Firing Squad Interview with James Introcaso

Today’s installment of the Firing Squad welcomes +James Introcaso , proprietor of the World Builder blog and all-around fun guy to talk with. We chat about the next edition of Dungeons and Dragons, his world-in-progress called Exploration Age, the edition wars, and other fun topics (like grappling!) having to do with RPGs.

We spoke for nearly two hours, and if nothing else, this interview taught me that while I might not stick with my list of questions, not having one makes for some scattered topic coverage! 

Text Transcript

Douglas Cole (Gaming Ballistic): Good evening and welcome to Gaming Ballistic’s Firing
Squad. We are joined today by . . . James Introcaso?
James Introcaso (World-Builder Blog): Yes.
Doug: Very
good! James Introcaso. Proprietor of the World-Builder Blog, and I believe that
you got a few publishings to your name, and you also run the Roundtable – a
regular podcast on . . . all-things role-playing, or all-things Dungeons and
Dragons, or both?
James: It’s
all things Dungeons and Dragons, but we do often delve into other systems and
topics as well. But it’s very role-playing centric for sure.

Doug: I
listened to at least one of your episodes, and it was kind of fun. There were
three or four people, and all had definite opinions, and you’d have one person
saying “This rule is the greatest thing ever,” and this other one said “This
ruins the game for me.”
So it was a good [James
laughs] friendly, but really you had all kinds of opinions on the topics you
were covering.
Absolutely, but that’s kind of the point of the podcast.
In the Dungeons and
Dragons community there is a division, the edition wars as they say. With the
old school grognard gamers sticking to 1st and 2nd
edition [Dungeons and Dragons], people who prefer 3rd [Dungeons and
Dragons], and there is a whole new group of gamers who prefer 4th
[Dungeons and Dragons].
And on the Internet, and
message boards is want to do in a virtual anonymous space, people can get
pretty nasty.
We’re hoping to have more
intelligent, thoughtful debate about the new rules coming out, particularly for
the 5th edition of Dungeons and Dragons which is supposed to be
released this summer.
The whole point of that
podcast is to bring people to the table and have a civil debate about things.
It remains pretty civil for the most part, though it does degenerate sometimes
into wackiness – which is sometimes fun.
Doug: Yeah,
indeed. I’ll offer up a couple thoughts on that.
First of all my system of
choice, where I play most often, and contribute most often, is GURPS.
So to a certain extent,
some of the edition wars are kind of funny to me, largely because I’ve played
Erik Tenkar’s Swords & Wizardry campaign, which is about as old school as
old school gets.
I grew up with the Basic
and Expert, I never had Champion or Epic. But I had the 2nd edition
[Dungeons and Dragons] Player’s Handbook with the statue and all that [James
[Note I got this wrong: The PHB with the statue was
obviously AD&D.]
I played in one game that
I think was 3rd edition, and I have played extensively, recently, in
Pathfinder, which is a 3.5 modification I believe.
I know not a thing about 4th [James
James: 4th
is very close to 3.5 and Pathfinder; in fact it even does some of the same
things Pathfinder does. But it’s also very different, in that characters have,
instead of spells, and fighting feats that allow you different maneuvers,
everybody has power sets.
You have powers you can
use during encounters, and you have you powers that you can use daily, and you
have powers that you can use at will. It takes its cues from modern day MMOs,
and I think that sort of turned people off, because it felt a little two
constricting. It became very combat focused.
And Dungeons and Dragons
has always been heavily focused on combat, that is where most of its rule set
lies. But this is really . . .  laser
focused that in, and there wasn’t as much to do rule-wise with your
role-playing aspects.
I think that turned a lot
of people off, which is why 4th edition came out, four . . . six
years ago, and you’re already seeing the release of another edition.
This time they brought
everybody in. Hundreds of thousands of people for a big, open playtest. The
point of that was to get everybody’s opinion, hopefully they get to a point
where everybody likes the game and will buy it.
I think they actually lost
a lot of business to Pathfinder when it came out, because Pathfinder still had
a lot of the role-playing aspects. It still had spells that could be used
outside of combat for wizards. And the fighters had some crazy moves that make
them feel a little more magical mechanically.
And I think it was, rather
than you starting as a regular guy who gets better and better and better, it
was you started as a really great hero, and then by 30th level your
heroes are definitely superheroes. They had these ridiculous abilities that
begin with the phrase like “Once per day, when you die, you’ll come back from the dead, and be even better than you
Doug: “I got
better” [Monty Python Black Knight voice]. There is the gratuitous Monty Python
joke for the podcast.
James: Yes.
That’s fun.
It can be fun. I played
two campaigns with people with the group from level 1 to 30 and that has its
own appeal as well, flying around the battlefield, and shooting lasers, and
farting, and killing orcs with that fart. It has its own appeal as well.
Doug: One of
the more memorable characters from Mystery Men: The Spleen . . . had that ability.
It’s part of the nerd canon so to speak.
A couple of questions. A
couple of things about that I guess. One is . . . a hundred thousand people in
a playtest. That is bold.
James: Yeah,
I think it’s obviously an unprecedented move, particularly for Wizards of the
Coast, to show us how the sausage is made – so to speak – and to invite people
in on that process.
And it has changed, if you
look at the first packet and the rules that were in there, and the way things
have changed from this final packet, and now the playtest has since closed, but
you can…but there is a friends and family playtest that I’m not actually a part
of.  But you know they’re continuing
along up to this August release date that has been leaked. And not officially
They really have been
listening to people, it seems, like up until the playtest closed. I have high
Certainly at first it was
a very simple, basic game like you would expect the first round of a playtest
to be. But they really did have some things in there that could be considered
game-breaking. They’ve gone through and found a way to please the min/maxers,
but to also please all the role-players, so they don’t feel like their characters
are nothing compared to the people who enjoy min/maxing, you know?
And hopefully everybody
can sit together at a table, or convention style setting and get along.
Because I have players who
were in a theater troupe with me in college, so they love the role-playing
aspect, but then I have a couple of guys that we know that are somebody’s
brother, and they went to see all the shows, and they want to build the min/max
characters . . . and it’s a hard balance, sometimes, to please everybody at the
Doug: Sure.
Sure. The other part of that is, do you think that having it so large actually
generated a useful amount of signal to noise ratio, or do you think that you
could have done better with…at least with the playtest of the book that I did,
I had about 12 to 15 people, and the one thing that I regret, and has come up a
couple of times later, is we didn’t get enough opportunity to actually play games. We did have some
good fights, and it was a grappling book.
I looked over the 5th
edition grappling rules…ehhh, I don’t know [James laughs].
They’re much simpler probably.
Doug: Where
they are, is the grappling rules in most games actually up until . . . I’m sure
it was Riddle of Steel, or Burning Wheel . . . I know that there are games that
have done more detail in everything.
But the original GURPS
rules are fairly similar to original Dungeons and Dragons rules. You roll to
hit, if you hit you are grappled or not grappled, and it’s an event state.
Whereas the system I came
up with is…“Well isn’t it fun to hit…” and in GURPS if you fail to
defend, or you roll under your armor class in D&D. And then you roll some damage, and the damage counts for
I’ve actually been
noodling in the back [of my head] with something like that in a D&D paradigm,
because I think it would be useful and fun for people who wanted to have more
detail about that.
The flip side of that,
though, is I don’t know of a venue in which house rules are published.
Right. Well you can find a lot of house rules/suggestions on the message board,
but one of the things you’re going to see, supposedly, we’ve been promised, are
You’re going to see a lot
of optional rules modules they’re
going to publish. I would love to see something like that because whenever I
think about grappling, I think about the climactic scene in every action movie,
the hero or the villain are wrestling on the ground, one of them has a dagger,
and they’re trying to turn it around. You don’t really have that option in the
Next rules.
Because that scene at the end of Saving Private Ryan wasn’t tense or dramatic at all.
James: Right
[both laugh].
Doug: Or a
little more action hero-ish, the first of the two recent Sherlock Holmes movies,
with Robert Downey Jr, had a great Technical Grappling scene where there was an
arm bar, legs, all kinds of stuff. It was very much period as well because I
know that Conan Doyle studied fighting and wrestling and he studied the
Bartitsu stuff, so he knew about it.
It was a accurate
depiction of what Arthur Conan Doyle was trying to put into his stuff, there
was judo or jiu-jitsu or Bartitsu or whatever. The kind of stuff can be really
cool, but having it be a “state thing, grappled, not-grappled,” is…
Let me give you the flip side
of that though: Grappling is slow. Grappling is slow.
A typical grappling match
(you can see I’ve got my Hwa Rang Do sweatshirt on), a typical grappling match
is – what we do is two minutes, a championship match is five minutes. In
Brazilian Ju-Jitsu, and no offense to any BJJ practitioners since I’m not
deeply experienced in it. The kind of the joke is, maybe it’s their testing, is
they grapple forever. They just work,
it and work it, and work it, and they are very patient. They are very good
offensively, and they’ll break you in half like a pretzel, but they are very
cautious, deliberate grapplers, and you can be wresting out there for 10
In GURPS at least, 10
minutes is 600 turns.
