I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Monday, December 28, 2015

Granularity: the ideal level of detail

This post by Delta has been a great inspiration to me since I read it a long while ago. It uses Miller's Law to discuss how many options are "too many options". It is a great post - go read it if you haven't yet.

According to Wikipedia, Miller's article ("The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information") "is often interpreted to argue that the number of objects an average human can hold in working memory is 7 ± 2".

There is more to it than that, as you can see on the link, and the whole notion is somewhat disputed (there is mention of a "Magical Number four", and so on), but Delta makes a very interesting argument based on the number 7 (and often less) to explain why so many people might find 3e "too complicated" when compared to OD&D. I feel the same -  I really like having lots of options, but I also think they can be overwhelming.

This whole thing got me thinking about what is the ideal level of detail for my games. Should I use a d100 range for traits? Should I ignore +1 modifiers? Should I use a d6 for skills, or is it not detailed enough?

Bear in mind that all of this might be coincidental, and has a lot more to do with personal taste than mathematics or psychology.

So, what is the ideal level of detail for me?

As you would imagine, the answer is often... seven.

Take B/X ability modifiers, for example; they range from -3 to +3. So, you have seven degrees of Strength, for example (-3, -2, -1, 0, +1, +2 , +3). Sure, there might be some difference between STR 10 (+0) and STR 11 (+0), but it is ignored most of the time (and I appreciate the illusion of difference between 10 and 11, but that is a subject for another day).

Curiously, when the Fate RPG was created, the creators played with the idea of having three tiers of "strong", according to Rob Donoghue: The idea was to let a character be strong, stronger or strongest.  But it also allowed someone to be drunk, drunker, or drunkest.

There something very straightforward (and Orwellian, I guess) of using a couple of words when describing all possible human tiers of Strength: weakest, weaker, weak, (ordinary), strong, stronger, strongest.

This applies to lots of RPGs, which use three levels of "Strong", for example, but only one level of "weak", since heroic characters will seldom have many "weak" traits. The Storyteller system and Savage Worlds, for example, use a kind of Weak/Average/Strong/Stronger/Strongest progression, going from one to five "dots" or from d4 to d12.

The Fate RPG, on the other hand, would adopt an "adjective ladder", with more tiers - which causes some confusion for me, because sometimes I forget if "Fantastic" beats "Superb" or if "Epic" beats "Legendary". It would seem that for this level of granularity numbers would be better than words.

Now, let's stretch the concept a bit further.

If you have seven possibilities with the same likelihood of happening, each has a 14,2% chance of taking place.

Well, this happens to be the granularity I like when dealing with modifiers, which is probably why I dislike using +1 modifiers when rolling a d20. Using a d20, the closest to  14,2% is a +3 bonus - which is what you get when you invest in a NWP in AD&D 2nd Edition. Some versions of old-school D&D use +4/-4 as the "go to" modifier when rolling 1d20.

But what if you're are using a d6? Well, +1 in 1d6 adds about 16,7% chance; very close to the ideal level of granularity I need.

Fifth Edition D&D has substituted most modifiers with a "2d20 pick highest/lowest" system, and that was one of the most universally admired features of this new version, because many people thought that those small +1 modifiers were too fiddly and somewhat of a nuisance. This method influences the results in different ways, depending on the Target Number, but on average the difference is 3,32 - or 16,6%.

By the way, the average result of a d6 is 3,5. Which means that adding a d6 to a d20 or to 3d6 has similar results... and explains why the classic method of "roll 3d6 under ability, 4d6 if the task is hard, 2d6 if the task is easy", etc.

There are exceptions, of course. I still use the d20 and +1 increments for combat, since in the long run having a +1 bonus will give you an edge more than 5% of every combat. Also, if you take the "plus or minus two" idea into account, increments of 10% to 20% instead of about 15% could work too (using +2 to +4 to a d20 roll), if you prefer even numbers.

Coincidentally, I've recently realized that I like the idea of SEVEN OUTCOMES for most actions. It is more than most people are used to (unless they play FF Star Wars, I guess), and certainly more than you need in most situations, but dividing outcomes in worst, worse, bad, ordinary, good, better, best, has worked for me; I can easily think of each category for most uses of a skill or ability.

Not all outcomes have the same chance of happening, of course.

You can find an explanation lots of examples in this post.





9-120Neutral, as expected




You can go the Rules Cyclopedia way to make it simpler (five outcomes, still within "seven, plus or minus 2"):




6-8Neutral, as expected



Again, all of this has no basis in science; it is one of those happy coincidences that work for me, but might work differently for your group.

So, what's is the point?

In conclusion, systems that bother with +5% bonuses are too fiddly for my tastes, and are too often ignored by most of my players. If your tastes are similar to mine, you can keep these ideas in mind when designing your own games or house rules for your favorite systems.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Game of Thrones, Star Wars, and what makes a good setting

NOTE: there are NO SPOILERS in this post, and has nothing to do with the new movie, but hey, if you want to be on the safe side, just watch the movies first.

My friends are great fans of Star Wars; some of them, even more than me. We have probably played every RPG version out there, including d6, d20, FFG and some home-brews, not to mention video games, board games, etc.

I am a big fan of A Song of Ice and Fire. All my friends are, up to a point, but I might be the biggest fan in the group, so take the next sentence with a grain of salt: Westeros (the world of ASOIF), or something like it, might be the best possible setting for a group like ours, which is why some our best sessions were set in it.

As we get older and game a little less often, I'm starting to feel familiarity plays a bigger and bigger part in our games. Most of the players come to a session looking to have some fun in that particular session, but half of my group can hardly remember what happened in the last session, not to mention a couple of months ago. I try not to few bad about it, because half of them didn't remember ever playing a particular edition of DC Heroes - INCLUDING the GM that ran half a dozen sessions with it a couple of years ago!

In any case, "world building" is quite difficult to do in this circumstances, and I think most of the players wouldn't read more than a few pages of any given setting at once, as time is very scarce. Well, maybe they WOULD each one read about a particular setting... just not the same one. One of my friends seems to know everything about Warhammer 40,000, and another one has tons of Legends of the 5 Rings books, for example. But finding a setting that causes this much interest in everybody is hard to do.

Also, nowadays I find that reading about any given setting is very dull when compared to reading a novel, playing a video game or watching a movie. Describing a setting in a concise and interesting manner isn't easy to do; and it has been a while since I found any interesting RPG setting, to be honest.

So, having a familiar setting is very helpful. And any familiar setting would do: Star Wars, Westeros, Middle-Earth or even Dragonlance or Dark Sun (which we used a lot in the past) might be cool. But there are a few things that make Westeros the most interesting setting for me, when opposed to Star Was, for example.

