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?

Junk Punch

You have been sucker punched. As a gamer, you’ve been categorized and used as a negative stereotype to illustrate points about terrible movies. Video games and gamers get a bum rap in film criticism. Film critics seem to like to use video games and the people who play them as a culturally understood idiom. This practice makes the critics look as bad as what they might be criticizing.

Roger Ebert, with his starkly ignorant opinion of video games as art, might have brought this mistreatment to a head in popular media. This lack of actual cultural awareness has been around for a long time, however, with film critics decrying just about anything that’s based on a video game or seems gamish. The trend degenerates from there, with critics using the term “video game” to condemn crappy adventure movies, as well as the term “gamer” to refer to insipid consumers of such dreck. This sort of condescension is a refuge only of someone who can’t come up with a meaningful metaphor and, therefore, takes the lazy route of uninformed comparison.Read More »

Visions Verbalized

Awhile back, talking about the littlest con, I said that you, as a game designer, need to be able to tell me who I am in your game, what I’m doing, and why. I said that’s your elevator pitch. If you can’t produce an elevator pitch, your idea isn’t solid enough. This is true in relative ways for expressions in other media—novels, movies, comic books, and so on—but we’re talking games here.

All games rely on this initial expression to become all they can be. A lack of focus at such an early stage leads, at least, to wasted work as designers realize a game’s scope needs narrowing. At worst, uncertain direction at the outset is a path of failure. Kitchen-sink design’s best results are like World of Synnibarr—wonderfully schizophrenic but ultimately playable only as a novelty experience.

Putting the point succinctly, goal-oriented production can’t occur smoothly without clear vision of the end. This little axiom is true no matter how small the design goal is.

Writing for D&D Insider requires that sort of directed attention. First contact for work on Dragon or Dungeon is, literally, the pitch. You have to sum up your idea neatly, showing you know your objective. Realizing that you’re pitching to one very busy man (Steve Winter) puts more pressure on you to home in on your design goals. Fortunately for you, you aren’t starting with a blank slate. Dungeons & Dragons, as a high-fantasy roleplaying game with a ton of history, provides a lot of context for the pitch. The problem in that framework is tightening your vision.

I actually learned the concept of the pitch long ago from the writer’s guidelines for GURPS. Back then, the proposal process required you to write the sell text you thought should appear on the back cover of the book you were proposing. The assumption was, rightly, that the ability to summarize a potential product’s contents clearly and succinctly shows you have needed focus. Doing it with attention-grabbing style shows you have skill.

Challenging your chops even further, try summing up your idea in one sentence. I call this the nanopitch. Back before Keith Baker’s Eberron existed, the Dungeons & Dragons setting contest, which Keith won, required this. Every entry had to have such a summary statement. Wizards of the Coast called this synopsis “core ethos” in fine Gygaxian style. The whole initial proposal had to fill one page or less.

For those of you who are interested, here is a paraphrasing of what I understand was Keith’s core ethos for Eberron.

Raiders of the Lost Ark meets Lord of the Rings meets film noir.

This statement takes understood media icons and genres, and then it turns them into a succinct, clear, and apt description of Eberron. I’m hooked. Tell me more, Mister Baker.

For contrast, here are my core ethos statements from my three proposal submissions, with world names added to differentiate them.

Ancentynsis: A millennium ago, the Tempest of Fallen Stars cast its Curse across the land, but civilization has risen again in a savage time of new legends.

Shining Lands: The Nine Furies covet the world and the Radiant Host has decreed that mortals must overcome this evil alone.

Durbith: Infernal powers secretly rule a dying world, and heroes must struggle against this mysterious doom and the sinister truth behind it.

Parts of these summaries sound like aspects of the 4e cosmology or other settings. That’s because these statements are too general, or because I worked and had influence on 4e. Through my current sensibilities, I see lots of other flaws in my proposals, but the weakest link is a core ethos that lacks the precision of Eberron’s.

Looking at my setting proposals, my core ethos statements are weaker than Keith’s is, for sure. All the core ethos statements I’ve seen, admitting I haven’t seen that many, are. Although the whole initial proposal for a setting in the contest could have been be one full page, and I wasn’t at Wizards at the time, I’m willing to bet that thousands of the over ten thousand proposals were eliminated right after the judge read the core ethos. I’d say that was especially true if your core ethos contained a semicolon or an em-dash, or any umlauts. But I digress.

If you’re designing a whole game, rather than a supplement for an existing game, writing a nanopitch, elevator pitch, and sell text works as a good trial. But these tests only do their job if readers besides you really understand your idea from what you’ve written. Submitting to this honest evaluation can tell you if you’ve centered your attention enough.

Games such as Fiasco don’t just appear out of someone’s fevered imagination. (Okay, they might, but let’s pretend they don’t.) Although I don’t know, I’m willing to say that Fiasco is likely an outgrowth of its designers knowing its genre and intended play style, at least in theory, from the start. Otherwise, it’s impossible to believe the game could represent its apparent intent so well. A finished game of Fiasco really feels like you just watched or help create a Coen Brothers movie. The game I played felt a lot like Burn After Reading, complete with a slough of corpses created in third-act carnage.

The best games, regardless of intent or media, live up to the elevator pitch ideal. Mage the Ascension, as an off-the-cuff example, isn’t merely a game about wizards and magic. It’s a game about a war for reality wherein consciousness is reality. Mages manipulate the world within the confines of consciousness, personal (enlightened or not) and collective. Left 4 Dead, for another instance, is furious survival horror that needs little other narrative detail. It’s intentionally visceral, allowing you to know the story and characters in the narrow context of desperate battle against long undead odds. Knowing details of the zombie infection doesn’t deepen the experience. It’s not the same as a zombie film or television show (or graphic novel), such as The Walking Dead, in which knowing and caring about the characters is required for a similar effect.

