Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition

Yeah, I've been a bit lax on posting, my apologies to any reader or readers I might have. The basic thing is that I want to talk a bit about the coming 5th edition of Dungeons and Dragons. This isn't a matter of cheering that 4th edition is gone or getting angry that we have yet another edition or that we don't or do need one. What I want to do is a bit more nuanced, ask a question that I think needs to be asked whenever an edition change is occurring, the question is this "What did we learn?" This is a bigger question than a lot of people might think, it's the question of what successes and failures came from not just the previous edition but all those that came before. It's more than how well things sold, it's also what seemed more popular and why, as well as maybe what things turned out to be better ideas than anticipated or worse than assumed.

I'm not a developer at Wizards of the Coast or any gaming company but I could offer a few ideas that at I and people I've talked to discovered in 4th edition and others, and maybe could help in the creation of the new 5th edition. One thing my group learned is that in design you need to make sure that threats scale properly. In 4th edition a tribe of goblins was a greater threat than a dragon of the same encounter level, that's a bit worrisome. The reason was this, the goblins had an ability where if they flanked they did extra damage, and you could get a lot of minions plus some bigger ones and the players could get carved up. A dragon, a single monster, might do a bit more damage than the flanking goblins, but it was only one thing, and it could be focus fired. The dragon was actually less threatening than a goblin tribe and that kind of kills the majesty of the dragon and also makes the scale feel off, since in fantasy dragons are generally big threats, legendary beasts.

The second thing I'd reccomend is that they do keep the HP buffer at low levels. It was actually a big improvement when you won't get knocked over by an errant wind. The HP amounts should probably be lower at high levels, or monsters need to be able to take bigger bites, but in general the larger HP at base was a nice addition, if only because it provided a way for players to survive a mistake and learn from it rather than having to go through a bunch of characters starting off. This was one of the areas that 4th edition got right in my view, and a lot of people I've talked to have agreed that the higher survival rating starting off helps remarkably.

I think the biggest thing though is that the new edition needs to have enough innovation to be willing to experiment during the games run. 3rd edition put out some great material, and in my view a lot of their best stuff was the more experimental. While incarnum was a bit of a failure it was still fascinating, as I mentioned in an earlier post I called it a beautiful failure. Tome of magic as well as the book of nine swords were probably my favorite releases, along with stuff like the warlock which was a full class of spell like abilities. These were things that tried out new mechanical options, variant casting systems and new power options for martial characters. Options that, surprisingly, meshed well with the existing system and were fairly balanced. 4th on the other hand...while there were new power sources by the time my group quit (PH3) things were getting repetitive, and I chanced to pick up one of the last releases and it did not fill me with hope for the game. It looked like the designers had essentially hit a wall, running out of mechanical options due to the constraints of the system itself and were afraid to try engineering outside of it.

Anyone out there that's reading, what do you think is important for 5th edition, and is there anything you think would be cool to add in? Feel free to share.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Tabletop Gaming and the Internet

I recently read an article on the Escapist talking about the future of dungeons and dragons and it stirred up a few interesting ideas. One of the biggest ones actually had to do with the affect of the internet on tabletop gaming. I had thought about it before, and the more I look at it the more I have begun to wonder if the internet may actually lead to the effective end of tabletop RPGs as we know them. While that might sound somewhat alarmist I actually do have some arguments to back it up. I should also point out that an end as we know it may not mean an end to tabletop gaming in total, just more that the mediums could radically change or that the kinds of available games will alter. One of the biggest reasons is simply communication, the internet allows for groups all over the world to share stories, information on games, etc. It also means that system breaks are far more widely known, I imagine that more 3.5 players know about pun-pun than second edition players know the whole dart trick, even if the dart trick has been around longer because pun-pun was on a message board used by millions of people who in turn could tell friends about it whereas second edition D&D was on the market before the internet was widely available to everyone. In other words, system fractures are more widely known now and it's easier to find ways to build powerful characters, even sit down and work out objectively how powerful you can get. Now sometimes this is good, it can mean that a problem existing in the game is shared by many people so you can look at houserules that were used to deal with it or something similar. However it also means that a game designer when trying to make a balanced product is literally battling the collective creativity and mechanical savvy of the whole internet. It means that a game can end up producing some true monstrosities not necessarily because the designers were sloppy but simply because if enough books are produced and enough people have the patience and diligence they can produce a true monstrosity.

