Archives for August 2014

D&D Fifth Edition

Yesterday was the official release date of the fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons. It won’t hit my FLGS for some time yet so I haven’t got my hands on a copy. I did celebrate the release by picking up the Starter Set and downloading a copy of the rules from the D&D website.

My recent D&D related experience has been with Pathfinder and the retro-clones of the Old School Renaissance. I was not a big fan of the fourth edition. It pretty much killed my interest in D&D.

It wasn’t that the fourth edition was badly done. It had all the usual WoTC virtues of high production values, beautiful art and excellent writing. And it wasn’t that it didn’t work. It did what it did very well. It was just that it was not what I wanted from a RPG.

Fourth edition always felt like the answer to a business problem rather than a gamer problem. It seemed more about selling miniatures, battlemats and rules expansions to the fanbase than making the game fun.

It focused on a battlemap with minis rather than on what was to me always the point of D&D – being inside an epic fantasy tale with my friends. It drew my attention away from the movie unfolding in my head and towards that grid, that board.

After a few sessions I gave up on it. I stalked away muttering that if I wanted to play a board game, I would play a bloody board game. I wanted to visit a magical somewhere else with my friends. I wanted to run that epic fantasy movie in my head.

That for me was always the point of D&D. I still remember my first encounter with the game 37 years ago. In no way do I exaggerate when I say it hit me with the force of a revelation. To a teenager raised on Tolkien and S&S novels it was like discovering a gateway to Narnia at the back of the wardrobe. It’s hard to convey quite how big a thing that was to a generation raised on the everyday miracles of Halo and World of Warcraft. It changed my life and gave me a career.

That’s a lot of baggage to bring to the table for any game. Anyway, to get to the point, D&D Fifth Edition –how does it measure up?

Based on my cursory readthrough, it’s great. It’s pretty much how I want D&D to be. It is clear, simple and can be played without miniatures. It focuses on getting you into that other place and it makes the most of the virtues of pen and paper RPGs. It does not try to be an ersatz miniatures game or computer game separated from cyberspace. It plays to its strengths.

The rules are clear. They’ve cut a lot of the dead wood that Pathfinder shares with the third edition. There are few die roll modifiers. Most of them can be summed up by the concept of the proficiency bonus. This starts at +2 at first level and reaches the heady heights of +6 at level 17. If you want the basic formula divide your level by 4, rounding down and add 2.

This bonus applies to everything that you are proficient in: hitting things, making skill rolls, saving throws etc. That is pretty much it.

With such flat modifiers for levels ability bonuses play a much bigger role than in third edition. They remain more or less the same as they were there. They start at +1 for an attribute of 12 and rising by +1 for every two points in the attribute you have above that.

Saving throws, skill rolls, to hit rolls are all based on your proficiency bonus if it applies and your attribute bonus. Roll a d20 and add them, meet the target number and you’re done. Rather than have a stack of modifiers you have advantage or disadvantage. Things that in previous games would have given you bonuses or penalties now give you one or the other. In both cases you roll two D20s. If you have advantage, you pick the highest. If you have disadvantage you take the lowest.

Hit points are pretty much as in the third edition, based on hit dice type by class and increasing with level. Damage uses all the familiar dice.

Spell slots are back. You use them for powering spells in much the same way a third edition sorcerer would. You can prepare your level plus your attribute bonus in spells per day and cast them as long as you have the slots to power them. Damage spells no longer scale with level. You need to power your fireball with a higher level slot to increase its damage. Simple and fair.

I could go on but I think you get the picture. The trend with this edition is towards simplicity and ease of play focusing on roleplaying and adventuring. A lot has been borrowed from the Old School Renaissance and, for me, that’s a good thing. I am impressed.