James: Huh [Laughs
as he realizes the implications]. It’s the same way in D&D.
Doug: Yeah.
In D&D it would be…let’s see, 600 seconds is a hundred turns. And if you’re doing a die roll a hundred times, with
just two guys. I mean, you’re going to get pelted with d4s and beaten with the
Player’s Handbook. And you’ll deserve it.
[laughs] Exactly.
And that’s one of the
things that they wanted to do, was to be able to have combat be very speedy and
expedient at the base level with this. I think they definitely achieved that.
4th edition
combat was really fun, because you had so many choices and options, but combat
at first level took an hour.
So you never had a random
encounter, because it would slow down your story.
Now, a random encounter
can take about five minutes. It’s super-lethal right now, 5th
I think you are going to
see options for more facing rules, and they’re really going to get into, with those
rules modules, into the nitty-gritty, again.
What we’ve been promised.
I don’t speak for Wizards.
But it would be great to
see that kind of thing. But it is nice to be able to do a theater of the mind
style – four goblins are guarding the door, the party comes in and they waste
some of the party’s resources, but ultimately the party wins overall, and
continues into the dungeon or whatever it is.
You want to see for the
bigger encounters, I want to have those grapple rules because I want to see
that action take place, I want to see Solid Snake, from Metal Gear Solid, get
into a close-quarters battle with a knife and handgun.
So hopefully that kind of
stuff is available, that’s the dream [crosses fingers].
Doug: It
should be kind of fun, because one of the complexities of, for example, playing
with close combat, is if you ever throw somebody down on the ground, it
actually…playing with a actual face-to-face group with cardboard heroes or miniatures
it’s actually pretty easy, but on Roll20 or MapTool all of a sudden they are a
two-hex figure, so you better have a second token prepared [laughs].
That’s one of the challenges. Or if you’re in a battle when someone is flying,
that’s really hard too . . . [laughs] on a virtual table, how do you express
that? Or even on a regular table that can be hard to express.
Doug: Right.
Squadron Strike. Ad Astra games. Ken Burnside has a really neat system where
you stack up 3D tiles or cubes and it gives you facing, orientation, and
everything, and gives you vectors because he uses vector math for where the
ships go. And it’s all visually intuitive at the blink of a eye.
So theoretically you could
show that your red dragon is banking at a certain acceleration [James laughs].
That would be kinda fun. The Dungeons and Dragons extension to Squadron Strike.
James: Well
I actually heard that they’re making…so they just released news that there is
going…WizKids is going to be making miniatures for them. There is going to be a
dogfighting dragon minigame that’s going to come with those minifigs.
Because why not? [James laughs more]
So let me back up a little
bit and ask a little bit about yourself: It sounds like you’ve been gaming for
a bit.
James: Yes.
Since…I guess I was in about 2nd grade when I joined my brothers
AD&D game in our parents basement. So very stereotypical: little brother
wanted to tag along and play D&D in the parent’s basement, and they gave me
a Halfling thief, and it’s been my favorite class/race combination ever since.
Doug: So I
actually just started reading the Forgotten Realms book, with Cale, and the Slaad,
and Riven…I’m going to have to look it up because now I’m irritating myself.
Erevis Cale I think. Cale
Forgotten Realms. There we go. Erevis Cale thank you, by Paul Kemp.
Paul Kemp. I finally got
around to that, I was forwarded the books by a friend, but it wasn’t a great
copy, so I bought ‘em online anyways.
So it’s part of the
original D&D mythos, so in a way it’s like reading history to see how that
But one of the things that
is interesting about those books to me, at least in the beginning of the first
book and this really does get to your point, it’s not as random walk as it
Your point about D&D 4th
edition actually has a strong resemblance to the initial character types if
you’re doing a GURPS Dungeon Fantasy campaign, which start at 250 points, or
about a 100 points more than a typical action heroish starter character.
The guys…and then there is
Monster Hunters which is 400 points, which is even more over-the-top, because
you’re playing in that particular genre, you’re playing Monster Hunters International,
or whatever, or Laurell K. Hamilton’s character at the middle of her powers
before she got really out there, and was mostly soft porn. [both chuckle]
But these characters start
badass, and they get more so.
And so the interesting
thing was, in a lot of this stuff, and the Halfling and whatever – it showed
that you could start off…it felt to me and I don’t know what the character
types were, there must have been a cheat sheet – but it felt to me they started
at 10th level and got more awesome from there.
James: Yeah.
I’ve heard that book described as these guys are power-leveling through, and
they just keep getting crazier and crazier, and more and more epic, as the
story goes on. Which is definitely true. It’s a very like manly sort of adventure too. There going into planes to fight demons
and all that kind of stuff. It’s really over-the-top with the action and with
their ability it’s pretty crazy.
Doug: It
kept getting more and more and on the flip side you’ve got a book like Elizabeth
Moon’s Paksenarrion. First of all, as I’ve said at least one, if not two or
three of these interviews, is my favorite paladin story: it’s not the lawful
goody-two-shoes that everyone wants to see die [James laughs]. [garbled audio]
and I don’t know if there was
…I’ll come back to this,
this is what happens when I don’t have my cheat sheet.
The thing was, very
clearly that Paksenarrion started off as a first level fighter, went through
mercenary training, you could see her getting a couple levels there,
multi-classing to ranger for a little bit, and then came into a full-on paladin,
and it really did feel like walking through the first half of character
progression, like going from a level one to a level twenty character,
And Elizabeth Moon used
the terms, and you could see the fighter, and the cleric, and the different
races, and the dark elves made an appearance and all kinds of stuff.
It was a great series of
stories, but you really got to experience the novice, to intermediate, to
professional, and the character progression, and it sounds like in 4th
edition you started a little bit more badass, but maybe in 5th
edition they dialed it back?
James: Oh
yeah, absolutely. It’s a very…not to the point where you are useless, but to
the point where you feel useful cleaning out a cellar of goblins.
Whereas if you were doing
that 1st level in 4th edition it was more like “Where’s
the real action, I didn’t feel threatened at all?” And I didn’t feel…
Whereas in this one,
you’re back to smaller hit points, you have a lot more hit points in 4th
edition at first level. You have smaller hit points, you have less options for
what you can do in combat. It seems like your starting equipment that you can
afford is as not as good as it was in 4E and that’s great, I like that feeling.
Because by the time you
hit twentieth level in any fantasy RPG it seems like you’ve reached that
superhero status. This is definitely less so.
To give you an example, I
have a player at my table who is a rogue and your back to…rather than point buy
being the standard, you’re rolling for abilities scores. Point buy was the
standard for 4E, and so he rolled a 6, and rather than put his 6 in Charisma
which is sort of a dump-stat for a lot of classes in D&D, he put it in
Constitution. He began the game with 3 HP.
Doug: There
is a motivation to play cautiously.
James: Absolutely!
It was so interesting to see that. You don’t normally see that in a
combat-focused game like D&D.
You don’t see that guy who
is constantly being cautious, and he really did have to play smart.
And kudos to him, it took
him a good four sessions before his character actually died [laughs] as it was
bound to happen at some point.
He had a lot of fun doing
it, and you know they have a lock of his hair, so a resurrection spell is in
the future perhaps.
Doug: Could
James: But
that’s a example of the lethality of 5th edition. You’d never have a
character at 3 HP at first level. It’s just impossible to do in 4E.
Doug: Okay.
I want to talk a little bit about yourself, because I know you got this World Builder
blog, and you’re into doing, it seems, adventures and world building.
Walk me through how you
started gaming, what games you played, and how you started into…whether it’s
the pro or semipro- or playtesting, writing, or authoring or offering opinions
on a blog.
Just go through that
history a little bit for those who are curious.
James: Sure.
I started with my brother, way back when we were in the basement. And I had
some other friends over, and I was young enough that it was kind of like “You
want to do that? Now roll this die. Now roll this die. And here’s what
AD&D is difficult for
an eight year old to understand. I invited some friends over, and we were
deciphering it, and trying to play it, and it was hard for me to translate for
my friends and everything. So one of my friends went home and told his father
and his father said “Oh, I have this other game.”
We played a game called The Fantasy Trip that is a old and
definitely in print anymore. It’s a d6 based Fantasy game where you have three
attributes – Strength, Dexterity, and Intelligence.
It’s the kind of game
that’s not built very well. Your Strength score is also your hit points, your
Dexterity is used any time you want to something, and your Intelligence
determines your spell casting ability. And if you want to be able to cast
spells, you have to be able to hit with them, and spells use up your hit points,
so to be a spellcaster you have to have high all three. And every time you
leveled up you got to put a point in another one of them, and that was kind of
how the game worked.
