Friday, June 29, 2012

New Spell: Enhance Underpants

Le Spawn dit:

Enhance Underpants (Cleric 4)
Duration: Permanent or until dispelled; Range: Touch.

Enhance Underpants allows a cleric to bless a groinal undergarment (e.g., long johns, boxers, loincloths, furry barbarian speedos, chainmail panties, the diaper on the guy from White Plume Mountain) so that it offers magical protection when it is the primary article of clothing. Underpants thusly enhanced give a +3 to AC and act as a +2 ring of protection for the purposes of saving throws. If covered by other clothing, armor, etc., the PC receives no bonuses. Great for the barbarian loathe to part with traditional garb, and a boon to many Erol Otus subjects. Also comes in handy when a PC is captured by hostile forces, stripped to his or her skivvies, and chained up in a dungeon. Favored for romantic espionage operations, and situations where one's 'ass in left hanging in the breeze', as it were.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

An Index of Ancient Vaults & Eldritch Secrets Divine Spells

Thine Spawn duly promulgates:

As a change of pace from posting things that I alone think are terribly clever and diverting, I've done something useful for once and put together a new page for this blog: an index of the Divine (i.e., Cleric) spells from the Ancient Vaults and Eldritch Secrets blog. You can go click on the page above there, and then there are links to take you directly to the post for each spell. This is only a part of the vast proliferation of great stuff that Bat puts up on his blog -- there's also Arcane, Druid and Illusionist spells, monsters, magic items, and a narrative that runs through the entire blog. I've indexed the divine spells mostly as a game aid for the Ara campaign, since Carter has allowed all the AV&ES spells to be used in the game (a decision he may at times regret [?]). There does exist Chgowiz's index, but I find it a little hard to use. At any rate, I'll try to keep this updated, and let me know if there's anything I've missed or if the links are screwed up.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Oubliette Number 8 Featuring The Lands of Ara

As Peter Regan recently announced on his own blog, Oubliette Issue #8 is now available! And for a very limited time, it is downloadable for FREE!!

Regular readers know that I am a big fan of Oubliette -- see my reviews here, here, and here -- but this issue is extra-special: it includes a four-page special feature on The Lands of Ara!

Our special feature aside, I have skimmed the whole issue and as usual, the sheer amount of exciting and usable gaming content in the mag is really impressive. I highly recommend you check out Oubliette #8 if you haven't already. As Peter says in his editorial introduction to the issue:

Most importantly, I want to continue publishing a magazine that, when I pick it up and look at it in 20 years, gives me the same rush of nostalgia that I get now from my old gaming books and magazines from the 1980's.

Sounds like an admirable goal, one I am very happy to support.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Lovecraft Edition Wars Forum Comment

A voice from other epochs belongs in a graveyard of other epochs.

 -At the Mountains of Madness, Section X.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Material Components and Radiocarbon Dating

The Spawn of Endra takes a lunchbreak:

There are lots of rules or subsystems or optional McDealios in D&D that might make the game more realistic or increase verisimilitude. Many of those seem kind of cool to me at first glance and then they seem irritating. Many of the mechanics in 1e AD&D fit that bill, which is why I really am a B/X/LL fan at heart. I've noticed that the ones that really get me nowadays are ones where I have some real life experience with the situations they try to account for. So mechanics like "How much damage does a party take in 100 degree F weather?", "Or with no water?" or foraging rules that only include hunting and not gathering plant foods ... or how long does it take to clear a ruin in a jungle ... fuck it. Doing fieldwork I live that shit, and introducing it to the game world in any detail causes me physical and psychic pain.