Another problem can be dogpile effects from this, never mention Palladium RPGs, especially RIFTS on an RPG.net thread or you are likely to get flamed into oblivion, now I am a fan of Rifts, it has a kind of earnest madness to it that I find amusing but I can understand why some people might not like it. The dogpile problem is that you can have people who only ever hear negative press about a game, a class, a book, whatever and thus decide to avoid it because of what seems like an overwhelming opposition to it. Some forums simply turn into echo chambers where a few loud voices seem to dominate everything, even if they are a minority. And if a company happens to maintain one or more of the forums they might make changes to the game based off of the vocal minority that point out these flaws or make these complaints. There are some that might argue that certain changes in errata or editions were the result of a particularly vocal group on a forum or online group. There's also the problem where people that might be more familiar with certain large forum groups, like RPG.net or ENworld might go with the communities views on a product rather than doing a test run of it themselves, and given how expensive the game books can be that's an understandable, if unfortunate side effect of the new system. There can also be advantages here too though, I will admit that plenty of times I learned about games from these forums or I would discover interesting options because of them. I will also admit that I could have been considered part of one of the dogpiles ont he wold WotC forums during 3.5.

This leads to another change the internet brought, the effective end, or at least dramatic limitation of the local gaming shop. A big part of this is from sites like Amazon.com and DrivethroughRPG, as well as companies like Pinnacle Entertainment selling PDFs of their work on their website. Now in a lot of ways this is good, the books and PDFs are much cheaper and the selection is technically wider, it can definitely help the hobby. The problem in my view is actually more where a lot of local game shops can't compete, and I won't blame those that shop on Amazon or anything like that, the games are damn expensive and you're supporting the company that makes a game you like. The problem though is that it means that a lot of gaming shops end up doing poorer business, the gaming shop was a place for people to meet as well as being able to try out or watch games, a few shops will still do organized games of different products to help showcase them but those are fairly rare. What this tends to mean is that rather than trying out different types of games people can end up rather tribal, only playing D&D or only playing Whitewolf or only playing Palladium or whatever. It also means that more obscure games are unlikely to ever fully break into the market in a meaningful way. It can mean that we might not ever see innovative new titles or systems simply because they're either too far outside what we currently have or because they can't get the exposure to people unless they are actively looking for such a product. I will also admit that online torrenting of RPGs and the like is a problem here as well, though some might argue that that actually expands the market since it can expose people to radically different and interesting games.

The last big issue, in my mind at least, is the competition factor. It isn't a matter of tabletop games versus each other, it's a matter of them having a much wider degree of media to compete with, video games, cell phone games, the internet itself, etc. they are battling much harder for the attention of their target audience, which in turn means that changes made to appeal to the audience they seek may well alienate the audience that they already have. The other problem has to do with stuff like Skyrim, various MMOs, etc in that such games essentially allow the RPG storyline experience without having to find a gaming group. Now a lot of you out there would argue that a good tabletop game is superior to any MMO or video game and I would agree, but I also remember that I literally found my current gaming groups more or less by chance. People that might be interested in D&D, Hackmaster, Gamma World, Vampire or even Rifts or Deadlands might never find a group or someone to introduce them to the hobby, instead gravitating to the more mainstream MMOs and popular games like Skyrim, Fallout, etc. Aside from that, if a gaming group is far away or there is 'drama' at the table and other things, some people would rather just play a game alone. The other thing is that in a lot of these games the player is made to feel like a badass, they're strong, fast, the chosen one, the big damn hero, that can be very appealing and make a person maybe decide that they'd rather do that than be something that they feel is less 'special' in a tabletop game. Now I will also say though that the video games can help, Skyrims success as well as the success of games like WoW show that sword and sorcery style fantasy is very popular and maybe with good marketing tabletop games could get more people.

What I have said is, again, just my opinion, but any thoughts, comments or ideas might be worth studying, I leave it to my readers.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Superhero Games

Hey, I'm back and am slowly getting over my problem of bloggers block, hoping I can produce something new and interesting. One thing that I was thinking about recently was different kinds of games, IE the types of role playing games that exist and what the most and least common stuff is. One big thing is that fantasy is huge, and I can see a few reasons why. Obvious ones are that it's relatively easy to work from since almost anything can be used for it and you can modify various epics from different cultures to produce a fairly interesting story. Couple that with the fact that the first RPG (Chainmail, later D&D) was fantasy based and it's also what's had the most time to 'mature'. Also popular is the post apocalyptic game which again has some good source material and also has some fairly venerable roots. The horror game can be a bit hit or miss but has a nice pedigree, and to be blunt I almost classify Whitewolf as its own genre. One genre that's been kicking around in my head lately is the superhero RPG (and it might be because I started playing City of Heroes Freedom).

