Sunday, March 25, 2018

Quiescence


Nothing exciting to say this week.  I just ran out of time this weekend—lots of catching up on miscellaneous bits, and a trip down to my work office to pick up some furniture that they’re getting rid of.  So you’ll just have to tune in next week to see what topic I come up with.










Sunday, March 18, 2018

Looking Forward to Pathfinder's Next Iteration


The second edition of Pathfinder has just been announced.

Now, I have an opinion on this, and I’d like to believe it’s an informed opinion, but (like pretty much all my topics), I feel like there’s quite a bit of background to cover before my thoughts make sense.  Happily, I’ve already talked about most of it before: for full details of my opinions, you could read my post on post-apocalyptic RPGs (where I cover a bit about the different versions of D&D, up through 3e), and my two-part series on Pathfinder (link to part 2 at the bottom of part 1; this one covers open gaming and the rise of Pathfinder’s first edition).  If reading all that seems like too much trouble, I’ll give you the short version:

  • What we call D&D today was originally called “Advanced” Dungeons & Dragons.  In retrospect, we refer to this as first edition (even though there was a version before it: sort of a proto-D&D), or 1e.  It was ... a game.  It came out in 1978(ish).
  • The second edition of “advanced” D&D came out in 1989, and we call that (again, in retrospect) 2e.  I have never heard anyone say that 2e wasn’t better than 1e.  1e was a hot mess of confusing and contradictory rules.  2e cleaned up a huge amount of that (but admittedly not all of it) and added long-demanded subsytems (e.g. “non-weapon proficiencies,” which would become skills in 3e).
  • Third edition D&D (no longer “advanced”) came out in 2000, and was called 3e pretty much from the get-go.  What we retrespectively rename it is “3.0,” because of what followed.  Unlike the 1e to 2e transition, 3e pretty much radically rewrote nearly all the rules.  However, the basic shape of the game didn’t change.1  Most significantly, 3e was the version of D&D that introduced us to the OGL (or “Open Gaming License”), a concept based on the open-source software (OSS) movement.  Whether 3e is better than 2e or not is more debatable, but I would say a majority (although maybe not a huge one) would say it is.
  • In 2003, just 3½ years after 3.0, 3.5e was released (and here’s where people started using the software-style version numbers).  There were a number of good reasons to do this, primarily because the lack of public playtesting meant that there were some things in 3e that were just plain broken and really needed to be addressed—and, if you have to force people to buy all new books anyway, may as well fix as much as possible, right?—but it did force people to buy all new books (if they wanted to keep getting cool new stuff that was compatible with the game they were playing, at least), and therefore this is the first instance I can remember of anyone referring to a new edition as a “cash grab.”  3½ years really is a fairly short amount of time to ask people to reinvest in core rulebooks all over again, but at least most people agree that 3.5 was better than 3.0.  Oh, sure: a lot of people hated it and refused to upgrade on principle, but very few tried to argue that it wasn’t better.
  • In 2008, 4e was released, and it was a radical departure.  Now, you may have noted that, in my Pathfinder posts, I described 4e by saying it “sucks.”  That was probably too harsh: I plead youth and a certain amount of bitterness.2  Today let’s just say that, while 3e seemed radically different at the time, because it was a complete redesign, 4e was a departure on a whole different scale.  It just wasn’t the same game any more (and consequently launched the so-called “edition wars”).  And, while some people like the game it was better than actual D&D, I preferred (and still prefer) the original.  I’m okay with rewriting and redesiging and throwing out whole chunks and replacing with crazy new ideas, but I still want it to be the same game.  Call me anti-progress if you must, but that’s my line and I’m sticking to it.  But, regardless of how you feel about whether 4e was better or worse than 3e (and probably they’re so different that “better” and “worse” aren’t even terms that could apply any more), the most significant point is that it wasn’t released under the OGL.  They took the open-gaming game and closed it.
  • In 2009, the inevitable happened, and the open-gaming game was forked: Pathfinder appeared, keeping the same general engine as 3e (3.5e, really) and just fixing some of the more egregious warty bits.  Being disappointed with 4e, I switched to Pathfinder immediately and played it nearly exclusively.  Again, I’ve heard few people claim that Pathfinder isn’t better than 3.5e, and comparison to 4e is just as silly as comparing 3e to 4e.
  • In 2014, 5e arrived amidst claims that it brought together the best bits of the previous 4 versions ... and, surprisingly, it pretty much delivered.  The most common criticism of 5e is that it’s “everybody’s second favorite version of D&D,” but it’s easily my favorite.  It’s back to being the same game that 3e was, in my opinion, but once again redesigned from the ground up, and streamlined and simplified to a degree I had previously thought impossible.  Not immediately, but gradually, I’ve switched away from Pathfinder over to 5e.3

