Playing with Passive Expertise 3

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 »

Playing with Passive Expertise 2

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 »

Playing with Passive Expertise 1

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.

It isn’t.

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 »

Playing in Imagination Space

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 »

The Fall of the Rebel Angels by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1562).

Exceptional Scores

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 »

by Brain “Chippy” Dugan

Re Introductions

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.

— Chris S. Sims (@ChrisSSims) December 19, 2019

Read More »

World Building: Inclusivity

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 »

A D&D Life

My first magic tome

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 »


Let's go for a ride! Always wear your helmet.
Let’s go for a ride! Always wear your helmet.

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.

It’s not exhaustive, but here’s that list:Read More »

A Plot, So Meta

Years ago, I wrote about canon as it applies to tabletop RPG settings. I still believe what I wrote back then. Canon serves as a framework for a setting, but after that, strict adherence to and advancement of canon along an official timeline is harmful to the setting and its audience. This latter specific type of canon is called a metaplot, an overarching story line imposed by the designers of a setting, creating official events in the setting up to and even drawing the setting’s timeline to a close. Because of recent experiences I’ve had, talking with some interesting folks and applying to be White Wolf Publishing’s new Editor (1), I’ve been thinking about metaplot a lot.

Strahd’s Borovia, like Dracula’s Transylvania, was a kind of world of darkness. Region of darkness?

When it comes to expressing intellectual property (IP) in media, metaplot can be a complicated issue. For tabletop RPG settings, metaplot, as canon, is useful only insofar as it underpins players’ starting point and furthers adventures (story-based products that the players experience through sequential play). Beyond that, metaplot can be damaging to an RPG setting. However, if the intent is to focus on wider transmedia storytelling, the rules change. Then, a coherent metaplot, which is really a plan for a shared audience experience over time, is vital (although not for a related tabletop RPG setting).

Tabletop Plotting

With tabletop RPG settings, such as Forgotten Realms or World of Darkness, the necessary part of the metaplot is that which forms the myth and history of the setting. From the place defined by this initial canon, a setting becomes unique over time for each group that uses it. The publisher can continue to use metaplot in adventures, because adventures, unlike any other game supplement, are an experience of time’s forward arrow for the players. The current Dungeons & Dragons brand strategy uses this approach with adventures that describe the ongoing, player-centered drama in the Forgotten Realms. (According to Chris Perkins, the core intent for products that occur outside the Realms, such as Curse of Strahd, is to showcase the wider D&D multiverse.)Read More »

Resurrection Edition

Priests gather around the husk of a fallen warrior, as do his companions and friends. A brush with darkness left him all but dust and bone. Someone steps into the circle of solemn onlookers and places a diamond over the corpse’s heart. The sun rises, and the ritual begins . . . .

Yeah, you’re right. That’s an overwrought way to reintroduce myself to the Critical Hits community. I mean, I’ve been away from blogging here for four years and some change (pun intended). That’s a little less time than my first daughter has been alive. She did have a little something to do with my departure in 2011, among other issues, including work on a two editions of the D&D game. I won’t bore you with the details on the former, unless you ask to hear them.

In fact, I hope not to bore you at all.Read More »