Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The State of Fantasy RPGs, Part III--5th Edition D&D, Most Things to Many People

Image result for image 5e dungeon masters guideBefore I get into talking about the game of Dungeons & Dragons, 5th Edition, I want to talk about something that I believe is conceptually distinct from the game--especially since, unlike essentially every other tabletop RPG publisher, 5e is owned and marketed by a big corporation, Hasbro.  Nevertheless, it needs to be said that D&D 5e is pretty expensive, and probably more expensive than it should be.  The three core rulebooks for 5e have a MSRP of $49.95 each, for a grand total of $149.85.  For that $49.95, you get between 316 (Players Handbook) and 352 (Monster Manual) pages of content.  By contrast, the Pathfinder Core Rulebook is also $49.95 MSRP, is 576 pages, and includes the rules material of the Dungeon Masters Guide.  The 13th Age Core book is $44.95, 319 pages, and doesn't require any other books (though, you really should get the 13th Age Bestiary, which is a top flight monster book).  And it is not like the production values of D&D are orders of magnitude better than their competitors--all three are full color, hardcover books, and I think it is defensible to say that both Pathfinder and 13th Age are nicer visually than the 5e books.  It's also defensible to hold up 5e above the other two visually, but I don't think you can say that you are getting some categorically superior product from 5e.

Yes, I know you can get 5e books much cheaper on Amazon--a little over $85 for the set based on a recent Amazon look--but keep in mind that this kind of online discount model is a killer to local game stores, and so is uncool in its own way.  But even with these steep discounts, you still end up with a total initial cost-to-content ratio that is similar to Pathfinder.  And that's just considering the print books; if you factor in the digital dimension, 5e is flat-out non-competitive.  The Pathfinder Core Rulebook and Bestiary are $10 each for the PDF; the PDF of the 13th Age Corebook is free if you buy the print version on Pelgrane's website or submit your proof-of-purchase from a game store.  By contrast, if you want digital versions of the D&D books, you must first get a subscription to a separate service, D&D Beyond, which allows you to purchase the books for $29.99 each.  Oh, and you can't read the books offline, as all you are really buying is the right to access the file on D&D Beyond's servers, not the actual file itself.  Again, I know a portion of the necessary content is available for free, but so is the overwhelming majority of the necessary content for Pathfinder and 13th Age, far more than what is in the 5e SRD.  There are many reasons to like and favor 5e over other competitors, but I think it is worth saying that buying into 5e is going to be more expensive, no matter how you cut it, then getting into other games.

OK, let's talk about the game.  But, in a sense, that's the problem--you can't really talk about 5e as a game without talking about the broader context of Dungeons & Dragons as a whole.  The tabletop RPG hobby begins with the original "white box" D&D in 1974, so in an important way this entire space is defined by the game.  Since '74, there have been only two periods of time when D&D was not the dominant game in the hobby, both in terms of sales and in terms of community engagement--the late 90s at the height of Vampire: the Masquerade (when, by the way, the original publisher of D&D was in the process of avoiding bankruptcy/being sold to Wizards of the Coast) and from about 2011-2014 when Pathfinder was outselling 4e (Pathfinder, of course, being a D&D derivative, so in a sense that doesn't even really count).  D&D has an enormous legacy and (though I hate this word) "brand identity" that is unmatched by any other tabletop RPG.

Based on interviews I have seen, the designers of 5e understand this in a way that I don't think their predecessors did.  The challenge of designing 5e was not simply about designing a game, but about positioning their game in this broader context.  And the challenge was greater because large slices of the broader D&D community really didn't like the last official offering, 4e.  The extent to which that sentiment was fair or unfair is basically beside the point--they had a group of disaffected customers who they needed to convince to come back into the fold.

Moreover, while D&D is a powerful brand that does have core characteristics, the game has gone through a series of expressions, expressions that are often radically different from one another.  To take just three examples out of many you could pick, you have the rules light, somewhat free-form gritty dungeon crawl expression that marked the earliest versions of D&D and has coalesced around the moniker of "the OSR"; you have the more tactical, high adventure style that came to the forefront around the time of 3rd edition (and, I think, during the peak popularity of MMOs like World of Warcraft); and you have the more story-focused version with complex plots and extensive character development, now highlighted on many streaming games.  Each of these styles emphasizes different parts of the broader D&D brand, leading to conflicting priorities from a design perspective.

