That's why I tend to think that a cap of two, or at most, three different systems would be good. That would be enough to give a variety of flavors, including vancian, while not bogging the system down too horribly much.
Having each class be completely different would be a bit much to fit into a rules books, as cool as it would be to see. What could work would be two, or at most three, systems that allow for some diversity while keeping things manageable, and vancian casting could be very well be one of those systems. It's only vancian casting as the only magic system that I don't want to see.
If I want to delay the main story line progress, then I prefer to have reasons, plan it out, and include it as a pre-planned diversion from the main story line and, if I don't want the players to think it's just a time sink, I'll include main story elements in this little side trek.
This depends on the nature of the campaign as it does on the DM. I, personally, am more likely to run open ended campaigns where the players shape large elements of the campaign. The plot hooks are set up out in the world, aside from a few basic ones to keep the party moving, and as the party encounters them, they are eventually led to deeper and deeper plot hooks, but how they eventually reach the end BBEG, and what the final encounter looks like, is entirely up to their actions, not a prescribed script. In this scenario, it's less about if they are going to have random scenarios, and more about which ones end up being the triggers that draw them deeper into the story. Even tighter stories, like APs, usually need some flexibility in how the characters progress through the story, and this is where making sure you have a list of acceptable potential encounters ready becomes very important as a DM. Very few campaigns that require the level of focus that you describe get off the ground in my experience because the players will usually go off the rails sooner rather than later anyway; they can work, but you have to have the player's cooperation to make it happen.
I think one of the biggest hangups I'm seeing in this thread is whether it's random to the DM or simply feels random to the player. I've found that DMs with semi-customized lists, charts, or even simply a pile of potential encounters are able to pull off "random" encounters quite well because the core of the encounter is at least somewhat developed already, even if the details of it's presentation are made up at the time of presentation; to the players, it's still effectively random because of those on the fly details. On the other hand, encounters that are entirely random even to the DM tend to not go so well for most DMs, and can turn off both the DM and the players to them very quickly. As with everything that goes with running the game, just that little bit of prep on the DM side of the screen before the game to come up with potential scenarios and outlines makes a big difference when it comes to game time and presenting what to players come off as completely random encounters.
The other big hangup seems to be the expectation that a random encounter must be combat; encountering higher CR creatures (or lower CR levels, for that matter) isn't nearly as big a problem if you get rid of this expectation. Maybe that red dragon just fed so he isn't particularly hungry and he's off to take a nap, knowing full well that the party of adventurers below him is of no threat to him. Maybe the goblin raiding party the party stumbled upon simply scattered rather than put up a fight. Either way, it doesn't take much game time to describe, and gives the players the opportunity to choose what, if any, reaction their characters are going to have to it, both immediately and in the future. The key to all CRs in these kinds of encounters is presenting creatures in their natural state and going about their normal business, which is not the same as every creature and NPC the party meets wanting to immediately kill them.
I've played a few of the older versions of D&D, and the main advantage that Vancian has over it's alternate counter parts at this point is polish and refinement. The concept behind words of power, or power points, or the various alternate systems are good, but no one has taken the time to refine them to a truly usable state similar to where the Vancian system is. That is why I don't want to take Vancian away, but I also don't want every caster tied to it either; it works well enough for the prepared casters, but for spontaneous and partial casters, it has numerous shortcomings. I would love to see something like Words of Power developed to the point that it could be used as a good system for spontaneous casters as a counter point to the vancian system, and thus allow both kinds of casters to shine in their own way without being restricted by limitations imposed by everyone using the exact same system that cannot possibly accommodate both of them very well.
Cardboard Hero wrote:
I dont see a D&D movie as ever being succesful. Movies tend to depend on a single protagonist. When you have between 2 to 2 1/2 hour to develop a character, less is more. D&D typically tells the story of a group of 4-5 working together and all being +/- equal, characters that are involved in a long story arc. When you have too many main character the story suffers, you either end up focusing too much on the cast and not enough on the storyline or you end up with characters with no substance. Few movies manage to pull this off, Princess bride comes to mind but little else.
It does take a special kind of director to pull ensembles off; they require a different kind of approach than a movie that has one or two clearly main characters, and few in the movie industry are willing and/or able to successfully handle the unique challenges ensemble casts provide. Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter movies did better than most, and still ended up having a lot of the secondary characters barely get any mention at all. The only recent director that has done it really well is Joss Whedon; Avengers managed to somehow highlight not just the main heroes, but all of the supporting cast to some degree or other as well, a rare feat. If you could get him, or possibly even Peter Jackson to try their hand at a D&D movie, it would have a decent chance, but anyone else is going to be severely handicapped from the get go, no matter how good the writing and cast selection may be. Even then, you would need a trilogy to really have a decent shot at the kind of character development that unknown characters would require.
