Thursday, 1 May 2014

Dragon Pharaoh of Phratil: What System?

All hail Pharaoh Tineen Cleopatra, Daughter of Isis, The Serpent of The Aymans, She Who Is Opalescent Of Appearance, Dragon Pharaoh of Phratil.
Our Star Trek game restarted last night, and enjoyable session was had - one in which we used a recurring Star Trek enemy, the Borg, albeit in a very different way than previous.  This was intentional - the Borg were carefully rationed in Next Gen and made a big splash when they appeared in First Contact but in Star Trek: Voyager they seemed over-used and suffered somewhat from Villain Decay.

However, as alluded to a fortnight ago, I have been thinking about doing another short campaign in the near future.  The 12th of August will mark a decade of my RPG group existing and while the players have cycled over the years, there's still players playing today who have been playing since our group began - two turn up every week, and another two are currently unavailable but turn up when they can.  More than half of the existence of this group was spent playing a single D&D campaign, so for our 10th anniversary it seems only appropriate to return to Phratil.

On the question of the new Dragon Pharaoh of Phratil setting, I have pretty strong ideas of what I want to do - I've been pondering this for years and have a clear idea of something different than just "we start playing D&D again, like the old days" and I'm sure I'll be boring you all with more details.  But I find myself torn on the subject of mechanics - whether to run it with D&D 4th Edition or whether to go Mutants & Masterminds 3rd Edition instead.

The early days of Phratil: me back in 2005, mid-way through running a session of Phratil back in our previous flat.
When I originally ran Phratil, between 2004 and 2010, we did so under the Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition ruleset.  We started in D&D 3.0 but over time moved across to the 3.5 revision, which was a mostly minor change - the main effect at the table I remember was the durations and casting times of some common spells had changed.  I mooted converting system near the end to 4th Edition as a possible solution to some problems I was having GMing D&D 3.X at high levels but the players had not appetite for it - they enjoyed playing 4th Edition when we played it, but they didn't want to convert the game to a notably different ruleset which would have seen notable changes in character capabilities.

Have you cast Bulls Strength from the 3rd Ed Players Handbook or the 3.5 Players Handbook?  One is 1 hour/caster level duration, one is 1 minite/caster level duration.
For Dragon Pharaoh of Phratil, I was pretty clear that I'd want to start with D&D 4th Ed.  My intention was to do a sequel, not in the "two years later" sense - that would defeat the ending of Phratil the first time round, which had a "twenty years later" flashforward finale showing what became of the lead characters.  No, my intention was instead to set the next game centuries in the future, as God Emperor of Dune is to Dune, and incorporate some of the D&D 4th Ed changes (like new races & classes) into the new premise.  If there's a complaint about 4th Ed it's that the new races like Dragonborn don't sit easilly into generic fantasy settings like Elves or Dwarves to - I wanted to fix that.

Not just a random race: The Sa'ka are the elite army of the Dragon Pharaoh.  As part of their initiation they are are invested with part of her magical essence and transformed into what are nicknamed "Dragonborn".
D&D 4th Edition has very distinct mechanics - it tends to be very Marmite-y for people.  The system is very clearly geared towards tactical combat and the fights are definitely way more interesting than most RPG fights I've been involved in - player tactical choices, teamwork is emphasised as an asset, characters have finite resources without being unable to ever contribute and reasonably large groups of mooks can be thrown at your players without grinding down to a halt.   It also scales much smoother than 3rd Ed D&D, with a lot more restricted access to the "plot-killing" powers like Scry, Teleport, Raise Dead etc and a far easier system for generating high-level encounters

However, 4E definitely has its drawbacks.  The combat focus means some other areas of the rules can be a bit neglected; the focus on tactical combat all but necessitates using a battle map & counters/miniatures, which is an extra space and time sink in play; a class/level system is much firmer of power levels, which limits how much I can do in a short campaign; the 4E books are quite dry reads, being good at the table but something of a chore to read in-between sessions.

So, what's my alternative system for running in the 956th year of the rule of the Dragon Pharaoh?