Image result for image 5e players handbookWhen the project that would become 5e was announced, it was clear that a core design goal was to try to bring together all of the folks playing all of these different versions and expressions of D&D under one roof.  This is an insanely difficult design goal, and in a maximalist form is actually impossible.  D&D is too broad a thing, and the preferences of the OSR crowd vs. the Pathfinder crowd vs. the Critical Role-inspired crowd are too divergent, to create something that is all things to all people.  Much of the talk on the internet in the early stages of the playtest was that this project was going to be a disaster, and I don't think that was pure haterade or trolling.  Something that tries to be all things to all people often ends up being not much to very few.

Instead, what we got was a version of D&D which is most things to many people.  That might sound like damning with faint praise, but I don't mean it that way; I think 5e is the absolute best it could be given the extremely difficult and divergent set of masters that it has to serve.  It had to "feel" like pre-3rd edition versions of D&D and have space for the "rulings not rules" style of game management, but it also had to provide character design complexity and options for the post-3e fans.  It had to give space to people who wanted to engage in more free-form role play and character work, without scaring off the people who are suspicious of (or even hostile to) more narrative or story-oriented games.  And it basically does these things.

Part of the way it manages these conflicting agendas is to avoid killing any sacred cows, but still subtly nudging them in certain directions.  Take for example the spell system.  Every edition of D&D except 4e uses a spell slot system, where a caster gets a discrete set of slots which can be filled by particular levels of spells.  That is an iconic feature of D&D, and there was a significant segment of the fanbase that would insist on that system being present.  And, so, 5e has a spell slot system that works more or less like it worked in previous editions.  But it is not exactly like previous editions.  Spell slots can be used in a much more flexible manner than in previous editions, and there is an easy-to-implement optional rule that converts them into an undifferentiated pool of spell points (long a bugaboo for a certain sort of D&D fan).  In addition, 5e beefs up at-will cantrips to add effective damage dealers, eliminating the problem of (especially low level) spellcasters running out of spells and being forced to resort to firing crossbows or whatever--which was a key problem 4e was trying to solve.

If you were starting from a blank sheet of paper, you could probably come up with a simpler and cleaner system (there are at least one too many different paradigms for knowing/preparing your spells, and as much as I like them, it feels like the Warlock's mechanics are from a different game).  But the 5e designers were not starting from a blank sheet of paper--they had to have a system that was recognizable to people who are really committed to keeping the spell system "feeling like D&D," while making some significant improvements on what came before.  And that's basically what they did with the spell system, and it is repeated throughout 5e--small, conservative, but noticeable "nudges" to update and streamline the basic D&D experience.

Another example can be found in the class design.  Old school D&D has very simple and predictable classes--every OD&D fighter is mechanically the same and gains the same abilities at every level.  The design trend from that point was toward greater and greater character customization, culminating in 3e/Pathfinder (and 4e as well), with its emphasis on the character building mini-game and finding synergies between different feats and so on.  This was perceived, rightly in my view, as overly complex and too punishing for new players, as the gap between optimized and non-optimized characters was quite high.  5e has a very predictable and streamlined class structure, in the sense that most of the time there is a set power that a character gains up going up a level, removing the need to consult long lists of potential choices and look for powerful combinations.  Instead, each class allows the player to pick a single option from among a list of subclasses for their class.  So, there are customization options, but those options are in big chunks as opposed to discrete, smaller options.  Likewise feats are recast as bigger "plug-in" abilities as opposed to smaller abilities (or, as in 13th Age, upgrades to otherwise existing powers and spells) and are made technically optional.  It's more complicated than the OSR people usually favor and has fewer options than character build devotees would favor, but there is a little bit for both of them.

