Mechanics be Damned!
By The Warden
Oh, my poor, embattled edition warriors. What a crazy week this has been for you. So many shots fired off in so many directions with accusations, defensive stances, and postings of angry neutrality in light of so many announcements regarding the brand that is Dungeons & Dragons (and for the proverbial rock dwellers, you should know that Monte Cook has left Wizards of the Coast, the public playtest for D&D Next starts on May 24th, and it appears there will be physical reprints of D&D 3.5 in the fall).
It’s hard not to get sucked into the vortex of all this edition-based flag waving, particularly when the designers of D&D’s future are literally asking for it. There seems to be no avoiding it because even though I mostly ignore such posts online and never read forums, my own D&D group consistently breaks out into discussions of which editions handle which aspect better. From the detestation of fighters with powers to the debate on skills versus non-weapon proficiencies to someone finally chiming in “this is why I play Pathfinder,” it’s a vicious circle of repetition.
(I can imagine this is what George Lucas must go through and the reasons why I don’t want to talk about Star Wars is nearly identical to why I don’t want to talk about the edition wars.)
Here’s my take on the whole matter and I’ll admit in advance it’ll seem a bit hypocritical considering the concept for this very column: mechanics don’t always matter. Not when it comes down to the crux of why we’re gathered around the table and that’s to play a game. When my bi-weekly D&D group started getting into a discussion on why 4e failed, blah, blah, blah, I eventually chimed in with frustration in my voice: “The game’s not broken. If Wizards released this game and called it something else, would you say the same things or would you appreciate it for its own qualities?” The problem was that their feelings towards the game were clouded by the vast mechanical differences between 4e and every previous edition, blocking access to the core reason we were playing: to enjoy a game. Something they were willing to ignore when 3rd edition came out. Once you’re seated at the table, how the mechanics of 4e function compared to the other editions, other games, or other publishers don’t matter; it’s all about whether or not you’re having fun at that very moment.
I have my own reasons for losing interest in D&D, though I continue to play it and Pathfinder with friends because I enjoy hanging out with them (even though I’m regularly stuck doing so through Skype, which is nowhere near as fun as sitting at the same table – call me a technophobe). I find it to be unspontaneous and equipment-heavy for my liking, which may also be tainted by my feelings towards my own designs of late. Regardless, I continue to play because I still enjoy getting together with my friends and playing within the confines of the game we’re using that day. My shelves are stocked with books and my laptop stacked with PDFs. I call that success.
For this week’s post, I’d like to point out two versions of perhaps the most contested rules in RPG history: fourthcore and Neurospasta. Despite everything spoken and written about the 4e mechanics, these are two alterations applying the original design in new and interesting directions, augmenting its mechanics rather than revising.
To best explain fourthcore, read the following passage taken from the introductory adventure, Crucible of the Gods.
“Fourthcore is an unusual way of playing Dungeons & Dragons that departs from some aspects of the game’s design philosophy. Make sure both you and your players are aware of what this adventure is, what it entails, and that everyone is comfortable with it.
“Don’t inflict this on the unwilling. When it doubt, don’t play.”
There is no fourthcore rulebook, no download offering alternate or optional rules on how to incorporate it into your existing 4e campaign; it’s a series of highly competitive and deadly adventures using the 4e mechanics at what you might call an advanced level. Put simply, it takes the concept of “fair and balanced play” and tosses it out the window, creating a cross between old-school D&D and modern mechanics. The best example is the Death-Priests of Asar-Segt from the aforementioned Crucible of the Gods, a 1st-level adventure.
First off, these suckers have at-will powers capable of preventing any PC (or dungeoneer, as they’re referred to here) from regaining hit points and another at-will inflicting the weakened condition (half damage). Then there’s the bloodied encounter power, forcing all those afflicted to make a saving throw OR DIE. This is an adventure where death is dished out on a frequent basis without modifications to the mechanics, just their application. The death saving throw is simply the same saving throw found in 4e (roll a d20 and you succeed on a 10 or higher) and the effects of the at-will powers already exist but are intended for higher levels (and in my experience are rarely used). And that’s not all; there’s another opponent called the Stone Guardian which destroys the body of any creature it reduces to 0 hp. No negative hit points, no death saving throws, nothing. Ouch.