What intrigues me about this genre is that it doesn't really have an iconic game the way that fantasy does with D&D. It isn't for lack of trying either, Palldium has a couple superhero books, Mutants and Masterminds has gone through several editions, I am fairly certain that GURPS has something specifically for superheroes, and if not you could probably cobble something together fairly easily, whitewolf has Aberrant, as well as Scion if you consider that a part of the genre. There are a lot of interesting superhero type games, I've run a few games of Savage Worlds Necessary evil, I played in the tri-stat Authority game, I also played in a game using the rules from the recently released Mutants and Masterminds book that has a strong eye on DC. I've played in several superhero style games and run others and I've observed a few things that tend to happen or be problems of the system, and I'm unsure if it's a a problem of RPGS in general, a problem of the systems they attempt to use, or if it's native to the concept of a superhero RPG. There are a few problems that I've noticed cropping up in the superhero games that I've played, I also want to get into the concept of online superhero games like DC Universe or City of Heroes.

One problem I've observed has to do with game balance between players. Now some of you are going to say that balance is irrelevant in a game of player to player, but I have to disagree. I'll also clarify, balance shouldn't mean that every character is identical, but it should mean that one person shouldn't be able to do everything by themselves easily while the rest of the group just sits there. When I go to a game I am going to play, and if one person is able to not only outperform me but outperform everyone else at the table when given the same resources there is a problem somewhere. The problem can come out in a lot of different ways, but I guess one good comparison might be Superman and Green Arrow. Both are heroes, both have a good sized fanbase, the thing is that Superman can do everything that Green Arrow is capable of easily and more besides where it isn't so true the other way. This isn't about who can beat who up, this is simply that in an RPG environment unless the group is rushing off to deal with multiple threats individually one person shouldn't be able to neutralize a threat that would normally require the combine efforts of the rest of the group. In some superhero games this is more common than others, it can either be that a player found a loophole that allowed them to get nigh infinite power or are able to hit so hard/fast or have a power that can change things enough to where they are able to neutralize any and all enemies. When a player is able to make it so that they themselves cannot be threatened by anything and simultaneously can cause a lot of damage there is an issue, though the degree to which it is a problem could be debated. One example that I'll use is from the recent Mutants and Masterminds game. I won't go into all of it and some of the arguing that came in, but our gadgeteer was able, due to the nature of the system, turn a moon into gas, launch an ancient warship and an enemy base into the sun hopefully never to trouble us again. We needed to end the game and it worked, and the person playing the gadgeteer was very scrupulous about not overshadowing others, only going full tilt at the end. The problem was that his character was able to mimic every single power at a level that exceeded anyone else in the group. There were other issues too with certain powers but I'd probably need to be a bit more in depth with that game to give a full argument on it.

The second issue has to do with player to game and this has to do both with what mechanics can allow for and a side effect of players going in different ways than a comic character might. One example can be found in the old tri-stat game set in the comic continuity of the authority. The problem in this one is that certain powers in the tri stat system can allow for...shall we say interesting combinations. Some are fairly simple, a person who wants to have a really powerful energy blast buys up an attack power, kits it out with a few extra bells and whistles, then grabs the 'augmented attack' power and chains it to their attack power and cranks the damage up to 11. Other tricks are a bit more complicated, one of them is that you could give damaging powers a backblast effect where you would be injured by it, then take powers that when you are injured convert the damage into temporary health levels or even into extra points you could pour into existing powers to further augment them. You can probably guess where that would go in terms of problems. There were also issues with people putting container powers into container powers and the like. Now some of this was probably just an issue of the system, but there can be other problems too. A character that is hypothetically perfectly balanced in a system can also be difficult to challenge, and that's even assuming that you aren't using something like the Palladium or early Marvel Superhero games that involved random rolls for powers wherein a person could be anywhere on the chart from 'Dog man! With the incredible power to...smell things really well and speak with canines!" to "Titan, Demigod with the power to manipulate all forms of energy, fly, teleport, and is impervious to any and all forms of physical harm that don't include element X!" No game can properly account for both characters at the same starting point without either killing dog man messily or Titan stomping everything. To go back to the main issue of what a player might do with a powerset that a comic book character might not, I give you the standard codifier of a weak powerset, Aquaman. Aquaman is actually hypothetically the most powerful superhuman on earth. Go to the logical conclusions of being able to command 2/3 of the worlds biomass and can make them act without thought of self preservation, and this even ignores the fact that he has the kingdom of atlantis at his disposal. From a slightly different angle, I once had a character called the Wraith, his main powers were insubstantial form and superspeed, I believe he also had a special tracking power and an attack that was designed to weaken enemies. The person running it actually refused to allow that character in because with it I could track any criminal anywhere, evade almost any enemy, and in essence be nigh untouchable. The problem that the person running had with the game wasn't that I was devastatingly powerful, but that I would be difficult to plan for, no villain could escape and actually making me harmable required such a degree of preparation that it was impractical for him. There's another area where things can get a bit wonky too and it has to do with the both the genre and the general system. Superhero games are very difficult to build challenging villains for. In point buy games the challenge is making a villain that is a challenge for the group without being fatal, which can be tricky without any kind of challenge level system. There are some other issues too, a group of players can all have wildly different powersets that can either take out an enemy much faster than anticipated or could end up inadvertently neutering one or more players. In a comic book it's one thing to neutralize a few heroes because it either helps move the plot along or explains why some of the A list heroes don't just nuke the enemy or how they got around the various detection and scanning abilities of different heroes. But in a game, it kind of sucks to have to sit out for most of a session because the person running accidentally or on purpose made the enemy du jour immune to your capabilities.