That's not to say everyone loves 5e or that everything lands.  One of the players in my online gaming group, who has experience with previous editions of D&D, basically thinks 5e is the worst of all possible worlds--too many fiddly bits and old school hold-overs to be a strong narrative system, but too stripped down mechanically to be interesting for tactical combat (he was shocked when I told him how successful 5e has been).  And while I don't totally agree with that, I see where he is coming from, because I think 5e is intentionally trying to exist between a set of poles.  Despite the fact I basically like 5e, there are definitely things in the game that feel like poor substitutes for other, more robust solutions found in other games.  For example, the whole system of backgrounds and the Inspiration die feels completely tacked-on and half-assed, trying to give some support to out-of-combat activities and character development without actually doing so.  Plus, I hate systems in which the DM/GM is supposed to judge and reward in game mechanical terms players for "good role playing," whatever that means--the GM has enough on his or her plate, it feels arbitrary, and I don't find it actually encourages character investment where there otherwise would be any.

Having said that, I do think that 5e meaningfully pushes D&D in the direction of a more narrative, story-focused experience.  Mike Shea (a/k/a SlyFlourish on social media) has a recent article along those lines, and I think he is right that by reducing the complexity of the game, especially with regard to combat, you end up de-emphasizing the tactical orientation of the game.  I am of the view that 5e didn't create this trend (I think it has to do with a broader realization that a narrative-focused game is what tabletop RPGs are best at, especially as compared to video games), but there is no question that 5e is positioned to drift in the broader current in a way that some of its predecessors were not.

This dovetails with the fact that some significant measure of 5e's success is a result of it being the game that Critical Role plays.  This of course raises the great "what if"--prior to streaming when it was a home game, the CR crew was playing Pathfinder, and switched over to 5e when it went on the air.  What would have happened if Mercer et al. had stuck with Pathfinder, even if in a hacked form? (I bet the Paizo folks have wondered about this).  The problem with this hypo is that it points to the same problem with Pathfinder that caused Mercer to switch in the first place--Pathfinder is just too much for most folks, especially people coming into tabletop RPGs.  If people who loved Critical Role have to digest the dense 576 pages of the Pathfinder Core Rulebook as an initial entry point for translating their viewing experience into a game, it is likely that they would be scared off.  Especially if Mercer was telling them "yeah, we are playing Pathfinder, but we are hacking it and not using many of these rules."


Image result for image 5e monster manual
All of this points to another feature of 5e--it is the most accessible version of D&D for someone with no experience playing any tabletop RPGs.  I complained earlier about content-to-cost ratios for 5e products, but the shorter, more digestible books are more accessible for people who are just getting into the game.  RPG books are notoriously bad at teaching people to play the game, but the Players Handbook for 5e is as good at it as any book at doing that task, and the Dungeon Masters Guide has some very solid blocking-and-tackling style DM advice.  Contrast this with the 13th Age Corebook, which would be totally impenetrable for a brand new player, and with the volume and lack of GM advice in the Pathfinder Core Rulebook.  RPGs can do better with on-ramping, but 5e is one of the best at on-ramping.

Finally, even putting aside Critical Role specifically, 5e has benefited from the rise of streaming.  The conventional wisdom right now is that rules-light is the way to go for streaming, and 5e's stripped down nature fits into that mold quite well.  The decision to default to using a grid, but without the complex movement and  flanking rules, seems perfectly suited to streaming, since it provides a visual hook for viewers without getting bogged down.  Mike Mearls and the other 5e designers have been candid that much of this is a happy accident as opposed to a conscious choice, but nevertheless there are clear advantages to 5e from the standpoint of streamers and streaming.  And the Wizards of the Coast folks, smartly, have leveraged their resources and brand capital to promote streams and streamers.  Their D&D Twitch channel has, at least as of the recent version, nine different campaigns going on throughout the week (plus simulcasting, or at least promoting, Critical Role), and they have put on streaming-focused events to promote their projects.  Last year at Origins they had a streaming booth set up in the main D&D room. They have clearly embraced the idea that streaming brings people to the game that wouldn't otherwise check it out, and more specifically brings people to their game, and it is hard to argue that they are wrong about that.  They have been handed a gift with the rise of people liking watching other people play D&D, and they are running with it.

