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?

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.

Loss Builds Character

I’ve experienced a bit of loss recently. I lost my job at Wizards of the Coast this past December. No permanent employment has come my way yet, so I could lose my house. (Maybe not such a bad thing, all considered.) I gave my pound of flesh to the surgeon who removed my little cancerous growth. (Shaking my fist at the sun, I know it’s really my fault.) I lost my sister this past month. Heck, I’ve even lost over thirty pounds, taking the good with the bad. Loss has been on my mind a lot recently.

This isn’t about me, though. Truth be told, despite some dark instances, life has been good to me. Any suffering I’ve endured has been, thankfully, minor. I feel like I’ve gained a lot in the past few months, from experiences to friends to opportunities.

Loss shapes us. How one responds and moves on from loss can have a profound effect on the path one’s life takes and the deeds one performs. In this world, loss is inevitable but often without deep impact. We don’t live in a place where kobolds can eat our babies or a maniac can call up the avatar of the Mad God. Our characters do.

Making Up Losses

The minor travails of modern life are not the norm in for heroes in a fantasy world like those of the Dungeons & Dragons game. The harsher the world is, the greater the potential for suffering. Take Dark Sun. Characters on Athas have a potential for loss few of us would like to imagine. Even if you’re playing a game set in cushy Faerûn, DM or player, you should take some time to imagine loss.

Loss and the desire to do something about it is one root of character motivation. It can be key in the background of a player character and the adventuring party’s forward momentum. Something as little as gambling debt or as big as the death of an entire tribe can shape a character’s path. If you’re a DM, loss can turn good guys bad, bad guys good, and mold the fate of nations and deities.

One element I included in the character history questions for players in my Dark Sun game was had to do with loss. It went something like: Athas is a harsh world in which people suffer regular hardships and loss. What have you suffered or lost? How has this event shaped you or your life? What are you going to do about it?

Malamac, one of those characters, had a lot of loss in his life. He was the only dwarf in his clan who had no touch of primal magic. For “blasphemous” discoveries in an ancient dwarven city, servants of the tyrant of Tyr killed Malamac’s kin and enslaved Malamac. Malamac found himself an unwilling gladiator bereft of possessions and friends.

Like with Malamac, I learned the most about the characters from the losses they had suffered and what they planned to do about them. The answers have shaped adventures and encounters for over a year now. As the characters approach paragon tier, I’m working to provide opportunities to resolve or provide closure for many of those losses. I’m also fostering new attachments and planning possible threats to those attachments.

You see, loss often leads to new experiences and connections. Malamac’s initial loss opened the way for his primal power to blossom. It also provided him with a new “family” made up of some characters in his party if not the whole group. He has risen to leadership among his friends, providing him with a sort of status he might never have gained otherwise. The “loss” of his status as a slave opened the door to adventure, and adventure has led to prestige that might become actual influence in Tyr. Certainly, Malamac and his peers stand in a position to influence Tyr’s future fate.

Losses Influence

Loss I’ve imposed has shaped the narrative course of my Dark Sun campaign. I began the game, and some of my “Welcome to Dark Sun” sessions, with an encounter against a gang of slavers known as the Red Hand. The encounter was (and is) utterly unfair, a beatdown five levels higher than the characters. After putting up a truly spectacular and desperate struggle in the first run of this encounter, the characters fell to the superior forces. They lost their freedom instead of their lives, setting up the first adventure, where they must regain their freedom far from home or die.

The players, and characters, have been itching to even the score with the Red Hand since that first encounter. The current meat of the campaign is rooting out the gang and its leaders, and gaining some payback alongside some justice. The motivation is largely based on the first loss with a dash of “let’s end slavery in Tyr” thrown in.

That’s cool, because the players are the driving force behind the course of the action. Yes, I bait the hooks well, but the players choose which ones the characters bite. Attachment and connection, and possible loss of these, are huge motivators.