Material components for spells also sort of irk me, and part of that may be because in my labwork deailing with radiocarbon dating I also have material component requirements. So why do I need that in my game? You see, we use materials of known age as standards when we process charcoal, bone, shells, whatever, so you can account for the 14C background, and to see how well your processing methods work. There's like a sort of alchemists/wizard's council that runs periodic lab intercomparisons and vets data (the IntCal working group). They control the selection and distribution of some of the materials we all use as standards. Actually there's probably some Druids on the council since several of the wood standards (TIRI-B, FIRI-D, FIRI-F) are shavings of a ~5000 BP Irish oak. The super old wood you need to check the background (called a 'blank', colloquially) is >70ka old and comes from a buried log jam on the Olympic Peninsula in WA. All of these come from finite actual pieces of fossil wood, so getting your tiny little vial of it can be difficult. Folks don't want to share.

For bone it's even worse, since most bones are smaller than trees, so sharing this stuff among 10 or 20 labs is less realistic. So for these I've spent a lot of time trying to find good material of different ages, begging for the buried permafrost whale bone to use as a background, trading it for 2000 BP bison tibia I have, exchanging a bit of AD 1880 cow bone from a privy for a Middle Holocene fur seal femur. We have a cabinet full small bits of this stuff that we have to have to run radiocarbon dates. This, plus a bunch of other less unique stuff like silver wire, copper oxide powder, clear fused quartz tubes, acids, bases, hyper-purified water are all the material components of radiocarbon dating. And getting it all and keeping up the networks with other labs so we always have what we need is a sort of constant underlying concern in my work. So the idea of maintaining a supply of bat guano in-game so I can cast fireball is just a bit too close to my real life to be fun.

On the other hand, when we hear someone is going up into the arctic we put in requests for chunks of old wood and mammoth toes, so I can see the possibility of lots of cool hooks for adventures. Maybe I'll ponder that some more.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

d101 Table for Random Curses, Quests, etc. from Ceephax Acid Crew

Speaketh thoust Spawn of Endra:

In between bouts of inadvertently spurring people to publicly state that they hate Rients' d30 rule, I was looking through a notebook of mine this week and found that I had written:

Dear xxxx, Imperviate the following with whatever significance you wish, but ....

And I thought, is that a word, imperviate? So I googled it and for once the Internet actually showed me something cool. Up came the following phrase:

Imperviate a Sowester

This turned out to be #13 of 101 New Years Resolutions for 2012 made by Ceephax, aka Ceephax Acid Crew, an old school acid techno DIY dude.

These would make a good random table for curses, ransom demands, quests, riddles, or whatever. Check it out here. Among my favorites:

  • 6. Banish Poirot's irritating Pteranodon from your greenhouse.
  • 18. Bribe quadrangles left right and centre.
  • 26. Grandiose myself into all the various pageants located in the lost forests of Hurrrr.
  • 41. Deliver all promises on the agenda without upsetting Terry the two toed terrier of terror.
  • 46. Strike a blow at the concept of limitless krikey.
  • 62. Release the tension inherent in the letter W.
  • 64. Offer generous briskets of conversation to the most estimable Sheila of Scratby.
  • 78. Win the U.S open with a Golden Graham and a toothpick.
  • 84. Encircle Lord Faber with a jeopardy bojangle.
  • 91. Acquiesce on Geoffrey's Trojan Amoeba plan despite the 98% probability of it causing a timeflop.

And so on. I'm not much of a techno fan, but I dig this guy's low-budge DIY vibe. You must also watch this video for "My Way of Life":

The epic saga of Commuter is also recommended.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Dissociated Mechanics and House Rules

I have recently been looking over some archive posts at The Alexandrian, and am most grateful for Justin Alexander's super-smart Primer on Dissociated Mechanics. I highly recommend that post to my readers.

The post sheds light on the underlying reason why D&D 4e didn't really work for me: because as a "method actor" type who loves immersive role-playing, I really cannot bear obtrusive dissociated mechanics. This preference is evident in the primary house rule I impose upon my Labyrinth Lord games: multiple round searching for secret doors. The arbitrary (to me) rule in LL as writ saying that each PC can only search each area once is a dissociated mechanic -- it just doesn't make sense within the role-playing world. It may exist for some very good metagame reason that I don't understand, but it is impossible to justify within the game world, and thus does not support good roleplaying.

