Monday, June 20, 2016

The Principles of d20 Supplements

Recently an Office Depot near my home went out of business. I don't wish ill on anyone or their business, but it did give me the opportunity to pick up a cheap portable hard drive and finally put my RPG ebook collection into some kind of order.

Most of that collection has come from bundles of various kinds; probably a few hundred dollars a year worth of deep-discounted collections of just raw stuff.  This is one sort of marketing (among many) in our consumerist world and hobby that I'm especially susceptible to.

I also receive a lot of RPG ebooks through my role as a rpgnow Feature Reviewer.  We get tons of material to review.  The ones that end up on this hard drive were interesting enough for me to download, though the overwhelming majority of them didn't give me anything particularly remarkable to talk about and I didn't feel like a three-star "yeah, seems to do what the blurb says it does" review would be very valuable to anyone.  (The most boring I delete; I only save the ones that perhaps I want to give a second look to someday, or as part of a potential overview post...uh, I guess this is one of them.)  The kind publishers of drivethrurpg keep me around despite me turning in relatively rare but extremely long and overly detailed "reviews".  Actually I am not sure I produce "reviews" at all, now that I type it out.  Perhaps that's a blog post for another time.  Whatever I do at drivethrurpg, "reviews" or something else entirely, you can read them all here.

However, this position means that I have something of a unique perspective on an incredibly wide array of game supplements, and a generalization has slowly emerged over the many years I've been curating and thinking about them:
me when I try to determine the purpose of a RPG suppplement
author solely from the text they produced.

I don't understand what the creators of many of these supplements think their audience should do with them.

Let's run the clock back to the days of the d20 boom.  Other authors have grappled with the business implications of the release of D&D3 to a much more significant level of detail that I will ever understand.  (I'm one of those beings of pure energy from Star Trek so anything having to do with "business" or "money" is outside my comprehension.)  What I'm most interested in talking about is what OGL creations meant from an aesthetic perspective.
Approximately the complexity of your typical D&D plot.
Includes end-of-module plot twist.

I was on board for D&D3 since the beginning.  I even have the first printing, the one that cost only $20 and came with the beta version of the character creator in a sleeve in the back.  It had on its very first page a clear description of what the game was and what the role of each of the players were.  The DM would present a challenging, exciting, fantasy action-adventure world and the players would deploy their characters to face these fantasy action-adventure challenges.  This challenge aesthetic ran all the way through the book, with only a few minor deviations here and there - akin to typos, almost.  Once you take challenge as the central idea of D&D3, a lot of supposed "problems" with the book are not actually problems.  Instead they are merely different aesthetic goals.

For example, people criticized the Craft skill system as not being consistent with the price table, or, indeed, with any kind of reasonable, consistent world.  This is only a problem if you see the D&D3 Player's Guide and Dungeon Master's Guide as a simulation of a fantasy world.  Of course in such situations not just those two systems but huge amounts of the ecology, economy history and core concepts of the D&D fantasy world simply don't work.  Your typical D&D world has about as much internal consistency as your average fever dream, the studied historicity of, say, a nu-metal album cover and the character conflicts you come across typically have the dramatic potential of the comic strips you get with a stick of bubblegum.  But because of the relentless focus on challenge, D&D3 works; and was one of the biggest successes of all time, for many very good reasons.  Let nothing I say here diminish its worthiness either in the creation of an aesthetically sound experience or, as we call it, a rollicking good time.

So here it is, the Year Of Our Lord 2016, and a person releases a collection of feats for D&D3 or one of its follow-ons (3.5, Pathfinder, etc.)  This isn't a setup to a joke, this is a thing that literally happens multiple times every month.

Like, think about that, think that through.  Assuming we get together and played weekly between 2000 and 2016, we could have played around 800 times (assume there are 2 days a year we wouldn't play for holidays and breaks and such.)  The 3.0 DMG suggests 4-5 sessions per character experience level - Pathfinder considers this "average" character advancement.  Since naturally we wouldn't switch out characters until we retire them at Level 20 (forget epic levels for a moment), we would go through around 9 characters in that time frame.  Let's also assume for the moment that we never, ever use the same feats twice.  (This also means we're not playing fighters, since their bonus feat list forces us into repeating feats just about as much as we gain additional ones.  And anyway, playing a fighter in 3rd-edition-era D&D all the way to level 20 is a waste of absolutely everyone's time.) That means we'll see 11 feats for each character we play and a total of 99 feats between 2000 and 2016.  Around 6 feats per year.