Truly random encounters rarely work all that well, but having either a chart or a list of potential side encounters appropriate to the overall situation is very helpful in fleshing out the world, especially when the players and/or DM feel like random exploration and/or the plot needs in game time to brew before advancing it farther. Done well, they add a lot to the campaign and world, even if you never touch the material from that encounter again directly. One thing I've noticed that helps these a lot is not assuming that encounter = combat, something a lot of the older charts were strongly guilty of. Some of the more interesting encounters are environmental challenges or random NPCs that are simply going about their daily business.
Vancian spell casting works very well for prepared spell casters, but it doesn't work as well for spontaneous casters. What I would like to see is defaulting to vancian for prepared, and a refined version of the words of power, or something similar, for spontaneous casters. That preserves what works from the past while giving spontaneous casters their own spotlight for a change.
Steve Geddes wrote:
It's done fine in it's own niche, and could continue to do so just fine if allowed to do so, but my whole point is that some people think that they could shelve the rpg and the brand could sustain itself with other products. That part is what I question; despite limited success early on with computer games, they have yet to parlay any success in the one niche into sustained success outside of that niche.
It comes down to who is going to generate actual content. The goal with 4E was that WotC would provide the framework and sell licenses for the actual content, saving them the expense and challenges of the actual generation while securing themselves a stable income. That's a great theory, but they hit several stumbling blocks, mostly in overrating the potential market for a niche IP license. Perhaps with Next, they can revive interest, and I hope for the brand's sake they do, as I don't see them returning to be effective content generators themselves, at least for this brand. Salvatore will continue to write novels for his own sake, but not for the brand's sake, and when he says he's done, the brand will lose it's most effective, and one of it's last, outside spokesman they still have. At that point, what is supposed to keep the brand going? Some stale computer games that struggle to compete against their competitors and the eternal hopes that the next movie attempt will finally be the "the one" that establishes the brand's credibility once and for all?
It matters not because of what Hasbro will or wont do, but what WotC will or won't do because of Hasbro's indifference. Simply put, Hasbro has no interest in the brand, and WotC's primary interest in the brand is tied directly to the rule set and their ability to sell it and the associated IP for a hefty licensing fee. They aren't selling it based on the novels line, which is largely not associated with the brand to begin with, and they aren't selling it off of purely hypothetical movie sales. They were barely able to sell it even when they actively supported 4E. Without the ability to sell long term licensing deals, a very real possibility if Next doesn't perform as expected, and even, to be honest, if it does, what they are making right now is moot; they won't be able to sustain any kind of numbers in the increasingly crowded market without active and significant support, and since they aren't likely to be rewarded for sustaining it from Hasbro, WotC will very likely choose to let it collect dust and focus on making even more money from Magic; they have already shown that they aren't all that interested in creating content on their own.
The problem with making lots of money with no effort is that someone else will come in, put in the effort, and suddenly, you're not making money anymore. Paizo did precisely that in the brand's primary market, and it's happened in most of the secondary markets already as well. When you're doing well, you're doing well, but as soon as things start to slip, you have no brakes to slow down the decline, and even less ability to reverse it. Novels are a holdout, but are entirely too reliant on a handful of aging authors and increasingly stale characters; Salvatore can't keep writing books forever and eventually even Drizzt will be found to be too stale to generate much interest.
Hasbro may not have direct control over the brand, but their saying "if a certain brand doesn't make x dollars, we refuse to support it with any kind of marketing" is a major problem when it comes to DnD. Granted, that's in large part because WotC themselves set themselves up for it to be a problem, but the general idea that the brand must meet a certain threshold is problematic when even the brand as it stands right now can't meet that threshold. Take away the role playing game (a very real possibility if Next does not perform as well as WotC hopes), and suddenly the rest is that much harder to justify, especially with a point that someone made in the movies thread. A lot of people don't associate Forgotten Realms with Dungeons and Dragons; this makes it much harder to use the novels to carry the brand.
The biggest challenge that the brand has a whole is that it really hasn't created any kind of content that is both successful and fresh outside of the rpg game itself for some time. The novels are doing well, but at this point are dangerously close to being rehashes of already existing characters, if they aren't already, and they belong more to the authors themselves than they do to the overall brand. Take out Salvatore and Drizzt, and they aren't all that robust, making them a poor contender to support the brand long term. On the movies side, Hasbro is very good at supporting movies made by others; I have serious doubts as to their ability to make one on their own. They could, in theory, partner up with one of the major movie studios to get it done, but I don't see most movie studios caring about the DnD IP; they can do at least 90% of the same stuff already with original or other existing IPs. Relying on movies to carry the brand even remotely simply is asking too much of what is not that strong of an IP in that arena. Computer games, despite all the past success, are little better in recent years. Neverwinter may be tolerably well received, but it's not going to be a breakout hit, and the market is crowded enough it will likely stop getting attention from the wider market as new things come out. 3.5 had multiple games based off it, as did 2nd edition; the fact that it took 4E almost to the end of it's life cycle before we even heard talk of a computer game using it's system is suggestive that the computer game market for this particular IP may not be as strong as it may have once been, and could bring as many difficulties to the table as benefits.
