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.

Mutate Your Game

A lot has been made of the fact that you can “reskin” game elements in the D&D game to make what you want. Reskinning just means taking a mechanical element and changing it cosmetically or in minor mechanical ways, as DM approved, to make it fit your character concept. From James Wyatt’s great sidebar “My Son the Fire Archon” in Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 (page 21) to Jeff Greiner’s and my little bit on The Tome Show 138, reskinning has definitely been in the air.

I have wondered why more people don’t do it. Then I realized that it isn’t all that easy. Experienced players and DMs might think it is, but reskinning is more than just an exercise in creativity and imagination. Required is a willingness to experiment and to face the possibility that your experiment won’t work. It’s reasonable to be uncomfortable with that type of experimentation when you’re just learning a game or you’re unfamiliar with the game’s boundaries.

Examples serve to an extent. James’s sidebar is a fine case in point. Any number of examples are just that, though, until you do it. You have to reskin something to know what it’s like, and then you have to use that element to see how it works for you.

Well, the new D&D Gamma World game is a freaking (emphasis on that) crash course on reskinning. Character creation, from concept to equipment, is a real-world exercise in putting your imagination’s images over a mechanical chassis in a simple game. Sections in the rules cover the process, from the “Reconciling Contrary Origins” segment to the “What Does it Look Like?” sidebar on equipment.

The awesome thing is that so many of these parts are directly interchangeable. Character origins, which every character has two of, combine to make unique mutants and humans that you create from your imagination based on the mechanical information you’re given. Cooler still is that each origin provides features and powers at the same levels, so it’s easy to imagine swapping these mechanical elements between origins to make a character that’s even more customized to your vision.

Ookla, Thundarr, and ArielMutant Child

I was enamored with the D&D game from the first moments I played it. Brave warriors and mighty sorcerers fighting dragons? Yes, please. More, please.

I imagine that a lot of us longtime D&D fans are similar in that our fandom for the game quickly spread to fantasy and sci-fi of other types. I devoured anything I could that seemed even remotely like D&D and stole it for my game.

That’s really another topic, but it brings me to the point that I liked the show Thundarr the Barbarian when I was a kid. It came out before I owned my own D&D set, but not before I played the game. And it was in syndication for a while after that, so you could catch episodes. I hear you still can on Cartoon Network from time to time.

The Thundarr show had the coolest intro for a a 9-year-old D&D-nut kid. In fact, that intro isn’t bad entertainment fiction today:

The year: 1994. From out of space comes a runaway planet, hurtling between the Earth and the Moon, unleashing cosmic destruction! Man’s civilization is cast in ruin! Two thousand years later, Earth is reborn. A strange new world rises from the old: a world of savagery, super science, and sorcery. But one man bursts his bonds to fight for justice! With his companions Ookla the Mok and Princess Ariel, he pits his strength, his courage, and his fabulous Sunsword against the forces of evil. He is Thundarr, the Barbarian!

Back then, this was cool D&D stuff, since it was before I was exposed to the Gamma World game. Today, I catch Thundarr’s similarities to Conan and classic characters such as John Carter of Mars. Thundarr’s was a post-apocalyptic world full of old technology, bizarre creatures, and weird magic. It’s still great D&D stuff, but it’s fantastic D&D Gamma World stuff.

This recently got me thinking that if the current Gamma World is so good for reskinning, I should be able to put it through its paces in reverse. Yeah, it’s not lost on me that I’m imposing something on a system that more freeform. It’s also clear I’m just giving more reskinning examples. Let’s just pretend this is proof of concept rather than me reliving some of my childhood fantasies. When you get your hands on Gamma World, you can tell me how well I did.

Thundarr is clearly human, and he’s an ex-slave warrior with simple drives. See, he is a post-apocalyptic Conan. If I were going to make up Thundarr as a D&D Gamma World character, I’d take the Engineered Human (swap Intelligence for Strength) origin and mix it with Hypercognitive. I’d roleplay Hypercognitive as less psionic “I see the future” and more “I’m so good at combat, I see what’s coming and react instinctively.” Thundarr uses his fists and his fabulous Sunsword, which is clearly a piece of (Ishtar) Omega Tech Thundarr has salvaged, probably with Princess Ariel’s (see below) help.

