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Inheritors of 3.5 - A review of what is out there

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Inheritors of 3.5 - A review of what is out there

Postby echoota » Mon Oct 05, 2009 6:51 pm

After spending a couple of years playing 3.5 I was quite happy to hear when 4E was announced. While I've really enjoyed 3.5 there seemed to be a lot of things that could have been fixed, but with the system almost completely matured, it didn't look like it was going to be happening anytime soon by WotC.

During the buildup to 4E our group was playing a lot of Star Wars Saga Edition, and everyone was having a great time with it. Saga edition was quietly being used as a kind of test bed for mechanics and ideas for 4E. Later on designers of 4E mentioned in blogs and forum posts that Saga was in a lot of ways a snapshot of where 4E was in its early design phase.

So as 4E approach all of us were quite excited about the release, and we slurped up all the little previews and I even incorporated some of the preview rules into my Saga game. We shared a common idea of, "Finally, 3.5 is going to be fixed, it's going to be a fantasy Saga system and it's going to be awesome!"

As it turned out, 4E design went well past the Saga system in overhauling the game and unfortunately for a lot of us in the gaming group it went too far. For many of us 4E ended up not being the game for us, including myself.

So over the last year I've been paying a lot of attention to what I'm now calling the "Inheritors of 3.5", several different systems that are staying within the gravity well of 3.5, but which are making significant revisions. I figured that after all of the reading and review I've done I might as well give an overview for my local gaming community.

Pathfinder - Paizo

Pathfinder is hard to miss at Quarterstaff. There is a pile of the core books available, and whole shelves of material can be found in the store. This is the real anchor point for continued expansion of the 3.5 system for two reasons. First, they essentially are republishing the core 3.5 books under their own brand. While there are no gaming gestapos that will be showing up at your door to confiscate all of your old 3.5 books, one of the realities of being part of the gaming hobby is that games which are in print and supported are the ones that are most likely to continue to be played by the general gaming community. By having the core 3.5 books back in print and available in the retail channels it keeps the system chugging along for new people to join and sends the message to all of the current players that the game is going to continue to be supported. Likewise, OGL 3rd party publishing can continue with Pathfinder, as their whole document, save for few minor thematic names, is completely open game content.

Second, one of Paizo's central design goals when revising the 3.5 system was to keep the Pathfinder rules as backwards compatible with WotC's material, along with the nearly decade of 3rd party supplemental OGL material that is floating out there. With this goal in mind they ultimately took a very conservative approach to their revisions. There are many small changes here and there through the Pathfinder core book, but if one were conversant with 3.5 then most of the material would be the same as before. If you want to pull out your older 3.5 books, like the Races books or Complete series of books, then very little conversion would be necessary to fit those rules into the new Pathfinder game.

Trailblazer - Bad Axe Games

So Paizo has brought a level of stability for the community of fans of the 3.5 system. The main criticism that is tossed out there on the various gaming forums, and even Paizo's own message boards, is that they didn't go far enough with their changes. Many people were hoping that Pathfinder would end up being the "3.75" or the "fixed 3.5" that was hoped for. Many small changes were made by Paizo, but more radical system changes would be needed to truly fix 3.5. An example of a common complaint of 3.5 which wasn't resolved was the power balance between the Martial classes and the Spellcasters. The Fighter simply isn't a strong class when compared to the various spellcasters. Fighters have a linear power development, gaining a set number of feats to specialize their prowness in. Spellcasters however have a quadratic power development, gaining more and more spells as they progress, and where the power of the spells becomes increasingly more potent. At high levels Wizards are running the show and the Cleric and Druid and better fighters than the Fighter. Pathfinder did give more options and abilities to the Fighter class, but hardly enough to make them stand level with the spellcasters overall.

Enter Trailblazer by Bad Axe Games. Bad Axe Games has been making OGL material for several years now, with Grim Tales being a popular title. As 4E shifted the market about BAG went to work to give a "fix" to 3.5 and their effort is the Trailblazer system. Trailblazer is more ambitious in design than Pathfinder, however it is intended as a supplement to either 3.5 or Pathfinder and not a stand alone system.

