Bill Heron: Gaming in Edinburgh and other RPG stuff
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Version Wars: The DNDnext generation

A few months back I blogged about the Version wars of D&D. At that time 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons, 5e or DNDnext as it has become known, was merely a news item that hadn’t really reached a tipping point as it were, or reached a general audience.

Hats off to Wizards of the Coast for the publicity storm they have created since. Not long after they ran the first DNDnext test games at conventions (complete with Non-Disclosure Agreements or NDAs), the RPG forums across the internet hit a critical mass.

Given that Wizards were planning to consult the gaming community, the publicity they’ve been getting for DNDnext is something else – rumour and speculation or suggestion and confirmation, they’re certainly getting people to voice an opinion. I’ve pretty much been through the editions as a player, and a DM to a lesser extent – but I’m finding the sheer volume of material to be quite daunting: I’ve heard that there’s possibly card-based combat, that 1e randomness will make a comeback, that the game will be more flexible

I’m quite looking forward to the DNDnext playtest packs that are supposed to be coming out soon (May 24th) as a result. Here’s what I’m hoping to see.

  • The return of Hit Dice and HD-based XP for monsters. In 2e AD&D this provided a great way of making a monster individual without taxing the DM’s mental arithmetic. It also provided a decent basis for replacing CR – which is pretty pointless anyway and seems to be off-balance anyway. CR also means that some players call foul when a monster more powerful than the entire party kicks their butts. Sometimes it is wise to choose your battles 🙂
  • Less DM “advice” – a novice DM can pick up 95% of what he needs from gaming sites on the net. The 4e DM guide was little more than fluff text, and a waste of cash.
  • Reducing the Powers and Feats in DNDnext to a single element system that is not wholly combat-related  or battle-grid dependent.
  • Reduce the Skills to simple  Trained or Untrained. No ranks or bonuses, except if you are Trained.
  • The ability to play a character with weak physical stats yet have some survivability.
  • A decent piece of software like the AD&D Core Rules CDs that allows DMs and players to generate PCs, monsters, magic items, etc. as well providing a list of free digital versions of the books (both the rulebooks and PLAYERS OPTION books). You could use it offline and export specific items for others to use – and was far better than the buggy eTools or DDI.
  • Treat Pathfinder as the basis for what worked in 3.5.
  • Make the game playable without allowing certain players min/max or to work the system so that, for example, they can use a weapon and shield in the same hand.
  • Remove the point-based system and encourage the random rolling of dice and individual characters.

RPG plans for Summer 2012

I’ve got quite a bit of things planned over the next few months, both on the site and at ORC Edinburgh. And its not just me: there’s a mini-campaign of the Dragon Age RPG kicking off, a Pathfinder game, a GURPS Swashbuckling Superhero game, as well as my own Marvel Super Heroes game.

I’m also thinking of participating in a Blog Carnival about the Undead as part of May of the Dead next month. Although I’ve never been enthused about zombie films or similar, they and other undead have often featured prominently in my games. I’m probably going to focus on what drives them. I may also look at haunted houses too.

I’ve also got vague plans for running a good old-fashioned Dungeon bash – it may even take the form of a tournament, wherein two different parties take on the same dungeon. I’m leaning towards a Liche-created series of traps and a menagerie of monsters, but may also feature some ideas I came up with for a Thieves Guild trial in Ashes of Freedom. Essentially, I improved upon those shown in that sequence in the 1st D&D movie, featuring Richard O’Brien (reprising his role from the Crystal Maze TV show, “Get through the maze and win a prize!”). I’m considering running it under Pathfinder or The Secret Fire RPG rules, both of which lend themselves to this kind of game.

As we get through to the end of summer, I’m looking at the return of my Ashes of Freedom D&D game. I’m hoping to get a number of the original players back for this, although it’ll likely have a few new folk.

Now that I have largely finished a lot of the work that I was doing for TSF I’ve got a bit more free time (despite upping my game at ORC. This means that I may finally get a chance to start work on a couple of stalled projects: an implementation of the FATE RPG called Mandragora: Ashes of Freedom, and the Arunstoun setting/adventure for Call of Cthulhu. Both have had some work done on them but as usual, I’ve not followed up on them due to the time constraints involved.

