21 August 2015

Ruminations on Pathfinder, D&D Fifth Edition, and OSR

Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition is a bestseller in the RPG world, but so is its main competition, Pathfinder (which is an update to the D&D 3.5 rule set). Can they both coexist? Which is better? Also, is 5e really old school? Let's find out together (no hand holding, though. I don't know where you been, germ carrier)!


Pathfinder RPG Core Rules
I have played D&D for years. I adventured using the Basic and Expert rules, and moving on to AD&D. Yeah, I guess I am an old timer. Not as old as OD&D players, but I got a good history. During those years I began to play GURPS, from Steve Jackson Games, in its second edition form,and then tons of gaming with GURPS third edition. Many reasons made me not look back (and to completely skip AD&D 2nd Edition), mainly the ability to design my own character and all his abilities in these other games. In AD&D if you were a fighter, you get exactly what the book tells you. Old schoolers think this is an advantage, as the most important part is to get on to the killing. GURPS was a revelation, in the same way Hero was to many.

It is not hard to see why old D&D was like that. It came from a miniatures combat origin, and you did not really make characters for such a game. Instead you had units that all worked the same to make the combat a but easier to resolve. This concept lived on into D&D itself, making the game we used to love what it is. The bad side was that if you faced an enemy, such as a Thief, you basically knew what he could do. In GURPS you were never sure of the opponents abilities.

When D&D third edition came out, I found it fun, and even though it did not fully fulfill my liking of a free form character creation, the use of feats was good enough to let me get close to the character I imagined (you know, my murderhobo variant for whatever campaign). Also, the game systems were refined, with a common rolling mechanic for combat and skills, and a lack of exceptions to the rules, of which AD&D was notorious for (for example, fighters have different Strength and Constitution adjustments from other classes). All this is true for Pathfinder which continues to hone the game.


Pathfinder has so many feats and other options, it can be overwhelming. Not as much to players (though, when I played a 10th level Magus I found myself having to make sure I remember this or that obscure ability or adjustment). It is DM'ing that is the nightmare. I ran a campaign that lasted into double digit levels. At first it was easy to run, but as the level rose and the opponents gained more feats and special abilities, the game slowed down as I would have to look up this minutia to make the game work. Sure, GURPS has a thing similar to feats called advantages, but you will not have as many as in a 10th level Pathfinder character. They are a mass of feats, class abilities, and powers conferred from magic items.

The only way I survived was using a program called Combat Manager for Windows. It would keep track of combat, including when effects like spells, poisons, or conditions expired. I could bring up monsters and quickly look up abilities as needed. It is both free and fantastic. It can advance monsters for you, and even let you save encounters and load them so you get into combat fast. I highly recommend this program! The simpler D&D 5e does not need seem to need such a program and still be playable.

Another reason Pathfinder sucks is that it is still stuck with antiquated ideas the rest of the market has moved beyond. My big peeve is that armor makes you harder to hit instead of absorbing damage (I did have a friend who tried to convince me that D&D armor is more realistic, but he could not back it up). Third edition and Pathfinder really expanded the combat options and did not make it too complex, but pretty much requires action on a battle mat. I prefer a system where you can do either on the table or in the imagination, but Pathfinder precludes that.

Lack of DM fiat was also a problem. Every condition caused by combat or spell (confused, bleeding, etc.) were strictly defined with no room for imagination, and if you did add something to it, rules lawyers were there to correct you as the emphasis on its design is its exactness.

Finally, Pathfinder's bonuses scale pretty radically, making huge adjustments a high levels making play up there deal with really high values.


Pathfinder is strict in its rules and allows for much flexibility in character creation, which seem to not be old school to most folks.


The Player's Handbook for 5e
While it goes back to a much simpler character creation model, limiting much customization (though most classes have some customization built in), it does include cool things like the personality and background section to give you good starting points for roleplaying (if they are taken advantage of by a DM willing to add encounters where these things come into play). It is a bit like a simplified life-path system. While I prefer creating my own background, this can be enjoyable. In fact, a more complicated version of a life path system is what makes Traveller character creation so much fun.

