Better Combat

My non-combat resolution system works great, it does a wonderful job of keeping everyone at the table immersed in their characters and the fantasy world they are playing in.  There is no faster way, however, to pull them out of that world than when weapons come out and combat ensues.  Suddenly you've gone from deep role-play and vivid imagination to a series of bland dice rolls with lots of misses.

I'm currently running my low-level group through Keep On the Borderlands and they have just begun to explore the Caves of Chaos.  The castellan told them of an Ogre harassing and killing his men along the roadway north and he needed someone to go deal with the problem by bringing back its head.  While the group was buying supplies, the blacksmith's 16 year old apprentice, "Wort", a randomly rolled level 0 fighter-in-training (who happened to have extraordinary strength and constitution @ 18 & 18 respectively) decided to join up with them for the promise of adventure.  So we have a Fey Elf, Demon Hunter (Cleric mod), and an iron-pumping teen fighter.

The group arrived at the caves in the evening and decided to setup camp in the grove just outside the Ogre's cave, which they just so happened to explore first the following morning.  I've been trying hard to incorporate my non-combat system into combat as much as possible.  I honestly don't ever want to fully remove combat rolling because I think you get into a place that no longer resembles D&D anymore and you've got to maintain some semblance of stat-based attack and defense.  But, there is quite a bit of bending you can do to make things far more cinematic.

As soon as the Ogre was alerted to the group's entry into his cave, he came stomping out to see what was going on giving enough time for the group to realize that some huge "thing" was coming for them.  Ogre's (and most of the early level creatures) are pretty stupid anyway compared to my PCs so it seems fair for the creature to forget any sort of intelligent ambush tactic.  In many cases, I skip the surprise round because there is usually a party that is clearly being more careful and methodical than the other.

The elf immediately cast entangle causing the tree roots from above to grab hold of the Ogre's arms.  The monster failed his saving throw, so he was unable to move his upper body for the rest of the round.  He could still kick and hop though, so keeping your distance from his lower body became important.  The demon hunter had found a Valerian dagger (dagger +1) during his last adventure (Valeria is an extinct kingdom of sea worshippers - think Atlantis) and wanting to use it badly, decided to climb the vines and swing onto the beasts shoulders.  The demon hunter has very good dexterity, and since the Ogre couldn't move I arbitrarily assigned him a d100 70% chance of success, which he succeeded.  In this position, the Ogre could not fight back against the attackers slashing at his neck and head.

The elf later did the exact same thing while the fighter apprentice slashed at the monsters knees with his longsword.  The Ogre failed his save a second time and the fighter landed the killing blow with a d8 result of 7 + 3 (str bonus).  The whole thing was very cinematic and took surprisingly few dice rolls to complete.

A few moments later, when the Ogre's goblin friends became alerted to what was going on in the room below them, a couple brave ones began climbing down a make-shift rope latter to attack the heroes.  The players had the brilliant idea to have Wort shake the bottom of the ladder, throwing the creatures off and instantly killing them by getting dashed against the rocky cave walls.  They then used their torch to burn the trapdoor, the smoke filling the goblin chamber above and causing the creatures to flee.  All this without a single combat roll.

Visualizing the battlefield with all its nuances is key to running combat encounters this way.  When you minimize the transition to and from combat, I think the suspension of disbelief can keep going strong in players' minds.  A brilliant idea to kill or disable your enemy before the dice even start rolling I think is wholly in the spirit of classic D&D.  The player characters were only level 2, 1 and 0, they really had no business taking on a level 4 Ogre along with 12 goblins at that stage of the game, but using their heads they were able to not only able to minimize the risk, but neutralize it entirely.  Nobody lost a single hit point.

I used to run combat with bland dice rolls: "roll for initiative", "you missed, he missed, you hit, he missed, you hit, etc".  I've learned along the way that it doesn't have to be like this at all, not even close.


Custom Classes

I reject codified custom classes in D&D, even for classic D&D (looking at you B/X Blackrazor).  I just think that this mimics modern D&D did with all of its silly and limited skill, feat and class lists.  I don't want a book to tell me who or what I should play, or what the right way is to play it.  I want my imagination fueling my character.  Having said that, I love players that think creatively when designing a class.