Some games fail in some way to live up to what seems to be their own core ethos, although this might not affect whether the game is fun. A schism might occur between expectations and options. Fallout: New Vegas is an illustration of the point. Fallout is about post-apocalyptic survival and science-fantasy action, but it has always had a measure of silliness with its 1950s World of the Future taken to the breaking point. To me, that made Fallout 3 more than acceptable in its idiosyncrasies. The hardcore mode on New Vegas is fun for various reasons, but it fails to fit in well with the expectations Fallout’s ethos sets forth. Put another way, in hardcore New Vegas I need to drink water or suffer penalties, and ammo has weight, but a human being I shoot in the face with a shotgun lives on to shoot back. It’s weird.

This break between ethos and expression can also occur when a game breaks from its normal modes into unexpected, sometimes jarring, territory. Matt Sernett described his experience with the Afro Samurai videogame in such terms, saying the boss fights frequently required play styles the game had yet to require. That makes those fights frustrating, because despite the fact that you’re supposed to be at least the second-best warrior in the Afro Samurai world, you have to learn new skills on the fly against the strongest opponent you’ve faced.

Fable 3’s designers made a similar mistake when they changed the emote system. Fable 2’s system wasn’t the best, but at least it didn’t try to force me to dance with shopkeepers to make friends or to burp when I wanted to make a rude gesture. (Fable 3 did better than earlier Fables, however, in how your actions influence those observing you.)

None of this is intended to suggest that a game shouldn’t break from its normal modes on occasion. Experimentation with the expectations your game has created or integrated just needs to be done carefully. For instance, Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Conviction contains a flashback that takes you out of hit-and-run stealth tactics and into a warzone. That said, the skills you learned earlier in the game still serve you well in this high-action scene.

Like Splinter Cell Conviction, countless games originate in existing intellectual property (IP), rather than creating a new one. More care has to be taken with existing IP. People coming to the game have expectations that the game designers can’t influence, much less control. Case in point, it was unexpected that the Dresden Files RPG allowed me to be anything other than a mage or human, like Harry. My reaction has little to do with the quality of the game, which is good, and everything to do with my own previous interaction with the Dresden Files IP.

This point brings me back to Matt Weise’s IP Verbs exercise, which my friend Wil Upchurch (formerly of Fantasy Flight Games) asked me to elaborate on. Matt Weise is a member of the of the Singapore-MIT Gambit Game Lab, and this is his idea, not mine. His IP verb exercise is mostly about living up to an audience’s expectations of an IP, since the IP itself already defines numerous aspects of the game. Matt described the premise fittingly when he brought up how many James Bond games are about shooting rather than the subtler aspects of the Bond IP.

With the exercise, you still need to answer the who and why questions of the elevator pitch to round out your game. An IP might define these or allow for some surprising twists, but the meat of the task is coming up with what the player does in the game.

Compelling in an exercise I’ve seen is a mock design teams use of The Wizard of Oz. That story is about Dorothy, the heroine, traveling the Yellow Brick Road, befriending creatures along the way to gain help and ultimately escape the Wicked Witch of the West and return home to Kansas. She does so without much intentional violence. Considering all this, the team came up with verbs such as befriend, cooperate, escape, explore, fly, help, oppose, seek, talk, travel, trick, and so on.  They also paired the verbs with nouns form the IP, and they came up with and game about action subtler than typical video game fighting.

The team, led by Jeff McGann (Irrational Games) and Steve Graham (DSU game design faculty), decided that the player plays the flying monkeys, lackeys of the Wicked Witch of the West. You see, the monkeys are tired of serving the cruel sorceress, so they’re engaging in a secret revolt. Their aim is to help Dorothy make it to Oz, foiling their mistress and ultimately leading to her demise. The hitch: They have to do all their helping without anyone growing wise to their trickery, especially the witch. Mollifying the witch, if she grows suspicious, and faking out Dorothy and her friends are part of the plan. Success means, ding-dong, the witch is dead and, whaddya know, the monkeys are free. That’s what the team called The Monkey Business of Oz.

I’d play that game. The concept also lends itself to more than one media expression.

And that’s the point of sharpening your design skills by honing you ability to crystallize your concepts. Ideas come in droves. The skill and willingness to extract the gold from the raw ore is the real magic. Then comes the ability to communicate your intent with those who can help you produce your idea. If you can make them see the gold by incisively directing their attention with a good pitch, you’re well on your way.

The D&D Experience

Note: I’ve included Twitter handles for a lot of people, because I know a lot of you know these folks, just not by actual name.

A few of us from Critical-Hits were at D&D Experience this year. Matt Dukes (Vanir, or @direflail) was there as a civilian and regular ol’ gamer representative. Shawn Merwin (@shawnmerwin) attended as a DM and writer. I went as a DM and administrator for the Ashes of Athas campaign. Dave Chalker (@DavetheGame) got trapped in DC on his way to the show, so he didn’t make it. We missed him.

Lots of conventions, from PAX to Comicpalooza, have D&D games and organized play. None of them are like D&D Experience. This convention is about hardcore D&D gaming and D&D news. It’s all D&D all the time on official channels. Players who come here come to play the game from sunup until the witching hour. When they’re not playing, they’re learning more about D&D from the experts.

I got in early in the afternoon on Wednesday, and I snagged my “Judges Kit.” In it was my schedule, printed versions of the adventures I was running, an RPGA D&D shirt, and coolest of all, the upcoming Deluxe DM Screen. (See a little of it in the picture here; snag yours on or after February 15th.) I supplemented with a roll of Gaming Paper for maps, which I drew at the show.Read More »

Into the Unknown

In roleplaying games, the D&D game especially, characters delve into mysteries that surround them. They might wish to bring light into the darkness of the world. Curiosity could drive them. A desire for wealth and fame might be enough motivation. Whatever the case, adventurers go in search of the unknown.

Discovery is a process. It requires motivation, followed by exploration and a willingness to keep going despite setbacks. In games, it also requires that the truth is discoverable. Someone has to know the facts, or something has to exist to help lead seekers to the situation’s reality.

Mysteries must have answers in all roleplaying games. At least, the secrets the players wish for their characters to uncover should have some means of being laid bare. That means the DM, at least, has to know, or have an idea, where a path of exploration leads. In the case of published work, the designers should know such answers and, more important, reveal them.