In this sense, the "only search each area once" rule in LL-as-writ is quite similar to "healing surges" and "daily powers" in D&D 4e. I have written at length about why 4e doesn't feel right to me, and recently stated at the end of this post that, like Jeff Rients, I do not care at all for healing surges. I noted that this dislike was because these surges make it hard to kill PCs, and indeed, this is partially true. (It's not that I'm out to kill PCs -- in fact, if anything, I am the opposite of a "killer DM" -- but it is just that I want there to be something palpably at stake, I want there to be real danger and threat in the game so that players are forced to play cleverly to secure their own survival.)

But the REAL (or more fundamental) reason I despise healing surges is that they just don't make sense within the roleplaying universe. They represent a dissociated mechanic, unconnected to the character or the game world. So again, thanks to Justin Alexander for making the specific root cause of my system preferences much clearer to me.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Starships and Spacemen 2nd Ed. Needs Your Support

Dan Proctor just announced the start of the IndieGoGo Campaign for Starships and Spacemen, the forthcoming Labyrinth Lord-compatible sci-fi game from Goblinoid Games! I have been eagerly awaiting this release for some time now, and I strongly urge -- no, I beg -- you to please help fund this worthy project so that several months from now I can finally hold it in my hot little hands. Check out the Goblinoid Games blog for complete details, but here is a snippet of the product description:

Starships & Spacemen was first released back in 1978, only the second science fiction RPG ever to be released.

This second edition of the classic game is compatible with Labyrinth Lord and Mutant Future. The best elements of the first edition have been kept--the classes and subclasses, the excellent starship rules, and the space adventuring rules. Classes, races, and abilities have been made more in line with Labyrinth Lord.

This second edition has elements that let you customize the style of play whether you prefer an "original series" feel, a "next generation" feel, or something in between.

Sounds awesome, right? Please make your pledge today!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Back to the AEC Assassin?

Apparently -- I had forgotten this -- my Skype-based "Arandish Campaign" group had houseruled (back in February) that Vivuli the assassin would get a damage bonus of +1d6 per assassin level INSTEAD of the "instant assassination" ability described on p.10 of the Advanced Edition Companion.

But during this past weekend's session, Vivuli turned himself invisible and snuck up on a magma elemental completely silently. I fully expected him to assassinate the unssupecting magma being and, having myself forgotten that house rule in the three weeks since we last played, was quite surprised when Viv rolled a bunch of damage dice instead. I tried to revoke the house rule then an there, though a cooler head -- Spawn of Endra's -- wisely advised me not to make a rules change right then in the heat of a melee battle. I concurred.

Yet looking at both assassination options mathematically/probability wise -- NOT my strong suit -- reveals that the difference in likelihood of each of these two approaches resuting in an instant kill may actually be minimal. This is particularly true in this campaign, in which the players are granted once-nightly d30 rolls. If Viv were to use his d30 as an attack roll in an "assassination attempt" situation, this gives him a 33% chance of achieving a critical hit (20 or better), so combining that with the "extra damage dice" house rule could allow Vivuli to achieve an "instant kill" in most cases simply by dint of the amount of damage he inflicts, i.e., (weapon damage + 5d6) x 2.

I asked my good friend and very knowledgable D&D rules expert Carl to jot down his ideas on this matter:

The assassin as written is basically a thief sub-class specializing in the backstab ability of all thieves, disguise, and poison. To understand the assassin's "Assassination" ability we have to include the regular backstab, because the first prerequisite of the assassination is that the assassin must first attempt and succeed at a regular backstab attempt (AEC p.10). The assassin also has to achieve surprise on the victim. If those two conditions are met, the assassin has a base 50% chance to kill outright a victim of equal level or monster HD to the assassin. For each level difference between the assassin and the target, the chance of success is altered by 5%.

What happens on a failure? The assassin still stabs the victim in the back, doing regular backstab damage, but nothing else extra happens with a failed assassination attempt.

How much damage does Vivuli do with a regular backstab? A successful backstab multiplies all damage by two. Viv typically uses a new steel handaxe for close quarter combat, so his base backstab damage is 2(1d6+1d3). His backstab averages 11 damage then.

