Monday, June 23, 2008

My Other Traveller Pet Peeve

It's only fair after praising Mongoose Traveller for getting the weapon/armor balance right to point out where they failed: the deadly Low Passage. Traveller has three levels of interstellar travel tickets, like first, business and coach in today's airlines, only in the Traveller universe you have a significant chance of dying if you fly coach. In Traveller they are called High, Medium and Low Passage. Low passage involves being put into cold sleep and revived on the other end. You have to make a revival roll and if you fail you never wake up. There's even a Low Lottery where every low passenger bets on how many will survive the trip.

This is, in fact, utterly ridiculous. There's an approximately 28% chance of dying for the average person if revived by a doctor. The odds get worse if a doctor isn't present, or if the passenger happens to have below average endurance. So much worse that there's nearly a 60% chance of dying if only a med-tech is present on revival. There is no commonly used voluntary mode of travel in human history that is any where near as dangerous. If this was the best rate of survival that could be managed the technology would have been abandoned, not put into widespread use as it is in the Traveller universe.

Editions that followed Classic Traveller recognized this and made failed revival rolls result in injury rather than death. IMTU (In My Traveller Universe, a common acronym in Traveller discussions), I'll be using a similar method.

Fortunately, this problem is easier to fix than my other pet peeve would have been had it not been done right in the rules. Still, it's disappointing to see this bit make it in unchanged from the original rules. I can see where some old-time players may be glad to see its return, but I'm not one of them.

Monday, June 16, 2008

What Isn't There - My First 4th Edition House Rules

There was a lot of speculation as to what would be in 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons. For a change, a lot of this speculation was fairly accurate thanks to WotC releasing a lot of information along the way. Still, there were a few things that didn't pan out the way I had expected. I thought I'd mention a couple of them, and some ideas I've had about integrating one of them into the game anyways.

First, somewhere along the way I had gotten the impression that they were doing away with alignments. I don't remember where I got this impression from, but it was a bit surprising when I first saw the books and realized that while it's been simplified, the alignment system is still there. I guess since it's been a core part of the game from the beginning they decided it should stay, but I still can't help but think it might have been better if they dropped it completely.

Second, I read somewhere that magic items were going to be "upgradeable" so that your gear could advance with you and you wouldn't have to be constantly trading in your old magic stuff as you leveled. Again, I don't recall where I read this. I suppose it might have originated with someone getting a sneak peak at the magic items with levels.

This was an idea that I really thought would be a good way to lessen the feeling of magic items as a commodity that has become a problem in D&D, especially in 3.5.

If I ever get the chance to run the game, I'll probably come up with my own system for doing this. One quick fix would be to allow the Enchant Item ritual to upgrade an existing item to a higher level version of the same item in exchange for components equal to the difference in cost between the two versions.

The problem comes when a character has a "signature" item that is already a higher level than the groups ritual caster. That item gets progressively less impressive as the character advances. Since the game suggests that the characters should have some items higher than their level, this still calls for a fairly rapid turnover among the most impressive magical items a character has. A possible fix for this would be to allow the Enchant Item ritual to upgrade an item up to the caster's level +5 as long as there is an existing item of the same type to upgrade. The only thing I'm not sure of is whether or not characters could reasonably be expected to pay the cost for such an upgrade. I don't know enough about the game economy yet to know whether or not that's feasible. If it isn't, then I might have to also propose some form of discount when upgrading.

On the other hand, I don't want players upgrading all their items this way, so the expense involved could provide a natural limit there. Otherwise, I'd have to institute a hard cap on the number of items per player that could be improved in this way.

Artwork in Mongoose Traveller

A thread over on RPGnet got me to thinking about Traveller art. The original three Little Black Books that formed the core of the Classic Traveller rules didn't have any art. They had a few diagrams to show movement in space, and that was it. Most of the early Traveller art was found in the adventures and the Journal of the Traveller's Aid Society, the magazine for the game.

Now, in today's market you can't put out an RPG book without art. It just isn't done. Even indie games attempt to put some sort of artwork in their books. Mongoose Traveller is no exception. The art in MT is passable, but not exceptional. It is also very reminiscent of the early Traveller art. The earliest art was dominated by the line drawings of William H. Keith. He drew images that evoked alien landscapes but populated with fairly conservative looking men. The result was something of the same effect achieved by the "used feel" of Star Wars. A universe that felt real. Keith was not a great artist, but he was a passable technician that could pull off semi-realistic images that inspired the imagination.