We designers fail to do that sometimes, however. In books, we make statements such as:

Iyraclea is the mistress of the Great Glacier. From her realm beneath the ice she spell-snatches young, vigorous mages for some unknown but doubtless sinister purpose. Iyraclea worships Auril the Frostmaiden and commands magic of awesome power . . . . Few see her castle of sculpted ice and live to tell the tale.

Half a century before the start of the Last War, an unknown evil infected the lycanthropes of the Towering Wood, stirring them to violence and driving them east to wreak chaos in settled lands.

I’ve been guilty of it:

Known also as the Wood of Dark Trees, this dense jungle is home to all sorts of dangerous creatures. The animate and malevolent trees from which the forest gets its name are numerous, as are venomous flying snakes. A pair of chimeras with black dragon heads lives deep in the forest, lairing not far from the Mound of the Sleepless and attacking any who approach. What the chimeras guard is unknown.

My sensibilities have changed over time. Once, I might have tolerated such vagueness in my own game writing. Now I see this type of ambiguity as a disservice to DMs and players. It’s unhelpful at best, and maybe even lazy at worst.

I know the reasons for leaving narrative elements undefined. We primarily tell ourselves that we’re leaving space for the DM to create, or we’re avoiding imposing our “official” ideas on users. Maybe we’re even evading canon bloat. We’re protecting DMs, in case the players read “the truth” in the campaign guide. Further, our blank space is a call to design for those who use our products. Occasionally, the “unknown” is the subject of another product such as a novel or adventure. To me, this situation is even weaker than the aforementioned reasons. It also misses a chance a cross promotion, but I digress.

All those rationalizations are malarkey.Read More »

On Writing

I stole that title from Stephen King, but that’s okay, because I disclosed it and this is not a memoir of the craft. Well, it might be a little memoirish, but that’s only to make you believe that I might, perhaps, know something about the subject. Given evidence in the marketplace, I have to believe that the fact I have been published offers little proof.

More than a few folks have asked me for advice on writing. I don’t know why. I have edited and written, with mixed success at both, for publication and pleasure. Like I said, that doesn’t prove anything. What I can say is that writing isn’t easy. It takes courage and skill and patience, and a good editor always helps.

That’s why I owe a lot to my time as an editor. While I was one, I learned more about writing than I imagined possible. My writing improved immeasurably from skills and training I gained. I owe a lot to my mentor, the immortal Kim Mohan, and experienced colleagues such as Cal Moore, Jennifer Clarke-Wilkes, and Jeremy Crawford. (All of these folks are better editors than I am.)

If you can’t edit the work of others, though, you need to read and write, read and write. And rewrite . . . and rewrite. Give your work an unkind eye. Love nothing you write so much that it must survive. Slice and rearrange to make sure you’re saying what you mean and want to say in as clear a manner as possible. (This is all assuming you aren’t writing an experimental novella or poetry.) Achieve closure within your deadline because, if you’re like numerous authors and artists I know, you might never truly finish tinkering.

Paper Tigers

When you write, or most likely rewrite, keep an eye out for usage issues that might weaken your bold statements and sure sentences. These hobgoblins not only make your prose look flabby, but they also make it seem like you are less than sure of what you’re saying. Sometimes they look like mistakes, which can soften your reception either from your editor or from your audience.

Issues described here are very common in the writing I’ve seen over the span of my short career. Most of them also appeared in my writing at one time or another. Eliminate them and you’re a step ahead of the pack, especially when submitting to Wizards of the Coast. Also, your editors might learn to like you and say so to the right people. If you don’t submit to another party, then it’s your readers who might thank you.

Pronoun Problems

Their, they, and them see an awful lot of use these days, and they appear without warrant. I’ve had someone tell me, his editor, that the use of a plural pronoun (they) with a singular subject (someone) is correct, because a university professor said it is okay. News flash: If that professor ain’t* an English teacher, he or she is not to be trusted. If he or she is an English professor, for shame. In either case, he or she is wrong. Following that advice makes your usage look amateurish, because pronoun misuse is a common mistake among amateurs. (We misuse pronouns all the time when we speak, which is probably the source of confusion.) It’s simple, really. If you have a singular subject, use a singular pronoun.

In doing so, you can also avoid confusion that pronouns can cause. Imprecise usage can harm clarity in your work. Take this passage:

Psionic seers in the Gray felt the presence of many minds. They appeared as only shadows, a sort of interference in the psychic ether for as long as most of them could remember. It was not until certain psions realized these were living minds passing through that they tried to bring them out. They set up a teleportation circle in the location that corresponded to where the Gnomes wanted to appear in The Land Within the Wind. Setting a psychic anchor point, they focused on the circle. What began to spill out was shocking, and immediately killed the summoners.

When you read that, are you always sure what or whom each “they” or “them” is referring to? Context helps understanding, sure, but the passage lacks precision. Careful usage can clear that problem right up.

* I recognize that language evolves and is evolving. We aren’t, however, at that spot in time when a plural pronoun has become an acceptable replacement for a singular one. But, oh, how I long for the death of whom.

There’s No Place

Speaking of their, a similar sound starts a bunch of sentences I’ve seen in my days. There is no way you can start a statement with “there is” without weakening it. See? The quote “There’s no place like home.” has less punch and more flab than “No place is like home.” The latter version pounds the point home better.

My example is less than ideal, however, because it’s a piece of dialog. Dialog is different. People have all sorts of quirks in speaking that are acceptable when writing dialog. When your statement is other than dialog, though, it’s best to evict “there is” from your prose when you can. Minimizing your usage of “there is” can help you habitually make stronger sentences.

Future Upon Us

Especially in game or scenario writing, so much action hinges on preceding actions. That places scads of action in the future, a state of uncertain possibility. The normal tendency for writing about the future is to say something “will” happen. It’s true. Avoid using “will” anyway. It’s weak and hedges the excitement.