And we played that for
years, until we were in middle school, and then we started played Dungeons and
Dragons again, and then the 3rd edition game out, and we stuck with
And then I, in college,
introduced a lot of people to that. I have been playing D&D and kept
current with whatever the current edition was since then. But I also play
Mutants and Masterminds. I’m a big fan of the Ghostbusters RPG from the 80s
Doug: Do you
remember what system was that? A d6-based?
James: It
was d6-based. I’ve played a couple of iterations of the Star Wars role-playing
game. I dabbled in GURPS, I’m trying to find people who want to play it. I think
it’s a awesome system.
One of the reasons I’ve
stuck with D&D is I’ve had a rotating group with people, and I find people
latch onto that one pretty easily. It’s the easiest to understand, it’s the
easiest to find materials for, although now with DriveThru RPG you can find
anything, man.
I also, in my life, my like
day-job is I’m a television writer and producer. Promos, mostly. And I have
traveled around, I was in Atlanta working for Cartoon Network for a while, I
did a year-long stint there, and I was long for people to play with, and I
didn’t know anybody and that was how I met people.
I went to DragonCon which
is a big media/gaming convention down there. I met some people and started to
game with people that way.
And that’s sort of what
happened. I have submitted a lot of article proposals to Dungeon and Dragon
magazine in the past, but I’ve been very busy. My job is sometimes a 60-hour a
week job.
I recently decided I
wanted to take this to the next level. I wanted to start my own podcast and
several months ago, I reached out to a guy named Mike Shae who runs a blog
called Sly Flourish, he’s published numerous books and adventures for a lot of
different systems, dungeons and dragons included.
He told me I should talk
to a guy named Jeff Griner, who hosts a podcast called the Tome Show. Jeff has
a lot of followers and subscribers, and he talks about D&D, and it’s really
his passion.
So I emailed Jeff and said
“Jeff, do you have any advice for someone starting a podcast.” And he said
“What’s your idea?” so I pitched him my idea for the roundtable and he said
“Ah! That sounds really cool, why don’t you do that and I’ll host it for you.”
I had a built in several-thousand
subscriber base and everything. His podcast is really great, if
you want to check him out. Tome is a weird Asian blog that pops up,
which I’m sure is also really good if you want to check that out too.
And I’ve also wanted to
design my own world from scratch. I’ve played in Eberron, Forgotten Realms,
Dark Sun, which are all pre-built Dungeons and Dragons settings.
But it’s probably been
since college that I had my own setting. So I thought a great way to make sure
I’m using my free time to create a setting, rather than sit around and play
video games, which for me is a good thing, it’s a fun thing to do, but it’s also
. . . I can spend hours. Like a entire Sunday doing nothing else, but playing
Arkham City.
So I thought it would be a
good way to hold me accountable for
writing and designing stuff, and putting out work. So that’s what World builder
blog is.
For creating exploration
age, which is a PDF which I’m eventually hoping to put out, and depending on
the people who are interested, it will be available for a moderate or free
download. So that’s the abridged version of the story.
I’m very passionate about
gaming of all kinds. I love Kobold Press puts out a lot of good stuff, but I
really want to step into the world of publishing. I really want/hope to be
putting out stuff that is canon if you will, but until then, I really just
enjoy making it, so I’m going to do it whether or not I’m getting paid to do
That’s what Worldbuilder
blog is all about. I’m sort of discussing the techniques I use sometimes to
create something, and sometimes I’m just putting out ideas I have there, and
it’s a hodgepodge of stuff, some of it’s stolen.
Leveraged. Leveraged. It’s leveraged.
James: Yeah,
exactly. Like any good idea [chuckles].
Some of it is weird
brainchild stuff that I’ve had over the years. Which I’m sure is probably
subconsciously leveraged from somewhere else.
Doug: That
was one of the fascinating things about talking with Kenneth Hite. We spent
almost two hours yakking it up. The process that he goes to to connect…it’s
like “Here is something you can look at in a history book” and “Here’s
something you can look up in a mythology book” and “Here is something that occurred
to me (him) while drinking heavily one day.”
We’re going to put these
three things together, and go to the logical extension of that idea. And that’s
for example, I think, where Day After Ragnarok came from. Which is World War
II, I don’t know if you are familiar with it: you’re in the middle of World War
II . . . and Ragnarok happens.
You take this two huge,
cataclysmic events, World War II and Ragnarok, and just blend them together and
you get three or four parallel mythologies going on there.
Because he wanted to have
a world, to make this connect a little bit. He wanted to have a world where one
part of the world was sword and sandal, Robert Howard Conan the Barbarian, and
the other part of the world was Norse mythology, and then you had other things
at other places. He had these turning points where it went off.
It’s exactly where you
take your sources, and you have your variations, and you borrow where you can,
and invent where you must, and take it to a logical conclusion.
James: Is
that the kind of place where you can have fun? Can you have a Nazi riding a
T-Rex that kind of thing [laughs]?
Possibly. I don’t know about the T-Rex and the dinosaurs, but certainly you could
have a Nazi wielding the Spear of Destiny, or Valkyries flying into battle, or
something like that. I know that he had this thing where the giants – the Jotunn
return to Earth in the steppes of Russia . . . and stuff! There is a lot to it.
James: Well that’s
fun right?
I think D&D is one of
the last places – not just D&D, tabletop RPGs in general – are one of the
last places where you can collaboratively put crazy things out there and people
say “Yeah, I’m on board with that.”
You don’t necessarily have
box office appeal to do it. One of the classic Dungeons and Dragons monsters is
a beholder, which is a floating mass of eyes that all shoot different kind of
rays. What was someone thinking when that came up?
And it’s nice to know that
you can go there, and you can try something new. And that’s what it’s all
I invite people certainly
on the blog. I want to know if they think, “Ah…that’s a little too close to
something” “Not as original as I hoped” or “That idea is so crazy and here’s
why I think it would never work.”
I’m all about the debate,
I definitely want to see that, and I want to see if people say “This is cool.”
That always makes you feel good.
But I think it’s great to
explore new avenues. To play on archetypes. So, for instance, in Exploration Age
elves, one of their main industries in this nation that the elves run, they cut
down trees – and sell the lumber. They’re like lumberjacks. Which sort of goes
against everything you’ve ever known about elves, and that was on purpose. Because
I was like “What would it be like if elves were actually cutting down trees and
slaughtering and herding cattle and selling burgers? What would that do?”
Doug: Invert
the trope, and see what breaks.
James: It’s
all about playing.
And Exploration Age, the
big idea is…there are big, blank spots on the map. Particularly…it’s based on
the Age of Discovery.
Australia had just been
discovered by Europeans, and the Americans had just been discovered by
Europeans. It’s based on the idea that all of a sudden these people’s world has
doubled in size. And they have a whole, hopefully rich, history of war with one
another, that war has translated into land grabbing over in this other place.
But oh, wait, there’s people who are native to this world. There like… “You
can’t come in here and just start grabbing up land.”
Doug: “What
do you mean you annexed this in the name of the king? I’m going to kick your
ass for that.”
Exactly. Instead of Native Americans, maybe a civilization of intelligent
minotaurs, so that could go very
for the people settling the land.
Doug: I’m
resisting nine different puns. This is very difficult for me. There’s no bull
about it. Bull in a china shop. I just can’t. I just can’t.
James: I
love the puns, bring them on.
Doug: Puns
and Monty Python jokes . . . they are like two of the fundamental base proteins
in the DNA of gaming.
James: That’s
right! Because it’s all about fun, and it’s all about fun that people aren’t
going to judge you for having. I feel like, no offense, I feel like the
community overall is awesome, but I feel within the D&D community there are
these fissures that are forming that don’t need to be there.
Play the game you want to
play. That’s what Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson were all about. They were saying
“Here is a book of rules we’re hoping you change. We’re hoping you modify for
Do that, with any system.
As long as you’re sitting around a table, or going online at some sort of
virtual table with people, hanging out and having a good time. It doesn’t
matter how weird it is or crazy like, get out there and have fun, if someone
thinks it’s lame, that’s their problem.
Doug: Right.
And they don’t have to sit down and play with you.
That’s actually one of the
things where I feel very much a kinship, and frankly the two interests do
overlap. I’m into martial arts I do this very eclectic art called Hwa Rang Do,
which no one has ever heard of it, well, they’ve occasionally heard of it.
James: What
is it?
Doug: It’s a
eclectic Korean style that is a blend of striking, and grappling, and joint
manipulation and all kinds of weapons, and notionally it dates back to the Silla:
the Hwarang knights, which are these noblemen, who were kind of like the
samurai, but except a thousand years before the samurai hit it big.
The Silla, Hwa Rang in
Korea, so when Silla unified the Korean Peninsula during the Three Kingdom
period there were these groups called the Hwa Rang which were a noble and the
rangdo, which were a bunch of knights and there were all kinds of crazy.
