Wednesday, July 15, 2009

I Try Not To Be Negative

I do try.

I fail horribly, I realize, but it's very difficult to keep a good attitude and not be rather peeved when I seem to be in a world where the people who make no sense are the ones deciding how things should be.

Today, by way of the Sandbox of Doom, I read Jonathan Tweet's impressions after playing Swords and Wizardry, found here.

It's no surprise that 3e and 4e come across as completely different games than what had come before, considering the people that worked on them seem to have either no clue about, or no respect for, earlier editions of the game. I read these comments and wonder if the designers' collective attitude was something along the lines of "We finally get to fix all this stupid shit!"

While several of Tweet's comments are just personal preference ("too-random character creation"), a few things strike me as... troubling.

"We didn't use miniatures. That's a break with tradition, but it seems to represent a bald refusal to be realistic and or attempt simulation."

Minis optional is far more traditional than required battlemats and tactical combat.

But when did minis come to represent realism and/or simulation?

"Swords & Wizardry even has two AC systems that it uses side-by-side: the old-fashioned 9-down system that they have to include for tradition's sake and the 10+ system that they have to include because it's just clearly better."

More intuitive for new players first playing the game, maybe. After a combat or two, there's really no difference. All it takes to read a chart is at least one eye and the IQ of a flower bulb. I use BFRPG in my weekly games and that has an ascending AC. But "just clearly better"?

"too much arithmetic (5% XP bonus, copper pieces, etc.)"

Have gamers turned into "Math is Hard!" Barbie in the past decade? Does Mr. Tweet not realize the entire d20 system is composed of nothing but 5% increments? And of all the reasons to not like copper pieces... arithmetic?

"all spells are daily, which makes spellcasters play too differently from the fighters"

My brain truly breaks under the weight of this argument. Isn't that the point of different character classes from a game design standpoint, to deliver different fundamental play experiences?

I really should just catalog this sort of thing, because people always want more than one blog post here and there as "evidence" and doing a serious research project to unearth things I really hate just seems... counterproductive. But there is this old review of Keep on the Borderlands by Mike Mearls ("The Keep on the Borderlands literally serves as exhibit A in the great case against Dungeons and Dragons."), and also the blog post where Mike Mearls pretends to just now (as of last August, anyway) understand wandering monsters, and then Mearls' recent explanation of some of his influences when designing 4e, including naming Legolas as an inspiration for the ranger class (dude, Aragorn is right there), and saying things like "the rogue has been saddled with the status of 'class that has to suck since it's the only one that can deal with traps.'"

But don't mind me. I just watched Steve Miner's Day of the Dead last night so I'm just really aching from the remake madness.

Incidentally, I also saw Diary of the Dead last week, which wasn't perfect (obvious CGI blood, and little too much "action adventure" kills in a couple of places), and added nothing new to the entire zombie oeuvre, but retained the absolute core of what the Romero zombie movie is: A small movie about people and their reactions to a civilization-ending disaster happening around them. That's why Land of the Dead was such a failure, I think, because the setting was alien to here and now and so the characters were not very real-world, and thus the whole thing seemed more blatantly made-up than an exercise in "What if it really happened?"

Savini's own 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead, excellent in its own right, even blatantly uses Barbara to hammer the core ideas home: "They're us. We're them and they're us," and "They're so slow. We could just walk right past 'em and we wouldn't even have to run. We could just walk right past 'em. We have the guns. If we're careful we could get away." Yeah. Romero scripted that himself (and hammered the point home more sarcastically in Diary).

There's a point to zombie movies, and there's a reason why the classics are the classics and why so many others just seem... gratuitous. It's not even about the "run" vs "not run" issue. I think the 28 x Later movies get it exactly right for the same reason Romero has more often than not (and I have to mention Dan O'Bannon's Return of the Living Dead somewhere in the 'good' category), and why movies like Shaun of the Dead resonate while everyone from Lucio Fulci to Zack Snyder (to name two of the most competent examples who have done Romero zombie remakes/sequels) makes movies that may be an exciting momentary diversion, but are fundamentally different than the works that inspired them to the point where one wonders if they really understood the source material in the first place.

ah well. Someday, I'll be dead, and I'm sure some asshole somewhere will still be doing something that really pisses my dead self off. And then I'll rise from the grave and bite that fucker's face off.


  1. Of all the criticisms I've seen leveled against retro-clones and old-school versions of the game, that post has got to be one of the oddest.

    I haven't played 3e or 4e, so I can't compare old to new. But if I want my magic-users to play the same as my fighters I guess I know where to go.

