Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Dropping skills for backgrounds in Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition

I am the kind of guy who writes pages of character backgrounds for my characters.  Some of them probably qualify as short stories.  Sometimes they are written from a first person point of view, other times in the form of a journal, occasionally from a third person omniscient or the point of view of another character in the story.  I feel I need to write these backgrounds in order to properly play my character.  Even in the MMORPG City of Heroes, where I never played with deep role-players, each of my ‘toons’ had surprisingly detailed character backgrounds.

I realize not everyone plays this way.  When I am running games getting character backgrounds from some of my players is like pulling teeth.  Often players will present me with character backgrounds no more complex than “I grew up in a peasant village and when I was old enough I left to find my fortune”.  That is OK, everyone has a different playing style.

Still, I like games that encourage characters to develop their background a bit.  Probably the first game I encountered that did this was Warhammer Fantasy in which your character development was tied to your career path.  Knowing that your character was a rat catcher or a merchant before they began adventuring wasn’t much, but it was something.  Last Unicorn Games short-lived Star Trek: The Next Generation RPG took a similar path, where during character generation you would take a number of ‘tours’ on previous starships to determine your skillset.  Maybe you spent a tour on the USS Hood as a security officer even though you were in command now so you were handy with a phaser.

I think my favorite take on this mechanic so far is in 13th Age.  During character creation you allocate a number of points to backgrounds.  Rather than specific skills you might say you spent time as a cat-burglar, a guild mage, or a merchant.  Maybe you were a poacher (4 points) who was drafted as a soldier (2 points) and then became a animal trainer (2 points) when you got out.  Rather than have a specific list of skills, you roll and add an appropriate ability modifier plus points in your background where you would roll a skill check in D&D.  If the party needed to track someone through the woods and one character had a poacher background while another had a bounty hunter background, both could make the roll using their background points plus their wisdom modifier.  However, if they needed to tie up a captive probably only the bounty hunter background would be applicable.

During the D&D Next playtest, I always thought this system would be easy to implement as a house rule.  D&D Next was already more skill light than D&D 3e or D&D 4e after all.  So I was pleased to hear that at Origins there was talk of an optional module that would use backgrounds instead of skills in a similar manner.  Assuming it is well implemented, I would definitely use that option in any D&D 5e games I run.

Or I guess I could just run a 13th Age instead.  It really is a fun system.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

What digital offerings I want from D&D 5e

Bad digital tools make me want to burn the whole place down!My gaming group makes extensive use of digital tools when playing.  We have vast PDF libraries that keep us from breaking our backs hauling books back and forth.  We use various character generation tools to assist with character creation and tracking.  We use virtual game tables both for ease of play and to allow members who cannot attend locally to join in the fun remotely.  Digital tools are an essential part of our game.  Trapdoor Technologies, a new licensee for Dungeons & Dragons digital tools, asked on their website what we want out of Codename Morningstar.  Here is my wish list.

Affordable PDFs

This is more in Wizards of the Coast court than Trapdoor Technologies.

Wizards of the Coast has a spotty history when it comes to PDFs.  In third edition PDFs were priced exactly the same as the physical book.  This meant that they often cost more than you could get the physical books for off of Amazon and even most local game stores.  It also meant that at $30 or more a pop that most gamers had to make a choice between buying a physical book or buying the PDF.  Personally, I enjoy reading a physical book but love the convenience of a searchable PDF during game play.  By offering PDFs at a reasonable price Pazio and other publishers have encouraged me to purchase both.

In fourth edition Wizards of the Coast moved away from PDFs and offered up the D&D Compendium as a digital alternative.  The D&D Compendium was great, but it didn’t allow you to see the rules in their original context.  There is a place for a tool like the D&D Compendium, but I does not replace PDF versions of the books.

Of course Wizards of the Coast has made great strides in their PDF offerings with the D&D Classics site.  However, they still tend to be a bit pricey on the newer stuff and don’t tend to release PDFs concurrently with their new releases.  I hope that this will change with the release of fifth edition.

A robust and customizable character generator

I like character generators and I even liked the D&D Character Builder offered through D&D Insider.  It had a major flaw though, as it did not handle house rules very well.  This is why I prefer a character generator like PCGen.  The ability to load my own datasets far outweighed the occasional quirkiness of the program.  Strong support for house rules is a must.

