Brevity - a kind of review
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  1. #1

    Brevity - a kind of review

    I should make clear that I really, really like Trailblazer. It presents the best 3.x I've ever seen, and (to the limits of my understanding), I agree with the design philosophy.

    However, 3.x had significant problems. One of the biggest is that it's a very complicated game. Teaching new players, or retraining old ones, is difficult. The main reason for that is not the array of options, as narrowing down what kind of options are preferable isn't too hard, but the array of rules. It wouldn't matter if the core rules had 7 classes or 49, so long as it was easy enough to ask a newbie, "What kind of hero do you want to play?" and translate their answer into one or two character classes. What does matter is how many pages of system rules a new player has to assimilate, especially those that deal with special cases. Think of that as a "stuff/rules" distinction: stuff that you can take or leave isn't a problem, while the rules with which you're stuck will be one.

    So, here's a kind of review of Trailblazer's player section, focusing on this important distinction:


    Introduction

    Most of this is game theory and essential to the book's mission. The rules are Resting, Iterative Attacks, and Action Points. Only the last of these is significantly complex, and it's not really that hard.


    Character Creation

    This is an important section, and most of the rules in it are essential to the basic functioning of the game. Frankly, I recommend removing races altogether. The designer admits that they make very little difference to character balance. However, races add complexity to character creation without adding much flavor. To compensate, add an extra feat for all characters at 1st or 0th level. Skill points have already been increased.

    There are two other existing mechanics that can deal with racial differences. When we're talking about "standard" races and cultures, it makes most sense to make one of the 1st level feats an "origin" feat and provide options in this vein. For "non-standard" races, race-as-class is the best option. (Race-as-class was smuggled in the back door of 3e, after all.) Just what counts as "standard" should vary from campaign to campaign. In Basic, Elves and Dwarves were "non-standard", while from Advanced onwards, they became "standard". Humans have - up to now - been a "standard" option.


    Character Classes

    All that a new player needs to know to navigate this section is a quick run-down on the 11 different classes. It might be slightly difficult to explain the difference between a sorcerer and a wizard, but that's not worth a change.


    Skills

    This section consists of 22 pages of rules, many of the hand-holding or smothering variety. The problems are not original to Trailblazer, and the designer has clearly worked to improve the system. The addition of exploits is a good one, however, it's not well described in the core skill section.

    By the way, there are a number of 3rd edition skills which have actually worsened the game. Search is the most despicable. The Grognards used a description of how their characters interacted with the environment to determine success. We seem to just roll dice. Knowledge skills are also pretty bad. They've hurt the bard, marginalized interactions with sages, and seem to exist mainly due to a fear of metagaming. (As if that could be stopped by rules!) I don't have any problem with Persuasion and its ilk. Asking players to think carefully about how their characters explore a dungeon is a reasonable expectation of the hobby (immersion). Eloquence and force of personality are not required, and can often be the trademarks of a problem player. Wallflowers are welcome to play great diplomats, just as those of you who can't cast spells get to be wizards - but in both cases, the player is the one doing the thinking.

    This section would be best dealt with by using its first three or four pages to describe a generic skill resolution system, and then merely describing what specific skills do, with example DCs if necessary, rather than giving a specific system for each one. I would ditch Search and all Knowledges. The page count should end up as 4 pages of general system. Each skill can be introduced in a couple of paragraphs (no system is strictly necessary, though briefly stating example DCs and exploits would help players and refs).


    Feats

    This is a similar section to that for classes. It would be helpful for new players if more feats were typed (e.g. "Defense", "Weapon"). Some of the feats are organically combined with certain combat or skill options, and need to be eliminated. It would be more help to players to give them a "signature maneuver" feat template in the same vein as weapon specialization.


    Equipment

    Another section full of stuff, and starving demihumans.


    Combat

    There are 33 pages of rules for combat - too many! Most of the page count comes from specialized rules. As a consequence, specialized solutions are necessary to trim it down.