  2. Wow.

    While I normally disagree with most of what you have to say, you're spot on in this regard. Swords & Wizardry means little to me, but Tweet's comments about it are almost laughable. I can't actually tell if he's just saying all that because he doesn't want to admit that it's a viable alternative to newer editions, or if he's got such limited experience in handling other RPG systems that he just can't "deal" with S&W. Was he the guy who came over from Iron Crown to work on 3E, or am I thinking of another designer?

    Either way, some of those arguments are just stupid. Too much math? Wizards play differently than Fighters? Too arbitrary? It's almost nonsensical.

  3. Reading that guys review made my face hurt.

  4. I'll never fathom why Tweet gets as much respect as a designer as he does.

  5. So... you're saying the way to deal with Mike Mearls is to remove the head, or destroy the brain? Right-oh.

    @James M: I understand he did some interesting indie games in the 90s (all I remember of those days is the stench of rotting WoD splatbooks stinking everything out. The horror.)

  6. He just lost any respect I had for him as a game designer...

    5% & Copper pieces = Math is hard?

    wow indeed.

  7. Great post.

    Tweet and Mearls have vested interests in making 3e and 4e, respectively, look good. This leads them to unconscious or conscious manipulations of the truth. To paraphrase Bill Hicks, every word they write or say with regard to any other edition of D&D is suspect, and should be treated the same as one would treat a turd that has just fallen into ones drink.

  8. James, it's very simple. Take a look at Over the Edge and you'll find an excellent Tweet design. That's why he is so highly regarded.

    Tweets criticism of S&W is just stupid, though.

  9. @Badelaire: The designer you are thinking of is Monte Cook.

    I've heard Jonathan Tweet being badmouthed before, and I didn't really listen to it. Though, after reading that post, I'm beginning to wonder.

  10. While I can objectively disagree with either Tweet or Mearls, to say they have no respect for the game is going a bit far. I see no evidence of that, on the contrary they have demonstrated time and again that they do respect the game.

    They have a different opinion than you do is all. To get to your first paragraph, saying someone has no clue or respect for the game or it’s origins is certainly not trying to be civil. It is in fact exactly the opposite.

    I can ignore AC as DC or AC as THAC0 mechanics. You are right, after two or three attacks it is the same. As a game designer though I appreciate the single roll mechanic and what it means to the evolution of the game. It is easier for new players and we should be doing things like that. So don’t dismiss new players at all, we were all new once and, according to James Mishler’s post today, we need all the new players we can get.; IQ requirements notwithstanding.

    Though you are spot on about the “math is hard” comment, while I don’t feel Tweet is taking this point of view, math is important part of RPGs. When I was a statistics professor I took my dice in all the time. I taught my son to count and do simple arithmetic with dice and D&D (3.0 edition by the way).

    Want to be perceived as less negative, start with assuming the other party that disagrees with you has a valid point from their point of view and try to understand that. It’s fine to disagree, but don’t assume that because you disagree it is because the other person is “clueless”.

  11. I broadly agree with the original post. Jonathan Tweet's post is frankly disappointing, considering his role in 3rd edition. It's clear that there's a lot he just doesn't know about the early history of the game, and he's comfortable just falling back on bad assumptions rather than actually looking at the game in its historical context.

    The bit about minis is wrong. The bit about the fighter finally being fixed because it works like the wizard misses the big picture so badly that I'm speechless. I have to disagree with Tim on this. There's no indication that Jonathan Tweet understands that classic D&D fighters and wizards support different playstyles, or that Mike Mearls really gets that thieves excel in dungeon exploration in ways that make them much more than poor fighters. If they don't understand these things (and they've given no indication that they do), they don't simply disagree or have different opinions. They're actually just wrong. Could they have good reasons for making the changes they did? Sure. They might even be able to argue that (for example), X% of games are combat oriented and Y% of players want more options for rogues in combat, or Z% don't care about dungeon exploration, and so we've made the game this way. Maybe that's even their reason. If so, fine. But I don't see them explaining the reasons like this, so I'm skeptical.

    I think Tweet's points about descending AC and petty, niggling arithmetic are fair, for what it's worth. It is not difficult for anyone with a grade school education to calculate a 5% bonus or add sums of thousands of copper pieces. Does anyone really think this is the issue? "Kids these days, blah, blah, blah." I don't buy it. The issue is whether or not the game has a miscellany of petty sums and operations, and at what point we'd be better of consolidating some of them or nixing others. Is 3rd edition any better when it comes to petty sums? (Answer: No. No it isn't.). (4th, dunno.)

    I also don't see the point of defending descending AC. I happen to use it because I run classic D&D (Mentzer version lately), but I have no problem with the argument that ascending AC is a mathematically equivalent but intuitively simpler method. So I'm comfortable with the statement that ascending AC is objectively better than descending AC.

