Tuesday, August 18, 2009


I'm having a very busy real-life week which isn't leaving a lot of time for blogging, but so you don't all just assume I've died, here's some loose thoughts, which I'm sorry don't fit well into the overall scheme of the blog. Some of them barely rise above reconstituted news.

Dark Sun in 2010

* Wizards have announced the 2010 campaign setting for D&D as being Dark Sun. I was hoping for Dragonlance, but Dark Sun still excites me a lot more than Eberron or the Realms.

For those not familiar, Dark Sun is a kind of post-apocalyptic setting of barren deserts, slavery and dead gods, where each and every use of magic makes the world die just a little bit more. Metal's rare and psionics are common and just surviving the environment is every bit as much of a challenge as defeating its inhabitants.

Designer James Wyatt says he "felt it was time to show the breadth of what’s possible in the game, just what a broad swathe D&D’s kind of fantasy can cover." That's a noble sentiment, and it's entirely possible that 4th Edition's going to step up to the plate. There could even now be an evolution taking place as the ruleset ripens into a fuller and more mature incarnation.

On the other hand, I can't help but feel they're setting themselves up to demonstrate how essentially weak 4th Edition's non-combat mechanics are, and how little the combat balance is able to withstand mathematical tinkering. Still, better to try and fail than never try at all, I suppose.

Storytelling and the Dungeon Master's Guide 2

* The Dungeon Master's Guide 2 has a whole chapter devoted to storytelling, and the surprise is that it's not merely competent but actually rather good. The kind of D&D For Dummies nuts-and-bolts approach of the first (deeply lacking) DMG holds up surprisingly well when applied to things that are worth saying. The fusion of creativity and connect-the-dots formulaism it uses actually ends up bringing something new and interesting to the discussion.

It sounds like the DMG 2 could be a book worth buying. Let's keep our fingers crossed.

Item Sets and Peer Pressure

* Can encouraging teamwork go too far? The idea of your success or failure resting not just on your own actions but those of your allies is great for building party cohesion and social bonds, but when your survival is dependant on someone else's actions it gives you an investment in their decisions. Anyone who's ever been pressured into playing a healbot just because no-one else wants to run one understands this principle.

Adventurer's Vault 2 takes it a step further with "group sets" - collections of magic items that give you bonuses based on how many allies are also wielding items from the set. It's the sort of thing that tickles me as a player - it's just kind of cool - but it's possibly not so good when you're at the less confident end of the player pool. The sets generate a mechanical pressure to wield weapons that are suboptimal or just plain not fun in order to "fit in" and help out your buddies; that's not, ideally, a choice a player should be asked to make, and I can't help but feel that this kind of design is the start of a slippery slope.


Phaezen said...

Regarding the group item sets, this is something I will be playing around with in my upcomming campaign, but I will be customising them for the characters and thier backgrounds and group affiliations.

Randy said...

If you get a chance, could you elaborate on what you don't like about the DMG? I've heard good things about it.

Maelora said...

I'm glad you mentioned this, Greg. I knew you were hoping for Dragonlance. But I'm not bothered. Everything that was great about Dragonlance was leeched out of the setting after 1st edition. Dark Sun was actually a setting that was deliberately kept very 'pure' during the days of 2nd edition; few crossovers and links to other settings.

Now, of course, we have 'not-D&D' and we get 'not-DarkSun'.

Like all the 2nd edition settings, Dark Sun was designed to be a bit dfferent, and it doesn't fit well with the 'hack and slash dungeon bash' paradigm that 4E enshrines.

Dark Sun was about tough moral decisions (slavery played a big role in the world), ecological issues, survival, limited resources, low amounts of PC magic items. If the character's didn't respect the desert or their opponents enough, they _died_. The PCs were powerful, but running away was still a valid and often sensible option.

In 4E, you're pretty much booked to win. You know the PCs will never suffer a permanent loss, or lose items, or get captured, or have any inconvenience that can't be solved by an Extended Rest. Raise Dead spells are cheap and available at a low level now.
The desert? Pfft. So what, we fail a Skill Challenge). We lose a few Healing Surges. Big deal. One swift rest and we get them back.

And why the weird fetish with all the oddball races? The 2nd edition worlds operated on the basis that they had new races, changed old ones, and omitted others. Dragonlance doesn't have drow, orcs, etc. Dark Sun lacks gnomes, paladins, orcs, lycanthropes, drow and many other things. Tieflings, warforged, eladrin etc simply don't make any sense with Dark Sun as it stood.

If you're playing a party consisting of a warforged paladin, tiefling warlock, gnome artificer, eladrin warden, and shifter assassin, are you really playing Dark Sun any more? Especially if all you're doing is dungeon-bashing anyway.

If WotC are going to dilute every setting to the point they are all more or less identical, why bother having different campaign worlds?

