Friday, February 28, 2020

What Do I Know About Gameplay? D&D Published Adventures and Tools at the Table

The following is based on a thread I originally posted elsewhere on social media, pulled together and modified a bit to preserve the thought process.

I just listened to Down with DnD today where Shawn Merwin and Mike Shea were discussing the D&D Essentials Kit. Some of that discussion sticks with me, especially when comparing D&D with other games.

Combined with this quote from DM Samuel on Twitter, it triggered some thoughts:


Replying to @newbiedm @ChrisSSims

Can someone please tell WotC? I'm so unable to run these long hardcover adventures... and I read them cover to cover when I review them... but way too much detail to run at the table.

3 5:31 AM - Feb 28, 2020

The Essentials Kit, Basic and Advanced D&D

The Essentials Kit
has cards included for tracking the jobs that player characters can pick up from the job board. We treat tools like that as "beginner" items, because "advanced" players don't get special pre-packaged handouts to help them keep track of things.

Except, there is a whole secondary market for things like spell cards and monster cards, that make it easier to have reference ready at the table, because books aren't the best "active" tool for running a game.

Sometimes it almost feels like a throwback to the marketing plans of ages past. If the core game gives you extra packed in tools, it’s a “basic” product for beginners. If everything is expressed in a hardcover book, and you must choose to intentionally buy additional products to supplement that format, it’s “advanced.”

A Tour of The Modern Hobby

Beadle And Grimms are doing amazing work breaking down the hardcover adventures, creating handout and visual aids, and separating larger books into smaller, more manageable reference guides, but that's a premium product that remains outside the budget of a lot of gamers.

Scratchpad Publishing’s RPGs are designed as games, not as books that are used to express games, as an example. There are components that exist to facilitate play, and the books are kind of a necessary evil for when you have more information than you can slap on a card.

Fate has been leading the charge by explaining more complex details with aspects for a while now. Sometimes you just need to make an impression, without a lot of extraneous details. Aspects for an NPC are going to make a bigger impression than three paragraphs of description.

Several Powered by the Apocalypse games, like Night Witches or The Watch, do an excellent job of conveying what should be going on by clearly defining the phases of a session of play. Why are we in this scene, and how does it fit into the wider cycle of play for this game? Forged in the Dark games, with items like crew sheets and clocks, do a great job of conveying incremental progress, the passage of time, and the acquisition of situationally useful resources.

Adventures in Middle-earth does a great job of mechanizing travel, and honestly, probably a better job of gamifying downtime than D&D's assumed baseline. The starting adventures for Pugmire and Monarchies of Mau have bullet points at the beginning of scenes asking How did the players get to this scene? What do they need to accomplish here? What is keeping them from doing this? What scenes could they go to from here? Those summary bullet points may feel redundant or even perfunctory in some scenes, but they serve a vital function in reminding you why you are in the scene you are in, and where you can go from here.

Enjoying Things While Accessorizing

The problem is, as I'm saying all of this, I can also hear the gathering storm of "yeah, D&D is bad, & you should play those other games," and that's not actually what I'm saying here. I'm saying that the core rules of D&D can be kept pretty much intact because people enjoy them.

However, what I am saying is that all the above games create tools that bridge the gap between core rules and play experience. The biggest advance in D&D adventures in the modern era isn't in expressing the adventure. The biggest advance is in not assuming that the DM needs to be adversarial for the game to be fun, and to encourage DMs to customize content.

The problem is that mindset is great, but again, having tools to solidify that philosophy would be great. Fifth edition D&D has had a lot of great, imaginative adventures. The number of people with shared experiences is a testament to how strong many of these adventures are. But the flaw still lies in translating the concept of a great plot to something usable at the table.

Tradition and Inertia

As an example, D&D adventures still, after all this time, do things like saying "after 60 minutes have passed, the reinforcements will show up," but in order to track that 60 minutes, the DM ends up looking up movement rates and character speed.

The adventure could say, "for every six rooms the PCs enter, reinforcements arrive." It's more abstracted, but it's a clear trigger for when the event happens, and it’s not completely divorced from the progression of time in the adventure.

Storm King's Thunder expects you to either handwave long-distance travel, or to engage in measuring exact distances between locations, and tracking rations and random encounters day by day. But for all the movement rates and rations and encounter charts, the game never really gives you a procedure for those days. What are they supposed to look like or feel like? Is it just supposed to be dice rolling and bookkeeping until they reach their destination?

There is a great opportunity to gamify travel when it is needed for the adventure's tone. Storm King's Thunder would have been a great adventure to say "when you travel more than X miles, another event related to the giants triggers." Most of the giant based events aren't triggered by time, but rather are keyed to a few cities and towns that the PCs might wander into. Having some kind of clock that ticks off based on clear triggers would have been great.