One of the biggest misconceptions of Basic Dungeons & Dragons concerns its class system.  Most, including myself, will tell you that this was the biggest barrier to playing.  The idea that you could only play a fighter, magic-user, cleric, or thief seemed incredibly limited.  Race as class was an entirely different problem which I won't go over right now, but suffice it to say, it was hard to convince me that this game was anything but a seriously toned-down edition to the "real" D&D in modern iterations that gave you more options.

Obviously I now know better.  I know now that "classes" in old-school D&D are really just archetypes or simple templates to keep your imagination in check.  When making a character in Basic or 0E D&D, I always suggest to come up with a class that fits into one of the 4 archetypes listed at least as a basis to start from.  Sometimes classes can blur the line a bit.  For example, a "knight" class could be either a fighter or cleric depending on if you wanted a character that held to strong moral codes or not.  A "swashbuckler" or "pirate" could be classify as a fighter or thief depending on whether you envisioned the character focused on fighting or cunning more often.  Classic Conan in literature is probably more of a thief than a fighter, which I've gone over in a previous entry.

Thinking about classes in this way, you quickly realize that that classic D&D had far more flexibility than its modern cousins.  Freed from stat lists and restrictive prestige classes, you can literally come up with anything you want to play as long as the DM allows it.

One of my players loves playing a Demon Hunter in Diablo 3.  Now, good luck finding a B/X book with a Demon Hunter class, much less Diablo 3's version of it (not that I'd want that anyway).  So without someone sitting down for hours statting out the perfect class to fit the game, how do I achieve this?

First of all, throw out the idea that a character's class needs to be completely defined and planned day 1.  If a player wants to sit down with the basic Cleric template and let the game define and mold who his character is, great!  There's nothing wrong with that at all.  How many times have you said, "that class looks awesome!", then a few hours in you decide you want to be something different?

Alt-itis can be completely avoided in classic D&D because you don't have to put anything in stone during character creation.  It may be during session 22 at level 3 that he gets a series of lucky rolls against some troglodytes and his character suddenly "remembers" that his sister was killed by a troglodyte when he was 11 and he has a racial bonus against them.  Or perhaps the DM simply decides that this character has gained some insight into killing cave-dwelling monsters and will now have more success against them in the future.

Secondly, if someone does want to put some effort into defining his character early on, he can put as much effort into it as he wants.  Don't worry about finding a perfect balance.  Pick an archetype that fits most closely the vision of your dream class and then add 2 or 3 tweaks in the positive and 2 or 3 tweaks in the negative.  For example, I designed the Demon Hunter class mentioned above to use any weapon, but shuns armor heavier than leather and is penalized for wearing it.  He can turn evil planar creatures starting at level 1 along with undead, but his undead turning is weaker and fails more often than the standard cleric.  Also, he prays to and gains power from a god like a normal cleric cannot heal wounds, only cause them.

That's a great start at level 1, and even if he wants more specializations in other things like a particular weapon like a crossbow, I will allow him to work toward it by using such a weapon or skill during his sessions of play.  A player shouldn't get everything he wants at 1st level, he should set goals for how he wants his character to turn out.  Goals are not always reached when he hits a certain level either, it may happen during an interesting session where he did something impressive, or arbitrarily after putting a little more effort into character back-story.

Negative things can and should happen as well based on poor choices, or simply because the DM and player agree on something negative balancing out something positive that occurs.  This is a collaborative effort and neither the player or the referee should be able to hold all the cards when it comes to defining player class and character.



One of the biggest criticisms I've seen of D&D is its Vancian magic system.  The concept of a magic-user that has to memorize spells and can only cast a limited amount per day until he has rested and studied his spell book again.  There are many who attack it as being too limited and requiring adventurers to leave the "dungeon" too prematurely and often to rest and recover.  D&D 4th edition did a lot to try and fix the "problem" by letting players fire off low level spells as often as they wanted.  It seems many wanted things to be more "fair "so they could to be like a Jedi shooting off their powers left and right just like a fighter.

I would at least agree that, on paper, all of these old-school spell limitations sound pretty lame and limiting.  And I can certainly sympathize with someone who would want to change it if they didn't understand the mindset of the system.  First of all, trying to play with Vancian magic in a rules-heavy system like 3rd or 4th edition isn't going to work well.  These are games designed for "encounters", a painfully derivative word that has come to mean, "interesting things that happen" (as if nothing else in the game is all that interesting and therefore undeserving of a title).