The game overall is simpler to play, which makes the game faster, especially combat, and you can have your combats either on the table or in the mind. Also, skills and combat does not scale as fast as Pathfinder, making the game's math a bit easier.


While you get some customization in each class, it is not much. For example, a fighter chooses what kind of fighter he is: archer, great weapon fighter, etc. Pathfinder lets you have more variety among the same classes (of course, with the added complications). Feats are not much help. Instead of regularly gaining feats, you trade your attribute increase for one, and I would never trade an increase. Frankly, they just should have dumped feats totally.

The random nature of the backgrounds can take the control of your past and leave it to dice, but you can also choose or make something up. Rules are there to be changed to how you like them.

The simplification of the rules are hit and miss. I am not a big fan of attacks of opportunities in 5e gimped!). Also, the advantage/disadvanatage system (where you roll 2d20 and take the highest or or lowest) gives no way to scale them for larger or smaller effects. Still, many love these things; to each his own.

Oh, and armor does not negate damage, just like OD&D in 1974.


Maybe, kinda. Next to 3.5/Pathfiner I suppose it is. It is less exacting in conditions, allowing the DM more room to adjudicate the game, certainly a mark of the OSR movement. I might say yes, that is sits nicely between Basic  and Advanced D&D. Castles and Crusades is even closer to old school, but Wizards has a decent game that tries to bridge the old versions with third edition.


Balance is a problem in both games. In many other games when you encounter an opponent you may or may not be able to beat it, instead having to size up the enemy and judge how you react (fight, flee, or negotiate usually). In D&D and Pathfinder it tends to be attack, because the balanced nature of the games give players the feeling they can win any encounter because of that balance. I think this makes the game boring and encourages hacking and slashing from the murderhobos (man, I love that term).


Real Old School
Old School is a term that has little real meaning, instead means something different to each person. Which is fine, we all have different views of nostalgia, and the OSR is all about nostalgia. Fifth edition has some OSR in it, proably as much as not. In contrast, Goodman Games Dungeon Crawl Classics is not really an OSR game clone, but a design based on memories of what we liked int he game, but with whole new systems.

Frankly, if I want to play old school D&D I would use either the D&D Rules Cyclopedia or one of the basic/expert retroclones, like the Basic Fantasy RPG, Dark Dungeons, or Labyrinth Lord. The basic/expert D&D was sleek and fast in comparison to the bloated AD&D. Yeah, it has two problems that dog me. The magic-user is so useless at low levels who would enjoy playing it. There needs to be a replacement class for it. Also, the fact that races and classes are mixed together (for example, all elfs are exactly the same, basically Legolas). I prefer having your race and class choices to be separate. Luckily Basic Fanstasy has split the two (and dumped alignment), and Labyrinth Lord has a companion volume, the Advanced Edition Companion, has optional rules to do the same.

The Rules Cyclopedia is out of print (I got one at Rincon last year), but is super complete and modern. It includes skills and a way of generating character personality traits (and both are optional). Those are missing from Labyrinth Lord and Basic Fantasy, and Dark Dungeons has skills but no personality traits. 


Pathfinder has its Adventure Paths for campaign-length stories, and the Pathfinder Society for in store events. D&D also has long, climactic adventures and in store events as well.  However, I like Pathfinder better than 5e because of character options. YMMV. I suggest you read the main books, reviews and talk to friends before investing, but either choice will give you good adventures.

20 August 2015

Please help Jim Ward

To be happy, do what you love. James ("Jim") M. Ward has, bringing us much RPG fun over the years, but it is not the best paying industry, and so some of our heroes, like Jim, find themselves needing a helping hand.