If the orcs attack when they spot strangers, say so. The orcs attack when they spot strangers. Easy. Adding “will” before “attack” in that statement is like adding a couple spoonfuls of sugar to your ice cream. It gains you and your consumers, the readers, nothing except empty calories.

Sometimes it’s necessary to use the word “will.” It’s clear when that’s the case, because trying to go without it hurts your head. Even then, though, other words can suffice. Skeptical? Look back to where I wrote about your readers thanking you.

Pointless Passivity

I have no idea why, but numerous writers use passive voice. (I see and hear it most commonly in the news, making me wonder if it’s some sort of journalistic style.) Do you want to sound passive? No, you don’t! You want to sound bold and sure. A giveaway that you might be using passive voice is the word “by” in your sentence.

Say you want to tell me the town was razed by goblins. Well, the important part of that statement sounds like someone on medication said it—the kind of drug that induces drowsiness and the munchies. Goblins razed the town! Now that’s a fit and trim statement worthy of an exclamation point. It also sounds like a frantic peasant might have said it, which is the point.

Samurai Way

It is said that it’s better to ask for forgiveness than it is to ask permission. I say it’s better, especially in rules prose, to avoid language that implies permission. Find the word “may” in your prose, and kill it dead when “might” or “can” makes a fine replacement. The reasoning here is precision in communication.

You can tell the people it may rain on Saturday, but they might wonder who you are to allow it. Tell them it might rain on Saturday, and they understand immediately that precipitation is a matter of chance. Similarly, a rule that says you may draw a card at the start of your turn implies permission and, perhaps, other factors. If a player can draw a card, say he or she can (not to be confused with “must”).

Weak Links

We, especially when speaking, hedge our language with modifiers. Some modifiers imply exceptions to generalities, while others are editorial. In writing, such modifiers serve poorly. They weaken your prose, making it sound wishy-washy or strange rather than inclusive or insightful.

Weak modifiers include words and phrases such as “usually”, “relatively”, “often”, “tend to”, “a bit”, and so on. Everyone can spot a generality, so you need not hedge it with weak modifiers. If elves typically dance among the branches at sunset, you can just say they dance among the branches at sunset. No one needs the word typically. (Sorry, typically, but it’s true.) Generalities imply exceptions.

Unfortunately, editorial modifiers make a statement sound meaningful in ways that are imprecise or unintended. In that last sentence what was unfortunate and who was it unfortunate for? Unless the modifier has actual meaning for the reader, it’s best left out. These words, even “even”, can be dropped with no real change in meaning or implication.

In Conclusion

All of what I’ve written here is to make you write with a critical eye. Don’t sweat it too much in the first draft. Put your ideas down, and then rework them. Also, ignore the rules when you intentionally want to break them. Just make sure you mean it.

You might make mistakes. So do all other writers, including me. Since I edit this blog myself, with some help,  and my self-imposed writing window for it is small, I probably left a few issues in this essay. It’s not about perfection so much as saying with clarity and grace what you intend to say. I, for one, wish you great success.

Aside: One of the best books, evar, on the subject of grammar is Woe is I. Check it out or buy one. If you’re an aspiring writer, you’re unlikely to regret it. You might also be surprised at some of the elements of style that are falsely foisted upon us. You’ll be ending your sentences with prepositions guilt-free in no time.

Special Thanks: Gratitude to Seamus Corbett (icu_seamus from Twitter) for allowing me to use a passage from his post (as the Opportunist) “Races of Athas – Gnomes and Shardminds” on RPG Musings. Seamus asked me about writing, and our correspondence inspired this blog post. Plus, Seamus is a cool name.

One-Hour Game Design

A year ago, I went to Nanocon and made friends with the illustrious Richard Dansky. On Friday evening, we were between commitments, and we were amused at the Dakota State University game design program’s promotional literature. We also stumbled on some loose dice and game pieces. We decided to make a game in an hour, then playtest it during the rest of the convention. The result is Rush at Zeta Mu Beta. Here are the rules. Enjoy!

Rush At Zeta Mu Beta

A game by Richard Dansky and Chris Sims

It’s rush week at DSU, and the frosh zombies are eager to pledge Zeta Mu Beta. To do so, they’ll need to bring back the Homecoming Princess to their lair at the Computing Center and turn her into one of the living dead. But the Jocks of I Phelta Thi have no use for zombie nerds! They’re dead set on capturing the Zombie Prom Princess, taking her back to the Field House, and giving her a sharp blow to the brainpan. The race is on. May the most ruthless team win!

Players

2 or 4: One zombie and one jock, or a pair of zombies and a pair of jocks. Zombies are on one team. Jocks are on the other.

Supplies

You need a few items to play.

A board, which is the 16 x 14 map of Dakota State University from the “Super Trojan Master 2” brochure by Kiel “MagicMouse” Mutschelknaus.

Dice, including one twenty-sided die (d20) and one four-sided die (d4) per player. You also need a pile of six-sided dice (d6) to represent Mysterious Floating Cubes. More on those later.

• Playing pieces, including a chess knight for each player’s playing piece—or a chess knight and chess rook, one for each allied player. You also need a chess queen for each team’s Princess, and a gaggle of chess pawns for Minions. (More on those later.) Each player or team should use playing pieces of differing colors. You can use something other than chess pieces, as long as it’s clear which team and player a given piece belongs to.

Setup

Lay out the board. Players place their playing pieces inside their team’s base. The jock base is the field house (#20). Zombies have their base in the computer lab (#5). Each team places its Princess on the Cloud, which is in the upper left corner of the map and has a princess on it.

The Cloud
The Cloud is for Princesses and losers. You can’t move onto it unless you fall in combat, Further, you can’t grab a Princess to carry her while you and she are on the Cloud.

Playing the Game

Game play is divided into rounds during which each player takes a turn.

Your goal is to capture the enemy team’s Princess and take her back to your base. Succeed, and your team wins the game.

At the start of each round, each player rolls a d20. (Reroll ties to determine the order of tied players.) The player who rolls the highest result takes his or her turn first. Then other players take turns in descending order, highest d20 result to lowest result. Once everyone has had a turn during a round, a new round begins.