I just don't see the reasons for everyone's optimism of the broader market; even the stuff that seems to be doing well enough is largely on auto pilot and/or entirely out of the hands of the brand managers at WotC. There simply isn't anything there to take the pressure off of Next, either existing or in the immediate pipeline, and the eventual pipeline is little better, containing only vague hopes of a successful movie. I wish WotC the best with Next, but the rose colored glasses got thrown away a long time ago. If Next fails to meet their expectations, it may be best to simply shelf the brand until both companies develop more realistic expectations of it.
Mark Sweetman wrote:
And how is that different from the majority of comedy based sitcoms? I'm not saying your points are invalid, simply that they could be applied rather broadly to most 30 minutes sitcoms to some degree or another, and to comedic sitcoms in particular to a very high degree. Singling out BBT seems to be more because of your personal affiliation with the subject matter than because of any unique characteristics that BBT has and other sitcoms in the same genre don't. BBT may highlight the characteristics a bit more, but it isn't really all that unique.
The problem with D&D (or rather the P&P game by itself; the novels and computer games are still doing okay) is that it definitely falls into that latter category right now, and the combination of 5E and the Hasbro/Universal movie are their shots at making the franchise work again. If 5E fails to be massive from the off and if the Hasbro/Universal movie bombs or is delayed for years by legal action, I can't see Hasbro approving any further development of the P&P roleplaying game. I can see them putting it on ice for years, keep the novels and computer games ticking over to keep brand awareness around (although at a low level) and then try something a few years down the line.
I hope you're right, because for all the encouraging signs I'm seeing from Next, there's still plenty of room to fail, and I've become less than encouraged by Hasbro's input into the brand as a whole.
Mark Sweetman wrote:
I've seen a lot of people gripe about their personal tastes not being met, and in that subjective measure, their gripes are legitimate. However, as an objective complaint that the show is somehow more offensive than other sitcoms, I haven't seen anything that would convince me. It does tend to be more polarizing than many sitcoms, but beyond that, it all basically boils down to personal preference.
And awards aren't the only benchmark most people are using. On the whole, against the most common comparisons made in this thread, BBT wins all of them save for personal taste. No one has managed to show anything substantially offensive about the material as a whole or how BBT is substantially worse than sitcoms in general. To be honest, I am quite amazed that this thread is still going; I can understand not liking the show, but the amount of people here who seem to be taking the show personally is surprising.
It's not a perfect measure, but it's the most objective measure you're going to get. Using the oscars is a bad example because most people figured out a long time ago that the oscar voters have a distinctly different view of "quality" than the box office. TV ratings, being renewed for more seasons, and winning a variety of awards from a variety of people, on the other hand, tend to be very common and accepted measures of "quality" for TV shows. I would like to note that I don't bother watch TV anymore for that reason, but that doesn't change the fact that having a discussion on the "quality" of a particular show, and ignoring the common accepted benchmarks is a good way to make yourself look like a fool. You don't have to agree with the benchmarks, but you can't just ignore them either.
Because exploiting the brand through other means has worked so well for them lately. If you're banking on those other means to sustain the brand, you and Hasbro on going to be in for a shock. No one outside the RPG market or the novels gives a dang about the DnD brand on a functional level. All the recent computer games have been relative duds, the movies are a joke, and the novels by themselves still won't generate enough profit to get the attention of the higher suits; WotC might notice them, but Hasbro won't. They won't likely abandon them, but they won't likely support them in any meaningful way either.
I tried to resist but Drizzt and interesting in the same sentence just don't work together. He's not a horrible character in the original stories about him, but he needs to be put to rest. He has no depth as a character and is entirely reliant on the supporting cast to make the stories even halfway interesting. He would be fine as a support character, but as a main character, he fails completely as far as I am concerned. Obviously the market disagrees, but to make a movie out of his story wouldn't help them from avoiding that loose pile of fantasy cliches.
Mark Sweetman wrote:
So within our frame of reference, the artistic 'quality' of the show would have be be mixed to poor.
That is probably true, but misses one key point; these forums are not the target market so our determination of what counts as "quality" is already secondary. Amongst it's target audience, it clearly ranks as mixed to very good, otherwise it wouldn't still be producing new seasons and winning numerous awards.
Could is the operative word there as frankly I'm rather unimpressed by the marketing department at both WotC and Hasbro. WotC effectively has none save the ragtag effort they threw together to sell 4E; Magic is, and 3.5 was, heavily reliant on local and 3rd party efforts to get the exposure that it does. Hasbro is better, but still tends to be heavily reliant on having a product that is already largely premarketed; even their board games rely on past history and an established name to carry them through. Neither are very good at generating marketing and interest on their own for new products, meaning that even if they somehow by accident stumble upon the world's best script, they probably wouldn't know what to do with it.
As much as I would love to see a successful D&D movie, I don't see it happening. Even if the movies in development are successful beyond what past movies have been, I don't see them being successful to the point of being able to support a toy line. I see them having the same problem that the core game has, and that is unrealistic expectations within Hasbro, who neither understands, nor cares about, the functional limitations that the D&D IP has. It may be well known, but it's functional selling power is fairly limited.