    This doesn't affect your main point, though, James, which is right on: if the designers of D&D do not understand the history of the game, and if they are not even curious enough to want to learn about it before remaking it in their own image, it's no surprise that modern D&D is a funhouse mirror version of the classic game.

  12. Not to turn this into another AC debate, but just to make a comment regarding Super Necro's point...

    Ascending AC, in the now-standard "d20" mechanical system, I consider to be "objectively better" because it functions just like all the other mechanics in the system; roll d20, add/subtract mods, meet threshold. Having descending AC breaks from that design structure.

    In older D&D, and thus in S&W, there is no "unified mechanic", and therefore, there's nothing to go against the grain on. Ascending, descending, whatever - just a matter of preference.

    So it's not so much a matter of defending one as better than the other in S&W, as it is Tweet being wrong in this particular case by saying "it works in 3E so it's objectively better for all editions". The two games are so mechanically different that his comment is, in my mind, without substance.

  13. "all spells are daily, which makes spellcasters play too differently from the fighters"

    Which in a nutshell is why I don't play 4e.

  14. "It’s fine to disagree, but don’t assume that because you disagree it is because the other person is “clueless”."

    Can I just disagree then because both the designers in question are douche-nozzles?

    Their comments reveal a disengenuous, self-serving, and yes "clueless" point of view (not to mention a jaw dropping lack of historical perspective) that will now make me question everything they comment on from this point forward...

  15. Interesting post, and a good example of the gap between design philosophies and perception of their respective merit.

    And just because I never get tired of saying so, "descending" armour class does have a nifty advantage over "ascending" armour class, in that negative modifiers are always negative and positive modifiers are always positive when applied to the die roll [i.e. −1 AC and −1 "to hit" (or FA) amount to the same thing, a −1 modifier to the die roll].

    I used to think the latter was more intuitive than the former, but my girlfriend ended up proving me wrong...

  16. Maybe it's only a matter of time before the edition wars become more visible in the publisher/author arena. We're starting to see some self-conscious defending of 4e, and maybe even some anti-old edition rhetoric, some more subtle than others. What I find more interesting than anything else is that people are even bothering to either justify 4e or knock down the OSR. That alone tells us something.

  17. It's rabid weasels! (a classic Return of the Living Dead line)

    That was less a review and more a series of discombobulated jabs. I agree that I am not sure why that guy receives kudos as a game designer. As a PR goon or spin doctor, now he has a grasp on that, but he is still not subliminal enough. I am not a fan of 4e, I have run it, and I didn't like it. That was that, I don't go carping on about the game in questionably thin reviews.

  18. I am not sure why that guy receives kudos as a game designer.

    Like I said, check out Over the Edge.

  19. Huh, never heard of Mearls before (I haven't purchased the 4E books), but after reading the links you've posted he appears to be an asshole.

    Oh, Tweet, Tweet...I agree with Dan (o Earth). Why the heck is there a need for designers and publishers to put down games that others enjoy playing? Let the rabid fan-types do that.

    As a game designer, one should be a fan of growing the hobby however one can and encouraging the design efforts of others (so as to bring more folks to the hobby, if only so they may, someday, try out YOUR game). When designers start bad-mouthing other folks' designs, you end up sounding like a shill for your parent company (Paizo, Hasbro, whoever), not a designer.

  20. I read these comments and wonder if the designers’ collective attitude was something along the lines of ‘We finally get to fix all this stupid shit!’

    Well, I can’t speak for them, but that’s the attitude I took towards my own attempts to revamp D&D. That’s the attitude that sent me away from D&D.

    And I really thought I fully understood the game then. But I now know I didn’t.

    Anyway, I think Tweet is a good designer. Of the two games I have with his name on them—an old edition of Ars Magica and Wizards’ D&D 3e—I think they’re both well designed systems. I may have made different choices myself. And Tweet’s D&D is only an imitation of what I call “D&D”. (Sort of like when someone tires to model D&D in GURPS.) But I wouldn’t call the bad designs.

  21. Interesting post James. Frankly I'm amazed that Tweet would say such things. In general I always thought that most designers had a certain respect for their predecessors. Maybe I'm a bit naive that way though.

    I am currently in a 4E game and made the announcement to the group last night that I, personally don't want anything more to do with that particular system. The DM, a good guy, is a huge fan though, and being such, tried like hell to convince me otherwise. As he's done in the past. He failed.

    I've given the game nearly a year and a half to grow on me. I've tried playing "outside the box", I've tried a more narrative player approach, I've tried everything that I can think of. Because, to be truthful, I really like the group. All to no avail though.

    Each version (since 1976) has had a place on my game table. I've enjoyed most of them. I even liked 3E when it came out. But the shine soon faded on that turd.