Now let us look at the houseruled Assassination class feature, which gives a bonus of +1d6 damage per level of the Assassin to the attack instead of granting a percentage chance to kill the target instantly. Obviously in this case, if the damage of the attack is equal to the target's HP, the end result is an outright assassination. But a result that does not kill the target outright is not really a "failure" in the sense of the term that the assassination attempt could fail as originally written. Let's look at the numbers.

Vivuli is Assassin level 5. Lets compare the numbers at equal level first. A 5 HD monster has 22.5 HP on average. Viv's assassination does 23 HP on average - he rolls 6d6 and a d3 (his base 1d6+1d3 PLUS 5d6 bonus assassination damage dice). The attack has slightly more than a 50% chance of killing the equal level monster outright, and it deals 12 HP more on average than a failed assassination attempt under the old rules. Against equal level opponents, the houseruled variant is actually more powerful.

As you run the numbers against foes that are higher leveled, the percentage chance of killing the target outright actually drops much faster than it does as written because monster HD are d8 and the bonus damage dice are d6. Lets look at a 10 HD creature, outclassing Vivuli by 5 levels. This would be a 25% chance of a kill as written. A 10 HD creature has 45 HP on average. Vivuli's maximum damage is 39. He could kill a 10HD creature outright only if the creature had a poor HP roll. But again, on a failure he still does 23 HP damage on average, which is half the creature's HP.

Now let's look at the way the d30 houserule interacts with both systems. Used as an attack roll, it obviously gives a much better chance of hitting on the initial backstab attack. The d30 is useless on the actual assassination attempt roll as written, because it is a d100 mechanic and the d30 only goes to 30. However, the d30 roll used in conjunction with an assassination attack under the houserule opens up the possibility of a critical hit on a 20 or higher on the d30, which does double damage. This means his average damage would be 46, roughly a 50% chance of killing a 10HD monster. It is also 24 HP more than the result of a critical hit on an assassination attempt that failed to outright kill the target under the original rules (average damage 22 HP on a failure, base backstab x2).

I don't think the houseruled variant is any more or less "powerful." It is just flat out different, so you can't really just compare the probabilities of a kill between the two. It is more reliable, as its damage output is the same even if it fails to kill the target, and it interacts nicely with the d30 to give Danny a once a session 33% chance to do an average of 46 damage (and obviously if he gets a good 6d6+1d3 roll he could do considerably more). It does not give a chance of killing outright foes that are much higher level unless they have unusually low HP.

But that is where this gets REALLY tricky. This whole analysis has assumed that Vivuli is targeting a monster. He can also target fighters, magic users, etc. Against a wizard, the new variant has a decided bonus as the wizard has much fewer HP proportional to level than other classes. Against other assassins, rogues and clerics, the variant has a slight edge in percentage chance to kill across levels as both extra damage dice and HD are d6, but the initial attack also adds 1d6+1d3 to it.

Anyway, enough of that bullshit. The long and the short of it was that the entire point of the houserule was to do away with the ability to kill outright much higher level creatures because Carter found it so disruptive of his immersion in the game that it stopped play several times when it occurred. The houserule is a compromise that allows Vivuli an assassination ability that is useful in play without the chance of autokilling much higher level opponents.

That being said, I know Danny much prefers the original way, and I think I do myself. But I'm not DMing this game...

Thanks Carl! I imagine some further discussion will follow, but right now I am feeling like I have inexplicably made peace with the assassin as writ in the AEC. bdfiscus' comment on the original assassination houserule post supports this position, suggesting that I "leave the class as written and either allow or disallow the entire class." He says:

If you mislike the assassin's chance to insta-kill the "boss monster" with a surprise attack then give the demigod, devil, or boss a special caveats such as "immune to surprise" or "hit only by +"X" weapons"; or the creature in the encounter is already alert and ready for combat and there are penalties to the surprise roll; etc.