On your turn, do the following in order.

1) If you’re on the Cloud, return to your base. See also Mysterious Floating Cubes.

2) Roll a d20. Place the enemy team’s Princess on the board location that has the number corresponding to the roll result.

If this result lands the Princess in a space that an enemy player occupies, then she instead moves to the Cloud for that turn. (Minions aren’t players.)

3) Roll a d4. You have that number of movement points for this turn.

4) Spend your movement points.

The board is divided into blocks and buildings. You must spend 1 movement point to move one block— about the distance equal to the size of the residential block just above the buildings 7 and 8 on the map. Moving into or out of a building also costs you 1 point. You need not spend all your movement points.

Alternative Movement
For more exact movement, each movement point can be spent to move one inch. Make this easy by including a small ruler or marked popsicle stick among your supplies.

If you move into a building or space that contains the enemy team’s Princess, you can pick her up and begin carrying her. See Carrying an Enemy Princess.

If you elect to pick up a Mysterious Floating Cube, you must end your movement to do so. Picking up the Mysterious Floating Cube also ends your turn. You cannot pick up a Mysterious Floating Cube from the same space on your next turn. See Mysterious Floating Cubes.

If you land on a space that an enemy player or Minion occupies, you must engage in combat. See Combat.

Carrying an Enemy Princess

An enemy Princess isn’t too heavy for a jock or zombie, but she struggles and sometimes escapes. Some aspects of the action change while you’re carrying an enemy Princess.

• When you begin carrying an enemy Princess, you lose all but 1 movement point you had remaining, if any.

• You gain 1d4 – 2 movement points per turn, instead of 1d4, with a minimum result of 1.

• If a teammate wishes to begin carrying the enemy Princess from a space you’re carrying the enemy Princess in, you decide whether to relay the Princess to your teammate.

• You can’t pick up Mysterious Floating Cubes.

• At any time, you can choose to release the Princess you’re carrying. She then resumes moving according to the normal turn order.

Mysterious Floating Cubes

Whenever you pick up a Mysterious Floating Cube, grab a d6 from the pile. Keep it until you use it. You can use a Mysterious Floating Cube in the following ways.

• Roll the d6, and add the result to any combat roll.

• Roll the d6, and add or subtract the result from any d20 roll the enemy team makes to move a Princess during the normal turn order.

• Allow your team’s Princess to flee an opposing player who is carrying her. Roll the d6. The result is the number of movement points you can spend to move the enemy player carrying your team’s Princess away from his or her base. At the end of the movement, that player is still carrying your Princess.

• Discard the d6 back to the pile to allow a teammate that starts his or her turn on the Cloud to roll a d20 and reappear on the board location that has the number corresponding to the die roll result rather than in your base.

Combat

Whenever a player moves into a space an enemy player or Minion (see Minions) occupies, they fight. Here’s how.

1) The player who moved into the space (the attacker) chooses a single target.

2) Each team’s members declare if they’re using Mysterious Floating Cubes, and how many. You can’t spend a Mysterious Floating Cube to aid a Minion.

3) The attacker rolls a d20 plus any added Mysterious Floating Cubes, and the defender does the same.

4) The highest result wins. On a tie, reroll until the winner is clear. The losing player is sent to the Cloud. Minions are instead removed from play.

5) The winner places a pawn of his of his or her team’s color on the space to represent a new Minion.

6) If the loser is carrying the Princess, she is freed but remains in that space. She then resumes moving according to the normal turn order.

5) Combat continues until one player remains in the space or Minions from only one team remain in the space.

Minions

Minions are lesser members of your team. They aren’t players, but they can be useful. Here’s how.

• If an enemy player shares a Minion’s space, he or she must engage that Minion in combat.

• If Minions of opposing sides share the same space, they must fight until only one side’s Minions remain.

• Whenever you receive a result of 1 for movement points, you also gain 1 extra movement point that you must spend to move a Minion.

• Minions can’t pick up or use Mysterious Floating Cubes.

• Minions can’t carry a Princess.

Winning

If you deliver the enemy Princess to your base, you win. The game is over.

The Point

I carried on the tradition of quick game concepting, or tried to, by challenging folks to do the same at this past Nanocon. They came up with another game, based on the same board and materials, but about graduating from DSU with the most credits while maintaining a happiness score. Opposing players try to whittle away at your happines.

Like the IP verb challenge I described in my last column, the test of using found materials and a time limit can really focus your creativity. Try it.

While you’re at it, take a little challenge I have up this week on Roll, the Critical-Hits Tumblog. You just might win something. Check it out.

The Littlest Con

Madison, South Dakota might seem like a typical small Midwestern town. In some ways it is. But it’s also the home of a Dakota State University and the school’s Computer Game Design program. The DSU Gaming Club puts on a gaming shindig every year, and this legendary event is known as Nanocon.

Nanocon isn’t just a gathering to facilitate gaming of all types, which it does. It’s also an educational event for the students at DSU. I was invited last year as a representative for Wizards of the Coast, among such design luminaries as the wise and skilled Jeff Tidball (a freelancer for Fantasy Flight, Atlas Games, and countless others) and the incorrigible cad Richard Dansky (White Wolf, Red Storm Entertainment, and novelist responsible for Firefly Rain). It was a great time, and I must have done something right, because they invited me back.

This year, the roster was filled with a few more experts, such as:

Jeff Tidball was back, bringing with him a playtest version of a board game based on the well-known RPG [name redacted]. I was lucky enough to play the prototype. To me, Jeff’s version captured the essence of the RPG better than the original did at times. Sure, like Jeff himself said, there were no intense roleplaying moments, but it as great themed fun. Perhaps we’ll revisit it when the game is released and my NDA no longer applies.

• Jeff McGann, lately of Red Storm but on his way to Irrational Games and work on Bioshock Infinite. Jeff knows a thing or a thousand about the “hellish world” AAA game design. Primary in my mind, as a designer of D&D, is his take on accessibility or lack thereof. Your game has to let people in, and if it doesn’t, it won’t matter how cool the second act is. Too few people will see that act. D&D has lacked real accessibility for long enough that the problem transcends editions. Maybe the new red box helps, but I don’t think Essentials does. My point here is that most D&D players are inducted into the game without having to climb the complexity curve alone. Maybe more on that later.