Emerging Expectations

D&D creates some great adventures, and builds some great tools, but then fails to create some of the connective tissue between the literal thing that the rules model, and how to bring that to the table in a clear, actionable model. To some extent, this is very much the long shadow of the earliest adventures in the game. Often, early D&D adventures were “here is a mega-dungeon, and here are some rules for adjudicating wandering around that dungeon,” and “here is a wilderness area, and here are some rules for wandering around the wilderness to see what’s out there.”

It didn’t take long for the game to develop scenarios that were more dependent on interaction, investigation, and reacting to the actions of proactive villains, but those adventures didn’t add a lot of new solutions for resolving those styles of adventures.

What Would I Like to See?

  • More bullet points explaining what the takeaway for a scene or encounter area should be
  • Distinct, clear statements about what an encounter is about, and what other adventure elements it may be tied to
  • Pertinent information formatted to underscore important information—information in the middle of a paragraph, without anything to make it stand out, isn’t idea for reference
  • Visual representation of trackers for the passage of time and what consequences trigger when those trackers fill up
  • Clear triggers that don’t rely on the DM shifting their brain from “game space” to “simulationist space” to track actual time or distance
  • Parallel development of ancillary product that serve as tools for running adventures, rather than second party development after the adventure has been developed

I’m going to throw this out there, but honestly? Adventures should be boxed sets. I don’t know how feasible this is, but it does allow for more build in tools that are developed as part of the adventure creation process.

D&D isn't a bad game, and it's got some great designers and some wonderful idea people.
This isn't their shortcoming, it’s part of the culture around D&D that is resistant to change. D&D builds awesome structures on either side of a metaphorical ravine. Since it's not THAT far across, it’s always assumed people will either learn to climb down one side and up the other, or get a running jump, but that gap was never part of the assumed design space of the game.

The traditional solution for this has been to look at the people that can’t climb or jump that far, and have people that know them offer to help, rather than developing a default procedure for building a bridge that might benefit everyone, with the knowledge that people that still want to climb or jump can live their dreams.

Monday, February 24, 2020

What Do I Know About First Impressions? Unearthed Arcana 2020 Subclasses Part 3 (D&D 5e)

Even more subclasses, this time with (I’m pretty sure) way less controversy attached to them.

Unearthed Arcana 2020 Subclasses 3

This time, we’ve got subclasses for the artificer, druid, and ranger. I think it’s interesting that we’re seeing an artificer subclass come up, because that either implies another Eberron source, or it’s a statement of intent that just because artificer shows up in the Eberron book, it it’s still considered a supported class across the board (I know, the class write up also indicates this, but it’s nice to see that followed up with actions as well).

Artificer (Armorer)

The artificer subclass is the armorer, an artifact that forges a special bond with their armor. This subclass grants proficiency with smith’s tools and with heavy armor, which is a big nod to what armor you should be looking at for your character by the time you hit 3rd level.

  • Magic missile, shield, mirror image, shatter, hypnotic pattern, lightning bolt, fire shield, greater invisibility, passwall, and wall of force are added to your spells. I’m not sure I can discern the pattern of added spells. Force spells I could understand, if you equate force with strengthening armor. Mirror image and invisibility play in to “increase defensive ability,” but not directly with an affinity for armor. Lightning bolt and invisibility tie into the two armor models you can pick, but it seems weird to tie bonus spells in to an armor mode you may not currently be using. I don’t dislike the selection, it just doesn’t tell a story for me.
  • Power armor negates your strength requirement for the armor, lets you use the armor as a spellcasting focus, and makes it unable to be removed against your will. If you are missing a limb, if the armor has that limb, you function as if you have the limb. I really like that final feature, even though I’m not sure how often it is to come up. I’m actually wondering if this might get slightly more use if it also allowed something damaged or impaired to function without impairment, but I can’t think of how many effects target limbs in 5e off hand.
  • Armor model lets you pick Guardian or Infiltrator models, which you can switch after a rest. Guardian gives you thunder gauntlets that emit a noise that gives anyone you hit with them disadvantage if they attack someone other than you (until your next turn), and grants you temporary hit points. Infiltrator lets you shoot a gem that does electrical damage, increases your speed, and negates a stealth penalty for the armor. I think we’re going for a taser effect with the gem, but I’m still not picturing it all that clearly when coupled with the gem. I think I might like this more as a dart that goes off when it hits.

