The Red Box Blog

Ramblings about D&D.

9 Rules For New Characters

#1 Be Narrow

It can be great fun to sit down and write a few thousand words about all the personality quirks of a new character, but from a playing perspective it is far easier to make a character with a handful of quirks and motives and then add more later when you are ready; if you make your character too broad to begin with much of that breadth will likely be lost during the session anyways. It is far better to make a character you can be true to when you play than one that is a good read.

#2: Be Different

The longer you play, the harder this is, but being different doesn’t necessarily mean completely reinventing the archetype; some times you can make a character who is very different just by putting a focus on an aspect you haven’t tried before. Other times the campaign itself will make the character different, and so much of the onus is removed from you.

#3: Be Flexible

If you have a single minded vision of what character you want to play, you may find yourself in conflict with the other players or the DM. There will always be another time for you to play that one character you are dying to play, today make something that will fit in so you aren’t impeding anyone else’s fun.

#4 Be Picky

Before you make any selection during character creation, think about how this will fit in to the whole. You are far more likely to be happy with the end results if it is a tapestry you weaved instead of collection of threads.

#5 Be Campaign Centric

Without the DM you don’t have a game, so take heed as to the nature of the game before you make any decisions about the character. Moreover, you should look for opportunities to integrate your character with the game before it begins.

#6 Be Self Centered

If you don’t find your game rewarding, then you won’t be having fun. Yes you need to consider everyone else in more ways than one, but that doesn’t mean you need to forget yourself. Don’t make a character you won’t enjoy. If at some point during the character creation process you realize it isn’t working out, go back as many steps as you need to, or even just start over again.

#7 Be Tiny

It’s really easy to go overboard bringing together every resource you could imagine. This isn’t necessarily the best thing. Extra rulebooks are just that – rulebooks. While you might think that you desperately need a certain obscure feat/spell/power to make the character complete, if the book it’s from is unknown to the DM you are better off picking something else. The last think you want is in the middle of an adventure when you try to use said feat/spell/power to have the DM say “Wait a minute, it does that? I can’t allow that!” Whether he suddenly removes it from you or it totally wrecks his adventure are equally bad outcomes.

#8 Be Agile

A campaign is a story that is not yet written, be prepared to change your plans and go off in other directions. Planning for your characters future certainly has merit (especially in 3.x), but don’t write that plan in stone.

#9 Be Wary

Over generalized lists of character creation “rules” are not to be taken too literally; there are exceptions to everything.

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January 7, 2011 Posted by | Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs | , , | 1 Comment

The Price of Plate Mail

I don’t think there has been any piece of equipment that has varied as much in price from edition to edition as plate mail. There are two schools of thought on how much plate mail should cost. In Basic and 4E plate mail is priced so a first level character who wants a suit of it can get it right away. In 1E, 2E and 3E plate mail comes at a handsome price that most characters can’t afford for a couple of levels.

For many years I was part of the camp that felt plate mail should be really pricey. For one, making plate mail several orders of magnitude too expensive for the typical peasant seemed to make sense; a peasant should have access to plate mail like you or I should have access to tanks. But more than that there was huge psychological aspect to it. From the moment a player made a new fighter character obtaining plate mail was a goal. And when your fighter finally obtained plate mail it was like announcing to the world “This character is for real.”

As you can imagine, I was against the lowering of the (monetary) cost of plate mail in 4E. But when I decided to abandon 4E for Basic, I felt like I needed to justify the low cost of plate mail; not so much from a meta-game perspective, but from an in-game one.

Does this cost 60gp or 400gp?

Why Plate Mail Might Be Cheap

Before one can talk about why the price of plate mail might be low, one needs to understand why it might be expensive. In the real world plate mail was expensive – it required large amounts of high quality steel to be crafted in to many fine interlocking pieces; a massive undertaking. This same argument could be used to justify a high cost in a fantasy world.

However, a fantasy world does not have to work the same way as the real world. First of all, the presence of various fantasy metals could create new types of steel whose properties we can only imagine. Perhaps plate mail in a D&D world is made with a special alloy that significantly reduces the hardships involved. Second, whether the mail is made from a fantasy alloy or real world ones, the availability of the raw materials, the tools, and the expertise might be very different in a fantasy world than the real one. Finally there is the matter of necessity; a nation threatened by orcs and dragons might be willing to commit more resources to making plate mail than one that only has other humans to war against.