    4E just does not work for me. But it certainly does for most of the others in my group. So, I can't say that it's a poor design. Rather it's not a design that appeals to me. So, maybe Tweet and Mearls need just a tad more perspective?

    Either way, Tweet's comments are ill conceived.

  22. Huh, never heard of Mearls before (I haven't purchased the 4E books), but after reading the links you've posted he appears to be an asshole.

    It's not that bad, but as someone said earlier, he does have a strong bias to the later editions. Having read some of his posts, he's not really that different from the rest of us. This guy grew up on the earliest versions of D&D just like many here have, and even enjoyed it. The difference is that he is one of the guys behind 4e, and naturally, he's pretty proud of it.

    This leads to this paradox he exhibits from time to time where he tries to marry what he liked about old D&D to the rules of the new D&D, and IMO they don't always fit as well as he thinks they do.

    He isn't the devil, but he does have some weird ideas in regard to Old and New D&D that I too have trouble wrapping my head around.

  23. Oh and what is up with this hate-on some folks have with decending AC? Is it really that hard?

    Your chance of being hit is in direct proportion to your AC. That's it.

    Higher chance of being hit = High AC
    Lower chance of being hit = Low AC

    Is that really unintuitive?

  24. Superhero Necromancer:

    I usually don't miss an occasion to bash 3E, but you bring up a good point. One of the actual DESIGNERS of Third-"Oops, did I add all those modifiers up correctly?... Okay, I hit AC 39"-Edition is complaining about older games having too much goddamn arithmetic?!

  25. I should point out that some of his points make alot of sense. Provided you want the same end goals and the same style of gameplay.

    If I turned D&D into a wod game and was proud of it you might think me daft. But if my goal all along was to do just that, then of course everything I did seems like a good idea.

    Something often not explained in games (that should be) is what you are trying to accomplish in a game and why each rule supports that play (in your mind at least)

  26. What I don't understand is how Tweet doesn't seem to see how much closer the Classic-Play editions (clearly no knowledge of the rekindled interest through the new versions of those editions) are so much closer to his Over the Edge game than those games that have D&D in their title are.

    I'm ... vaguely saddened.

    Okay, so you guys see that the dais on the left is made of a greenish stone not dissimilar to jade, while the one on the right is made of a reddish glass-like material. The passage is the same as the others the party has thus far experienced.

    What do you do?


  27. I jab the link boy with my sword until he prods the red glass dais with the ten foot pole.

    also, I never heard of Jonathan Tweet before this rumpus.

  28. I played nice in my comment to the post, but I must say that it's very easy to see why D&D was changed so very much. Quite simply, because it's very clear that those involved just plain didn't understand it at all.


  29. "What I don't understand is how Tweet doesn't seem to see how much closer the Classic-Play editions (clearly no knowledge of the rekindled interest through the new versions of those editions) are so much closer to his Over the Edge game than those games that have D&D in their title are.

    I'm ... vaguely saddened."



    "Savini's own 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead, excellent in its own right"

    Fuck yeah!

    Thankfully, Tweet is net even remotely close to someone who decides "how things should be."

  30. "'I am not sure why that guy receives kudos as a game designer.'

    Like I said, check out Over the Edge.

    Oh yeah? I'll see your OtE, and raise you an Everway and a Dreamblade. :P

  31. Eloquent, Chris. :)

    Anyway, the main thrust of my comment is that if you don't know why Tweet is well regarded, there are a lot you have been missing. Jonathan Tweet probably knows more than you about the history and development of the hobby if his achievements are unknown to you.

  32. Here's the thing: I and my players actually like 3E.

    Before you dismiss me as not-a-grognard, I *did* win the "Best Retro Use of 30x30 Space" award in the One Page Dungeon Level Contest, and the level I used was L5 of my Megadungeon-in-Progress.

    Which we're playing through with Microlite74, which is a d20 system at heart.

    So, unlike a lot of people in this thread, I don't think you even have to go to OtE to find a good Tweet game. That said, I gotta go with the "douchenozzle" assessment.

    You know why? Because Tweet stepped on his own dick with "Math is hard!" And you know how *I* think he did that? Because 3E (and therefore d20) is the *mathiest of all the versions*. I've played everything from Holmes Basic through 4E the first time around: 3E is the one with the most math. That means that most of the matrices go away: it's all algorithmic calculation! Which works really well for me, because I (as the DM) don't ever have to look anything up in the middle of combat, and I never have to find a particular cell on a grid. I just add a couple of numbers, and do an easy bit of arithmetic, and I have the answer.

    And that's why I play my houseruled m74: nice easy clear arithmetic for yes/no decisions, and light enough that it's "rulings not rules."