Welcome to RPG Ravings [RR]

While not as catchy as Zubon’s Tabletop Tuesday, I will admit it took me half a cup of coffee to forsake Tabletop [RPG] Thursday and get another mildly catchy title. I’ve noticed that a lot of MMO players, especially bloggers, at least understand the concept of pen-and-paper role-playing games (RPGs). I know a lot of us also frequent the fabled rpg.net, which is the hub for that niche of geek. So to get more posts on KTR, I’m going to branch out on Thursdays to write about pen-and-paper or tabletop RPGs.

Let’s start with the granddaddy of RPGs, Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). Or rather, let’s not. Tobold has been talking about D&D Next for awhile, and I’d rather talk about something we have. Let’s talk about the children of D&D 3.5.

D&D 3 and 3.5 was the contemporary high-mark for Dungeons and Dragons. It was an attempt not only to fix years of mechanical pork that had clogged D&D Second Edition’s arteries, but it also tried a pretty revolutionary concept of opening up the copyright (Open Gaming License, or OGL) so that anybody could create publishable, profitable supplements for it. D&D’s owner – Wizards of the Coast (WotC) – would profit because the license prohibited publishing certain D&D system details that could only be found in the core books. And, it worked and was good, for a time.

The first child of D&D 3.5 was D&D 4th edition, which was D&D completely reinventing itself in views of things like MMOs and the current video game RPGs. The game really boiled down to balanced combat, and everything about the system seemed to be aimed at the progression of leveling, loot, and monsters. In the high-brow lexicon of RPG geeks it was very “gamist”. A gamist RPG is just a few steps from board games like HeroQuest. There’s a bucket list of problems, but it ended with WotC’s lack of support and decision to move on to D&D Next (coming this summer). This child of D&D 3.5 overdosed in its studio when its parents cut the “art” funding.

The golden boy of the family is Pathfinder. Pathfinder looked at its parents and decided that it should follow their good life. It did not want to be “gamist”; it wanted to be more “simulationist” just like its dad. Pathfinder is essentially D&D 3.5, Version 2, and it is mostly compatible with all the vast D&D 3.5 materials, which is a huge benefit since we all love backwards compatibility. Whereas D&D4 turned its back on OGL and that ilk, Pathfinder embraced it all. Good and bad parts came from D&D 3.5, including things like meta-gaming mechanics for the best class/party compositions. I will admit that in the D&D lot, Pathfinder is most popular at the moment, and Paizo is really pushing the brand as a whole.

My favorite is 13th Age, which is the youngest son of D&D 3.5. This child was conceived after D&D4’s “death” by the lead designer of D&D4 (Heinsoo) and lead designer of D&D3 (Tweet). They took an indie approach to what-makes-D&D. The combat blurs more towards “gamist” than Pathfinder, but it retains its roots in D&D 3.5. The best part about 13th Age is they decided to add a really healthy dose of “narrativist” to the game system. After all – incoming, horribly overused pun – we are ROLE-playing and not just ROLL-playing*. The system is also incredibly helpful for an overworked GM because it simplifies many things on the GM’s end as well, such as monster attacks and skill challenges. Plus I have been really impressed with Pelgrane Press’s support.

Next week I will break down why 13th Age is my favorite son of D&D 3.5. I’d love to hear more “reviews” of any progeny of D&D 3.5 below, or even what is coming with D&D Next.


*as in just roll the dice. Sigh.

9 thoughts on “Welcome to RPG Ravings [RR]”

  1. I’d like to start out by saying that I’m really happy you’re going to write this column. I actually really enjoy TTRPGs, and I’ve studied/read/played several of them quite a bit. There are so many different kinds of them with so many different goals in their designs that I find it a fascinating subject to delve in on! So without further ado, here goes a likely over-long reply to your first post!

    I’m going to come out and say it- 4th edition, by the end of its lifetime, was my favorite edition of DnD to date (including pathfinder, but more on that later). I’ll wait while people go find their pitchforks or tomatoes. I understand that this makes me something of a pariah to many RPG fans. While I don’t in any way believe that 4e is for everyone (no system is), nor do I have issues with people that don’t like it, I feel that of all the editions of DnD 4e is one that is commonly the most maligned by catch-phrase criticisms and most often has its supporters attacked via ad-hominem. To be clear, I’m not saying that you’ve done so, but I did notice a few of the catch-phrases that I see so commonly.