A supplement for second ed Mutants & Masterminds specifically on doing fantasy adventures in the style of Conan or Red Sonja comics.
The alternative i'm mooting is Mutants & Masterminds.  It's a system we're using for our superhero game so both I and the players know it fairly well; generating up PCs and NPCs is pretty squarely within our capabilities.  It's much looser with a point-based character gen system ideal for making weird characters; a flexible power system where players can easilly, on the fly, cast impromptu new spells rather than have to stat out all fifty seven dweomers in their wizard's grimiore and run combats without any props required.  It's still D20 based so players without M&M knowledge would still pick it up quite quickly; but without the level caps, it's much more practical in a short space of time to behead demigods in one fight, to being afraid of a fire in the next because power level is much more loosely defined.

Of course, going M&M means the combat becomes much more narrative than tactical and some people love the chance to bust out a box of figures and flex their tactical muscles.  Converting stuff like Eladrin or Psionid Dragons out of D&D into Mutants and Masterminds isn't hard, per se, but you could argue it's needless when those things already exist in a functional game system.  There's also a feeling that if I'm going to go back to my old D&D setting for anniversary, moving to a different edition of D&D is one thing but shifting systems completely seems a bit pointless.

The Eladrin of God Emperor of Phratil dwell on a forested planet, the nearest inhabited orb to Phratil.  Vessels akin to sailing ships but powered by magical energy ply the space between worlds, with specially trained wizards called Astramancers controlling their passage. 
I do own other fantasy systems or systems which could be adapted to fantasy, but none especially grab me.  Other editions of D&D don't seem a good fit; I have no real appetite to return to D&D 3.X, which I am well and truly scunnered on.  (Scunnered is a fine Scottish word, and those of you who are not Scottish are welcome to borrow it)  I still own a lot of 3.X material - and there's lots of classes, races etc I never got around to using - but my abiding memory of the end of Phratil is the rules being a millstone around my neck and I'm not interested in going back if I can avoid it.

Unto the readers of my blog, then, I ask for opinions and advice, whether they are likely Phratil players or just fellow travellers on the road of nerdity.  What system am I best using for this idea?

A picture from September 2010; the night before my final session of Phratil, I sit behind a specially made 3D GM screen and make some final preparations.


  1. Setting the campaign a millennium in Phratil's future is clever because it means that you can change systems if you like without drastically affecting the memory of 'Phratil proper' (I mean that I'll be able to compartmentalise better in my head and not try and tie things up too much to the Phratil that I remember).

    You're the GM, and you're going to be doing the hard work for this, so choose a system that you're comfortable with. For what it's worth, If 3.x is definitely out, I'd prefer D&D 4th ed, to retain some links with the past, but on the other hand, M&M is based on 3.x anyway so should be close enough (and is familiar to most of your players).

    On the campaign itself, what's your plan for this? Being 1000+ years from Old Phratil, I assume there'll be few/no recurring characters from that period. Are we starting off as mid-level characters here, or high end? Is our goal to overthrow the dragon-pharaoh, or or something more prosaic?

  2. I mean that I'll be able to compartmentalise better in my head and not try and tie things up too much to the Phratil that I remember)

    Yeah, I can imagine it's easier to accept that Brand New Druid PC Centuries In The Future can't cast Meteor Storm rather than the extra mental gymnastics required in accepting why My Old Druid PC can't cast Meteor Storm. If nothing else you can tell yourself that the specific knowledge of any given spell or item has been lost in the mists of time.

    As you say, M&M is a system we have some baseline familiarity with so choosing it minimises the brush-up work. However, part of me does like the thought of seeing a "real" D&D 4E campaign rather than the one we ran before which was just a few pre-made adventures stitched together.

    Being 1000+ years from Old Phratil, I assume there'll be few/no recurring characters from that period.

    Correct. Some elements may live on in legend, others will have been forgotten about over the many years. An old PC worshipped as a god, an institution still extant in some form, a magical item passed down from generation to generation..... but not in such a way that you are asking, "Why aren't all these high level NPCs doing our work for us?"

    Are we starting off as mid-level characters here, or high end?

    That's a big 'un, which is very much system dependant. Part of what's drawing me away from 4E is the hard limit levels apply to combat and the fact if I start you at, say, level 8 then there's no way you can fight certain archetypal D&D monsters without playing for at least half a year. M&M would be flexible in the way that a character like Batman can fight gangsters one week, Darkseid the next - albeit without the same visceral thrill of levelling up and gaining a new discrete package of toys.

    Is our goal to overthrow the dragon-pharaoh, or or something more prosaic?

    Oooooh, now there's a question. A slightly treasonous one, too.....