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May 30, 2011

Bored With It All

I used my last two RPG sessions, one with one gaming group and the other with another group, to come to a conclusion: I'm burned out (for now) on gaming.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the act of getting together with friends. I enjoyed the camaraderie and the shared experience. I enjoyed the effort each DM put into trying to make a good story and an interesting experience for me (and the other players). What I did not enjoy was playing Dungeons & Dragons. I also have not been enjoying my weekly online LOTRO gaming session with the group. And, when Atari failed to successfully launch a new D&D-based computer game and I couldn't download or get a boxed copy of, I was at first fairly annoyed but then I found I was more relieved than anything else.

All I can figure is that I am currently burned out on the "sword and sorcery" genre and need to take a break from it. It has happened before, where I just needed to get away from the game and the rules, plus all the additional things I do for the games, for a while and recharge the battery. I've never stopped playing the game for very long (a couple of years being the longest time off, but usually just a few months to a year off is all that is needed). I've played RPGs since the late 1970s and have only taken a few breaks here and there -- pretty much didn't play at all in junior high, again during and after college (a couple of game sessions only), and then again for about six months or so in the early 2000s. It is something I very much enjoy doing and is a great release, in general. But sometimes a feeling of lassitude and ennui creeps in and I just don't the same feelings from the game as I should or normally do.

It doesn't help that I take on added responsibilities during gaming. I frequently DM the games (although not recently), I usually wind up being the note-taker and journal keeper, and sometimes I do more. Those extra tasks may be adding to the overall burn out I'm feeling, even though they are tasks I enjoy doing and offer to do.

The thing is, I'm still interested in playing other games; I'm playing Champions Online a bit again, and enjoying that. I am interested in potentially playing other RPGs, something new and different (like super-heroes, horror, some sort of action genre even). It seems to really be simply the D&D/sword and sorcery stuff that is bogging me down and making me less than excited.

The one negative, as my wife rightly pointed out, is that this activity is one of the few I have that takes me out of the house and gets me out and about. Without it, I will be even more hermit-like. She's right that this isn't a good idea from that regard, but I also don't want to force myself to continue doing something when or if I'm only going through the motions; that doesn't help anyone either.

I am going to give it a few more days and then make a decision to inform my gaming groups on whether I will sit out for a while or determin if I can muddle along until my desire and passion for the game returns on its own. I don't want to be a stick-in-the-mud to my friends, but I also know that I don't want to force the play too hard and grow to hate the get-togethers simply because I'm not having the fun I should at the gaming.

May 22, 2011

Steroids... Who Cares?

There seems to be a disconnect between what is being said and what it means: another person has come forward claiming to have witnessed Lance Armstrong taking performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). There are a couple of things to keep in mind about this:
  1. The person did not come forward when questioned about it during the last person's attempt to discredit Armstrong. Why not?
  2. The person comes forward only when he has a book to sell.
  3. All of the "evidence" provided is, at best, hearsay, as opposed to the hundreds of blood and urine tests Armstrong has taken during his long cycling career.
In addition to the above, a contradiction comes up as regards the media and public's perception of PEDs in the sport of cycling: most report or believe that the vast majority of cyclists use PEDs. If that supposition is true then what difference does it make if Armstrong did too? Either he is naturally more gifted (even with cancer) than the best athletes in the world at that sport when they take PEDs or he was one of the majority who were using PEDs, the playing field was, therefore, level, and he still was the best.

It is true that Armstrong has made a life for himself outside of cycling based on the perception that he was a top athlete even after cancer. He gives many cancer patients and survivors hope that they, too, can overcome the debilitating disease and still be world-class in their own lives. If it turns out he did use PEDs, that image and legacy may be hurt, maybe irreparably. However, what shouldn't be ignored is the amount of time and money he has diverted toward cancer issues in an attempt to understand and cure the disease. Does the one overshadow the other?

I have a hard time with the fact that none of these assertions have ever come up except in two circumstances: a person is caught with a positive doping result and/or a person is writing a book about his career in cycling. In the first case, they seem to go with an "everybody is doing it, I was trying to keep up" defense and in the second case they simply need to sell books and making assertions about the most popular, most widely known name in the sport will do that. But those two reasons for making the claims seem to ignore the factual, scientific evidence of the actual blood results. Until someone has undoctored video of Armstrong talking about, using, buying, or providing steroids or other PEDs, I'm not going to believe it.

May 7, 2011

Dungeons & Dragons

I've been playing 4th Edition of the Dungeons & Dragons (DnD) roleplaying game for three years now. That means I've also spent the last three years listening to and reading about how inferior this edition is to everything else.

Most of these discussions amount to people who have not read or played the new version talking trash about it. I can tell by what they say very quickly if they have any real knowledge of this edition of the game because many are saying things that simply are not true of the game.

