Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Necromancer Games Raises a Few Zombies

Two years after their last release -- the excellent City of Brass -- Necromancer Games has finally released new products, namely The Eamonvale Incursion, Demonheart, and the long-awaited Slumbering Tsar. I'm glad to see these products finally see the light of day, even if I am unlikely to buy them myself. At present, they're only available as PDFs and very expensive ones at that. My own feeling is that PDFs shouldn't be priced the same as printed books, but I doubt I'm going to get many game companies to agree to that idea. I'm fully aware of the costs involved in producing RPG books and I certainly don't begrudge any company that wants to pay its writers and artists well. Still, I have a hard time justifying a $30 PDF, especially when it's written for a rules set I don't use.

Necromancer Games was definitely one of the bright lights of the 3e era of D&D and many of their products, particularly their Judges Guild ones, are classics I am proud to own. I also think Necromancer played a small role in my own return to the roots of my hobby by reminding me of the things I liked best about it. I hope I can be forgiven for imagining a world in which the company turned its sights to the retro-clones and supported one or more of them through its releases. I know that's unlikely to happen for a variety of reasons, but I wish for it all the same. Necromancer did some awesome stuff over the course of its existence and I'd like to see more of it on game store shelves.

Fortunately, there are lots of other publishers out there picking up the slack and giving us solid old school adventures.

43 comments:

  1. Ideally I'd like to see Necromancer do rules-light stuff usable in both retro-clones/OD&D, 3e/Pathfinder and 4e, preferably in other popular systems like Runequest and Savage Worlds too.

    While it took some time to work out how to use it right, I have grown to love my Wilderlands of High Fantasy box set with a deep burning love, and am currently running no fewer than 3 online campaigns using it - a Labyrinth Lord PBEM, a Labyrinth Lord chat, and a 4e chat (not sure how that'll go, but it seemed a fun idea). Hoping to do some episodic tabletop Wilderlandsing at the London D&D Meetup next year.

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  2. "While it took some time to work out how to use it right"

    The answer seems to be 'avoid tentpole megadungeons', because the Wilderlands itself _is_ the megadungeon, and you want to encourage the PCs to trek across as many of those lovely hexes as possible.

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  3. S'mon,

    That's a very good point about the Wilderlands and the correct perspective, I think. It's something a lot of people miss (myself included) the first time they try to use the setting.

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  4. Participating your Dwimmermount play by post has been enlightening as to how to run such games. (As well just being fun to play in.)

    I am considering run a PbP Wilderlands using S&W/OD&D.

    Nothing definite yet and I want to have a little more experience with play by post by seeing more of the Dwimmermount.

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  5. Unfortunately, Necromancer took a very hostile stance towards retroclone games and threw their lot in with wotc. They chose... poorly.

    It's a pity about the pdf prices. No way in hell I'm paying that much for any pdf.

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  6. I'm not sure what you mean by "hostile".

    The only thing I think people have misinterpreted from Clark Peterson was his stance on OSRIC. As an attorney, he feels that OSRIC is "risky". I believe his is correct because even if the creators of OSRIC think it's "legal proof", as I've stated in the past, it's one thing to start from 3e's SRD as a base, as C&C has done, but another thing to use the SRD to re-create 1e AD&D complete with stuff like percentile strength that was never released under the OGL.

    If it was your money, would you risk it. EGG would never have used OSRIC because he learned first hand what it was like to get sued by TSR, and would never take that risk.

    All the old school games exist at the pleasure of WoTC, and unless/until a defendant in a lawsuit took it all the way and won, there can always be that question.

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  7. These are very interesting modules and mini-campaigns that a person using 3.5e/Pathfinder can pickup and use easily. Necromancer games has a high production value and very much in the vein of the old school power dungeoneer. I'd pick these up when they hit $15 or so. I can't see spending $30 on these things but when they hit cheaper I'll get them ASAP.