In the narrative, characters also wanted revenge on the owner of the Cracked Jack (a cracked drinking horn as its sign), the bar in which they were abducted. Jak, the owner in question, a bald half-elf with a scar down one side of his face, seemed like he was in cahoots with the gang. It turns out, as it does so often, that Jak was almost as much a victim as anyone. What would you do if a gang of thugs gave you the option to let them use your establishment or lose your skin?

When the characters returned to the Cracked Jack, they ended up facing the Red hand again and discovering Jak’s dilemma. They tried to save Jak, but failed. They then felt a sense of duty toward Jak’s orphaned teenage daughter, Danae. She is now part of the characters’ NPC entourage. Jak’s loss has led to new possibilities in the narrative.

Looming Losses

I have another hook floating out there that the Dragon of Tyr demands a thousand slaves per year from each of the seven cities. The free city of Tyr has no slaves to send, and too few prisoners who deserve such execution. Rumors are now spreading on the streets that Tyr is doomed to face the Dragon’s wrath. The players and characters know they can’t face the Dragon and hope to live (at least they can’t at 8th level). Yet this possibility threatens almost everything the characters love. What can they do?

Possible losses need not be that concrete, however. Corvas, a deva avenger, exists on Athas only because he comes from a time long forgotten. He remembers little of his existence as a once-great servant of the goddess Melora, not even her name. Divine power is part of his being, however. He is one of the few devas left on the planet, supposing any others survive. He is the rarest of characters in that he has actual divine power.

Corvas looks at today’s Athas and can feel only great sadness. Although the past isn’t clear in his time-fractured mind, he recalls better days in his subconscious. He also knows who’s to blame. Defilers.

The very threat of any more loss to defiling on Athas drives Corvas to rage beyond reason. Further, he cannot, will not, accept the dying world. A desire to bring life back to the brittle husk that Athas has become drives Corvas to strive and slay, and to seek his memories and true power. Does his “Painted Lady” live, is she dead, or is she a delusion?

Loss looms large in Corvas’s future, formless and ominous. It has countless strings I can pull to manipulate the course of the game.

Loss to Catharsis

The point of loss in a game is to provide some sort of tension. It can provide motivations for villains that characters can sympathize with. Player characters can explain unusual or nontactical behavior with it. (For instance, to the chagrin of his teammates, Corvas breaks off from his current target to attack anyone who or anything that defiles. I like it, even if the other players sometimes don’t.)

Tension is a good thing for any old story, and much more so for a narrative game. The tension doesn’t need to be released, but it’s very satisfying when it can be. Players feel rewarded for their efforts, in character background and in ongoing play, when the game’s play provides a chance to make up for past failures. Imagine how the players felt when they faced the Red Hand again and won with no losses.

Consider using loss and the emotions it entails to give your characters and scenarios more depth and tension. Then manipulate the depth for personalized narratives, and use the tension to set up satisfying clashes and releases. Give loss meaning. I hope I’ve given some of mine a little more by sharing this with you.

Illustrations by Jared von Hindman of Head Injury Theater.

Minions on the Table

In my last miniony article, I wrote about tinkering with minions mechanically to come to the flavor you really want from them. Now it’s time for your minions to meet the consumers, your players. A lot off cooks say that a big part of the experience with food is presentation. It’s the same with encounters in general and minions in specific. The tastiest minions might fail if you give them poor table presence.

A Nice Spread

Monsters can lose a battle before it begins if they have bad tactical positions. This is even truer with minions. Even if we assume, narratively, that your minions have no way to know they’re little competition for the characters, the creatures have a reason to seize tactical advantages. Beasts do so by instinct and natural ability, and smarter creatures do so through cunning, inclination, and planning.

Consider where the minions might want to be on the battlefield, just like you would for a monster of similar role. Assuming the monster has the ability to choose its lair or the fight’s locale, you can even build the encounter area to accommodate such a minion group’s terrain needs. Any artillery monster, as an example, seeks favorable terrain that allows it to shoot without direct melee confrontation. They favor high or protected places, such as a ledge or a window, that are hard to get to.