In no particular order - they seem all related somehow, so forgive me if things get repetitive:

- Shades of Grey. There is no obvious "good versus evil" in Westeros. In fact, nobody is sure who the "good guys" are, and there is even some doubt that the world-threatening zombies might not be so bad after all. I find this makes easier to insert nuance and moral choices when compared to a "black and white" setting where the most frequent opponents are always irrevocably evil (albeit sometimes disguised), as often happens with the Sith or Tolkien's orcs.

- A Stable Social Order. There is a somewhat stable and predictable social order to fall back to when in doubt, with kings, high-lords, lords, vassals, knights, etc. There are codes of chivalry and "proper" behavior. This constraints seem to make player characters more likely to think about their relationships instead of just murdering anyone that gets in the way (unless that someone is bigger than themselves, which makes them resource to stealth and assassination). "Might makes right" limit the types of adventure you can have in a given setting.

A Flexible Social Order. On the other hand, I think it is very important to have some flexibility built in the system, including possibilities of social mobility and of turning the whole order upside down from time to time, which is basically what happens in various moments of ASOIF. When you're in a military setting such as WH40K (as far as I understand it), not following orders will make you the enemy, and rebelling against your own group is unthinkable; thus, freedom of choice is somewhat diminished.

- Weak Metaplot. Star Wars has a very strong conflict in its core; the fate of the entire galaxy is at stake. Same for Lord of The Rings, with the fate of Middle-earth hanging in the balance. Failure means total destruction, success means everything is going to be alright, more or less. This is somewhat better in ASOIF, where multiple outcomes seem possible, even if the "bad guys" (who are those again?) win.

Strong Supporting Cast. Having multiple interesting NPCs is good. Having multiple interesting NPCs that you already know is way better. It is also a good thing that many of this characters aren't the "mighty heroes" of the setting. Interacting with Gandalf or Luke Skywalker might overshadow the PCs; they outclass the PCs as allies, can hardly be defeated as foes (which is specially hard if you're trying to preserve canon to some extent), and even if you see them as patrons you might have difficulty in explaining why such people need help from simple adventurers.

Also, when you have lots of strong characters, you might be interested on finding out what happens next even if the most important character dies. This helps creating a sense that any character, including player characters, can become important.

Whats better, the minor characters have their own goals, often independent from major characters and even from major events. Take Quentyn Martell or Brienne of Tarth, that go through amazing adventures of their own with little relation to the main "Ice and Fire" plot. It really makes one feel like thee are innumerable possible adventures in that setting.

Compare that to Tolkien of Star Wars: most "minor" adventures are directly tied to the main conflict, with the most important characters fighting for one side or another, as you can see in Shadows of the Empire, Shadow of Mordor, etc.

Shifting allegiances. Another interesting feature of Westeros is how allegiances can change, putting characters in different positions. Defectors and traitors play an important part, and they are not always evil or weak, opening interesting possibilities for player characters other than victory or death. You could fight a friend at a tournament, or ally with a foe due to circumstances. You might have evil allies on your side, or noble warriors on the opposing force - which is rare in Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, for example.

Multiple Important Factions. This might be the best feature of playing in Westeros for my group. It ties everything else together, in some ways.

First, it is easy to introduce an important NPC. If the group meets a knight called "Lyonel Lannister" or ", he already brings dozens of unspoke assumptions in his name. The same happens if they meet a unnamed member of the Kingsguard or the Night's Watch. The best thing, of course, is that there are NO guarantees that those assumptions will be true: the Lannister guy can be an impoverished and gentle warrior, and even a member of the Kingsguard can be incompetent.

A single character can be part of multiple significant circles: a family, a foster family, a knightly order, a group of friends that fought side by side, etc.

And, again, no good or evil: every faction has its own interests, and not all of those interests point the same way. Or, as Jaime Lannister said in the TV series (source):

"So many vows. They make you swear and swear. Defend the King, obey the King, obey your father, protect the innocent, defend the weak. But what if your father despises the King? What if the King massacres the innocent? It's too much. No matter what you do, you're forsaking one vow or another."

This kinds of choices - and, well, meaningful choices in general - is what a great campaign is made of.

By the way, I'm currently playing a D&D game set in Ravnica. Important factions are quite meaningful to me.

The problem with Canon. Playing an RPG in Westeros shares the same problems as any setting you didn't create: you must decide how close to canon you want to stick to. Too far, and you lose familiarity; too close, and the player characters cant seem to accomplish anything. My ideal solution is setting the game a few hundred years apart from the original story, so you can keep the same ideas, factions, etc, without feeling constrained by canon.

Also, one way or another, ASOIF will reach a conclusion. The world might get saved or doomed after all, which might make the player characters insignificant in the long run. I think I still might have fun with Westeros in my game, because there are still lots of significant things to do in the unknown past - topple an evil king, start an important lineage, destroy mythical creatures, etc.

What other settings have the same qualities?

Any setting your group is familiar with will do. Pendragon comes to mind, if your group is somewhat familiarized with Arthurian myth. Quasi-historical settings may work in the same way, but strictly historical ones will cause problems with "canon" as mentioned above, unless they happen in an era where there is little record of most events.

See this relevant article on Wikipedia describing the Hyborian Age:

Howard had an intense love for history and historical dramas; however, at the same time, he recognized the difficulties and the time-consuming research needed in maintaining historical accuracy. By conceiving a timeless setting – a vanished age – and by carefully choosing names that resembled our history, Howard avoided the problem of historical anachronisms and the need for lengthy exposition.

Star Wars may work (there are a million books, cartoons, comic books and videogames to prove that), although you might want to include factions that are not in the movies (Yuuzhan Vong, Gray Jedi) if you dislike the somewhat "good versus evil" struggle of the original movies.

RPG settings work well enough if everybody is familiar with them, but they must believe the setting premises, which isn't always easy - I could never quite care about super-powerful NPCs in most RPGs, for example, because they often seem to serve no purpose other than being super-powerful NPCs.

Also, many RPG setting ruins things with metaplots. This, to me, defeats the whole purpose of having an RPG setting in the first place; if all the outcomes are already defined, how are the character choices relevant at all?

By the way, familiarity is a good argument to have dwarves, elves, and dragons (or, say, pseudo-England, pseudo-England, etc) instead of original creatures. Those things create immediate expectations in the players minds, and you can play with these expectations in your own setting to create interesting effects - which ASOIF does to some extent.

Still, most of RPG settings with "vanilla" dwarves, elves and dragon seem tiresome and clichéd to me. Go figure.

Thus, a good setting, for me, has to included: shades of grey, multiple interesting factions, a stable but malleable social order, cool but not all-important NPCs, no "hard" metaplot, and, specially, familiarity - preferably using familiar tropes in unexpected ways.