Charlie Brooks wrote:
If 5E is successful, the point is moot; things will continue as they are now. If not, the company is going to have to consider how much an effectively independent novel department is worth to them and that is where the questions will start coming. Neither WoTC nor Hasbro are comic publishers, nor do they produce anything else particularly close to novels aside from the actual rpg. Even if it doesn't cost them a massive amount of money to run, the fact that it doesn't really fit in all that well with the rest of the products means that at some point they will have to make a hard decision to either support it actively as a distinct product line of it's own or scrap it, and I don't see either WoTC or Hasbro taking the effort required to support it as it's own product line. They've already effectively cut out 90% of the publishing aspect from the rpg line by removing printed books from the later part of 4E.
In the end, it isn't just the loss of the rule system, but the entirety of what that loss represents to the big picture and how both WoTC and Hasbro see that whole picture. I just don't see either caring about the novels as a stand-alone product, and I don't see the movies being worked on as likely to be successful enough to work in tandem with the novels for the two products to serve as co-headliners for the brand. For better or worse, they have built the brand around the rules system, and while that could be changed, I don't see WotC or Hasbro having the will power to do so, meaning that if 5E fails to meet their expectations, the brand as a whole will likely be left to languish bringing it what little money it can with absolute minimal effort. The novels would be the last thing to die, and it would take a while for them to do so, but die they would unless new management came in that was willing to be proactive to prevent their demise.
It's not even about specific mechanics; it's about consistency in both the world and the way similar scenarios/abilities/etc are presented. If it were just one author who had written all of the novels, I would say that there wasn't anything to be worried about, but with multiple authors, the framework of the system, along with the sustained efforts of the company to support that framework becomes much more important in order to keep things consistent between the different writers. A company like Paizo would simply find another way to provide that framework. WoTC/Hasbro may well be reluctant to put that much effort into a product that really doesn't fit into either of their portfolio's easily; they are both primarily board/card game and toy developers, not book publishers, and that's already painfully obvious in their treatment of the D&D brand throughout their ownership of the IP and the comparative lackluster success of 4E, which has virtually no outside support, when put up against 3.x, which very clearly depended very heavily on 3rd party support to reach the heights it did. Take away the rules system, and suddenly the novels have no clear attachment to anything else in the company's portfolio, leaving WotC the challenge of supporting the novels as a stand alone product. Given their willingness to abandon book publishing for a web based product with the 4E rule books, I don't see the higher ups being overly ecstatic about that prospect.
The difficulty is that even if the readers of the novels don't see them directly, the ruleset is still important to their success as it drives their internal consistency. The authors could simply continue using an old system as a basis, but it would be much harder to sustain the same feel without the backing of an active living system. Not impossible, but much harder to keep all of the different authors on the same page.
If D&D Next doesn't meet Hasbro's expectations, it's possible that they might shelve the actual RPG. But the board games, video games, etc will continue. Even if the video games aren't overly successful, that's falling on the developer/publisher...Hasbro is still making it's money with exceedingly minimal effort on their part.
The novels will likely wither in the intense competition of the fantasy novel market without the active backing of a current system, as will their fledging board games. It's not that these are bad products, but without the unique support that a popular system provides, they don't have much to market to set themselves apart either. The novels would last longer than the board games, but even they would struggle. As for computer games, they might break even, and Hasbro will likely still make some money, but not nearly enough to care about marketing or supporting the games in any active way, and that will limit anything that could be done on that front. As a functional brand, I just don't see how it can survive without the backing of an actively supported rule system, as the whole point of DDI was to make the rules themselves the core product that drove everything. They can try to change strategies with Next, but that's unlikely given their recent history, and even if they did try, the chances of success would still be slim.
But in order to be leveraged effectively, it must have a current flagship product, and without some kind of actively supported rule system, DnD will lack that. For better or worse, WoTC chose to pin their hopes on the rules themselves as the key leverage, and they may find out the hard way the price for doing so. I don't wish to see them fail, but it's hard to see them not do so if Next fails to perform up to their expectations.
Steve Geddes wrote:
One successful movie could cover many years of RPG sales too. (Granted they seem strangely elusive).
If you're pinning your hopes on that sliver of hope, the future of the brand is already nonexistent. The idea of making a movie sounds good, but it has yet to translate well, and will struggle with any future attempts to do so. Too much of the strength of the game is that it's an active form of storytelling vs the passive form of storytelling that movies are.
As much as I hate to say it, if Next fails, I suspect the brand name will simply fade because because there really aren't that many current computer games to carry it (I doubt Neverwinter will fail, but I also doubt it can carry the brand by itself), leaving only the FR novels to really sustain the brand, and I don't think even the novels by themselves would be very effective. Without either a wide array of current products or one runaway product, and given Hasbro's refusal to sell IPs for any reason, the brand will likely simply fade away and gather dust until everyone forgets about it if Next fails, because two big stinkers in a row will pretty much kill any remaining potential in the RPG market.