Yes, this is actually the short version, and I’ve still glossed over quite a few details that I didn’t feel were entirely relevant.  Last bit of relevant info: who am I to offer an opinion, and what perspective do I come at it from?  Well, I’ve played every edition mentioned above, except for 4e, and I’ve been playing for about three-quarters of my life.  I’m a software developer who’s been programming nearly as long as he’s been playing D&D, and whose first serious computer program (at perhaps age 15) was a D&D character generator.  While I’m quite literally a graybeard, I do not consider myself a grognard: I love change, and I love updates to my favorite games, and I love it when things get easier to do and I love having more options.  And my perspective as a programmer leads me to think about new editions of the game like new versions of a software program: new features aren’t always good just because they’re new, but never upgrading means you’re stuck with outdated features while everyone around you gets the good stuff, and complete rewrites are tricky to get right, but pay big dividends when you do.  Also, I believe in open-source.  A lot.

Now, all that having been said, what do I think of a new version of Pathfinder, given what little info they’ve released so far?  Well, there are a few common (negative) reactions that I’ve seen a lot of that I want to address:

  • Many people are referring to it as a “cash grab.”  This is so far past ridiculous as to be practically moronic.  Every version of D&D—nay, every version of any tabletop RPG—released after 3.5e has been called a “cash grab” by somebody, and usually a large/loud contingent of somebodies.  But look at the timelines up above: 1e to 2e was 11 years, and then 11 more to 3e.  No one ever said “cash grab” for any of those.  3.5e came along a mere 3½ years later, though, and the cries of “cash grab” at that point weren’t entirely unjustified.  4e was 4 years after 3.5, but 8 years after 3e, which is still pretty respectable.  5e was 6 years after that, which is getting short again, but I would argue that being sensitive to the fact that many fans were unhappy with 4e—and sensitive to the business argument that Pathfinder was actually beating D&D in sales at that point—makes it okay.  On the Pathfinder side, second edition Pathfinder (P2e? 2P?) will arrive next year, a full 10 years after the original, which was, you remember, based on the 3e ruleset, which is another 9 years old on top of that.  Updating a 19-year-old ruleset is a “cash grab”?  Please.
  • Some people are saying that Pathfinder built its business model on customers who were afraid of change, and therefore updating the rules is doomed to fail.  But this is silly: if we were afraid of change, we’d have stuck with 3e altogether (many did), instead of embracing Pathfinder, which had more than a few radical new concepts.  Pathfinder gave us more options and kept play exciting while still simplifying a lot of complex bits—that’s why we bought it.  If they can do that again, we’ll buy it again.
  • Some people are pointing out that several of the details released so far sound a lot like the changes that D&D introduced in 5e, so therefore Pathfinder 2e is a 5e rip-off, so therefore why not just stick with 5e?  The answer to this is two-fold.  First, those innovations didn’t actually originate in 5e—D&D stole some good ideas from other games with a lower profile.  If Pathfinder thinks they’re good ideas too (and, why wouldn’t they?), then they too should steal them.  To return to my software analogy, two competing pieces of software are often going to end up looking remarkably similar, because they’re both catering to the same customer base.  The similarities are irrelevant; we need to focus on the differentiators.  Secondly, speaking as someone who more-or-less abandoned Patfhinder for 5e in the first place, I’m hoping they steal as much from 5e as possible ... I actually want it to be more like 5e than what we’ve heard so far.  Include all the features that tempted me away and I’m likely to jump right back on board.

