I have something to say about writing and game design re generalizations, hedging, and superlatives. (1) All three see common usage, but they’re hard to do well. I know. I’ve made all these mistakes at some point. I’m thankful I had mentors and colleagues to free me from these illusions. Among them is the great Kim Mohan, who probably attempted to teach me more than I could absorb.
As an editor and technical editor (also called developer in some places), I’ve seen misuse or overuse of generalizations, hedging, and superlatives a lot. Maybe rather than mis- or over-, the usage is more unintentional. I’ve also seen them in preproof passes, added during other phases of editing. Allow me to pay the help I had forward if you like.
This post doesn’t contain rules. Such prescription is folly. Everything is food for thought. If you take away one thing, I hope it’s conscientious usage. Writing is about choices—intention and refined intention. You’ll have your voice, and it’ll be different from any other. The context of your work matters, too—fiction is different from game descriptions or mechanics.Read More »
A furor among several old-guard D&D creators prompted me to write this. Hyperbole, logical fallacies, and blinkered and outmoded thinking were on full display. Dismaying was the anti-progress and anti-sensitivity in evidence. So was the clear lack of understanding about modern gaming and games, including D&D as it exists today. Unsophisticated was the understanding of how communication and other shared experiences, such as streaming, affect gaming today.
Worse was a hidebound adherence to an outdated way of thinking about how games depict imaginary people. To these veterans, evil must be absolute so the good might discern and righteously smite it. The point here is not to vilify these guys for their shallow takes. I disagree with them, though. I’ll go into why, starting with the topic of recent discourse.
The last part of this pair of posts spoke about changing advantage, disadvantage, and inspiration for D&D. It suggested changing advantage to smaller add-on dice (d3s, d4s, d6s) that can stack. Using that alternative also allows for inspiration to accumulate rather than stagnate. An accumulation of inspiration dice allows for another mechanic to find its way into D&D and other d20 games that incorporate this set of house rules. (And these advantage/disadvantage rules can be used to replace numeric modifiers in most d20 games.)Read More »
I have a love-hate relationship with D&D’s advantage-disadvantage mechanics. And so, I have a similar relationship to inspiration. Inspiration is more tolerate-hate. With that opinion, I don’t blame groups for ignoring the decidedly uninspired inspiration rules. However, I’m not one to wax negative about something in a game without suggesting fixes I’d use. That’s what this piece is about.Read More »
This series has been about allowing characters to be awesome based on what’s on display on the character sheet. In part 1, I talk about using the characters’ passive expertise as an excuse to give players the information they need. The wizard is good at knowing magical and occult facts. Give those facts to the wizard’s player. Part 2 is about allowing a character to pull off amazing stunts based on physical skills they have. Great at acrobatics? Then, as we see in action movies, you can run up a wall and backflip. No problem. In both cases, the point is to do allow a lot of this stuff to happen without rolls.
This part deviates from that theory. Some people like to roll; it’s a game. That’s valid. But you can have your rolls and emphasize expertise, too. I’ll go into a few options.Read More »
In the first entry of this short series, I wrote about the philosophy of passive skill or trait use in roleplaying games. That piece focused on information exchange and the use of passive skill to determine the baseline of what a character knows in a game. There, I claimed you could use passive skill, or almost any trait you might normally roll for, in active situations in a game.
What that claim means, in practical terms, is allowing player characters to have a bottom performance level in physical activities, such as athletics and stealth. This passive us fits alongside the mental acuity I advocated for in the first essay. For the sake of narration and speed of play, it’s fair for this floor of expertise to apply to NPCs, too. They can sometimes perform fancy maneuvers based on their capabilities just like the player characters.Read More »
In several tabletop roleplaying games, especially D&D and its derivatives, we ask to roll too much as players. As referees, we ask for rolls too often, including confirming the player’s request to roll. Published adventures and rules call for rolling more than they should. It’s as if we think that rolling is essential whenever a question of success arises.
Rolling a check is important only when stress is a factor, failure has consequences, or the feat of brains or brawn is possibly beyond those attempting it. Even in these cases, rolling isn’t vital. In some cases, it’s problematic for play.Read More »
When we were little kids, we roleplayed with few boundaries. The floor is lava! You avoid it, or you “die.” It was the same with playing adventurers versus monsters or space wizards with laser swords in the back yard after interacting with popular media, such as Dungeons & Dragons or Star Wars.
We didn’t have written rules. The parameters were contextual and freeform. Any rules that existed were negotiated, often on the spot. The imagination space was broad.
Imagination space is an ephemeral realm where creativity has free reign within parameters a game defines.Read More »
Writing prompts can help you stretch your world-building and narrative skills, such as character development and story development. My friend, game designer and writer Owen K.C. Stephens regularly seeds such prompts on his Twitter feed. Several products on the market, from the Story Engine to the Writer Emergency Pack, aim at feeding prompts or breaking blocks. Writing as an exercise can be fun and creative, as well as training.