There are other things too but I really need to finish and post this, not to mention that I'm sure at least some other people will offer ideas or comments.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Edition Changes and updates

Hello to anyone that reads my blog. I have had a bit of trouble coming up with ideas but recently I actually managed to come up with something that might be interesting, game edition shifts and updates. They always tend to cause frustration in people as well as hope, hope for improvements and streamlining. Hope that major issues in the current game will be fixed and that the new system will emerge stronger and better organized. In essence the players hope for a more evolved system, and just as often people fear the changes. They fear the system that they've grown comfortable with changing into something foreign. They fear a system that makes players too strong or weak, that radically changes how things were done. Every time that a game changes editions there is a barbeque of sacred cows.

Talk to anyone that has a favorite game or system, when D&D changed from 2nd to 3rd edition, and when 3.5 came out, and again when it became 4th edition there were complaints on each one, some loud, some quiet. Some reasoned, some simple rage, but the complaints filled blogs and forums. The same is true for the new world of darkness and the new versions of the settings that were brought forward, when Deadlands became Savage Worlds the same thing happened. It happens regardless, but the big question should really be what creates the hostility, and for that matter why do some people jump forward to the new system, only to leave it later?

I already mentioned some of what caused my group to jump to 4th edition when it came out. It created a system where all the classes were in fact playing the same game, gameplay was more streamlined, and overall the system was far more balanced. Now this opinion changed over time, as you can see by going through my archives. What I find interesting is that looking back at it 4th edition seemed to fall apart as fast as it produced new things to fix itself, but I digress. The stuff for Deadlands between the original formats and the Savage World settings are also worth studying. Armor and toughness are different so are the concepts of arcane backgrounds and power growth. While I can see some definite advantages in the new system I find myself preferring the old one.

Gamma world is another example, look at each edition, each one had a different attitude and style, some more serious than others. I will say I quite like the latest incarnation that uses the 4th edition model, and uses it much better than the 4th edition game IMO. What is it that brings us to keep an edition or leap to the new one, I have a few guesses.

1) Fear of change or desire for it can motivate the migration or staying with an edition. In some cases people are comfortable with an older system and are more willing to use a few houserules and argue that a new edition will either be unnecessary or will introduce new problems and headaches, aside from having to relearn the mechanics. Similarly, there are people who get frustrated with a system and having to alter it, remake it, and in some cases have entire books devoted to clarifying rules (The Rules Compendium of 3.5 was a great argument for 4th edition let me say). For world of darkness it could have been trying to juggle rules between different 'settings' like Werewolf, Vampire, Mage, etc. It also could have been the fact that their tabletop and larping systems reacted very differently and had a lot of balance complaints.

2) Sacred Cows, once again this is an area that causes people to want to change or want to keep. People will sometimes look at a game and say "This isn't X" people would say that 4th edition wasn't D&D, that the products for the New World Of Darkness weren't 'really' Vampire, Werewolf, Mage, etc. The usual reason for it was that the sacred cows had ben barbecued, vanican spellcasting was gone, class distinctions were annihilated or reshaped. Principles that had guided design for supernatural beings in the world of darkness were suddenly wildly different. Some people hated these things, I will say that Vancian Spellcasting is probably one of the biggest problems for game balance in 3.5 D&D and in the current Pathfinder. I will also say that getting rid of it as they did also probably helped create some of the problems that 4th edition faced. Some people are afraid of losing something that's been part of the system from the get-go, and others see those things as either anachronisms or bad design choices.

