Tuesday, February 17, 2009

AD&D 2nd Edition: 20 Years Later

Back in 1989, AD&D 2nd edition hit store shelves. Greywulf mentioned that Zeb Cook's intro was dated January, 1989. So, 2e is nearly old enough to drink.

I'll always remember 2nd edition as a missed opportunity. I have no idea what sort of restrictions or goals the designers worked under. Was backward compatibility deemed the most important element? What did TSR's designers see as the game's goal?

As a 14 year old when the game came out, my reactions were mixed at best. I liked some things (THAC0, expanded spell lists, a more flavorful ranger class, the bard as a class, the color art, the layout, the clearer rules, non-weapon proficiencies, rogue skills) but hated others (no demons or devils, a really annoying binder format for monsters, goofy art, plentiful attack spells for clerics).

The worst sin in my eyes, though, was the tone. The PHB, and many of the books after it, made it clear that there was a right way to play AD&D and a wrong way.

The right way centered on talking in funny voices, spending hours shopping for gear or chatting with J. Random NPC, and generally carrying on like a bunch of spastic Ren Faire rejects. If you liked goofy puns, pop culture references, and joke monsters, this was the game for you.

The bad way involved combat, dungeons, loot, kicking in doors, and kick ass characters. If you like, I don't know, dungeons, and perhaps dragons in those dungeons, get lost. Beat it. This is not your game.

To me, the RPG world had been turned upside down. I loved AD&D. Yet, it was pretty obvious looking at my gaming shelf that things were due for a change. Here was AD&D 2e, babbling on about story and bad puns. Over there was Warhammer FRP. It had an orange mohawked dwarf on on the cover, splitting an orc in half with a battle axe.

Hmmmm. Which game should I play?

Really, it was only the 1e books I already owned, and the quality adventures in Dungeon, that kept me interested in AD&D. By the end of high school, though, I was pretty much out of gaming as my active hobby.

Looking back, in my eyes 2e was a missed opportunity. Cut out the condescending attitude and the love of all things goofy, and the game was a reasonable update of AD&D. The mechanics were easier to use in many places, but the stench of one true wayism and a commitment to the worst aspects of gamer humor undercut the game.

As the line matured, a lot of good stuff emerged like Dark Sun and Planescape, but I can't help but believe that 2e did some deep damage to the D&D hobby, damage that wouldn't be truly repaired until the launch of 3e.

So, happy 20th birthday, AD&D 2nd edition.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

I Hate Resistances

During the development of 4e, I argued against including resistances against energy types. My argument was pretty simple:

Resistances create a disparity in value between energy types, but only if the DM uses a particular mix of monsters. Fire attacks blow in the campaign that has lots of red dragon and azers, while cold attacks such in an arctic campaign.

Story-wise, resistances mess up intuitive themes. Take my second example from above. If you were playing in an Arctic themed campaign, you might think it's a cool idea to play an ice wizard. Well, if you're fighting lots of ice creatures, that's actually a terrible choice. The folk of the frozen north should study and use fire magic. The desert nomads use ice magic. Sure, you can explain around that, but it's a jarring inconsistency. I'd rather have the flexibility to do it how I want.

Now, there are some story reasons for resistances. The fire elemental can walk through magma without harm, but you can easily get around that by placing all the mechanics in the right place. For instance, the elemental might have the "magma born" ability, which lets it ignore fire damage from terrain.

In place of resistances, I prefer two mechanics.

First, I think it's OK if a monster has limited access to damage denial. Maybe once or twice a combat it can reduce the damage from an appropriately themed attack.

What I'd prefer, though, are special abilities and bonuses that trigger when you use the "wrong" energy type. Blasting the red dragon with fire hurts it, but it also lets the dragon use its breath weapon again. Using a cold attack on the frost knight gives him +5 AC for a round. Blasting a ghoul with necrotic energy gives it an action point.