Speaking of hard to get to, movement modes can obviate the need for specific terrain while allowing a minion longevity and some narrative coolness. A movement mode—burrow, climb, fly, or swim—can allow minions to have the run of the combat zone. Skirmisher or lurker minions, or those designed for a specific narrative effect, might even be able to disengage with little risk, and then return to battle when they choose to. Such movement modes also make it easy to fill an encounter area that seemed empty when the characters entered. (Ambush!) The arrival of new monsters during the ongoing fight is also easily explained. In the previous articles I talked about myconid gas spores and kruthiks, both of which can use specialized movement modes to appear in combat from unusual angles.

When designing a space for your minions, take cues from cinematic video games, especially high-action games such as Borderlands. In Borderlands, some creatures (skags) emerge from burrows to join the fight, while others (spiderants) emerge from the soil in ambush. (It’s easy to see kruthiks as spiderants.) Still others (rakk) dive in for a flyby attack, then retreat. You often encounter an interesting array of creatures, weak to strong, that have varying powers despite physical similarities.

Consider that what’s good for the characters is also good for the monsters. Terrain powers add to a combat encounter interesting effects that the characters can exploit. A minion or group of minions might become particularly effective if they try to make use of the terrain powers, too. It’s all fair if everyone has an equal chance to use the terrain. When the kobold miners push the fiery brazier over on the characters, the players might just start to value terrain powers more. Just be sure to adjust the difficulty if it seems likely a terrain power might really favor the monsters.

Ingredients List

Food labels normally tell you what you’re eating so you can make informed dietary decisions. Gamist transparency is the same. It’s telling the players what the characters are facing so smart choices can be made. It’s called gamist because it’s more about the mechanical side of the game than the narrative side. It’s called transparency because the players are allowed to see through the game’s narrative reality, or what the characters might know, into the mechanical reality.

Transparency is a controversial subject. Some DMs prefer to tell the players everything, even if doing so requires giving out metagame knowledge—information the characters can’t really know. Such a DM allows players to act on this metagame knowledge. The DM justifiably assumes the characters are way more competent and informed than the players, so giving the players a little gamist leeway is harmless. Other DMs are stricter. They provide only information the characters have a way of really knowing, allowing knowledge and perceptual skill checks to expand the available data. As with other aspects of the game, the “right” way is what works best for you and your players.

Let’s face the facts. Minion, like any other role, is a game term the characters don’t know in a narrative or in-game sense. The characters can, however, sense whether an opponent looks less competent, poorly armed, or less prepared for battle. A fighter should easily notice that the fighting technique of an opponent is amateurish. An arcanist might note that the arcane power in a magical creature is weak, just like a cleric could be able to sense that an undead minion’s ties to the Shadowfell are tenuous. A ranger surely knows whether an individual beast is too feeble to be much of threat to the characters.

I favor some generosity in the realm of transparency. Sometimes I assume the battle-hardened characters can just tell when a creature is a minion. Other times, I use passive knowledge to determine what the players know. Every once in a while, I require an actual check or wait for the players to ask for such a check. (This is most true when the minions are considerably higher in level than the characters.) I have called for a check when a player is about to use an encounter or daily power on a minion. My inconsistency on this subject is due to conflicting desires, unique situations, and differing narrative needs in a given encounter. I prefer for the players to be able to use their resources as wisely as possible, but I also want to minimize the use of metagame knowledge. It can be an immersion killer. A decent level of immersion is required for me to have fun as a DM.

Robert Howard—a friend, player in my game, fine DM, and master of Pen & Paper Games—has a different perspective. He sees at least some of his minions as fully competent monsters that the characters can’t tell from the mechanically superior counterparts. The characters just happen, in cinematic fashion, to take out some of the fully competent monsters with one shot. Robert is using such minions to create an illusion of the characters’ badassery. To a character in such an encounter, he or she just took out a dangerous opponent in a single, gruesome blow. My difficulty with this tack is that the players see through it too easily; the mechanical reality is usually apparent.