So, overall, none of the criticisms are striking home, and I’m pretty damned excited about the possibilities here.  Now, whether those possibilities will come to fruition or not is still an open question.  I’m not blindly saying that Pathfinder second edition will be great.  But I think it could be great.

What will determine whether it succeeds or fails is pretty simple, in my book.  It all has to do with why I (eventually) chose 5e over Pathfinder.  See, the reason that Pathfinder is better than 3e is that it adds choice.  As I’ve mentioned before, I believe that roleplaying is storytelling.  More choices for building a character, and more choices when advancing that character, means more flexibility in the kinds of stories I can tell.  When I read people saying that you never need more than 4 classes,4 my mind boggles.  Are there only 4 kinds of people in the world?  What kind of sad, impoverished stories are these people telling?  Every character in every story needs to be different from every other character, even if only by a little.  Every character needs multiple ways to be unique, to be memorable, to be heroic.  We need choices.

Unfortunately, choice brings complexity.  And complexity is not always bad, but it certainly can be.  If it makes the game harder to play, or harder for new people to learn, or makes it take longer to resolve what seem like simple actions ... all that complexity is no good.  When people say a new version is “streamlined,” what they mean is that a lot of that type of complexity has been removed.  Pathfinder has a lot of that kind of complexity.  Especially as the person who’s most often the GM in my games, I eventually just got burned out on how much effort and math and just plain work it was to manage all the complexity.

D&D 5e is definitely streamlined.  Combat is faster, and easier, putting together encounters is easier (and faster), there’s less math all around ... a lot of the complexity has been removed, and (again, especially from the GM perspective) that’s a welcome relief after the vast collection of fiddly bits that make up Pathfinder.  5e has a sort of elegance that’s very compelling.

And yet ...

And yet there’s a reason I liked Pathfinder in the first place.  It gave me more choices, and that was good.  Unfortunately the choices came with increased complexity, and that was bad.  5e gave me simplicity, and that was good, but it also reduced my choices, and that was bad.  I found that I missed all the options for building characters, or building monsters and encounters, or building NPCs such as main villains.  All of a sudden it was harder to tell the stories I wanted to tell.

One last digression:  I started my (professional) programming career in C.  C is what’s known as a “strongly-typed” language: every time you create a new variable, you’re required to say what type it is (integer, floating-point number, string, array, etc).  But that can be a giant pain in the ass, especially if you’re pulling in data from outside sources (such as databases5) and you don’t know what the type is.  For the last few decades, though, I’ve been programming in Perl, which is called a “weakly-typed” language—that is, when I declare a variable in Perl, I have to distinguish between singular values and plural values, but that’s it.  Strings, integers, floating-point: they’re all just “scalars.”  This was amazingly liberating for a long time.  But it turns out there’s a price to be paid for freedom: slower performance in some cases, potential errors from not being able to assume types, or from having the wrong type accidentally jammed into a variable, and so forth.  What I really want is to be able to choose between “strongly-typed” or “weakly-typed,” but within the same language.  When I declare a variable, I’ll choose whether to specify the type or not.  Interestingly, some of the newer languages (like Perl6) do allow this (they call it “progressively-typed”).  You get the best of both worlds.

Likewise, in my RPGs, while it may seem like I want both complexity and simplicity, and that those are diametrically opposed, in reality that’s a false choice.  I can have both in a single game, as long as each one is in the right area.  When I first started to think about it, I thought I wanted simplicity as a GM and complexity as a player.  But that’s not it, exactly.  What I actually want is simplicity at the table, and complexity away from the table.  Building a new character, or advancing my character to the next level ... those are activities that take place away from the table.  It doesn’t matter how long it takes (well, not to me, anyway), because it’s not holding up the game.  On the other hand, resolving actions such as skill challenges and especially combat needs to be simple, because they are happening in real time, during the game itself.  Now, there may be times when it’s desireable to simplify even the complex parts—for instance, if a new player wants to create a character quickly, or if a GM needs to put together an encounter on the fly—but those types of situations can be handled with judicious application of templates or a playbook-style set of examples.  In general, I think the at-the-table/away-from-the-table dichotomy makes the best split.