A useful virtual game table

There are a lot of great virtual game table products out there.  Personally, we use MapTools, but Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds are great products as well.  A great virtual game table must be customizable, allow easy access to remote players, and provide useful management tools for the DM to run encounters.  All three of the virtual game tables I have listed above do this.

To be honest the opportunity here is almost closed.  Where there is still opportunity is to integrate this in with the vast stores of data Wizards of the Coast can provide.  Making it seamless to drop in monsters with full stats and seamless integration with character sheets would make all the difference.  I know it would convince me to switch.

Campaign management tools

There is probably a lot of room for improvement here.  Realm Works is great for campaign prep, but  Obsidian Portal is probably the leader here.  It bills itself as a campaign wiki site, but it provides a lot of tools for game masters to keep track of the locations and characters while only surfacing to the players what the game master wants them to know. 

Outside of the gaming software world, I have found both Workflowy (an outliner) and Evernote (a robust note taking program) to be invaluable tools for organizing campaigns.  I have also been considering trying Scrivner, which is intended for authors who are organizing a novel, but would probably work just as well for a campaign.

I would look to all of these tools for inspiration.

It is more than just a Windows world

D&D Insider ran on Microsoft Silverlight.  While some of my group members use Windows laptops, some use MacBooks, Ubuntu Linux laptops, iPads, and Android devices.  Silverlight did not work very well for them.

Please make sure that whatever digital solutions are created are multi-platform.  Make sure that these solutions are mobile friendly as well.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Wizards of the Coast’s new model?

Wizards of the Coast is working with a new licensee, Trapdoor Technologies, to deliver digital tools for Dungeons & Dragons 5e.  In May, Wizards of the Coast announced Kobold Press designed two of the adventures to support the Tyranny of Dragons storylineDriveThruRPG has been powering Dungeons & Dragons Classics for awhile now.  I think this may represent a subtle shift in how Wizards of the Coast is handling Dungeons & Dragons.

I’ve already talked at length about how I feel Wizards of the Coast should focus on their core competencies and let others develop tools for the game in the context of the OGL. It looks like Wizards of the Coast is doing this, except instead of an open source model they are planning to work with specific licensees to fill the void.

While I would personally prefer an open source model, this makes sense from Wizards of the Coast’s point of view.  They can focus their internal resources on the rules and farm tasks that go outside their core competencies to other groups while still maintaining a tight control over how their intellectual property is used.  Seriously, this is win-win for them.

Hopefully, they will open things up a bit more down the road, as Mike Mearls said they would in 2015.  I still maintain that a robust gaming license is good for the hobby, and that what is good for the hobby is good for Dungeons & Dragons.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Mike Mearls (briefly) addresses the gaming license.

At the end of my last post, where I expressed my concern that D&D 5e might not have a gaming license, I stated that “for all I know Wizards of the Coast will announce a liberal gaming license tomorrow and I will look like an idiot”.  Well, that didn’t exactly happen but I was quite surprised to see Mike Mearls bring up this very concern in his post today.

I wish I could believe he was aware of my tiny little blog, but the reality is it shows how important the concept of a gaming license is to the gaming community as a whole.  Obviously my concerns were shared by many.

Parsing Mearls post we can only be sure of a couple of things.  First is that there will be some kind of “mechanism” that will allow fans to create their own gaming materials.  Second is that whatever this mechanism is that it will not debut until sometime in 2015.

This doesn’t alleviate my concerns, although I am glad to see that it is on Mearls mind.  I did notice that he was careful not to use the word “license” in describing how fans would be able to create their own materials, although I am not reading too much into it at this early stage of the game.

Whatever mechanism Wizards of the Coast provides I doubt we will ever see anything as broad as the OGL again.  Maybe they don’t have to.  In the comments of my last post it was noted by Nicholas Bergquist that the OGL is broad enough to make material that is functionally compatible with D&D 5e even if it can’t technically be billed as such.  Ultimately that genie is out of the bottle already.

Regardless I hope that Wizards of the Coast does this right.  Beyond simple books, it would be nice if they were willing to open things up a bit on the digital side.  The D&D 4e’s GSL was much more restrictive, about how the license applied to digital tools than the OGL was.  This isn’t surprising since Wizards of the Coast launched D&D Insider at the same time. 