Much of this rising tide, again, has to do with the "brand power" of D&D.  No one who does not play tabletop RPGs has heard of Pathfinder or Call of Cthulhu or 7th Sea, but pretty much everyone has heard of Dungeons & Dragons.  To the extent that the concept of tabletop RPGs as a whole becomes more popular, that popularity is going to disproportionately benefit D&D.  All 5e has to do is be positioned to capture the fruits of the broader popularity, and 5e has done that very effectively.

The bottom line with 5e is that for any single thing you might want to do with it that is within the broadest possible definition of D&D, you can probably find a similar game that does that thing better.  But, if you want a single game that supports many different play styles, or you want to serve players that want different or incompatible things, or you don't know what you want because you have never played anything like this before, 5e provides a really compelling product to serve those different ends.  I said in the 13th Age review that it was an opinionated game; 5e, by contrast, is very intentionally not opinionated, and that is the best thing about the game.  5e is like modelling clay, in that you can do most anything with it.  There is a real virtue in that, particularly as that was what they were going for in the design of the game.  5e is a game that hits its target, so long as you are clear about what the target is.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Review: 7th Sea, Part I--Mechanics

7th Sea by John Wick Presents is comfortably within my top 5 RPGs right now.  I am in the middle of running a campaign that is currently on hiatus that I can't wait to get back to.  I think it is a great game, one that I am glad I stumbled upon by accident (via watching one of Kurt Weigel's Youtube reviews--shout out to Kurt).  In thinking about how I wanted to talk about the game, it became clear that there were two distinct elements that stood out for me about 7th Sea--the world that the game is set in, and the mechanics.  In this post, I'm going to talk about the mechanics, and save the setting for the next post.  Before going on, I should note that there was a 1st edition of 7th Sea that came out in 1999 and was beloved by many, but I have no experience with that game (it came out during a period when I was not really involved in the tabletop RPG hobby) and can't really comment on it--these reviews deal with the new version on its own merits.

Image result for 7th sea, image7th Sea, in keeping with John Wick's more recent work, is a narratively-focused game.  That means different things to different people, but on a baseline level it means that the game prioritizes the collaborative crafting of stories by the players and the GM over some of the more tactical elements of other tabletop RPGs.  There is no battlemat, no moving miniatures around a grid or other tactical space, or anything along those lines.  Instead, the focus is placed on having the play experience create a story--if somehow the game group could observe play from the outside, it would look like the acting out of a prestige television show or something similar.

Now, many games try to create or foster that style of play, and you can play most tabletop RPGs in that way (Critical Role is a good example of how you can do narrative-style play with a game that is not explicitly narrative).  But 7th Sea both pushes the play toward and helps create those sorts of experiences, in a couple of different ways.  One of the biggest ways is the way it addresses what I call "the Problem of Failure" in tabletop RPGs.

There is a concept from improv comedy or theater, usually expressed as "Yes, and. . . ."  In the improv context, if your scene partner says something, the best option is usually to say, "yes, and . . ." and build off the statement.  For example, if your scene partner says "are you the king of Denmark?," the correct response is "yes, I am, and I am searching for my crown.  Can you help me?"  By embracing whatever prompt is coming in, you use it as a platform to keep the scene going.  Whereas if you say, "no, I am not the King of Denmark," you don't give anything for your partner to work with in return, and the scene dies.

In most tabletop RPGs, the core bit of mechanics is a binary task resolution.  The player says, "I want to pick the lock to open the door," the GM determines the difficulty, and the player rolls dice to see if he or she succeeds.  The problem is if the player fails the roll, there's a way in which that is like saying "no" in an improv context, because it provides no platform to move the story forward.  Often after a failed roll, the player will look at the GM with an unspoken "now what?"  This is the Problem of Failure--when you have binary task resolution, a failure is often bad for the narrative flow of the story and causes things to grind to a halt.  On the other hand, if the players arbitrarily succeed at everything, then there is no meaningful tension in the story.  So, what generally happens is that the GM vamps to keep the story going through the failure.