Will the second edition of Pathfinder provide this perfect split between complexity and simplicity?  I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone else does either, yet.  But Pathfinder’s differentiator from D&D has always been more options, and more complexity in those good places, and I don’t see that about to change any time soon.  And the tidbits they’ve released about the new version seem to indicate that they’re going to be stealing some of the features from 5e, in particular those that provide 5e’s simplicity in those good places.  So it’s at least possible that Pathfinder 2e could end up with the perfect balance.  And that would be pretty freaking awesome.



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1 Obviously that’s my opinion.  Some folks disagreed, and there has been a movement ever since to “get back to” 2e-style play which is commonly referred to as OSR (for “Old School Revival”).  The fact that the many OSR D&D clones don’t just use 2e rules straight up lets us know that even they believe 2e had lots of room for improvement; they just didn’t agree with the direction 3e chose.  But, honestly, that’s a bit too much background info even for me, and not really necessary for the story.  Primarily this footnote exists so nitpickier readers know that I’m aware of OSR and don’t feel a burning need to “correct” me in the comments.

2 The “youth” part, obviously, is a bit tongue-in-cheek: 6½ years ago I was still pretty old.  Certainly my kids would tell you I was.

3 The full story of why I like 5e so much will have to wait for its own blog post, I think.

4 Meaning the 4 original classes: fighter, wizard, rogue, and cleric.

5 If you know anything about programming and databases and typing, you might wonder why databases—which are themselves strongly-typed—have issues interfacing with a strongly-typed language.  If you’re really interested, you could check out my discussion of strong vs weak typing on my Other Blog.









Sunday, March 11, 2018

Birthday Weekend: Middle 12


This weekend is the Smaller Animal’s birthday weekend, so there’s not much time for blogging pursuits.  The only movie out right now that he wants to see is Early Man, which is the latest Aardman effort.  Unfortunately, it seems that the big splash of A Wrinkle in Time has pushed the smaller movie out into the fringes, and almost every place still playing the film in our area is a) not really in our area, meaning it’s a half-an-hour drive or more away, and b) at remarkably silly times, like 9AM.  Who is really getting up at 7AM to go watch a movie?  Literally the only place playing Early Man in the Los Angeles area any time after noon is the theater in the tourist-trap shopping cluster outside Universal Studios, and we simply didn’t have the time to take out the second mortgage necessary to be able to afford that.  So we just ended up renting Coco from Amazon.  I actually didn’t want to like that movie—I’m quite sensitive to the argument that Coco is just The Book of Life redone by a bunch of white people, and that even aside from questions of cultural appropriation, Pixar is 3 years too late to the party and is just using its massive reputation to club a bigger audience into the seats, whereas Book of Life was almost criminally underrated (it really was a great little flick).  But, despite all that, Pixar just doesn’t make a bad movie.*  Highly recommended.

Food-wise, we’ve done Panda Express and Subway so far (specifically, lots of orange chicken and meatball subs).  Oh, and birthday donuts.  Still KFC to come for dinner tonight.  Gift-wise, there’s a number of videogames, of course, and some Pokémon crystal things to go on some wristband thingy.  I don’t know; I’m old.

Anyway, that’s all you get from me this week.  Tune in next week for a longer discussion about ... well, whatever I find to meander on about, I suppose.



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* Okay, maybe Planes.









Sunday, March 4, 2018

Gaming the Grey


A recent article on EN World got me pondering the contrast of black-and-white vs gray in modern fantasy.  Because the author (Lew Pulsipher) seems to me to be spot on in many ways ... but also slightly off in some ways.

Now, obviously my position is going to be highly influenced by my philosophy of balance and paradox: surely here is a custom-tailored debate for my outlook.  Obviously I must be on the side of gray, right?

