Thursday, January 31, 2008

a tale of two 4e's

Every snippet of info I hear about the new edition of D&D makes me cringe just a bit. Don't get me wrong. I'm pretty confident that the folks at Wizards, especially Mike Mearls, can produce one heck of a sweet game. But I'm losing faith that they are producing a game that I want to play. The more I look at the chinese water torture that is the 4e PR machine the more I feel like ditching mainstream D&D and going this way:

Yeah, HackMaster. It's Retro Stupid. It's got all the Gygaxian Building Blocks (as brilliantly identified by Settembrini) preserved in their original form. It's overly complicated and possibly broken in some places, just like AD&D when I was a kid. See, I'm not sure I want a slick, fine-tuned, laser-precise D&D. If I want something that is slick and fine-tuned, I already have Risus. What I really want out of D&D is arguments over rules, PCs behaving badly, grotesquely absurd violence, filthy nonsensical dungeons, and lots and lots of really stupid dice charts. I want the players to try to finesse some retarded rule to weasel out of a tight spot. I even want the Monty Python jokes. Is Wizards going to give me these things? I don't know. But I'm getting the vibe that most of what I like about the game is on the chopping block as possible casualties in the name of progress.

Remember a while back when Mike Mearls "fixed" the Rust Monster? Keep in mind that of all the 3.x designers out there, Mearls is clearly my favorite. So understand that I'm not taking a swipe at the guy personally when I say that I thought Mike was fixing something that wasn't broken. The Rust Monster is supposed to ruin the fun, in just the same way that poison or level draining or failing an item save is supposed to kill your buzz.

I remember the first time a Rust Monster happened to me. I was running a fighter named Arius Claudius who ran around in uber-expensive Unearthed Arcana style Full Plate armor. Not only did I suddenly have no armor class, but thousands of GPs I had invested had just gone down the tube. I ended up beating the Rust Monster to death with the wooden haft of my trident, the three pointy bits have been rusted away as well. For the rest of his career (until that Deck of Many Things incident) ol' Arius carried a spare set of bronze platemail in a bag of holding. And a club. That's an adventure, my friends. Not "Oh noes! I almost lost my armor!" Meanwhile, HackMaster offers a world where the default assumption is that the GM is a dick and his campaign setting is actively hostile towards the players. The players are supposed to use their wits to get by and possibly prosper. Every XP and GP has to be pried from the GM's cold, dead hand. I don't usually run that kind of game, but I like that attitude as the baseline.

Maybe something will come along that will make me actively look forward to 4e. Until then, everything else is pushing me towards HackMaster as the big, crunchy system that best fits my needs. Right now, about the only things I like are that Mike Mearls is on the project and that one of the classes in named "Warlord". But I'm a sucker for anything with "War" in the title: Warforged, Warlock, Warrior, Gwar, etc. That's not a whole lot to hang one's hopes on, especially in light of the fact that every other bit of 4e material I've come across has either left me apathetic or annoyed.

Maybe my problem is that I'm not in the target demographic for 4e. At this point I actually kinda hope that's the case. The alternative is that Wizards is so missing the mark that they are driving a D&D fan of 25+ years to a competitor. A competitor, I might remind you, with a core monster "book" that runs eight volumes at $20 apiece. For them to screw up so badly as to make me look at a significantly more expensive and less popular option speaks volumes about their PR efforts.


  1. Out of curiousity, why go with Hackmaster instead of AD&D 1e?

    Or the Red Box?

    I've never seen the need to buy Hackmaster since if I ever want to play the kind of game you describe I can always pull out my old books and just - play that game.

    Personal bias note: I'm kind of excited about 4e as a replacement for 3e. Because while 3e was better than 2e there's a lot that's still clunky. But when I want to play D&D like I did when I was a kid I break out the Rules Cyclopedia and just play that game.

  2. Out of curiousity, why go with Hackmaster instead of AD&D 1e?

    Or the Red Box?

    Pure consumerism, I suspect. I think I like having a product line to chase.