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  8. This sounds pretty hostile to me-

    "OSRIC is totally illegal and I wont be associated with it in any way. Please dont bother to defend it by saying they havent been sued. It is illegal and totally unethical."

    http://necromancergames.yuku.com/sreply/169019/t/Ongoing-GSL-Saga-.html

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  9. It would have been best for him to have kept his legal advice private and for the sole benefit of Necromancer Games. As someone who never stopped playing AD&D after all these years, I must say those looking to continue to play AD&D are best served by OSRIC products (if you desire any products at all). To the extent Necromancer Games hindered OSRIC's progress and besmirched its reputation at the origin of the project is regrettable. WOTC's own OGL opened the door to OSRIC. And a couple of guys (along with support from many more) that actually understand "AD&D" made it happen.

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  10. @mhensely

    Thanks for the link. You reminded me why my feelings were, and still are, strong on this matter.

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  11. "Ideally I'd like to see Necromancer do rules-light stuff usable in both retro-clones/OD&D, 3e/Pathfinder and 4e, preferably in other popular systems like Runequest and Savage Worlds too."

    Which he can't do without coming off like a complete and utter hypocrite.

    Whether Peterson is a lawyer or not, you have to also view his statements from the perspective that he is a business owner offering "1st edition feel" products. He can hardly be expected to offer neutral observations on the subject.

    But then, he was only one of the main FUD spreaders with regards to OSRIC who had pecuniary interests at stake...

    Ironically, any time anyone actually associated with WotC says anything public about OSRIC, it's been positive.

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  12. "Necromancer took a very hostile stance towards retroclone games and threw their lot in with wotc. They chose... poorly."

    Perhaps when it comes to maximizing your of my appreciation of their products, that's so.

    However, it remains to be seen that Necromancer is in a worse place financially today as a result of this decision.

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  13. Part of the problem I am seeing, however, is the OSRIC-rah-rah team is quick to condemn both Necromancer and Troll Lord Games for not accepting OSRIC as the true heir to "old school". I noticed people pushing the game tended to get a little heated on the message boards.

    While people may think it was FUD or OSRIC bashing, there is IMO cause to have some concern. There's a lot of argument about OSRIC being legal because either games can't be copyrighted or because the OGL allowed this. But TSR/WoTC never released 1e AD&D, OD&D, or other games under that license--in fact, they have a profit stake via the Hackmaster license they gave Kenzer.

    I mean we can argue this back and forth, but this hasn't been tested. Even Ryan Dancey, the creator of the OGL, stated that he believes if a major RPG got to court, they can argue that rules and setting combined is more "book" than "game" and might get protection--there is simply too little legal precedent for this.

    Ultimately, I believe the reason WoTC doesn't care is they don't think it's a big market. (If somebody tries to reverse-engineer 4e under the OGL, watch the hammer come down). Even the threat of lawsuit is enough for this to be a concern. I think we are lucky that WoTC doesn't really want to bother worrying about this--a different regime or management could change this.

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  14. 226 pages? $30? PDF?

    What are they thinking?

    BTW, how I hate that there's another higher cost as well, which it probably never have been sold for. Nice marketing.

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  15. I don't know Clark personally. Maybe he's a nice guy, and maybe he's sharp.

    His plight makes me think of a cultist who, after a successful summoning ritual, starts complaining about being slaughtered by Cthulhu. He went to bat for 4E and WOTC, and then got munched by them.

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  16. @John,

    Obviously, a discussion about legal issues, etc. will end inconclusively and result in a waste of everyone's time. So I'm not interested in conceding or contesting any of your points.

    I don't know of any OSRIC rah-rah team. But, for me, if there was an RPG team worth joining it'd be the one playing AD&D. So let me know how I sign up.

    OSRIC facilitates the publish of AD&D adventures. So, yeah, as someone who has always played AD&D (and always will), I'll gladly profess my excitement about that.

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  17. Interesting way of putting it, Korgoth.

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  18. By "rah-rah" team, I meant fans who got a little overexuberant. There were people for instance who would argue about C&C on TLG's own site, saying it sucked, etc.

    I can agree to disagree, but the problem I see are people pushing an "agenda"--accusing Clark of "spreading FUD" crosses the line. Some people attack anybody who even expresses a difference of opinion. I agree with others that OSRIC might not stand legal scrutiny if Wizards decided to care. (I believe we have a right to play any game we want, but we don't have a fundamental right to publish a game that is not legally ours).