• Matthew Weise of the Singapore-MIT Gambit Game Lab, researcher on game history with emphasis on Metal Gear Solid, zombies, and first-person RPGs. As a fan of stealth games, I appreciated Matt’s analysis of the Metal Gear franchise. See Game Verbiage below for more on Matt.

• Clara Fernandez, also of the Singapore-MIT Gambit Game Lab, is a researcher on adventure games, puzzle design, and dream logic in games, as well as stories in simulated environments. Maybe it’s obvious to others how puzzle design for a game is so much like overall adventure design, but I found that focus insightful. Puzzles have to provide enough information and hooks to keep players moving forward and satisfied with that progress, otherwise frustration sets in. Without a social reason to continue investing, most players just quit. Our adventures need to do the same while providing enough “imagination space” to allow DMs and players to personalize the experience. I think this is what modern D&D adventures lack, as Mike Shea has intimated.

• Kevin Rohan, the Content Director for Silver Gryphon Games. He also knows how to mix genres in Savage Worlds. As a player of Grover, mean with a pair of .44 revolvers, in Kevin’s “Fist Full of Muppets” scenario, I should know. Kevin and I also gave a presentation about sandbox adventure design, and it was pretty cool. Try to create a scenario with a nonlinear progression for the proactive player characters. Then include villains that plan intelligently and move forward. The characters have to thwart the villain’s agenda, or meet their own goals, while the antagonists do the same. It’s a lot more interesting than monsters that wait to be killed in a site that changes only when PCs appear, let me tell you.

Back to School

I was in Madison early on Friday, so I had the pleasure of going to a couple classes. Jeff Howard—a professor at DSU and author of Quests—invited me to his class on combat systems and magic systems. The students presented various combat systems for their games, and I was allowed to give some feedback. I also got to go to a projects class and witness some damn cool games designs in progress, and the students were kind enough to explain the concepts to me, even though everyone else in the room already knew the project story and parameters.

How is this useful to you? One thing I felt over and over again, and said in various ways, was that you, as a game designer, need to be able to tell me who I am in your game, what I’m doing, and why. That’s your elevator pitch right there. And if you don’t have an elevator pitch, your idea isn’t solid enough. (Steve Jackson Games writer guidelines put it another way. You need to be able to write the back cover’s sell text for your game. If you can’t, work on your idea more.)

I also felt, here and when I was evaluating pitches for D&D Insider, that most budding designers need to push ideas further and go for meaningful play. Find the unique aspects of the vision you’re after, then push them to the fore. Make sure your mechanics and narrative reward the behavior you want. Every feature of your game should have a reason for some or all players to engage that aspect. If not, then the feature is a lie. This applies to DMing from monster design to encounter design to adventure design to campaign design.

All Fluxed Up

For the game room, I came up with a Gamma World scenario based on Madison, DSU, and South Dakota wildlife. I called it Deshoo Snipe Hunt, and here’s the premise: Winter is coming. The tiny plains village of Deeshoo is finishing up the harvest and the autumnal hunts before the alpha snows block the trade route to Soox Falls. It couldn’t be a worse time for raiders to move into an old bunker on the far side of Lake He-man. The Dragon Slayers United (DSU), Deeshoo’s elite protectors, went out to deal with the raiders a few days ago. They never came back. Now a giant sword-beaked fowl with an entourage of blood birds is picking off Deshoo hunters, residents, and livestock and carrying them east. Looks like a job for the DSU auxiliary. That’s you.

Cool thing is that I got to play this scenario twice, although only once all the way through. The first time through was with four players, all of whom had humanoid mutant characters except for the player of Sunflower, which was a sentient commune of dandelions. The second game included Steve Graham, a DSU professor; Allen Thiele one of the Nanocon organizers; Jeff Howard, Jeff Tidball, and Jeff McGann. After hearing Kevin Rohan and I speak on adventure design, the last Jeff was so eager to play in one of my tabletop games that he bought new dice. As if I weren’t ecstatic enough with a table full of smart gamers, Jeff’s enthusiasm was no small compliment coming from such a smart designer. Gamma World got positive reviews all around.

I also learned a few things about the game.

• It’s all right to allow players to assign an 18 and a 16 to ability scores even if they have origins that have the same ability score. In fact, it can work better than raising one score to 20 if the player wants or needs the character to use weapons. It also behooves you to make sure every character that lacks at-will mutant powers has a reasonable score in an ability that facilitates weapon attacks. You might even want to go to a 4d6-drop the lowest scheme for other ability scores. This still allows for some low rolls, which players in my games latched onto as roleplaying opportunities.

• 1d4+1 rolls on the Starting Gear table is about 1d4 too many. The Starting Gear Table has too few options for every character at the table to have three rolls on it. Instead, give each character one roll, then another roll or two on the Ancient Junk Table, and call it good. Believe me, the Ancient Junk table is where it’s at for fun gear possibilities. I mean, how else do you get an android to throw his wireless mouse and use his Interaction skill to pretend he just threw a high-tech grenade?

• Alpha Flux is awesome. You might look at the rules for changing Alpha Mutations and dislike the randomness and changeability, but it works. Further, the players not only get it, given a simple explanation of the Gamma World setting, they also seem to love it. They especially love when they’ve used one Alpha Mutation, roll a natural 1, and receive a new mutation for the trouble. I’d even go so far as to recommend putting terrain or monster powers in every few encounters to make Alpha Flux different and, preferably, more common.

As an aside, Alpha Flux can be used to explain any kind of weirdness in Gamma World. Gamma Terra provides narrative underpinning for real-life complications. For instance, if you’re running a campaign and a player fails to show, his or her character might simply disappear for a while in a reality-altering wave of flux. He or she might even reappear with full knowledge of what transpired in the supposed absence.

