Saturday, January 17, 2009

A Humbling Look Back

Sometimes it's good to look at my early stuff just to see that there has been improvement. In my case (at least in my own humble opinion), the improvement is noticeable and monumental. Before I really got started writing for D&D, I was like a lot of other people in that writing was something I had wanted to do for a very long time, but I didn't keep in practice and I didn't take advantage of the opportunities that were available to submit material to various publications. Even though I wanted to be a writer, I wasn't persistent in my pursuit of success, and I'm really not even sure I was particularly good at it.

Back around August of 2000, when 3rd edition D&D was brand new, I submitted the following proposal for a Dungeon magazine adventure. At the time Chris Perkins was the editor in Chief, and he had shot down every adventure proposal I had sent him prior to this. As luck would have it, this one was not accepted, but he did give me the opportunity to resubmit after making some changes. In looking back on it now, the writing style was awkward and the adventure needed a little more something to make it more interesting. That said, it wasn't a total waste. I could probably rework it now, remove the items that are strictly Wizards IP, get rid of the elements that contribute nothing to the adventure, fix the writing and actually have an adventure that might be kind of cool.

Once I started getting some professional writing gigs, things never really slowed down, and this proposal was lost in the pile. So, for your amusement and mine, here's the unedited proposal for a Dungeon adventure that I never wrote. Don't feel bad if you find it gagworthy, I do too.

The working title of this adventure would be “Conflagration in spring.” It is for 4-6 characters levels 7-9 or 48 total levels. It will be helpful but not necessary for one of the party members to be a ranger. At the center of this adventure is a unique monster, magically created, called a flamespawn. Though similar in appearance to a deepspawn, except made of magma, it has a completely different host of abilities. The creature’s primary ability is to enchant other creatures. Creatures enchanted are converted to evil while under the influence (5 miles) of the flamespawn and given a low-grade breath weapon of fire (1d10 points of damage at will unlimited times per day). These creatures are not under the direct control of the flamespawn, but wander around as agents of chaos. The only creature the flamespawn is able to produce (like the deepspawn) are Burning man golems (from Monstrous Compendium Annual Vol. 2) at a rate of 1 every week. Instead of mouths and eyes attached to the creature it has tentacles of fire. Instead of being a genius its intelligence is merely 8.

The flamespawn was originally contained in a pit in the first layer of Baator (this part can be easily modified if it doesn’t fit with 3rd edition). The creature that created this was a devil of greater power who intended to use this as a weapon of chaos against cold-based demons in the Blood Wars. The author is aware of the fact that Baatezu are lawful, yet this is a weapon designed more to randomly hit less fortified areas of Baator. It was released into the forest here on the prime material plane through a series of events: A party was adventuring through Baator on an unrelated quest. They killed the fiend that kept this monster, but did not encounter the flamespawn itself. They did pick up a scroll, which they had yet to identify. The scroll was designed to be used by lesser Baatezu on missions in the Blood War, and therefore was not difficult to read. The party returned to the prime material plane and was on their way to the next major city to learn more about it when they were unknowingly pick pocketed by a killmoulis (Brownie). The killmoulis was curious and not nearly cautious enough when he read the scroll releasing the flamespawn.

The adventure begins in early spring (or late winter depending on when it would be the easiest for the DM to place it into their campaign) in a forest when the party comes across a group of druids who have just finished fighting off a fire. There is a ½ acre area of burned trees with a stag lying dead at the center of it. The area is still smoking and the druids look extremely weary. The party will undoubtedly stop to ask them what happened here, and the druids will explain to them that they have been fighting more and more unseasonable small fires in this forest for the past month. Worse yet, many of the animals have seemed to be possessed. They’ve been breathing fire at the druids and starting blazes like the one they just finished putting out. So far they’ve been able to contain the blazes but they’ve been increasing in frequency. They have no idea what is causing this, and they will ask for the party’s help in this matter. The only clue they will have in this matter is the location of a killmoulis burrow not far away. Normally they don’t think much of the killmoulis, but recently it seems to have been abandoned.

The killmoulis burrows have in fact been abandoned, as the party will discover upon investigating it. Unfortunately there will also be 2 burning man golems protecting this area. Also present will be 2 possessed cave bears. Since this was the emerging point of the flamespawn, it returns here often. The party will have to defend themselves against the golems and the bears. After clearing the area the party will find a used scroll. A faint trace of ash leaves faint marks where the letters once were (the scroll used to summon the flamespawn). On the outskirts of the area they will find a killmoulis that has been hiding since its village was rampaged by the flamespawn. It will tell them the story of how a big round thing made of fire appeared in their midst and started attacking them. Most were able to escape, but not all.