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  19. "(I believe we have a right to play any game we want, but we don't have a fundamental right to publish a game that is not legally ours)."

    As do I and that's why OSRIC couldn't legally exist without the OGL. Fortunately, there's the OGL.

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  20. To be honest, I think Mr. Peterson can fold up without caring, nobody "ate him up".

    Clark always wanted to work closely with WoTC. Tome of Horrors is pretty much a special licensed product, for instance, so was Necropolis. At the time, WoTC was a lot more open.

    I think the key thing though right now is not so much the GSL, as the paradigm changed.

    I mean, they talk about "1st Edition feel" for the new game, but 4e was such a paradigm shift that it's going to be hard to really reconstruct that without gutting the system. Even if 3e was different from 1e, you could teach 3e to a 1e player and while there are new concepts, there's still a familiar base. For instance Fireball is still a 3rd Level spell cast by a Wizard, a Bag of Holding is a bag of holding.

    Its a lot harder to do a 1e feel with 4e, and with 3e being adopted by Pathfinder and 1e clones out by fan publishers, what audience can he choose?

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  21. As do I and that's why OSRIC couldn't legally exist without the OGL. Fortunately, there's the OGL.

    Here's how I explained it on ENWorld

    From what I understand, OSRIC is using the 3e SRD to justify use of terms and other elements while also using copyright law to "reverse engineer" the older AD&D rule set. I think combining the two is risky. A subset of 3e D&D was released as an SRD under the OGL. AD&D was never released by that, and by licensing the game in the past to Hackmaster they've shown that there is still value in the product. I believe the author thinks the twin legal principles can create a 1e clone without risk. But I can see WoTC getting upset with it. From what I've seen, the "games can't be copyright defense" works better the more differences there are, such as using "health" instead of "hit points", or different terms for the stats.

    I can see a reasonable concern for risk. Even if combined these are affirmative defenses under law, a trial can be a crapshoot, and the threat of litigation alone can hurt. So I can see companies avoiding this for those reasons, among others. Sometimes winning a trial is more than just the skill of the lawyers and the wisdom/logic of the judge or jury--it can come down to luck as well.

    I don't think WoTC wants to sue, mostly because they don't consider 1e very valuable--if they did they'd probably start publishing a revised 1e ruleset themselves and take advantage of the market. I do think anybody who tries to use the OSRIC method to reverse engineer a 4th edition version of AD&D WILL get sued. However, they will probably never say they will "never sue", as somebody could try to create a game supplement/module that violates the rules they had to create for the SRD after "Book of Erotic Fantasy" came out. In that case, I could see the legal team using every weapon in their arsenal.


    The OGL works for anything based on the 3rd Edition game, but IMO not for others.

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  22. I go into more details here.

    http://www.enworld.org/forum/general-rpg-discussion/258619-getting-osric-ad-d-into-flgs-publishers-4.html

    (And this thread to me explains what I meant by the "rah rah" group. There are people who get a little fanatical regarding OSRIC, getting mad at the other people who have a different opinion on the legality, saying that we are being "defamatory" and that we need to "shut up".)

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  23. "they talk about "1st Edition feel" for the new game, but 4e was such a paradigm shift that it's going to be hard to really reconstruct that without gutting the system." - John

    I disagree. This is a topic that really interests me: old-school dungeon crawls, new-school game mechanics. I've given this a lot of thought for my next game, and I think 4e is a great choice for a retro-feel game. The reason I say this is that when you compare 4e to previous editions, you find that the rules are very modular and a lot less clunky than in those earlier iterations.

    Now, clearly, there are a few things about 4e that do not translate well into OS gaming. First off, 4e characters are heroic, right out of the gate. They're more powerful than the starting characters in any previous edition. This is part of the overall feel of the game, and it's something that's too integral to remove easily. There also aren't any rules for henchmen or followers in 4e, something that's apparently key to the OD&D experience. That's something I'm working on writing rules for right now. Further, there's very little randomness in the 4e rules, and that's something else that OD&D seems to be about. So, a DM trying to emulate that style of game has to create some random tables.

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  24. I will NEVER pay that amount of money for a pdf, I don't care how good the product is supposed to be, utterly ridiculous.