I personally - yes, even as a GM- actually LIKE the "all or nothing" ability of the assassin.... and that ability cuts both ways (pun intended) since NPC assassins have the same chance to "one-shot" the PC's as well!

Agreed; despite my earlier complaints and decree, I feel like am now willing to just go with the flow and allow assassins to kill targets instantly. Perhaps it is a matter of expectations: back when Vivuli insta-killed one of my saurian balrogs in Session 50, I wasn't expecting it; whereas last session with the magma creature, I was, and I actually missed the "all or nothing" insta-kill when it didn't happen.

Sorry folks, clearly I was the asshole on this one.

"I know you're hiding an AEC somewhere! Hand it over!"

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Session 55: Deadly Encounters in the Snow

"[Minoch] is like the Afghanistan of the Lands of Ara."
--Innominus of Endra

Date: 4/8/2012
PCs: Innominus (Clr. 7), Dak (Dwf. 6), Yor (Dwf. 6), Uncle Junkal (Rodian Bard 5), Vivuli (Assassin 5 / MU 5)
NPCs: Gorgo (Dwf. 4, follows Innominus), Nic Cage (Ftr. 2, follows Yor), Claude (Ranger 3, follows Uncle Junkal). Brother Lawrence of the Brothers of Carcoon (Clr. 3) was also along as an observer.

The session started on the evening of Day 176 of the party's Arandish adventures; they were standing outside the smoking ruins of Kaminster's country manor house, in light snowfall. Prince Arkus offered Uncle Junkal the position of Vizier of South Minoch, to work with Yor, Baron of Rogaland, and to report to Abernathy the Scribe, the new Grand Vizier of Minoch. The rodian bard accepted. Then the Prince and his entourage bade the party farewell and set off to the north, heading for the Prince's ancestral home near Farn Junction.

The PCs and their entourage headed into Fortinbras and visited the Baron's Residence, which now belonged to Yor. They met the houseman, Thomas, who showed them around the heavily fortified mini-keep. It consisted of two main residential buildings --  a Great Hall and the Baron's House -- plus stables and a small guard house near the front (north) gate. The whole place was surrounded by high stone walls, and the Baron's House contained four bedrooms.

Vivuli began x-raying the whole place, looking for secrets (he found none), while Dak, Innominus, and Uncle Junkal moved the group's possessions -- and their personal hired house staff of twelve dwarves and one Mizarian stable hand -- from their rental house on the west side of town to the Baron's Residence. Meanwhile, Yor, Baron of Rogaland, took his first official midnight meeting, with Undersheriff Xavier.

Xavier reported that ever since yesterday's earthquake, there had been steady reports of demons flying around and attacking travelers in the mountains west of Fortinbras. The undersheriff told the new baron that the mountain village of Wellspring had not yet been attacked or threatened, but that this was a strong possibility. Yor instructed the undersheriff to evacuate the area where the demons had been seen, under the pretense of "forest fire prevention." He also dispatched a messenger to Farn Junction to inform Prince Arkus of this new demonic threat, and assured the undersheriff that he and his adventurous companions would soon head into the mountains to investigate.

Then Yor and the rest of the party bedded down for the night in their new, heavily fortified digs.

The morning of Day 177 saw heavy snowfall in Fortinbras. Innominus rose early, and after paying obeisance to Holy Endra, the cleric went about attempting to remove a curse (to no effect) from the petrified man the party removed from Stonehell, then successfully removing a curse from the Skullface hobgoblin general's sword. Meanwhile, Dak instructed (and paid) his team of dwarven excavators to dig and construct an underground chamber beneath the Baron's residence, and to excavate a tunnel connecting that building to the Great Hall/guest house, the stables, and a point just outside the Baron's Residence's outer walls. At Viv's suggestion, the PCs also ordered another construction team to build an outdoor gazebo on the Baron's property, in order to cover the noise of the secret, underground construction work.

The party spent the rest of Day 177 asking some questions of witnesses who had seen or encountered the demons marauding in the western mountains.

