweet, Monte Cook, and Skip Williams – to rework the system, and they had succeeded brilliantly. They stayed true to the roots of the game and captured the best parts of it, while shedding decades of detritus and poor design. There were still a few quibbles here and there, but they had taken advantage of the largest and most expensive design cycle for an RPG ever conceived and used it to deliver an incredibly robust, flexible, and powerful system.

One of the most impressive things about 3rd Edition is the casual realism of the system. You can plug real world values into it, process them through the system, and get back a result with remarkable fidelity to what would happen in the real world.

Some people will consider this to be a remarkable claim. It doesn’t take much experience with the roleplaying hobby before you're familiar with dozens of vehement diatribes on the lack of realism in D&D and the resulting shortcomings in the system. Whole laundry lists of complaints (aimed at hit points, the encumbrance system, falling damage, or attacks of opportunity, for example) have been generated. In fact, such claims are so prolific that making the opposite claim (as I have done) is practically a heresy of sorts.

But, in my experience, these complaints largely originate either from people carrying over their criticisms of previous editions (where many of the criticisms were true) or from people failing to actually look at the facts and run the numbers.

So what I want to do, rather than just making my claim, is to take a look at a few rules, actually run the numbers, and demonstrate how effective D&D really is at modeling the real world.

And run the numbers he does. Justin Alexander demonstrates conclusively (in my opinion) that D&D 3rd edition and 3.5 is a highly adept simulation of reality that works extremely well without excessively clunky mechanics that wreck suspension of disbelief (before you say anything about realism and clunkiness of system, go take a look at Riddle of Steel). Johnathan Tweet, Skip Williams, and my God, Monte Cook designed 3.5. Seriously. Monty F---ing Cook.

For nearly every complaint Esper had, I gave a discussion and occasionally posted a link to an essay (by Justin Alexander) on that exact topic which demonstrated that Esper wasn't approaching the game's design in a manner that maximized its actual potentials.

Justin Alexander's observations on the very design decisions of 4th edition are incredibly revealing into the very purpose of the engine's design. Another quote:

Unfortunately, since Mearls started working at WotC, there are plenty of indications that he's swallowed the Kool-Aid. Which leads to the other big strike 4th Edition has against it, in my opinion...


The current design ethos which seems to be holding sway at WotC is radically out-of-step with my own tastes in game design and gameplay.

Take, for example, an article Mearls wrote on the rust monster as part of the "Design & Development" column at WotC's website. Here we have a rust monster given an ability which corrodes, warps, and cracks metallic equipment and weapons. 10 minutes later, though, the metallic equipment and weapons are A-OK. They just repair themselves without any explanation.

This design is an example of the "per encounter" and "no long-term consequences, because long-term consequences aren't fun" schools of thought which the WotC design department seem to be mired in at the moment. But the result is a cartoony game system: My characters no longer live in a world I can believe in. They live in a cartoony reality where actions don't have long-term consequences and the grid-lines of the holodeck are clearly visible.

Another example from Mearls would be his blog post about skills from late last year, to which I have already written a response. I'm not saying that this skill system is one we're likely to see in 4th Edition, but I am saying that it shows that Mearls' design sense has radically altered since he designed Iron Heroes and The Book of Iron Might.

Let's take a look at a recent quote from David Noonan: "Powers unique to the new monster are often better than spell-like abilities. At first glance, this principle seems counterintuitive. Isn’t it easier and more elegant to give a monster a tried-and-true power from the Player’s Handbook? On the surface, sure. But watch how it works at the table. The DM sees the spell-like entry, grabs a Player’s Handbook, flips through it to find the relevant spell, reads the relevant spell, decides whether to use it, then resumes the action. See where I’m going with this? That’s a far more cumbersome process than reading a specific monster ability that’s already in the stat block. Heck, the physical placement of one more open rulebook is a hassle for a lot of DMs."

This quote is interesting to me, because it shows the type of wrong-headed logic skew that I see prevalent in a lot of the WotC design decisions of late. Basically the thought process here goes something like this:

Step 1: A spell-like ability looks easy to use, since it's a tried-and-true power from the PHB. But, in practice, the DM actually has to open up the PHB to see how the spell works. So instead of having all the information at their fingertips, they have to open up another book. And if the creature has multiple spell-like abilities, you've actually got to look at multiple page references in the PHB to figure out what the creature's range of abilities is.

So far, so good. This is all absolutely true.

Step 2: It would be easier if we put all the relevant information in the monster's stat block, so that it's right at the DM's fingertips.

Right again. Some people might complain about "wasted space", but I would love the utility of it. I have a similar reaction whenever I see "undead traits" in the stat block. You mean I have to flip back-and-forth through my copy of the MM to keep on top of this creature? It took me many months of DMing 3rd Edition before my undead stopped losing random abilities from that "undead traits" entry.

Step 3: So they shouldn't have spell-like abilities. Every creature should have a completely unique mechanic designed just for it.