Matters of Personal Taste

The point of all this is that minions, along with the other monsters, can be used in a variety of ways. You can create countless game experiences and stories by carefully employing minions, by manipulating their mechanics, and by engineering the encounter—XP budget to terrain—to accommodate them. You can even control transparency in varied ways, like Robert and I do. The process is more art than science, so experiment and have fun. You are the (evil?) mastermind and these minions are all yours.

Illustrations by Jared von Hindman of Head Injury Theater.
Dragon illustration appears in
Sly Flourish’s Dungeon Master Tips.

Minions of Differing Flavors

Last time, I talked about how minions spice up encounters and what they’re meant to do in the D&D game. But, just like the epicure needs new and exciting experiences, numerous DMs among us need new ways to mix it up with minions. This is especially true if you feel your minions disappear too quickly to be interesting or seem to be no added challenge. I’m going to attempt to, as an infamous chef might say, help you to kick it up a notch . . . sometimes.

I already suggested that you take some care in using minions to create a specific flavor when you’re brewing up encounters. You can take it a step further by creating or altering minions. Several methods can be used to change minion effectiveness and flavor. Used cleverly and in the right amount, these schemes can make minions a tastier addition to some encounters.

Spice to Taste

Let me reemphasize the use of minions as a form of encounter pacing and narrative flow. When you design an encounter, you can make up storyline reasons why the minions show up in intervals—or show up, then disappear. then show up again. When you design the pacing this way, only a portion of the minions is on the battlefield at one time. The characters can kill only what’s there at the time. The arrival of new combatants changes the course of the encounter.

As an aside, I never roll initiative for new minions. They appear and go on the same initiative count as the initial minions in the encounter did. Doing this keeps the game rolling. (I actually rarely roll initiative for any monster, but that’s a topic for another day.)

In my Gen Con Dark Sun game, as an example, the characters were the fuel for an evil ritual in which a dray (dragonborn) sorcerer was turning himself into a kaisharga (lich). They were far from alone in this predicament, but they were the only individuals with the fortitude and influence of other forces to awaken during the ritual. Each round, the ritual dealt damage to the characters, and some of the other unfortunates being used for arcane fodder died. A defiled spirit, like a weak wraith, rose from the remains of each NPC who perished. These minions, appearing two or three per round, harried the characters as they tried to unravel the ritual. In fact, the minions caused some nail biting, since the defiled spirits were in a position to take out a character or two who had to choose between attacking the minions and continuing to oppose the ongoing ritual.

Long Live the Flavor

If minion survival is a goal, it’s fair to carefully fiddle with what keeps a minion alive and in the battle. At the heroic tier, you might need to be cautious with such tinkering. At higher levels, minor survivability changes to minions rarely matter much. Just make sure the narrative quality of a minion fits with its longevity.

What happens if you change “HP 1; a missed attack never damages a minion” to “HP 1; this minion takes damages only when hit by an attack”? You’ve just eliminated automatic damage, such as from rain of steel, and attacks that require no attack rolls, such as the new magic missile, from possible damage sources for this minion. Hazardous terrain effects that require no attack roll can’t take this minion out, either. That’s good for some minions, as long as you mean to remove the effects of some powers, such as cleave, when making such a change.

Again, use these techniques with care, avoiding thwarting character abilities just because you can. Single encounters with unusual creatures are fine. Repeatedly being faced with monsters who are immune to aspects of your powers is frustrating.

That’s why traditional immunities aren’t great options for normal monster design. They can thwart a character too much, and they can eliminate certain character themes as viable builds. However, immunity to a damage type or two can work well for minions. Resistance does little for minions, since only 1 damage has to make it through. A fire minion with fire immunity makes perfect sense, though. Fire never deals enough damage to kill such a creature, but it still takes only one solid hit with another damage type to kill it.

You can make it so that one solid hit isn’t enough to kill some minions. Two-hit minions come in various forms. Insubstantial, like most resistances, does little for a minion. However, it’s easy to imagine an insubstantial minion being allowed a saving throw against taking damage from an attack once per encounter. In fact, the fell taint drone from Dragon 367 does just that. I’ve also made minions I wanted to appear tough or heavily armored, such as dwarf militia warriors, that receive a saving throw against the first hit. The narrative tells the players and characters why the minion is hard to kill.