Ookla the Mok is Thundarr’s buddy, kind of like if Conan had a wookie sidekick. Thundarr and Ookla escaped slavery with the help of their other ally, Princess Ariel. The moks are feline in derivation, and they’re big and strong, so Ookla is easy. He could be Felinoid (if we want Dexterity instead of a focus on Strength) or Yeti for his first origin, then I’d use the Giant origin for Ookla’s immense strength and great size. Ookla opts for nontechnological weapons, such as bows (see, Dexterity), clubs, and whatever he rips out of the ground or off the wall . . . like a lamp post or 400-pound gargoyle.

Princess Ariel, stepdaughter to the evil wizard Sabian who enslaved Thundarr, is harder. She’s a sorceress with great knowledge of Earth’s past. Since Ariel looks human, we could start with Engineered Human. Ariel can do plenty with her magic, though, and she rarely used any weapon. Maybe a better model is Telekenetic plus Mind Breaker. Those origins give Ariel a good potential array of powers and skill bonuses that make sense. To reinforce her human appearance and lack of constant telepathy, I’d swap in the Engineered Human origin’s Tech Affinity in and lose the Mind Breaker’s Group Telepathy feature.

Ariel also got me thinking that one could use a D&D character in Gamma World ala Thundarr. Ariel is likely to be a D&D Essentials mage specializing in evocation. It’d be fairer, though, and maybe more interesting, if the DM and player worked together to give Ariel her sorcery by paring down the evoker into an origin-like format. I haven’t done that . . . yet.

Adult Fallout

As you might know, I really like Fallout 3. How can I think about the D&D Gamma World game without thinking about Fallout 3? You’re right, I can’t. Besides, I’ve thought about using the Fallout setting with Gamma World for a long time, and I’ve read of others having the same thoughts.

Gamma Terra, Gamma World’s setting, and the world of Fallout are very different, but who cares. I say embrace the strengths of both. Steal from Fallout to make your Gamma Terra better. Fallout kind of has the same spirit as Gamma World, anyhow. It’s post-apocalyptic ruination with a dash of the absurd. Gamma World just takes the far-out a little further out, that’s all.

As an aside, I strongly advocate the idea presented in the Gamma World rulebook that you set your first campaign in your home town. The juxtaposition of the familiar with the wonderfully bizarre realities of Gamma Terra is just too priceless an opportunity to pass up. That doesn’t mean you can’t loot Fallout for ideas. You should.

When I was thinking of reskinning plunder from Fallout for Gamma World, my mind went to two races prevalent in the Fallout setting: super mutants and ghouls. I’d want both to be monsters, sure, but I’d also want them available to players. The unusually sane super mutant and nonferal ghoul are great character concepts that Fallout 3 itself uses.

Super mutants are actually easy to model. They’re giant asexual humans with radiation immunity. That means if you mix the Engineered Human (swap Intelligence for Constitution) origin and Giant origin, you arrive at a good base. I’d then lose the human Skill Bonus and Tech Affinity features and replace them with the Radioactive origin’s Skill Bonus and Gamma Tolerance features. I might also replace the human’s expert power with the Seismic origin’s expert power. Done.

Ghouls require a little more tinkering. I’d still start with Engineered Human, then I’d throw in Android, playing on the idea that ghouls are created, not born. Again, I’d replace the Engineered Human Skill Bonus and Tech Affinity features with the Radioactive origin’s Skill Bonus and Gamma Tolerance features. I’d rework the Android origin powers to fit the semiliving ghoul form, and I’d replace the Machine Powered Android feature with Two Possibilities from the Doppelganger origin. It just makes sense to me that Gamma Terra ghouls might have more alpha flux given that they were made “undead” by super doses of radiation.