3) Cash, a simple one, and more towards keeping to an older edition. If you have a game that runs well the idea of forking over more money for new books that essentially invalidate your old ones can be infuriating. And it can also be annoying that things you would have been happy to pay money for (expansions on a few new power systems, books for greater customization levels, etc.) are no longer being made for your game of choice, at least in the incarnation you have most of the other stuff for.

4) Simplicity, another argument in either direction. A person familiar with an edition will usually know all the necessary rules or at least have houserules and rulings to deal with hiccups. That being said there can be huge rule cludges that are either avoided or rewritten, things that come up after multiple sourcebooks and errata colliding with one another as well as the ubiquitous problem of player inventiveness. New editions tend to be fairly simple to start off, rules are streamlined and USUALLY the books don't have too many glaring errors or problems, but you usually have to relearn the system and rules not to mention the problem of dealing with new errata and rulebooks adding new features and changing things.

Now playing groups and the like are part of it too but those are a bit more subjective and this is more based on personal desires one way or the other. Any other ideas, comments, etc. are welcome. I hope to hear from someone.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Does Balance Matter?

Some of you out there are probably familiar with the game Gamma World, for those of you that are younger or more familiar with the most recent release of it (quite fun btw) it is a very fun and very bizarre game. One thing that I find is that there are a lot of people who enjoy Gamma World in part because it is so crazy and to an extent because it is imbalanced. You can be a super mutant with radiation powers and have a suit of power armor alongside a crazy feral person with a sword, and oddly it doesn't matter too much. The game does somewhat assume frequent deaths, but really you can have people of wildly disparate power levels in the game and it will still be fairly fun.

Now some of it might be that Gamma World runs heavily off of the weird factor, IE a big part of the enjoyment is more the bizarre spectacle than say balanced gameplay. On a note with my own group, I have mentioned before that I'm a big fan of Deadlands, my group currently has a Deadlands game going. When I set up a Savage World jaunt for them briefly I got a few positive responses but a lot of negative ones. Now Savage Worlds is more balanced, and the response may have been more rooted in either a desire for familiarity or something similar but I found it interesting that by and large their reaction was relatively negative towards it. A few of them even commented that the relatively imbalanced nature of the game was part of the fun.

For the record my group does generally care about game balance and if someone has abilities that are dominating combats and the like we usually talk about either nerfing or altering how the abilities work. And I'm sure that's true in most games. Maybe the question should be if balance really matters but also what we mean by balance.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Character deaths

I got into a rather interesting discussion recently which helped me around some bloggers block. One of the things brought up was the idea of a game where it was hard for PCs to die, or as he put it 'Care Bearing'. I thought about it, now in my games character death can vary wildly depending on systems but I will admit that I tend to be a bit more merciful than some, maybe due to player complaints or because of how I feel about games. Some of it is that I have fairly clever players, and some of it is that I try to avoid doing games that are going to eat the players alive consistently. Another person that was somewhat intermittently involved mentioned that he enjoys the look on players faces when their characters die, usually the shock that it happened, and complained that modern games coddle players too much. The person I was talking more directly to also complained about ideas like game balance and the like.

I disagree on a few fronts, but some of it also has to do with how I view the games. For example, in most editions of gamma world I've played you can whip up a new character quite fast and frequent deaths are part and parcel of the experience. The same can be said for games like All Flesh Must be Eaten or even certain games using the Cthulhu mythos. Some old school fantasy games are similar, in these cases death might be annoying but the relative speed in which you can make a new character means that the death won't mean that either the player is sitting out for most of the night or that everyone else has to put things on hold while a new character is made. In such games character deaths aren't a big deal and can even be a source of amusement.

Take games that have more involved character generation however, say for example something from the folks at Palladium, and a character death could set you back hours in terms of time spent generating a new character. There is also the argument about how a character dies, is it different if they die from a single failed saving throw than if they died in a mass battle? If there are resurrection options in the game that might change things too, but how accessible do you make it for players? (IE at low levels do they have to suck it up and just wait until the cleric gets high enough to resurrect before they can die and keep their character?) Then again there is the question of if character deaths mean anything to the players or game itself. If you have a big story planned is it better to just keep the basic group alive so they don't have to keep reading the new guy or gal into the groups mission and enemy list or is it necessary to make sure that you prune their numbers so they don't get too sure of themselves?

