Sunday, February 12, 2012

Project RTFM

I've been doing some more reading, as part of what I'm calling Project RTFM (getting round to reading my unread books), and I've read a few RPG-related ones. Firstly, "Ready Player One", a novel by Ernest Cline. I've been reading quite a few novels lately, but this is by far the most entertaining.

It's a sci-fi story set in the mid-21st century where almost everyone spends most of their time in OASIS, a virtual reality world that's like Second Life, Facebook, and World of Warcraft all put together. The creator of OASIS died an eccentric recluse with no friends or family, and his public will left his vast fortune to the first user to find the Easter Egg he hid inside OASIS. The catch: the Egg is hidden behind layers of crazy-hard obscure puzzles, the only clues buried in the trivia of his lifelong obsessions: classic videogames and the pop culture from his teenage years - the 1980s. A subculture of egg hunters ("gunters") immerse themselves in the lore of these subjects hoping to find the jackpot, but several years on, none have made any progress at all.

The story's about a teenage gunter who figures out the first puzzle, becomes the first name on the online scoreboard, and finds out that with so much at stake it's not just a game anymore. The novel is as much a homage to the 80s and geek culture (including D&D) as it is a virtual-world treasure hunt, and has a feel like the action-adventure movies of the era that it references (and the references are many - Ghostbusters gets quoted just a few paragraphs in and it keeps going from there). To any gamer old enough to remember the 80s, I can't recommend this book highly enough.

I'm currently reading "Designers & Dragons" by Shannon Appelcline, a history of the RPG history. The research and scholarship that's obviously gone into it is astonishing, and the writing style is pitch-perfect, with enough opinion and personality to keep it from being dry, but not so much as to detract from it's credibility as a proper historical text. The only major weakness is the editing, with too many typos, and in one case I noticed a sidebar-quote had been duplicated (thereby erasing whatever the second quote was supposed to be). The book has no index, but that has apparently been released free online. It's a bit on the pricy side, but the reason becomes clear upon seeing it: it's a weighty leather-look black tome with a visual style somewhere between an encyclopedia and a grimoire.

The book is organised by company, and of course I began with the first, TSR, with their rollercoaster from founding the whole hobby and making D&D a household name, to being run into the ground and falling - twice - to the brink of bankruptcy. I already knew some of the specifics, but the book filled in plenty of gaps that I didn't know about. I've found myself wondering what "might have been" when reading a lot of this, including the story of West End Games, who nearly avoided their demise in the mid-90s (and what might have then happened to the Star Wars licence), and of course the young Wizards of the Coast (before Magic: the Gathering) who just barely survived the infamous lawsuit from Palladium with the help of mediation from within the gaming industry, and what would've happened if Wizards hadn't been around in '97 to save TSR with their CCG money.

I recommend Designers & Dragons to readers interested in the history of RPGs, specifically the business side. The details of the actual games themselves are fairly thin, but the stories of the companies and people who made them make fascinating reading in their own right.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

It's Just A Flesh Wound!

As I mentioned in my last post, I've been thinking about some of the things I liked about 4th Edition. One of these is the "healing surge" mechanic, which shifts the basic unit of healing per day from the cleric's spell slots to the recipient's ability to recover. The reason I like this is that a party without a cleric (or other dedicated healer) can use their own healing surges to restore Hit Points between encounters, and therefore isn't doomed to "death of a thousand cuts" brutal attrition that they would be in older editions.

To steal this in full would require an extensive re-writing of magic in classic D&D, but there's a "lite" option that's quick and easy. I call this the Health Reserve option.

OPTIONAL RULE: Health Reserve.
Characters get a health reserve (HR) die type equal to their base HD type plus Constitution modifier at level 1. They gain another die (plus Con mod) at each odd level afterwards. Each PC may use health reserve three times per day.
Example: a Fighter with a +1 Constitution modifier has 1d8+1 HR at level 1, 2d8+2 HR at level 3, etc. Health reserve may be used any time the character is free to rest for a few minutes; the dice are rolled and the result heals that many Hit Points. A character who receives magical healing may use HR once in addition to the magical effect, even in combat.

"Behind the curtain" explanation:
Assuming characters get maximum HP at level 1, the HR value therefore restores, on average, roughly half the full HP score. By adding one die every other level, this maintains the approximate average half of full HP. As an aside, characters over name level get "ahead of the curve", but high-level characters have more complex HP restoration issues in my experience anyway.

You might now be wondering: why not simply make HR equal to half the HP total and be done with it, like how 4e's healing surges are worth quarter total HP? A few reasons: that would require re-calculation (with rounding) each level, which is more record-keeping than updating a die code every other level. Also, it would double-dip reward characters who had rolled better for HP by making their healing more potent too; in contrast, the HR die code, like the classic healing spells, gives low-HP characters a larger proportion of their total HP. Finally, making HR a dice roll instead of a fixed value makes it less reliable, and therefore not overshadow healing spells or be too much of a crutch.

Giving three uses per day is based on the nominal "four encounters per day" assumption built into later editions. Having three uses of HR allows for an average of one between each encounter, which will of course NOT be this exact in play because of unequal HP loss, good or bad rolls on HR dice, use of healing spells or potions, etc. Even so, it's useful as a loose benchmark.

As a final note, the addendum allowing healing spells to grant a use of HR keeps even the humble Cure Light Wounds useful at higher levels because it enables in-combat use of HR. This is another way to keep this rule from hurting the cleric's role in the game.