Saturday, August 31, 2013

Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil

Yes, this is precisely what I feel.

(Source: Wikipedia)
The D&D Next play-test is over, and I feel that I had enough with rules changing every other week. I want a system that is stable, flexible and...well...D&D at its core.

Now, don't get me wrong - D&D 3.5e is definitely stable, flexible and recognizable as D&D, but it's also very difficult to run if you go by the books. Broken builds are everywhere, and some of its mechanics are simply notorious (Grapple anyone?).

So I decided to do something I usually don't do. Run a 3.5e campaign using only the core books (PHB, DMG, MM) and throwing out all of the unneeded complexity. If I managed to run a D&D Next campaign that lasted 12 months by using a single die roll for Grappling, I don't see a reason to use 3.5e's interpretation of Grappling at the table.

Players are now free to use the flexibility and matureness of 3.5e to reconstruct their current characters, which is a good thing. D&D Next was simple to run (for both players and DMs), but that meant characters were not as complex as some players wanted. You couldn't make your character fit the picture you had in your mind, unless that character fell neatly into one of D&D Next's molds. 3.5e doesn't suffer from that.

The problem with 3.5e (IMHO) is that it's complex to run from the DM perspective, and it has some truly broken character builds.

I'll try to solve the broken build issue by limiting my players to the Core PHB book, but the complexity of 3.5e still remains. I mean, Attacks of Opportunity rules, Grappling, Sundering, Sneak Attack rules, Stacking rules, and basically everything Wizards wrote about in the Rules of the Game column years ago.

So what can I do? Here's what I think:

  1. Think story-wise, and not rules-wise. If a player tries a "complex" action (Sundering, Tripping, Grappling), there should be a roll involved, but that's it. The story (description, coolness factor of the action) is more important that the consequences of the action itself. And an adventure shouldn't end of the PCs manages to break the Vorpal Sword of their Vampire opponent.
  2. That said, the rules should not be ignored. I need to follow the "spirit" of the rules, even if I don't follow them to the letter. For example, the Mounted Combat rules are full of nuances (see here), but does the game break if I allow a PC riding a horse to just ride and attack giving a +1 to the attack? That said, the rules do specify some Skill checks and penalties to be taken into account when the PC is trying to perform some actions on horseback (ranged attack, spell casting), so I should not ignore them completely.
  3. Stay away from constructing NPC stat blocks that are detailed to the last spell/item. If possible, use Monster stat blocks, and stat blocks provided in books such as Enemies and Allies. Taking an hour to build a Mage NPC that will be killed in 3 rounds is a complete waste of time.
  4. And most important of all - keep the game running smoothly. Rules can be checked after the game ends, but they should be checked and explained, especially if a player tries to abuse them. It was hard to "abuse" something in D&D Next, as it had lots of blurred edges and the DM had a lot of say. But in 3.5e, a lot of rules are very detailed, making it hard for the DM to reject them or say "it doesn't work like that" without getting the players flipping the pages of the PHB. So rules should be applied, but in a way that is fair, helping the players (and the DM) create a fun and rewarding game experience.


Sunday, August 18, 2013

Constructively Evil

Evil characters often spell the end of the campaign before it even started.

When a player comes with an idea for an evil character, I always try to understand what he's after. Is it the Coolness Factor that often comes with a villain? Is it because he's tired of playing that goodie-dooer that bites the hooks the DM hands out? (Oh look! the dragon fled with the princess!)

Or maybe he just want a "legal" way to wreck havoc in my campaign?

Luckily, my players are way above such destructive tendencies. Or are they? Here's what one of my players (Ben Haker) have to say about running an Evil Character....

What does Good & Evil mean? 

To me it is clear that the concepts of Good & Evil are based on too many variables to be absolute. Different time periods (e.g. 21st century vs. 14th century), different social classes (e.g. noble vs. peasant) and different religions have all different concepts of Good and Evil.

It is important to be aware of these differences because it means that we should not be using our 21st century liberal democratic views when judging medieval like fantasy settings (e.g. D&D). This is also one of the reasons I never liked the alignment mechanism provided with the D&D rules.

When running my characters, I add another layer of complexity that foils the alignment mechanism: Evil is not always malevolence and Good is not always benevolence.

What does that mean? 

I can think of many scenarios where the actions of a Chaotic Good character would wreak havoc on a peaceful village while the actions of a Lawful Evil character would sustain the village and ensure the peaceful survival of the inhabitants.
In modern western life we feel that living under a despotic rule is the worst that can happen, for a simple peasant in Medieval that is not always the case. There are worse things than losing your freedom. Paying a tribute to a dragon overlord may not be as bad for the wilderness town like trying to take him down and suffering the dire consequences of failing.

I do not want to turn this into a moral discussion, I only wanted to prepare the ground for my next argument, Evil characters have a place in the campaign and not only as the characters’ nemesis but as a valid part of the group.

Evil does not always mean mindless uncivilized destruction, it could also mean a subtle political play. An Evil character does not have to be treacherous, he / she could be a stout friend. No reason to think that Evil does not make friends or cannot work in a team.

Two examples (taken from actual game play):

One - A fighter got mixed in a political rivalry. He is in a banquet where the son of his political rival is also present. He sees the son get mixed in a duel that he cannot win and gets killed. He just sits there, not trying to prevent the duel. Let even assume that he helped instigate the duel knowing that it would be the end of the rival’s son. 

Is he Evil? Maybe. Was that Bad? Not so sure. no one from the city got hurt (other than the son). Most importantly, did it prevent him being a dedicated and able part of an adventuring group? I do not think so.

Two - A Blackguard (Anti-Paladin) is in a city that is rife with civil strife and external threats. While in the city he founds out that one of the individuals living in the city is a mighty magic-user vampire. The Blackguard is actually on a mission by the lord of a rival city. 

The lord is looking for a way to increase the influence of his city (city B) in order to deal with the external threats. Our Blackguard strikes a deal with the vampire, unifying their power they are able to instigate a coup against the local Senate and replace it with a Senate that is loyal to the vampire and the rival city lord. 

In a single blow he was able to unite two cities into a stronger force that will be able to deal with the external threats, pacify the internal strife, advance himself in the eyes of his lord and have a powerful vampire ally. 

You probably say that the city got the worse of the deal. Are you sure? The city is now part of a more powerful alliance and should be able to fend of the external threats, internally it is now ruled by a Senate loyal to a vampire so you can count on having a strong hand at the wheels. Sure, some will pay but most ordinary citizens just got a chance at a better and more peaceful life. So was the act of being Evil (handing a city to the control of a vampire) so Bad?

To summarize - It is true that if a player plays a mindless evil character that cannot be part of a group, or is just annoying, it could be a problem. But if the player is being sophisticated and sensitive I do not find a reason why an evil character cannot thrive in a regular group and even do some Good!

I would use the word “disruptive” instead of the word “evil” in order to measure a character’s ability to be part of an adventuring group and a campaign. “Disruptive” is not alignment centric but measures many traits of the character and role play that affect the compatibility of a character to the rest of the group and the campaign as a whole.

Here you go. I do believe that the word "Disruptive" is the key here. If a players pulls off an evil character without being disruptive (to the game, campaign, adventure, whatever), some cool roleplaying moments awaits him.

In addition, the DM, knowing that the player is working with him instead of against him, can be sure that the campaign as a whole will not break - but it might go in unexpected directions, which is a good thing. Nobody wants to play in a scripted campaign. We meet to play an RPG because we get to do whatever we want, portray our characters the way we envision them, tell our own stories, and walk our own path.

Be it good or evil...

Enjoy, and thanks Ben for his take on things!