Steve Geddes wrote:
Possibly. All I know is that I had very few truly unsalvageable 3.5 gaming sessions that weren't clearly player interaction related, while for 4E, it tended to be really good or a complete waste of time. Maybe now that more DMs have gotten used to running it, the experience would be different, but I suspect that wide range of potential experiences did nothing to help 4E. Getting that really positive high seemed just as elusive, and whereas 3.5 had a certain minimum experience one could experience based on using the rules as written as a common ground, 4E had no bottom and no way to create a common ground that would help keep potential difficulties turning the entire experience sour.
4E's a great system for running amongst friends running really long term campaigns, but for random groups or organized play, the basic rules lacked the cohesiveness required to successfully span multiple DMs. That is something that Next is going to have to be aware of, and they are really going to have to hit that very small sweet spot where rules cohesiveness and imagination meet if they want it to be successful. I wish them luck in doing so, but it's a tall order for the best of game developers, and I am not sure that in the RPG field that WoTC really holds that position anymore. Even if they do, it's a crowded enough field that Next is really going to have to have something that literally pops out at the player and DM alike. For all that I've seen some interesting stuff about the play tests, I don't think I've seen anything individually that meets that level of pure wow, and I continue to have my doubts about the system as a whole being able to reach it. It will be interesting to see if the final product can find that balance between 4E and 3.x/PF. Earlier editions seemed to be able to do so with at least some success; WoTC has yet to reach that same level of overall balance during their management of the brand, and that worries me a bit.
Being original is important to some degree, but at the same time, they can't just abandon what worked in the past for the sake of being original and different. To me, a far greater concern is whether or not the system as a whole work as intended. 4E had some really great ideas, but it also had a lot of bad ones, and the overall structure of the system was such that it was blatantly obvious which were the well designed ones and which ones weren't. 3.x/PF on the other hand, for all of it's flaws works more or less as intended; there are a handful of issues that everyone can agree on as being a problem, but most of the perceived problems were spread out over the system as a whole rather than any one component of it.
Because of this, the flaws didn't have as big of an impact overall, since any given group could simply skip over the offending part and enjoy the rest of the experience whereas in 4E, skipping over any of the few official systems made the system even more DM centric to the point that it became way too swingy for my tastes. 3.5 could be run by a mediocre, or even poor, DM, and the experience, while nothing to write home about, could usually still be enjoyable enough for the time spent. 4E's highs were really high, but a mediocre or poor DM could just as easily end up with a really, really bad session that no one really got any enjoyment at all out of. How Next handles this is going to have a major impact on how well received it ultimately is.
Oh, I think the first movie did a great job of giving everyone something to do and moments to shine. I've just seen a lot of grousing elsewhere about "Why are they even there?" re: Natasha and Clint (funnily enough, I seem to recall Clint raising a similar question to Natasha in The Ultimates comics) and I can't imagine adding two more very powerful characters is going to help that.
Whedon has a good solid history of doing ensembles well, so I wouldn't be too worried on that end. I would worry more about adding 2 characters in general, due to limited available screen time to fit everyone in, then the details of the characters being added.
Indeed, each character had a clear, distinct, and useful role, regardless of what that role was and whether or not that character was one of the headlining superheroes. To me, that was the biggest distinction I saw between it and all other superhero movies I've seen previews of, and a major part of why I actually enjoyed the movie when I really wasn't expecting to.
The more I see about this, the more I am convinced I need to see the full product to really judge it. 4E had some great elements, and the previews were largely positive, but in the end, a big failing, to me at least, was that the different pieces didn't really work all that well together as a whole. While the playtest results are interesting to see, I am waiting to see if they learned that making everything work together is just as important as making sure the individual pieces work.
I have to say that I was impressed at how well the first movie used Black Widow and Hawkeye, as well as Captain America. They may not have had the raw powers the others had, but they were with shown a high degree of intelligence and a remarkably versatile, but at the same time completely human, skill set that ensured that they had a place on the team. To me, they also helped a great deal in grounding the movie, keeping the plot from going straight into typical comic bookish, truly outlandish territory. Whatever they do with the sequel, I truly hope they keep that aspect.
I have to say that "dim light" really is a bit subjective. I grew up having a paper route that required me to be out deliving papers a bit before sunrise, and my eyes adjusted to the limited light of the street lamps and other random lights just fine, and still can to this day. Like wise, most of history, people had little more than candles and starlight to provide light in darkness, and some of the initial complaints about electric lighting was how bright it was (complaints which continue to this day amongst astronomers who built telescopes out in the middle of nowehere for a reason only to have them swallowed up by cities and rendered useless with all the background light created by those cities). I would say find a house rule that satisfies everyone and move on. Some rules can never truly have a good official answer that works universally.
You mean the artifact that leads him to an item THAT BLOCKS OUT THE SUN AND WHICH HE INTENDS TO USE TO BRING DARKNESS UPON THE EARTH SO VAMPIRES CAN RULE FOREVER.