Unfortunately, software is not what Wizards of the Coast does best.  Rather then control the tools I think it would be a smarter move to create API’s to allow others to create the tools while controlling access to their intellectual property.  I believe having robust digital tools supporting D&D, even if they didn’t create all of them, would help fifth edition reach its full potential.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

D&D Basic is free, so how can I ask for more?

Mike Mearls revealed today that Basic D&D will be a freely downloadable PDF.  This is big news.  I thought it was genius when during the fourth edition Wizards of the Coast made the Keep on the Shadowfell module alongside the standalone character generator (which allowed you to create characters of levels 1-3 without a D&D Insider subscription) free downloads on their website.  It was a great gateway into the new edition for those who wanted to give it a try but weren’t ready to plunk down $35 a piece on the 4e Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual.

Obviously providing Basic D&D as a freely downloadable PDF is an even bigger deal.  According to Mearls’ post, “It runs from levels 1 to 20 and covers the cleric, fighter, rogue, and wizard, presenting what we view as the essential subclass for each. It also provides the dwarf, elf, halfling, and human as race options.”  Frankly, this is awesome.  It really lowers the barrier to entry for those that are even vaguely curious about the fifth edition.  When the price is free, if you are at all curious there is no real reason not to try it out!

So why am I disappointed about this?

Well, while I appreciate “Free as in Beer”, I really appreciate “Free as in Freedom”.

Nice, but not the best kind of free.

For those who are unfamiliar “Free as in Beer” versus “Free as in Freedom” (see also “libre” versus “gratis”) is used by the open source software community to explain the difference between “free software” which is built on closed source but given away free of charge and “free software” that has a license that allows others to build on what you created.

Since D&D 5e was first announced I wondered if there was going to be a license that would allow others to build upon it.  When D&D 3e came out, the most revolutionary thing about it were the Open Gaming License (OGL) and D20 license.  I could not believe that Wizards of the Coast had open sourced D&D!  With the D20 license, as long as you didn’t violate the terms anyone could create content compatible with D&D.  Perhaps more importantly, the OGL allowed an even greater variety games to be created from the same basic set of rules.

True, there was a lot of crap in the initial glut of material that was created after D&D 3e was released.  However, amazing games like Mutants and Masterminds and (much later) Pathfinder were a direct result of the freedom the OGL allowed.  There were also a variety of software tools, such as PCGen, which took advantage of this license.  It is amazing how much this license helped the hobby thrive.

Unfortunately, this may not seem like such a good thing from Wizards of the Coast’s point of view.   After all, one of their biggest competitors now is Pathfinder, a game that is really just a refinement of their own D&D 3e rules.  It must be hard to explain to the bean counters why another game company is outselling you with your own rule set.

There is really no reason to expect D&D 5e will have a license like the OGL.  No such license existed for AD&D 1e or 2e.  D&D 4e had a Game System License (GSL), but it was much more restrictive and much less used.  I get the feeling that Wizards of the Coast feels they gave away the crown jewels with the OGL and is determined not to make the same mistake again.

I cannot be sure whether or not the OGL was the best move for Wizards of the Coast.  However, I do feel it was good for the hobby, providing a robust base that people could build on.  As talented as the game designers at Wizards of the Coast are, they can’t fulfill every need.  Ultimately, I feel what is good for the hobby is good for D&D.  It may be hard to prove, but I don’t think it was a coincidence that D&D was at the top of the heap when the OGL reflected their most recent edition.

Of course, for all I know Wizards of the Coast will announce a liberal gaming license tomorrow and I will look like an idiot.  I tend to doubt it though.  I think Wizards of the Coast feels giving away D&D 5e Basic for free (as in beer) will be enough to keep their fans happy.  It is both a shrewd marketing decision and a genuinely nice move for the fans.  I even feel like a bit of a jerk complaining about it,  after all who doesn’t like free beer?

I guess I was just hoping for a bit more freedom.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Crazy Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. theory of the day

Maybe she already found mom and pop?So my wife has a theory about Skye.  The whole reason Skye joined up with our intrepid group of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents is because she wants to find out what happen to her parents and she runs into documents redacted S.H.I.E.L.D. whenever she gets close.

So what if Skye’s real parents are Agent Phil Coulson and Agent Melinda May?  The people who she thinks were her parents were just the people who adopted her and they were killed by someone who knew of Skye’s real parentage?