Jim Ward
Jim Ward is best known for his years at TSR Hobbies. His first work was Gods, Demi-Gods& Heroes, for the original D&D (1976), followed by Dieties & Demigods for first edition AD&D (1980), Greyhawk Adventures (1988), and an adventure  that became the basis for the excellent computer game Pool of Radiance. He helped redesign the game into the second edition, and in 1989 was inducted into the Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts & Design Hall of Fame.

His best work, IMHO, has to be Metamorphosis Alpha. It was far more interesting than D&D at the time. D&D had no real background, just a bunch of rules for people to make their own worlds up. This was 1976, and Gary Gygax never thought anyone would want a pre-made world at the time. He had his world, others had their worlds, but none were published at the time. Here comes Jim Ward and he designs Metamorphosis Alpha, which not only gave rules, but a full background to play in. Characters were trapped in a colony ship where disaster has struck. People mutate. Technology is no longer understood. It was an apocalyptic world on a star ship. Goodman Games ran a successful Kickstarter in May to make a new edition, with Jim involved, so it will be back!

After TSR he continued to work in the industry, writing for Margaret Weis Games and Troll Lord Games, among others. It was always quality work with him.

Jim was stricken with a neurological disorder in 2010, and it is sapping his resources, and he has operations to come. I am asking you to help Jim out. Go to this GoFundMe page and give what you can.  

19 August 2015

Back from MaricopaCon

I spent last weekend at MaricopaCon. Played 20 hours of games in two days, two board games, and four RPGs (I ran two), including Savage Worlds Lankhmar, Delta Green (about a cat that would not stay dead), Savage Worlds The Fog of War, a horror game set in France towards the end of World War One, and Savage World's The Derelict, a horror adventure on a mysterious space ship (which I reviewed here). I ran the Lankhmar and Derelict adventures. The Derelict turned out to be the best con adventure i have ever run, a tribute to their good writing.

I had a damn good time. It is refreshing to spend that time in a big room with fellow gaming enthusiasts. No drama, just gaming. 

Jason Youngdale keeping us in line.
The event has been put on for the last few years by Jason Youngdale, a gaming enthusiast who has financed the events through Kickstarter. The event tickets are basically pre-sales: either the event funds or it does not happen. It was held at the Mesa Convention Center in Mesa, Arizona. The facilities are basically a large gaming room. Unlike other cons, this one has no private rooms for the RPGs, which makes it a bit noisy for role-playing. You need to have a strong voice to run. It also has to wrap up the first night by midnight, so no all night Werewolf games.

There are other fun events: a cosplay contest, and a raffle. They had a music group this year in the entrance area, but I was too busy trying to find out why this cat would not stay dead to give a listen. To me, gaming is the reason for coming, and I am going to game game game. 

The big downside was our record heat wave here, which the facility's air conditioning could not keep up with. 

Arrow points to my wife.
I have been running con games for a few years, and have developed a philosophy of how to approach it.
  1. I keep the background fairly generic, so I can explain it in a minute or so. If it takes ten minutes to explain the universe, forget it.
  2. Start with action, explain later. The Derelict was perfect for this, as the character's wake up from cryo-sleep into a ongoing ship's disaster. I like the idea of hitting the ground and running.
  3. Have optional encounters if the game is running too short, and know what to cut if it is taking too long.
  4. Use a game system that is easy to teach. Savage Worlds is excellent for this. You might think Fate Core would be good, but it is difficult to get people to grok the concept of tagging and scene resolution.
  5. Have something for the action/combat lovers and something for the thinkers among your players. Since you have random players, you need to try and have something for each.
  6. Make sure you build pre-gen characters to have a niche in their abilities, and that there are opportunities to make each character have moments to shine.
  7. Keep the game moving by keeping the pressure on. You only have four hours to play. Get as much play in as you can.
Up next I may or may not be attending Rincon in Tuscan in October. I sadly will not be attending Gateway in L.A. over Labor Day, but should hit it next year (it is the best con I have ever attended, and crowded). Also, we have GenCon in mind in a few years. So, gaming is in my future!

Photos were stolen from the MaricopaCon Facebook page. 

07 August 2015

Important message about Ken Whitman

I don't know Ken Whitman. I had never actually heard of him, but I have quickly become wary of this individual's reputation. A bad one that seems well earned. My wife and I have invested in two Kickstarter projects from Mr. Whitman's d20 Enterainment. Both are in jeopardy, the Pencil Dice and the live action Knights of the Dinner Table series. Right now it looks like neither will be done.

The aptly named Don't Fund Ken Whitman or d20 Entertainment blog covers the ins and outs of the problems, getting quotes from Mr. Whitman's forum, Facebook and blog entries.

From what I see, if true, is that there is major mismanagement. Yes, he bought a car and took a cruise which may or may not have come from the Kickstarter funds. However, it does looks like he did not keep the funds for the projects separate. Going in he knew the budget he needed, so where did the money go? This seems to show that there is a mixing of funds, which is highly unethical:
Click to make bigger.
So he squandered the money on a movie. Was it because the money in Knight of the Dinner Table dried up? Or one of his other projects like Spinward Traveller.

In any case, I think a lawsuit is coming. I understand he is not incorporated, so the lawsuit will be against him directly. Even if he was incorporated, he would be directly sued if mismanagement and embezzlement is proven. Although, he doesn't sound too solvent, and you can't get blood from a stone.

Also, I saw part of the first episode of Knights of the Dinner Table, and while it looked pretty good (could have used some filmizing), a was disappointed by the audio. It sounded amateurish, with everyone distant from the mic. Was there a boom problem? Was there a boom? What about lavaliere mics? Whatever, sound is a big thing to me. If you have seen it, compare the audio to other productions. It really is not that hard to make great.

In any case, until all this is settled, beware of d20 Entertainment.

04 August 2015

Interesting News Bits

A few interesting news items have come up that involve RPGs. Of course, many came from Gen Con where news come fast and furious. These caught my eye:


The lawsuit is over, and Warner Bros wins! They are already in pre-production, with a script ready to go. David Leslie Johnson is the screenwriter. His work includes The Conjuring 2 (due next year) and Wrath of the Titans. The bad news is that Wrath of the Titans was not good. It has a 25% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes, and a lot of the problems seem to be in the script. One audience comment hits him hard, "Some of that CGI money could've been spent on the writers, but noooo." I wrote a bit about what is needed to make a good movie version of D&D, and this review by Will Steich scares the hell out of me because if this is what the producers thought was a good script, the D&D movie is doomed: "Movies like this are often called "video game" movies, since they're basically a series of interstitial 'story' scenes plopped in to transition to and from the fighting scenes. But this is an insult to video games."


As long as he doesn't play for the NY Jets.
Savage Worlds has always been a good system for pulp role-play. At Gen Con, Shane Hensley announced Pinnacle has the license to produce material for one of the classic pulp sci-fi: FLASH GORDON. It should hit in 2016.

Pinnacle Entertainment Group is on a roll with the licensed material. Lankhmar is a good example of the quality we should expect.


Onyx Path is going full bore on the old World of Darkness. They announced the fourth edition of Vampire the Masquerade. The rules are updated (as they were in Vampire 20th Anniversary), and will have a new meta-plot. How will they explain the end of the world that ended the line?

I like this because I prefer the oWoD to the new one, of which I am not a fan, so this is great news. Hopefully, with their marketing plan (which I wrote about), it will be a success.


Paizo announced the Strange Aeons adventure path. It brings the Cthulhu mythos to Golarion, and even has Abdul Alhazred, writer of the Necronomicon, in the adventure. Also, a horror source book will be released, including a sanity system, so expect your heroes to suffer some fun mental illness.

I look forward to the Pathfinder Battles miniatures for this. They will be useful for Call of Cthulhu.