That evening, Viv took to the streets of Fortinbras, dressing as a rich tourist in an attempt to attract a pickpocketer. He eventually did so, and when the pickpocketer struck, Viv caught him and then recruited him as a follower. Rodrick the thief was now part of Vivuli's entourage.  

Heavy snowfall greeted the party the morning of Day 178 as they saddled up to head into the demon-infested mountains. Six of Yor's Minochian archers accompanied the party.

By dusk, they were most of the way to the Stonehell box canyon, wading through thick snow on the mountainside, when suddenly, out of the blinding snowfall, a red dragon assaulted them from the air. It blasted them with flame, but then the party slew it with projectile weapons over the course of a few rounds. It fell to the snowy earth with a tremendous thump.

Viv x-rayed the female red dragon's carcass and found that it had recently eaten some horses but had ingested no valuables or treasure. The party beheaded the dragon and kept the head. Then Dak dug a snow cave and the group encamped for the night. The snowfall lessened a bit as night fell.

In the middle of the night, on Yor's watch, the party was attacked by four ravenous hill giants, and in the bloody fracas, Innominus' longtime dwarven follower, Gorgo, was slain. Uncle Junkal's follower, Claude the Ranger, was almost killed but splintered his shield to save his own life. The session ended after this battle. 

Monday, June 4, 2012

First Lift Bridge Game a Success!

Yesterday's Labyrinth Lord game at Lift Bridge Books went very well indeed. I had a total of six players: three "old hands" who I've been roleplaying with since the spring, and three wholly new players who saw the promotional flyers at the book shop and decided to drop by. It turned out to be a very lively and fun group.

The new folks confessed to having played some D&D 3.5, but said that they had only played it very briefly -- it "didn't work out." So I walked them through Labyrinth Lord chargen, with much aid and assistance from Cid, Brandon, and Brian, the old hands. The whole group gelled well, a fact which was evident even from the chargen phase. The new players picked up on the rules very quickly and the experienced ones were quick to jump in and guide the newbies through the process. Thanks old hands!

This is the second "startup" LL game I have run in the past few weeks -- as I mentioned in passing here, I ran a short pickup game for a group of five utter RPG neophytes a week or two ago -- and I must say I am extremely impressed with how easy it is to roll up new Labyrinth Lord characters. The way we did it yesterday was:

- roll attributes, 3d6 in order, but with the option to swap two scores with each other. I made this latter accommodation so that players wanting to play a specific character type -- and I did have at least one of those, a delightful player named Rigo who wanted to play a thief or assassin -- could do so.

- choose class.

- determine saving throws and hit points -- I went with maximum hp at first level.

- roll starting gold and buy equipment.

- casters determine spells.

And that's it! Within fifteen or twenty minutes, we were done with chargen and ready to play!

The group -- Lord Elric (Ftr, played by Brandon), Crimnox the Sorcerer (MU, Matt), Don Ximen Fernandez (Bard, Cid)*, Lucius (Halfling Thief, Rigo)**, Jarl Scuttlebeard (Dwf, Brian), and an unnamed cleric (Andrew) -- started in the underground city of Cynidicea, hanging around in a pub called The Cynidicean. A wealthy landowner and mushroom farmer named Sir Roger approached the party for help eradicating a horde of vicious troglodytes that had been terrorizing him and his neighbors of late. The party agreed, and even haggled with Sir Roger to pay them a fee per trog killed, on top of the basic 1100gp reward he was offering.

After Don Ximen hired a porter named Courtney and bought a couple of war dogs from a local breeder, the PCs set off around the underground lake to the far (west) side, stopping once along the way at a rat rancher's place in order to purchase a huge rat. The rancher looked at them funny when he heard they did not want their rat butchered for eating, but sold it to them anyway. Lord Elric led the rat around on an improvised leash, the plan being to use the rat as bait to lure out the trogs into an ambush.