James: this
is awesome!
Doug: It’s
really neat. The history of these guys is really cool. You know you can start
fights over whether it’s accurate or not accurate, or whether the history is
made up, or only recently recovered, because the Chinese and Japanese destroyed
a lot of the records of Korean history purposefully, regardless of that it’s a
great story.
I visited Korea with the
Grandmaster, the person who reintroduced this to everybody, to the West. And
you go to this Buddhist shrine in Korea, and there is this massive immovable
bar around the statues eyes, because it was a guardian spirit, a guardian
temple, and the (I think it was the) Japanese put this bar in front of the eyes,
so that it couldn’t see the threats that it was supposed to protect against.
James: WOW.
That’s going in a dungeon!
Doug: They
were messing with the ki of this Buddha, so that it could not bring it to the
harmony that it needed to be.
In any case, it’s a very
eclectic art that does striking, weapons, and whatever. You were supposed to be
an awesome archer, and a horsemen, and a poet, and a general, and calligrapher,
and a scholar. There are these six disciplines, and all kinds of stuff . . . so
it’s a great rich history, someone, maybe me, really ought to do something with
that, and it doesn’t’ have to be a carbon copy, but it would make a very fun
class. A Dungeons and Dragons class or something.
Or a template or a fun
variation on the knight template for a Dungeon Fantasy campaign.
So Hwa Rang Do is very
eclectic, maybe a thousand black sashes ever.
It’s very small. But it’s growing, and if you really want to see Hwa Rang Do go
to insane levels, go to Italy. The Instructor
Mattiucci has got this thing going and they’re all gung ho and they go up into
the mountains and go and fight in the snow and stuff.
Arghhh, that’s so cool!
Doug: And
Instructor Mattiucci is really cool, and there is a lot of that because the
people who stick with this are really dedicated and it’s a unique thing. The
thing is, you could say “It’s not this style” or “It’s not that style,” but one
thing that a lot of these styles have in common, that a lot of these martial
arts are f****** bizarre relative to people playing pickup football.
And so the schisms between
D&D, OSR, 2nd edition, 3rd edition, 4th
edition, and now 5th edition, the schisms there are every bit as
counterproductive as a lot of the schisms between the BJJ guys and Tae Kwon Do
guys, and the aikido guys, and Hwa Rang Do, and whatever the fact of the matter
is until it really is “What martial art do you do?” “Oh, of course I do this
one.” Instead of “You punch people for fun?!”
Until it’s sort of
accepted into the mainstream society, as not an oddity, and role-playing is
that same thing. We are best saying “Yes, we do this collaborative story-gaming
thing, it’s creative and it’s fun, and it’s pizza, and beer, and Monty Python
jokes, and yeah there is a rules framework, as long as you’re playing you can
have fun. And if you’re playing the type of game you like to do you can have
fun. And if you don’t like that particular style. Try something else.”
Until it’s more that then
“This sucks!” or “That sucks!” or “This breaks the game!” we’re not going to
ever break out, and make it so that “Of course, everybody…” you grow up
watching 90210 or Star Trek, or something really mainstream like Desperate
Housewives (I’ve never seen a single episode, but . . .) or Seinfeld! Best
example, right.
Something that crosses
everything. I have roomed with those guys. I roomed with a guy who reminded me
so much of Kramer that I could never watch the show. The George Costanza
character is yes, I’ve had to work with someone like that, so why would I watch
it on TV. It was one of those things that hit to close to home. Growing up in
New Jersey and working in New York City and Philadelphia, it was never my thing
because it was like “Oh God, I lived with some of these people. I don’t need to
remember” [covers eyes in shame].
James: Yeah,
you lived the show. You didn’t need to watch it [laughs].
Doug: Jerry
and Elaine were the only people you could tolerate. None the less, I will
always remember the pirate puffy shirt. So value has had.
James: And
you’re absolutely right, the deck is already stacked against you. When these are
the things that you enjoy. Why would you fight amongst yourselves, when what
you’re doing is already looked upon as taboo, out there, or weird. Until we
have reached that critical mass point like football. Until we’ve reached that
level of pro-sports fanaticism for these things, having those debates doesn’t
make any sense.
Doug: You’re
a TV writer/producer right? We need to do a little mockumentary that is like
the World Series of Poker . . .  but for
James: I
would love to do that.
Doug: You have
like the announcer. “The fighter is moving around. I think he’s going to use
the Cleave feat. Yes! He’s doing it and the orcs are going down.” [whispery
voice followed by a sudden and very loud elated voice].
James: “He’s
going to need a 17 here – or higher – otherwise his game could be very…”
Doug: With
the appropriate extra…
James: I’m
in. Let’s do it.
Doug: That
just sounds like a awful lot of fun to me. Coming back round, you said that
sort of the conceit of Exploration Age is that there are giant areas of the map
that haven’t yet been discovered, whole new civilizations. In a way, is it a
Dungeons and Dragons version…oh, sorry, is it D&D-based or systemless?
James: The
plan right now is to depending on the Open Game License to put it out as
D&D, but it will be systemless too. There is going to be a lot of tables
you can use no matter what edition you’re playing. No matter what game you’re
playing. As long as you have some dice, you can use Exploration Age for your
Doug: That
seems like, in a way, it’s like the Civilization game, and there are
civilizations there, and you can either work with them or against them, it’s
really up to you.
Exactly. And part of the fun of the blank spots is, I’m hoping to provide what is
a DM-only sort of packet, with secrets about the world, and what is within
those blank spots.
However, part of the
appeal of blank spots for people, I know, is you can put in whatever you want
there. And I highly encourage…you don’t have to listen to me, you can put
whatever you want there. And I would love to see what people actually come up
with, because I think those blank spots…you could have something completely
different and your idea is probably why more awesome to me.
Doug: That’s
actually something that Steve Jackson Games did with their Banestorm world, the
world of Yrth, the primary continent that they detailed is Ytarria. And
everything else in the world . . .is blank.
That’s awesome, that’s great.
Doug: You
have a start, here is where the campaign starts, but everything else around it
might as well be Exploration Age, because it’s just not detailed. It’s there
for the GM to flesh out.
James: And
that’s awesome. I like that kind of flexibility, because then if you want to
stay and have your whole campaign in a area where you can see, that’s mapped
out, the party has that option. There is going to be plenty to do in those
areas that I’ve mapped out.
Political intrigue is one
of the big things, I’m hoping that sort of the problems of the real world can
also translate well enough with a good fantasy twist. Political leaders don’t
always have black and white decisions to make…
Doug: Hardly
Exactly. I’m hoping to bring that to the table. It’s not just “This guy is evil
for the sake of evil, and so he needs to be destroyed, because his goal is
world domination.” I’m hoping that it’s more nuanced than that, I’m hoping that
the bad guys don’t think they’re bad guys. They don’t see themselves as evil.
That’s sort of a writing
101 kind of thing to say, because there are bad guys for the sake of evil in a
lot of fantasy literature. Sauron is a pretty awesome bad guy. The Emperor in
Star Wars is a pretty awesome bad guy.
But I think that you can
get deeper with those things other than they’re power hungry and crazy.
That’s when it gets
interesting, and players can have hard choices to make, and really influence
the outcome of what’s going on in the world. It’s not a coin toss. There are
multiple options that could happen here. There isn’t just A and B. There is A
through Z, and none of them are completely white and none of them are
completely black.
Doug: And
one of the people who’s done…two things leap to me with that kind of thing
built in. Probably not ironically, they are both Joss Whedon.
One is the core worlds
from the Firefly series. The operative. He’s like “Look. This is not the evil
empire, this is what’s going on.” There were two sides, and you can see the
point in both. And yet, he was like “I’m not going to live there. I can’t live
in that world. I do evil. I am Lawful Evil.” You could just see: ‘The
Operative. Lawful Evil.’ He was going to do anything to preserve the order.
The other is, as a friend
of mine said “You had Thor, the Avengers, or Thor: The Dark World. Or Loki 1,
Loki 2, and Loki 3.” Loki is a complicated character who is mainly reaching
into a toolbox of manipulation, and trickery, and deceit, for reasons, by the
end of those three movies, that you really get.
James: Yeah.
You feel for him. People keep saying, no matter what you think of the movie it
seems like in Thor 3 [Dark World] he is complications are interesting. The
complications, and layers of his character, are so fascinating because you are rooting for him.
Doug: In a
lot of ways you are. You’re rooting for the bad, you want him to lose, but you
don’t want him to lose so badly that it strips him of his dignity as a
Exactly. When you think about it, I’m a younger brother. I have an older sister
and a older brother, so I’m the youngest.
So when you think about it
from the perspective of the beginning of the first movie Odin is saying “One of
you will be king some day.” And then the very next scene, Thor is at his
coronation. I think to grow up as Loki, with your brother being Thor in the
public eye for all of these people to see, that’s bound to mess you up a little
And then to find out that
your dad isn’t your dad. Spoilers, I guess Thor has been out a while so statute
of limitations.