  3. I don't know if you're aware, but WotC did not renew the license with Kenzer that allowed them to make Hackmaster, so now Hackmaster is waiting for a new edition. They were selling off all of their books for dirt cheap a while back, but from what I understand thats all done with now. I'm still kicking myself for not buying the rest of the monster books; I forgot how they split the books and only bought the first 3. Curses!

  4. Yeah, I kinda missed the sweet spot time to buy these books. But then again, I'm no stranger to chasing down stuff that's not available in the local bookstore.

  5. Anonymous11:31 AM

    Hey Jeff. First off, I just wanted to say that I enjoy reading your blog. It gives me lots of great ideas for my own 3.5 D&D game. That being said I have to disagree with you here. I think you are a bit nostalgic about some things that many players out there hated. I hated arguing rules. I hated telling players "No, you can't be hasted then cast harm on the fire giant and follow it up with a cause critical." I hated having to look up the grapple rules for the 400th time (and still do). I hated how it practically took a college course for new people to learn to play.
    I think Wizards has made good progress over the years in fixing these types of things or at least improving them. And for me, that makes the game more fun. As far as 4th edition goes, I'm of the "Wait and See" camp, but I have liked most of what I've heard so far.
    Even if it isn't all it's hyped to be, the nice thing about the RPG industry is that there is something out there for everyone.
    Sorry for the small rant. Keep up the good work!

  6. Pure consumerism, I suspect. I think I like having a product line to chase.

    Ah - understandable. I've moved to Heroscape as my product line of choice to chase. So I'm actually kind of sad that lately 4e is sounding like something I might want to buy after all.

  7. I'm not Jeff (lucky guy, he dodged that bullet), but I think that what he's saying is that he actualy likes all of thta stuff other players didn't. That's his game -- not just the rules, but interpreting and working with those rules.

    I totally get that. Back in the '90s, when all the musicians went, "Synthesizers? Synthesizers poo-poo! I'm gonna grunt in Seattle, MUUUUUH MUUUUUH MUUUH!", I was all, like, "Screw you, hippie, I'm buyin' some Information Society CDs."

    I think Jeff's on the mark, though, when he talks about demographics. There's a reason I play Classic Traveller and Castles & Crusades instead of Star Wars Saga Edition and D&D 3.5, and it ain't my wallet.

  8. greenvesper, I totally respect your opinion. I agree that Wizards has done a lot of good working with the rules. They have alot of smart talented people, folks way smarter than me when it comes to sussing out the intricacies of game mechanics. But I'm not sure those mechanics and my idea of what I want out of D&D sync up anymore.

  9. Our POVs on this contrast in funny ways. When I looked at D&D 3rd edition after picking up the core books, I thought, "Ugh. Too crunchy." When I want retro-D&D, I gleefully pick up my single-volume Rules Cyclopedia and am pleased by the (relative) lack of detail. If I'm going to play a game with classes and rigidly defined character skills, where the only real options come in my equipment list, I certainly don't want it to be detailed everywhere else.

    That'd be silly. :)

    That said, my formative gaming was never any edition of D&D. The first published game I played extensively was Shadowrun, 1st edition, which was significantly more polished and coherent than any of the D&D stuff my older sister handed down to me ever felt.

    Oh, and Rust Monster eating my armor = Fun.

    Level draining = Sucks.

  10. I came late to this particular party, so all I can do is point to jer's question and say "what he said." Well, what he said in the first two paragraphs, anyway.

    And I know you've already answered it, but consumerism isn't something I'm equipped to comprehend (either fiscally or socially) ... so, slack-jawed redneck that I basically am, I'll just point lamely at jer's question again, like a kid who doesn't understand the meaning of "no, you can't have that action figure today." :)

  11. I'm fully confident that there will be plenty of rules-finagling, arguing, and PCs behaving badly in the new rules.

    ...and, if you want, I'll write up a rust monster that permanently destroys metal things for you.

  12. Anonymous6:00 PM

    Something weird occured to me last week. I love 4e to bits (obviously; there'd be something deeply wrong if I didn't), but if I can't play 4e, I'd play 1e.

    And really, for consumerism there's tons of OSRIC stuff, Rob Kuntz's Pied Piper Publishing, and tons of collectible stuff you can chase after. Seriously, Kuntz packages maps that are FULL COLOR COPIES OF HIS ORIGINALS with bottles city. How cool is that?