The Starter Set has a nice box. It contains pregenerated characters, dice, and two magazine-style soft cover booklets. The first booklet is a summary of all the rules you need to run the game to fifth level. The rules for the characters are all on the character sheets. The second book is a very nice looking low level campaign called The Lost Mine of Phandelver. It should see your group all the way up to level 5. I’ve not run the adventure. It seems well written and has a lot packed into it. You could do a lot worse if you want to introduce new players to the game.

I am excited by this edition. It makes me want to play D&D again. After fourth edition I did not think that was possible.

Checklists, Waypoints and Revisions

Back in the mid–90s, long before 9–11, I was a guest on the flight deck of an SAS Boeing 737 flying between Stockholm and Copenhagen. For a man scared of flying this was a revelation. Everything seemed so peaceful and safe. The most reassuring thing about it was how routine everything seemed. One of the things that made it so was that one of the pilots, the captain, I think, sat there with a clipboard. He ticked stuff off on a checklist as the co-pilot performed various functions. It was clear that these guys had a system that made the complex task of keeping the plane in the air routine.

This was on my mind recently as I worked out the tip I am about to pass on, a thing so obvious that I am almost embarassed. First some background.

I am revising the seventh Kormak novel, Born of Darkness. During the writing of this book, I tried, as I often do, experimenting with a new technique.

I am a dedicated outliner. It’s the first thing I do when I sit down to write a book. This time I thought I would experiment with pantsing, just winging it from the basic idea of the story. Or I would attempt as close to this as my over-controlling nature will allow.

I had the idea of using waypoints. I would do micro-outlines, just brief sketches up to what screen writers call the Act Breaks. (If you’re not familiar with Three Act Structure take a look at this.) I wrote as far ahead as the Act Break, and once I got there, I stopped re-evaluated my plot, did another micro-synopsis and pushed on.

It went pretty well. Lots of interesting stuff popped up as I was writing. In some ways, too much interesting stuff. New ideas, new scenes, new characters, new bits of business all showed up, often out of the blue. Trying to go with the flow I did not go back and rewrite as I went along. I just made a note in the text, usually an inline annotation in Scrivener or a note in my journal or in Evernote and I pushed on. A lot of the stuff was cool, but some of it contradicted things said earlier, some of it needed foreshadowing in the text.

When I finished the first draft, things were even more of a mess than usual. I had notes scattered through my text, in various files in my journal, in plain text on my phone and in Dropbox. Sometimes I scribbled stuff down in OneNote on my tablet if an idea struck me when I was out and about. I needed to go through all this , put it together and sort it out.

That’s when I remembered the pilots on the 737. I decided I needed a checklist. I would go through all my notes, put them in one place and then tick things off as I went through the list of what needed to be done.

I started using OmniOutliner, an app I have owned for over a decade but rarely use these days. It’s a good program but I have not had much use for it since I started using Scrivener. So why was it on my mind now? Because I wanted something I could tick things off on and, as far as I know, there is no way of doing this in Scrivener.

OmniOutliner is great for making checklists but there was no place to cut and paste the information I needed to use.

Then I remembered that I owned Folding Text. I took all my separate notes and pasted them into Folding Text. I gave each of the major sections of the book a separate header and I put all the revisions I needed to make in order. I gave every item a checkbox.

Once I had done that I had a clear idea of everything I needed to do and more to the point I could see the order I needed to do things in. It was obvious which revisions would affect succeeding revisions. I moved the headers around to reflect the most efficient order to do them in.

Once everything was set-up, I worked through the list, ticking things off when completed. It was the easiest revision process I have ever experienced. Everything I needed was in one place. I knew exactly what needed doing and the order to do it in. As I worked my way throughthe list, ticking off the completed sections which gave me a sense of progress.

I had a clear road map to where I wanted to go and a bunch of sign-posts along the way to getting there. I knew exactly how far I was from my destination.

You don’t need fancy software to take advantage of this. You could do this with print outs and a handwritten checklist if you needed to. All you need is a place to get your stuff in order and a way of keeping track of your progress. I found that it really helps.


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