The Right Price

I don’t think there really is a right price for plate mail, though obviously where it is set will impact the balance between classes and where the party’s money will go for the first few levels. There is a part of me that loved watching the players pool their money to get the fighters plate mail at the first possible opportunity; but there is also a part that likes seeing a fighter kicking ass from day 1.

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January 6, 2011 Posted by | Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs | , , , | 7 Comments

Free Form Weapons

While I haven’t had a chance to play the new Gamma World box set, having read about it is giving me a case of rules envy, particularly with regard to weapons; the idea of free form weapons seems really sexy to me.

Now I will be the first to concede that I have complained about the lack of weapons in the 4E PHB, but, I think if you are going to cut out the weapons players aren’t using, going free form is the way to go. Because, while free form weapons gives none of atmosphere that an extensive weapons list does, it does bring with it a whole lot of other pluses.

Free Form Weapons Invite Imagination

I for one find it very depressing how very often a player will have a go to weapon that virtually all of his characters will use. The strangest thing about the phenomena is that many of these players seem to actually spend time perusing the weapons list before settling on old faithful. I can only conclude that either they would like to pick something else, but find that nothing strikes their fancy or they just can’t get away from the statistical advantage that their normal weapon gives.

But if any one handed weapon they could dream of did 1d8 damage, then surely many of these players would find different weapons to use. If not other weapons from lists, then surely they might think of weapons from history or fantasy which have caught their eye but previously been missing from D&D.

Weapons Lists Invite Disputes

Is there a gaming group on the planet that has not had someone in it question entries on a weapons list? And with good reason – the very notion that you can pin down broad classes of weapons into one line on a chart and expect it to realistically portray how those weapons perform compared to other weapons is absurd.

I don’t think there is any weapon in any PHB that I have seen a player actually buy, that someone hasn’t complained about. My personal pet peeve is the portrayal of bows and crossbows; I think most editions make bows too easy to use; long bow ranges are hugely under estimated; crossbows should do more damage but take longer to load.

All of these go away when you make a free form weapon system because instead of telling players that weapon x does y damage you are asking them what kind of weapon they are using (which happens to do y damage).

Being Nebulous is the D&D Way

Perhaps the biggest argument for bringing free form weapons to D&D is that the rule would fit so very well with existing rules. D&D is a game that glosses over so many details in favor of nebulous concepts, why not make weapons work that same way?

What is the point of having huge long weapons list that makes long swords do d8 damage while broad swords do 2d4, when the very hit points they are taking away have no real world analog? There isn’t one, of course, which is why this idea would fit so well in D&D.

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January 5, 2011 Posted by | Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs | , , , | 4 Comments

Rules Quirks – Called Shots

One thing that 2E explored in greater depth than any other edition was the notion of called shots – choosing where on the target’s body you would like an attack to hit; other editions have either only mentioned the concept in passing or ignored it all together.

But even though 2E spent a fair bit of text explaining all the details of called shots, they didn’t really use them, by which I mean that it was so inefficient to make a called shot that other than to exploit a weakness of a specific creature or to role play, a player was a fool to use them. And to be honest, that’s the way it should be.

Called shots either take over your game, or are completely useless.

The entire foundation of the D&D combat system is based around the notion that very complicated situations can be boiled down to a single number. A defender’s AC combines every aspect of his defense. An attacker’s to hit bonus combines every aspect of his offense. An attacker’s damage bonus combines every reason he might be able to injure opponents. A defender’s hit points combines combines every reason he might be able to stay alive. One thing D&D, or any system that combines many concepts into nebulous numbers, does not do well is explore ideas that require breaking those nebulous numbers into component parts.

In order to make a called shot on an opponent’s leg you need to first know the AC of defender’s leg.

  • Is it higher or lower than his body as a whole?
  • Does he have more armor down there, or less?
  • Is his weapon is one that defends well on low shots, or it is one that is vulnerable down low?

Then you would need to know how capable an attacker is at making low attacks.

  • Is his weapon designed for low blows, or weak at them
  • Is the attacker carrying anything that would limit his ability to strike low?