But not so fast.  Recall what I said quite early in my inaugural Baladocian post:

But what I mean when I speak about “the Baladox” is that I believe in balance and paradox.  Not just that I believe that they exist, but that I believe everything in life is ruled by those two principles.  That the world is not black and white, but that sometimes it is gray, and sometimes it is both black and white and the same time.  And, recursively, sometimes it’s sort of halfway between gray and both black and white at the same time, and then sometimes it’s black and white and gray, all at once.


Now, that may sound sort of hand-wave-y, but it actually applies quite nicely in this situation.  What the author (and nearly all the commenters, for that matter) are trying to do is divide the world of fantasy (and/or fantasy roleplaying) up into either black-and-white—where the bad buys are inarguably evil and the good guys are purely good—or gray—where everyone is a little bit good and a little bit evil, and the “bad” guys are just those who lean more to one side than the other, or perhaps it’s even up for debate whether anyone is a bad guy at all.  But the problem with this is that entire argument is a stark dichotomy which doesn’t track with the actual reality.  Look at the simple examples that everyone there is using: the Lord of the Rings vs Game of Thrones.  Lord of the Rings is obviously black-and-white, with Sauron representing ultimate evil and the only good orc being a dead orc.  Whereas Game of Thrones is obviously gray, with the Kingslayer being both a oathbreaker and murderer, and also the savior of an entire city, and where it’s easy to root for “bad” people like Tyrion or the Hound, and far more difficult to get behind “good” people like Stannis or Robert Baratheon.  Except that there’s a big problem with this analysis: it completely ignores the Night King, who is no less purely evil than Sauron, and the political situations of Gondor (including the madness of Denethor) and Rohan (with the machinations of Wormtongue).  Hell, even Saruman, who does some pretty awful things in the Lord of the Rings, is not completely evil.  There is plenty of gray in the Lord of the Rings, and plenty of black-and-white in Game of Thrones.

Which is not to say that these two examples don’t lean pretty hard toward one extreme or the other.  There’s no denying that the the gray is pretty much background material in the Lord of the Rings, and the black-and-white is just there to shake up the gray and keep it interesting in Game of Thrones.  So on the one hand you could claim that I’m merely quibbling over matters of degree.  But I think it goes deeper than that.  I think that humans, with their inherent need to simplify things, wish that they were faced with a stark, either/or choice in this area.  But the fact is, we’re not.  Like everything else in life, the choice between black-and-white or gray is not between two poles, but rather a spectrum.  You can hew close to one end or the other, or you can stick closer to the middle.  It’s entirely up to you.

But I think this debate is oversimplified in another dimension.  Because we’re very specifically talking about fantasy here.  There are other types of literature out there, and we needn’t make the same choice for every genre.  Sometime I feel like people want fantasy (including some offshoots, such as horror or superhero stories) to conform to the level of gray shading that we’re seeing in modern dramas such as House of Cards or Breaking Bad or Sons of Anarchy.  There’s been a tendency in this area to take antiheroes to new heights.  And, personally, I like it—I’ve enjoyed all three of the examples I just gave.  But a drama set in modern times is very different from a fantasy.  For me, there’s nothing wrong with choosing shades of gray for one genre, but preferring a bit more black-and-white for others.

And fantasy (in addition to horror and superhero literature) is one area where there’s a distinct advantage to black-and-white.  A story in which good and evil are clearly delineated leaves no ambiguity about who to root for, and no question about whether the protagonists have “won” at the end.  If the evil was defeated, that’s a victory.  If not, then hopefully there’s a sequel in the works, because otherwise it’s a bit of a bummer.  And, again, there’s nothing wrong with a good tragedy, especially in a modern setting.  I shan’t give any direct spoilers for Breaking Bad, but let’s just say that the conclusion of that story was positively Shakespearean.  And I loved it.  But that’s just not what I want out of fantasy.  I want the good guys to win in the end: I’m willing to wait a while for that to happen—three movies or so is about right, but I’ll settle in for the long haul of seven books, if the story’s compelling enough—but, in the end, dammit, the good guys need to win.  Is that realistic?  No, of course it isn’t.  It’s FANTASY.  It’s not supposed to be realistic.  When I want realism, I’ll watch something realistic.  Or science fiction, perhaps: I’m way more tolerant for shades of gray and tragedic outcomes in sci-fi.  But fantasy needs to feed my need for a world where the bad guys are easy to identify and the good guys are destined to win.  Otherwise I could just stay in the real world.