In an encounter-based game you're not thinking about the big picture.  You're thinking about spaces to do "stuff" in, while the rest is sort of filler that needs getting out as quickly as possible.  In classic D&D, avoiding monsters and these "encounters" was actually more important and rewarding.  In classic D&D you're not supposed to run into the room with the dragon with swords drawn and blazing fireballs, you're supposed to find a way to get the treasure while avoiding the fight altogether.  You're supposed to outwit the dragon, not necessarily kill the dragon.  Afterall, the XP gained by killing the dragon was peanuts compared to the XP gained from a dragon's treasure hoard (where classic D&D rewarded XP based on gold piece value).

Killing mobs to get loot is so ingrained in peoples' minds these days from video games and superhero films, that it seems almost absurd to play an RPG of any kind where you're not doing just that.  It's hard for non-classic players to really understand this concept even if you try to explain it to them.  The level 1 magic user, with his one-use light spell becomes extremely important when a confrontation with a monster actually does happen.  The key here, and a running theme throughout classic D&D, was player cunning and wit, not sword and spell, overcoming challenges.  A classic player's character wasn't going to come out of a session alive if he didn't do or think of something pretty darn cool and out-of-the-box during the session.  That is something that has been lost in modern D&D where brute force, and less thinking, has become the rule of the day.

However... :)

That's not to say you can't tinker with magic in classic D&D to make it more interesting.  Other than a magic-user's wit and intelligence (which I'm not downplaying at all), he literally has nothing else to rely on during those early levels (where most characters live and die anyway).  I want to make these classes more interesting and more dynamic to play.  A house rule that I have been using in my latest campaign is for my players, an Elf and a Cleric, to be able to use their magic as a sort of fountain of power, rather than a one-shot blast.

The original house-rule I borrowed from someone else is to allow players to cast very minor versions of their spells for free.   So a magic-user could light his pipe or even start fire with his Fireball spell.  With Light, you could use it to send some "morse-code" styled signals.  Etc. 

My version of this house rule actually takes it a little further.  I keep a mental note of how much of a spell is being used throughout the day and to what degree.  Again, in the fireball example above, a player could decide to use his ability to "spark" some kindling perhaps 5-10 times a day, or instantly create a roaring fire for 1/2 the cost of a normal fireball.  It will require some creativity to determine just what you could do in a minor fashion for some of the spells.  I still haven't figured out how floating disc could be useful.  But a clever player could probably surprise me in the right situation.

In any case, the player is spending his magic energy pool in creative ways that count toward his spell limit that day.  I don't keep any hard rules for this, I just make a note in my head of how much he's used of his spell.  Yeah, I know this is like a "mana" pool for each spell use, and some grognards may think that's heresy, but I personally believe this hybrid system fits even better with Appendix N than what we got.

My main source for this comes from Gandalf, but you could find a lot of other examples as well in D&D-inspired literature.  Either because he likes being clever and subtle, or the physical drain is too much, very rarely do you see his full magical power being used.  Instead, he's constantly being creative with his magic to scare or fool the bad guys.  You can also see his weariness after using his magic, or in greater degree (eg holding the door shut from the Balrog and his encounter with the witch king) I like this approach more than the "bazooka wizard", that nukes everything in sight.  And I feel it has a lot of old-school flavor.  Magic-users can be far more versatile and creative and will never feel like they are useless after their spells have been used up after five minutes of adventuring.

Players will need to weigh the pros and cons to using their magic in one big shot, or in a lot of minor ways.  Using your magic to start the fire this morning means that you're going to be in a world of hurt when you face a group of zombies later that day.  Overall, though, this gives magic users far more options and freedom, something I think defines classic Dungeons and Dragons.


Favorite MMORPG

I haven't posted much about Massively Multiplayer Online Games since I started posting here because, in most cases lately, I haven't been much of a fan.  Without going into a giant history of the genre, they have become synonymous with grinding, or endless loot and experience farming for no other purpose than showing your uber "toon" off to others.  This isn't to say I don't play any of them.  I've played my fair share, including World of Warcraft, Guild Wars 1 & 2, and some other lesser-knowns.  I don't consider myself super hardcore or anything like that, but I've been around the block a few times and for a while I enjoyed them.  Most of my stints have been short-lived, my enthusiasm petering out after a few weeks.  After a time they all seem to share the same faults that I had come to dislike.