Any day now I’m hoping to hear more about the global D&D playtest (AKA D&Dnext or 5e) for the next edition, so may also work that into my schedule. I’m not sure how good or bad it will be as there’s a lot of information bouncing around the net, but so far it sounds like it will likely provide some kind of framework to run any edition or implementation. Not sure how that’ll work as each edition tends to have overcompensated for the faults of the previous one. Well, we’ll see.

And finally: I’ve got an idea for NaNoWri month in November (National Novel Writing Month). It’s likely to be a bit of a mystery but played out through the eyes of three different characters in three different times. Should be an interesting experiment!

My view from the Bridge – Bill Heron – 2011

My view from the Bridge – Bill Heron

Bill Heron's website -
It’s been quite a year for me. I’ve blogged far more about RPGs in the last year than anything else. Consequently I’ve trimmed a lot of the dead wood from my blog to make it easier to read, as well as making the site easier to find in both search engines and within the site itself. Hopefully related posts will now show up for some of the blog entries and pages – I’ve removed the BlogGlue plugin I was using as it didn’t really add anything to help find related posts (back to using the revamped YARPP – Yet Another Related Posts Plugin). I’m also intending to use the new featured image of WordPress more often as well as making the site a little easier to read.

I’ve already covered events at the Open Roleplaying Community (ORC Edinburgh) within a previous post, but there’s a few things I’ve not mentioned within as they were more of a personal nature.

As I posted, THE SECRET FIRE RPG (then known as Legend & Labyrinths) was playtested by ORC in May. As a result of this, I helped write much of the flavour text (flavour text being the descriptive text used to describe monsters and magic spells/prayers, etc.) for the game as well as participating as a game developer. I’m also hoping to begin work soon upon the Demons part of the first supplement: FRAGMENT I: THE WAY OF TREE, SHADOW & FLAME, and will likely end up doing some more of the flavour text for THE SECRET FIRE. It feels very weird seeing “Bill Heron” in the credits of a published book!

CLICHÉ: THE ROLEPLAYING GAME OF PREDICTABLE HORROR is another RPG we playtested at ORC, from an Edinburgh RPG design studio, Drunken Badger Games. I’m hoping to hear more from them in the future, as the game I ran at ORC was quite good fun – CLICHÉ lends itself well to having a few friends around for some beers without being too hard on the old brain cells!

I also managed to get my CTHULHUTECH: THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS game off the ground at ORC, running on a fortnightly basis, with a decent group of players. I’m also preparing a blog article on how to run a CTHULHUTECH game and campaign –  stay tuned!

My Ashes of Freedom D&D game reached the end of its story arc. I’m quite happy with the way it ended, with a doomsday device beginning a countdown and an epic battle in the Hammerfall Pass caverns resolving a number of the story arcs. There’s a definite possibility I’ll be returning to it later in the year, as the setting was popular and we had a great time playing it and running it in my case. The chariot race will go down in legend!

In the personal kudos stakes, my The Art of Winging It article also gained a mention in an article on the Wizards of the Coast website! It’s only a brief mention with a link to the page but it still feels good to see things like this happen!

And finally, work began upon my big project the MANDRAGORA: ASHES OF FREEDOM RPG. I’m trying this as an experiment in self-publishing and will likely be blogging about this a lot in the coming year or so, and hurling some ideas around out there.

So it looks like 2011 was a pretty good year for me RPG-wise. As well as the above I also had the chance to play in a lot more RPGs, including the Dresden Files RPG, 40k Deathwatch, Rogue Trader, and even some Call of Cthulhu and D&D!

2011 year end retrospective of ORC Edinburgh

ORC Edinburgh has had an “interesting” year – in the same vein as “May you live interesting times!”. This has been my second year as defacto ORC webmaster (and general heid yin) for ORC Edinburgh. I’m going to try to create these reviews on an annual basis.