My favorite settings (or the ones that come to mind right now, in any case) are Westeros, Dark Sun, or something inspired by Ravnica or Dark Souls.

Can you think of other good examples?

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Variations of the Same Principles - A few house rules for BD&D, LotFP, etc

I am always trying to break the code of BD&D to make it the perfect game for me and my group. It is a never-ending process, but from time to time I come up to something that resembles a "final" version.

So, here is a loose collection of house rules. Nothing ground-breaking, mostly variations of what you already know.

Hope you like it.

Inspirations: TSR D&D (mostly B/X and BECMI), the OSR (mostly Lamentations of the Flame Princess, obviously), some WotC D&D (mostly 5e). Also, this (Delta), this (Breeyark), this (Links to Wisdom), this (Daniel Sell), this (no idea who the author is, would love to find out), the stuff I linked below, and probably lots of stuff I can't remember.

Some goals: no classes but infinite archetypes, simplicity, quick character creation with enough customization later on, flexibility, compatibly, familiarity and some semblance of balance.

And here we go.


Any character can use any armor, weapon, skill or spell in the game. They can also sneak around and cast spells in armor, at a penalty. No classes, racial restrictions, ability requirements, separate archetypes, etc.


Modifiers: from -3 to +3, as in B/X. Modifiers always apply to skills (see below) as adequate. A 1-in-6 chance of climbing with a +2 Strength modifiers becomes 3-in-6.

Strength, Dexterity, Constitution: as usual. I'm considering ditching the to-hit bonuses of the first two, and just add Strength bonus to damage.

Charisma: as usual, plus becomes the main stat for measuring divine favor, luck and influencing demons (if you thought "lawful, neutral, chaotic", you might be on to something; if you tough "paladin, mountebank and sorcerer", you're getting ahead of yourself).

Once per session, you can roll 2d20 pick highest instead of 1d20. After you do that, roll under Charisma; failure means you're out of luck and cannot use this feature again until you level up (or some other period of time).

Wisdom: as usual. Affects saving throws (see below).

Intelligence: as usual, plus additional skills (see below).

Character creation

Abilities are rolled with 3d6 in order. 1st level character get no breaks; if you want to make things easier start at level 3.

Starting characters whose sum of stats (plus special powers) is smaller than 61 can add points freely until they reach 61.

Note: yes, I'm aware that the average of rolling 3d6 six times is 63 - I use 60+level, you can use what you want, of course. I'm considering raising this myself, but I like 1st level characters to be weak.  

2 points of skills at level 1, plus Intelligence modifier if positive. Nothing else.

Hit points

4 HP per level to everybody, plus Constitution bonus, until level 9. Your attack bonus applies to your total HP.

Example: if you have a +1 Constitution modifier, you get 20 HP at level 4. If you also have a +2 attack bonus, you get 22 HP instead.

Hit points are a measure of fighting ability; most other things cause Constitution damage. For starvation, dehydration, etc, use the rule of three.


Start with 1in6 chances, as LotFP (use your own little list of skills if you want; I would keep it around a dozen), but ability modifiers are always added to the roll. Choose the adequate ability to each skill, with Dexterity and Intelligence being the most useful ones.

Yes, you can use a d8, d10 or d12 to test skills in extreme cases, but don't overdo it, or you might cause an "arms race" and make competent characters seem incompetent, which is frustrating.

Optional: if you dislike Xin6 skills, try adding using a d20 and adding +1d6 or +3 per skill level. The results are similar, and you don't have to bother with +1/-1 modifiers on the d20  that will only matter 5% of the time.

At least until I can make a complete system out of this...

Attack bonus/THAC0/etc

Attack bonus is a skill (I call it "Fighting"). If you spend 3 skill points you get a +3 attack bonus. It also applies to HP (see above).

Fighting cannot be greater than level.

Note: this might make Fighting the uber-skill, but maybe not. Even if every characters get some Fighting skill, the true warriors will differentiate themselves by having great Strength, Constitution, etc. In any case, it is a problem I haven't seem in my games.

Encumbrance (this is somewhat important)

Weight is measured in stones, each weighting about ten pounds (or one bulky item).

A character can carry up to 1/4 strength without penalty. After that, she gets a -1 penalty to Armor Class, relevant skills, and spell casting (apply to spell level), and loses 1/4 of their movement.

Armor is light/medium/heavy, with AC 12/14/16, weighting 2/4/6 stones. Shields weight one stone, and I suggest giving +2 to AC, like 5e.

In the unlikely event that wearing armor makes AC equal or worse, the character is too weak to wear that type of armor with efficiency.

Example: a STR 12 character carrying 10 stones of weight has a -3 penalty to AC, skills and spells and loses 3/4 of his movement. He casts level 2 spells as if they were level 5.

Leveling up

Every time you level up, you gain one skill point.

You may also gain one ability point, depending on the sum of your abilities being smaller than 60+level. If you start with 65 ability points, for example, you start gaining ability points on level 6.

(The idea is that characters with humble beginnings gain more flexibility. You can even go the Dark Souls way and let players decide between starting at level 1, 2 or 3).

The maximum sum of your abilities is defined by the GM (I suggest 75; it is close enough to 4d6 per ability).

If you spend or lose your abilities for some reason, this still counts towards this limits. For example, if you spend two ability points to get some special powers, the actual limit to abilities drops to 73.

Optional: when you raise an ability over 17, it always "costs" one additional point. This applies at character creation if you roll an 18. If you use abilities greater than 18, 19 costs 21 (19+2), 20 costs 23 (20+3), and so on. Modifiers follow this progression: 20/+4, 22/+5, 24/+6, etc.

Leveling up works retroactively too. If your Constitution modifiers is raised from 0 to +1 at level 5, you gain 5 additional HP, not one. If your Intelligence modifier  is raised from 0 to +1 at level 5, you gain 1 extra skill point, as if you had this in level one.

After level 9: this is a whole different matter, but use what you already know: fewer HP, Constitution modifier doesn't apply, etc.

Saving throws

I don't care much for the detailed tables of classic D&D. I prefer using a single saving throw, like Swords & Wizardry, combined with optional rules from BECMI and some 5e.

Every character start with a single saving throw of 16, and it diminishes by one point every even level (you can make it once per level, but this way makes it closer to BD&D, specially if you follow the suggestions below).

Add the appropriate ability bonus to saving throws, with Constitution, Dexterity and Wisdom being the most useful ones.

Getting a special bonus against one type of peril (for example: poison/disease, mind affecting spells, etc) is a special feature anyone can get (but only once) in exchange for one ability point. 

Use your "go to" bonus for this: +3, +4, +1d6, roll twice and pick highest, etc.