What I find really admirable about Trailblazer is that it tosses your immediately into the guts of the 3.5 system, with the opening chapter being an analysis of the "Spine of 3.5". Trailblazer shows how the mathematics of 3.5 works, how the system progresses through 20 levels and where the balance and imbalance plays itself out. By giving this analysis up front it makes it much more clear what exactly Trailblazer is attempting to fix, and not simply providing a collection of house rules.

Trailblazer is a bit spartan with its presentation. It breaks down the rule changes into smaller chunks so that a DM can pick and choose which elements they want to insert into their own game and does not spend a great deal of time with art and doesn't present any fluff. The changes that are presented by Trailblazer are more radical than those by Pathfinder, but their design goal was not hampered by feeling a need to be backwards compatible with older material. In my overview I'm not seeing anything so radical that any good DM couldn't still adapt older material, but one ought to be mindful of how some changes can cascade through the system in ways that were not expected.

A few of the changes that Trailblazer offers up are things like a tweaked Fighter class, which gives more abilities than the Pathfinder Fighter. There is a revised spellcaster multiclassing system which allows players to mix spellcaster levels without losing out on important spell levels. One of the elements they suggest that I really enjoy is the combat reactions. The "attack of opportunity" is a combat reaction, as it is an action that a player can take out of their turn. Trailblazer offers up four other options so that combat can have much more of a dynamic give and take quality to it.

Many other little fixes reside in the Trailblazer book. In many ways if you take Pathfinder, add in the Trailblazer fixes then you'll have something close to the "3.75" that many people have been looking for. With all of the work and thoughtful analysis that went into Trailblazer I'm looking forward to what else Bad Axe Games has to offer.

Fantasycraft - Crafty Games

"Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology... We can make him better than he was before. Better, stronger, faster."

Crafty Games is known for Spycraft, their extensive overhaul of the d20 Modern SRD into their own modern spy game. It's interesting looking at the sweep of where Fantasycraft is coming from in terms of the evolution of the system. D&D 3.0 came out in 2000. In 2002 d20 Modern was released and one could immediately see dramatic changes in the overall system compared to D&D 3.0. While it is true that the systems are different in part to help emulate their themes better, you can also see how with Modern they went back and rebuilt the spine that had been set in 3.0. However, when it came time to revise 3.0, Wizard of the Coast could have "modernized" the game, but instead they gave a massive patch which fixed many problems, but wasn't a complete overhaul, and thus we got 3.5. But oh if we could have had that modern system. When 4E development began in 2005 it took the d20 Modern system as it's starting point and eventually, as I mentioned above, we saw a snapshot of that development in the form of Star Wars Saga Edition which was released in 2007.

Craft Games approach was to take the d20 Modern system and rebuild, almost line by line, into the system they wanted to publish. It is crunch heavy for a d20 system, eager to simulate all sorts of details. What makes it work is that by rebuilding the whole modern vision they were able to work those tweaks in a comprehensive way, rather than just tacking them on.

Now that Crafty Games have established themselves with Spycraft, they are moving on to fantasy and so they went back to their system they constructed and reordered it for fantasy campaigning. It is still recognizable as a d20 system, just as say True20 or Conan are both d20 systems, but Craft Games pushing things father into their own vision, and it's quite a wonderful vision. Fantasycraft is designed to be a tool box, with system settings that the DM can adjust to make the kind of fantasy campaign they want to run, being high magic, low magic, combat intensive or wandering off into non-combat territory with large strategic plans to run kingdoms and empires.

Just the opening chapter shows how far more reaching Fantasycraft wants to be over Pathfinder in changes. Do you want to be Troll, Ent or even a Dragon at first level? Go ahead, the system lays them down as core races. Character creation offers up 12 races and 12 classes to pick from, along with a background system so that characters stories are built up mechanically right from the start.

The more I read Fantasycraft the more excited I get about it. It is in many ways what I wish Pathfinder could be, as it pushes far beyond 3.5, but in different ways from where 4E went. 4E became a well honed dungeon delving tactical system, and it does that very well, but the exploration outside of combat is much less detailed mechanically. Fantasycraft offers up heaps of mechanical subsystems for large strategic storytelling, which is what 3.5 always held out some promise for, but was too jumbled to do it whole heartedly.