More than just ass-kicking encounters and death spooned out buffet-style, fourthcore is also about insane magic items, deities with 14 syllables to their name, and many other old-school familiars, all of them presented within the mechanics of an edition many thought forbade such tactics. If there’s evidence a RPG is never limited by its mechanics, it’s fourthcore.
The short and sweet of it is a science fiction/cyberpunk game using the GSL/4e mechanics. Created by the same team behind the successful Amethyst setting at Dias Ex Machina (and published in print through Goodman Games) – which created a fantasy/modern hybrid – Neurospasta bends the mechanics even further to create an entire setting without magic and replacing them with robots, lasers, and more. Unlike fourthcore, there are numerous modifications and a rulebook soon to be released, but these are part of the necessary modifications required to suit the genre and the setting.
Details were recently provided through Gnome Stew’s interview with its creator, Chris Dias, as they asked for some of the biggest adaptations made to the GSL while still complying with the stricter conditions of the license than something like the OGL found in Pathfinder and the entire d20 market of the last decade.
“From a purely mechanical point of view, the most dramatic alteration is the ladder system. This involves trimming the number of available powers per level with classes from three or four to one or two. This allowed us to create ten distinct classes instead of only five in the same space. This may seem limiting but players can expand their repertoire with their ladder. A ladder was originally meant to offset the lack of magic items and to discourage the need of gamers to be based around a selfish desire to gain money. It awarded special abilities through character generation. It expanded to be able to offer alternative power choices based around a similar theme as well as the capacity to alter the class you have selected. So you pick a ladder at the same time you pick class (actually, you should pick a ladder first). Ladders are very generic and are focused more on who you are as person and how you act, not the role you play in the game. They are based around your two most dominant ability scores. We have included six with examples like Juggernaut (Con/Str), Savant (Int/Wis), and Runner (Dex/Int). As said, these offer more options that give you the same variety (if not more) from traditional GSL classes. This includes being able to adjust your primary attribute for attack powers. Instead of 10 classes, we now have 60 class combinations as a ladder can radically change how your character acts. Yes, it adds a level of complexity to character creation and growth but we believe people will embrace this new level of adjustability.
“Additionally, our classes have, on average, less hit points to contend with and there is a lower damage curve through paragon and heroic tiers to compensate for this. This makes survivability more based around intelligence on the combat field over raw constitution, forcing players to take cover and strategize over the nonsensical suicide runs seen in first person shooters. We also have no enhancement, both for AC and for attacks. Our “monsters” reflect this. We have also implemented a hardness and armor penetration system to try and deal with higher capacity weapons like rocket launchers as well as making opponents like tanks and powered armor that much more difficult to take down. This begs the questions, how compatible is it with standard D&D? Throughout the heroic tier, there is very little that changes. Once paragon hits, NS characters will start to feel the tightness of low hit points and no magic weapons. NS was not designed to be 100% compatible with D&D although we will be including a quick-adaptation page for those wanted to through NS characters into a fantasy setting (although for that, I would recommend Amethyst, which is designed from the ground up to be that way).”
– Chris Dias, from “Gnome Exclusive: Neurospasta Questions and Logo”
Chris and I have spoken (or emailed, if you want to get literal) on many occasions about our views on the GSL found in D&D’s 4th edition and he is very much the biggest proponent of its capabilities while so many others found it threatening and dangerous. In this way, Neurospasta is about more than just defying expectations of the original mechanics, but all the legal crap commonly trailing it. (Though I do have to admit the uncertainty of where the 4e GSL stands with the next edition of D&D could mean you’ll need to snatch up this game ASAP when it’s finally released.)
THERE ARE NO LOSER, ONLY WINNERS
There’s a likely chance all the points I’m making here will be lost on as many readers who would agree with them, but my point in today’s post is not to be right or wrong. It’s a demonstration that anything is possible, especially when it comes to mechanics. Just as there is always another way to build a “better game,” there is just as much opportunity to build a better experience using the same mechanics. For me, it’s not a point I’m inclined to make often because of my own personal fascination with the construction of new and inexperienced mechanics built in steps familiar to modern technology’s gradual rise from gears to microchips to nanotechnology. But it’s just as important to remember some things are never broken and what makes game mechanics beautiful is their flexibility. To invoke Bruce Lee, mechanics are like water. “If you pour water into a cup, it becomes the cup. Be water, my friend.”