To be honest, I don't care much for the traditional races or most of their mechanics in BD&D too. You can treat them like everyone else (chose appropriate skills, etc) or use whatever rules you prefer. Here are some random ideas:

* Just give them a different culture, this can be more interesting than bonuses.
* Grant them some additional bonuses to starting characteristics, but the same limits as everyone else.
* Darkvison costs 1 ability point.
* Dwarves move slower but can carry more weight. Halflings have less HP but better AC, or less STR but better chances at hiding.
* Etc.

Classes, XP, feats, etc.

Since there are no classes, all characters share the same XP progression - the Fighter's, for example. Differentiation between characters is made by their choices.

I am not a fan of big lists of feats, but you could add some simple ones to make more character concepts possible. They would each cost one ability point or one skill point (I'm not sure they are equivalent, but it will work for this purpose). Some examples:

* Use Wisdom or Charisma for your spells instead of Intelligence.
* Add Wisdom modifier to AC, provided the final AC isn't greater than Wisdom (for monks, etc. Barbarian types can do the same with Constitution instead, acrobats can double their Dexterity modifier, etc).
* Saving throws (see above).
* Ignore one penalty (cast spells while encumbered, etc).
* Cleave, bash, extra attacks, extra melee damage... Not sure about this one yet.
* Etc.


Well, this is the hardest one, right? I have a few ideas in my mind right now, but I figure they deserve a separate post. I'll let you with the "classic" one.

If you like "traditional" casting, just add a Arcana (or magic-use, wizardry, etc) skill similar to "Fighting". Your Arcana counts as your "Magic-User level" for all purposes (use MU charts). It costs you one ability point and one skill point (or one ability point and one HP, if you prefer) to raise Arcana, and you can only do it once per level.

Yes, this make MUs look somewhat weaker than other classes, but that is the whole point, since MUs usually can do more with less skills and abilities, and they get frailer, crazier and stranger as they delve into forbidden knowledge.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Hit Points: What are they good for? Absolutely nothing! Except war.

Another quick brainstorming session.

Hit points and their progression are so important to (what I view as) traditional D&D that sometimes it seems that changing them would mess everything up.

The more I think of it, thought, it seems like HP are good for combat, and little else. Note that I'm taking the "in character" or "in fiction" view of HP here; of course you can use HP as character resource, pacing mechanic, narrative control or whatever.

HP and combat ability are very closely related; the relation is obvious in OD&D, but even in other editions you usually have characters with the most HP having the best attack bonuses, monster HD translating directly to attack bonus and HP, and so on. There are a few exceptions (old school dwarves come to mind), of course, but in general I would say HP reflects "fighting ability" better than "wounds" or anything similar.

And HPs ARE a great mechanic for D&D combat, in my opinion. Starting characters and mooks are always in danger of immediate death, while more experienced ones always have a chance of running away. HP is a good measure of your character's ability to know how far he is from death/serious harm, as I heard someone say.

But for (mostly) everything else, HP seems like a difficult fit, which is why there is all this silly talk about falling damage, etc. The main reason that makes HP a good mechanic for combat (training and adventuring increases survivability quickly) is a hindrance when you use to portray dangers that would affect any character (almost) regardless of experience.

In short, I am starting to wonder if HPs are really a good multipurpose mechanic or if they should mostly be limited to combat (and only indirectly for other purposes).

Let's see some examples.

Dehydration, starvation, etc: there are often better and simpler solutions than HP loss, unless you want a level 1 Fighter to risk death after one day without water and a level 10 fighter to be able to spend one week without drinking. Some systems that use alternatives to HP loss are 3e, 5e and LotFP; my favorite are the ones I wrote here.

Poison, Disease: each poison or disease should have unique effects, but if I were to make a generalization I would say saving throws and Constitution damage work better than HP loss. For poisoned weapons, for example, I find it quite redundant to deal damage, than deal more damage due to poison. Worse, lose HP, than make a saving throw to avoid losing more HP - but this saving throw is highly correlated to how many HP you have.

Assassination: even the mightiest human hero should be susceptible to a blade to the back while sleeping or distracted. In AD&D, assassination is based on level, not HP. Again, saving throws and Constitution damage might work better than HP.

Magic: I like the idea of spell points, and HP as spell points may work fine for some people, but creates all kinds of problems: wizards being afraid to cast spells (and not for fear of mutations and corruption, but for hoarding HP, which is a lot less fun), healing spell short-circuiting it all unless you add special rules for that, etc. It would be better to give all characters 1d10 hp per level and let wizards transform half of it in spell points, and then keep pools separated forever - or a similar solution.

Falling damage: not much to add to all known complaints. A level 1 thief is likely to die after falling 10 feet, a level 10 fighter is likely to survive after falling 70 feet. Again, easily solved with saving throw + Constitution damage.

Temporary HP, Subdual damage, etc: I think adding more uses to HP makes things more confusing rather than simpler. Here is a random rule for Berserkergang: all HP damage dealt to you is halved, after it ends you lose 1d4 Constitution (salve halves). I am sure there are other, simpler ways of dealing with this stuff than different pools of HP.

Monsters: they make things a little trickier. On one hand, there is no reason a cow would be much better at surviving a fall than cat (because physics, etc), and disease, starvation, dehydration, etc, will depend on the particular animal more than it's toughness or size. On the other hand, monsters with lots HP are often big, which should provide some defense against poison and assassination. Also, old school monsters need little but HD in their stats, so I would be careful about making the use of Constitution mandatory.

Should we get rid of D&D-like HP? I don't think so. It is still too useful for combat, and ditching it might cause more problems than it solves. I like the idea that a common soldier can die in a moment of fighting, while an experienced adventurer might have her fate defined by choice, more than chance. And most of the problems people seem to have with starting HP can be fixed by beginning on level 3 (more about that later).

There are plenty of systems that deal with HP differently, but the way HP works is one of the defining characteristics of every edition of D&D, and if you like D&D, you are probably fond of that, like me.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Brainstorming: D&D Abilities

My brainstorming posts are just that: lots of ideas thrown around, without much afterthough. Today's topic is D&D's six abilities and how we can use them.

We often say D&D is a level-based game, while other popular systems such as Runequest are skill-based. In OD&D, level was almost everything, and abilities were of little importance when compared to modern editions. They might give you a little bonus to XP or add HP and hirelings, but not much more. This why you could roll 3d6 in order for abilities without worrying too much; it will seldom ruin your character. OD&D has an example character, Xylarthen, that choose to be a Magic User even with Intelligence 11, Wisdom 13 and Constitution 12, abilities that might better fit a Cleric.

Abilities became more important quickly. Soon you needed higher and higher prerequisites for certain classes, modifiers got bigger, and any viable characters needed high abilities to survive. "Roll 4d6, take highest 3, and arrange at will" became a popular method of character generation. In D&D 5e abilities are sometimes more important than level.