Everything progressively
that happens to him from that point on is downhill for him. He’s had a tough,
tough way of it. You can relate to that. Not that I…I love my brother and
sister and parents. I did not have a hard time like that. But you can related
to that. Living in someone else’s shadow.
Doug: Sure.
And I don’t know if you’ve seen all the deleted scenes from the first Thor
movie, but right before that coronation is a deleted scene, where you actually
see some of Loki’s “I’m so going to mess with his head this day.”
That’s awesome. I haven’t seen…I’ll have to check it out. I have it on iTunes,
so I can check out the special features.
Doug: It’s
worth watching. I go on and on about that particular movie, and I will again.
It’s one  of my favorites. First of all
it’s beautiful, second of all because it’s so wonderfully epic.
This is sort of the same
kind of thing you’re talking about in Exploration Age. You take a base human thing,
like being jealous of an older brother, or a struggle to reach power, and you
span it over five thousand years with a mission of protecting the Nine Realms
instead of your local shire, or being the mayor of your town or whatever.
You take normal human  events and you amp them up. That’s what epic
fantasy is all about. It’s taking some of the little stuff and making everyone
have the opportunity to participate in these Earth-shattering world-shaking
events and feel like you made a difference. And you were creative and there was
pizza and beer and dice.
Exactly. That’s the thing. You have the interactions are happening very
intimately, so that people can understand them. You can understand the jealousy
of that, and for the things that you can’t understand, like living for five
thousand years, that just amplifies what I do know. I hate to be jealous of
someone for 30 seconds, let alone five
thousand years
. I think that helps play all of that out.
It helps play out . . . the
other day on the podcast, this actually…this hasn’t come out yet. But somebody
was saying that when you think about fantasy realms, priests are given magic
powers often in fantasy tabletop games. If that were true into today’s world:
you would get all magical healing powers and shoot radiant light. Every single
person, the line on Sundays would be out the door because everybody would pray
to a god to get powers.
Doug: That’s
actually a great point. One of the funny things about D&D, especially, at
least in my experience with the people who have gravitated towards certain
types of roleplaying arena. Nobody in
a D&D world is an atheist. If they are, they are deluded. They are absolutely insane.
When the gods walk among
you and give you powers, the word miracle probably wouldn’t exist – or maybe it
would exist as a miracle, a true blessing from God. You wouldn’t really have a
concept for the kind of intervention that happens, as having had it not happen,
probably because it’s just part and parcel of the fabric of all those realities
that these monstrously powerful beings are mucking around with you at all
James: Yeah,
and exerting there influence in mortals, and sometimes fighting them by end of
campaign sometimes. They’re calling you up, because they need help with the god
of death over here, “He’s at it again he’s trying to take over the realm of the
One of the things we’re
doing in Exploration Age is we are, I say we
like I have a team of designers, one of the things that I’m doing . . . I do
have my friends though who often comment and I’ll brain storm with them.
But one of the things
that’s happening, is the gods are not so interventionist if you will. The
cleric class still exists, and the paladin class still exists, and they still
get powers, but the gods don’t walk among people. They don’t have avatars that
they’re sending down, or heralds. Demons have never met up with evil gods, and
angels have never met up with good gods.
The idea to the common
folk then is that priests are just kind of like mages. They just kind of
practice a different kind of magic. They don’t necessarily…there are going to be atheists who think that
priests have gotten their magic the same way that wizards have – praying is
just another form of memorizing your spell book every day. So we are trying to
bring a little bit of that edge to it.
Also this idea often times
in fantasy campaigns, there is one pantheon. There is obviously exceptions to
that, but Exploration Age is going to have a lot of different pantheons. There
are a couple of polytheistic religions, there is a dualistic sun and moon
worshipping religion, and there are going to be a couple of monotheistic
religions – people who believe there is just one creator god. There are plenty
of people who are lapsed in their faith. They’re going to church, but maybe
they don’t necessarily believe in what they’re doing. They are doing it more
out of traditional values. And then there are people who believe it’s all a
bunch of hooey and people are deluding themselves.
Doug: but in
to have that you need to make sure that the priests or whatever…it’s
interesting, because if you’re going to say…one could go the other way and say
“Well, mages are just finding a different way to tap into divine power.” So, there
needs to be something that identifies that “tap” that “power tap.”
As an example, if you are
familiar with the Wheel of Time series, Robert Jordan’s epic . . . eternal
lengthy…sorry. I started reading those bad boys in 1990 or so and
unfortunately – I read through the first three books, because that was all that
was published at the time, and then I was just waiting. I would read it, and I
would stay up, and I would read all the book. When the Shadow Rising came out,
I read the whole thing in a couple of days, and then you’d wait, and wait, for
years and then the next one would come out. It seems like the large part of my
life from 1990 until last year I think – 2013 was basically waiting for the
next Wheel of Time book to come out to come out.
Then the gentlemen had the
unfortunate happenstance to pass away. Which was really ripping the needle off
the record player, and then fortunately Brandon Sanderson did a masterful job
of finishing it up. I told you that story, so I could tell you another one.
The point of that was that
the wizardry, the sorcery, called Channeling was a direct tap into the power
that drove the universe. It was scientific, almost, you had the male side, and
the female side and they were admissible, but worked together and against each
other in a very yin-yang or in Korean Um-Yang. And there was a Creator and there
was a Dark One and they were outside of creation. That was the point. They had
minions and stuff, but it would be like, in your world, it would be if the gods
of this pantheon (let’s say they do exist), but if they ever face down the gods
of this other pantheon, all of this local creation comes to an end . . . and
that doesn’t serve their purpose.
So there has to be a proxy
fight so you have the humans and all that stuff, and it’s like this infinite
series of chess boards.
James: Yeah.
That’s what I like to imagine. Maybe all of these gods are real, all of them exist,
or none of them do. I think that makes it hard for people to wrap their heads
But the real world
religion and theology is very hard, if you want to wrap your head around all of
That’s the hope is to make
a rich world that feels real, but at the same time there is dragons flying
around, and there is this divine energy, and arcane energy and I think that
that’s key here in this specific problem. If some people think that priests get
there magic from one source and wizards get if from another, some people
believe it’s both…
people believe it’s neither.
Something’s going on because the dude
just chucked fire at my face
. There are few things as visceral as fireball.
You can’t explain a fireball in the face with hypnotism or chicanery or whatever
in a fantasy setting.
Right. How did this ball of bat guano and sulfur, which is the standard
material component, how did this become a huge explosion. The idea then would
be kids trying to combine those two things. “Can I make this explode like old
crazy grandpa?”
I think that that’s fun,
that’s part of where the fun is that thinking about “Okay, if this is a real
world situation and there were people who were able to shoot fireballs. How
would those people be treated?”
Doug: I have
to imagine respectfully.
James: Yes!
Respectfully, in some places feared, in some places with extreme caution. If
you go into your local tavern they demand you hand over your crossbow and sword
in a lot of places. So maybe they demand you hand over your spell component
pouch. You could blow up the whole bad. Stab another guy and then the guards
can come and break it up. But this guy is a liability to your entire business.
So it’s thinking about
things like that too, that we get to do as gamers. Think about the minutiae of
it. So I want to introduce a little bit of that as well and go beyond the
standard fantasy tropes. Find the spins. Find the details.
My boss often says that
when you’re writing a good script you should get your overall idea down and
then look at it again and have fun with the details. I think that’s where we
get to have our most fun as gamers. When you get to read a new setting or new
rulebook you’re never like “The overall feel of this is so…” you’re usually
after your friends and you’re like “Look at this one little paragraph here!
This is how I feel about this expressive of everything else.” So that’s what
I’m hoping. I’m hoping people have fun.
We just did a big post
that got more traction than any other post than I’ve done that is about
mind-controlling parasites that live in a swamp and feast upon citrus fruit
that is being exported all over the world. There are small green beetles crawl
up into your brain and latch onto your brain stem and control your body.
Doug: I
think that’s been done in Star Trek a couple of times.
James: Yeah.
The inspiration from it came it from the old Animorphs books that I read when I
was in 1st or 2nd grade [laughs].
They were books for little
kids about alien slugs that went into your brain and took control. But I
thought “Okay, so when you’re a little kid this is interesting. But how can I
make it terrifying?” Because, really what it would be would be terrifying if
that happened to you, and that’s what I tried to do, and hopefully it is scary.  And my adventurers whenever they met somebody
they will be second-guessing themselves if they see them with a bowl of citrus
fruit. “Oh no, what happened here?”
Doug: The
forbidden food group.
Exactly. It’s a lot of fun and that’s really why we do this, right? It’s fun.
Doug: I do
want to return, this has been fun, I want to cover broadly. I am one of the
kings of tangents, because we started with it, and we talked about world
building and that’s good, and we got a couple of plugs for you podcast, which
is also good.