No hard-to-kill minion discussion is complete without mentioning zombies. To me, zombie minions are almost required to give any horde of shambling corpses the right feel. Further, as my players know, I like for zombies to get up again after they seem dead. Some of my regular-monster zombies rise again as low-hit-point monsters, and others reanimate as minions. Zombie minions can also be two-hit wonders, because they might stand back up on their next turn if not dealt with appropriately. It works even better if you make the ability to rise again unpredictable. You can probably think of reasons for non-undead minions to behave similarly—elementals, demons, primal spirits and so on.

Savor the Subtle

Minions are meant to deal damage and worry the characters enough to change party tactics. Consider, though, the countless ways a minion might deal its damage. It need not have an attack to do its dirty work.

Like a warlord granting the barbarian an extra attack, a minion can simply stand around and benefit the stronger creatures in the fight. I’m not talking about resorting to Aid Another, although that can be cool in an all-out kobold free-for-all. What I mean is a minion that provides openings, hinders enemies, and/or damages characters just because it’s there.

Imagine a minion that has an aura to make enemies vulnerable to other damage, less effective at defense, or something else insidious. It might deal automatic damage—what’s good for the players is good for the DM—impose a condition, or alter terrain around it. The players will want those minions gone, believe me. All the better if you decide to add new ones over the course of the encounter.

The fire sinks from Seekers of the Ashen Crown are this type of minion. They don’t attack. Instead, a fire sink moseys up to you and eliminates your resistances to fire. Then it burns you if you end your turn next to it. Hello Ms. Tiefling, it’s time to get out of the kitchen or taste the heat. New experiences are fun, no?

Consider the Aftertaste

Speaking of tasting the bitterly unexpected, I’m no fan of gotcha powers on monsters. You know the ones. When the boneshard skeleton blows up all over the whole party, that’s a gotcha power. Such powers are the worst when they have large areas, like the boneshard skeleton’s boneshard burst. A close burst 1 allows the characters to pull out forced movement powers to move the foe away before the gotcha power goes off. Close burst 3, though? Not interesting, so no thanks.

For minions, however, I don’t mind gotcha powers so much. If a minion does something funky and fun when it dies, and it makes sense for the creature’s nature, that’s fine with me. Even so, minions don’t need to be too gotcha to be effective. I still favor small areas and powers that require attack rolls, or powers that affect the minion’s allies for a time.

A myconid gas spore (from Underdark) is much more fun if its spore burst is small enough that pushing the creature 1 square away saves you and your buddy from the damage. Then it becomes a tactical puzzle rather than a situation that no amount of careful play can help. Making the players interested and wiling to adapt is the point. That’s why I changed the spore burst to close burst 1 for my game. The players started pushing the spores around rather than shrugging and taking the original burst-3 spore burst.

In this vein, I also like powers such as Monster Manual 2‘s rupture demon’s demonic infestation, at least in spirit. A minion that dies, and then it gives its buddy a few hit points and more melee effectiveness? Nice! More, please. What I dislike about the power is its duration. I’d rather see a bigger damage boost, like the rupture demon’s normal damage, for 1 round. The cumulative, whole-encounter effect is too much.

What I’m saying with all this is: Rather than increasing a minion’s survivability, consider giving it some aftereffect, like those above, when it dies. Once again, make sure you’re creating a fun experience rather than a frustrating one. Watch the area on exploding minions and the duration of lingering effects. What’s amusing or tactically exciting for a round might become tedious in the long run. Play it out in your head or even with a grid and minis to see if your imagined effect is really what you’ll see in play.

A Third Course

I’ve reached the limit for this article’s digestibility, methinks. A few elements remain on environment and narrative roles (illusions) for minions. It looks like I’ll have to give all that to you next time.

For now, share some of your minion ideas in the comments. Let’s see what we can stir up.

Illustrations by Jared von Hindman of Head Injury Theater.