• Ignore Omega Tech card drawing. Instead, give out Omega Tech like treasure, even allowing enemies to use the tech first or have it on them. As an experiment, I ignored the drawing rules for Omega Tech and gave it out (randomly) piecemeal over the course of my encounters. Doing tech distribution this way allows the players to decide who takes which treasure. It also allows you to control, to an extent, the number of tech powers that might enter play at any one time. Plus, describing the discovery of Omega Tech is more fun this way.

Game Verbiage

Matt Weise gave a workshop that was, for lack of a better word, amazing. The premise is simple: Take an intellectual property, such as The Wizard of Oz. Then reduce that IP to the verbs related to it. From those verbs, you come to the essence of what a game about that IP might include in the gameplay. The results can be surprising.

I was playing my Welcome to Dark Sun adventure (for the seventh time) when Matt started, so I didn’t participate. (The players in that game did very, very well, which I think might have something to do with my communication as a DM.) I watched. Matt and I talked while the teams worked on their IPs (The Wizard of Oz and The A-Team).

The technique might seem simple. It is. But how many games miss this simplicity? An example we spoke of is the James Bond IP. How many James Bond games are about the varied aspects of spying? Most are themed shooters that involve only the most action-oriented aspects of the Bond franchise. These games miss the chance to incorporate other aspects of the IP, and perhaps thereby, miss the opportunity to attract a wider variety of players. Matt accurately pointed out that the Hitman games involve more deceptive tactics than numerous Bond games.

A lot of designers can benefit from learning and following this sort of thinking. I know I did.

Small Con Experience

Nanocon’s magic is in its intimacy. It presents a great opportunity to meet players and play games. As a guest, I also had the chance to mingle with all the other guests, as well as the faculty and organizers. That type of interaction with others who love games is hard to overvalue. Perhaps needless to say, I’m glad I went. I’ll say a little more about what I did there later.

More Mailbag

This week I’m resting up. I’ll be old and crotchety by Saturday, so I’m taking it easy to build up my strength. (Okay, I’m playing a lot of Mass Effect 2. I like to keep Renegade nearly as high as Paragon, so don’t push me.) I’ve been working up a few ideas. Kyle Ferrin’s fine image for my Mailbag feature needs some showing off, too. It makes sense, with this confluence of events, to post some requests to you. I’ll do these articles without any help, but I figured it makes sense to do something more personal. Check out the possibilities.

Monsters

I plan on doing one or more pieces on monster design. I’ll share what I know, along with some tips based on issues I sometimes see. The plan was to snag some monsters from popular video games, which I’ll still do, as examples with visual counterparts. You can help by suggesting monsters you’d like to see from any medium that I and other readers might have easy access to. If you’re up to it, you could even submit an idea with a description or your own design for my development. To submit a request, idea, or creature, email me with the subject Monster Mash 1.

Characters

A while back we had a “discussion” on Twitter about character concepts and roles. I use quotes around that word because this is a subject with a lot of room for interpretation. Numerous disagreements I saw seemed to revolve more around semantics than actual ideological differences. Twitter’s character limit is not your friend when trying to move past semantics. Besides, Quinn Murphy called all us tweeters out to put our blogs where our mouth was at the time. I’m in. Send me character concepts if you will, and I’ll see if I can make them using the 4e D&D game rules. Feel free to restrict me, even though I might ignore the restrictions. I also reserve the right to critique the concept, as well as to solve the problem the way I’d do it as DM for my home game. If you’re ready to put your concept where my blog is, send me an email with the subject Role Me 1.

Thunderdome

I have a lot of great possibilities for playing in the Seattle area, and I have an idea for making it semiregular. Now I just have to schedule it all when my calendar has some holes in it. We’ll see what happens. If you’ve already sent me an email, I’ve got you on my docket. Still, feel fee to ping me—you will not bother me. If you haven’t sent me an email, I still have room. My first goal is to set up a local group based on those who want to play. I also intend to guest star in some established local groups when I can. The email subject for a possible play date is Thunderdome.

Freemail

Other subjects I’m working on are magic items, rituals, adventure design, looting ideas, and reading player cues. If you have any questions or hints that fit into those categories, feel free to let me know. You can also (or instead) drop me a line regarding just about anything you care to. People do it all the time. I do my best to be accommodating, just ask all the people here at Critical-Hits.

In any case, I thank you in advance for caring enough to correspond with me. I’ll do my best too do right by what you give me, and I’ll be sure to give credit where it’s due. My email address is in the bio below. I hope to hear from you.

Booty Talk

Booty Beginnings

Treasure has been part of roleplaying games since the beginning. Loot or some sort of expendable resource appears in almost every game, analog or digital, in some form. In the early D&D game, the treasure distribution stems from a worthy desire to replicate the collection of powerful weapons the trolls had in The Hobbit or the huge hoard of Fafnir in the Volsunga Saga or the nameless dragon in Beowulf. It places mystic items in hard to reach places to simulate the objects of fantasy quests throughout the ages. What would Arthur be without Excalibur and the Holy Grail? What would Elric be without Stormbringer?

Trouble is, too many games handle loot poorly. This is something I realized painfully while playing Dragon Age: Origins. The game has a great story with a lot of depth, but little to none of this depth is contained within the items one finds. Treasure, money and otherwise, is given in a context that has little meaning to the player. Open a box, receive riches that might or might not be useful, go on. Accumulated wealth goes only to buy similar items in shops, and some of that equipment is way more interesting than anything one can find. I want to hear about fabulous items and seek them out, or to learn how to replicate a mythical device through my adventures.

One could argue, though, that the Dragon Age video game, having been produced for wide consumption, couldn’t be much better with regard to treasure. Treasure can’t be tailored to the player in a video game like Dragon Age, right? Wrong. Any game can be constructed to make you, the player, care about certain items so that you seek them out or gather the materials to create them. What’s required, then, is a purpose and a story behind the item, as well as hook leading you to desire the object or its creation.