Except that not even Harkon knows the full details at first; only his wife in the soul cairn does. At the time you are making the choice, Harkon knows more than anyone else save his wife and he doesn't know more than that there is a potential way to expand his rule, not how, no specifics, just that such a thing exists, and that a single clue, not even the full answer, lies somewhere in the elder scroll.
You keep trying to apply full player knowledge to a decision made when the characters themselves, even the key NPCs, don't know the full details; from their point of view, it makes as much sense as any other possible outcome, and is more of a win than most outcomes. Nobody really wins from it, but nobody really loses, either. Isran buys time to build up a force that he wishes he had, but doesn't; Harkon would have had a chance to learn more if his daughter had cooperated (the fact that he fails to do so, and probably will, is foreshadowed quite strongly from the start, and a separate conversation; the fact is that he is given a chance that he wasn't expecting to have); your character is in a position to choose which side to take, but has litle advance knowledge of how it will play out.
The only other realistic way I could have seen them approach is ala the way they handled the civil war; dump you into the middle of an actual battle between the two sides and force you to work everything out for yourself.
Basically, all I can say is that if that particular introduction bothers you, avoid tv, books, and movies, because for all if it's holes, it's no worse than any other contrivance used to introduce a new plot hook that doesn't automatically make sense. I agree that if they had written it completely differently, they could have avoided those issues, and different complaints arise from those decisions, but they could not have simply slapped a different intro onto the existing story. The story works well enough for most people, and better than most they could have come up with. You can say that they could have made Isran differently or done this or that differently, but they didn't, and given the greater context of what they did do, any other introduction would have made even less sense than this one. You obviously will disagree, but I doubt very many people will. Trying to compare it to Dragonborn where the story starts from a completely different place and deals with completely different material is really unfair to Dawnguard. For what it is and what it set out to be, Dawnguard is better than what I had feared it could have been, despite it's flaws; that is enough for me.
The only point of concern I have that they might have been able to find a better solution to if they had avoided the use of the elder scrolls and prophesy entirely. Some plot devices are better off left vague, shadowy, and in the distance; the elder scrolls and prophesy in general is very much in that category. The use of those things in the main quest line was as far as I would have gone with them, making them tangible to a degree, but still very much beyond the realm of understanding of all but the most powerful and long lived individuals. As discrete objects, the elder scrolls just aren't that powerful or useful; likewise, prophesy sounds cool, but in actual practice and execution, it turns out to be rather mundane. The last thing I have to say is that Harkon wasn't as much of a BBEG as you make him out to be; sure, he's the leader of an ancient clan, but it's not like he's the king of vampires everywhere. Trying to make it out like Isran was giving away a hyper powerful relic that his massively powerful sworn enemy would immediately use to crush him is definitely an overstatement.
I think to fully enjoy this particular story, one's focus needs to be less on any single action, individual, or item, and more on the overall development of the story and those within it.
The premise of Dawnguard worked fine; there are some difficulties with it in places, but overall, it did what it set out to do. It's premise, and for the most part, it's execution, was very well done. I've already detailed why many would have no problem with the way it was presented; you obviously dislike the one point of the story, and will never be persuaded otherwise. Still, there is no way to present the story otherwise that doesn't create just as many problems somewhere else. The vampires are not going to advertise their presence to a non-vampire by asking for help, no matter how powerful that non-vampire is, and like wise for Isran and the vampire hunters. In short, the only way you would logically be there in the first place is if you already have some kind of allegiance to one side or the other, and unless you're already a vampire for other reasons, you ain't going to be hired by the vampires for anything, let alone something like that.
As for the next part, I will try one last time; what do you honestly think Isran would have gained by killing Serena and taking the scroll? He had no use for it, and had no reason to believe that Harkon would be able to make immediate use of it, and by having it in his castle, would give Harkon an excuse for a full out assualt, something the castle would not be able to withstand. You are putting far more value in the mere ownership of the scroll than the actual in game knowledge warrants. Harkon didn't know enough to make use of the situation any more than Isran, and Isran gained valuable intel from the whole thing; I would say that Isran got the better end of the deal by far. Besides which, Harkon never had the scroll, his daughter did, and there is a tremendous difference in there. As for never searching the tower, he probably never knew how to get in; it took intimate knowledge of her mother from Serena that allowed your character to put the puzzle together; someone without knowledge of the garden like that would never have put the puzzle together, and Harkon had no reason to have that information, because his wife certainly wouldn't have shared it, and his daughter, even when she returned, obviously didn't either. Heck, even Serena, who provided the clue, didn't have any idea what the PC would find inside.
The story works; it takes a distinct sense of strategy and looking at things from a very particular point of view, but it works, and it works as well as any other scenario would have. The idea of being recruited by the vampires sounds nice, but would never work with the established lore, and simply stumbling upon it as a neutral would not have had the same effect. In short, they had to start with the Dawnguard; there was simply no other place to start that made any sense at all, and they did quite well given that starting place. It wasn't perfect, but it was still the best option available to them.