But I also do want to talk
a little bit about the next edition, the 5th edition of Dungeons and
Dragons. Having looked over it, a little bit, you sent me the playtest packet
and it was public and that’s cool, and I looked through it.
It is very clearly and
recognizably D&D. It does not feel to me, as someone who’s dabbled over the
course of 1980 to now – over the course of about 35 years of roleplaying. I
started with Dungeons & Dragons. I can recognize it, I see the d20, I see
the hit points, I see the hit dice, you have attacks, you don’t have defenses.
Armor Class is still recognizably present. You still have spell lists
So it seems to me, as
someone who makes his gaming living in a system that is designing around
tinkering: You can use this set of rules, you can use the basic grappling rules
or the Technical Grappling rules? Are you going to use the rules from martial
arts or the ones in the basic set. Are you going to use ritual path magic or
one of the different magical styles from Thaumatology or the Basic book or the
entirely cool Divine Favor rules?
Which is if you’re into GURPS
and you’re looking at it and you want your priests and clerics to have
something that feels very different from spell casting, Divine Favor is your
drink. It’s really neat. So instead of casting spells, what you have is a prayer.
You have…two rolls. One is a reaction roll, can you get your deity’ attention
and does he feel well disposed to you on what you’re asking.
That’s awesome.
Doug: You
can ask for whatever you want, but you usually define it in the framework of
power, but it’s basically like “I’m going to make the prayer and if I
successfully contact my patron/power source, how well disposed is he?”
I might say that the
specific prayer would be “Me and my party I want to be teleported away from
this battle or whatever.” Or it might just be “THOR HELP ME!!!” [whiny voice].
But if you get a really
good reaction the GM is encouraged to improvise wildly about what happens.
John: That’s the best.
Doug:  It’s really very flexible and it feels very
different than “I cast a 3d[6] Fireball spell,” which is a very 9mm kind of
effect, right? Casting a fireball spell in regular GURPS magic is almost
identical to cocking, point, and firing a .45 ACP. It’s really: I mean you cast
the spell, you throw the spell, and if it hits, it hits you for however many
dice of damage. And if it’s an explosive fireball it bursts and if it’s not
it’s not. It’s a very “defined contribution” plan, you spend however many
fatigue points and if it’s successive “Boom! Your Dead” whereas in Divine Favor
it’s more like “I call upon the power of…oh yeah, you’re right I forgot to pray
. . . yeah, you know, that thing with the bar wench. Alright. Fine. Here’s a
sword because I forgot to pray.”
Or I asked Thor to help me
out and all of a sudden Mjolnir showed up or he can show up and he can just
show up and kicked people’s ass, right? It really depends on how well your
reaction roll is and what’s happening at the time.
So all the pieces of
D&D 5th edition feel like D&D to me, and yet from listening
to the podcast I know that there is great umbrage being taken with some of the
choices. And I happened by a blog post talking about a rule that I guess has
disappeared: Damage on a miss. Which apparently has come and gone.
So I guess what I would
ask is: tell me a couple of things that are like “Yes, this is D&D, and it always
will be D&D, and it hasn’t changed. Tell me the top three things that have
changed for the better, and what three things are going to happen to make
people hate it.
James: Sure.
Absolutely. So as far as new goes, when they did the playtest, one of the goals
for this edition was they wanted it to feel like D&D so the word iconic was
a big buzzword around it and they didn’t want to stray too far. Which I think
sometimes happens to their detriment.  
Which might be too weird to
make a classless system or something like that.
But because of these rules
modules, there are a lot of modules we haven’t seen yet. But they’ve talked
about crafts like a classless system and that kind of thing. I think if the
modules, if they deliver on this, they are going to be a huge strength of the
system. I’m really excited to see it.
They have a couple of
healing modules, so you can dial into…it’s as good as whenever you sleep all of
your bad conditions are gone. Just like resting in a video game. Or you can
dial it back to way gritty where there is a wound system and things like that.
I think those modules are
a huge strength of the system which D&D has always kind of had and it’s
come out in supplements, but they seem to really be pushing it with this
They have a new mechanic
that really speeds up gameplay at the table. The advantaged/disadvantaged
mechanic. In previous editions you got some sort of mathematical bonus usually:
if you were attacking someone who was prone, or you were flanking, or they were
paralyzed with poison whatever the reason is you would get these bonuses that might
stack up, but then of they are behind cover so you need to subtract and…
So to speed up play
they’ve introduced this mechanic which is if you have advantage you roll two die
and you take the higher result, if you have disadvantage you take two die and
take the lower result. It really has sped up play, in the sense that you’re not
trying to constantly figure out…there is always the classic “Oh, I forgot this
guy. He’s blind in one eye.” Three turns after the fact, would 31 have hit as
opposed to a 30? It’s really sped up play and really canceled things out and
from the playtest feedback a lot of other people have liked it as well.
Interesting. I did the math: it’s equivalent to a ±4, I think.
James: Yeah.
Exactly. I actually posted up a chart on my blog that one of my players named
Andrew Timis made and it’s like …
Probability distributions?
James: Yeah,
the probability curve that happens.
Doug: The
histogram, yep.
James: Yeah,
and that’s really interesting to see because it is at some points, depending on
what you need it’s equivalent to a +4 on average, but sometimes if you need to
roll really high it’s only equivalent to a +1.
I really like that
mechanic too and I think people are going to like that. And I think overall
people are going to enjoy the speed of combat, it’s really great.
I can already tell you
that at the table the lethality is one thing that’s making my players a little
unhappy and I also think that they’re going to need to provide an alternative
to Vancian spellcasting which is I know is a big stable of D&D. It really
wasn’t in existence in 4th edition. It’s also one of the things that
since I began playing for me personally it never really made a lot of sense.,
And I like that they have
at-will spells. They finally have a system where your wizard doesn’t run out of
spells after the first battle and is sitting in the back using a crossbow that
he can’t fire at first level like that. That was on big frustration.
I know a lot of people
like the Vancian casting system, but for me I definitely want to see an
alternative to that. I’m hoping there is a rules module for that, but I think
they’re going to turn off a lot of 4th edition players if they don’t
have that kind of option.
Another thing is in 4th
edition, the martial characters, your fighter, your rogue, had a lot of really
great options. They didn’t feel like they were just swinging a sword or
shooting a bow and D&D was not a system that really provided a lot of
options beyond that. You could try a grapple or a disarm occasionally, but if
you’re fighting an ogre who is bigger than you and using his bare hands there
is nothing to disarm and that grapple is not going to go well for you.
They have some
alternatives, I think I’d like to see a few more alternatives for martial
characters than are currently in the last playtest packet because I think
that’s where you’re going to lose people. A couple of your options for combat
and with that Vancian casting system really.
Those are the things…and
the lethality, that’s always sort of up to the DM. You can dial that up or turn
that down as needed.
Save or die is back, which
I think is great used sparingly. I don’t think a save or die monster needs to
show up every session. But it is great for that occasional fight when the save
or die monsters are in there. That’s great. Everybody’s adrenaline is up
because they know that gaze attack is coming and they got to be careful.
So those would be the
things I’m calling out specifically good and specifically bad.
Rules modules I think can
fix a lot of those problems so let’s see some rules modules for those.
Doug: It’s
funny though…the thing where I like . . . I’ll pick on Pathfinder because it’s
the thing I’m most familiar with in the D&D world. By the time, you get to
whatever level – high – ten, fifteen, twenty: Yes, you’re a superhero, but you
have this trail of feats or spells or whatever that if you inflicted that on a
player at level one there would be one word that would be used to describe it
which would be “GURPS-like.”
[both laugh] Because the
knock against GURPS and it’s fair, even Sean Punch, the line editor says yes,
the complexity is front-loaded.
Where I think that
Dungeons and Dragons, the OSR, or level one Pathfinder do right is “Here’s an
archetype, you’re going to play that archetype,” this is your chance to get you
to the rules because at level one . . . I had an old game where my friend Carl
Hinman was game mastering and my other friend Ken Capelli (who went on to
design videogames for Accolade, and now is doing other things). Ken was playing
the 1st level Cleric and in old D&D I think clerics did not have
a first level spell.
So we’re going around the
table, hold on, I got to find a black pen that actually writes. Naw, that does
not work, let me find a marker.
And it was every time . .
. it was one combat after another, every time poor Ken’s time would come around
he would like [holds up paper pad] with this sign that said “Hit him with my
mace,” because that was the only thing that he could do. There was nothing
clever or nothing whatever, yes, of course, I hit him with my mace.
Now, in a way that’s
boring, but I did notice that the number of experience points that you need to
get from 1st to 2nd level in 5th edition is
like 3 – it’s tiny. Getting out of the cellar so to speak seems to happen very
quickly. Which is probably a good thing.