    “A gamist RPG is just a few steps from board games like HeroQuest.” This was actually the line that bothered me the most. I’m an unashamed gamist (and narrativist) in terms of game preferences/design, and in the TTRPG world that is easily the most maligned of the Gamist/Narrativist/Simulationist (GNS) triangle. Hell, even the wikipedia article feels like it’s written by a classic simulationist with regard to how they describe gamism. I guess I’ll define what I mean by the terms.

    Gamists- “We’re playing a game, the rules of the game should be fun.” Essentially, what it boils down to is that most gamists prefer a fun and consistent system of rules to establish the game they are playing. They/we are more likely to prefer the system to be more or less balanced in scope of power and choices, arguing that if we are playing a game it’s not particularly fun to get trapped with terrible options just because “that makes sense realistically”. We’re playing a game in a made-up world, I want to be able to play the kind of character I want without being screwed by “realism” in a world where we’re flinging around fireballs.

    Take melee vs ranged vs spellcasting in most simulationist games: Melee requires strength (and rarely Dex, and usually only with additional investment of resources such as feats), ranged takes Dex, Spellcasting takes the mental stat of your choice (Charisma, Wisdom, Intelligence). If you like playing what are commonly called “gish” classes, i.e. classes which mix magic and melee or ranged prowess, you are almost always at a disadvantage because you have to split your stats just for making attacks, and often you have to split your levels/classes/skills just to even approach the effectiveness of a single-concept character. Simulationists would say “That makes sense, because how does swinging your sword make any sense with anything other than strength? Also learning both magic and melee prowess is logically difficult, so you should be handicapped at doing it because you can “do more things”.” The way 4e handled this was of course by class and power design. Bards can cast some spells, but also mix things up in melee, but all of their attacks use charisma. Because each class’ abilities are unique to them, it can be perfectly balanced to allow one class to have access to both ranged and melee abilities and use only one stat because the whole class package is what is balanced compared to other class packages. How does it “make sense” to use charisma for melee? Well shit, I don’t know, you’re imbuing your sword with magic (hence your casting stat), so that’s what you use. Honestly, I don’t care, because it means I can actually play a class that plays how I like without being “arbitrarily handicapped” by needing multiple stats, and still be actually balanced. And that’s what makes me a gamist.

    Narrativists- “We’re playing a game to tell/experience a story.” Basically, narrativists want systems that enable them to tell a good story regardless of “making perfect sense” or “balance”. They prefer rules that allow and take into account ideas like “Rule of Cool”. Typically narrativist systems are much lighter on character and world rules and give more structure into the way to tell the story itself. This one is actually pretty hard to describe quickly, but I suppose I would consider FATE to be a mostly narrativist system. You actually start your character by creating self-made “aspects”, like “Muscles for brains” or “Wizard Private-eye” or “Brash and impulsive”. The player can then invoke those aspects for bonuses during appropriate situations.

    Simulationists- “We’re playing a game in a world, and that world should make sense.” Simulationism is essentially built on the premise that the world and story could and would function the same if there were no PC’s present at all. PC’s typically follow the same rules for creation and abilities as NPCs/monsters. There is a focus on “realism”. That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be magic by any means. What it means is that you should establish a world in which magic is present and has rules (whatever those may be), and the world accurately reflects the fact that magic is present (and makes sense when extended). For example, if a level 1 spell could provide food for an entire town of people and cost little-to-nothing, then logically hunger should not be a concern in that setting unless access to that spell or class was so rare that it’s unimaginable that there are more than a handful of them across the world.

    As I eluded to earlier, this very frequently comes into conflict with gamism with regards to class balance, stats, and combat. A simulationist has no problems with a high level wizard basically always being able to demolish a high level fighter because a fighter is bound by physics and a wizard is bound by imagination.

    Simulationists essentially like to see the interactions between logical and coherent systems within a world to see the interesting results they may create. Balance is only tangentially important because “life isn’t fair.”

    So getting back to the point at hand about “gamist games are basically board games”, that’s really not true. The insinuation is typically that we don’t care about role-playing, socializing (in game), that we just want to hack and slash through dungeon after dungeon. There are, indeed, a portion of gamists who do like this, but there are likewise many simulationists who do as well. They’re mentioned in just about every DMG under the archetype of “slayers”. Tobold covered it well where he said “The idea is that you don’t *need* rules for role-playing, thus if you want to run a city adventure with a murder mystery and no combat at all, you can. The books don’t talk a lot about that, but that is because the philosophy is that rules books don’t have a lot to say in that sort of situation.”