Sunburn is the Least of Your Worries

Right now, I’m caught up in general work and Gen Con preparation, and you benefit. I’ve decided to kill two proverbial birds with one metaphorical stone. I’m using my blogging time to prep for Gen Con! Did I mention you benefit? My minions shall return in a couple weeks.

At Gen Con this year, I’m running a few D&D game sessions set in Athas. This Dark Sun game, known affectionately as Welcome to Dark Sun, B!#@&s!, is a version of the campaign opener for my Dark Sun playtest campaign that started when I still worked for Wizards. It’s still going strong. I’ve been making pregenerated characters, refining my encounters, and having a good time. I’m showing my work and, well, here it is.

The benefit is that this is somewhat of a Dark Sun preview. It also includes the characters, in a form I’m experimenting with. I have some caveats for you, though. Some of what you’re going to see here works according to my house rules, some is my creation, some is reskinning, and some is bona-fide Dark Sun content. I’m not going to tell you which is which. You don’t have to wait much longer to look in the Dark Sun Campaign Guide and find out. My aim was fun characters for the players to use. They’re not totally finished, either.

I’m hoping this fires you up for Dark Sun. My players and I sure have been enjoying it.

The Hook

King Kalak is dead. Tyr is free. Slavery is illegal. Life goes on as usual in the city’s seedy underbelly, and rumors persist that a slave-trading underground still exists. As an auxiliary unit of the Crimson Legion, your party of ex-gladiator slaves and other unusual folk is investigating the problem. Asking around, you’ve already tracked some disappearances to the Cracked Jack, a watering hole in the city slums, and a gang known as the Red Hands. It’s as good a place as any to start.

The Cast

Part of this content is based on the characters, most of whom still live, my friends created for my Dark Sun campaign. Another aspect of my challenge and my content comes from Sarah Darkmagic. I designed these characters and their stories to work without much gender bias. The players will be able to take as much or as little as they want from the stories to form party relationships. They’ll be able to name and personalize these Athasian heroes. I’ve done some for the sake of easier writing.

Malamac
You’ve been a disappointment all your life, to yourself and, you thought, your relatives. Born into a family of dwarves closely tied to the ancestor spirits, you never showed any ability to tap the spirit world. Everyone else could, at least to an extent, even your younger brothers.

When your folks finally settled in the mining town of Kled, they and your siblings became heavily involved in unearthing an ancient site thought to be a dwarf city of old. You took the chance to make yourself scarce. Instead of helping with the pet project, you took to roaming the road with traders.

Your mother and father must have uncovered something in those ruins. The templar, Veermas, who oversaw the Kled excavations for Tyr, accused your family of blasphemy against Kalak. The death sentence was swift.

You were away at the time, but the templar’s agents caught you on the road. They beat you and, thinking Veermas would never know, sold you into slavery. Surely you’d die in the arena, anyway.

Only you didn’t. Your amicable ways won you a few friends in the pits. Then, one day, when you were cornered, standing over Iaran’s unconscious, pale, and changing form, you cried out to your ancestors. They listened. The power came. Iaran returned to normal, and you both lived another day.

When Durroth came to lead your gladiator band, you saw a kindred spirit. The wrathful spirits around the mul spoke to you. You taught Durroth to tap into this primal force and gained another friend.

Joining the Crimson Legion seemed natural after Kalak’s fall. Your family is dead, or so you suppose, and a new family exists here in Tyr. A hunger for vengeance gnaws at you, though. Perhaps a trip to Kled can quench that thirst. Is Veermas even there anymore?

And what was it that happened to Iaran in the arena that day? Is Iaran human or not?

Iaran
Firstborn in House Kliethra, a small merchant house, you spent your early years used to more than the commoners of Tyr hope for. Your mother, Ayleen, doted on you, and your father, Klellen, spared coin when he could not spare feeling. That was most of the time.

Neither he nor you knew that you were no child of his. Your mother, as neglected by your father as you were, had indulged herself with a gladiator named Graxus. She and he shared numerous secrets, but Graxus kept one.

That secret revealed itself as you approached young adulthood. First, your skin and eyes went pale. Then your hair turned white. Finally, your features became plainer, less distinct. Most thought you afflicted with some disease.