I give up. It's obvious that you simply don't like that aspect of the story, and never will. I would dispute not only the fact that a few simple fixes would have dealt with the issues you raise, but also the idea that other games have done it better. Of the three examples you gave, I haven't tried Mass Effect, but neither Dragon Age nor Baldur's Gate allowed the main plot to be altered; you could choose your own path, but the end destination was still predetermined; neither is worse than Dawnguard, but neither is better, either.
I don't think Dawnguard is the best thing ever created, but given the lore they had to work with, I can say with a large degree of comfort that they would have been hard pressed to make any changes to the story and still have as good a product as what they ended up with. The story fits with the existing lore as well as any story could, and, for the most part, accomplishes it's goals.
The only real qualm I have with it is the introduction of the Elder Scrolls as quantifiable, usable items; to me, a lot of the coolness about them in the past was the mystery and lack of any kind of definition to them; I don't think that introducing them as readable items makes them cheap, but it does cast away a lot of the mystique surrounding them, and raises the power bar for the next game to a potentially dangerous level that will be problematic to deal with.
I haven't tried Dragonborn yet, but I see one big advantage it has from the very start. Rather than trying to pull an obscure bit of lore that many people never cared about to begin with, they are simply extending the primary story line, so the buy in is automatically going to be much easier to both write and accept.
These statements seem to be the major disconnect between us. You are right in that we as players, and our characters, and a few notable NPCs would understand the full value of the elder scrolls, but even with that, knowing their value and tapping into that value is not the same thing. They had to add a traveling priest of a group that doesn't exist in Skyrim, or indeed, the vast majority of Tamriel, into the DLC just so you could read it. For all that they have played a big part in the overall metaplot of every TES story, they are still not all that useful on the practical level and it amazed me when they let you get one in the first place in the original game. Even after all is said and done at the end of Dawnguard, there are a grand total of 3 individuals with the capability of reading the elder scrolls in Skyrim; one is a dragon, one is made blind the effort after not properly preparing for it, and one is the already demi-god status dragonborn PC.
And actually, it is Serena, not Isran, that mentions the moth priest; Isran is actually rather dismissive of the whole thing when it is first brought up. And it's the other recruitable NPCs that understand the full value of the elder scroll more than Isran, so no, it's not nearly as dumb as you make it sound to have him ignore that aspect.
As for having the castle, there are a few important points to consider. One, he is in the process of rebuilding it, meaning that many of his people are busy doing that. Two, he has to defend it, meaning that the rest of his people are doing that. He has no meaningful lieutenants to take the fight to the vampires, nor the people available to follow such a lieutenant. He doesn't fully trust you yet, and even if he did, he still doesn't have the army. He's not entirely alone, but in terms of leadership, he is by himself, and his existing band of followers is both small and busy trying to secure their home base. Add in no functional intel on the enemy, and Isran really couldn't do anything even if he wanted to. Keeping the elder scroll would simply open himself up for an attack the castle isn't ready for, but he still wouldn't be able to use it (at that point in the story, the dragonborn can't either, and is not likely to bother Parthamux with it, assuming they even know about Parthumax), and killing a single vampire when you could potentially find out about a whole den of them is equally short sighted.
You are too focused on what you know as a player rather than what any of the in game characters would know. You also assume that the majority of players would care about an offer coming from a vampire, which is not a safe assumption.
1)Yes, he does have some help, but not of the caliber needed to really deal with the threat, and certainly not enough to do so while protecting and rebuilding the castle.
2)You are as much a member of the faction as you are a member of the mage faction right after first entering the college. The scouting mission is as much to prove your trustworthiness as it is anything else, so "being part of the faction" can be overstated, however much the limits of computer programming force the status to be in or out.
3)Neither Isran, nor you, know Harkon to be the BBEG. Nor does Serena for that matter, when it comes down to it. It could even be argued, though with a bit more of a stretch, that Harkon doesn't really know, as he doesn't fully understand the prophecy or how to bring it about. And Elder Scrolls, while powerful, are not as useful as you seem to imply; they are difficult to use, and even harder to understand properly. Overall, I think you overestimate how much the characters actually know about the situation. Only one person fully understands the full scenario, and she's in the soul cairn; not even Harkon really knows that much.
4 & 5)That assumes that Harkon knew his daughter was down there. From the initial encounter with him, I got the impression he was caught by surprise as much as everyone else was, which fits the overall attitude of his parental position quite well. To have him offer the quest requires that a)he knows Serena is there and that she has the elder scroll, b)he can fake caring about his daughter long enough to fool those around him so they don't give away his true position to you, and c)advertising the presence of himself and his clan in an environment that is much, much, much more likely to be pro vampire hunter than pro vampire. And again, you are assuming that Isran could do anything even if you turned her over to him. Killing Serena would be no easy feat and, while he may not like giving the elder scroll away, he equally has little use of it himself. You are also overlooking a big part of Isran's personality, the fact that he has more than a touch of arrogance and enough of an understanding of the long view to back it up; he doesn't have to win every single battle, just the war, and he has the balls to let a battle with an unclear ending play out if it means that he learns more about the war as a whole.