This has some mixed effects on the game.

Using abilities for everything

Abilities can be used for many things. You can use them instead of skills, for example, rolling 1d20 under one ability, making D&D more "ability-based" and taking the focus from both level and skills - like 5e did, up to a point.

Why not simplify things further? Fighters get 1d8 HP and should be tougher against poison, disease, etc. Wizards get 1d4 and are frailer. You could just ditch the whole concept of different HP per level, give 1d6 per level to everybody and grant fighters a greater Constitution.

Do that for other abilities. 5e has high-level fighters (if "Champions") being able to jump, run, climb, etc. ACKS gives damage bonuses to to high-level fighters. Other games limit the type of weapons or armor a wizard can use. Why not ditch all of that, and just give more Strength to the fighter? The type of armor you can use is defined by Strength, and you can only sneak around or cast spells when unencumbered. And a wizard can use any weapon, because there is no reason to forbid them.

You could cut a lot of feats, proficiency and specific rules with that. Maybe you could ditch classes entirely and let characters gravitate towards their talents. But that is a whole different post.

4d6 makes starting characters are too powerful, 3d6 makes high level characters too weak

Rolling 4d6 or using other "high powered" method for starting characters causes some strange consequences. These characters are above average humans, talented in almost every field. Still, they have little HP and are likely to die in a minute of combat or after falling 10 feet (not to mention deadly house cats).

I think starting characters shouldn't be special; 3d6 in order makes them average and forces you to play different character concepts, often more interesting than the optimized characters you would play if you can choose your abilities. On the other hand, it might stop you from playing the character you want, specially if you need high abilities to qualify for a class.

But 3d6 in order makes high-level characters too incompetent. A 10th level fighter can survive almost anything, and a 10th level magic-user is messing with the fabric of reality, but they still very average in terms of abilities.

I like my 1st level characters to be weak, random and mundane, and my high level characters to be customized (or, even better, shaped by their experiences) and noteworthy.

The solution is obvious

Roll 3d6 in order at level 1. Gain 1 point to put in any ability per level. You can have the best of both worlds: quick, mundane characters at level 1, heroic characters at level 10, demigods at level 20 (if you go that far).

It might seem too much, but it really isn't excessive when compared to modern editions or some alternate methods of character creation. The 4d6 method gives you an average of 10 extra points to the sum of your abilities, so if you start with 3d6 in order you would be close to "4d6 arrange at will" by level 10.

One way to use this: the sum of all your abilities should never be less than 60+level. If you roll less than that at level 1, add to any ability you want until you get to 61. The average of 3d6 times six is 63. If you rolled well at level 1, it might take a while for you to gain more abilities. Like in Dark Souls, characters with humble beginnings have more space for customization.

Xylarthen can become a great wizard if he survives long enough. Any fighter can eventually become a paladin. But the best part is that they still keep the uniqueness that 3d6 in order granted them: Xylarthen will always be a bit wiser and tougher than most wizards.

There is nothing inherently "WotC-era" to the idea. Gaining more abilities is perfectly suited for old school D&D. AD&D had some ideas on the matter. Here is how Gygax described different abilities for Conan in 1980; you could do the same for many heroic characters.

You might still need a limit to abilities, in order to avoid all fighters from having STR 25 (or 18/00, etc) at level 10 or something similar. Also, different XP progressions may cause weird effects.

All characters are the same

One of the problems of choosing your abilities trough point buy or other methods is that it might take you into an endless quest for the perfect build, making characters quite similar to each other, while randomness makes them different from each other.

You can go one way or another, but I generally prefer a mix of choice and randomness. One loose idea: choose an ability to raise, roll 1d20, if you roll equal or higher you can raise it, if not choose another ability until you succeed. If you do this 6 times unsuccessfully, just choose an ability to raise.

MAD, SAD, but not that bad

Is is often said that Fighters should have good Strength, Constitution and Dexterity, but wizards only need Intelligence. There is also a whole discussion, specially in 3e, about classes that rely on multiple abilities (multiple ability dependency, MAD) , such as the Paladin, versus classes that rely on a single ability (SAD).

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. A high level Fighter should be fast, strong, tough; a high level wizard, on the other hand, might be smart, but weak, sickly, unpleasant and insane, while still very powerful. A paladin is good overall, but not as strong or tough as a simple fighter, and so on.

Again, the solution is obvious: trade ability points for supernatural powers, such as spells.

Magic: what doesn't kill you makes you stranger

The explanation for trading abilities for spells is simple: magic takes a toll on your body, mind and soul. Or, if you want to be more mundane, all that time the wizard spent locked in and underground library has not been good for his health, sanity, or personal hygiene. You can come up with similar explanations for all classes with special powers, or just make it a game mechanics ("when you level up, increase one ability, take one feat or learn a couple of spells").

I don't have an exact formula, but 1 point for every couple of spells sounds good if you use flexible spells such as these. If you don't, the solution might be closer to 1 point for every 10 levels of spells (limits on casting still apply; if you learn a level 5 spell on level, you are risking your soul).

If you have a particulary harsh DM, he might make you roll 1d6 to see which ability is weakened... And require an explanation about the cause (did your eyes become reptilian, lowering Charisma? Are your feet inverted, lowering Dexterity? Etc). Or just find a good corruption table in the internet.

Charisma, dump stats and other problems

I dislike the idea that a character can basically ignore all abilities but your most important one. Fighters, for example, shouldn't be able to ignore Strength if they are "DEX-based", in my opinion. You can have a weak fighter, but is difficult to imagine any fighter that thinks Strength is unimportant.

I also dislike the idea that some abilities are only useful for some classes. What I would like to see is them opposite: ALL abilities being useful for ALL characters. The thief needs some Strength to use leather armor or carry stuff. The fighter needs Charisma to command her troops in battle. Etc.

This is quite easy to do with Strength (encumbrance, armor, combat), Dexterity (AC) and Constitution (HP). I like using abilities for saving throws; this can easily make Dexterity, Constitution and Wisdom important for everybody. Using Intelligence for extra skills, as 3e does, is a good solution - better than using it for Reflex or Initiative in my opinion, but any solution will do.

Charisma is an interesting case. A very important ability in OD&D, it has become somewhat of a dump-stat in WotC-D&D, although it still has its uses for some characters (feinting and intimidating in 3e, saving throws in 4e, etc).

Finding uses for Charisma isn't impossible, but not particularly easy, specially if the party chooses an spokesperson to do all the socializing (you have similar problems for Intelligence and skills in general). You might use Charisma for status, starting gold, etc.

A cooler idea, in my opinion, is using Charisma for divine favor and dealing not only with people, but also deities. The faithful and the lucky can both be described as charismatic, and Charisma could grant you some luck points or similar. It works well for paladins, sorcerers and swashbucklers, but can be useful for anyone.