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  25. I'm glad Necro is releasing these, but think their high .pdf pricing is unfortunate (and my opinion on that subject is in no way limited to just this one publisher). I understand they need to pay their writers and artists, but, at the same time, there was a very strong possibility this wasn't going to be released at all.

    If they're looking to drum up a resurgence of interest in their products after 14 months without a release, I think a budget-priced .pdf model would have been the way to go, with the premium prices reserved for the p.o.d., but that's just my outsiders opinion.

    I was a bit boggled that these weren't released under the aegis of Pathfinder, as they've reported being in discussion with Paizo for quite some time. I wonder what happened there?

    All that aside, I'll be picking up at least one of these (Tsar) when they show up on LuLu. :)

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  26. I can't believe this is still a subject that people are trying to debate.

    Has any of the anti-OSRIC legal hawks checked on the statute of limitations for copyright infringement lately?

    Just sayin'.

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  27. "This is a topic that really interests me: old-school dungeon crawls, new-school game mechanics."

    It's completely and utterly impossible to have an "old-school dungeon crawl" without certain formative rules conventions.

    Here are five off the top of my head that your game would have trouble with as written:

    1. XP for gold. Indeed, gold as the primary source of XP. This rule and its implications form the crux of old-school dungeoneering. Period, full stop. Anyone who doesn't quite grasp how really needs to ruminate until they do.

    2. Encounters often not at all "balanced" in relation to PC fighting ability and the expectation that most hostile encounters will be avoided if possible.

    3. Random encounters functioning as essentially punishments for dawdling, bickering and otherwise not setting and sticking to expedition goals and other poor play.

    4. No expectation that the PCs have any sort of "right" to mundane and (especially) magical treasure.

    5. The potential for the sort of extreme dangers associated with permanent level draining and "save or" type hazards. "Save vs. poison or die", etc.

    These are much bigger hurdles than the other you mentioned like character power, because certain games that like to call themselves D&D have deliberately de-emphasised or eliminated these altogether.

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  28. I was a huge Necromancer Games fan back in their early days, I owed them getting back into DnD, it was the Wizards Amulet that got me to buy 3rd edition. I was an active member of their boards, I was even writing a project for them which never saw the light of day mostly because WOTC ended putting out a similar project first.
    Their early products were top notch, Tomb of Abysthor and Rappan Athuk were some of the very best adventures put out for 3rd edition I would say very best, but that spot belongs to their crown jewel of a release, the Wilderlands of High Fantasy boxed set, which in my opinion surpassed the greatness of the original releases.
    It is a shame that a company that once soared so high company has more or less died a slow death.

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  29. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  30. "Has any of the anti-OSRIC legal hawks checked on the statute of limitations for copyright infringement lately? Just sayin'."

    If you know, and it affects the status of OSRIC, perhaps you should state it as an assertion, instead of making us guess. Anything else comes off as passive-aggressive FUD (emphasis on the U).

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  31. @Will

    I disagree with your premise. But, even it were true those are hardly hurdles at at all.

    2,3,4 are play style / adventure prep issues totally orthogonal to rules system.

    1,5 are trivial tweaks any half-awake DM should be able to house rule.


    Necromancer guy sounds like an asshat, so what? Steve Jackson is a utter asshat. Doesn't stop me from buying his company's products when they're good. But I've quit buying almost all new "commercial" products cause 1) burned too often by crap 2) bloody way too costly 3) available at 2nd hand bookstore / ebay cheaper.

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  32. James:
    "That's a very good point about the Wilderlands and the correct perspective, I think. It's something a lot of people miss (myself included) the first time they try to use the setting."

    Me too - I had several failed attempts at Wilderlands PBEM campaigns - PBEM is a tough format anyway, but the biggest problems always came when the PCs were hunkered down, the biggest successes have been where the PCs are motivated to travel. The details in the WoHF box set make great jumping off points for webs of intrigue, plots and events, with lots of quirky detail I can riff off while adding my own.

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  33. Rob:
    "I am considering run a PbP Wilderlands using S&W/OD&D.

    Nothing definite yet and I want to have a little more experience with play by post by seeing more of the Dwimmermount."

