Saturday, May 26, 2012

D&D Next: D&D is Back!

I was very excited to get my copy of the D&D play-test material. The roller coaster that was 2e to 3.5e to 4e was about to end, and I was very interested to see what the captains of D&D have in mind.

Well, it looks like they had this in mind:

The booklet reads like old-school D&D while taking the best of all the editions out there. You can see 2e's one-line monster stats right next to 4e at-will cantrips. You can see Basic D&D "Vancian" spell-casting next to a slightly modified version of the healing-surges system found in 4e.

Another great idea was the inclusion of character backgrounds and themes as a way to create unique, 3.5e like PCs as opposed to the cookie cutter approach found in 4e. The play-test material gave us the most archetypical heroes, but I can easily see how the system will be expanded and extended to support great character customization.

So in my opinion, D&D is now back to being D&D. The core of it - in the form presented in the play-test material - will be probably tweaked and modified, but it looks solid enough and D&D enough to my personal taste.

Taking a look at the included adventure, I was shocked at how much it reminded me of all those old, pre 3rd edition adventure module I still own. It even looks like I could run those old modules with little or no modification. In addition, it looks like the fine-tuned encounters found in 4e are out of the window, with rooms with "up to 40" kobolds in them.  The monsters stat blocks are mostly one or two liners, a thing I was really happy about - until I saw the "Special Traits" entry for each monster in the monster booklet.

I never liked the way monsters in 3.5e played out. In addition to the clearly stated melee and ranged attacks, they had this section in which tons of special abilities were listed. During the excitement of combat I usually forgot all about them, which was really annoying. Even more annoying was the fact that some of the special abilities encapsulated several traits that I needed to take into account. For example, 3.5e incorporeal means immunity from all non-magical attacks, but they are effected by supernatural attacks. And then the game was halted to look at the books to see what supernatural meant. So in that sense, I really hope that Wizards use the traits section wisely, giving just a few, self-explanatory, "classic" traits and move all other "cool stuff the monster can do" to an appropriate section (attacks, defenses etc).

To be completely honest, I really look forward to play-test D&D Next, and I really hope that Wizard's plan of providing a solid core that is easily expanded with rules modules will actually work. If they decide to revive the old Mistara campaign setting (or create a brand new old-school setting) I will be thrilled.

After all, it looks like D&D is built with an eye to its original roots, roots which I discovered when I was just a little over 6 years old, almost 30 years ago...

Hey, you know what? Proofreading my post I just realized that I unintentionally dropped the "Next" out of D&D Next in the last sentence. Yes, it feels like D&D. Not 2e, not 3e and not 4e or 5e.

Just D&D.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Campaign Workshop - The Campaign Slogan

One of the tricks I've been using to conceptualize a campaign is the Campaign Slogan.

A role-playing campaign can take years to play to its end. Unless you're building a very short campaign, one that will end after a couple of sessions, you'll need to come up with a considerable amount of plots, NPCs, story arcs, locations and adventure ideas.

Facing so much unwritten material, a lot of GMs freeze, unable to even start working on their new campaign. Even if we have this great idea, we sometimes find it hard to mature it into a fully grown campaign. We start with one story, jump to the next, introduce an NPC or two, and kickstart the campaign hoping for the best.

More often than not, this approach creates a spiral of death effect. As the game goes on, the connection to the original story dwindles, until nothing remains of the original story. At this point, many campaigns die, having too many loose-ends and unrelated strings of adventures that are going nowhere.

To solve this problem (and to help solving many more, as you'll see shortly), I use the idea of the Campaign Slogan. I can't say I invented it - I probably picked it up somewhere, but I cannot remember where...

Here is what Wikipedia has to say about the Slogan:

slogan is a memorable motto or phrase used in a politicalcommercialreligious, and other context as a repetitive expression of an idea or purpose. 

The slogan serves a similar purpose in the context of campaign building. It creates a general, memorable frame for the entire campaign. When building the campaign, it can be used as a phrase that conceptualize the campaign, giving it flavor, meaning and theme. When running the campaign, it can be used to make sure the campaign is still going to the right direction. If you read the campaign slogan during the course of a campaign, and find it valid - you are still on course.

Note that my slogans are there to serve me, therefore they are somewhat different from the slogans we all know from ads and commercials. My slogans are short sentences that capture the feel of the campaign in one short sentence.

Here are two examples of slogans I used in my recent campaigns:

  • A demon convinces a high-priest to free it from its eternal prison, claiming that "You need to free me in order to fight me."
  • A great emperor - in the face of a terrible invasion by otherworldly beings - conquers more and more lands as a way to unite the population against a terrible foe. "Rule them or lose them"
As you can see, the slogans are very abstract while providing the identity of the "main villain" and his reason for being one. They are general enough to spawn endless plots and adventures, but focused enough to provide a frame in which the campaign takes place.

Here I would like to stress the importance of abstraction: an abstract slogan helps you build arcs, plots, sub-plots and adventure that are seemingly unrelated, until you decide to let the players see the connection. 

If the campaign slogan is abstract enough, it would easily contain the backgrounds of the heroes, their stories and their goals, which - if you follow my steps so far - are not even in your possession yet.

Writing a good slogan is not difficult. Try to summarize your favorite sic-fi or fantasy movies in one sentence, and slogans will pop up quickly. 

Can you identify the following?

  • An alien entity is using humans as slaves-laborers by utilizing advanced technology which is based on a rare mineral the humans are mining.
  • An archeologist is working of an evil army commander,  questing for occult power that will make the army invincible.
  • A power-hungry emperor is constructing a terrible weapon that can destroy planets, but the plans of the station falls to the hands of a group of freedom fighters.