To at least get a few more
options, but the nice thing about that first level character is that it denies
the opportunity for the complexity to be front-loaded. You’ve got one or two
spells, maybe a couple of cantrips – I do my homework – maybe a couple of
cantrips, I can hit them with a sword and maybe there are a couple of combat
options that anybody can do.
I don’t know if fighting
defensively or offensively or whatever.
But it’s not like “Oh!
WHAM! He’s the GURPS Martial Arts book,” and in order to make not owning that
– what they tried to avoid in 4th edition GURPS is that when the
Martial Arts book came out in 3rd edition [GURPS], if you didn’t
have the book and you had a character who wasn’t designed with the book it was
significantly disadvantaged to a character who did have the book.
Because there were things
you could do, but they cost you points. So if you had a character and a martial
arts character with all this rules stuff where you can bend the rules, break
the rules, or alter the rules and you had the “hit him with my mace” on the
other side.
What 4th
edition [GURPS] said is everybody can do almost everything. So if you’re
a Karate guy you can punch, strike, kick somebody in the nuts, you can do a
jump spin kick or whatever. Everybody can do everything for zero points, but
here are the penalties. And good martial artists buy off those penalties.
So anybody can do a jump
spinning kick it’s just a -6 or something like that. People who are in Hwa Rang
Do we do jump-spin everything. We do jump-spin sit down and have dinner. We do
jump-spin everything, it’s just part of what we do, a lot of spinning. So you
buy off that technique and all of a sudden you can spin kick at full skill
while somebody has to accept the penalties. Lots of choices.
The nice thing about the
D&D paradigm is that the complexity grows with your experience with the
game. Is that still basically present?
James: Yes,
it is. In fact what you said about first level is true. First, second, and
third level are being referred to as “apprentice tier.”
So you don’t even get
like…you used to be that you would get all of your base class abilities dumped
in at first level and now they’re spread out across those first three levels.
So really experienced role-players could start at 3rd level in
D&D and it’s only supposed to take you one session to level up from one to
two and two to three so that does exist. Really there is not a lot of
difference, though.
The trade off is, in GURPS,
two “first level” thieves can be completely different. Where that’s not really
the case for D&D mechanically, your two first level rogues are not going to
be all that different from one another. By the time you get to 3rd
level there is a little diversity and that continues to branch out.
But essentially your
choice of weapon maybe or your choice of a few spells and your race make a big
difference and then the rest is all going to have to be role-played as far as
what makes your character truly unique at those levels. But yeah, complexity
definitely scales up as it always has.
Doug: So
Pathfinder had, I’ll have to remember, twenty or thirty individual skills. GURPS
of course has several hundred. But Pathfinder had a very – it was pared down –
but you could do a lot of stuff with skills in Pathfinder, especially if you
were the rogue class, which is basically the “skill class.” [James laughs] Has
that been retained? Or are there ten core skills or a hundred or five or six
different skills, but each class has its own skill, how did they break that
James: Yeah,
they did break that out. So the big thing in this is they want skills to be
optional because there are people who believe that skills were introduced in 3rd
edition and it shouldn’t be part of the Dungeons & Dragons experience. So
at base, your ability scores and their modifiers are sort of the things that
you latch onto. So you have ability rolls that are the standard base for
Doug: Those
are your proxy for skills.
Dungeons & Dragons has what’s called, this new edition has what’s called a
bounded accuracy system. You don’t get…by the time…the difference between a
first level character and a twentieth level character in their bonus to hit
something is probably not going to be in what it would be in previous editions.
This is something else
that I think is really great. You actually get better. It used to be you had a
table so if you’re thirtieth level, the DC to pick a lock is 45, like a hard
lock, because you’re have to make it a astral crazy diabolical lock that people
are picking.
Whereas now what they are
saying is at twentieth level should be better at picking locks and your chance to
succeed should be greater. It shouldn’t be that the difficulty is scaling with
you. So that’s interesting.
So skills…the idea of
skills comes in again as this optional system that I think most people are
going to play with and they give you bonuses to those ability checks like they
had in previous editions and Pathfinder.
There is a core list of
[he counts] eighteen skills that I think is one more than it was in 4th
and certainly les than it was in 3rd edition which more resembled
the Pathfinder skill list. So you also have, you add what’s called your
Proficiency, so a slow-scaling bonus. But you’re also Proficient in various
pieces of equipment that aren’t skills. You’re Proficient on mounts so anytime
you’re on a horse and trying to pull off something fancy with a horse, you make
ability roll and if you’re Proficient in mounts you add your Proficiency bonus.
Any time you’re using thieves tools, so like Pick Lock isn’t a skill anymore,
but if you’re using thieves tools you add your proficiency bonus to pick a
lock, use a disguise kit, or something like that.
Doug: And if
you’re not Proficient then you’re disadvantaged as I recall so you have to roll
twice and take the lowest.
Exactly. What it does is it allows…because you’re DCs in previous editions of
D&D were set with the assumption that if you’re going to attempt to do this
it’s because you’re trained in this skill.
It no longer assumes that.
It assumes you have an ability bonus. So that means a wizard can actually try
to climb a cliff now. It means that the fear is gone of the “Oh, I’m not
trained in this so I’m not going to even try.”
And that’s one of the
things that’s great about this Bounded Accuracy System and the way they’ve set
up skills.
The other thing that’s
really cool is so your class can grant you some skills, but your skills are
also tied to your background. So at first level, you either pick or create a
background and that’s where you get your proficiencies and stuff.
You could have a druid who
before they were a druid made their life as a scholar so they have all these
crazy lore like Urban and Arcana lore bonuses that they get because that was their
It’s nice to see D&D
doing a little bit on that. Focusing on those story aspects because then you
can have a guy who was a wizard, but he was a spy for the army so he’s great at
disguise or diplomacy and bluff. I think that that’s going to be one of the
more fun things and that’s going to be a way at 1st level you can
have that sort of customization and make your character different.
Doug: So
just to repeat that was at 1st level you can make the customization
of the character different? I got a little bit of reverb there.
James: Oh,
sorry. Yes. [Doug sneezes] So at 1st level, we were talking about
mechanically they’re the same, but that’s not necessarily true With this
background system you could take the spy background or take the charlatan
background, they’re a little different.
And you can build your own
which is really great. There are already guidelines out there for how to build
you on. So that’s fun. I’ve had people already come to me and [say] “This is my
background! I’m human who was raised by elves and this is the background that I
want to have.” So, it’s cool.
Doug: One of
the knocks I’ve seen occasionally thrown at Pathfinder is you really kind of
had to map out your feat progression from 1st to 20th
level and hope your character doesn’t get killed before you can execute on that
plan and get maximally awesome. There was also a case, I think, (again I’m not
a Pathfinder expert. There were also cases where you could kind of be stupid
about your feat selection and really get some non-optimal series of picks which
might be fun, but another character who chose to be optimal would wipe the
floor with you. Has that been toned down in the latest edition, first of all is
that a) accurate assessment and b) is that some easier to tone down in the next
Absolutely. And it’s certainly not just Pathfinder – that’s been true of all
sort of things based on the d20 system it seems like. 4E that was true…
I think yes that that has
been as far as the playtest package suggests I do think that and I’m sure there
are people who would disagree with me, but I do think a lot of that has been
taken care of…I think Wizards had a particular eye towards that and that was
one of the goals on the open playtest was to see like, “Okay, what can people
exploit that we’re not thinking about because we’re not necessarily designing
the game with that in mind.”
Looking at every single
feat . . . and one of the ways that they’ve done that is, feats are optional.
They are a optional part of the game and you get them less often than you have
and you have to give up…so you can either take every four levels, a character
can take a +2 to bonus to a ability or a +1 bonus to two ability scores or they
can take a feat.
As a result your feats are
way better because they need to be equivalent to that. So your feats do things
like “Whenever you wear heavy armor you get damage resistance against piercing,
bludgeoning, and slashing damage.” What would have been four archery feats in
past editions is one feat now.
Doug: I
remember seeing that as Master Archer or something like that. Took all the things
that a really cool archer ought to be able to do and said “Bam! Here you go.”

James: Yeah!
So I think they’ve taken that out in that “you get it all” with that feat now.
If you want to do that you’re giving up the +2 to Strength in an attribute
based game could also be really helpful.
One other thing they’ve
done to encourage people to take feats is all your abilities cap at 20, so you
can’t exceed that. You can with magic – finding a magic item or that kind of
thing – your base physical ability score can’t exceed 20.
So if you’re a fighter and
you get your Strength up to 20 pretty quickly – maybe 8th or 12th
level – you do start to take those feats because they’re more interesting than
boosting your Charisma if you want to. Or maybe you are going to boost your
Charisma because there is still a benefit to that too if you’re a fighter.
That’s…oh, go ahead, sorry.
James: Oh,
not I was just going to say it boosts Saving Throws and some Defenses.