I've played DnD since my friend Dennis Cole invited me over to play with him, his brother, and his brother's friend one summer afternoon in 1978. I've played the Red Box edition, the Blue Box edition, Advanced DnD (or Second Edition), 3.0, 3.5, Pathfinder's derivation (which many consider to be "3.75"), and now 4th Edition. And by that I mean I actually played multiple sessions, multiple characters, was both a dungeon master (DM) and a player for each of those editions.

In each of the previous editions there were areas that either hindered new people joining the game or that didn't make sense to the system itself:
  1. Class/Race parity. From the original editions (that used a combat system called Chainmail as its foundation) through to 3.5 (and still plagues 3.75 to a strong degree), certain classes start weaker and, if they survive, become horribly overpowered while others started stronger and quickly were overshadowed. In terms of playing the game, you would start as a fighter and be kicking butt and taking names while keeping your friend's wizard alive (he would cast his one or two spells and then be useless for the rest of the session). But then around level 5 that started changing and by about level 8 your fighter was pretty much the wizard's lackey, used only to keep things physically off the character while the wizard destroyed the enemies, opened the locked doors, teleported the party around, and summoned creatures that were your superior in every fighting category. There was no balance and it was hard to pretend that you were a viable, helpful part of the party for half or more of the game.
  2. Mechanical complexity. The mechanics were notoriously complex. THAC0, Armor Class, hit matrices, weapon speeds, and spell casting all used different rules and different mechanics to get a result. This turned off a lot of potential players, who just didn't get it. On the other side, it made those who did get it even more clique-ish about the game. When new editions came out, those geeks were very upset with the changes and vowed to never play them because they "ruined" the game.
  3. Roleplaying versus Roll playing. Some people played to roll dice, kill monsters, get loot, and level up (roll players). Others played because they saw the chance to invest themselves in the drama of the game (roleplayers), to become, if only for a few hours, that big, strong barbarian or that elfish wizard, or whatever. But these folks had many restraints; if you played a dwarf, you distrusted elves, were miserly (to the point of hording), and loved beer and precious metals above all other things. If you played outside of that, you were some sort of rogue, bucking the rules and going against the common understanding of the races (or classes) for everyone else playing the game. For a long time, it seemed like you were playing with a group of roll players or roleplayers, and never the two should meet.
  4. Class roles. Although it was never explicitly stated in previous editions, each of the classes fell into generalized roles within the group as people played them. The cleric and bard would typically be healing and buffing the party. The Wizard would typically do damage or control/debuff the enemy. The rogue, ranger, barbarian and certain other melee classes and sorcerers would do a lot of melee or ranged damage, but not have the ability to survive return blows. Fighters, paladins, and certain other melee classes would typically have the armor class and hit points to withstand a lot of damage, so would try to keep enemies focused on them. This is why the standard class makeup of a party was considered Fighter, Wizard, Cleric, Rogue.
  5. Healing/health. In early editions of the game, characters had few hit points and healing magic was incredibly rare. It led to a lot of needless deaths and people literally bringing multiple character sheets to each sessions so they would always have a player to play when the current one died. In more recent editions, healing was better but still the domain of only a few classes. This led to a large portion of party wealth going toward health magic and/or resurrection magic.
Even with all of these issues, the game was still fun for me to play at each iteration because, at its core, the game is about getting together with friends for a few hours and experiencing a medieval world with sword, sorcery, and heroics. It's about creating a shared story of the world and adventures the DM creates and the characters the players use to interact with that world.

Along comes 4th Edition, which sets as its goal to eliminate those problems, which plagued each previous edition in greater or smaller ways, and continues to plague the so-called 3.75 of Pathfinder. And, as one who has played and DMed each of these editions, I can tell you they mostly succeed.

Yes, those who prefer the specific complexities of whichever edition is their favorite deplore that the rules are simpler and easier for a new person to grasp, but the point is that new people can pick it up more easily. In addition, there are still complexities in the game but they just are not as obvious as, say the complexity of THAC0. So, really, it comes down to the elitism of your knowledge of the edition you prefer versus a game that doesn't require the same level of elitism. This turns off a lot of geeks, who like to lord their knowledge of complex, esoteric things over those without that knowledge.

As we have two people who are knew to RPGs in general and are specifically new to 4th edition, I can tell you it has been relatively easy for them to pick it up and be vital, worthwhile members of the team.

4th Edition does have its complexities, too; they now lie in character creation and optimizing what and how your character does what he does; by getting powers to work together with feats and magic items to give incredible bang for your buck.

4th Edition also allows each character to be useful at each level (so far). Wizards no longer have the same huge spell list they had before, but the spells they do have they can use more often. Fighters have abilities that keep scaling with the encounters, so in my group that is level 9, my barbarian still feels completely viable, worthwhile, and distinct from the wizard. It is still in my best interests to keep the wizard alive, but it is not my sole focus any more; the wizard can withstand some blows, can fight back on his own, and I can still take on the creatures the party is combating with my own character's abilities.