Fantasy Concepts - Jason Kemp

Now the last on my list. Fantasy Concepts put together by Jason Kemp, is a rather modest presentation. Paizo, Bad Axe Games and Crafty Games are all larger rpg publishers that are all technically OGL 3rd party publishers, but with enough slick presentation and market presence to have their own presence in the rpg industry. Jason Kemp is the indie in this crowd and exemplifies the small press 3rd party designer. In fact you can, as far as I can tell, only get his book from lulu.com, which does print on demand publishing if you don't just want the pdf.

In essence, Fantasy Concepts is a "Star Wars Saga" system for fantasy. What I find really interesting is that he's building up his system all from OGL sources. After a decade of OGL material being put out there are plenty of good ideas out there and Kemp uses the true spirit of OGL to assemble as close as possible the system presented in Star Wars Saga. If you look in the back in the licensing section you see a huge list of other OGL material that he was drawing from in order to assemble this package. Being someone who is tinkering and designing myself for the OGL market I find his effort inspiring and wonderful, as it is real example of seeing that vast swath of material out there as a bunch of Legos, ready to be grabbed and assembled into something new and cool.

The only real drawback to Fantasy Concepts is that it is such a small product from one individual. After all of the fun I've had with Saga, I'm rather eager to try using FC as my game of choice for Fantasy, but the support isn't there, or at least not on a level that would make you find a shelf full of material at the local game store. Not that this can't mean you have a vast amount of good time. I only wish the game could be bigger in the marketplace so that there would be a pool of people all eager to play it.

E6 - Ryan Stoughton

Thankfully I was reminded about E6 after making this posting, so I'm including it now as it ought to have been in my original post.

E6 is free, E6 is simple, E6 is good. I haven't had a chance to play E6 yet, but whatever campaign I run next will 3.5/Pathfinder/Trailblazer will be an E6 campaign. How can I be so sure it's that good? Because I've already played something similar dozens of times. With E6 you simply play the first six levels of character classes as normal. After sixth level each time you "level" you just gain an additional feat. That's about it.

I'm a fan of low level play. I like my games grounded in a bit of reality and low level play is where the equipment list in the Player's Handbook still matters, the spells aren't too reality bending yet, and characters aren't dripping in magic items. Actually, what Stoughton writes of his design does it better than anything I could say:

In E6, the stats of an average person are the stats of a 1st-level commoner. Like their medieval counterparts, this person has never travelled more than a mile from their home. Imagine a 6th-level Wizard or 6th-level Fighter from the commoner's perspective. The wizard could kill everyone in your village with a few words. The fighter could duel with ten armed guards in a row and kill every one of them. If you spot a manticore, everyone you know is in terrible, terrible danger. Against such a creature, the wizard or fighter may be your only hope. E6 recognizes that 6th level characters are mortal, while providing a context where they are epic heroes.

The simple act of re-framing the game and focusing in on the compelling coming-of-age story of the heroes gives the game a whole new taste. One of the things I've always disliked about D&D is that the overall context of the world doesn't make any sense. If you try and apply the overall system to world build it all quickly falls apart since spells and magic items would overwhelm everything. Eberron does a great job of trying to make everything fit, but it isn't your traditional pho-medieval fantasy world. E6 contracts down the power of the whole system and in doing so it gives a more plausible scale to the whole premise.

The re-framing also solves a great deal of the imbalances between classes in the game. Magic and Martial powers even out at around level six and so by tossing out all those spells and the magic items that come afterwards, keeps everything well in check without requiring the DM to take a scalpel to the system.

One of the other elements I like about E6 is the fact that an entire campaign becomes more manageable. You play up to six levels, then perhaps another six to eight levels after that. By that point you've set right what was wrong in the world and the story can end. All told that means you are running only 20-40 sessions, or if you want a really fast pace you could do it all in 12 sessions. In my busy life I can't imagine spending two to three years on a single campaign as we slowly crawl up to level 20 over over dedicated bi-weekly sessions. E6's framing scales everything, including real life play time, down to more manageable levels.

So there it is folks, a review of four of the inheritors of 3.5. I've really enjoyed my games of 3.5 over the last several years, but the clunk and the junk is obvious to me know with the system. It's great to see that a lot of different people are offering up new approaches that smooth out the rough parts and give and even better game for us.

Explore and Enjoy!
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