To put the whole conundrum from Isran's perspective, is it really better to immediately kill the one vampire and loose out on the potential scouting info? You have to remember that at this point of the story, he has virtually no notable help, and even less functional intel on his enemy. Turning Serena into him when she already is well aware of what she is walking into and could shred the nascent group apart then and there just on her own just isn't an option he can take advantage of, however much he might want to.
You also seem to assume that the elder scrolls are really that useful to a majority of people when they aren't; it's not that big of an assumption on Isran's part that even if he allows the elder scroll to get out of his hands that it will be at best very difficult for whoever ends up with it to actually utilize it in a meaningful way, and the story bears this out to a large degree. Yes, Harkon knows bits of the prophecy, but it's actually his wife, Serena's mother, who fully understands the implications of it, not him, and I would hesitate considering someone capable of opening up the soul cairn to use as a hiding place as even remotely close to representing normal. Even the moth priest loses his eye sight after not properly preparing himself for the ordeal of reading the scroll.
In the end, I think you're focusing too much on how we as players and our character understand the elder scrolls, forgetting how they would be seen in game by most of the world. For most of the NPCs, the elder scrolls fall into the same category as the dragons, which is to say that they are mostly legend, and even those who know they aren't have a great deal of difficulty fully utilizing them. The story makes sense enough given that fact and the difficult position Isran is starting from. It's not perfect, but they would have been hard pressed to craft it any other way that would be demonstrably better, all things considered; all the other options have just as many, if not more, difficulties in implementation.
While I agree that the presentation could have been handled slightly better in how the option was presented, you are essentially given that choice. You are sent by the vampire hunter (note, the singular is mostly accurate at this point, as Isran is still largely doing this on his own; you haven't recruited any of the other NPCs yet) to find out what is in the crypt. You are not really a vampire hunter yourself yet, still effectively being on probation and not yet really being trusted by Isran; you are at the merc hired as a scout stage with potential for more stage so the initial actions with Serena are still in the exploratory stage of your own views and position. You find a locked up vampire and the elder scroll who is unclear about certain things herself, but willing to work with you and count you as an ally of sorts, and through some slight contortions, given the choice of which faction you really want to be in. Turning Serena and the elder scroll over to Isran is not really an option at this point, because aside from the metaplot of the DLC being completely destroyed, Isran has nothing he can do about it at the time, as he is still trying to build the Dawnguard up from scratch, and has no one to really help him do so just yet.
I don't really know how else they could have done it; it's not like the vampires were actively recruiting, making it very difficult to present the scenario as a forked path from the very start; they would have had to force the initial situation on you somehow, and however they did it, they would not have pleased everyone. The way they chose to drive the initial encounters is as good as any other option available to them and better than most, given the lack of good introductions to the vampire side. For those who are already into the vampires and/or vampire hunters, yes, the story is a bit stretched at times, but so in the introduction to most of the factions if you aren't already interested in them to begin with and are only treating them like a check mark on the to do list. I have to say that from the perspective of someone who could really have cared less about the whole vampire angle (I picked it up to in the first place to check out the werewolf and crossbow developments), the DLC does a good job of developing an interesting story that provides a distinctly Elder Scroll twist to the whole vampire cliche. It's not perfect by any means, but to compare it to Dragonborn, where the introduction is already built into the main quest line of the game is a bit unfair; the lore for each of them starts in completely different places, and thus the challenges of expanding upon the lore is different for each.
I haven't tried Dragonborn yet, but I thought that Dawnguard was pretty good overall. The Soul Cairn was simply amazing. The whole story with Serena was actually pretty well done, all things considered, in my opinion; there were spots that could have been better, but one thing you have to remember about taking Serena to her father first is that Isran isn't in much of a position to do anything when you first meet her, and the intelligence gained from that whole process pays off in the long run, which ever way you end up choosing. Overall, I thought they did a really good job of developing Serena and the whole storyline, given how overused vampires tend to be in most rpgs and fantasy games; yes, there were stretches that forced you to suspend disbelief, but I have yet to see a vampire story that doesn't force disbelief at some point in time, especially if you try to make the vampires anything other than pure evil.
The whole "unkillable" NPC thing is a necessary evil unfortunately, especially if you plan on playing a melee character and having followers. The battles can get quite frantic, and it's very easy to hit the wrong individual on accident if your mouse/computer can't keep up. Morrowind didn't have that mode, but it also didn't have followers, so the need for it was a lot less pressing. Killing quest givers/critical NPCs, or having them try to kill themselves, is bad enough, but the addition of followers makes it absolutely problematic to not have such a system in place.
EDIT: I actually thought having the hiding place right under his nose was quite clever. It's amazing how often that is the best possible hiding place because very few people can or will look that close to home for what they are certain could not possibly be that easy, especially if it requires reminding one self of past pain or difficulties to do so. It's also makes sense from the point of view that she would have the best access to the materials and research needed to pull off entering the Soul Cairn in her own lab, and would not be very eager to have to take such complex research on the road.