The evidence is admittedly pretty circumstantial: 

May and Coulson obviously have a history together, possibly a sexual history based off of May’s seemingly flirtatious comments in The Girl In The Flower Dress

Coulson was awfully quick to recruit Skye in the Pilot.  Similarly, he was pretty insistent that May join the team.

Chloe Bennet, the actress who plays Skye, is half-Chinese and half-Jewish.

Personally, I am still not convinced of this theory.  I just wanted to get it on the record though.  If it turns out to be true I am declaring my wife a genius!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Recap: FZZT


In Wrigley, Pennsylvania a group of off-brand Boy Scouts sit around a campfire telling ghost stories.  The scout leader claims to hear a buzzing sound and goes off to investigate.  The scouts assume he is just trying to scare them, until lighting starts arcing around and they hear him screaming in the woods.  When the scouts find the nerve to investigate, they find his body sparking and floating in the air.

Cool Graviton is back already!  Or maybe they just liked the effect.

On the Bus, Coulson is having his annual physical administered by Simmons.  Only, he is not due for his annual physical for several months.  When Simmons asks him about it, he blows it off saying his physical therapist asked him to get it.  This is obviously a lie.

Meanwhile Agent Ward tries out the most recent iteration of the ‘Nite-Nite’ gun, but complains to Fitz that it is an ounce too heavy.  When Ward leaves the room, an annoyed Fitz does a ‘macho man’ Agent Ward impression which amuses Skye.  Skye’s brief interest causes Fitz to awkwardly attempt to hit on her, which Skye doesn’t even seem to notice.

This mercifully comes to an end when Simmons enters the room.  When she hears Ward complained of the ‘Nite-Nite’ gun being an ounce off, she does her own ‘macho’ Agent Ward impression.  She is almost caught by Ward when he returns to let the group know they have a mission.  To cover herself, Simmons tells Ward that Fitz had left a dummy round in the ‘Nite-Nite’ gun and it should be the proper weight now. Ward tries it and agrees the weight problem is fixed.  When he leaves the group bursts into laughter.

In Wrigley, Pennsylvania the group investigates the (sort of) boy scout camp.  As the group tries to determine who or what could have done this, Simmons gets too close to the body and it falls to the ground after a brief electrical discharge.

With no more leads at the scout camp, it is up to Skye to research the victim.  Unfortunately, she finds nothing unusual about him.  In fact he is squeaky clean, dividing his time between his job as a physical education teacher, working as a volunteer fireman, and of course his scoutmaster duties.

They catch a break when Fitz detects an electrostatic event occurring no more than twenty miles from their current location.  May, Coulson, and Ward rush to the scene, but all they find is another corpse floating in a farmhouse.  Skye determines that this victim was a member of the same firehouse as the scoutmaster, giving the team their first solid lead.

It looks like a good one though as we cut to a member of the firehouse polishing a Chitauri helmet.

The firefighters were part of the first responders team during the Chitauri invasion of New York.  May, Coulson, and Ward head to the firehouse hoping to get some answers.  Coulson becomes suspicious of one of the firefighters, a man named Tony Diaz. 

However, the agents soon realize that it is not a weapon they are dealing with.  The firemen had picked up a discarded alien helmet as a souvenir during the Chitauri Invasion.  Unfortunately, the helmet contained an alien virus that had laid dormant until the three men polished it a few nights ago.  Tony isn’t a killer: he is the next victim.

When Simmons picks up readings of another electro-static event, Coulson realizes Tony doesn’t have much time.  He has the building evacuated but stays a bit longer himself.  He confides with Tony that he died briefly during the battle of New York.  He tells Tony there is something on the other side: something beautiful.  This seems to comfort Tony, who tells Coulson to ‘get going’ right before the end.

The firefighters are quarantined and the helmet is packed up to be delivered to the ‘Sandbox’, a S.H.I.E.L.D. facility in Africa for hazardous materials.  Coulson tells Simmons that the remaining firefighters may still need a cure, and tells her he needs her to keep looking for it.

So everything is wrapped up really nicely—and much sooner than usual.

But wait, there is more!  Back in the Bus, Simmons determines that this virus spreads not by the air or by fluid transfer, but via electrostatic shock.  She is ecstatic at this new scientific discovery, but when a metal instrument begins floating behind her Coulson realizes she was infected by the scoutmaster in the beginning.  With a profoundly sad look on his face, Coulson quarantines her the lab.