But soon, after a brief encounter with a great albino gorilla that Lucius dispatched with a tossed flaming oil flask, the trogs ambushed them instead. Atop a high, mucky plain, the group split up, Don Ximen, Jarl, and Courtney the standard bearer marching straight at the trog party, while Elric, Crimnox, Lucius, and the unnamed cleric crept sneakily around to the south to flank the trogs' position. The scheme worked; the PCs prevailed despite losing Lucius during the ensuing battle.

After looting the trogs' rather sizeable treasure cache and mounting the four dead trogs on poles and stalagmites, the party returned to the city, to spend some of their loot, dig around for information about the trog warrens, and to return Lucius' body to the local thieves' guild. There they met Lucius' replacement, an as-yet-unnamed assassin, to be played by Rigo at our next session in a couple of weeks.  

Please also see Cid's really terrific in-character session report.
* Cid, whose love of Bards is well-known, is playtesting a new Bard Class for Labyrinth Lord of his own design. I like the look of it a lot and hope he will eventually make it available on his own site.
** Lucius was classed as a Thief because Rigo wanted access to the thieving skills; but he also wanted to be a halfling, which (of course) I permitted though we made no technical changes to the PC on that basis.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Who's Getting Screwed by 5e?

4e gamers, that's who.

There has been a lot of talk about D&D Next in the blogosphere of late. Now to begin with, I really must emphasize that I have no horse in this race. I have my Labyrinth Lord and I am happy. I have no reason to spend money on a new iteration of D&D regardless of what exactly goes into it. I am NOT a "hater," I am just completely ambivalent about 5e, much as I was about 4e.

Yet with what I can glean from the recent blog posts -- I am not participating in the 5e playtest myself, so all this is secondhand hearsay mind you -- I find myself in the surprising position of feeling a great deal of sympathy for all the 4e devotees out there. Let me explain why.

My basic position is similar to the (much better informed and credible) one recently explicated in an open letter to WotC Labgrrl posted on her blog, UAD&D. (Thanks to David Maccauley for the link to that post.) Labgrrl writes:

"Immediately upon hearing rumors of #DnDNext, a significant number of fans of the current edition began to get confrontational and disheartened in social media. They feel abandoned despite repeated assurances by the WOTC social networking team and even some uninvolved third parties that continued new releases will happen. Their general view seems to be that there is limited point in investment in further books and materials when it’s going to be rendered useless so rapidly.

"The problem with planned obsolescence is that it can create huge feelings of ill-will towards a company [and] when the economy is doing poorly or is in recovery, planned obsolescence backlash increases dramatically."

Labgrrl's comments remind me of a conversation I had with the manager of my FLBS a few days ago. He asked me if D&D changed drastically every time there was an edition change; he seemed particularly interested in the shift between 1e and 2e. While noting that 2e is the one edition of D&D I have never played, so I am not terribly familiar with it, I nevertheless explained to him that, in my view, I didn't see 2e as drastically altering the core rules set forth in the earlier editions. Sure, it added skills and proficiencies, which were either nonexistent or only minimally present in earlier editions, but it did not radically alter the core classes or the main thrust of the rules, as far as I know. In my view, the main changes 2e instituted were to streamline the presentation of the rules, change the dominant style of the artwork, and to santize D&D vis-a-vis its alleged demonic/Satanic content. (Please correct me in the comments if I have this wrong.)

So IF we assume that 0e through 2e were BASICALLY the same system, that's a 26-year run (1974-2000) of more or less completely compatible stuff. Hell, I am even willing to lump 3e/3.5e/Pathfinder in there because despite its major emphasis on skills and feats and hence character "builds," 3e is still ESSENTIALLY a d20 system that hadn't yet introduced player appeasement measures like healing surges, and hadn't severely shifted the game's emphasis from strategy to tactics. So that would give us a 34-year run of more or less compatible systems, before "strikers" and "defenders," the absolute necessity of battle mats, and the near-impossibility of PC death set in in 2008.

Even if we keep 3e/3.5 partitioned off as its own thing, those players (of which I was one for about four years) at least had an eight-year run before 4e was introduced, and after that they had (and still have) Pathfinder and Paizo.