    • Remove attacker and defender modifier tables. Just advise the ref to think about applying +2/-2 modifiers to attack rolls and armor classes to represent advantages and disadvantages.
    • Remove initiative rules. Instead, the ref determines which side has the initiative (based on their position, preparedness, agility, etc). They act first, followed by the other side. If the ref can't make up his mind, flip a coin or roll a die to determine who starts. This eliminates the often misunderstood Delay and Ready actions.
    • It should be made clear that the stated Combat Reactions are examples, not an exhaustive list. Aid probably just needs a single entry.
    • The section on Movement, Position and Distance should be part of an expanded optional rules section for using miniatures. They are fun. I'm not against them. But they're not core to the game.
    • Attack and Defense exploits are not similar to Skill exploits. It would be more help to the ref to have these sorts of things used as examples for using the +2/-2 tool in combat. In the same way, the favorable and unfavorable conditions section can be reduced to a phrase or two.
    • Charging is a +2/-2 situation. The rules for lances and pike-type weapons can be left in the equipment section as suggestive.
    • Turn or Rebuke Undead should be in the cleric class description, just as Sneak Attack is in the rogue class description.
    • Combat Maneuvers. The standardization is good, but the position in the rules is awkward. It would be better to introduce CMB & CMD earlier in the chapter. Most players and refs will get the idea from short examples (Sunder and Trip - no system, just the idea that you can do this sort of thing with a Combat Maneuver).
    • Grappling remains a problem, despite the designer's efforts. As an example: the rules as written imply that the Intimidate skill can't be used while Pinning an Opponent. That's absurd, and it illustrates the difficulty with trying to idiot-proof rules - folly can be great fun! I think the best way to deal with this is to simply explain that some Combat Maneuvers involve contested CMB checks, rather than using CMB against CMD, and use grappling as the example (again, with little or no system).
    • The conditions grappled, pinned, and prone would all be removed as a consequence of this approach.

    These cuts would bring the chapter down to 24 to 26 pages, depending on formatting and whether an ax is taken to that action/AoO table. That's still quite long, and I would be interested in any ideas of how to further abbreviate this section of the rules.


    Exploration

    As a matter of taste, this chapter should be put before Combat. Use Rope could perhaps be simplified, but there are no significant problems.


    Magic

    Not having the spell descriptions makes it clear that d20's magic rules were fairly simple. I don't see much room for abbreviating what's here.

  2. #2
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    Excellent to have a review targeted at a specific concept.
    Quote Originally Posted by Vespucci View Post
    . . . 3.x had significant problems. One of the biggest is that it's a very complicated game. Teaching new players, or retraining old ones, is difficult. The main reason for that is not the array of options, as narrowing down what kind of options are preferable isn't too hard, but the array of rules.
    Full agreement, despite there being a unified mechanic, the original 3e designers/developers also seemed to go for a rule for everything.


    Quote Originally Posted by Vespucci View Post
    Character Creation

    This is an important section, and most of the rules in it are essential to the basic functioning of the game. Frankly, I recommend removing races altogether. The designer admits that they make very little difference to character balance. However, races add complexity to character creation without adding much flavor.
    Though you are bringing up some worthwhile concepts, I think races-as-is is to much of a sacred cow to change much, especially in the way you are proposing. Too many 3.x players expect to see dwarves or elves with specific abilities that can choose any class, the idea is compelling for me because I'm a fan of Classic D&D/The Known World.


    Quote Originally Posted by Vespucci View Post
    Skills

    This section consists of 22 pages of rules, many of the hand-holding or smothering variety.

    . . .

    The page count should end up as 4 pages of general system. Each skill can be introduced in a couple of paragraphs (no system is strictly necessary, though briefly stating example DCs and exploits would help players and refs).
    I'm torn on skills. I love the details and the extra Bad Axe-fications to the skills, but I also feel like it is TMI. Maybe it is resistance to changing what I'm used to now, but I'm reluctant to change the skills system as much as I do wish for a more abstract system.