But it wasn't always this way, there was a time when MMORPGs were new, even during the earliest MUD days, when online games aimed for real worlds and not just loot-grinding theme-parks.  These are the games I think a lot of RPG fans dreamed about when the internet first became popular in the early 90s.  One of the biggest games that launched in the late 90s that attempted (at least at first) to reach these dreams was EverQuest.  While this eventually became the model for most modern game MMO game design, many people I think forget how many things modern games lost in translation to the original template. 

Things like dropped loot on death which required "corpse-runs" meant that if you were high enough level and you lost your equipment in some deep dungeon, you may never see it again.  Other interesting mechanics included the requirement for players to literally spend hours sitting and reading spell books to memorize them.  The game also lacked many things modern MMOs take for granted, like quest markers, and even an in-game map!

I love EverQuest for everything it did and still does (although the game has changed a lot since its beginnings).  If you want the real EQ experience, I recommend checking out Project 1999, an emulator that mimics the game as it was before Sony Online Entertainment screwed it up after the Velious expansion.

Anyway, my purpose of this post isn't really to talk about EverQuest, but its sequel, EverQuest 2 which I'll get to in a moment..  What I'm really trying to say in this post is that I think I've come full circle a little bit.  During those early-days, including MUDs, I could tolerate the repetitiveness of these games just fine.  After several years, I went through several years where I could not tolerate anything but "sandbox" worlds.  Now, an MMO has changed my mind a bit.

For a long time I avoided EQ2 because I had heard that it shared basically nothing with its predecesser.  "It's another WoW themepark clone", I was told (even though EQ2 actually predates WoW) and I wrote it off.  This was during the time I was playing Guild Wars 2 and its shiny new event system which I will also get to in a minute.  But it's interesting what can happen to your opinion when you're presented with something that completely upends your preconceived notions of it.

EverQuest 2 is a theme-park* MMO.  And I apologize for throwing around terms that may be unfamiliar to some.  The term, "theme-park" refers to a type of MMO that revolves around following and solving quest hubs that lead you onto another quest hub, and on and on.  Basically it reminds you of a theme park because you are going to and from static attractions.  There is no real, "living" world or anything like that of a "sandbox" MMO.  In other words, they're not even trying to make things plausible or realistic.  In general, in my opinion, most of the time this is "can" be a bad thing.

I add the caveat because EQ2 is perhaps the single exception to any MMO I've played where this actually works.  Why does it work?  It's certainly not because the game does any one thing better than any other game.  In other words, there is not one single mechanic that this game hits out of the park.  You can pick any one thing and probably find it done better or equally well elsewhere.  But, you see, EQ2 does so many things pretty darn well that makes it shine.  While most games boast one or two "revolutionary" mechanics to advertise themselves, they are lacking in other departments.

I want to talk about big.  There are a lot of "big" video games out there.  They are usually measured in a lot of ways; geographical world size, number of hours, number of NPCs, etc.  But usually when we talk about a "big" game, we are measuring breadth, not depth.  I like using the Elder Scrolls games as a good example.  These are enormous games.  Giant worlds, tons of stuff to find, lots and lots of dungeons to explore, loads of quests and so on.  But, when you think about it, most of these mechanics are only skin deep.  Most dungeons, NPCs, and loot start to feel rather similar after a while.  There are a lot of them, but they don't really provide much depth.

A very good way to understand game depth is the total number of unique assets a game uses.  Assets include unique graphics, sounds, music, and data.  A lot of people will say Daggerfall is the biggest game ever, but only if we're defining its breadth.  It's actually a really shallow game in terms of breadth.  You will probably see nearly every game asset within the first couple hours of playing it since all dungeons and towns use the same textures, models and data.  Daggerfall is one of the largest games in terms of breadth, but one of the smaller games in terms of depth.