There will be a very faint trail of ash left by the flamespawn that has been undetectable to the druids. The party can use to track it back to its current lair provided that they either have a ranger present or have other similar tracking skills. There will be several other encounters planned with possessed animals, and a couple possessed monsters along the way. They will also encounter a newly set fire close to the path. The druids have not yet shown up to battle the blaze, so it will be up to the party to stop this one. They can put it out any number of ways – this would be expanded upon in the body of the text.

Upon nearing the lair of the flamespawn they will have a chance of seeing a killmoulis that has been possessed. If it is not stopped it will run into the lair alerting the flamespawn that there are people coming. The lair itself is a small series of caves that belongs to a tribe of orcs. In their present state they should be treated as red neo-orogs (Monstrous compendium annual 3) with the additional breath weapon mentioned above. There will be 23 of these in the lair along with 2 more of the Burning man Golems. The party will have to fight their way through these to get to the flamespawn.

Once the party reaches the chamber with the flamespawn, it will be protected by 1 Burning man Golem, and 5 neo-orogs. The flamespawn will try to possess the members of the party. This should be a pretty tough battle for characters of this level. This will need to be play tested to fine-tune the exact number of monsters in this area prior to publication. Upon the death of the flamespawn, the enchanted creatures and any affected orcs will be released from their enchantment. Life in the forest will return to normal, and the PC’s will have the gratitude of the druids, who will thankfully be able to get back to tending the forest. The party will be rewarded with an offering by the druids of 5000 gp.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Truth is an Onion

The truth that we are fed is nothing but the surface. The explanations we are offered are little more than simplifications, as a father would offer a young child so that he can get them to stop asking so many questions. Truth is layers: history that dates back years, centuries, and millennia. Truth is complexity; unintended slights, shameful acts, misdeeds, noble sacrifices. The problem with truth is that the more you want to understand it, the more layers you must peel back to find it, and the more you find, the more issues you uncover, which themselves must be peeled back until you reach a point where there is no longer any information to find, or the truth challenges the version of the truth that you have come to accept.

Here are a few inconvenient truths that have become clear to me:

* The reformation, which was built on Greek ideals, would not have been possible if Islamic scholars had not saved Greek texts by translating them while Europe was in the dark ages. In a very real sense, the foundation of our current "enlightened" culture owes an enormous debt of gratitude to the very people we war against on the other side of the world.

* The term "Islamofacsists," which the Bush administration coined to refer to Al Qaida, Hamas, and the Taliban really doesn't mean a thing since those groups have very little in common. Rather than refer to Al Qaida as fascists, they should call them what they reall are: anarchists.

* A war of ancient grudges, and by-gone political decisions made by people who were never affected by the results of their actions mean very little to the innocent boys and girls who are being inhumanly murdered by the hundreds by bombs and missiles.

* What happens over there affects us over here. Despite our differences, we all share a common thread of humanity. Attempts to dehumanize the "other" so that we can kill them, occupy their lands, exploit their resources, and seek to replace their culture with our own ultimately serve to dehumanize ourselves.

Truth is an onion, and unfortunately the more layers you peel back, the more it stinks. Next Tuesday a potentially great man will be taking office in this country. It is my belief that he understands the complexity surrounding the issues that have led to such suffering and he will take the necessary actions to restore a sense of humanity to our dealings with other people in far off places. We must restore our moral compass and act in accordance with our conscience instead of blatant self interest.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Reactions to 4E

About a month ago, Ryan asked me the following question:
How do you feel the dumbing down of D&D? I know you blogged on this earlier but thats what it seems like to me. In comparing 3.5 and 4.0 what I've seen is a change towards "user friendliness" that in reality seems to change alot of what appealed to core fans inorder to appeal to a broader base. I found this frustrating but do you think theres a connection between the alienation of the base and the indifference of other markets that are being sought after?

I felt that this is something that deserves its own blog entry because it's kind of a complicated question.

The first issue is whether 4E is a "dumbing down" of D&D. To that I would agree that character customization is certainly different than 3rd edition. Your combat abilities now have more to do with rigid class powers than they have to do with your choice of feats and other decisions you make as you level. I don't consider that so much dumbed down as drastically changed. If that happens to be easier, then whatever gain there is in terms of ease of use is complicated by all of the combat conditions that are placed on characters.Marking opponents, causing them to fall, get pushed, and other conditions end up adding a lot of complication that you used to have to select by performing certain combat actions, or casting certain spells. I'm not going to blow smoke by saying that I like 4E, but I don't think that calling it dumbed down is exactly accurate. I also think that the new approach makes combat more repetetive than what we saw before, and that's not something I particularly like.