Klellen learned the truth from an old sage. The old man told Klellen to watch you sleep. He did. Before his eyes, you took your old form and others besides. You were a changeling, one of the strange mutants the weird magic of the world causes, or so the tales went.

What plans your father then hatched for you. Would you be a spy for the house? An assassin? Whatever the case, you had to be trained and kept out of the public eye.

Your mother wanted none of that for you. She took you from House Kliethra, and through Graxus’s contacts, got you out of Tyr. It was then that you learned who your true father was.

Klellen’s wrath knew no bounds. You heard that he killed your mother and Graxus, or had them killed. You remained beyond his reach.

You spent your teenage years with a nomadic tribe that wandered the outskirts of Tyr’s territory. Chandra, one of the nomads, became like a sister to you. Olbast, an old mul, became a surrogate father. He and a man named Iaran taught you how to fight and fight dirty.

Slavers bearing the Kliethra banner came out of the dark one night as your tribe camped. They killed many and took several prisoners. You, in Iaran’s form, were among these.

The next months were filled with spurts of blood and the roar of the crowd. You did the best you could, but you would have died had Malamac’s power not come to the fore.  Another gladiator slave, Tcha-ti, became part of your fighting group. Durroth later joined the circle as a trainer and combat leader.

When Tyr’s slaves were freed, you followed Malamac’s lead in joining the Crimson Legion. But what happened to your tribe? Might living in the city anew attract the attention of Klellen Kliethra? Would you or your blades mind if  he did?

Given your changeable physical nature and past losses, is anyone among your trusted allies someone you see as more than friend? Or do you fear future pain too much to make any such strong connections?

Durroth
Bred for battle they say. Halfbreed they call you. You knew no parents except the gladiator masters and their whips. No siblings had you besides those who shed blood and sweat with you on the merciless training grounds. Unlike many of those brothers and sisters, you survived.

Your owner and master, Lutus, was cruel. He wanted only ruthlessness and strength, and your flesh to rent to admirers for a time. You learned to show no affection for anyone you didn’t want to have to face in the arena and slay. Intuition and fierceness won you countless bouts in which skill did not, could not, save your foes. Brutality became your reputation. “Devastator” they named you.

Devastated might be more true. Grief broke a part of you. Hopelessness threatened your soul. That’s when you began to see and hear them.

You endured because, as you now know, they had always guided you from within the wind. Spirits angry, fierce, and eternal. Before they revealed themselves in full, you supposed your mind had broken with your heart, all the juices of your brain having leaked out your eyes when you were alone in your night-shrouded cell.

Now you have no more tears. Like the beast spirits that swarm about you, you have no desire but to protect you and yours. They lend you their aspect, and you willingly give them expression through your body.

You were brought into Tyr’s grand stadium to train and oversee a few slaves who had shown themselves to be able fighters. The teacher became the student, however. Malamac, awakened to a family legacy of spirit talking, gave a name to your fearsome companions. You helped Malamac live through the arena. Perhaps Malamac gave you back your life in silent thanks. He has said that the spirits work in such mysterious ways.

When Kalak died, you paid little heed. But when the new king’s edict freed the slaves, you followed Malamac. Freedom is strange to you. You have never made your own way, your own decisions. On the face of it, a focus on ending slavery seems to drive you.

The truth is you need a distraction. Malamac stirs feelings within you that you thought were dead, and with them arise old fears. What now?

Tcha-ti
Months ago, you wandered the deserts near Tyr alongside your clutch mates. Your pack revered the primal majesty and severe judgment of the wastes, as well as the simple creatures that endure there. Among your clutch mates, and under the pack’s influence, you meditated the Scorpion Way. You honed your mind to be as focused and quick as the scorpion’s, your body to be resilient and fast. You strike quickly, and then move out of harm’s way.

When dra slavers ambushed you three months ago, you were not fast enough. Your attackers dragged those who survived the battle away in nets. All of you were forced to fight in the arena of Tyr for the amusement of the dra crowds. You were the last among your clutch mates to survive this brutality. So it is, the will of the desert, the Scorpion Way.