Doug: I
actually brought it up on my screen so I can pronounce his name right. Gerard
Tasistro [spelling?] at Saurondor, he writes a blog and he talks about…he’s
working on a modern game using the d20 resolution. He’s got a some really neat
articles on guns and bows and arrows type stuff using a d20 resolution.
One of the things that we
got into a little bit on my blog when I was going through the Pathfinder
core-rules and I made it through chapter 11 before I got distracted. It’s a 600
page rulebook so there was a lot to go through and I was going through every
section, I got to magic and lost my steam because after 110 pages of spells my
eyes glazed over.
The point is that Pathfinder
characters especially seem to be mostly one or two attribute dependent. If you
were a fighter you cared about Strength and you wanted your Strength to be
between 20 and 30 and between your natural attributes and your class and your
magic items and your gauntlets of strength, bracers of strength, and your
braces of strength, and your earring of strength you could get like a +15 bonus
to hit and to do damage with a melee weapon and the assumption that that’s what
you were going to do was built into the rules.
One of the things that we
were flirting with in this house ruling party that we were having was to say
all to-hit bonuses or ranged weapons or melee or whatever were Dexterity. All
damage bonuses are based on Strength including for a bow. Because if you’re a
big freaking guy you can pull a big heavy bow and do more damage.
Then you’d have fatigue…you
could only swing a sword so many rounds without taking a break unless your
Constitution was a particular bonus level or whatever. Which was sort of
hearkening around an article that I wrote for GURPS called The Last Gasp which was…I’ll get into
that later or maybe I won’t.  
It’s not important, but
the thing was when someone came back to me and said “You need to stop this
crazy talk because to have this where you have three or four or five attributes
that matter out of six is a bad thing because of the way that the game was structured.”
But I always thought there
would be no such thing as a dump-stat if you took that 6 in Charisma. It was going to matter. It wasn’t “Oh, I’m
a fighter so I don’t care how bad my Charisma is”
It means no one wants to
heal you, you don’t get any followers, you get bad prices at the whorehouse or
whatever so it all comes back to that. That would be a great example…sorry,
that’s not a great example, but what I’m going to is a great example – I get
myself in real trouble – a fighter
with a lousy Charisma has to pay more for all his gear . . . because he’s a
James: Isn’t
that the way the real world works too? If you walked around and treated
everybody terribly and you were big, dumb, ass and you were mean . . . people
wouldn’t like you and there would be consequences to that and I like to see
that in a game.
You still have your
dump-stats certainly in this edition, but I think that one of the things that
you touched on is it assumes you have all your magic items – this game the
math…because of that bounded accuracy system in combat as well, doesn’t assume
that. So if you find a +1 sword, that +1 sword is still going to be just as
good for you at 20th level as it was when you found it at third
And that’s really cool
because it also means finding magic items is more special. As a DM, you don’t
have to constantly give them out to make the math in the game work. You can
give them out whenever you feel like. “Ah, this is an appropriate time for
someone to get something” and it feels more special and they cherish that item
instead of “Oh, this is my +2 sword, when am I going to get my +3.”
Doug: When
do I get my next piece?
I did a…it’s funny…let me
see if I can find it really quick. I was writing about something, and I was
using Pathfinder as an example. “Fighting People Better Than You” there it was.
We do this thing on my
blog, and I started it and then a bunch of others got into it. We do two
things. One is called Melee Academy and the other is called GURPS
101. Melee Academy is a series of posts, front-loaded right? So Melee Academy
was something . . .
So that one was…I’m
surprised you saw. So that was the thing if you look at the iconic…I was saying
“oh he’s a example of a Pathfinder character or whatever.” I was like “I want
to make a good example.” Cause I had a 6th level rogue and his name
was Pel and he was a pretty good archer and that was all cool, but I was making
examples, but I was like “I’m not really good at this so can someone provide me
with a Pathfinder character.”
As it turns out, on the
SRD they have the iconic characters at multiple levels, so you can click on
Valeros the 12th level iconic fighter, and I’m looking at this thing
and I’m going “I am utterly incompetent at designing Pathfinder characters,”
because this guy has a +6 this and +5 that the amount of stuff that went into
Or Merisiel the 7th
level iconic rogue, which was just one level more, would just wipe the floor
with my guy because we didn’t have enough magic items or the right kind of
design or feat structure.
You really had to know
what you were doing. And the difference between a high level character and a low
level character was…the ultimate capability if you were a 5th level
fighter and going up against a 10th or 15th level fighter
you were just deader than hell.
There is nothing that you
can do because your hit points are lower than his, it doesn’t matter how many
criticals you get, his typical stuff is just going to cut you in two.
Whereas in GURPS
you can get lucky, if you get behind someone who is really awesome and they
don’t have something that gives them vision in the back you can totally crit
their brain with an All-Out Telegraphic Attack [James laughs] and they’re just
dead. If you can punch through the armor or whatever.
That was always the
difference. It sounds like the…
So what would happen if a
5th level fighter fought a 10th level fighter in this
next version of D&D, how one-side is it? Or how far apart do the levels
have to get before it’s really just a one-sided beat down.
James: I
would say that probably…it’s probably closer to the Pathfinder example that
you’ve described. I don’t know if it’s a big as difference as one level to one.
But I would say that if you’re three or more levels above another character you
could probably easily take them out
However, I do think that
if that character…if the lower level character is a magic-user, because there
is a variety of spells that are back, you can probably play certain things to
your advantage.
And I also think that
they…one of the things they’ve done well is that a dragon…if there is a army of 1st level guys they
stand a chance against a dragon and in previous editions it was like “These 1st
level guys will never pierce the dragon’s armor class. They will never get
through his damage resistance, and he’s got a breath weapon that can kill all
of them at once.”
Doug: Fifty
of them at once, right, yeah.
James: That
is one of the interesting things that they’ve done. One of the things you might
face in a lower-level is something like a big monster attacking a town and you
need to rally all the townspeople to help you defeat this thing.
Doug: And there
is a point to that.
Exactly. It will mechanically make a difference in your battle.
Instead of getting together 15 chew toys to distract the big beast.
Right. We need meat shields for when we run away. Yeah, and I would like to
see…I love that example you gave in getting lucky in GURPS and planning
something out.
Doug: Make
your own luck.
Exactly. So if you can have like an A-Team style planning montage, you can go
up against a force greater than yourself. That’s what all fantasy is about,
So I would like to see
that aspect come into it. I think, again with the right magic spells and
everything you can probably pull that off.
Doug: And
that’s probably true if you can’t get behind a really good…it’s true and it’s
not true.
The one thing that GURPS
has is the critical hit which bypasses all defense rolls.
The flip side of that is a
really good cinematic fighter should have one or more advantages of Luck which
allow you to reroll. So if I roll a critical hit, if I’m a 150-point schleb a
500-point experienced Dungeon Fantasy character, if I swing my sword at you and
I roll a 4 it’s a critical hit and it’s going to bypass you…you get no active
defense. You may have awesome armor that I may not be able to penetrate
through, but the GURPS damage model is, armor subtracts directly from points of damage.
James: Oh,
Doug: You
have to defend too. I think the Fantasy Trip had it. You rolled to attack and
rolled to defend.
Fantasy Trip is a lineal
descent of GURPS. Steve Jackson, it was the whole lineage thing.
But if you bypass defense
you got the armor. And if the guys like 
[affects a deep voice] “Yes, I’m a mighty fighter, I don’t need armor.”
His skin is every bit as vulnerable to a broadsword as yours is. So you can get
lucky, and you have to watch the critical hits and stuff.
So let me give you a parting
shot. What do you want people to know or anticipate about the Next edition of
Dungeons and Dragons that you feel like, because your view in the playtest or
people who haven’t done it. Or because of your interactions and whatever with
people who have been actively debating this.
What point do you want to
leave people with for the next edition of Dungeons and Dragons?
James: So
the point I want to leave people with is come try it out.
If you’ve been away for a
while I would come, give this one a shot, but do not change whatever you’re
game of choice is. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m not saying “Oh, this is
This is a different
experience, that it’s going to remind you certainly of old dungeons and
dragons, and you’re going to have a great time at the table with this one. Because
it is flexible and there are a lot of really great mechanics that are coming
out with it and building a character with it is super-fun [laughs].
Come check it out, check
out the background system, I guess my big plea would be that if you don’t like it
play your other game of choice, but let’s just stop the edition wars. Because they’re
done. There is plenty of information 
available, go play it, have a good time, that would be what I say.
Doug: All
right, very good, thank you for joining me this evening and thank you for your
James: Thank
you, Doug. I really, really appreciate it.
Doug: I’m
sure that when you get closer and closer to having Exploration Age either get
into a beta for playtest or whatever you can come talk about it and see what
interest we can scare up.
James: Thank
you very much, that would be great. Check me out [points to his blog link].
You’re already checking out Gaming Ballistic but it’s awesome.
Doug: Thanks
a lot.
Thanks, Doug.

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