World Building: Imaginary People

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Worse was a hidebound adherence to an outdated way of thinking about how games depict imaginary people.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.

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Playing Advantage and Inspiration 1

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 »

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).

Playing with 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

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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

Basic
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 »

Surviving

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 »

Shotgunning

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
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 »

The Geek Way

In most dictionaries, the definition of “geek” is way behind the times. It’s still classified a pejorative term that implies negative qualities or insular, intellectual behavior. Synonyms include dork, freak, nerd, and weirdo—basically a social misfit.

The reason I say this sort of definition, and the people who still use it, are behind the times is because geek has been moving toward chic since Revenge of the Nerds (1984) was in theaters. As the dorks of the 80s grew up and became business leaders, computer specialists, game designers, scientists, writers, and other sorts of accomplished professionals, “geek” has become synonymous with success and disposable income.

The word is also used in common parlance to denote someone who is passionately enthusiastic, in a positive way, about a subject, job, or hobby. You can be a kayaking geek, a computer geek, a yoga geek, confectioner geek, and so on. In fact, most mature geeks I know fit into a range of geek types rather than single-minded enthusiasts. Plenty of “cool people” self identify as some sort of geek.

I’m a gaming geek. Chances are, since you’re reading this, so are you.

Other than being passionate about games, gaming geeks are often considered to be extremely cerebral and introverted. We can be pedantic, judgmental, and cliquish. All these traits can lend to the social-misfit stereotype, especially in a culture where “intellectual” is sometimes touted as an unfavorable trait. The basement-dwelling troglodyte cliché persists despite the fact that geekdom has crossed innumerable boundaries.

The worst boundaries I see in my gaming life, however, are those limits we gaming geeks impose on ourselves. Again, we can be pedantic, judgmental, and cliquish, as well as hyperintellectual and plain snobby. Rather than retain a sense of wonder and experiment, we can adhere to onerightwayisms and badwrongfunisms. We define ourselves as simulationists or gamists, roleplayer or tactical, video gamer or tabletop gamer, as if those terms have any extant value beyond the realm of personal preference. Forgetting that our games and their settings are imaginary, we look for truths in them and about them. Such “truths” are no more existent than the made-up milieus to which we apply them. (Stephen Radney-MacFarland of NeoGrognard is a great one to discuss this subject with.)

Don’t feel persecuted if you believe you’re in such a category. I’ve been there, too. But I’ve been blessed with diversity of exposure and experience that has made me see the error of my ways. In the domain of personal fantasy and fun, the only right way is the one on which the participants agree. “Official” stances, canon, metaplots, and rules be damned.

All games I’ve played had their value and an influence on my beliefs and design methods. In Wizards R&D, I’ve gotten strange looks because I said I like GURPS. Sure, GURPS isn’t any form of D&D, but it has its virtues and flaws, just like D&D does. Playing GURPS, even as dungeon-crawling fantasy, is less abstract than playing D&D in a similar mode. But GURPS, and its first cousin Savage Worlds, suffers from static disadvantages that characters can have, the roleplaying of which is governed only by the vigilance of the GM and player.

FATE (Dresden Files RPG) and Cortex+ (Leverage RPG and Smallville RPG) handle the flawed character better through use of dynamic currencies that encourage implementation of the flaws in the game. Each of these games has something D&D could learn from, and has or will in my home games. (These games can also learn from other games, as I hear Margaret Weis Productions might soon show us.) Similarly, if I were ever to run a Pathfinder or 3e D&D campaign, I would derive some of that campaign’s GMing tools, such as monster and NPC design, from 4e D&D.

The point is: As my repertoire of played games expands, including videogames, so does my viewpoint on how games might be designed and played. I’ve learned you have to play a game to have the most qualified opinion on it. Reading it or looking on from the outside is not enough. Claiming to like or dislike a game, implying your opinion is somehow educated, without experiencing that game is disingenuous. (I did this in a review of Mutants & Masterminds, the flaws of which show up pretty quickly in play—for example how Toughness works.) Saying your way of playing is somehow the one true way is snobbery.

When it comes to D&D, or any RPG really, I have yet to see a wrong way to play.

My friends and I, as kids, flipped through the 1e D&D monster books, which for us included Deities & Demigods, with our 10th-level characters to find a creature we couldn’t beat. Of course, we had unbalanced characters. I’d like to have met a 10-year-old D&D player in the 80s who didn’t. We added all sorts of stuff to our game from everything we read, saw, and listened to. Yes, some of our characters had lightsabers, and others had boots like Gene Simmons of (makeup-wearing) KISS. To more than a few of us, that stuff is still cool.

As countless other grognards and game designers have admitted and opined on, we ignored parts of older D&D that were too arcane for us. Weaned on basic D&D, and without the cash flow to assemble armies of lead figurines, we took to Advanced D&D with that simpler sensibility. We rarely used the battle grid, although the game and its statistics called for it even then. Therefore, we ignored weapon and spell ranges, and we fudged whether monsters ended up in blast radiuses. Now that I think about it, even with our lightsaber-wielding uber-characters, we emphasized what was fun for us.

That’s the key, I guess. And lots of styles can be fun.

My teenage simulationist streak is what got me into games such as Rolemaster and GURPS. Back then, I might not have tried James Wyatt’s Random Dungeon(TM), which has about as much story as Hack or Rogue. (Both of which are fun, as is JW’s Random Dungeon.) I would have appreciated Mike Mearls’s love of dungeon crawling a lot less and been unwilling to participate in a 3e reboot game he ran. In fact, I might have disdained the typical limitations of convention play. It would have been snobbery and my loss in every case.

Play style is just that. If you aren’t participating in a given game, it’s not within your purview to judge that game negatively unless you intend to be unkind. (You can judge, in a general sense, any game you’ve played, especially with reference to your preferences.) In my mind, this point of view applies to published products that don’t seem to be your style.

Fourthcore, for example, is hardcore, meat-grinder dungeon crawling in the vein of Tomb of Horrors. To some, it’s an experiment with the boundaries of 4e D&D. For a few, it goes too far afield. To me, 4e always contained the possibility of Fourthcore or something like it. My current DMing style is more along the lines of an action/adventure novel or TV series, but I appreciate the fact that D&D, among countless other RPGS, is pliable enough to accommodate so many ways of having fun. Furthermore, I can participate in alternative styles as the opportunity arises.

Just like any of us can be more than one type of geek, and most forms of geekery have positive traits, every game has a range of possibilities. What you prefer might be different, but we geeks can learn from one another, and we gamers and game designers can learn from all sorts of games. Experimentation and exploration expand horizons. Nothing is sacred; everything is permitted. Of course, none of us has the time to try everything, but all of us can avoid negative prejudgment, whether of other people or games. Instead, we can emphasize the positive aspects of our differences, gaining some wisdom in the process.

I want to thank those among you who have taught me new possibilities. I also want to thank those of you who have graced my game table or network connection with your presence. I’ve stolen good ideas from all of you, or recalibrated my thinking to accommodate a new idea of yours, just so you know. So, I owe you one.

This is my Speak Out with Your Geek Out participation. Why don’t you speak out, too?