Friday, January 13, 2012
Shadows over Camelot ... old school vs. new school ... 5th ed craze
Really old school D&D in terms of weak starting characters is actually quite well suited to 11 and 12 year olds. It teaches them many things about being leery of just rushing headlong in when perhaps a little caution is warranted, etc. its good for problem solving, etc. as well ... players get rewarded for avoiding conflict, for being creative and overcoming difficulties through guile, etc.
People complain about how low level characters are very weak in old school games, and I don't disagree there I have long said that myself. But having seen the other side of the coin where characters feel so powerful at low level that it doesn't reflect the genre but is rather more like a video game ... I also hear that too. I think more and more with D&D the only interest left with the game for me is nostalgia. The newer stuff is just too much like a video game and therefore ... for me anyway ... dull. Why actually not just go play WoW? One can argue as I have for years ... well anything face to face/tabletop is superior to video games right. I guess, if that is the only critera. Why not just play Monopoly then or a card game? That excuse only goes so far ... tabletop gaming should be good on its own. The games we choose to play go a long way towards making that a reality. Clearly a good group can make mediocre stuff fun and a bad group can take the best of games off a cliff.
For me though I've come to focus more and more on the social interactions within RPGs. What is it that is bringing us as a group into the game, what motivates us to want to play week after week. If we don't want good social interactions between characters, why the hell are we doing and RPG? Why don't we play 40K or Warmachine then? I guess that my take as someone who does mini games, board games and RPGs though. For the RPG only guys I guess that thought doesn't even register. To me the social interactions within D&D just aren't good due to the rules. If they are good it is because the players themselves have learned to role play their characters well. So what one might say. Well the big so what is ... what about a new player ... what about people who are playing a character outside of their comfort zone or something. Not having solid rules that facilitate good social interaction in the game means those people are going to get hung out to dry.
So more on the D&D as a cooperative board game concept. If we take that route then its ok that D&D isn't designed to maximize social interactions, its designed to provide a combo heavy, video game like, tactical miniatures game. Even here, being a mini game fan, 3.0-4e era D&D kinda suck as tactical skirmish games, the games are just too complex ... balanced in places way unbalanced in others. Also to me if they wanted to make a good tactical skirmish game, why didn't they just do that on the side? God I'd have loved to have seen that WoTC making a small skirmish game that could be used along side the RPG if people wanted. That would have been great. They didn't do that though, the smashed the MMO based 3.0 pen and paper game all together ... tactical skirmish boardgame stuff with an odd role playing game.
Along these lines I have long said that 4e was the most "honest" representation of what it was grid era D&D is. To me ... that version (at least pre-essentials I honestly haven't played essentials era 4e at all) plays better in terms of being a fun fantasy based tabletop game than did 3.0-Pathfinder stuff.
Ok to the Shadows Over Camelot part, if 3.0-4e are just going to be more like board games than RPGs I really wish they played more like an endless Shadows Over Camelot. That could be rather interesting, perhaps even more satisfying than the current versions of the game. Sadly they don't though. The newer versions of D&D are a matter of players combing books to find the most powerful combos and DMs focusing on encounters rather than story. Even there I'd say ok your going to make a board game/minis skirmish game ... so why not just boil the game down to Descent? Just an honest to goodness dungeon crawl/grid based combat miniatures centric board game where players kick down doors and slay monsters for loot. Done and done. Put out some minis, some tile sets, and focus 100% on good mini based combat.
Rather than talk about the minis and combat heavy stuff though my overall point and theme here is "why can't D&D play more like a good game of Shadows Over Camelot? Because Shadows ... for a board game anyway ... really creates great social interaction between players! For those who haven't played that game ... I highly recommend it.
Shadows is a cooperative board game. It can be a very fun, casual, experience ... the game is by no means a masterpiece of game design mechanically. Conceptually though I really like how it works. The group is playing as the knights of Camelot including King Aruthur. The kingdom is beset by barbarians, quests for the grail, Excalibur, Lancelot's armor all must be undertaken all while a hidden traitor operates in the midst of the group. Mechanically the game is rather simplistic, it involves D6s and cards with a board with pieces for various things. The point for me though is how the group interacts, how people pull together to overcome the challenge of the game. The game itself brings players together to choose how they'll overcome what the game is throwing at them. Granted even in shadows, combat is the only way .. in a matter of speaking. Knights have to go quest. I guess there is the option to stay at Camelot and draw card, so we'll call that one of the lone non-combat actions. So even in a board game, with mostly only combat to choose from, a better mechanic for creating social interaction and group decisions is had. Shadows has some actual RP elements to it in that there is the traitor in the midst of the group (though in the newbie games you can run the game without a traitor, not nearly as fun IMO). The traitor element of course isn't very typical for the D&D analogy, though as I think about it ... the DM would be facilitating that sort of stuff. So the DM side of things is the traitor stuff. But honestly anymore most games of D&D aren't even as good as a good game of Shadows Over Camelot. I say that, group not withstanding, as we all know a great group can take any game to amazing places, but the average gaming group isn't "great" and the poor guys stuck with gaming at stores, well they don't even get an "average" group to work with. The average group has the flaky guy who can't show up all the time, the grumpy guy who is going through a divorce, the power gamer guy, the girlfriend who is only half heartedly playing, the DM who just wants to tell her story and not be bothered with what players want, the stoner dude who is half baked when he shows up, the fanboy who despite not being the GM owns every book, module, etc. and has a penchant for correcting the DM every five minutes, etc. etc. so you plop that reality in the middle of a big, fat, miniatures, markers, tiles, several rulebook, complex system and expect these people to make stuff out of it, for 20 levels of play. Huh?? What?? Why!!! I'd love to see them scrap all this crap and start over, but we all know that won't happen. There are legions of loyal 3.0 era fans who have figured out how to make things with the current systems work and like it all just fine. To be honest it wouldn't be fair to those folks to just dump all this stuff in the trash. So what is WoTC to do? 4e is a boardgame style game now, love it, hate it, be indifferent to it ... that is the reality ... so from my perspective the best we can hope for is more board game style.