Probably not worth going down this road, but technically if you had the dual wielder feat, since both of your gauntlets are considered to be simple weapons in guardian mode, you would get a +1 to armor class and potentially have the ability to slap two opponents to grant them disadvantage or draw their ire.

All of that was what you picked up at 3rd level. Artificer really does redefine a playstyle when you pick you subclass.
  • At 5th level, you get an extra attack, which is good since this seems to be a combat-oriented take on the artificer. This also means if you really wanted to draw aggro, you have another chance to do it in guardian mode with this attack.
  • At 9th level, you can use infusions on individual pieces of your armor as if they are separate items (so gauntlets, helmet, etc.). 
  • At 15th level, you get additional functionality from your new modes, pulling opponents to you in guardian mode, or painting a target in infiltrator mode (granting advantage on the next person to attack and kicker electrical damage).

Also, Infusions

There are some new artificer infusions included as well, which would be options for all artifacts, but are at least nominally themed to fit with the armorer. One lets you swap intelligence for strength when wearing the imbued armor, another lets you connect tools to your armor, one allows you to imbue a helmet to allow for advantage on initiative. There is one that allows you to imbue armor or robes so that the wearer can use their reaction to succeed when they fail a concentration check, and one that allows you to infuse a ring with the ability to store spells.

The Armor of Magical Strength feels like it’s going to be most popular for front line artificers, and the Mind Sharpener feels like it’s going to make an artificer really, really popular with their caster friends. I can’t remember offhand how many armor descriptions specifically describe included helmets, but if leather doesn’t have that provision included, I’m wondering if this infusion should be expanded to work on hoods, hats, or circlets as well as helmets. I’m pretty sure an assassins and anyone else that might end up with a “triggered before your opponents act” ability will want to get in on this infusion at some point in time.

I wish the spells were more flavorful for the armorer, and it feels weird that they don’t get any kind of kicker for when they use infusions on someone else’s armor. They are armorers that are really just really good at working on custom armor that they intend to wear themselves. And for some reason I can’t put my finger on, I’m fine with stealth electrical darts, but the gem thing is bugging me because I’m thinking it should mean something that I’m not connecting.

Druid (Circle of Stars)

You’re an astrology druid! Kind of. You aren’t doing individual horoscopes so much as predicting trends by looking at the stars, and adopting aspects of the constellations. But I still like the overall flavor of this.

  • At 2nd level, you get a Star Map, which you can use as a casting implement. There is one of those neat d6 randomizers at the beginning of this class features that a lot of the UA articles have had, flavoring what your star chart might look like.
  • You get a limited number of castings per long rest to use either augury or guiding bolt when casting with your star map, which don’t count against your spells used. I am a big fan of guiding bolt. You also get an alternative to Wild Shape called Starry Form, which grants you powers based on one of three constellations that you pick. These give you bonus healing kicker that you can give to someone within 30 feet when you cast a healing spell, a bonus action ranged attack for radiant damage, or a “reliable” Intelligence or Wisdom check, or a Con save to maintain concentration (meaning you treat a 9 or lower on the die as a 10). 
  • At 6th level, whenever you finish up a long rest, you get a limited number of Cosmic Omens you can use as a reaction. You roll a d6 to determine if these are weal or woe. Weal means you can use reactions to roll a die to boost someone’s attacks, saves, or ability checks, and woe means you can do the same to subtract the die from those rolls. 
  • At 10th level, you quote David Bowman and become Full of Stars. This is a kicker to your alternative Starry Form that also grants you resistance to normal bludgeoning, slashing, or piercing damage. 
  • At 14th level, you can cause a flare of light that takes everyone within a 30 foot burst a similar distance away from their original position, if they are willing, and anyone else in that area makes a con save or take radiant damage and become blinded. It’s a nice “we need a breather and maybe a head start” ability to whip out against a good number of opponents. This is a per long rest ability that you can burn a 5th level spell to use again.

I really love this subclass. I love tying the special abilities for the Starry Form to constellations, and I continue to enjoy divinations that play with the dice, instead of locking the DM into trying to come up with actual future events. If I had to point to any one thing, the “glowing” part of guiding bolt fits the theme, but I think the free extra helping of 4d6 + advantage may be a little much compared to some of the other circles when looking at the 2nd level abilities.

Ranger (Fey Wanderer)

This is a ranger that has learned about the fey and their ways, and helps to guard against hostile or aggressive fey creatures that may cross over into the world. Okay, I like the theme for a ranger, let’s look at what they get.

First off, there is a d6 randomized feature that is essentially how your connection to the fey manifests. I am really liking these d6 randomizers for subclasses. Not only are they fun, but they are also permission to do something similar to customize your character if none of these ideas work for you.