Narrative-oriented games try to address this problem in various ways.  One of the most popular families of narrative games, the Powered by Apocalypse family, address it in a way that takes a little bit of unpacking.  Each of the game mechanical pieces of the PbtA games, the "moves," basically boil down to three possible outcomes.  On a high roll, the player basically gets what he or she wants; on a middling roll, he or she gets basically what was desired but with conditions or limitations imposed by the GM or the structure of the move.  But, on a bad roll, the GM gets to make a "hard move" against the player.  By design, "hard moves" are open-ended, with the game providing representative examples but not a definite list.  What this means, if we step away and look at it from a meta-game perspective, is that PbtA games are not really about success or failure but about narrative control.  On a "failure," the player has to turn control of the character's narrative circumstances over the the GM, and the GM gets to decide what happens to that character.   The result of that surrender of narrative control might be failure of the discrete task, but it doesn't have to be; the GM could "yes, and. . ." the player and add some new challenge or complication to keep the story going.  Whereas if the player gets a middling roll, the player retains narrative control but the GM is allowed to constrain that control, forcing tough choices for the player.  And then, on the good roll, the player has full control of what happens to that character, at least in that moment.

I'm pretty sure it was John Wick himself who pointed out that 7th Sea, in a sense, exists entirely in the "middling roll" space of PbtA.  Rather than focus on discrete events, the primary action unit of 7th Sea is a scene.  The GM sets the scene and places in it a set of Opportunities and Consequences for the players.  The dice rolls determine how many Raises a player gets in the scene, and the player spends those Raises to either seize Opportunities or buy off Consequences.  In a well designed scene, the player has to make trade-offs and tough decisions about how to use their Raises.  But, unlike in PbtA games, the player never looses narrative control nor has total control over a scene--the operative question in 7th Sea is how much narrative control the player has in any given scene.

This mechanical structure has a couple of effects.  For one, it basically removes the Problem of Failure, because 7th Sea characters don't fail in the way characters in other games fail.  They might fail in a macro story sense, but they don't fail in a discrete moment-to-moment sense.  Unless of course the player chooses to have their character fail in a dramatically appropriate moment, in which case they receive a game mechanical reward (but not too much of a reward that you will choose to fail for silly or story-breaking reasons).  Some folks on the internet have suggested that this "no failure" model drains tension out of stories, but all I can say is that this has not been our experience playing 7th Sea--in a well designed scene, the tension exists in whether or not you will be able to get what you want in the context of the scene as a whole, not in an action-to-action sense.  Nevertheless, it is a pretty big change of paradigm to go to a game where success/failure is not the primary driver of gameplay, especially where (unlike to some extent in PbtA games) 7th Sea places its marker right from the beginning instead of hiding the ball.

The other thing about this approach, and this only came into focus when I started running the game, is that it pushes the GM toward what is for many GMs is a different style of running a game.  If you want to think about the job of the GM in terms of movies/TV shows, it often is (or seen as) similar to being a screenwriter.  The GM designs a story and basically writes a script (subject to dice rolls) for all NPCs.  The story is open to allow for the choices of the players, but the GM has the majority of control for the narrative.  By contrast, I find 7th Sea works best when I think of myself as a director as opposed to a screenwriter.  As a GM, I block the scene and put the extras in place, and then I step back and yell "action" and the players then play out their roles in the context of the thing I have set up ahead of time.  This is enhanced by the fact that low level enemies function in game mechanical terms in essentially the same way as environmental obstacles--a Brute squad of guards is basically the same as a storm at sea or a burning room, and is equally something that "runs itself."

Image result for 7th sea, imageIn an action scene, the only element that the GM has to really "run" are named Villains.  I'm not sure if it is a result of taking off the screenwriter hat, a result of not having to micromanage other antagonists, or some combo of the two, but I find that I get into the skin of the Villains in 7th Sea than I do in other systems.  I am more conscious of having them act according to their own logic as characters (as well as "yes, and" logic) than I do in other systems, where I am often more conscious of keeping the game afloat.  One part of this may be that, because players going to succeed where and when they choose, I feel less inhibited in having Villains really stick it to them.  Because the players have so much agency, I don't feel like I as the GM am being unfair or exploiting my role by "fighting back" with my big bad guys.