Then you would need to know just how difficult it would be for the attacker to specifically choose to make a low attack over just attacking at whatever it open.

  • What are the relative heights of the combatants?
  • How large are the defender’s legs compare to the rest of his body?

Finally you would need to know just how many hit points the defender has in each leg?

  • How many of the defender’s hit points are stamina and how many are luck?
  • How much of the defender’s stamina exists in one leg?
  • How much of his luck is in one leg?

As you can see, when you start opening up D&D’s black boxes you are left with a whole lot of questions that just cannot be answered. Because of that, I don’t recommend called shots either when playing 2E or any other edition. If a player has a long term desire to do called shots, I think the best thing to do is to figure out what the end result is that he is trying to achieve, then find other rules will allow him to achieve that; for example, if his is looking to hamstring opponents to keep them from escaping, use powers (4E) or feats (3E) to let him do just that.

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January 4, 2011 Posted by | 2nd Edition, Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs, Rules Quirks | , , , | 3 Comments

The Martial Arts Munchkin

Over at Huge Ruined Pile Scott has an interesting post about more gamers taking martial arts training (particularly Asian martial arts training) than the general populace. I suspect this is because of the large overlap between gamers and martial arts movie fans.

Anyways, this got me thinking about a fight I kept having back in high school, where a new player would join my group, and immediately want to play a Ninja or a Samurai. I would say yes, then direct him to some rules pertaining to the class/kit he would want. Like clockwork, an incident would soon come up where the player wanted to do some super move that would instantly kill all the bad guys the group was fighting.

My response would always be “Where does it say you can do that on your character sheet?” Which without fail brought on the response of “Um, hello, I’m playing a ninja; that means I know ninjutsu. Of course, I can do a whirlwind attack of death.”

Even warning players during character creation that they were making a level one character, and if the class (or kit) wasn’t balanced in that regard I wouldn’t have let them pick it did nothing to help. Something about playing a character based on Asian history/mythology instead any other part of the world, made certain players feel they were entitled to super powers. It got so bad that eventually I just outright banned all things Asian from my games; classes, weapons, you name it – they all brought the same stigma.

Amusingly, after about 15 years this ban had become so second nature to me that I actual forgot the reason why it was in place. And so I finally decided to relax it a little in the past year or so. (I’m not welcoming new players into my group all the time any more, and I don’t think any of my current players would try this.)

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December 15, 2010 Posted by | 2nd Edition, Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs | , , , , , | 2 Comments

Fluff, Crunch and The Dashing Swordsman

In the very popular web comic Order of the Stick, the character of Elan has levels in a prestige class called “The Dashing Swordsman“. Because of the great popularity of the strip, there have been a lot of fan who have tried to put the class to paper (though never the creator of the strip; he has been very clear he won’t ever release in-game information about the goings on in the strip).

The interesting thing I have seen, or rather not seen, in many attempts at interpreting The Dashing Swordsman, is that the most obvious characteristic of the class is always ignored; that he can use his charisma bonus in melee if (and only if) he says a pun right before he attacks. Now everyone is all over the swapping in the charisma bonus, but for some reason the puns get left by the way side.

D&D Keeps Fluff and Crunch Separate, So We Do The Same

Its not surprising that many a fan would ignore the fluff side of the class; as D&D players we are conditioned to think that rules go in one box and role playing in another, and there shouldn’t be much mixing between the two. Oh there are a few exceptions, like role playing xp or role playing skill uses, but the idea of a class that demands an action from the player – that goes against the grain of D&D. And the idea that a character could get a significant combat bonus from role playing would be consider hearsay in some quarters.

That we are so adverse to mixing fluff and crunch I think was born of the success of games that do it so well. In the 90s there were a lot of popular games which had no qualms about demanding role playing in return for statistical bonuses. I can’t help but wonder if the success of those games both drew players of that ilk away from D&D (thus limiting their influence on the game), and furthermore created a kind of backlash against heavy handed role playing (3E hugely scaled back role playing elements of the game).

I can’t help but think that part of the reason that 3E and 4E feel kind of different than what came before them is because the fluff and crunch parts of the game are further apart than ever. But what can be done?