    Rob, you might like to check out my Wilderlands PBEM yahoogroup -
    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Barbarians_of_the_Wilderlands/

    It has archives of several different games going back several years and can give a good idea of what works (motivated PCs actively hex-crawling) and what didn't go so well: PCs hunkering down in a wizard's tower, PCs as sailors avoiding adventure, megadungeons - both my attempts at Caverns of Thracia and Tegel Manor were short-lived, though Tegel had some fun moments.

    Right now in the game there's a bit of an impasse as the players are having trouble deciding what to do, which can waste _weeks_ in a PBEM.

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  34. My Wilderlands LL chat game is archived here:
    http://www.dragonsfoot.org/forums/viewtopic.php?f=44&t=34270

    This game has truly been a delight, I'd say my most successful online game at least in ten years. We started with a small JG adventure The Ilhiedrin Book and have expanded out from there, with the PCs venturing further and further and encountering more of the milieu. I have the WoHF box set as a base while riffing off it with my own ideas. It feels like a living world with a lot of depth.

    One thing you'll note is that I start the PCs fairly tough - 5001 XP and max hp - so it's a bit more 'high adventure' than 'fantasy effin Vietnam'. This doesn't prevent fatalities, as you'll see in the last two session logs, but it does encourage confidence that they can take a few knocks, so less 'turtling'.

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  35. Not Wilderlands, but I'm running a hex crawl PBEM using Rob's Points of Light (Wildland specifically):

    http://games.groups.yahoo.com/group/LL_The_White_Marches/

    This has been very successful. The trick was a plot (in this case a maguffin) that requires the PCs to travel across most of the map, but doesn't constrain them to a linear path (so no 'caravan guard' scenarios). That way you have strategic depth - do we try the Crandar moors, or the coastal route? Do we dare the ruins of Novus Tydaris, or continue on upriver? This keeps things fresh and interesting for both players & GM.

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  36. John:
    "If it was your money, would you risk it. EGG would never have used OSRIC because he learned first hand what it was like to get sued by TSR, and would never take that risk.

    All the old school games exist at the pleasure of WoTC, and unless/until a defendant in a lawsuit took it all the way and won, there can always be that question"

    From my conversations with the author of OSRIC, and other researches, I'm satisfied that WoTC are very unlikely to sue. The OGL puts them in a very weak legal position in litigation - and was designed to do so. Hence the GSL for 4e.

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  37. John:
    "Even Ryan Dancey, the creator of the OGL, stated that he believes if a major RPG got to court, they can argue that rules and setting combined is more "book" than "game" and might get protection"

    Yes - and I teach copyright & contract law, BTW. But there's no setting in OSRIC. In fact IMO OSRIC has been very carefully structured to avoid any arguable infringements on presentation/expression . Not all the retro-clones are quite so careful.

    But the vast bulk of any retro-clone is non-infringing, due to the OGL and to the non-protection of games rules as rules. If a court did find that OSRIC's % Strength table was infringing (which I think unlikely) - result is merely that the author has to remove that particular table from the game. WoTC/Hasbro lawyers know this.

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  38. Will

    I think those are all really good points, and they're exactly the kind of thing I've been grappling with as I work on this project. As a quick response

    #2-3: are both adventure design issues of the sort that any DM would face writing this style of adventure. It doesn't actually require any mechanical changes to the game in order to address these issues.

    #1: is a fairly simple mathematical shift in the game. In actuality, 4e's XP and GP charts are closely linked, and it shouldn't take much juggling to make the requisite changes.

    #4 & #5 are where the really tough changes need to be made, not because it's difficult to write new rules to address these issues, but because it requires the players to change their fundamental expectations about how the game is going to play. For example, #5 could be addressed very easily by writing a rule that says "When you hit 0 hp, you die." For those unfamiliar with 4e - you hit 0 hp fairly often, but there are typically plenty of powers that will allow you to come back. So, writing the rule is easy - getting players to accept it, though, will be far harder. The same applies to #4 as well. As a DM, I could care less whether the players find magical treasure - the players will see things a bit differently though!

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  39. @Norman Harman - "2,3,4 are play style / adventure prep issues totally orthogonal to rules system."