Go Flux Yourself

Much like I was sold on my first D&D game as a kid, I have been sold on the D&D Gamma World game since my very first playtest. Rich Baker and Bruce Cordell hit one out of the park with this game, and I can only hope future supplements live up to this high standard. The potential for amusement within the book and related cards cannot be described adequately in print. Everyone in the room laughed enough to have tears in their eyes the first time I played, and the laughing started during character creation. It’s not a serious roleplaying venture, but it is fun. Try it at least, since Gamma World Game Day is coming up. I doubt you’ll be sorry, even if your character is eaten by a yexil or dissolved by radioactive slime. If you need some more incentive, Dave the Game has a thing or two to tell you, as does Penny Arcade (click through News for more from Gabe).

Do the Evolution

I realize I could be a little dated. I mean I’m 38 going on 39 the day before Samhain starts. My supposed heyday was about the same time as that of Grunge. (Hence the title of this piece.) Back then, the Dark Sun Campaign Setting (boxed set!) was also the new hotness for the D&D game, and the SSI video games based on it were bleeding edge. (Man, I wish a new Dark Sun video game was coming out for PC or consoles.)

My age, and the fact that I feel life gets better and better, got me thinking about the ways things change. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the way games change.

I started my history with gaming, I realize now, with the D&D Basic Set in 1981. I got the red box, and my twin, Neil, got the blue box—the Cook Expert Set. At the time, neither of us realized that the AD&D game was out there in all its hardbound glory.

We soon rectified that oversight. With our pocket money for doing chores, we bought AD&D books. Despite the fact that we had those hardcover tomes, the boxed sets really shaped the way we played. Sure, we used the advanced rules, but we routed around convoluted bits and anything that was more work than fun.

As the years rolled, and because we had overzealous Christian parents who did away with our D&D stuff, my brother and I expanded our gaming taste. We played the original Palladium Roleplaying Game, Car Wars, Gamma World (Second Edition among others), the first Star Frontiers (dralasites rule), Marvel Superheroes (FASERIP version), and more. I even fooled around with games such as Powers & Perils (now free online), although I couldn’t get others to play it. We later moved on to games such as Rolemaster, GURPS, and the original Shadowrun, as well as the first Vampire the Masquerade and its World of Darkness descendants. (Mage the Ascension, played with GURPS rules, is still among my favorites.) Other D&D grandchildren followed for me, such as Arcana Unearthed (new Evolved) and Mutants & Masterminds.

My time on this planet has allowed me to explore all sorts of games. I played computer games such as Adventure, Venture, Temple of Apshai, The Bard’s Tale, and so on, up to modern games such as Fallout 3 and Dragon Age. Working among a fine gaggle of geeks has allowed me to learn other games, such as Savage Worlds. I’ve also dabbled in indie roleplaying games such as 3:16 Carnage Amongst the Stars and Fiasco.

What I never gave much thought to when I was younger but amazes me now is that all these games owe their existence to the D&D game. All of them, including those companies other than TSR produced, are evolutionary offshoots of the original D&D game. D&D itself is an evolution of even older forms of wargaming, such as Little Wars and Floor Games by none other than H.G. Wells.

RPGs as Organisms

What if we imagine the original D&D game as the evolutionary link between wargaming and modern roleplaying games of all sorts? I looked again at the basics of evolution before I wrote this, and it seems very relevant. Every derivative game has some part of the original, signs of its ancestry. Like with organisms, variations from the original are introduced in the process of creating a game. Further, more game “offspring” tend to be produced than the gaming environment can support. Traits that ensure survival in a given environment become more common in descendants.

The long and short of all this is that a game cannot remain the same over successive generations in a changing marketplace and hope to survive. It might be able to carry on in limited numbers in isolated ideal environments, the way OD&D still survives among groups who play and love it. If old-school D&D is enjoying a renaissance, that revival is because the game has adapted to the modern gaming environment in important ways. Swords & Wizardry, as just an example, is not the OD&D game—it’s a new animal derived from the old, built to be accessible and free for the new gaming jungle. Still, it lives and breathes only in a carefully cultivated milieu.

To thrive, a game system has to reach its prey, us gamers, and keep us interested. It has to be accessible for new players, yet keep a level of complexity for the seasoned user. It also has to innovate and entertain, this last point based on those among us who read but rarely, if ever, play. (I read tons of games I never played, such as Star Wars d6, TORG, RIFTS, and more.)