Now the biggest games of all require both a lot of breadth and a lot of depth.  I believe MMORPGs qualify as the biggest games since they have both in spades.  It's difficult for non-MMOs to compete because once their development cycle is finished, other than perhaps a couple expansions, the game is complete.  The only way they can compete is by using a lot of procedural and random generation.  But that's not depth.  In the table-top world, P&P games probably have a lot of breadth as well since a GM is required to continue facilitating fresh content whenever a game is played.

And the biggest video game of them all in terms of breadth and depth?  I think EverQuest 2 may very well be the king.  And this is precisely the reason why the theme-park model works here: content.  EQ2, with 10 expansions and multiple, deep, systems, is overflowing with stuff to do.  The best theme-parks are those with lots of attractions, and EQ2 doesn't disappoint.  It's really quite ironic because since EQ2 has so much stuff in it, so many fresh places to see and experience, I feel like overtime this theme-park has actually become much more of a sandbox.

I've spent 30 hours in this game and haven't even completed the first zone.  With hundreds and hundreds of zones, you can see how big this game is.  And that's not even touching the myriad of sub-systems the game has to offer.  I just want to go over some of these systems.

 I want to spend a minute talking about the bread-and-butter system of pretty much every modern MMO: the quests.  EQ2 follows the general follow-the-arrow-above-their-head mechanic of other games in the genre, but with some important caveats.  First of all, there are a gazillion of them.  Unlike its predecessor which oddly had a lack of quests, EQ2 makes good on its name and just overwhelms you with quests to complete.  This is actually very important because it means that you will spend barely any time at all grinding (or just killing stuff with no reason than to gain xp and loot).  The game gives you so many goals to achieve that every bit of your experience can be had with a purpose.  I can't explain how much difference that really makes in a game like this, but it really helps.

Secondly, the adventuring quality of EQ2 is helped by the fact that many of its quests have permanent world effects.  I was shocked to find out that after killing some monsters in a quest actually meant that the monsters were permanently gone.  This means that your affect on the world actually has some permanence to it, and that is a really nice touch.  Coming back to a completed area will stay completed forever.  The only other game that does something like this is Guild Wars 2 in their dynamic questing system, but oddly enough, I found EQ2's system to work better since the changes you make actually stay persistent. 

GW2 uses a looping system for all dynamic quests.  So, for example, if the centaurs are attacking a camp you're supposed to kill them off which, eventually, saves the camp.  When you're done with this, the camp stays saved only for a short time.  When you come back the next day, you find the centaurs attacking the camp again because the quest has reset itself.  At first this seems cool, but you eventually realize that the whole thing is a gimmick.  Just a way to hide the static world making you feel like you really have no impact at all.  In EQ2, things stay changed forever.  And I like that far more.  What's amazing is that hardly anyone realizes that a better realized system for permanent changes already exists in EQ2 which has been drowned out by the hype machine in GW2 PR department.

Many MMOs boast crafting systems, and although EQ2's crafting system is a pretty fun sort of mini-game, I've seen something similar before in games like Vanguard.  But what makes crafting really cool in EQ2 is the sheer amount of stuff you can make, and how early on in the game you can do it.  This isn't something reserved for high level characters, this system runs on its very own level up system.  By gathering and crafting, you gain unique crafting levels, distinct from adventuring levels.  You can literally play the entire game as a pure-crafter and not kill a single monster.  This is really cool and makes the system feel like it has a big part of the game and not something just tacked on.

Housing, unlike other games, plays a very big role in EQ2.  Again, not something for high-levels.  You can start buying homes very early on.  They come in a million varieties, from a two-room apartment, to a giant castle with outdoor areas and multiple levels.  Furniture can be gained from quests, loot, and from crafting.  Housing is a thing of beauty in EQ2.  Again, you could spend your entire game crafting and decorating your house.

Dungeon Builder
Like the housing system, there is an equally deep and interesting dungeon building system that you can create yourself and let others enter.  One interesting thing here is how you can obtain "monsters" in the same way you can find drops for housing.  This provides an interesting way to build up your dungeon inventory rather than just getting everything at once.