    My experience suggests the opposite. The detailed tactical combat of 4E means encounters take more time to resolve than OD&D. Add to that the easier availability of healing and wandering monsters tend to become a waste of players' time rather than a strategic attrition of resources. The mechanics associated with short and extended rests significantly affect the viability of an exploratory play style as well as adventure design based around gradual attrition of party resources.

    As in a skirmish miniatures game, the fun of 4E combat depends on well-balanced forces; random encounters with foes too easy are boring, while those too difficult are frustrating. 4E's intentional focus on designing combat to require the cooperation the entire party de-emphasizes individual PC's ability to swing the outcome of a battle through spells like sleep or web, which would end many undesired encounters in OD&D before they even got started. Changing the rules system of 4E to feature save-or-die effects would IMO involve tackling the assumption that combats will feature the entire party working together, the fact that combats are slower to resolve so that the dead player has to wait longer to introduce a new PC, and the fact that designing a new 4E character involves more time and investment than rolling up a new OD&D one.

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  40. I wanted to pick apart what muleabides just said, because I think he brings up some really good points regarding 4e and dungeon-crawl play.

    "The detailed tactical combat of 4E means encounters take more time to resolve than OD&D."
    This is true. Detailed tactical combat takes a lot of time to resolve. The quality of 4e's tactical combat rules are the best thing it has going for it, and that's one of the main reasons I want to use 4e for my game. So, I'll have to accept the fact that there are longer combats in my game.

    "Add to that the easier availability of healing and wandering monsters tend to become a waste of players' time rather than a strategic attrition of resources. The mechanics associated with short and extended rests significantly affect the viability of an exploratory play style as well as adventure design based around gradual attrition of party resources."

    I have an issue with this statement. Healing is only more available to a certain point in 4e games. The healing surge is the expendable resource that you're talking about, and if they're getting spent in wandering monster encounters, then the player won't have them available for other encounters. Note that there are almost no ways to restore HP without expending either a healing surge or a daily power - neither of which can be recovered without taking an extended rest. So, that's nearly equivalent to the potions and spells that would be spent healing in an OS game.

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  41. "Add to that the easier availability of healing and wandering monsters tend to become a waste of players' time rather than a strategic attrition of resources. The mechanics associated with short and extended rests significantly affect the viability of an exploratory play style as well as adventure design based around gradual attrition of party resources."

    I've been wrestling with this aspect of 4E myself. I've come up with a few solutions, though - the issue is really only with the extended rest, and there are plenty of ways to modify that to suit the exploratory playstyle.

    wv: taneri

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  42. @ asmodean66: The issue with healing resources for me in 4E is that they're bimodal. As long as you have surges to spend, you're more or less always at full hit points; once you're out of surges, you can't be helped by most forms of healing at all. As a player this feels very different than the gradual erosion of HP in OD&D, in which I'm likely to be cautious throughout; in 4E I act very differently when I'm low on surges vs. when I'm not.

    @ Witness - I have issues with short rests as well because in order to make the skirmish wargame part fun, characters need lots of options, which is generally true only if they can take 5 minutes out of the action regularly enough to refresh their encounter powers. As a DM I find that the necessity to work in these un-interrupted "smoke breaks" plays havoc with my ability to run time-pressure situations (or wandering monster-rife dungeons), and as a player I find it a frustrating disconnect between my character's desire to rescue the captives without a moment's delay and my own desire to take a short rest so that the next fight isn't also a boring slog of one at-will or another.

    I'm interested to hear what solutions y'all have come up with (and don't mean to be discouraging about the prospects for such). Maybe we should continue this side-discussion at http://odd74.proboards.com/index.cgi?board=othereditions&action=display&thread=2411 where I & others have sketched some related ideas?

    - Tavis

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  43. Pre 3e D&D it was always assumed that PCs rested a few minutes after a fight to catch their breath, loot the room etc, so that each fight took a Turn -10 minutes. 4e has gone back to that model, and I like it a lot.

    The PCs in my 4e 'Rescue of Princess Sylvia' game yesterday took a short rest after an epic battle with the lizardmen on the west side of the dungeon. Fine - this gave the goblins on the east side of the dungeon time to get ready, and they were waiting for the PCs en masse when they returned to the central hall...

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