The D&D game and its offspring of the same name have always been in a state of evolution, trying to keep up with the changing environment. At times, it evolved too slowly, and although it remained the most widely known of roleplaying games, it almost went extinct.  AD&D Second Edition came about ten years after the original, and the D&D 3e came more than a decade after that. (4e came about 8 years later.) We were graced with the third edition only because some folks who loved the game helped carry on its legacy. D&D‘s diverse descendants almost had to go on without it, and they would have, like any organism does, and might have lived better without their ancestor. (That’s a big maybe that’s also another topic.)

Those descendants changed more rapidly. Shadowrun, for instance, has had five editions in twenty years if you count the most recent 20th anniversary edition. GURPS has had five editions in twenty-five years if you count Man to Man. (The Fantasy Trip might make six versions of GURPS in thirty years, if you’re willing to make allowances. It’s still available.) Vampire: The Masquerade had four revisions in thirteen years. Mutants & Masterminds has had a new version every few years—it was released in 2002 and the third edition is coming this fall (scroll to May 12th).

Game evolution, though, is actually much more rapid than versions of a core game might suggest. Every supplement changes the game. Each sourcebook attempts to adapt the game to its environment and keep the game fresh and young. When system overhauls occur, they’re often based on reasonable forces that call for an improvement. Not the least among these is audience use and feedback, which is easier to come by today than ever before.

Long Live Evolution

The D&D Essentials line might be taken to be a revision of the edition, but to me, it feels more like regular old evolution than any normal revision does. Essentials takes its legacy and tries to thrive in a fresh way. Characters in Essentials can use earlier materials, and non-Essentials characters can play right alongside their newer counterparts. That’s unlike many game system revisions, and nothing like the update from 3e to 3.5.

The Pathfinder game is a more significant system evolution from 3.5 than the Essentials line is to 4e. Preexisting classes receive a working over in Pathfinder in ways that can make past 3.5 materials incompatible or at least in need of serious scrutiny. Changes to these and other aspects of the game can be significant enough that you have to pay attention when using older D&D material.

That fact doesn’t bother me in the slightest, though. Pathfinder is a product of an honest process of evolution, too. It takes hereditary material, gives it a good shake to see what works for the modern environment, and then gives survival a sincere go. Nothing is wrong with that.

If we acknowledge game supplements and updates as part of the evolutionary process, a lot of our games—D&D, Pathfinder, Fiasco, Savage Worlds, and so on—are always evolving. The truth is, and if you’re honest I’ll bet you’ll admit it, we gamers like it that way. In all sorts of games, from the latest Shadowrun sourcebook to the newest Fable video-game release (this month!), we gamers want new stuff to think about, to talk about, and to play with.

My inner fanboy loves game evolution. I express my love by trying out some new games now and then, although admittedly, more and more are electronic games. (Something is to be said for ease and speed of access and play.) Further, I do so by buying a few and even playing a few on an irregular basis. In your way, I’m sure you like game evolution, too, and you put your money where your heart is. Can you fault another gamer for doing the same? It just seems silly to decry another’s evolutionary path when you have your own.

Thunderdome!

I’ve decided to put my money where my . . . keyboard is. I want to play more games with my fellow gamers. My aim is to expand my horizons and to witness more game evolution. I’ll admit I’m going to favor games I think I might like, but that’s natural. I’m also going to favor games I can play in real time and space rather than virtual, at least for the first part of my trial. My aim is to have fun with potential new friends.

Cameron McNary came up with the title, or I did after failing to completely understand a series of tweets from him. The point is: If you live in the Washington State area and might want to play a game with me sometime, send me an email at the address in my bio below. Include the Thunderdome in the subject, and tell me what you want to run or play.

I’m no Keith Baker with “Have Dice Will Travel.” What I am is willing to do a little roving with my dice, and I might end up in other areas from time to time, such as Virginia and the upcoming NanoCon. I’m also willing to help in a little reaving by running D&D 4e or the new Gamma World occasionally.

I’ll keep you posted on twitter and here. ‘Til next time, I’m out.