I Can’t Mix Them Because I’ve Been Conditioned Too

To be honest, I would never have guessed just how deep this bias against mixing fluff and crunch runs in myself before I started writing this post. I wanted to finish it up with some examples of rules that might mix fluff and crunch and bring some fun to the table, but I can’t. Every time I start to make up a feat, or a class or whatever I find myself saying one of two things:

  • “You can’t let players do that; it would be unbalancing.”
  • “You can’t force players to do that; what if they don’t want to?”

Yet, I shouldn’t be thinking these things. My whole point should be that fluff can bring a lot of fun to the table, and so worries about balance or the like should be pushed to the side. But, alas, I am part of the machine of which I have been complaining.


How Much Would You Mix Fluff and Crunch?

So how about you? Would you be willing to bring a rule to your table that directly traded fluff for crunch? What is the biggest bonus that you think fluff could give? What would you think if such a thing found its way into the official rules? Let me know.

Have an opinion about this article? I love comments. Please feel welcome to leave your thoughts.

December 14, 2010 Posted by | 3.x, 4E, Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs | , , , , | 5 Comments

Not So Random Abilities

There is a feeling in some quarters that buying abilities has somehow robbed D&D of diversity; this is wrong on two accounts. First of all, despite the wholly random nature of Old School generating methods, meaningful diversity was far from omnipresent. Second, that the point buy method as it exists now is set up to encourage you to make every stat 12 is a function of the math behind the system, and not point buys themselves. It is completely possible (as seen in many other games) to create a point buy system that encourages more diversity than dice do.

There Was No Diversity in Old School

Everyone has countless fond memories a table of players with every character having very different abilities. No one had 16, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8 (and if they did it wouldn’t raise an eyebrow). But what gets constantly forgotten in such reminiscing is that most of these stats were effectively the same, even if the recorded number was different.

Right off the bat almost every class had either two or three abilities that had no impact on them. Charisma, Intelligence, and Wisdom only mattered if you were playing a class who had that stat as its prime requisite. There were no skills nor saving throws that crapped on you if you had a 6 in one of those three.

Then of the abilities that did matter, you had a huge range of scores that gave no bonus or penalties, and an even larger one that gave a mere +/- 1. Though this varied slightly based on the edition and the ability you were looking at, it was typical to have about a 50% chance on 3d6 of landing no bonus/penalty and about a 90% chance of being between minus 1 and plus 1.

(for comparison, in 3.x you would have a 25% chance of rolling an even score and a 67% of rolling between -1 and +1)

New School Rules Could Bring Diversity

The way that D&D is set up now, with the ability bonus changing every 2 points, is far more conducive to diversity than anything that was done old school. But that doesn’t make random rolling the right way to go; actually a properly setup point buy system will encourage more diversity than dice because multiple dice are weighted to the center, while players will gladly pay for high abilities with low ones.

But there is the crux of what is wrong with the D&D point buy system; you cannot buy a stat lower than 8. In fact, with 4E you are limited to just one stat that is 8, the rest must be 10.

Attributes make the man.

Now I know what Wizards was thinking when they made the lower limit for stats as 8; they were thinking that if they made the lower limit for stats 3, then every character would have three 18s and three 3s.

But here is the thing – its none of Wizard’s dam business if players want to do that. The game is balanced now to the point that willingly taking a 3 will really hurt you, and taking multiple 3s could be fatal in most games. Its not Wizards job to protect players from themselves; that is the providence of the DM.

So here are some suggested alternate point buy systems if you want to see some more diversity in your games:

  1. Use the current system, but give the characters 44 points, and make them start buying from 6.
  2. Use the current system, but after completing the purchase allow them to choose to lower a stat which is 8 to 6 in return for raising one other stat by 2.
  3. Make a flat point buy from 0. Give every character 72 points to spend, and every point raises a stat by 1; apply maximums and minimums as you see fit.

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December 13, 2010 Posted by | 3.x, 4E, Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs | , , , , | 1 Comment

3 Rules Based Solutions to the 5 Minute Day

I must admit that I have rarely had a problem with my players abusing the mechanics related to sleep in D&D; if anything I have had far more problems with players who don’t know when to quit, and so limp and crawl into encounters they aren’t equipped to handle with disastrous results.