    Quote Originally Posted by Vespucci View Post
    Feats

    Some of the feats are organically combined with certain combat or skill options, and need to be eliminated. It would be more help to players to give them a "signature maneuver" feat template in the same vein as weapon specialization.
    Have a few examples in mind?


    Quote Originally Posted by Vespucci View Post
    • Remove initiative rules. Instead, the ref determines which side has the initiative (based on their position, preparedness, agility, etc). They act first, followed by the other side. If the ref can't make up his mind, flip a coin or roll a die to determine who starts. This eliminates the often misunderstood Delay and Ready actions.
    Hmm, positive benefits I think are obvious, but I've seen many instances where initiative needs to be decided by player rather than by side though. I think this might be an area where players could also be reluctant to give up what they can control here, but maybe if there is no need to build a character that reacts ultra fast players won't care . . .


    Quote Originally Posted by Vespucci View Post
    • Turn or Rebuke Undead should be in the cleric class description, just as Sneak Attack is in the rogue class description.
    Probably so, though would have grown the cleric entry up.


    Quote Originally Posted by Vespucci View Post
    • Grappling remains a problem, despite the designer's efforts. As an example: the rules as written imply that the Intimidate skill can't be used while Pinning an Opponent. That's absurd, and it illustrates the difficulty with trying to idiot-proof rules - folly can be great fun! I think the best way to deal with this is to simply explain that some Combat Maneuvers involve contested CMB checks, rather than using CMB against CMD, and use grappling as the example (again, with little or no system).
    Grappling . . . *sigh*

  3. #3
    Belatedly, I've realized that this is a critique of Trailblazer. Ah, well, hindsight is 20/20.

    Quote Originally Posted by Eric Anondson
    I think races-as-is is to much of a sacred cow to change much, especially in the way you are proposing. Too many 3.x players expect to see dwarves or elves with specific abilities that can choose any class
    I think you're right - and that's why I propose the change. This sort of player entitlement is a weight around the neck of the ref. By leaving races out of the core rules, the ref doesn't have to "ban" elves (or whoever) if they're not in his campaign. He just adds campaign rules for those races that do exist. (A good way to empower the ref in this way would be to give an "canonical" example campaign with elf-as-class, orc-as-class, and half-orc-as-feat - no dwarves, gnomes, halflings, or half-elves.)

    I have in mind that Signature Maneuver replaces Improved Disarm and friends. But alternate signatures are possible. Here's an off-the-cuff example for something different:

    Tera the Mighty is famous for her prodigious strength - her player rolled a natural 18. She has often used a Combat Maneuver which involves easily blocked but tremendously powerful blows - each time Tera succeeds with this Maneuver, the victim is weakened, taking a -2 penalty to attack and AC for a number of rounds equal to Tera's Strength bonus. When Tera reaches 6th level, her player approaches the ref to make this technique a Signature Maneuver, proposing to gain a +4 bonus to the Combat Maneuver and to daze the target when Tera succeeds. The ref laughs this off - a +4 is no problem, but dazed is a bit rich! He suggests that Tera's Mighty Strike also stagger the target. The player gives a wry smile and writes that on Tera's character sheet, joking that next time he'll start the bargaining a bit higher...

    (Note that the picture of what's happening is much more important than the actual mechanics for Tera's Mighty Strike. The important thing is that the players feel entitled to do flash things in combat and make those an integral part of their character, while understanding that the ref's word is final. Of course, Tera's player could have just said, "Alright, I think I'll take Weapon Focus instead.")

    In my experience, the main reason that individual initiative mattered is that I don't want to be sitting there waiting for everyone else to finish their turn before I get to do anything. OK, that's not entirely true. However, a lot of the "I go first" abilities could be translated into "we go first", translating a jerk character build into a team player.

  4. #4
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    Trailblazer does in fact offer players the chance to do things while other player's characters are doing things.

    Combat Reactions.

    Maybe Combat Reactions can be expanded further with more options, but this I think is a better way to get players in the game when it isn't their character's turn.