I like those sort of drawbacks because they make battles more interesting. You can try to finish the dragon off with your fire attack, but you risk giving it a powerful counter-attack. You can more easily dial the power of such abilities up or down, whereas resistance in even its weakest form (resist 5) is powerful at low levels and still quite useful at epic.

So, that's my stance on resistance.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Powers as Roleplaying Tool

I've started to stat up a few major villains for my Temple of Elemental Evil campaign, the guys that the PCs will face when they reach the finale of the heroic tier portion of the campaign. While thinking things over, I had a flash of insight.

Back in the day, I read a novel called A Gathering of Heroes written by Marion Zimmer Bradley's brother, Edwin. While I'm sure most of you have never read or even heard of it, the book had a big influence on my attitude toward D&D. Namely, I loved how EZB depicted his villains. I can still vividly remember how each of the main, evil guys fought and frustrated the heroes.

My favorite bad guy from the novel is Svaran the Black, a warrior of middling skill who also happens to fit perfectly into an impenetrable suit of armor that the bad guys steal from the dwarves (it's a very typical fantasy setting, though overlaid with elements of Celtic myth that I find appealing). Svaran's armor allows him to fight recklessly and relentlessly.

When the protagonist, Istvan, finally defeats Svaran, our villain suffers a moment of pathetic recognition when he understands Istvan's gambit and realizes that he's about to die. The mighty Svaran, slayer of heroes, general of the armies of evil, squeals like a baby and begs for mercy. IIRC, he even pleads, "I'm not supposed to die. I'm invincible," or something to that effect.

EZB was a good enough writer that he pulls off the scene, using the main villain's only line of dialog to evoke both a sense of pity and sweet revenge. Sure, Svaran killed several heroes during the novel, but in the end he's just a coward hiding in a suit of impenetrable armor. Istvan notes several times during his battles against him that Svaran is a middling warrior who would've been an anonymous toady to evil if he hadn't been the only guy who could fit into the armor.

As a reader, Svaran's death both illustrates some interesting depth for the character while also providing a satisfying victory.

I've been thinking of doing something similar for my NPCs in 4e. Sure, they'll have the typical spells and tricks to make them daunting enemies, but I'd also like to insert a few powers that are a mechanical expression of the NPC's personality and role in the campaign, built along with quotes or other material to go along with the attack.

To use Svaran as an example:

* Svaran can make a basic melee attack as an opportunity action, but he must allow the target to make a basic melee attack against him as a free action. He fights recklessly, relying on his armor to deflect blows. Each time he does this, I roleplay him a bit, describing his arrogance and overwhelming confidence, how he completely ignores attacks as they clang against his armor.

* When he's bloodied, that ability goes away, but instead he now gets a new attack he can use to strike anyone who hit him in melee the round before. He fights with increasing desperation, growing more cautious but desperately attempting to make each attack count.

* When he's down to his last few hit points, he misses his next turn and utters the line above.

The idea is that as the PCs tangle with him, his personality and role in the story inform how he fights in a direct, obvious way. A few other ideas:

* The PCs face a vampire and his succubus lover. If a PC harms the succubus, the vampire gets a huge attack and damage bonus against him on his next turn.

* A psychopathic dwarf assassin fights with a disturbing lack of emotion. If he hits a PC, that PC suffers penalties on attacks against him. When the dwarf is bloodied, he snaps into a psychotic fury. He can attack only the PC who bloodied him, and gains some temporary hit points to let him shrug off the inevitable opportunity attacks as he rushes at his victim.

* Two NPCs are hated rivals. If they can catch each other in area attacks, along with at least two PCs, they do so.

I like the idea of these "scripts" because they make a fight different. Sometimes, the tactically smart play for an NPC is boring and flavorless. If every NPC fights as well as the DM can run them, you lose a lot of what makes an NPC unique. Ideally, the players think of the fight in terms of the NPC's personality ("That dwarf was crazy! He ran across a pool of acid to get to Baldar.") rather than in terms of powers ("That dwarf had a nasty sneak attack abililty.")