So perhaps I am not the best to evaluate what a good solution to the “5-minute workday” is, still I was intrigued when Paul over at Blog of Holding suggested that the reason story based solutions don’t work to this problem is that they are passive solutions; they aren’t actually fixing the problem, they are trying to out do it.

This makes a lot of sense to me. If you have a group that is so fixated by the statistical benefits of rest that they want to do it all the time, forcing them into situations where the plot drives them to not rest (plot based solutions are the normal suggested cure to the 5 minute workday) doesn’t really get rid of the problem – they will all want to rest immediately the first time the plot isn’t forcing them to. Moreover, since you aren’t curing the problem you would have to make every plot a time dependent race in order to stay on top of things.

So what Paul suggests is appealing to the nature of players like these; give them a statistical benefit to not stopping. I thought I’d take this idea and expand upon it, so here are some mechanics I think you could change if you were trying to convince players to stop resting all the time.

The original 5-minute workday.

1. Loosen Up The Action Points
Paul already suggests giving out more action points, but I think the real problem with action points (as a way of keeping players pushing forward) is that only one can be spent per encounter. Frequently characters don’t really need them so much early in the day when they have all their other resources, but desperately need them late when resources are thin. Allowing characters to hoard them then have a huge spending spree could go a long ways towards encouraging endurance.

2. Give a Raw Bonus at Every Milestone
If accumulating action points isn’t enough of a plus for players, how about just out right giving them pluses as the day goes on. This could be as simple as a +1 to attack roles for every milestone they reach. If you are worried about abuses this could instead be a +1 for every certain amount of XP. Alternatively, in 4E, you could give plus a plus for every resource that is burnt off, like +1 after you use your daily and +1 for every 3 healing surges spent.

By the end of the day the players could be sitting on a very large bonus they don’t want to give up. (possibly to the point of having my problem, players who don’t know when to back off)

3. Increase XP
If making the characters more powerful as the day goes on doesn’t convince them, then you could try modifying the XP system to give greater rewards as the day goes on. Perhaps the simplest form of this would be to just modify the XP earned at the end of the day by a fraction equal to how many encounter they actually did over how many you felt they should have done; so the group who did a 5 minute day might only receive 1/5th of the normal XP, while if the same group had pressed on late into the day they might have earned 8/5th of normal XP.

A somewhat more complex formula would be to affect the amount of XP received in each encounter based on its position in the day. The first encounter of the day might only be worth 50% the normal XP, the second worth 75%, the third worth normal, and the fourth worth 125% and so on.

Even more complex would be to make XP based off of how many resources the characters had at the start of the encounter. For example, if you had 4 characters with one daily power each, you could say that the XP for an encounter was equal to (8-x)/8 where x is the number of dailies they had at the start of the encounter.

A somewhat different idea, would be to not award all the XP for an encounter at the moment that encounter ends. The group might earn 50% of the normal XP for an encounter at the moment it ends. Then another 25% when they complete the next encounter, and the final 25% when they compete the encounter after that.

The Real Solution

So having had fun with the idea of modifying the rules, I think I should admit to what I would really do if my players were resting constantly. I would sit them down after the session and talk to them about it. I would ask them why they think its necessary, tell them that I find it very disruptive, and then make sure that they are very aware that while they take a break, the villains are preparing for them. Further if they make a habit of always taking breaks I have to increase to difficulty of adventures, leaving them worse off than if they had kept a more sane rest schedule.

Have an opinion about this article? I love comments. Please feel welcome to leave your thoughts.

December 2, 2010 Posted by | 4E, Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs | , , , | 8 Comments

7 Attributes That Aren’t in D&D – But Could Be

When D&D started out there was barely any use for some of the attributes they did include, so having even more would have been insane. But over the years other game makers have come up with some good ideas for base attributes, and yet D&D has always stuck with the same 6 (with the obvious exception of the short lived experiment that was Comeliness).

Now I’m not say that Wizards need to get busy and plan to double the number of attributes in the next edition; I get that the attributes are iconic, and there would be some fans screaming bloody murder if anyone tampered with them. But from a rules perspective, there just are some things that should be attributes, and others that would be really cool attributes.

Attributes make the man.

1. Speed

For some reason every human in the world in every edition of D&D walks and runs at exactly the same speed. Even characters of other races are either identical or very similar in speed to humans. The only thing that can slow you down is carrying ungodly amounts of weight. The only thing that can speed you up is magic, or being part of the right class.