Further, 4E seems to have serious problems depicting anything outside the familiar formula of 'Twenty Fights And A Skill Challenge'. Decision points, moral dilemmas, investigative or role-playing stories are all non-existent in the published modules and Dungeon magazine. We used to have these regularly in AD&D.

Yes, you _could_ write all those things in yourself. But as Greg points out, that's what a published product we're paying for _should_ be doing for you.

I hope I'm wrong, I really do. But 4E doesn't seem able to break out of its desire to be a combat boardgame first and foremost, and 4E DarkSun isn't likely to change that.

Maelora said...

Oh, and a genuine question for the fans of 'everything in D&D must be hammered into every setting':

If (for some reason) you want to play 4E set in Middle Earth or Lankhmar or Hyboria or whatever... do you really think the addition of dragonborn, warforged, thri-kreen, tiefligs etc would enhance, or dilute your experience? If the Fellowship now consists of eight minotaurs and a revenant, is it really LotR anymore?

Kelly said...

Its basic 'crunch farming' and it will sell more books.

A good DM can pick and choose and tailor his campaign to be as 'old school' as he wishes (and his players will enjoy).

Chris Gardiner said...

Long-time reader, first-time poster.

I'm intrigued by the Dark Sun announcement. WotC have done the two intentionally kitchen-sink settings (sensibly enough, for the initial ones) but Dark Sun is a much more focussed and flavourful one. I'm curious how much they're willing to tinker with the core assumptions for something like this. But I'm willing to bet they don't want another kitchen sink setting and are looking to branch out. And the PHB3 is doing some stuff (hybrid classes) I was sure they'd never do when I read the first PHB.

Mostly, I think this is an opportunity. What made 2e Dark Sun great, let's face it, wasn't the crunch. Bone weapons did a bit less damage and broke sometimes. Woo. The preserver/defiler split was wetter than a wet thing. There was no genuine, pressing moral choice there. Either you were a scumbag who got double xp or you weren't. It didn't in any way reflect the choice that the setting suggested - that not plundering the world for your sorcery was *hard* - that defiling was, in most cases, the practical, sensible choice. In 2e Dark Sun you were either a preserver or a defiler and that was that.

And even if you *were* a defiler all that happened when you cast a spell was that plants died. Big whoop.

The new incarnation actually has a chance to make the poverty of the setting and the hard choices of sorcery meaningful. I'll be interested to see if they go for it.

And some new 4e bits quite fit quite well. Dragonborn, for example, aren't exactly anathema to a setting where - after all - people turn into dragons. Plus, Dark Sun required PCs started at 3rd level to make them more survivable - something 4e works into its base assumptions.

I kind of understand some of the concern people hold regarding the 4e incarnation - the initial Dark Sun boxed set was top. Despite my misgivings about the crunch, the setting material just set your brain on fire. I speak as someone who, upon reading it, immediately started writing Dark Sun fanfic. My secret shame is revealed. But none of the supplements lived up to it, the adventures were disappointing, the novels terrible, and the revised edition actively undermined what had made the setting great.

My point is it's not like 2e handled the setting perfectly (or even well) either. Three books - in, out, done - might be one of the few ways to catch that lightning in the bottle.

I don't think I share your concerns, Greg, about it exposing 4e's weakness outside of combat. At least now we *have* a system for resolving non-combat conflicts. I'm a fan of skill challenges - I've been having some real successes with them, and WOTC are getting their heads around them now. Plus, it's not like 2e was any more robust at non-combat stuff than 4th is, and Dark Sun did well enough there to found the enduring fan base it has now.

Anyway. I'll be very, very curious how they handle it.

- Chris Gardiner

Chris Gardiner said...

Holy cow, that was long. Sorry.

Anders Hällzon said...

As some schmott guy on EnWorld said: What fits best in a dystopian desert setting - a race of hardy draconian warriors, or a race of graceful runners with an affinity for nature?

Every race from the PHB1 and PHB2 except elves, eladrin and gnomes would fit on a Manowar album cover, and should fit in Dark Sun unless one refuses to accept anything that wasn't in the original DS books.

Anonymous said...

It's wierd how everyone here seems to remember Darksun as a really flavoured world about tough moral descisions, etc...

I just remember Darksun as the powergamers world. Where every game at least one player in the party would build some beast (usually involving very broken psionics) which would beat up on NPCs 10+ levels higher.


Greg Tannahill said...

@Randy - The (original) DMG was largely concerned with providing the formulae underlying monster creation, loot distribution, and XP gain. My feeling was that (a) if those things had been well designed in the first place the formulae wouldn't need explanation, and (b) that kind of busywork doesn't belong in a Dungeon Master's Guide.