Which is not to say that I don’t enjoy Game of Thrones, because I do.  I like the show more than the books (blasphemy, I know), because the books are even more tediously, drearily gray, but even the show can get on my nerves sometimes.  “Stop freaking fighting each other, you idiots,” I will often say to the screen.  “Listen to Jon Snow.  He’s the only one with any brains.  White walkers are coming to munch on your brains.  Morons.”  I have a similar love/hate relationship with The Magicians (I’ve watched the first two seasons of the show, and am about three-quarters of the way through the first book).  It’s obvious that somebody read Harry Potter and said, man, these kids have way too little sex to be teenagers, and then promptly went off to write their own version.  And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing at all: by being a direct contrast to Rowling, Grossman not only provides a completely different take on the vagaries of a magical eduction, but is able to pose many really interesting and profound questions.  For instance, in the book especially (and to a lesser extent in the series), the characters wrestle quite often with boredom: if you can provide all your basic needs with the flick of a wand, then what do you actually do all day?  It is, in many ways, a meditation on the contrast between those who have to work hard just to feed themselves and those who are wealthy enough to afford leisure time, and then what happens if you have nothing but leisure time.  So there are definitely intriguing aspects.  But sometimes I find my mind wandering, or I simply throw up my hands, because there’s never any clear concept of who the real enemy is (or, rather, it’s more that, whenever you think you know who the enemy is, you later find out you were wrong ... mostly).  To me, this stumbling around, never able to figure out exactly who the bad guys are, is just not that entertaining in a fantasy setting.  In other settings, okay.  But, to me, fantasy is different.

So, whether we’re talking about books, or movies and television, or roleplaying games, I think the question of black-and-white vs gray is a false choice.  In reality, you will end up with both; it’s just a question of which one you will choose to emphasize more than the others.  Now, in a roleplaying context, I’ve already done an entire post on choosing a playstyle and, not surprisingly, two of the options were Lord-of-the-Rings-style and Game-of-Thrones-style.  (The third choice was Conan-style, which is sort of a variation on black-and-white, where the “good guys” are defined as “you,” and the “bad guys” are defined as “anyone who gets in your way.”)  As a GM, I pointed out that it’s important to get your players on the same page; personally, I prefer to let everyone vote on what style they prefer, preferably with lots of discussion.  But, as a player, I’m always going to vote for Lord-of-the-Rings-style.  I love the epic quest, with clear goals and crystal clarity on who the ultimate bad guys are.  A little bit of murkiness on the lower-level baddies can be fun—I love a chance to figure out how to turn the #2 “bad” guy and make them a good guy double-agent—but up at the top, I want Sauron, I want Voldemort, I want the White Witch, I want the Dark One, I want the Night King, I want Lord Foul, I want the Wicked Witch of the West and the Red Queen and Captain Hook.  You can tell me about the tortured childhoods of these fiends all you want, but I will only be listening with half an ear.  These are the Big Bads, the faces of ultimate evil, the pullers of strings and wielders of dark energies.  These are the people whose defeat is worthy of an epic quest, and that’s what I’m in it for.

So, whether as participant (as in fantasy roleplaying) or merely audience (as in fantasy literature or cinema), I like to see my good and evil clearly accentuated in a fantasy context.  Throw me a little gray here and there, but mostly black-and-white.  Fantasy is one of the few genres that can support that sort of dichotomy, divorced as it is from what we see in the real world, so I say: take advantage of that.  Keep the heroes valiant and the villains despicable and we’ll all get along just fine.