Two other quick notes on 7th Sea's scene structure.  The first is that it can handle non combat or non action-oriented situations just as well as it can handle fight sequences.  Even better, I have found that it is easy to blend and splice together action and non-action components.  You will forgive me for telling stories from my campaign, but we had a sequence that started out as a quasi-courtroom drama, where my PCs decided to hire actors to stand in for themselves in giving testimony about the shenanigans the PCs had gotten into in the previous session.  That went south with the arrival of the forces of the Inquisition, but the beautiful thing was that the non-combat scene flowed smoothly into the combat scene without the weird break that happens in many games every time combat starts.  Along similar lines, 7th Sea is able to handle scenarios were the PCs are in different physical locations and/or doing very different things at the same time far easier that any other game I have found.  You can have two players fighting some bad guys in one room and two other players having a diplomatic negotiation in another room without too much difficulty--a scenario that would be a nightmare for the GM and tedious for the players in most systems.

All of this takes some getting used to.  My players picked it up pretty fast, but it took me a few sessions of running the game to get my sea legs (I was too easy on the players at first, and didn't challenge them enough).  The PCs as over-the-top heroes is a good fit for a swashbuckling adventure game, and would be less suited for grittier settings where you want the players to feel that the characters are in constant danger--something like Call of Cthulhu.  But the system is very easy to run mechanically, and if you dive in and let the system do what the system does, it is can be a very rewarding experience.  In every single session that we have played, my players have come up with something totally unexpected (the aforementioned "let's hire actors to impersonate us" being on a single example), and I think that is in part a product of the way 7th Sea empowers players.

The other component of player empowerment in 7th Sea is that it puts some measure of overall narrative control in the hands of the players.  At character creation, each player creates a story for their character--basically a personal subplot.  The player decides how many steps are in the story, and what the first step of the story is.  So, one of my player's character has a subplot about the fate of her mother that disappeared, and step one was "find out some clue about her whereabouts."  When she found out a fact about her mom (obliquely--what she really found out was that her dad was not who he said he was), she then selected step two of that story.  When a story is completed, the player gets the equivalent of XP which is used to buy a character advancement, and then he or she creates a new story for the character.

While the players are coming up with their stories, there is also the overall GM story (the "main plot"), which also proceeds in steps and results in the opportunity for character advancement when completed.  I have found it to be a bit of a struggle to juggle the main plot and the individual character subplots, making sure you give everyone a fair amount of "screen time" so they can advance their individual stories.  But the notion of the player being able to direct individual subplots related to their character is brilliant, and it really gets the player invested in their character.  And these stories matter, because completing stories is the way your character improves mechanically.  This system also avoids some of the criticism of awarding advancement based on completely "story goals," which is that you are rewarding players just for showing up and playing the game as opposed to rewards based on something they are doing in the game.  Since at least some of the stories are player generated, the player is exercising agency in return for game mechanical rewards.

Some GMs are going to resist giving up the narrative reins to the players.  Giving up the reins means not only losing some measure of control, but also losing the ability to prep story and plot elements fully in advance.  Moreso than any game I have run, 7th Sea lends itself to an improvisational style of GMing.  I found myself prepping for sessions by coming up with one or two big set pieces that I wanted to show off in a session (such as, going back to the example, the courtroom scene), having a general sense of how I wanted to get the players to the set pieces, and then mostly just winging the rest.  I found also that I was doing a great deal of what might seem like unstructured prep, in the form of just thinking about the characters and the overall arc of the story as opposed to outlines more structured elements.  That works for me and I think improv-oriented games play to my strengths as a GM, but not everyone is wired that way.  If you are a GM who likes having an organized binder full of detailed notes, you might find 7th Sea to be a difficult adjustment, or you might find yourself fighting the system.

There are a small handful of things I don't love about the 7th Sea mechanics--the Corruption rules, which end with the GM taking away a PC and making him or her and NPC, rub me the wrong way, and the requirement that players pick a specific advancement to tie it to their story completion ahead of time strikes me as too restrictive.  But they are small and easy to cut out of the broader structure of the rules.  7th Sea is my favorite narratively-focused game system, and I think it does the best job of highlighting the potential of those sorts of games.  It is worth diving on its own terms, even before you get to the setting.  But the setting may be the real reason to look at 7th Sea, and that is coming in Part two.