Also the DMing advice was insultingly poor at best (particularly compared to the kind of stuff White Wolf puts out) and the concepts of roleplaying and storytelling were almost entirely absent, replaced by a philosophy of stringing together combat and skill challenges into a kind of mechanical chain.

@Chris Gardiner - I don't think there's much evidence to date that the current design team are capable of doing a really great 4E campaign book. On the other hand, they really seem to want to try this time, and 4E really needs to demonstrate that it's capable of doing atmosphere and mood in order to continue to grow as a product. So I'll be cautiously hopeful.

@Nick - It was a high power world - but, played right, it needed to be, because you didn't have things that you got on other worlds like, say, occasional NPCs who didn't want to murder or enslave you. I don't think it's essentially any more munchkiny than psionics were in general. Mind you, my experience with it consists of one five-session campaign and the first computer game, so I'm not exactly an expert.

sebmojo said...

Greg, re DMG: I disagree fairly strongly - I thought it was a solid basic reference guide. The first 30 pages in particular are an excellent overview of what a competent DM needs to know IMO.

I'm just flipping through the pdf as I write this, and there's actually too much useful stuff (for the hypothetical newish DM) for me to list - storytelling techniques, managing difficult players, 'finding the fun', developing campaigns...

I mean I knew it already because I've done it for decades, as doubtless did you, but 'insultingly poor'? Really?

Greg Tannahill said...

@sebmojo - The comparison I keep making is to White Wolf's stuff. You look at (say) the base book for Mage 2nd Edition, and it makes the 4E DMG look like "My First Alphabet". It starts on page 1 by saying, "This is a game about stories of hubris," and it grabs you by your throat and doesn't let up until you're committed to making art. More than being filled with excellent advice, it's inspirational too - the ideas it provokes are as powerful as what it explicitly contains. I haven't been inspired once by any of the 4E products. They're not fun to read, they don't make you want to push the system's boundaries, they're all end result and no process.

And I don't think you can say that Mage, or White Wolf's stuff generally, is at some kind of advanced level - those books are the most hugely successful books in history at getting new players into the hobby.

I can't ascribe finding quality in the 4E DMG to anything other than a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, whereby it looks competent only in relation to D&D's traditional level of paucity in that area.

The Commish said...

Gotta say that reading 4e's core books isn't exciting at all. Very tough reads for most people I know and I even got die hard fans on the wizards forum to agree that the books are dry and emotionless.

I am excited about Dark Sun. Yes when we played it we went nuts with power gaming (Giants and thrikeen rangers with a gazillion attacks dominated our groups) but we really loved the flavor and we really stressed the tough world.

Piecemeal armor, bone weapons, gladiator bouts and destroying the planet, it was totally awesome. I remember flipping out when I found an actual metal sword it was so awesome.

Good luck WOTC, I really hope you guys can pull this off.

seb said...


OK, I see where you're coming from. Though I still think you're being a little harsh - there's some merit in getting the craft down before shooting for the art, and the 4e DMG does that better than I feel you give it credit for. Sure, there's not much in it for you - but it's not for you. You've already learnt the lessons it has to teach.

Also, the sort of intense character driven stuff that Mage/Vampire engenders, done badly, can be just as painful as any dreary dungeon trudge.

Greg Tannahill said...

@Seb - Oh, the World of Darkness roleplaying mechanics were regularly terrible. I appreciate how well they crafted the mechanics to specifically and delberately encourage inter-party conflict but I still don't know why they decided that was an appropriate goal to aim for. And the specific way in which players gained Arete in Mage, and what did or did not accrue Paradox, caused as many fights as the the "Dark Side Points" system in Star Wars.

But the DMing advice, and the creative context it was set in, were superb. More tips for using the mechanics to tell stories than D&D has bumbled into in its entire thirty-whatever-year lifespan.

Randy said...

GregT: "@Randy - The (original) DMG was largely concerned with providing the formulae underlying monster creation, loot distribution, and XP gain. My feeling was that (a) if those things had been well designed in the first place the formulae wouldn't need explanation, and (b) that kind of busywork doesn't belong in a Dungeon Master's Guide."
Personally I find the XP and loot guidelines, especially the breakdown by level unnecessary as well, but I don't think it's a focus. It doesn't take up more space than traps, disease, terrain, or puzzles.
Monster design is alot more detailed than rewards, with roles, powers, and levels potentially obscuring some of the numbers underneath, so I think having that spelled out is useful, and have in fact used it.

I don't have the white wolf, or even 3e, DMG to compare to. From memory it seems on par with the storytelling advice in 7th sea, for instance, though to be honest I found neither pleasure reading.

Anyway, thanks for answering.

Anonymous said...

@ Greg: I've always thought that the Whitewolf rules set was built around Vampire and just ported (badly) to the other races.

Vampire is a political game so party conflict is definitely effective in that setting.

- Nick