In that vein, Ryan Kaufman, a veteran of story who has worked at LucasArts and Telltale, gave out random prompts on request. These prompts were from a narrative-design exercise he did with his writers at Jam City, where he’s VP of Narrative. This is how it started (click the date to see the thread).
I’m running a narrative design exercise with the Jam City writers where we are randomly assigned a Character Backstory, a Goal, and a Game Genre. Then, we will attempt to explain the resulting game, and how all these things fit together as a ridiculous whole.
When it comes to a lot of D&D-derived games (1), ability scores have been a discussion for as long as the capabilities and bonuses they’ve given a character have been only derivative of those scores. Most of this design territory is an example of mechanics being too finicky for what they do but surviving nonetheless. The design at the time was functional and innovative, but that doesn’t render it good, originally or forever. These structures remain within the game largely due to legacy or nostalgia, not because they are still functional, innovative, or even necessary.
Some games moved the marker and, such as True20 did, answered the question, “If you need only a modifier, why isn’t that modifier the score?” Heck, AD&D’s second edition made ability scores more useful, especially in the Skills & Powers book. (2) These fiddly aspects merit such debate and reworking. It’s another aspect I’m interested in seeing jettisoned, and that’s the racial ability score adjustment, whatever a particular game calls it. Put another way, you are an orc, so you raise your Strength and Constitution scores by 2, and you lower your Intelligence by 2.Read More »
A couple weeks ago, I dove into opening sections to roleplaying game books and game setting books I own. I had thoughts. Such introductions are often lackluster, too much like a textbook and not enough fun. I rambled on about and engaged others on those thoughts in this Twitter thread (click the date in the quoted tweet).
A good aspect of 4e campaign setting supplements, from Dark Sun to Underdark (although too understated there) was an aspect list that defined the setting in about a page. Glad to see it in the new Eberron. It’s a strong starting point and, perhaps, selling point.
Kotaku recently published an article on queerness in the D&D game. To be more specific, this article is about the inclusion of queer people and, more specifically, a glimpse into their lives as normal, accepted citizens of imaginary worlds. The fifth edition Player’s Handbook, for the first time in D&D history, makes a bold statement about sexuality and gender. It encourages you to imagine different. Several official D&D adventures depict queer couples or families. Many other games have similar modes of presentation, nodding toward normalcy. All these steps are positive. However, a few failures of imagination exist with regard to depicting this sort of equality in games and other media. (1)Read More »
What does D&D mean to me? My friend Shawn Merwin asked me to write about this question, and record the response for his podcast. I don’t have recording gear (or skills), so I wrote this piece. He recorded it for his podcast.
The question itself brings up all sorts of feelings and memories. It’s an important question, because some might think after being laid off (twice) while working on D&D, I might have negative feelings about it. I don’t. From the heady days of first gaming in 1981 to today, working on three or four different game projects at once, D&D has been and is still good to me.Read More »
I said a while ago that I wanted to talk about world building (maybe worldbuilding or world-building, as you prefer). That I do. Doing so seems likely to take more than a couple entries here. This essay is the beginning, written as much for me to explore what I know as for anyone who cares enough to read it. (1)
Generation of the world or universe, the setting, is important to numerous aspects of creating media, from novels to games. Careful design can’t be undervalued. Assumptions should be avoided, while reasoned relationships should take prominence. Aim to build novelty and interest, but include enough of the familiar to build resonance with the audience.Read More »
I’ve been playing Fallout 4′s beta Survival difficulty mode. It’s good. The mode certainly meshes with my normal play style, but Survival also improves the feel of the game. How a game feels is paramount. Mechanics have to speak to the genre and the narrative. Survival pumps Fallout 4′s feel up to the right notch, adding a little something I missed without quite knowing it.
See, when I’m not experimenting with a ridiculous, chemmed-up melee fighter or a run-and-gun soldier, I default to careful play style. I use stealth and sniping to avoid “fair” confrontations. (You know, like you would.) When I set up for sniping, I lay mines on predictable approaches to my position. I avoid companions, sometimes even the lovable and helpful Dogmeat, because companions draw enemy attention, attack without tactical cooperation, and sometimes plain get in the way. (The Lone Wanderer perk is all me.) I explore nooks and crannies, and acquire the perks needed to unlock and hack everything. I’m cautious, methodical, and curious.
Survival asks you to be all three of those things. If it asked more of some and less of others, it’d go from being good to being great.Read More »
This entry is a little scattershot. I have a few things to let you know before I delve back into meaty essays on specific topics.
Speaking of topics, I have plenty. However, in my first post, I asked what folks might like me to write about. A commenter pointed out, wisely, that I should tell you what I’m interested in. Maybe that list will help you pick something you want to know. Maybe I’ll even be able to give a decent answer.