Based on when she was infected, Simmons only has an hour or two before she succumbs to the symptoms like the firemen did.  This is bad news as the bus is currently in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and at least three hours from someplace they can safely land.  If Simmons dies, the whole plane goes with her.  Coulson realizes the only person with a real chance of finding the cure in time is Simmons herself—and he is willing to bet his life that she will.

Of course S.H.I.E.L.D. is not willing to take this bet.  Communicating with headquarters, Agent Blake reminds Coulson that his priority is getting the helmet to the Sandbox.  S.H.I.E.L.D. has never seen anything like this virus and they have a potential pandemic on their hands.  Agent Blake coldly tells Coulson that if they have ‘infected cargo’ his orders are to jettison it.  Coulson claims that communications are breaking up and turns off the connection.

Fitz-Simmons work together on the cure, albeit separated by glass.  The stress of the situation begins to take its toll though and the two begin to argue with Fitz again complaining (again) about taking a field assignment while Simmons claims he didn’t have to follow her if he really didn’t want to go.  By the end of the argument they realize how much time they have spent together over the years and Fitz quietly demands that Simmons ‘fix this’.

Simmons has her eureka moment when she realizes the Chitauri who had the virus wasn’t killed by it.  This means the Chitauri had antibodies for the virus.  Fitz grabs the case containing the helmet and breaks quarantine by marching straight into the lab with it.

Scraping some cells off the helmet the two develop an antiserum.  Unfortunately, the lab rat they test it on soon emits an electrostatic pulse, just like the previous attempts, albeit smaller and with a slight delay.  Fitz is determined to try again, but Simmons realizes they are out of time.  Simmons asks Coulson to tell her father about her death first, then asks for some time alone with Fitz.  She uses this time to knock Fitz unconscious with a blow to the head.

When Fitz regains consciousness, he realizes the rat survived—it was merely knocked unconscious by the shock.  Unfortunately Simmons has already decided to sacrifice herself for the greater good.  Fitz can do nothing but scream her name as she opens the bay cargo doors and jumps.

Desperately, Fitz grabs the antiserum and a parachute.  Before Fitz can jump though, Ward shows up to take his place and save the day with a daring midair rescue in his typical James Bondian fashion.

After a dressing down by Coulson, Simmons confesses to Ward that she lied about the weight of the ‘nite-nite’ gun.  He already knew, and even heard her imitation of him.  Skye, just grateful Simmons is alive, gives her a big hug. 

Coulson and May talk about Simmons nearly dying, and the topic drifts to Coulson’s death.  He admits he ordered the physical himself—the tests may say he is normal but he no longer feels like himself.  May tells Coulson that he IS different after his near death experience.  May asks Coulson to see his scar and tells him that scars exist as reminders that there is no going back, only going forward.

Later, Simmons and Fitz have a heart to heart where she assures him that while he might not have been the one to jump out of the plane, he did save her life.

At the Sandbox, Agent Blake takes possession of the helmet and warns Agent Coulson that HQ won’t let him get away with disobeying direct orders forever.  If Coulson keeps pulling stunts like that, no matter what happen to him in New York, eventually they are going to take his little dream team away from him.  Coulson tells him that he would like to see them try.

Stray Thoughts

Since the final half-hour was so squarely focused on Agent Jemma Simmons, I found the fact that the episode was named FZZT a bit odd.  Do even the writers have trouble telling Fitz-Simmons apart?

This episode felt a bit like two separate episodes smushed together.  The first half was a pretty standard Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. ‘investigate the anomaly’ episode, while the second half was more of a character driven drama.  Since I enjoyed the second half more, I wish they had gotten past the setup and to the character drama a bit quicker.

Maybe it is just Joss Whedon’s reputation, but I actually wondered if Jemma Simmons was going to survive the episode.  It made for great drama, especially when the final attempt at an antiserum seemed to have failed.

There was also some good character work with Agent Coulson this week, which is impressive considering that he wasn’t the focus of the episode.  I also like how they are developing his relationship with Agent May.

Is it just me or did the dramatic skydiving rescue scene look a bit cheesy?

In Conclusion

A strong character episode.  It was nice to focus on a character other than Skye for awhile as well.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars