Thursday, April 27, 2023

Choosing Your Ruleset as Difficulty Level

This is an idea that's been knocking around in my head for a while, but playing some emulated games with Steven (my 8 year old) this evening* reminded me about it. 

Video games used to have difficulty levels that you could choose before you started the game. I'm sure there are still a few games that use them, but one reason I don't play a lot of video games anymore is that they seem to be designed to either give you "an experience" or else they want you to subscribe/pay lots of microtransactions, so either they are too easy (experience or subscription) or too hard (microtransactions), with no choice. But back in the day, we had this.

So, here are my very subjective and probably wrong estimations of which version of D&D is at which difficulty level. This assumes a few things. One, it's difficulty for the players to play the game, not for the DM to run the game. Two, it assumes you're running things more or less by the book, at least as far as assumptions for things like encounters, healing, goals of play, and the like are concerned. If you play 4E in an "old school style" then that's outside of what I'm talking about here. I'm considering a group that plays 4E (or whatever edition) as the designers intended it to be played. Three, let's leave supplements out of the equation for now, they just complicate things. So no Skills & Powers, no Greyhawk/Blackmoor, no Unearthed Arcana, no Tasha's Cauldron of Everything. Just the core rule books.

And I'll reiterate -- this is just my feeling about it. Feel free to tell me how wrong I am down in the comments. But the next time you start up a campaign, consider selecting the rule set that fits the challenge level you wish to give the players.

 I'm Too Young to Die (Very Easy Mode)

4th Edition D&D This is about as easy as it gets for the players. It's designed so that you would have to go out of your way to create a "suboptimal" character. The play assumptions are two to three easy fights then a tougher but still winnable "boss" fight as an adventure. Magic items are fairly easy to acquire, and you're not expected to have to do much more than ride the railroad from set piece battle to set piece battle, with a few "skill challenges" here and there to spice things up.

5th Edition D&D A bit more challenging than 4E, but still a lot easier than most other editions. It's possible to create a suboptimal character, but the rules tend to be a bit more forgiving with character creation. Advancement is very fast at low levels. Healing is ridiculously easy. And again, the adventures seem to be mostly an assumption of a few easy fights leading up to the boss battle. If players just go along and make sure to rest often, and the DM only places recommended encounter difficulties, it's not too hard at all.

Hey, Not Too Rough (Easy Mode)

2nd Edition AD&D The rules and systems for play, including character creation and character advancement, can lead to challenges for the players. You might get stuck with a suboptimal character through dice rolls as much as through character choice. But, the big mitigating factor of this edition is the design goal that players play "heroes" and go on epic narrative adventures. So while death is very much possible from the way the rules are written, the DM advice suggests that this be mulliganed or nerfed to serve the ends of the story. 

 Hurt Me Plenty (Normal Mode)

BX or BECMI D&D  I'm lumping these two together because while BECMI incorporates a lot more complexity of play at the high levels (not to mention Immortals level play being a completely different and more challenging game), at the earliest levels, play is pretty much the same in them. Character creation by the book can be a challenge (roll 3d6 down the line), but ability score bonuses are more generous than in the AD&D line. There aren't many choices to make at character creation, either. Adventure design assumptions are that encounters are not balanced, and it's up to the players to know when to push on for more and when to quit. But there are also rules that make treasure pretty generous, which speeds up advancement if the characters do survive.

3rd Edition D&D This edition has a lot of the design assumptions of the later editions. Character creation is generous with abilities and ways to optimize the character, but the complexity of the "exception-based rules" design, with all the skill points and feat choices and whatnot make it more of a burden to play than other editions. The adventure design assumptions are not quite so forgiving, but still, healing is fairly easy to get, magic items are easily purchased, and it's pretty easy to get around the "save or die" type effects. If the rules weren't so complex and fiddly, this would be in an easier tier.

Ultra-Violence (Hard Mode)

Original D&D It all started here, and it wasn't easy! Characters were randomly generated and didn't have a lot of "powers" to rely on. Monster encounters can easily be with overpowering odds. There's an assumption of thinking your way through encounters, rather than just hacking and slashing. You're dead at 0 hit points, and healing is not easy to come by. The incompleteness of the rules (remember, this is assuming the base rules only, not the supplements) may also up the difficulty a bit, as the DM will need to make a lot of guesses as to what's an appropriate challenge, and players will have to have their wits about them to survive.

1st Edition AD&D This edition has a good mix of difficulty in character optimization (it's got generous die rolling for ability scores but stingy bonuses for high scores, race/class combo restrictions, ability score restrictions, level caps for demi-humans, etc.) and difficulty in adventure assumptions. Monsters are challenging. Tricks, traps, and whatnot are expected, and can really mess you up. Sure, there are lots of opportunities to find powerful magic items, but the most powerful have serious drawbacks. And the level of detail in the rules give the DM all sorts of ways to make things difficult or more challenging for the players.

Nightmare (Extra Hard Mode)

Holmes D&D Rolling 3d6 down the line for stats and rolling your hit points randomly and you can only go up to 3rd level, but the book expects you might run into all sorts of dragons, vampires, purple worms, and the like? Yeah, this is the most challenging version if you play it straight.

*We have a Super Console X, an Android TV box with EmuElec, Retroarch, and about 30 systems emulated, with thousands of games. Tonight, we played some Twisted Metal on PS1 and Gauntlet 4 Quest Mode on Sega Genesis.

Friday, April 21, 2023

Brain Drain

There's been a lack of posts here recently because real life has been busier than usual. 

Midterm tests. My younger son's school giving him too much homework, so I need to support him. Working on the third paper for publication this year, in order to apply for promotion at the end of the year. Helping my wife and mother-in-law with various stuff around MIL's house. Board gaming. Running my TS&R game. Catching up on grading my students' homework. Lots of stuff, in other words. 

I've got some RPG related topics I'd like to blog about, but just don't have the spoons, as they say. 

Hopefully, I'll have some time to get some actual content up soon. Until then, I'm still here. I just don't have time to blog.

Monday, April 3, 2023

Dungeons & Dragons Honor Among Thieves review

Yesterday morning, the boys and I took in an early showing of the new D&D movie. We went to a morning show because after lunch, we met up with the group for my TS&R Jade game. The game went well. We had a new player, Philip who has been playing in my Star Wars campaign tried D&D for the first time. Nate & Denis, plus my boys, and Denis' daughter Renee (who played Goldie the Fairy Princess in my West Marches game) also showed up. Philip and Renee needed new characters, and Flynn (my older boy) forgot his character sheet, so we needed to roll up 3 new PCs for the game. But despite that, they still managed to make their first foray into The Pits of Lao, the micro-megadungeon near the home town (300 keyed areas over 3 levels, but no plans to expand it further, so micro-mega). They found one of the "special" special rooms, where they had chances to compete in various challenges to raise their ability the risk of dropping them if they lost. Some winners, some losers. Lots of fun. They also managed to talk or sneak their way past every other encounter, and steal a bit of treasure on the way, so all in all a good session! 

But you're probably here to read about the movie, not my game. And of course, since internet searches for "curse words in movie x" often end up here, there were some swearing in the movie, but not too much. Several instances of thematically appropriate or comically timed "shit" but no f-bombs. That's about it. 

So, how did we like it? Overall, it was entertaining. Compared to the bar set by the D&D movies of 20 years ago, it was amazing! But that's a pretty low bar. Compared to other classic or more modern fantasy films, it was decent, but not amazing. 

The casting and acting was pretty good. Chris Pine and Michelle Rodriguez are charming and funny as the leads. Hugh Grant is having a blast hamming it up as the con-man turned nobleman. The other supporting actors all turned in good performances. 

The special effects were fine. Nothing amazing. The magical effects and monsters looked pretty good, but they weren't the best CGI I've ever seen. Sometimes it was just very apparent that it was an animated thing. While I think some early CGI movies (the original Jurassic Park, the Lord of the Rings trilogy) have effects that still look pretty good all these years later, I don't know if these effects will still look so good down the road. But for now, they're good enough. Better than a lot of the stuff in Quantumania (a film I enjoyed, but it's pretty much 2 hours of CGI soup to look at). 

The story was very appropriate to D&D, and all the fun little references and Easter eggs were fun to try and spot. There wasn't anything in the film that isn't established in D&D already as far as magic or monsters go, which is a plus for fans of the game. 

But while I've seen some people online praising this move, there's one thing I found it annoying and caused the first half of the movie to drag and be a bit boring. Every time a main character gets introduced, there's a big exposition scene. Now, that is kind of like what happens in some peoples' games when a new character joins the party. And so that does kind of fit in a D&D movie that's trying to play out like it could be a game of D&D without the 4th wall breaks of a movie like The Gamers: Dorkness Rising. But as a guy who has studied how to make a movie, it was a bit grating. My boys found it pretty boring at first, too, and they have not studied screenwriting. I've been thinking of all the ways they could have shown us the backstories without having to tell them to us. And in some instances, the whole "backstory" flashback was just to set up a joke later in the movie which was extra annoying.

The second half of the movie was much better. It focused on the characters having to overcome their personal issues while trying to overcome the external challenges of the film, which is what makes for good cinema. And the ending was suitably emotionally engaging (if predictable). There were a lot of jokes in the movie. Some hit, some missed. I'd say for me more hit than missed. The potatoes usually hit. ;)

We liked it, but none of us came out of the theater loving it. It was fun. It was alright. I'd watch it again when it comes up on streaming (if it's on one of the services we subscribe to). And if they made a sequel, I'd go see it. But I wouldn't go spend money to see it again in the theater.