In previous editions, your fighting characters (barbarian, fighter, paladin, ranger, monk, etc.) pretty much had the choice of a) swing their sword, b) use their bow/crossbow, or c) do nothing. Rinse and repeat for each round of combat. They would, over time, get Feats and maybe even some limited spell use to add in, but for the most part they swung their sword and stood between the bad guys and the mages in the party and got hit a lot. It would take many levels before they could attack multiple creatures or do anything really special with their attacks. Now, however, melee characters have choices. You may take powers that give you defensive bonuses, or that move you around the battlefield or heal you (or your compatriots) or attack with special effects. You can use a power that attacks one creature, or one that attacks multiple creatures.

In those same previous editions, a wizard would cast his one or two spells, and then be virtually useless as a mage until the party slept for the night. In each edition, they alleviated this and gave the mages more they could do earlier. But the problem was that doing so led the mage to suddenly become very powerful early in the game and make non-spell casting characters useless later. In 4th, your mage character has two "at-wills" that he can use all the time, every round, every encounter. He has first one, and then more than one, power he can use once every encounter, which are more powerful than the at-wills. And he has one power (and later more than one) that he can only use once a day which are even more powerful still. So, in every combat, the mage starts with a minimum of three powers he can use, two of which can be used every round, as opposed to previous edition mages casting their one Sleep spell or Magic Missile, and then getting to (badly) use a bow or a staff or a dagger and hope they survive until they can sleep and recover their spell for the next day.

In 4th edition, they have taken the concept of what each class is designed to do (including classes in all the previous editions) and have assigned a role to them. So, you have Leaders, Defenders, Strikers, and Controllers. Leaders are those who have abilities that primarily focus on helping the party (healing, buffing). Defenders have abilities primarily focused on protecting the party and keeping enemies focused on them over other party members. Strikers have abilities primarily focused on doing a lot of damage, either in melee or via spell or ranged attacks. And Controllers have abilities primarily focused on affecting or debuffing the enemies. This is just the primary focus of the class. Each class has the ability to do damage, each has access to abilities that may be classified in a different role. And there are plenty of classes that sit on the fence between two (or more) roles. Many 4th Ed detractors say that this makes it too much like a video game. This comment makes me chuckle, because DnD has had this setup since the 1970s and current video games were simply the first to codify it as a role. It seems a natural progression for the game to make it official after 40 years.

In 4th edition, they have made healing simpler. Each class has a number of Surges, or ways to heal itself. Most of these surges are designed to be used between encounters, to keep the party moving forward along the story/adventure. However, they can use one (and only one) of those surges in an encounter without outside assistance. This is called a Second Wind. All Leaders have a healing power they can use twice per encounter (three times at higher levels) which allows a character to access a surge. This is the rough equivalent of a heal potion or a Cure spell from previous editions. On top of this, many classes have access to powers that may allow them to access more surges during combat. For example, my barbarian at level 9 has a few abilities that allow him to use one of his surges or to gain temporary hit points so he can stay in the combat dealing damage. Most Leaders have powers that increase or add to the amount of healing they can do in a combat. In the end, it is the rough equivalent of the same amount of healing (maybe slightly more at lower levels, but slightly less at higher levels) that the average party in previous editions would have having a cleric's healing spells plus each character carrying healing potions, wands, and scrolls. And to those who complain that "healing is too easy/accessible" in 4th edition, I know from experience that if you want to kill a party as a DM, you still can and easily. I've seen it happen both as a DM and as a player.

The last thing the creators of 4th edition did was revamp the "fluff" text about each class and, importantly, race, so that there is more room for roleplaying. They limited the fluff text so that you and those you play with can use the small foundation to build a house of your choosing. For example, the section on dwarfs is now only a few paragraphs long and speaks mostly in generalities. Also, since all races can now be any class, you can play a godly dwarven paladin as easily as a sneaky, cutthroat dwarven rogue. The same is true for all of the races and classes-- you no longer have to be Lawful Good in order to play a paladin, and all races can become a paladin. However, it may be true that the rules mechanics for a particular race may make it more suited to particular classes than to others.

When you consider the rules the creators added to help the DM in making encounters and quickly scaling events up or down, the changes to magic items to make them simpler and more useful to a character, and the way the game was opened up to allow DMs the latitude to create the world from and races from the simple fluff text they provided, with as much or as little nuance as they need, fourth edition seems to be the culmination of the game. It makes me wonder why a small but vocal minority of geek culture is so against it.

In the end, the main goal of the game remains the same -- to sit together with your friends for a few hours and enjoy a shared story-telling session and have fun. If you insist that you cannot do that with 4th edition, that's fine with me, but can you at least stop posting your hatred of it in chat rooms and on boards devoted to those who actually enjoy the system?