    I've been playing in a 4e game recently, I think there is some design space in Trailblazer's Combat Reaction rules to bring in some 4e-like innovations. Like movement when it isn't your turn. I'm not ready to go crazy in Trailblazer with the pushing, pulling, sliding I've seen so far in 4e, but I was considering ideas.

    The basic idea so far is this one: If an attacker misses a melee attack against a target, the target can expend a combat reaction to make a 5-foot-step.

    Want to try this one out, but if it works well (I think it is not outrageous on its face) I want to expand it where for each plus of a monk's centered bonus and a rogue's combat tactics, the character can add an additional 5 feet to this combat reaction's movement.

  5. #5
    Yeah, I think it's a great mechanic. However, you can't take a Combat Reaction while flat footed. So that first round's initiative still determines who's waiting for everyone else to finish their turn.

  6. #6
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    Unless you have Combat Reflexes. Which my entire party had taken by level 12.

  7. #7
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    Quote Originally Posted by Vespucci View Post
    • Grappling remains a problem, despite the designer's efforts. As an example: the rules as written imply that the Intimidate skill can't be used while Pinning an Opponent. That's absurd, and it illustrates the difficulty with trying to idiot-proof rules - folly can be great fun! I think the best way to deal with this is to simply explain that some Combat Maneuvers involve contested CMB checks, rather than using CMB against CMD, and use grappling as the example (again, with little or no system).
    A little thread necro.

    I was dwelling on the mental knot of the grapple rules. I've liked many of your proposals and suggestions, are there some other things you'd consider to bring some brevity to grappling? Changed wording? Changed presentation?

  8. #8
    Well, I don't have too much to add. My basic solution is to introduce "contested combat maneuvers", and suggest that grappling is one instance of this. Rather than giving a list of things you can and can't do in a grapple, just write a guideline for the ref on what kinds of things would be difficult while grappling.

    That's rather vague, but it's not as though D&D is being designed to be run by an AI.

  9. #9
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    I would probably make it super-simple to run Grappling.
    Initiate Grapple, resolve as normal. Both parties are Grappled. A second, successful, offensive grapple makes the victim Pinned.
    Here's the Change:
    Maintaining a Grapple is a Free action, no check required. Without Improved Grapple, you need both hands to maintain the grapple - even with it, you're using your primary hand to grapple (so all other actions are with the Off-Hand, and at -4 without TWF). Trying to move and drag a grappled foe requires a combat maneuver check, as part of the movement (+4 if the foe is Pinned).
    Escaping a Grapple is a Move action (and you can move up to half your speed, without provoking, if you escape). Doing anything else while pinned is at -4 (and you can't Move without escaping).

    All other combat options are available (to both parties) as if they were not grappled, within the limits of their available hands. This includes situational options not normally part of the combat rules (traps, improvised weapons, environmental effects, and any other creative things that come up).


    Effects: A grappled foe can't move, can't make combat reactions, has no threatened area, and is flat-footed against everyone not grappling - a number of benefits that make the trick worthwhile. A pinned foe additionally has -4 AC, -4 to actions that aren't escape, and may not be able to speak; again, a worthwhile condition to inflict.
    Once foes are grappling, they can return to stabbing each other, or punching each other (note that neither has a Threatened area, so Attacks of Opportunity are irrelevant to the wrestlers), or casting spells, or whatever. They have some penalties (and some actions are not available due to needing their hands to Grapple), but they can still move and fight, even with people who are not in the grapple.
    Which means that initiating and resolving the grapple is done with one roll on one round, not over and over again for the rest of the combat. Fast and furious, because that is a lot more fun.
    And while a scissors lock or other move may be used to free up both hands, my DM-self declares that to be just as distracting and unbalancing as using an off-hand; therefore the -4 still applies.

    Helpful?

  10. #10
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    Quote Originally Posted by ValhallaGH View Post
    Helpful?
    I like it a lot. Very nice vision for a brief grapple. A little extra polish here and there, but really an improvement.

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