    Answer, cooler than Pluto.

    Also, you can sink your money into super-awesome retro miniatures from Otherworld minis. I'm half-way done painting my pig snouted orcs.

    - Mearls

  13. Anonymous6:01 PM

    Bottles city = Bottled City, Kuntz's latest release.

    - Mearls

  14. Those pig faced orks are far beyond awesome. I must possess these things.

  15. Anonymous3:15 AM

    Cool post, Jeff! Although I would never want to run the rules-heavy beast that is Hackmaster, reading its books gets me enthusiastic about playing RPGs, while most of the slick modern RPG products don't.

    Also, I will gladly march to battle under the rust monster banner if you give a call. It is *precisely* the kinda Gygaxian Weirdness gaming needs more of.

  16. Anonymous8:21 AM

    Hey Jeff,

    Long time HackMaster GM here. From your post it sounds like it might be the game for you. You can easily get most of the books cheaply through eBay, but I can probably help you out with that as well, as I have some spares taking up space in my closet. Drop me a line at and I'll make you an offer you can't refuse.


  17. Anonymous9:00 AM

    Whatever you think of 4e, I think it's pretty clear that their PR campaign has blown big chunks. More than $20 for "books" that are nothing more than substanceless advertisements?? There's nothing like insulting the intelligence of the consumer while trying to rip him off at the same time. Jeff is right on with his "chasing a product line" comment. Once an RPG gets a DM/GM hooked then can sell him $100s worth of stuff. If Wizards had just given away their preview items for free they'd at least be generating some good will- and a lot of future sales. Right before FASA launched Earthdawn you could get a complete adventure, with characters, and the rules to run it for FREE in the bookstore. I picked it up, tried it out, and ended up buying a couple hundred dollars worth of Earthdawn stuff over the next few years. The shortsightedness of WotC astounds me, and just to rub salt in the wounds the preview products repeat over and over "you know that way you've been playing D&D for all these years? Well, it's WRONG!"

  18. Anonymous9:11 AM

    This is probably the most amusing and insightful post about 4e I've read in a long time. You mirror my own feelings quite nicely and I thank you for it.

  19. awesome blog post and comments by the way! one thing i miss from all the new stuff and was houseruled into my old 1st edition d&d campaign but part of the regular flavor of hackmaster is... critical fumbles!! you want hilarity? wait 'til the barbarian of the group accidently hits the cleric cause he swung his sword too wide.

  20. Right on, Kim! I've used the original Arduin crit and fumble charts in 3.5 to get that extra thrill out of combat.

    And the personality of my most successful 2nd edition character was profoundly influenced by the fact that he hit a comrade with a handaxe thrown into melee in the first battle of his adventuring career.

  21. I'm also a long-time HackMaster player/GM. Not quite "up there" as Topher, but I can say many of us refer to HackMaster as "4th Edition". Many people who haven't played the game think it's a joke, but it's very much "old school" and very, very playable.

    Yep, the Hacklopedia of Beasts were originally $20 a piece, but that was the only extravagant HackMaster product. It's balanced out quite well with moderately priced PHB, GMG, and modules. Heck, if you really want to get a lot of bang for your buck, go with the PHB, the GMG, and the Little Keep on the Borderlands (more of a campaign setting than a module). For less than $80 you'll be playing for a year. Oh, and you won't get hit up for a $20-$30 book of the month club.

    The biggest complaint I get from 3.5 players is that they don't have the "freedom" with HackMaster that they are used to: the freedom to be a half-dwarf paladin/Ranger/Warmage who can change his race by re-working the PC concept from the PHB II.

    They are very different styles of play, IMHO, but to each his own. I want to fight and scratch for my XP and the knowledge that it is technically possible for any given blow to kill my PC makes things more "real". For me it's "nothing ventured, nothing gained", not "I should be leveing up every X sessions".

    HackMaster does add enough to teh "old school" game that I think it is worth a look, even if you have the old 1st & 2nd edition books.

  22. Anonymous9:27 AM

    The main problem that I have with Hackmaster is that it seems to want to turn a corner and become Retro-Pretentious instead.