Why not just make speed an attribute? For 4E you could assume everyone has a base speed of 6 adjusted by the bonus or penalty of their speed attribute.

2. Social Standing

Over the years D&D has had a lot of small scale experiments on rules for social standing. But the one thing I have never seen is a social standing rule that makes social class an attribute. Admittedly, done wrong this could give power gamers a new dump stat, but done correctly it could have important ongoing effects on a character. (Just as social standing ought to in a pseudo medieval society)

3. Appearance

As mentioned earlier, there was a well-known, though short lived foray into making a character’s appearance a stat – aka comeliness. And I will be the first to say that I always hated comeliness and was glad to see TSR drop it in 2nd edition. But I think that had more to do with the fact the rules surrounding it were just awful. Other games since then have shown there is a right way to handle an attribute that reflects beauty – perhaps Wizards could draw from their experience.

4. Willpower

The idea of will power has long been very importance to D&D; enchantments have been part of the game since the very beginning. But somehow will power has always been crammed into odd places; saving throws and bonuses aren’t necessarily generated in a manner that gives characters who ought to have the best will power the best chances.

In recent editions high wisdom has grant a bonus to the Will saving throw, which makes much less sense than some people think. Wizards states, and through many rules demonstrates, that wisdom is common sense. Having common sense doesn’t have much to do with having a strong will. In fact, there are many situations where common sense is in opposition to having a strong will.

So why not break the two apart and give will power its own attribute?

5. Perception

Just like will power, perception has gotten lumped into wisdom in recent rules, though admittedly, the case for perception being a result of wisdom is somewhat stronger.

The thing is (in 4E) perception and insight are by far the two most important skills. Yet somehow they are both based off the same attribute. It would make far more sense to eliminate those skills and create a new mechanic for those all-important perception and insight checks.

6. Power

D&D is the epitome of a level based game, and as such many mechanics rely directly on level, when in other games additional mechanics might make things more interesting. Many games have some sort of attribute to represent a natural talent with magic.

In earlier editions of D&D such an attribute would have been a great replacement for level based spells per day; instead of every magic user in the world getting the exact same number of spells at a given level, there could have been some variety.

In 4E a power attribute could be used to give PCs a change to recharge in the same way many monsters do.

Unusual plant, or new attribute raising magic item?

7. Luck

There are the occasional times in D&D rules that certain classes or races get what amounts to a chance to reroll a bad roll. A luck attribute could work the same but in either direction; a player could either reroll a bad roll or force an opponent to reroll a good roll. Of course a bad luck attribute might have the opposite effects…

What Else?

That’s my thoughts for attributes that could be interesting to add to D&D, if Wizards were so inclined. But did I miss anything? Let me know.

Have an opinion about this article? I love comments. Please feel welcome to leave your thoughts.

November 17, 2010 Posted by | Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs | , , | 8 Comments

The Dichotomy of Rising Powers

There is nothing quite like playing Basic and 4E games in close proximity to each other to highlight a bizarre trend that has been progressing through the edition changes for decades.

On the surface it appears that new first level characters have gotten more and more powerful through the editions. Hit points have risen, spells have become more plentiful and more powerful, stealth has gone from a long shot to a legitimate tactic, and fighters have gained more and more pluses.

One writer once mused that AD&D characters started as ordinary guys who dream of being Batman, while 4E characters start as Batman with dreams of being Superman. Yet for all the things that player characters have gained over the years, in one very important way they are less powerful than ever – their enemies.

It is often said that the true mark of a great hero is a great villain. If that is so then which game produces greater heroes the one which beginning heroes might actually win a fight against an ogre, minotaur, or medusa or the game where beginning heroes quiver at the sight of orcs? Even the lowly kobold, who were little more than mosquitoes to the heroes of old, can now rise up and challenge the new heroes.

This isn’t really a complaint, just an observation that new and old editions alike seemed to fail at what they were designed to do. The older editions made first level characters out to be barely above normal humans, yet is some ways they were very heroic. The newer editions, particularly 4E, make first level characters seem like action heroes, yet is some ways they are very ordinary.

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November 14, 2010 Posted by | Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs | , , | 2 Comments