Well, any readers out there are welcome to comment, hope to hear from you.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Magnificent Failures: Magic of Incarnum

One thing that I've been thinking on recently is on a lot of game supplements that were what I would call magnificent failures. These are games or supplements that while they never quite managed to catch or really get a big level of focus or were somehow flawed still had a really good concept, idea or system that was lurking under the problems. One of my favorite examples for this was a D&D game for 3rd edition called Magic of Incarnum, it was a supplement that offered a new kind of magic system to the game.

Thematically Incarnum was the calling and binding of souls, you called on the essence of all who lived and all yet to be born, you channeled this energy into objects that symbolized heroes, villains, warriors, thieves, etc. It was a very interesting system conceptually, you could mix and match powers and features to either gain new abilities or augment existing ones. There were also a few options for someone wanting to dabble in it a bit the real problem with the system however is that...well it was very poorly implemented.

Using the powers to their fullest extent meant giving up item slots, doable and there were options for sharing slots and the like but it was still kind of iffy. Also a lot of it involved juggling a second resource called 'essentia' that you got from being an incarnum using class or by taking incarnum feats that granted you essentia in 1 per feat. You had to track how much essentia you invested in the feats, the soulmelds, etc. and you couldn't change it during the day so you had to make sure you knew what you wanted to do and what was supposed to go where. It was clunky and it added a lot of extra book keeping.

The secondary issue was this, the classes themselves that were meant to be the central incarnum users were for lack of a better term questionably designed. The Totemist was probably the best designed of the three but the problem I have with it is that it depends heavily on the natural weapons that some of its soulmelds offer without bothering to explain how they interact and essentially 'locking' certain slots automatically during game progression, it's overall still pretty good but it was a pet peeve. The Soulborn was the second creation, this one was more a problem of there not really being enough of the actual class feature available. What I mean is this, the class itself didn't get much to actually use the soulmelds and abilities this was particularly bothersome because it made it feel like they, a class BUILT for using the new system, were little more than dabblers.

The third class needs a lot of explanation, the Incarnate was sort of the flagship for the Incarnum classes in my view. It had the most essentia, most access to soulmelds and gained them the fastest. It had full armor proficiency and full weapon proficiency, decent saves as well, in fact there was only one problem, it had the base attack bonus of a primary caster, IE the wizards. The first problem here is simply that looking at it was a little confusing, most of the stuff shown, and the description they gave said that this was a combatant that harnessed Incarnum to augment themselves and their allies, but the wizard BaB said that they were going to have trouble hitting and that their main focus would apparently be elsewhere.

I think that there were two reasons that this happened, and it probably also explains why the Soulborn actually got so few Incarnum soulmelds. The first is that because of how a lot of the soulmelds worked you could actually get a really good bonus to hit, probably edging out the fighter or at least getting close even on the poor base attack bonus. The second one is more that the soulmelds were really versatile, it wasn't just combat bonuses. They offered bonuses for just about every skill, if your group woke up locked in jail cells stripped of gear you could simply summon up the hands of the thief, the rogues vest and a few others and suddenly the jail cells might as well be made of paper.

I think the fear was that due to potential versatility they were afraid of the Incarnate becoming too powerful, the same with the Soulborn. This is one of the areas where the designers might have botched things a bit, it's kind of where theory and practice veer in different directions. The amount of versatility was hypothetically a major power for the Incarnate, but due to elements of design much of the vaunted versatility would sit unused. The reason was simply this, with everything but the base attack bonus proclaiming that it was meant to fight in melee or at least in ranged, most points and abilities were likely to veer in that direction, the other abilities were likely to sit unused unless say the person playing the rogue couldn't make it to that session or something similar.

It's not that the versatility idea was bad, just that given the nature of the class that had it it was unlikely to really be very often used. I view it in ways similar to high level wizard or sorcerer spells that were designed to turn them into melee powerhouses. While the spells themselves may have been impressive they weren't really all that likely to be used, or if they were something had likely gone wrong somewhere or things had changed rather radically.

What made Incarnum such a magnificent failure in my view is that while there were a lot of things that went wrong with Incarnum there was actually a lot of really great stuff here. The concept of essentially harnessing the raw spiritual energy of all the universes souls, shaped my archetypes of heroism or villainy, is a pretty neat idea. The sheer number of options that you could mix and match from was pretty cool too. The other thing is simply that the idea was unique, it was very different and very dynamic, I applaud innovation in game design and while this experiment might have been problematic it was still quite an interesting one.