The year started off in a neo-Ice Age with many us either negotiating the icy planes of Edinburgh or trapped in drifts of snow. However, we persevered, both players and GMs alike traipsing through the snow and ice to game! Then in February, disaster struck: the Meadow Bar suffered an extensive fire that gutted the function room where we played, depriving both us and the Edinburgh University boardgame Society (FAQ) of a venue. It’s happened before: Cafe Nero, The Royal Engineers Club, the Three Tuns…

ORC Edinburgh has a history of getting together and adapting, and its definitely one of our strengths – for a community of (essentially) volunteers we do quite well. Thankfully a member of ORC (Deleriad) noticed that board games and the like were being played in Illegal Jacks, a new bar and grill on Lothian Road. It turned out to be an astute choice of venue, with very nice food and a fine choice of music (I might be wrong, but most RPGers tend to be fans of rock music of some kind).

With Illegal Jacks as our new “base of operations,” we were able to run two or more games a week there. IJ made us very welcome there, even to the extent that we had our own table! It gave us the chance to welcome screenwriter and RPG designer George Strayton and playtest his game, the Secret Fire RPG (then called Legends & Labyrinths). Edinburgh’s own Drunken Badger games also provided ORC with the opportunity to playtest their RPG, Cliché: The Roleplaying Game of Predictable Horror as well.

We also said hello to a lot of new members and farewell to others – and also farewell to some  long-running campaigns. Both my Ashes of Freedom game and the New World were wound down, although it is likely that AoF will return later in the year. We’re also back in the refurbished Meadow Bar function room which has much nicer décor now as well, but still run games in Illegal Jacks and Cafe Renroc as well.

By far one of the most popular games to play at ORC was D&D. Love it or hate it, the granddaddy of them all was still going strong. Regardless of your feelings about the game it remains as popular as ever with many new people entering the hobby. Quite a lot of new players are looking to play D&D – some have been influenced by web comics like Penny Arcade or via computer games such as Neverwinter Nights. There appears to be a bit of a dearth of DMs running games though  – however Embracraig is running a consistent game at Cafe Renroc on a fortnightly basis. This new venue proves popular with those gamers who live nearby!

Another old favourite, Call of Cthulhu, returned in the form of the mini-campaign Cthulhu Brittanica: Shadows Over Scotland. This is currently hugely popular at ORC – I may also run some of these adventures next year myself, as well as finally getting my Arunstoun setting completed! In related news, my Cthulhutech campaign (The Damsacus Road) has finally got off the ground in the Through the Looking Glass setting. The wh40k games have all been popular too with the most recent, Black Crusade, starting a new campaign at ORC this December.

ORC also hosted a few pub meets this year: these proved to be hugely successful and gave us all a chance to socialize outside of a game for once. It looks like we’ll be running a few more of these over the coming year – it gave those new to ORC the chance to chat and get to know the other members, old and new.

I think its safe to say that ORC is going to be around for a while to come. We have a pretty substantial membership now, although attendance fluctuates wildly – however this seems to be one of those things that happens these days. If you’re running a game, I’d suggest you get at least six players. That way you’ll also cover any possible absences and still have a fun game!

Anyway: Merry Xmas and Happy New Year!

D&D – the Version Wars!

I’ve been playing D&D for over 20 years in its various editions, from 1st Edition AD&D Dragonlance at school, to my own 4th ed. Against the Odds. Over time, each edition has developed its’ little faults: from bad marketing to an over-abundance of rules. Not to mention some god-awful changes in the system: I’ve heard this referred to as the Version Wars – they’re on par with Kirk vs. Picard…

1st edition was pretty basic – it still has a huge following among those that first picked it up in whatever generation they were born in, leading to many OSR games now being released. I remember seeing the rulebooks in John Menzies (along with the Fiend Folio, produced by the then UK branch of TSR). Without 1st ed, there would have been no Games Workshop – and the tabletop gaming world would have been very different. GW may now be a monolithic money-grabber, but its owes its’ roots to D&D. I think there’s maybe a little too much nostalgia for 1e, and a lot of games produced since are trying to capture the feel of it: production values have changed since Gygax’s golden era. People expect more for their money and costs for books have gone up! Would I run a 1st ed or OSR game? Probably not: it’s like being given a zx81 and then expected to install Halo upon it. I don’t suffer from the nostalgia attributed to it. Dragonlance was good, yet it was gorram linear (and hasn’t worn well) – no deviation from the plot allowed. It could be argued that a lot of 1st edition was the same: kill the monster, steal its treasure.