There are presently 175 feats in the Pathfinder SRD that come from the corebook.  There were approximately as many in D&D3 and D&D3.5's Player's Guides.  This means if we played third edition D&D every week since the moment it released, shifting to 3.5 and then Pathfinder on each subsequent release, with no breaks, until today's date, we would not have even come close to seeing all the feats in the corebooks alone.

Then there are the additional "official" feats in various supplements put out by Wizards or Paizo over that time.  Even excluding feats designated as product identity and not freely available, even just looking at the feats that are open content, there are, as of today, 1,479 feats for Pathfinder.

Let me put that in perspective another way.  For one player to experience all the feats currently in "official" open content for D&D3 et seq., they would have to play from the year 2000 to the year 2245.  We are closer in time to the ratification of the Constitution than we are to a player being able to experience all the feats in the "official" open content of D&D3 et. seq.

If four players coordinated their feat-picking so that none of them ever took the same feat, the Player's Guide would still last this group until 2061. We are closer in time to President Nixon's re-election than we are to four players being able to experience all the feats in the "official" open content of D&D3.

Into this most feat-filled of all possible worlds comes a third party publisher with a collection of (say) 20 more feats.  Let's lay aside for the moment the obvious question of whether we should be concerned for the mental health of someone who read any version of D&D3 and said "I know what this game needs....More feats!!" If we were all perfectly well adjusted, stable people who didn't go haring off down dead ends in our lives we wouldn't still be playing tabletop RPGs 30 years after the fad ended.

What exactly is meant to be done with these 20 feats?  Are they supposed to be added to the 175 feats in the Player's Guide? Dumped into the vast sea of 1,479 feats that already exist?  Do they replace existing feats?  Which ones?

Is It Good?

Picture of a D&D player picking a feat, presumably
How can I, a reviewer, determine if these feats are any good?  By what criteria do we determine if a feat is "good"?  Let's cross some possibilities off the list:

  • A feat's quality is not determined by mathematical soundness or game balance.  D&D3 included Toughness, which did next to nothing, and Pathfinder included the Prone Shooter, a which did exactly nothing (it has been updated to do next to nothing.)  Feats are - quite obviously - not meant to all be mechanically sound or even functional. Others are straight up inferior to others, a fact easily mathematically demonstrated and completely unsurprising - remember, there are 1,479 "official" feats and 175 "official corebook" feats.  So if I mathematically analyze a feat, from any degree from an eyeball-and-napkin calculation to a rigorous game theoretic proof, and determine that it's more or less powerful than other, more "official" feats, I haven't really learned anything about its quality.  The "official" games' feats have this characteristic too.  I have to assume, given the volume of feats that exist, this is intentional on the designers part; that sometimes D&D players are meant to say "Oh, that sounds good" and get screwed because they're not good enough at picking out good feats.  Or a D&D player really works on a feat selection and makes a good choice and is rewarded commensurately.  Or that perhaps the value of a feat on a character sheet is not necessarily in its effects on the game world.
  • A feat's quality isn't determined by how well it expresses something about the setting.  D&D's corebooks have always been fairly scrupulously agnostic about setting, with the continued exception, ironically, of gods which clerics and other religious characters might be aligned with.  It's not until the DMG that there's any attention to worldbuilding, and this is quite a long tradition in D&D games.  This tradition comes from a long-standing practice of D&D characters being fairly easily portable to many tables where very different fantasy worlds may be presented.  Remember, the thing that D&D3's system determines is how characters cope with fantasy action-adventure challenges, not ~how magic works~ or what the elvish language is like in some Simarillionesque sense.  It makes sense that the feats in D&D3 et seq. should also be relatively generic, and overwhelmingly, they are.  In fact, the feats that are the most desirable are among the least flavorful (Scribe Scroll, anything that makes it harder to save against your spells).  
  • A feat's quality isn't determined by its continuity with the rest of the core system.  The whole concept of the feat is one that creates an exceptional ability that jumps out from the core rules, something that you just can't do with the core rules.  Although, again, many feats do not follow this ("hey everyone, high five!! I just got a +3 to a SKILL CHECK!"), it's fairly clear that it's permitted to go way beyond what the core rules describe as feasible (Leadership).
It's not just feats, either.  Should monsters mesh with the monsters in the core game? Since CR in the core game doesn't work, should I be worried about the correct CR for monsters in supplements? Should monsters in supplements follow the fever-dream ecological assumptions about monsters in a D&D universe?  Should I try to apply those assumptions to the interactions of those monsters in the fantasy world I'm creating?