The second part of the question - "do you think theres a connection between the alienation of the base and the indifference of other markets that are being sought after?" is more in line with my own criticisms. The things the old guard aren't happy with include the way that powers have become the all important character decisions where combat is concerned, the jettisoning of simulationist mechanics that dealt with things other than combat, the loss of the Vancian magic system, and the shortcomings of the three core books. Is it true that there are poeple who didn't like Vancian magic? Sure. I'm not one of them, but they're out there. Are there people who would rather play a tactical miniatures game? Definitely, and those people seem to be pretty happy with 4E. Are there people who like the ease of use of powers, as opposed to having to use feats and special combat actions? Absolutely. However, some of these systems dated back to the original Dungeons and Dragons game, and for those that didn't they were definitely parts of third edition that people enjoyed.

That begs the question, why would you make such drastic changes? My opinion is that it was done to appeal to a younger audience that might be more familiar with video games than D&D. I believe that 4th edition serves its purpose as a player acquisition product. The main problem that I see with it is that those who have been playing the game for upwards of 30 years see this new version as something other than D&D. I'm in that crowd myself. I feel that what we were handed wasn't so much a new version of D&D as it is a brand new game that happens to bear some resemblance to the D&D we all know and love.

And I agree with Ryan that there is an indifference in the other markets among players that are being sought after. World of Warcraft is huge, so they decided to make many of the mechanics operate more like what you would expect to find in an MMO in an attempt to entice those players to play D&D. The problem is that the vast majority of those players are perfectly satisfied rolelpaying on their computer monitors with people who probably don't live nearby. If this is what they know and enjoy, what is there to motivate them to play a game on a tabletop that simulates the experience that they get, quite vividly, on the computer? They're different games, different experiences, and I think it foolish to try to suck players from one to the other by making one more like the other.

So what of the players who have been with the game for decades? 4E is such a departure from the previous edition that it's a tough sell. Some will embrace it, but a lot won't. That only serves to fracture the existing customer base. If polls at places like ENWorld are to be believed, only about 25% of the existing player base is actually playing 4E. The more telling statistic in this poll is that roughly 31% of the total number of respondents have tried 4E and stuck with 3E. Add that to the 27% that refuse to try it anf it send a clear message: if the D&D brand is a train, people seem to be getting off in record numbers. What this poll doesn't address is whether or not 4E is working as an acquisition product. ENWorld is known as a site composed primarily of older gamers and professionals in the field. Are there newer gamers that we just don't know about? WotC had better hope so.

So for those of us who don't want to play the new game they've given us, we have a few options. We can stick with 3.5; many people are doing exactly that. The problem of course is that they aren't making anything new for it. Sure, there's enough stuff between WotC and other 3rd party publishers to keep people busy gaming for the rest of their lives, but a lot of people like to collect this stuff andaccumulate more. I'm guilty of that. So if you don't like the new game, and if you feel that 3.5 could use some improvement, primarily in the areas of high level play, certain combat actions, and other subsystems, then there's Pathfinder and a few other D20 based systems out there.

I'm personally pretty firmly in the Pathfinder camp. Sure, the beta has yet to address the difficulty of high level play, but I think that the final version will since they've listed that as one of the game's design goals.

Second, what I have played works rather well. The core classes are balanced with 3rd edition prestige classes as well as some of the later core classes. What this does is make it so that you can run a good character without having to take multiple prestige classes or multi-class into a bunch of other core classes. You can also incorporate WotC's prestige classes and core classes from later books without worrying about unbalancing the party. I'm cool with that.

Third, the guys over there at Paizo are some of the friendliest, coolest people in the industry. I have nothing but respect for Jason Bulhman, Erik Mona, James Jacobs, Wesley Schneider, and Sean K. Reynolds.

Fourth, the involvement of Monte Cook and other people who could be considered "Old school TSR," such as Jeff Grubb, Sean K. Reynolds, JD Wiker, and authors like Elaine Cunningham. Monte Cook was one of the three brains behind 3rd edition, and he's acting in the capacity of advisor to Jason Bulhman, the guy who's actually designing the Pathfinder RPG. Who better to help guide you along the way than one of the guys who was responsible for making 3rd edition the smashing success that it was? Who better to contribute to the line than experienced designers who were there at the launch of third edition? Someone put it best when they said that Pathfinder is the spiritual successor to D&D, and I completely agree with that statement.

Finally, I'm biased because they're letting me in on some of the fun. Pathfinder #16 had my first contribution to the Pathfinder line, an article that I wrote about the Drow of Golarion. Also, I wrote a full length adventure that will appear in Pathfinder #23, and I have a pretty good feeling about my prospects of continuing to work with them in the future.

In the final analysis, I doubt that Pathfinder will be able to capture all of the people who are deserting D&D, but I do think that it will capture enough of them to do well for itself. For those of us who want the next version of D&D to be look and feel like the D&D we've always known, Pathfinder is the real deal and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who will listen.

You can download the Pathfinder beta-test rules for free from Paizo's website at