On the other end of the stylistic spectrum from Keith was Donna Barr. Barr had a very cartoonish style with minimal landscapes. Whereas Keith's characters all had the same look and little personality, Barr's characters were all about personality. I hated her work at first, because I wanted the feeling that I was seeing a real alien place like I got from Keith's work. Later, I came to appreciate Barr's humor and character and eventually came to consider her the best of the early Traveller artists (which also included Paul Jaquays, Liz Danforth, and Paul Deitrick, among others).

The art in Mongoose Traveller appears to be trying to capture some of the same feelings. The book has a mix of artists that roughly fall along the same stylistic spectrum defined by Keith and Barr. Unfortunately, the artists that are more like Keith don't have his attention to detail in the landscape and equipment, but the artist they have who draws more like Barr seems to have a great deal of potential. They are also getting a lot of criticism from reviewers who seem to be looking for more realism and less character, which just serves to reinforce the comparison with Barr in my mind as I remember my own initial reactions to Barr's artwork were similar.

For the record, I think this artist is Robin Everett-McGuirl, but it's difficult to tell for sure as whoever it is uses a stylized signature.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

D&D and teh Interwebs

The big news in gaming this past week was the release of Dungeons & Dragons 4.0. The latest version of the original roleplaying game is quite a bit different from previous incarnations, but I'm not going to talk about all the rules changes here. Instead, I'm going to discuss the online strategy that Wizards of the Coast appears to have planned for the game.

D&D has a rather checkered past when it comes to the internet. Back in the days of TSR the company tried to ban all unofficial material from the net. I don't believe they ever sued their own customers, but they otherwise took an approach that is similar to the RIAA today. Eventually they loosened up a bit, but only after doing a great deal of harm to their reputation. Some argue that this was a contributing factor to their eventual demise.

After WotC took over things went in a completely different direction with the OGL opening things up for everyone, both online and in print. Unfortunately, the new edition doesn't use the OGL, and WotC has a new online strategy that involves turning their online presence into a direct revenue stream.

Part of this strategy involved the demise of Dragon and Dungeon magazines last year. By moving them to an online only edition they hoped to move a proven seller into the core of their online offering. Unfortunately, even WotC has had to admit that up until now what they've produced hasn't exactly been stellar.

In addition to the online magazines, they are also building a set of tools that combined will form a virtual tabletop for playing the game over the internet. A cool idea, but the information released so far indicates that the minimum system requirements for the tools are going to be pretty steep, and they aren't going to support the Macintosh. Not such a big deal for individuals, but this is a product that is going to be used by groups. The lowest common denominator of the group is going to decide whether or not all the members of the group use this product. If not everyone meets the system requirements, then chances are no one will subscribe.

I'm sure they're hoping that by bundling the magazines with the online tools that they'll get more subscribers overall. Even those that can't use the tools will subscribe just to get the magazine content, but that brings us to a couple of additional factors: their pricing structure and the nature of the internet today.

First, the pricing structure. Fifteen dollars a month, plus extra if you want virtual minis to use on your virtual tabletop. They need to pick a revenue model and stick with it. Either charge a flat fee that covers everything, or use a micropayment model where you pay just for what you want to use. The combination is too much and is, as far as I know, unprecedented.

Of course, if someone only wants access to the magazines, then the extra costs for virtual minis won't be a factor. That brings us to the issue of the nature of the internet.

I mentioned that the big news in gaming this past week was the release of D&D 4.0. The biggest news in gaming the week before was also the release of D&D 4.0: the leaked release of the rules onto the internet in pdf form. There was much moaning from the retail gaming sector about how this was going to hurt their sales. In the end, because the rules were solid, by getting a sneak peak at them it only encouraged fence sitters to go ahead and buy the game. Any sales lost were more than made up for by the increased publicity. Retailers had nothing to fear from the leak, but WotC is another matter.

WotC should be very afraid of the leak. This was a leak of a pdf version of a print product. It took someone some real effort to obtain the pdfs in order to leak them. Dragon and Dungeon magazines are pdf products. It will take people zero effort to post them as torrents once they have them. I'd be willing to bet real money that as soon as they lock up the magazine content behind a subscription barrier that I'll be able to download the content over a torrent on the same day they release it on their site. If they watermark it I might have to wait until the next day.

This is the nature of the internet, and why almost all other gaming companies release this kind of stuff for free. They see the value of doing this as a relatively cheap way to promote their print products.

Mind you, there are a couple of gaming companies that do use their online presence as a revenue stream. It's also no coincidence that those companies are becoming increasingly marginalized in the overall market. WotC doesn't need to fear that result, but they do need to re-evaluate their internet strategy if they don't want it to fail, possibly impacting sales of their core products in the process.