"Quick, Make A Bland Inoffensive Statement!" "Whew, Another Aesthetic Crisis Averted."

I can't even take the non-reviewing reviewers' ejection handle, "Well, you'll like it if you like things like this" because I don't know what people might like about "things like this".   Sure, I've read feats and said "Yeah, that sounds cool", but what has me horrified is that this might be the only feeling that the feat collection is meant to excite. That the effectiveness, aesthetic, or usability of the game mechanic might not be relevant, that the only question worth answering is "Does this feel like gaming material?"  Not "What would this material do in a game?" or "Does it fulfill a particular game function well?"

Now obviously this doesn't apply to all d20 supplemental materials.  Settings and modules are well integrated into the d20 corebook + supplement structure.  I know from the corebooks what I'm supposed to do with settings and modules, and I can determine what types of groups might enjoy them.  But then I get to the feat list, I get to the new mechanics and I'm suddenly taken aback.  Drop 20 more feats into that list of 1,479 and what exactly have you done, except to hasten the grave?

The only available conclusion is simple and disheartening.  Most of the creators of this type of supplementary material (for whatever game) don't tell me how to use the material because they don't ever anticipate that this material will be used, and so haven't given a lot of thought to it.  Speaking statistically, given how much material is in a typical corebook these days, they are probably quite correct that the material they're selling will never hit a single gaming table, that nobody will ever speak or write their mechanic into a game, ever.  This makes it very difficult to make an aesthetic judgment about supplements.

And it's not just new games (or even d20 games) that have this problem, though feats are a particularly vivid example of the issue.  Take the justifiably beloved Chicago by Night, a city supplement published for Vampire: the Masquerade's first edition in the early 1990s.  Here's a game that tells you how to create and establish your own theme (in the 8th grade English sense of the word), and use it to organize the player characters and events of the game....and a supplement that has a Theme and Tone already written.  (Not to mention the non-player characters don't follow or promote the Theme or Tone at all.)  So in a Chicago: by Night game, am I giving up the ability to create a Theme? What part of the Theme should I give to the players to assist in making their characters?  How, in short, do I mesh Chicago by Night with Vampire: the Masquerade?  At least in Chicago By Night there's an aesthetic that I can evaluate, and tell you that if you really like the type of Vampire stuff in Vampire, there's a heck of a lot more in CBN.  But if you really sat me down and asked me, "What in Chicago by Night fits into the instructions that Vampire: the Masquerade gives you on how to play the game?" the amount might be pretty small.

I guess if there's a takeaway from this post, it's that supplements, in these days of open content, really ought to take care to situate themselves carefully in the procedures of the core game.  And, of course, core games need to make it clear how to use different types of supplemental material in designing and playing campaigns.  (I believe I just destroyed my own threat/promise to write a 7th Sea version of the Critique of Pure Reason but NEVER MIND OKAY?!)  Yeah, 20 feats into 1,479 is a waste of time - but maybe replacing 20 of 175 feats is not, if you tell me which ones I'm replacing and what game or aesthetic change this will represent.  If you want me to supplement a game, either be damn sure the underlying game, or your supplement, tells me how to use it and what you feel it should do.  Otherwise everyone who reads it will be lost at sea.