Even better is using it for followers, hirelings, etc, as old school D&D intended. You can make Charisma near useless at lower levels, but invaluable when you reach level 9 and gains lots of followers. Some fighters would naturally become champions, other would be great leaders instead.

It creates an interesting choice, which is often what the game is all about.

In Conclusion

Abilities are quite flexible, and have many interesting uses. Although they gained importance in WotC-era D&D, their usefulness is still very dependent on character class. Expanding their uses might make the game a lot simpler without losing much in the process, or make old school games more diverse without adding complexity.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Old School Ramblings #3 - But what about Conan?; or: Appendix N characters are uninteresting

After my latest post on this series, I have received a few comments to the effect of: "But what about Conan? He is certainly special!". The same can be said of many appendix N characters such as Elric, the Gray Mouser, and so on. In fact, some are more than "special" - they are nigh-invincible superheroes, or at least have very sturdy plot-armor. Since this is a fair objection, I'll address it here.

First of all, I'd like to avoid any explanation that effectively dismisses the importance of the appendix N for now. Yes, I am aware that many people see the appendix N as nothing but a list of Gary's favorite books, that was written long after D&D, and surely there are gaming reasons for creating a game based on Howard's works without having Conan as the protagonist. Also, RPG are played in groups with many characters, and having one, or all of them, to be that special would detract from the experience, as well as making dangerous encounters almost impossible. This are all valid explanations for the reason why D&D characters don't look like some appendix N characters but, other than this paragraph, this isn't the point of this post. Instead, I'll start with the assumption that the appendix N is an important part of old school D&D.

Now, the Appendix N is quite extensive, and includes different types of books. There are few things one can say that will include every work in the list, and I must admit I haven't read all of it. So I'm going to focus on a few works, while recognizing that the rest might be different. Keep in mind that Gygax says that "the most immediate influences upon AD&D were probably de Camp & Pratt, R. E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, H. P. Lovecraft, and A. Merritt".

If you analyse the main characters in the Appendix N, you'll see that many of them can be inserted into one or more of the following types:

The quintessential Hamlet: no relation to Conan at all.
Type A characters are true protagonists, or "alphas". They are the center of attention (or ate least a significant part of it) in their own stories; they have conflicting motives, a rich inner world, they experience growth and development, perdition and redemption, etc. Characters such as Boromir, Frodo, and some others from the Lord of The Rings are in this category, as well as Elric (Moorcock) and some characters from Roger Zelazny (or so I'm told...). Popular examples outside of the appendix N would be Hamlet, Othello and other Shakespearean protagonists, or modern characters such as Tony Soprano and Walter White. Compare those to Conan and you'll see that the barbarian is quite shallow, relatively, although he has his moments.

Type B characters are badass; they are stronger, smarter and just above ordinary men in almost all circumstances. Conan and Elric are the main examples, but most of other works that feature men from Earth going to a different time or place make them very powerful and nigh-invincible too (John Carter and other characters from Edgar Rice Burroughs, pulp-era heroes, etc). Other figures are incredibly powerful wizards and mythical beings, such as Rhialto (Jack Vance) and Jack of Shadows (Roger Zelazny).

By Frank Frazetta. Of course.
Type C characters are "picaresque" (or Cugel-like, for lack of a better C-word). This Wikipedia snip is extremely relevant (emphasis mine):

According to the traditional view of Thrall and Hibbard (first published in 1936), seven qualities distinguish the picaresque novel or narrative form, all or some of which may be employed for effect by the author. (1) A picaresque narrative is usually written in first person as an autobiographical account. (2) The main character is often of low character or social class. He or she gets by with wit and rarely deigns to hold a job. (3) There is no plot. The story is told in a series of loosely connected adventures or episodes. (4) There is little if any character development in the main character. Once a picaro, always a picaro. His or her circumstances may change but they rarely result in a change of heart. (5) The picaro's story is told with a plainness of language or realism. (6) Satire might sometimes be a prominent element. (7) The behavior of a picaresque hero or heroine stops just short of criminality. Carefree or immoral rascality positions the picaresque hero as a sympathetic outsider, untouched by the false rules of society.[1] 

Sounds familiar? For many people, this describes most characters they have ever had in any RPGs; the popular "murder hobos". It also describes Cugel, Fafhrd, the Gray Mouser, and Conan to some extent.

For further Reading, see what James Maliszewski and Zak S have to say about the subject. They said it first, they probably said it better, and you should read it if you haven't yet.

Type D characters are disposable, or replaceable, as in "not recurring" or "not that important"; they appear once in a short story, and they're gone. Sometimes, they have no special characteristics at all - they are portrayed as the "homo medius", the average, reasonable, American (or English), middle aged man. Often. they are adventures, scientists, scholars and explorers, and the stories focuses on their exploits and findings, not on their inner selves. They might be in longer stories, but they are not the focus of it. The works of Merrit, Lord Dunsany, and H.P. Lovecraft usually fall into this category. These characters are often not special by themselves, but because of the strange or bizarre circumstances that they face. They have no "character arcs" or anything similar.

By Sidney Sime, the original old school artist, illustrating a story by Dunsany.
Compare, for example, E. A. Poe to H. P. Lovecraft; even with numerous exceptions, we can say that many of Poe's characters put themselves in hideous circumstances for personal reasons (of madness, revenge, etc) while Lovecraft's characters are threatened by supernatural forces that are greater than they can comprehend, by accident, ignorance or through no fault of their own.

Now, look at the appendix N again and I think you'll agree with me: most of the main characters in the Appendix N (and specially in the "most influential" list) are often uninteresting when compared to their surroundings. In fact, Type A, "Shakespearean" characters are the exception and not the rule. Badass characters are common, but often shallow and "picaresque" in most aspects. "Disposable" characters are obviously not special by themselves.

Yes, many of these characters are awesome, but we don't care much about their inner thoughts and feelings, or even about their backgrounds (what they did before their adventures), that are often reduced to a few sentences or paragraphs. How much did Howard write about Conan's issues with their parents, for example?

Instead, we want to see the strange lands these characters explore and the bizarre monsters they encounter. Even when Fafhrd (a barbarian somewhat reminiscent of Conan) becomes an ascetic and gives up drinking and women, there is little character development, and he ends up quite unchanged. Elric has a few great moments, I'll admit, and even Conan has to face some philosophical dilemmas ("The Phoenix on the Sword"), but the focus is still on their surroundings most of the times - or at least this is what Gygax used when building D&D.

Old school games are not ideal to portray characters with deep inner struggles; try reading some Robin Laws ("Hamlet's Hit Points") or some modern game instead. My own RPG, Days of the Damned, is quite focused on character development, including extensive treatment of damnation, redemption and sacrifice, things that are not often seem in most old school games I have played. 