So overall ... realistically looking at where D&D has gone and where it could possibly go I think if they get things right 5th D&D will play more like a good game of Shadows Over Camelot and less like Descent. It certainly shouldn't play like a video game, nor should it play like a game of chess, or magic the gathering.
What D&D is in the post 3.0 era is more players coming up with powerful combos and focusing on that first and foremost. I feel this represents a serious break from what it is that makes D&D. If Bill and Jim have rediculously powered up characters and Betty and Jake have ho-hum run of the mill characters and you have an average DM who is just trying to hold things together. Just from the get go there might be some problems. To me that is sort of a design flaw. For some groups, with people who love math-hammering up their characters, pouring over books, tweaking, fiddiling, and sadly in some cases creating characters that are better than other players characters so they get ... what ... more attention ... feel superior? Ok ... umm ... I guess if that is what floats their boats. Sadly that last bit there though tears these systems in half IMO.
I'm sure the min-max types of folks love 3.0-4e era D&D ... because in that respect there is no real alternative to that kind of a game. However for casual players (which would include most new players) jumping into this mix can be quite a jarring experience. I've seen this in my own groups several times. I have never been one to play D&D at a store, in fact in all the years of D&D I've played I've never played a game in a store. I've played many games at gaming cons though. So I'm less well versed in public games, but I've never seen how the newer versions of D&D were very new player friendly. I cite as my prime example of this ... WoTCs decision to roll out the Essentials line.
To me though this bespeaks my point ... player characters themselves have become too complex and this complexity doesn't increase social interaction, it decreases it. There are far too many moving parts, that don't improve social interaction between characters, in fact these moving parts do more to divide the players to push them away from each other, towards over specialization, towards solo-combat monster type characters. How is that good for a game that is supposed to be about a group coming together to have fun? I know for sure some groups have great fun with 3.0/3.5/Pathfinder/4e. I myself had months and months of great fun with 4e. So I'm not saying it is impossible, we all found a way to make it work didn't we! To our great credit. But I think for everyone who has enjoyed these games many people have quickly burnt out, become disillusioned, bored, frustrated. You can see that online, you can see that in many groups with players choosing to drop the game, DMs giving up, etc. All of that can't be blamed on the game, that is people, that is modern internet age life. But a part of this stuff I think comes down to the games themselves. I think the decision to make very complex combats and move the rules for PCs entirely towards combat has flavored or colored the game in that direction. Sure DMs can house rule up stuff, they can add in things, make skill challenges ... erm ... more about actually using intellect and creativity vs. just rolling a D20. But even in Pathfinder and 3.5 the way the game is slanted towards combat, towards conflict as the first method to resolve things. That is what you get you get a game that is all about combat, and everything else is an afterthought.
It is so bad this is how the average D&D player I've encountered in my quest to find a new gaming group approaches the game. Kick down the door, attack, and ask questions later. Why? Years of 3.0-4e era gaming. Players get rewarded for that behavior and when a DM runs a game otherwise, in my opinion they are kinda being a dick. That isn't how the rules are truly written, the rules themselves slant heavily towards combat. Many might ask ... "well isn't that the point" ... and if they do they just prove my point. Certainly that has always been part of the game, you have always wanted to delve into that dungeon, slay the vile monsters, recover the wondrous treasure! Along the way though the game became so much more than that and then ... that so much more was lost.
That in my opinion happened somewhere towards the end of 2nd edition and things have never been the same. Does that make me an OSR guy? I don't know. I'm coming to grips with that ... perhaps ... but even there I don't play 1st edition, I don't know if I even like 1st edition anymore. Like I've said other than having an eventual plan to do some OSR stuff for my kids in a few years, I don't see much potential for that in my own gaming group. So its probably irrelevant.
I do empathize with those who have had angst regarding the newer versions of D&D. Having played alot of the new stuff and come to this point there are some very big structural problems with D&D anymore and I don't know if they can be overcome. WoTC has led many people down a different path and I just don't see how those people are going to want to come back. So if 5th edition is going to really "re-unite" even portions of the divergent D&D fanbase they are really going to have to smash together some odd and very conflicting game elements. While some are saying that is impossible ... I think Shadows Over Camelot to me shows that at least for a single session you can have at least some of these mixed elements together. Granted shadows is no true "grid style" miniature combat game. The player pieces in the game are simply markers to denote what activity the given player is engaged in. But I think there is a lesson to be learned from that game.
Who knows though its all idle conjecture at this point ... until we see some concrete details on what WoTC is planning who the hell knows ...
Time will tell ... something tells me that we are heading towards more of the same and even less sanity though ...