  • At 3rd level, you pick up extra ranger spells, in this case charm person, misty step, dispel magic, banishment, and mislead. Charm feels a little off here. Not because it’s not something associated with the fey, but because this feels like someone guarding against the fey.
  • In addition to the expanded spell list, these rangers get advantage against being charmed or frightened, and proficiency in either deception, performance, or persuasion. They also learn how to use a bonus action to infuse a weapon with unseelie magic, causing extra psychic damage. If they are two weapon fighting, they may double up on bonus action effects and imbue at the same time they make their off-hand attack. 
  • At 7th level, you can add your Wisdom bonus to Charisma checks, and you can effectively psychic smite by spending a spell slot to add psychic damage to your damage. When you do this, the target also has to make a wisdom save or be frightened. Since this doesn’t mention using an action, bonus action, or reaction, this means you could boost your imbued weapon with even more psychic damage. 
  • At 11th level, whenever someone within 120 feet of you saves against an effect that would charm or frighten them, you can target someone else in that range with a rebound effect that causes another target to make a Wisdom save or become charmed, frightened, or take extra psychic damage. I like this . . . with a caveat, but I’ll hit that at the end.
  • At 15th level, you can spend a bonus action to force a target to make a Wisdom save, and if they fail, they can’t perceive you for 24 hours. If you attack it or force it to make another save, they can make another save at the end of their turn, but it doesn’t automatically end the effect. If you use the ability on someone else, it ends for the original target. This is a per long rest ability that you can burn a 4th level spell to regain.

This class is mostly on theme, but I like the idea that the ranger is learning these abilities to guard against similar abilities. That’s why I would rather replace charm with something else, and why I would probably remove charm as an option for the 11th level ability. However, outside of that, I love the idea of deflecting psychic energy around the battlefield, and I adore being invisible to just that one person on the field.

Wider Thoughts

I think the druid and ranger options tell a pretty strong story, though I might scale a few things back as options with both of them. I couldn’t help but think that somebody watched Stardust again just before sitting down to design them, but that may just be me.

I like the artificer option, but I feel like it’s either trying to go full Tony Stark (in which case it really needs to be able to fly), or it needs to have something that lets it provide some kickers to armor that it infuses for others.

Overall, it’s interesting to see the emergent trend of “spend X spell level to get back something you would normally get per long rest” and “when you roll a 9 or lower, treat it as a 10” as recurring design elements in a lot of this UA. 

It also feels like we’re seeing more mitigation of concentration checks that don’t lean on a player picking up a feat they may not have otherwise wanted to take. I think some of this speaks to the idea that concentration as a limiter is good, but Constitution saves can feel punitive to some of the casters that have to make them. 

When I do these first looks, I usually look through the other subclasses and what they get at that level as a guide for how these UA options feel comparatively, and this works fine for the druid, I think, but it feels weird for the artificer, since the subclasses do involve some really different playstyles, and it’s tricky for the ranger because . . . well, the ranger started off with a lot of design that was more “situationally good” versus broadly good, compared to other classes.

That’s a lot of words for a first look. Artificer okay, could use a stronger story theme with the abilities. Druid and ranger, really strong stories, with the druid maybe getting too much blasting at 2nd level, and the ranger getting too much charm versus just using fey tricks to combat rampaging fey creatures and things that use similar tricks. I’m going to internet stride out of here, now.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

What Do I Know About Pop-Culture? The Emerging Story of Jason Todd

I’m not sure why this is, but it seems like Batman’s history, especially, is prone to retcons. I don’t mean IN the comics, I mean retcons ABOUT the comics. I won’t go into too many details, but one of the biggest ongoing bits of modified history revolves around Batman being the light-hearted, silly character from the 60s right up until the release of Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, completely ignoring the work that Denny O’Neil and other creators did in the 70s onward.

Of Red Hoods and Phone Polls

Recently, I saw an article that reminded me of another one of these revisions to Batman’s history. In this particular case, the revision is about Jason Todd, the second Robin, and who the character was at the time of his death in the comics.

The narrative that often evolves is that Jason Todd was an abrasive character that was wildly unpopular, which is what prompted DC Comics to do the poll to determine if Jason lived or died. There is some truth to that narrative, but it misses a whole lot of context about what happened.

For much of his history, Jason Todd wasn’t really any more rebellious or abrasive than Dick Grayson had been. He was the plucky kid sidekick, but the nuance introduced by Doug Moench’s run with the character (the era I was most familiar with), is that Jason was wrestling with feelings about his adopted supervillain mother Nocturna, as well as potentially retiring from being Robin now that Batman had Catwoman as a partner.

A History of Violence

For purposes of timeline clarification, here are some touchstones:

  • In 1986, The Dark Knight Returns was published--In addition to introducing the “Batman is for adults” era of fandom, DKR also introduced the idea that, in this future, Jason Todd is dead
  • In March of 1988, The Killing Joke came out, where the Joker cripples Barbara Gordon
  • The Batman movie wouldn’t come out until 1989, but it was already known that the movie was going to move away from introducing Robin
  • In December of 1988, A Death in the Family was published

Jason’s conflicted history with Nocturna and thoughts of retiring from being Robin were left behind when the post-Crisis Batman stories began to reestablish the new normal for Batman, concurrent to and after Batman Year One saw publication.

Emergent History

Tangential to the Jason Todd storyline, but worth noting because of the tangential nature of Catwoman being Batman’s new partner, Catwoman was mind-wiped and returned to being a criminal by Joker. This was a horrible storyline. Catwoman’s character development was reversed without any agency of her own. The common thread to all of this era of Batman’s history, however, is Joker doing horrible things.

Regardless, Jason didn’t have the “does Batman need two partners” question to lean on anymore. Max Allen Collins revised Jason’s history to be less like Dick Grayson’s. Previously, Jason was also a circus orphan, whose parents were killed by Killer Croc, and who was adopted by the supervillainess Nocturna before Batman took him in and made him Robin.

To make his history more streamlined, distinct, and “gritty,” Jason became the child of a career criminal killed by Two-Face, who met Batman when stealing the tires off the Batmobile. Max Allen Collins introduced Jason’s personality as “hard luck kid with a criminal past,” and at this point Jason did become less upbeat and more surly.

This is where we need to address the fact that Jason wasn’t being consistently rewritten in this new personality. While Max Allen Collins was writing more street level crime stories in Batman, Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle were writing a slightly different version of Batman and Robin in Detective Comics. This version was a bit more in line with the pre-Crisis Batman tone, where the story could be dark and grim, but also touched on superheroics and big, colorful supervillains as well.

Jason in the Grant and Breyfogle Detective stories was generally an enthusiastic kid that wasn’t any more likely to ignore Batman’s orders or talk back than Dick Grayson had ever been. One of the biggest hooks that this version of Jason had was interacting with Leslie Thompkins, the doctor introduced as Batman’s secret physician, who was concerned with Jason’s well-being as a young person being put in dangerous situations.

Narrative Inertia

Not only had the idea of Jason dying been hinted at in Dark Knight Returns, but the idea of Batman as a loner was becoming more and more popular. More stories went off on tangents about Batman solving cases on his own. Even the extended Bat-family was being developed, with the crippling of Barbara Gordon in The Killing Joke at the beginning of 1988. The momentum was already moving towards telling the story of Jason’s death, and Batman’s transition to a solo hero.

While Max Allen Collins moved Jason towards being more abrasive, it wasn’t a consistent portrayal of the character. By the time the phone poll for Jason’s fate came about, the momentum for Jason being dead, Bruce being a loner again, and Joker causing mass calamity to Batman’s world were all in place. Putting the onus solely on Jason’s characterization in one Batman book is missing the wider view of what was going on in Batman’s world at the time.

Jason’s death happened at the confluence of the emerging concept of “Batman isn’t for kids,” where fans seemed almost desperate to prove how adult and serious the concept of Batman could be. I would argue there was as much if not more hostility towards the Batman television series as there was toward Jason, specifically.

Modern Joker

This is also the lynchpin of Joker’s emergence from “best known Batman villain” to “villain whose credibility is based on how horrible his actions are.” It may not have been planned that Joker would mind-wipe Catwoman, cripple Barbara Gordon, and kill Jason Todd, but once all of that happened, Joker’s defining characteristic to many readers was now “Batman villain with the highest body count.”

Resurrections: Details Don’t Matter

Not entirely unlike Maul in the Clone Wars, Jason Todd’s return left a lot to be desired as originally envisioned. A blip in time created by a mega-crossover brought him back originally, but the emergent story of an abandoned child trying to reconnect with the world that left him behind was powerful. Jason’s life has been redefined as continually being put in the worst possible circumstances, and not having the support that other members of the Bat-family have had in those moments, making him a great contrast to some of the other characters. But the idea that Jason “had” to develop this direction misses a lot of the actual work to change Jason from a character born of multiple false starts into a consistent flawed, damaged, and ultimately sympathetic character.

Oversimplifying the history erases the important aspects of comics and the continual struggle against massive revisions for the sake of novelty, versus creating an intentionally developed character with nuance and resonance over time. Jason Todd deserved better, but he eventually got an actual narrative that matched the meta-narrative of his arc.