Elric, by Rick Troula.
I'm not opposed to character development, even in old school games; I think it is one of those things that will happen naturally to some players and some characters, but you shouldn't try to force it through elaborate backgrounds or dedicated mechanics. Charachter development is part of "story", and forcing it might detract from the actual experience.

There might be some points to be made about "special" characters not being ideal to playing in groups, as they are lone wolves or get all "character spotlight" to themselves; and that playing characters with deep, conflicting motivations not being to everyone's tastes (and probably difficult to beginners); and "badass" characters existing just because death would put a halt to their explorations; and being badass because of what they DO, not because of who they ARE (no prophecy saying Conan will save the world from darkness, his stories are told in retrospective, etc); but this post is already too long as it is. 

In short, I still think that there is enough stuff in the Appendix N to justify saying that D&D characters shouldn't be special, at least when they start adventuring, but I must admit that the Appendix N is ultimately a list of Gygax's favorites, and whatever game style you choose will also be dependent on your own preferences.

Once more, this is one of the things you should experience to see if you like or not. Keep an open mind about your starting character; see where Fate will take her, and don't be afraid to take matters into your own hands, but remember what happens to the best laid plans of mice and men...

One of the proposed motes for old school gaming is "we explore dungeons, not characters" (I'm not sure about the source). I'm not that enamored to dungeons, so I would use "worlds" instead, but the focus on outer exploration feels right. Maybe add a word or two to make clear that the we do this stuff with others, as a group, not focusing on the inner struggles of each single characters.

So, maybe:

Old school gaming: Together, we explore worlds.

Not my finest idea, but I guess that will have to do until I find a better catchphrase.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Old School Ramblings #2 - Your character isn't special

Read part I to see where I'm coming from, and some sources. Also, see this post  by James Maliszewski, and Matt Finch's Primer. In any case, keep in mind that "old school gaming" is hard to define, and a lot of it is in in the eye of the (metaphorical) beholder.

Behold! The old school beholder.
This week, I'm discussing another trait of (what I see as) old school D&D: your character isn't special. At least at the start.

Take the original D&D (1974), for example. Starting characters are very frail in OD&D. They have little HP and can be easily killed in one minute of fighting, no matter the weapons being used. Falling from a height of 10 feet can be a death sentence. In fact, even a house cat is a worthy adversary in some versions (although this is probably unintended). 1st level characters, sometimes, look more like victims or paws than heroes.

As far as abilities are concerned, characters are average people; their stats are defined by rolling 3d6 in order, which seems to be what you would expect from a random “commoner”, and they don't get any better with level. Fighters, specially, are sometimes defined as “normal men” (see this post from Delta). By switching this system by “4d6 pick highest”, for example, you make the characters inherently better than average, specially if abilities have greater bonuses than they do in OD&D.

Characters are mechanically similar to others in the same class, with differences depending on equipment and tactics more than personal characteristics. A fighter is almost identical to another fighter of the same level, all thieves share the same skill progression, and so on. Characters can be almost interchangeable, with hirelings taking the place of a slain PC. A common complaint against old school games is the lack of customization, but that is very in line with the rest of the rules.

Character's motivations are somewhat simplistic to non-existent. Everybody seems to be trying to make a buck, and alignment is simply a choice of faction, not a behavioral guide. They don't need ideals, bonds or personality traits, or, some would say, even a name at first. “Male Elf”, an anagram of your name, or some random pun will do.

It's easy to see how this characteristics play well with one another. For many people, losing a character can be very frustrating in any circumstances, but losing a character that you have spent a few hours creating is ten times worse, so is better to make character creation a quick affair.

One could even argue that by taking lots of options you're already investing too much in the character while you should be playing with it, instead, which is why random character generation might work better for such games (and sometimes char-gen is a mini-game unto itslef, with death being on the table - like in some editions of Traveller. This seem a bit extreme for me, but it would be cool for generating random stories of families, groups, etc).

By Jim Holloway, from the DCC RPG
Likewise, is hard to lose a character you played for a while. In fact, this seems to be the whole point of hit points (pardon the pun), as Dave Arneson explained:

" Combat in Chainmail is simply rolling two six-sided dice, and you either defeated the monster and killed it … or it killed you. It didn't take too long for players to get attached to their characters, and they wanted something detailed which Chainmail didn't have.
I adopted the rules I'd done earlier for a Civil War game called Ironclads that had hit points and armor class. It meant that players had a chance to live longer and do more. They didn't care that they had hit points to keep track of because they were just keeping track of little detailed records for their character and not trying to do it for an entire army. They didn't care if they could kill a monster in one blow, but they didn't want the monster to kill them in one blow."

Of course, this is quite cleverly implemented in D&D, since the more attached you get to the character the less chance she has of dying quickly or without warning.

That's why characters are harder to kill at higher levels, and resurrecting them becomes more viable. Surviving makes the characters stronger.

Background and advancement are one and the same.

Characters can BECOME special by the things they DO during the game. They certainly don't START special or have any RIGHTS to grandeur.

This is, in fact, one possible goal of the game (from the character perspective), according to Gygax:

"The ultimate aim of the game is to gain sufficient esteem as a good player to retire your character--he becomes a kind of mythical, historical figure, someone for others to look up to and admire."

A popular catchphrase among old school enthusiasts is that "character background is what happens in the first 3 levels" (I couldn't find the original source). Or as Mike Mornard puts it:

"The cool thing about your character was what you did in the game"

As you can see, this is obviously connect to the idea of "Story Later" I mentioned in the first post of this series. Starting the game with an elaborate background encourages you to see the game in terms of "stories" and "character arcs".

This kind of old school gaming where starting characters can die like flies is quite rare even in D&D. The desire to customize characters and make them though heroes from the beginning became common early on, and was fully adopted in most editions. Gygax himself allegedly used quite a few house rules that would make the game less lethal for starting characters.

Ultimately, the idea of fragile characters isn't too popular out of the "old school gaming" circles, and even in D&D it fell out of favor. WotC-era D&D characters have lots of HP, powers, details and options, from the very start.

These look like heroes...
Fourth edition, for example, has powerful characters, with lots of HP, from the very begging - they won't be dying in a single round anytime soon, and many people thought 4e combat was meant more as a balanced sport than a messy and bloody affair. Fifth edition, being somewhat of a compromise edition, takes a step back, but not really: death saving throws still make a character with 0 HP a bit more likely to wake up than to die.

Some games inspired by D&D make the distinction even more clearly. To mention just a few games I like:

13th Age: all characters start with “One Unique Thing”. They are very special from the very beginning. They also have relations with the Icons of the setting (creatures like Tiamat, Elminster or Bahamut) or attitudes towards them, and start with about 20 or more HP. Their skills are defined by customized, flavorful backgrounds, often invented by the players themselves.