2nd edition had a lot of possibilities and works for me, for reasons I’ll mention later. However it also fell in the 90s to the CCG phenomenon that was Wizards of the Coast. AD&D worked up until the point where TSR was taken over – after which they seemed to produce a lot of sub-standard adventures and supplements. They had too many product lines and settings and I guess this is what lead to the development of 3.5. The Forgotten Realms, Planescape, Dark Sun, Greyhawk (oddly neglected), Red Death, etc. – all were run off as production lines (and often shut down after a few years). However the system itself works, despite the whole silly fear of THAC0, I think it works better than 3.5 (THAC0 is easier to work out than OB in MERP for example). There’s also another reason I like 2nd Ed. – the Core Rules CD & Expansion. This was brilliant and years ahead of its time.: customisable and easy to export, a character generator, mapping tools, searchable  rulebooks, monster builder. And it worked – you could even export the content, bearing in mind that the OGL was still many years away too. The Dragon Magazine archive was also useful, although maybe misguided – contributors to the early magazines should have got something for it. 2nd Ed. functions well as a toolkit – the game and classes work, there’s little complexity, and you can build a fantastic game out of it. Also, the characters are balanced and you don’t need to worry about the munchkin factor to any great extent. No Feats or Powers make the game a lot more balanced, and also a lot more challenging. Rather than tweaking  stats or attacks, you can get on with what makes your character different without overpowering the game.

3rd edition (and its +1 3.5 version) are where WotC dropped the ball in my opinion. Designed for the new generation of PC role-players, they had the opportunity to change the game such that it  could work well. Non-weapon proficiencies were dropped in favour of skills, THAC0 disappeared and became Attack Bonus. Some of the core races and classes disappeared. Yet Hit Points (HP) remained unchanged – I’ve never understood why. Wound levels, such as those found in The Secret Fire work far better than some arbitrary number, and very few modern games use the process of experience levels to gain more (Call of Cthulhu certainly doesn’t!). It always feels like the game was created and any feedback ignored – the playtest list for D&D3.0 was huge, but I suspect many of those on it were WotC sycophants, or those looking to get a free game. Certainly it didn’t seem playtested (you can read my post about playtesting here), although it did have high production values! If it worked so well, why was 3.5 brought out so quickly? I know its still popular at ORC, but I’m not a big fan of how it became a collection of splat books designed to give munchkin players less opportunity to use their imagination (feats, skill ranks etc). 3.5 also saw the release of the OGL (Open Gaming License) which probably re-invigorated the RPG hobby – but also saw the release of a lot of rubbish and the occasional gem e.g. Pathfinder. And don’t get me started on the whole E-tools debacle.

4th edition is a strange beast to me. It often feels like its been dumbed down (likely at Hasbro’s insistence), yet has some ideas that obviously didn’t make it to 3rd ed: the “bloodied” concept for example.However for me, it’s less of a boardgame and more of a wargame. None of the Powers are designed to help roleplaying: all deal with combat or support combat in some way – none actually help you roleplay your PC any better! AND I’m a  bit miffed about the Dragonborn – who just resemble my own Mandragora way too much, and make me wonder who came up with them (probably sour grapes on my part)… The system itself is geared toward combat and encounters which is fine if you’d like to play that style of game, but I like my players and PCs to be able to get involved in investigation, politics and other stuff. Sales of D&D have largely stagnated yet it remains popular. One wonders whether the increased focus on miniatures and the battlemat are an attempt to break into Games Workshop’s territory of “hobby gaming”. Hasbro would obviously like a piece of that action. And one idiot who ripped off a digital edition cost most of their fans who would have bought the PDF editions of old modules and books when they pulled them.

5th editon? – Well, we’ll see it maybe in the next two years or more. I don’t hold out much hope of it being any improvement though and will likely be more wargame than RPG. It’s also likely to be marketed for the console generation and younger gamer groups – I read somewhere that most people won’t read more than 500 words these days. D&D is also pugged heavily on some of the webcomics like Penny Arcade and PVPonline.

So why do I return to (A)D&D? It’s like that cheeseburger that you know you shouldn’t eat – the one with bacon, cheese and a HUGE portion of chips (that’s French fries to the Yanks out there). It’s bad for you and you know it, yet sometimes you just get a craving for it! If I don’t like the newer version I can always go back to the old.