Sure, it’s too much to ask that every bit of treasure be somehow unique. But crafted carefully, numerous objects of desire, with or without magical enhancement, can lead to a narrative that is more interesting and more about a player’s desires. Such items just need a purpose and a hook, and significant effort must be expended to acquire them. Rewards then become more personal. They evoke an emotional response or investment from the player, and they can drive further adventures.

Magic items, especially, need to stand out as exceptional. They need to be more than mundane gear, through exception-based mechanics and other neatness. But good story placement and cool powers aren’t always enough if the item is something a character needs to own to live up to a game’s expectations.

Pitiful Plunder

One of the problems with the usual take on treasure, especially magic items, is that most of them provide simple mechanical benefits without doing anything truly interesting. This isn’t a fault in and of itself, since magical trinkets need to affect the game in some way. The essence of the problem, in my mind, is when the game renders such mechanical bonuses mundane by assuming the characters have them. The developers increase the challenges in the game based on such assumptions, rendering the potentially fantastic merely necessary.

Unfortunately, then, acquisition of items then becomes an arms race, rather than an interesting series of narrative events that change the game and give it personality. It’s worse if the game’s math and methodologies requires nonplayer characters to keep up with the escalation. That’s how you end up with armies armed with magic items, and dime-a-dozen +1 swords. It’s also how come to all sorts of narrative shenanigans to deprive victors of spoils. Anyone who hauled a massive trove of drow items to the surface for the first time in older versions of D&D knows this pain.

Needing magic items simply to keep up with a game’s increasing challenge curve is counter to keeping magic items wondrous. That applies from the days of early D&D‘s “can only be hit by +1 or better weapons” monsters to 3e’s DR system, all the way to 4e D&D’s assumed +1 to +6 magic item enhancement bonus curve. It applies to target numbers that assume skill bonuses from magic items. A challenge curve like that makes me wonder why a game bothers to include “magic items” at all, because that sort of curve then relegates these objects to banality. This triviality of “magic items” is exacerbated when one must replace items casually to avoid being behind the curve statistically. (D&D includes planned obsolescence, because treasure has to be part of the game, and the default method of placing treasure is simpler than other alternatives.)

To be truly wondrous and avoid contrivances, mechanical or narrative, a magic item needs to affect the game in a manner that is outside the norm. A mere +1 sword becomes something extraordinary if the game system in which the sword appears ignores that +1 in the game’s attack roll resolution math. Then, a warrior with a magic sword is something to hold in awe and fear. Now imagine a +5 holy avenger in that context. Maybe it’s too good, but I’d rather that than the idea that Sting becomes obsolete when Frodo hits 16th level.

Satisfying Spoils

The alternative rewards systems, as presented in Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 and expanded in Dark Sun Campaign Setting, goes a long way toward allowing the type of wondrous magic items I’m talking about. Fixed, or inherent as I call them, enhancement bonuses based on character level allow you and me, as DMs, to ignore a large portion of the statistics of the challenge curve. These alternative reward systems also imply, at least, a richer narrative environment for character wealth, mundane and magical.

Dark Sun Campaign Setting makes it clear that a character gains an extra +1 per point of fixed enhancement bonus to attack and damage rolls. That evokes a seeming of great, crushing skill in combat. I can easily imagine Conan’s Hyboria as a fixed-enhancement-bonus world, with Conan terribly wounding a dragon with a dagger tied to a pole, as he did in the “Red Nails” novella. Having this critical increase tied to an inherent character trait is another way the fixed-bonus system is good for wondrous magical treasure. A good magic weapon can change the die type of you extra critical damage, but it doesn’t give you that damage.

Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 and Dark Sun Campaign Setting tell you how to alter your treasure distribution if you use a fixed enhancement bonus. Personal belief and experimentation have shown me, however, that you can be even more casual about items and alternative rewards than these systems suggest. You can give far fewer magic items and boons, and far less monetary treasure, and still have a fun and rewarding games. Further, you needn’t have players provide wish lists at all—except as potential hooks for adventures all about acquiring a desired item. In a gaming environment enhanced with the alternative rewards rules, the characters can find what you, the DM, have time to select and impart. You can also take items away at dramatic moments, or encourage, with sufficient payoff, players to sacrifice items for cinematic reasons.

The new rarity rules in D&D Essentials enhance this flexibility. Using alternative reward rules, you can focus on the uncommon and, especially, the rare items. You can also throw in a few common items here and there as a substitute for monetary rewards. In my games, I’m aiming not only for fewer items, but also items  that add interest and wonder to the game. Sometimes the characters find these items, and other times they find such objects, much like the signature items you see in the hands of characters in fantasy literature.

Where Essentials loses me is with the suggestion that rare and uncommon items “are not normally created in the current age of the world” and “are now found only as part of treasure hoards.” (The emphasis is mine.) Both statements cleave to simplicity, for designers and players, at the expense of narrative richness. The latter quote is also needlessly absolute, closing design space that could be filled in later product for advanced players. As a DM, I’d assume such items were never “normally created” in any age, but are instead the results of unique processes that have to be relearned and duplicated. In other words,  a character can adventure to find such an item, or adventure to learn to create one. Often, the finding is much easier than the making, and the process might be so arduous that making more than one such item is impossible. In other words, the intrepid DM still has control.

If you’re a really bold DM, you can use magic items with enhancement bonuses that stack with fixed bonuses. Magic armor like this might live in the niche where masterwork armor exists now. You’d have to be a little more careful with weapons and defensive items, limiting them to about +1 per tier (with some wiggle room). Given the system math, not considering all possible alterations from existing game elements, such items should still be fine alongside fixed enhancement bonuses. This is especially true for weapons and implements if you favor higher player character accuracy than what the game assumes, as I do.

Looking at Loot

All this talk is philosophical, and I’m sorry if that’s less than satisfying, but this essay is more about the spirit of change than execution of that change. Implementation of the idea is something I’m still working out in my D&D game. I also know that some systems, such as GURPS, already allow what I’m talking about. When I reach a resolution, I’ll let you know.

Others among my gaming buddies have mentioned alternative solutions to the same problem in passing. I’d like to see what they think, even philosophically, in writing. I’d also enjoy reading your comments.