    Blah, holy shit this is getting long already, and I have so much more to say in defense of 4e. I could go on forever about the beauty of how well it handled abstraction and refluffing, but alas I suppose that should be for another time. Scratch that, screw it, it’s talking time I guess.

    So this part isn’t really at all about what you posted, but is in response to the “review your favorite children of 3.5”. As I said in the brief previous paragraph, 4e handles the concepts of refluffing and abstraction better than any other system I’ve seen. What do I mean by that? Well, because 4e had a uniform power stucture, and very strict multiclassing, and allowed things like mental stats to be used for melee attacks, it is perfect for abstraction. That is, the concept that the rules are merely a framework of what abilities are balanced when taken in conjunction with one another. Unlike the much more freeform nature of classes, feats, and abilities of other editions, the introduction and conformity of powers meant that the “flavor” of a class was not mandatory. You could play a class that you enjoyed *mechanically* and flavor it to something you liked fluff wise.

    A perfect example is the warlock. I love shifty types of mages, using illusions, stealth, trickery, and guile. I also love mobility. I love charisma based characters. In 4e, this is a perfect match for the Fey Pact Warlock. You know what I hate? The idea of selling your soul for power in a world in which there is 100% known facts about the afterlife. It’s stupid. Nobody in their right mind would ever sell their eternal soul for the amount of power that any DnD warlock has ever had (because in order to make it worth it you’d have to be so overpowered it wouldn’t even be fun). I just hate it. Luckily, 4e *doesn’t care* if you refluff it. I could call myself a witch, or a wizard, or I could be simply adopted and raised by fae and learned their magic. The point is, those are all *story* concepts, and there don’t need to be rules for every single one of them, nor do you need to be handicapped by terrible rules bound to a story concept.

    If, mechanically, I like the mechanics of humans but the fluff of dwarves, 4e allows you to easily play a “human” on your character sheet, but roleplay as actually being a dwarf. Mechanically, this would mean that anything I took had to be compatible with humans because that is the framework I am using balance-wise, but in all ways story related I am a dwarf. There are feats that would be balanced for humans, but not for dwarves, so they have a pre-requisite of being human. That means I could take those feats, but not dwarf feats, because mechanically I am human.

    Essentially, the abstract nature of the system could be described in much more generic, non-fantasy terms. You have races X, Y, and Z. You have feats A, B, and C. X may be able to take feats A and B, but not C. Y may only be able to take C. Z may be able to take A and C, but not B. The races each have mechanical numbers, and the feats have mechanical effects that are balanced around their restrictions. Then you “skin your desired character fluff-wise” onto that skeleton, and the game is balanced regardless of how you choose to describe it.

    To many, especially simulationists, this is antithetical to logic. To gamists, this is IMO one of the purest expressions of excellent gamism. You can tell any story you want with that framework, with any characters, lives, stories, and the game will function in a fun and balanced manner. To simulationists, they would say “but the *whole point* of races and classes is that a name has a specific set of characteristics, just like humans have 2 legs and 2 arms, that spiders have 8 eyes”.

    At the outset of 4e, there were not enough options, and combat was too much about several large bags of hit points slowly grinding away at each other. These are fair and true criticisms. Fortunately, later on in the later Monster Manuals, they vastly upped the damage and abilities of monsters and lowered their hit points. There ended up being a *huge* quantity of customizable classes and abilities that could cover just about any playstyle you could imagine.

    Again, I totally get that many don’t like it, and that’s perfectly fine, but I think that it did some really interesting and fantastic things if it clicked for you. As a final note, I actually love a lot of the stuff that 13th age did, I just wish it had more support (i.e. more options), but those come with time. It’s still relatively new.

    1. Like I said on Twitter, my experience with 4e was limited to a single session. I liked it, but our gaming group are not huge DnD players… currently Earthdawn, last game was Spirit of the Century, but I’ve thrown in a few 13A one shots.

      I think we are akin on the GSN triangle. I love 13A for example for it’s skills. A brilliant blend of G and N. But, I probably have a slighter narrativist bent. I’d prefer handwaving over rules, regardless of fluff changes. It’s why my favorite games are White Wolf games, but that’s going to be awhile in this column.