... what the hell? How did you go skewing suddenly off to the side like that?

The problem is that Noonan is fallaciously conflating two types of utility:

(1) Spell-like abilities make it easier to use the rules because, as your familiarity with the rules for various spells grow, you will gain greater and greater mastery over a larger and larger swath of the ruleset.

(2) Putting all the information you need to run a creature in the creature's stat block makes it easier to use the creature because all the information you need is immediately accessible (without needing to look in multiple places, which also ties up books you may need to be using to reference other information).

There's no need to jettison utility #1 in order to achieve utility #2. The correct solution is to use spell-like abilities and list the
information you need regarding the spell-like ability in the creature's stat block.

(Which is not to say that a creature should never have a unique ability. There is no spell to model a hydra's many-heads, for example. The point here isn't to stifle creativity. The point is to avoid reinventing the wheel every time you want to build a car.)

We actually saw a similar logic-skew in Mearls' treatment of the rust monster:

Step 1: Rust monsters feature a save-or-die attack (and often you don't even get a save). The only difference is that it targets equipment instead of characters. Save-or-die effects aren't fun, because they simplify the tactical complexity of the game down to a crap shoot.

This is absolutely correct.

Step 2: The rust monster should still be able to attack, corrode, and destroy equipment (because that's its schtick and it's a memorable one) but it shouldn't be a save-or-die effect.


Step 3: So we should keep the save-or-die attack, but make the armor miraculously un-rust and de-corrode after 10 minutes.

... and there they go again, skewing off towards the cliff's edge.

(The correct answer here, by the way, is: "The rust monster will use the existing mechanics for attacking items. Because we want the rust monster's ability to be frightening and unusual, we will allow it to bypass hardness. The damage will also be inflicted on metallic items used to attack the rust monster. Magic items are affected, but may make a saving throw to avoid the damage.")

I know that's an enormous quote of text, but it essentially isolates two major problems of design and the illogic behind the design of 4th edition--problems that Esper and other gamers actually see as strengths. Make no mistake, they do! Esper's complaint about losing a level is indicative of the whole approach the 4th edition design team took regarding the rust monster.

The game is purposely designed to allow the players to fight through a dungeon as close to consequence-free as possible. And fight is the key word here. All utility and non-combat abilities (especially spells) are relegated to long, time-consuming (in game) tasks or actions (like rituals). Basically, this renders utility spells, like knock, entirely useless. Most of the time knock is used is because you come to a locked or stuck door and need to open it quickly before your pursuers catch up to you. But since there are healing surges and "running away" and "losing a fight" isn't "fun" then why would you need knock for that purpose? Hell, why have knock in the game at all when the rogue can just keep trying to pick the lock ad infinitum?

As Esper describes the fact that monsters use different rules (in his second segment), what he's talking about is how the monster behaves in combat and what powers the monster has. This is because 4th edition has basically reduced all monsters to combat-obstacles to be killed, period.

Again, a quote from Justin Alexander:

This is yet another logic skew at work. They correctly identified a problem ("when combat and non-combat abilities are mixed together in the stat block, it's difficult to quickly find the combat abilities on-the-fly") and simultaneously came up with two solutions:

1. We will have a new stat block that separates the combat information from the non-combat information. This will make it much easier to use the stat block during combat, and if it adds a little extra time outside of combat (when time pressure isn't so severe) that's OK. (You can see the logic behind this solution discussed, quite correctly, by James Wyatt in another column.)

2. We will get rid of all the non-combat abilities a monster has, since they'll never have a chance to use them given their expected
lifespan of 5 rounds.

Now, ignoring all the obvious problems in the second design philosophy, why do you even need to implement such a "solution" when you've already got solution #1 in place?

(In case the design problems in the second "solution" aren't obvious, here's another quote from David Noonan: "Unless the shaedling queen is sitting on a pile of eggs, it doesn’t matter how the shaedlings reproduce. The players will never ask, and the characters will never need to know." What Noonan is ignoring there is that the reason the PCs might be encountering the shaedling queen in the first place is the pile of eggs.

If D&D were simply a skirmish game, Noonan would be right: You'd set up your miniatures and fight. And the reasons behind the fight would never become important. But D&D isn't a skirmish game -- it's a roleplaying game. And it's often the abilities that a creature has outside of combat which create the scenario. And not just the scenario which leads to combat with that particular creature, but scenarios which can lead to many different and interesting combats. Noonan, for example, dismisses the importance of detect thoughts allowing a demon to magically penetrate the minds of its minions. But it's that very ability which may explain why the demon has all of these minions for the PCs to fight; which explains why the demon is able to blackmail the city councillor that the PCs are trying to help; and which allows the demon to turn the PCs' closest friend into a traitor.

And, even more broadly, the assumption that detect thoughts will never be used when the PCs are around assumes that the PCs will never do anything with an NPC except try to hack their heads off.

One is forced to wonder how much the design team is playing D&D and how much the design team is playing the D&D Miniatures game.