By contrast, the 4e players have had only four years with their edition of choice. And, as far as I know, no guarantee of major corporate support for the edition once it is discontinued by WotC.

Justin Alexander's analysis reveals that 5e's playtest version evinces a strong hearkening back to 3e, and he asks why he would want to play what is essentially WotC's homebrew of 3e when he could just keep playing his own? It's a good question, and I would also ask, if 5e indeed ends up being really close to 3e rules-wise, what will keep the Pathfinder crowd from continuing to play Pathfinder, whose (expensive) rulebooks they already own? This is a recession after all, and sadly it is distinctly possible that "those jobs aren't coming back."

Daniel Proctor supports this view in his commentary, stating that:

"[D&D Next] has to compete with all the other 3.x spinoffs that have been evolving for many years. What can 5e meaningfully add that hasn't already been done? I think that's why D&D 5e feels like an also-ran at this point. The days where the Brand alone was enough are past."

In slightly more concise (and vehement) terms, Biting Halfling over at Tenkar's Tavern called 5e's playtest iteration "a stripped down rebuild of 3rd Edition D&D + exactly four innovations." Again, I cannot confirm these views through my own direct experience of the playtest, nor am I here to judge whether or not 5e will be any good. It's just that it seems like 5e, in returning to WotC's 3e roots, will leave 4e players out in the cold; the 4e crowd -- i.e., WotC's most loyal current customer base -- will be those precisely most screwed by the changes made to bring 5e into closer relationship to the pre-4e editions. This is a strange scenario that may well indicate a kind of limited victory for we old-school gamers, but which also seems to indicate a mild form of corporate schizophrenia on WotC's part, as Labgrrl so eloquently surmises.

Going the way of the Dodo.

Epilogue: My One Gripe
I suppose that while I am here I will add a brief comment about the one thing I do not like the sound of in those secondhand playtest reports: the tendency in 4e and 5e to make it well nigh impossible for PCs to die.

The real threat of character death makes puts something serious at stake, and (in my view) encourages smart play rather than relentless tactical hack-and-slash. The 4e-and-onward editions seem to encourage "low death, low frustration"-style play, as Roger the GS puts it, noting that in 5e "hit points are numerous, the margin of safety for low-level characters is great, and healing remains as available as in 4th edition."

Jeff Rients shares my disdain for this kind of "softening" of D&D, noting that "abstract 'healing surges' are about the most boring game mechanic ever."

More recently, Rients continued his ruminations on this issue, bemoaning the fact that in 4e and 5e "my own personal D&D sweet spot, the hard-scrabble death-at-any- moment fiasco of levels 1-3, is no longer supported. [. . .] For me, all other questions about what should and shouldn't be in the new edition pale in comparison to this simple issue. If by the numbers I can't murder your starting PC with a single lousy orc-stab, I don't want to play."

Patrick Wetmore echoes this concern in his recent post, in which he asks "What kind of delicate flowers have modern D&D players become?"

I totally acknowledge that it's "different strokes for different folks," yet I wonder the same thing Patrick does. Just last week, I introduced about five neophyte gamers to Labyrinth Lord; I started them at 1st Level and ran them through (most of) Tim Shorts' Knowledge Illuminates. During the short (3-hour) session, one PC was killed outright and another reduced to 1 hp. Something was very much at stake for that party; after their elf died, they were much more cautious, and really used that 10-foot pole that somebody thought to buy. I really loved seeing that; a classic D&D situation all the way!

So in the end, I am forced to agree with Dan Proctor, who writes:

"Criticize 3rd edition all you like (and I have), but it was a pretty successful edition. The problem is that when WotC left an edition behind they didn't just revise the game into something else, they torched and salted the fields behind them each time. Each time they tell their customers that there is something fundamentally broken and bad with the previous edition, and in doing so they create a rift between the people who stay behind with the old edition and the people who take the bait for the new edition."

An Afterthought
Was 4e released under the OGL? In other words, could it be retro-cloned?