      Anyway, to the main issue… I wasn’t insinuating anything with “gamist”. It’s not a dirty word. Heck, I think simulationists are weirder in my book. BUT, gamist games, IMHO, tend to lead players more towards roll-playing than role-playing. DnD 4e CAN be played as a [fun] board game. Vampire the Requiem cannot.

      Just like HeroQuest can be played with a role-playing bent.

      The corners are set. It is the shades in between that are interesting.

      1. Yeah, I knew you didn’t really mean any offense by it. I think this summed it up perfectly: “DnD 4e CAN be played as a [fun] board game.” is often rephrased (by people that hate 4e) as “DnD 4e IS JUST a board game with no role playing.” Also, as to gamist systems leading to roll playing, I’d argue that both gamist and simulationist definitely can tend to move that direction, whereas kind of the entire point of narrativism is antithetical to that.

        Also, as an addendum, something I failed to mention that I loved the most about 4e is that it’s the only edition of DnD I’ve played that DOESN’T break down at high levels, either logically, mechanically, or both. That’s definitely something I value as both a DM and a player, the idea that you don’t have to worry about or get into arguments about fundamentally destroying the entire campaign on accident.

        It doesn’t sound like you’ve played it, but have you ever heard of dungeon world? It’s a pretty small indie game that is almost 100% narrativist. I have had a couple of games with some of the designers of the game at PAX, and they way they did the adventure was mind-blowing: both the players and the DM were the authors of the setting and the adventure. For example, we started out something like this:

        DM- Do the four of you know each other?
        Us- Yes.
        DM- How do you know each other? Have you worked other jobs together? Did you meet by chance? Grow up together?
        Us- uh…. I grew up with Ravious, but we met Mrs. Ravious along the way.
        DM- Alright. You’ve been contacted to recover a mystical artifact. Tell me, what is this artifact called, and what does it do?
        Us- uh…. it’s a magical rattle, and it causes rainfall.
        DM- Alright, well, as it so happens, this artifact is integral to the farming community in this area. In recent months it has become arid and barren. You’ll be setting out from a coastal city. Tell me, what’s it called?
        Us- Duckland.
        DM- Alright. How are you going to set out, and how are you going to discover the location of this artifact?


        He had specific plot concepts in mind that he wanted, but the details were collaborative. Skills were mostly generic, used to give mechanical tools for just about anything you would try. You roll 2d6, add a modifier (if any), and you get one of three results based on the range you rolled. 1-6 = You failed spectacularly, 7-9 = you succeed, but not quite as well as you hoped/there is a consequence, and 10+ = you succeed, possibly spectacularly. This concept was applied to any time you might need to roll for something, be it socially, combat wise, making a physical maneuver, etc.

        The system has some issues, but overall its wildly fun for one-shots or very infrequent session campaigns. Seems like you’d enjoy it.

        1. Yeah it’s on my list to buy. We played In a Wicked Age, which is similar, but without the character books, but we’ve played Dogs in the Vineyard long ago, which is still my fav indy RPG.

          The problem is in my gaming group 2 of us are heavy N’s, and the rest are mostly G’s with N splatters with one harsher S-slanted gamer. So even something like In a Wicked Age where I told them to go crazy… it was disappointing.

    2. Great post, allow me a little bit of a tangent:

      Can you suggest any other RPG systems with a heavy “Gamist” focus? I’m very curious but I’m not entirely sure how to find out more.


  2. I always liked the idea of D&D when I was in school, but never knew anyone who played, and so my experience with friends was limited to fumbling-in-the-dark systemless roleplay via message boards (amusingly, the man who is now my partner played Warhammer and would have loved to get into roleplaying but didn’t have anyone to do it with either, but he was in another city). In recent years I’ve met RPGers and played a lot of Pathfinder, so I like that but only because it’s what I’ve been exposed to – and once you have a group of people who know a system, it’s easier to stick with that system because there’s less learning curve before getting into a story. Nowadays campaigns are on hold or not yet started, because the same gamers got many of us into LARP.

    I didn’t like the look of 4th edition because my play is very story-driven and I often play non-combat characters, so it looked like it had less support for my play style – obviously subjective. That said, I roleplay my Guild Wars characters alongside my regular MMO play, so I have a very specific bent!

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