This was before 4th edition was even released, and his predictions were correct. 4th edition is basically a miniatures game. It's Chainmail morphed into D&D (minus lasting consequences) all over again. So much for "progress." Like I said above, 4th edition is outdated and Esper is apparently unaware of his inadvertent hypocrisy.

The entire thing is all about the players having a superficial and ultimately empty experience that is "fun" but not "challenging." Once you figure out how the mechanics work and get enough tactical experience down, you can literally use a few simple math formulae to calculate the results of any given encounter simply using the given stats of the PCs and the mean stats for the opponents (which isn't hard, especially for minions). Most of my friends who quit playing 4th edition quit because they would spend 5 minutes calculating the results of a 1-hour combat session and their predictions were so accurate that the game became utterly predictable and boring.

Add-to-that the lack of consequences and what you have is something I am not interested in playing. Ever. I won't even try it. The very system irks me. I've not played with enough good GMs in my life to feel any sort of certainty or trust that whomever runs a 4th edition game and invites me will be willing to let me try to negotiate with the kobolds instead of kill them. I have the feeling that I'm going to echo lindybeige's complaints about the system when the DM says "you can't do that" to me whenever I try to do something that the game doesn't give me an express power.

Why would anyone want to play a game like that? Well, like I said, nobody in generations X or Y can seem to take failure. It hurts their precious little egos. So when they fail in real life, they blame Wall Street instead of getting back on the damn horse. Compare Esper's attitude regarding his character's death to this old grognard's tale I saw on a few years ago:
I played a Magic User in Greyhawk .. THE Greyhawk... for a while. Up to 6th or 7th level when I retired him because I was tired of him and went back to my 8th level fighter.

My favorite adventure was as a 1st level MU. I had heard about an entrance to the 3rd level of Greyhawk and went down. Alone. With 3 HP and a Charm Person spell. Just me. A 1st level MU. In Greyhawk Castle. With Gary Gygax reffing.

I hit 2nd level at the end of the night with enough XP to be one shy of 3rd. I ran, I snuck, I threw lanterns (fire, oil, and a handle in one convenient package!), I ran, and I ran some more. It was still one of the best single evenings of gaming I've ever had.

So, I have heaps and heaps of "no fucking sympathy" for people who complain it's boring to play a low level MU.
Someone else posted that one of the designers of 4th edition had played with Gygax as a preteen and was always complaining that his magic-user died, but the kid never learned how to play smart like the others--he wanted to zap and zap and zap away.

Behold. The "Me Generation."

On that same forum, one of the posters wrote: "Though I might argue that the amount of information that a new player has to understand by looking at a 4E character sheet is certainly more to digest than a OD&D character sheet. ... 4E also presumes... or at least encourages through example... a certain style and approach to play. OD&D had so few rules to "anchor" it that it meant that new players could make the game their own. "

The response? "Mechanically yes, but OD&D demanded a lot more out of it's players. Modern D&D demands less. ... [Presuming/encouraging a specific style] is a huge bone in 4es favor.
Again placing more demands on the player. Game design is about crafting a players experience."

I'll reiterate and link again: SYSTEM MATTERS. The worst thing about the whole system of consequences being removed and character death being so remote a possibility is that there's no real challenge (unless the DM basically goes out of his way to try to kill the PCs with extremely unbalanced encounters). Therefore, there's no real psychological reward. Oh, it's fun. But there's no real sense of player agency. By removing challenge and consequences and reducing everything to a series of combat encounters in a linear dungeon, the ability for the players to actually participate in the creation of a story (like the players are doing in my Forgotten Realms game) is diminished. I have half a mind to think that 4th edition is so friendly to DMs because it allows them to railroad the players so effectively and convince them that they're having a grand old time while he's doing it. There's no way in 4th edition the PCs are going to chase the brown bear off using bells, whistles, banging metal, and other things that generally drive bears off in real life. They're going to have to kill it because that's how the game works, that's how it is designed, that is how it is supposed to be played. If the DM allows for anything else, he is literally and most assuredly doing it wrong because he is not using the game for the purpose for which it was designed.

Again, I'll link Ron Edward's article: System Does Matter. And the above paragraph is proof. If you think a good DM and veteran role-players (as opposed to "roll"-players) in your group redeems your game, I'm sorry, you are wrong because your style of play is actually misusing the system, making it do something it wasn't designed to do. Therefore, any arguments that the "fun" and "role-playing" aspects of 4th edition are all dependent on the group composition and DM are hereby demolished.


As lindybeige says in his review of 4th edition (linked above), 4th edition "is not a role-playing game at all. It is sort of a weird miniatures skirmish game, and an incredibly slow one at that." Yeah. I'll take 3.5 or OS D&D over 4th edition for the fantasy role-playing and Warhammer Fantasy Battle if I want to spend a fortune playing miniature skirmish games.

Next part, I will discuss the mechanics of the game a little and how it totally destroys suspension of disbelief, which in turn discourages immersion and role-playing.