Dungeon World: in this game, even character classes are special.  If you're a fighter, you're THE fighter, and there are no other fighters in the group (or the world, for that matter). As you create your character, you choose bonds and alignment (which is an unique “moral outlook”). Again, abilities are higher than average and you start with a fair amount of HP. You don't get much more powerful as the game progresses.

Dungeon Crawl Classics: DCC, unlike 13th Age and Dungeon World, goes through great lengths to maintain (or even improve) this old school style. It's right there in the blurb of the game (“You’re no hero”), but also in the rules: 3d6 in order, 1d4 HP, characters start at level 0, traits are selected by chance, etc. More famously, the game starts with a “character funnel”, in which each player controls various characters, most of whom will die early on. You're not supposed to get attached.

...these don't (art by Stefan Poag - DCC RPG).
No style is better or worse, of course, and there is subjectivity involved in the classification. Some games are in the middle of the road, and a game can conceivably do both at different stages, as every edition of D&D does to some extent.

Personally, I like both, and sometimes enjoy a middle ground. My own "new school" game, Days of the Damned, gives some "unique" stuff to every character, but keeps character generation somewhat simple, since it can be quite deadly. I played a few "old school" adventures with B/X inspired games, and had a GREAT time, but most of my current group seems to be more comfortable with more character customization and less random death.

The cool thing about old school lethality is that it sometimes feel like playing in hardcore mode, like some Nintendo game or Dark Souls - you might even have multiple lives in the form of new characters, but challenges seem more significant when the PCS lives are on the line, and great stories can be told - after the fact, remember - about their random misfortunes and demises.

The downside is that it may get a little addictive. Nowadays, I must confess that I don't enjoy playing a game as much if I see that the game master is focusing on some story rather than play, and I find non-lethal combat somewhat boring (although you can always have something else at stake).

As long as you're having fun, any style you do, but if you have never tried old school gaming, I would strongly recommend that you do. Even if you don't stick with it, it might make you see D&D (and RPGs in general) in a whole new way.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

D&D 5th Edition: Bringing balance to the Forge. I mean, Force.

If you have been reading this blog, you know that I frequently post about 5e and BD&D. Those are my favorite versions of D&D, but they are not that similar to each other. If you asked for my favorite right now, I might say BD&D, because I find it a bit easier to house rule than 5e.

Still, I'm playing 5e most of the time. 

So I would like to talk about that for a moment.

5e has been called by some people "everyone's 2nd favorite edition", and I think there is at least some truth to that.

Not because 5e is second best overall, but because it is second best in lots of stuff. For example, it has the best fighter/caster balance other than 4e. It is also the simplest version of D&D other than some variation of BD&D. It has several options for classes, but not as many as 3e (4e had lots of options that followed few different templates, which is cool too). And so on.

It has been said that 5e is unfocused; it doesn't know exactly what it wants to be. Well, it is quite sure it wants to be D&D, but how? By creating an interesting story, like some modern games? By building exciting and tactical combat encounters, like 4e? By careful resource management, like OD&D?

The answer, of course, is: none of this. 

Take the Inspiration mechanic, for example: it is a nod to modern games, such as Fate, but a limited one, since you can get no more than one point of Inspiration. It is quite impossible to create a "fate point economy" or plan your game's ups and downs around Inspiration.

Same thing can be said about combat. There are some tactical options (some classes more than others), and enough information to allow you to play on a grid, but there is not enough elements to allow you to play with the grid (shift one square, push your opponent two squares to the left, flanking, etc). 

Spells? Most unique spell system in D&D... other than 4e. Weapons? Simplest system since BD&D. Etc. 

So, D&D 5e tries to do many things at once. This is its biggest weakness, but also its greatest strength.

You see, some of the other editions were more focused on one aspect or another. Old school D&D was largely about resource management, 3e was focused on detail and customized character creation, 4e was focused on tactical battles, etc. 5e is a bit... everywhere.

The thing is, I actually like it this way. I prefer a "jack of all trades, master of none" D&D than one that is very good in doing one thing above others. I like some tactics, but don't want every combat to be focused on miniatures. I like customized characters, but the number of skills in 3e gives me headaches. I like some resource management, but don't feel like playing a game where you supposedly "CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT" or count encumbrance to the coin.

In short, I like to change the focus of the game from one scene to another, which is one of the things I like in RPGs. In that aspect, The Forge's notion that RPGs should be focused on one aim over to others doesn't work for me. I prefer some balance.

Now, 5e isn't MY perfect version of D&D. I would like to see some additional rules on morale and hirelings, maybe domain management, and would like some things (including classes) to be even simpler. Skills don't work well in modern D&D, and 5e makes it worse with bounded accuracy. 

Lastly, I cannot say that all this stuff is intentional. Like others before me, I sometimes think 5e just tried to combine some (but not all) of the best parts of other editions, using whatever they liked most at the time. 

And I'm not saying that 5e's apparent lack of focus is necessarily a good thing; I'm just saying that it works for me (well, most of the time). This has very much to do with personal preference; I realized that I my favorite versions of D&D (and other RPGs) are less focused than 3e, 4e or 0e, for example.

Of course, there are also places where 5e might be better than ANY version of D&D to date. I am a big fan of the action economy, for example. The exhaustion mechanic might have multiple interesting uses. Backgrounds work well, at least for some styles of play, and I like how most archetypes are built. And 5e has kept some popular items such as ascending AC and few extra HP, things that are common in the WotC era but also adopted by early house rules and some retroclones.

In any case, for now, a heavily house ruled version of BD&D would still be my favorite.

But not for all of most of my group. Some prefer the "modern" versions of D&D for a reason or another; one prefers 4e and likes combat, other likes character building and 3e. There are some that don't care or just want something simple

Still, we could all agree on 5e, and are having a great time with it so far. One player said "D&D is awesome" after playing 5e for the first time. He had played many other editions but had been playing other games (Savage Worlds, W40k, Star Wars by Fantasy Flight) for a while.

Our experience is certainly not unique; there is a whole lot of people involved in the OSR, for example, that praised 5e, and even created material intended for both OSR and 5e (or something called "O5R"). Same with people that enjoyed every other edition. 

It isn't universal, as well; there are plenty of people that criticize 5e, some pointing that it is their least favorite edition. Not taking enough hints from 4e is a common complaint (like the one I did for BD&D, above; surely there are people that fell the same for 3e, AD&D, etc), although the greatest fan of 4e in my group now has 5e as a favorite.

I don't know how long will this last, but "bring balance to the Force, 5e did". 

At least for us.
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