Character Customizatoin
If I'm not mistaken, I think EQ2 has the most number of race/class combinations of any modern game.  Besides regular adventuring and crafting experience, the game has Alternate Advancement, points you earn like XP that you can put into very specific traits to further specialize your class.  So between all the options available to me, I'm playing a Human, Rogue, Swashbuckler, Fencer.  The combat system can be extremely deep because of this.  Chained, heroic attacks, and different kinds of buffs and positional abilities make the game easy to learn but extremely complex to perfect.  Not only are there tons of combat abilities but, lots of non-combat skills, upgrades, heroics, dragon and more that you can obtain.  The number of options is dizzying.

There is an appearance tab where you can replace any item you are using with another for flavor.  This is awesome since it means I never have to be locked in with what I'm using for others to see me with.

You have loads of mounts that vary from standard ground-based rides to leapers, gliders, and full fliers.  You also can get pets, and lots of interesting appearance equipment.  And like everything else, this stuff is available very early on, not just for the ultra-rich or high level characters.

The loot is extremely varied.  Besides weapons, armor and other trinkets of varying color you can equip with, you have the aforementioned furniture and monster pickups as well as collectible "shinies" (that I've only seen in Rift and Xenoblade Chronicles).  You also have Lore and Legend pickups which start a quest to learn more about monsters which can give you a special monster specific ability.  You can also find other quest-starting items which can send you off to a distant continent for a completely separate quest chain.

One nice touch is the inclusion of books.  A game gets a +1 in my mind when there is background lore to be read.  EQ2 includes lots and lots of books, of which you can build a library around in  your home or guild hall.  Also, there are writable books where you can record a journal.  Very nice touch.

You have guilds and grouping like other games, but a really interesting mechanic is mentoring.   There is so much content in this game and it is practically impossible to see everything, much less experience it while at a level to make it interesting.  With mentoring, you can group with someone 50 levels lower than yourself and all of your power and equipment will scale down to your mentor.  Not only does this make low level content still viable, but you still get experience for doing it.  You can do this in a group or even lower your own level and do the content solo.

This may not be as important for some people, but as I've written about before, theme is very important to me.  A good, engaging world can make a bad game descent, and and average game great for me.  Theme includes everything rolled together: art, music, design, lore, and story.  I love all of it in the EverQuest universe.  The art is classic fantasy styled.  No, puffy marshmallow heroes here.  Monsters and heroes are modeled after 1980s fantasy art.  The game has possibly the best theme song of any MMO and a crap load of songs and sounds for every zone.  The world is designed to be high-fantasy swords & sorcery in a classic sense.  What makes the lore great is that it's subtle.  You find bits and pieces in books and quests throughout the world, forcing you to put the story together yourself.

I like the fact that EQ doesn't require me to suspend my disbelief as much as other games.  Lord of the Rings Online, Age of Conan, Star Wars, and other IP-based MMOs are a hard pill to swallow because they stray so far from the source material.  Why are there all of these random hobbits running all over Moria in LotRO?  In EQ, I can love the world as a crazy, everything and the kitchen-sink, generic fantasy universe without worrying about things staying all consistent.  But at the same time, the game is strictly S&S fantasy.  There's fairies, dragons, goblins, trolls, gnomes, and more....and thankfully no gonzo lazer guns or space ships mixed in.

With all of these features, it becomes very simple to role-play as well.  The other day while doing some questing in-game, I was surprised to find a wolf  following me around wherever I went.  This was a person playing a Warden class who had shape-shifted.  This sparked a tremendous RP opportunity to have a player-run pet.

The community is older than most, because many players grew up on the original game way back in 1999.  These players are far more mature and dis-positioned to role-play than other MMOs.  There's always an interesting interaction just waiting around the next corner.


I could keep going, but the bottom line is that the game is just chocked-full of content to do.  That's why the theme-park model works for this game and why it may very well be the biggest game I've played.  Big in both breadth AND depth.  There is never a dull moment in the game, never a reason to have to grind, and never a reason to feel like you're led by the nose.  For that reason, this is my favorite MMORPG at least in the standard AAA sense.

The best part is that the game is free to play.  Other than the dungeon maker (which costs $15), everything else is completely free.  Very little is locked behind pay content.  And SOE has a reputation for making past expansions free when they release a new one.  So if you like something you have to pay for now, just wait a year or so and you will probably see it become available.  But with the amount of stuff to do for free already, it's unlikely you'll ever be looking for more anyway.

Come and check it out.  I play on the Antonia Bayle (RP) server as Jemmajune.