Then you were placed among the dra—those creatures that look and act somewhat like people but have no carapace and little knowledge of true ways. Malamac, Durroth, Iaran, these arena warriors became your new clutch mates, protecting you upon the blood-soaked sands as you protected them. In the gladiator pits, you witnessed Malamac’s awakening to the whispers of the ancestors. You saw Durroth emerge from darkness. You watched Iaran come back from the path of death.

Then King Kalak was assassinated. You found freedom and another road to walk for a time. Your new clutch mates and you joined the Crimson Legion as auxiliary troopers. New people joined the clutch to hunt hidden slavers in Tyr’s slums.

You long to be back out in the wastes, but the dra are showing you a new aspect of the desert’s eternal voice. What does this maze of stone have to teach you of the Scorpion Way? Who among your clutch mates is strong and wise enough to lead you?

Elyna
You were born in the Warrens, the slums of Tyr, to a clanless elf woman and human man you never knew. Among the free laborers and gangs of the city, you learned the ways of want and of taking. The streets took your birth mother before you had seen ten years. You were clever and sly, and tough for a small, underfed thing. Your imagination contained sounds that could hurt and influence when unleashed. What a criminal you might have made.

One day, running the Iron Square markets with your mates, you spotted a good mark. She was richly dressed and wouldn’t miss a few baubles. You went for her purse, and without looking she dodged you. You hummed that little tune you knew, the one that made people forget you for a moment. She simply said, “Stop.”

Freedom ended that day, as did privation. Your new mother, Gyd, took you into her house. She tutored you in the Way, the arts of the mind. The tones in your head became fine as blades. Gyd also showed you the weave of the arcane, a source of other fine sounds. You learned to weave this secret art—for it must be kept secret—carefully and slowly, so that it appeared to be another trick of the Way.

You never forgot the streets of the Warrens. Suffering, apparently, never forgot you. The templars raided Gyd’s estate just after you had come of age. They slew your mother and all who opposed them, and then they burned the house. You still don’t know why.

Kalak perished while you were still held in the slave pens, drugged and awaiting sale. All slaves were freed. During this process, your history and skills with the Way became known. The newly formed Crimson Legion recruited you as a liaison officer.

Your first task took you back to the Warrens, looking into underground slave trade. The mastery of sound places you in a unique position among the warriors you serve with. How does it feel to be back to your roots? Does compassion stir within for the lowly who still suffer in Tyr’s streets?

Taewyn
You were born to privilege in a second-class way. Your mother, Nans, was the mistress of Hurus Dericles, a Tyrian noble. You are, technically Hurus’s firstborn, but you have never lived within House Dericles.

Hurus looked after you and your mother well enough, though. You always had what you needed—food, shelter, entertainment, and education. Hurus kept no secret about his mistress. Nans hid behind Hurus’s reputation for protection.

You learned much Hurus did not know. Your mother was a wizard, an enchantress of some skill. She liked Hurus well enough, but she also used him. As his mistress she enjoyed much of the privilege of nobility, but little of the responsibility or scrutiny. With Hurus’s money, she could practice her art and teach you.

Hurus’s wealth also bought you tutors in the Way. Nans emphasized the importance of practicing magic carefully. Knowledge of psionics helped you learn to disguise your powers.

The cushy life ended when Kalak perished. Hurus died in the upheaval, supposedly the victim of vengeful slaves. You know that your half-brothers did your father in, because they also tried to have you and your mother killed. They succeeded at half that task.

Now you’re in hiding in Tyr’s Warrens. You crave the power to burn your brothers to cinders and claim your father’s estate. For the next little while, though, staying alive will do.

Might you be able to find some allies in the city? Your mother always promised to introduce you to her “alliance of peers.” Who might they be?

Closure

Well, there you have the rough story for the beginning of my Dark Sun campaign and its characters. If you see anything you think I need to fix, email me (link in my bio) or comment. We’ll see how my Gen Con players like the introduction to Athas. If you’re at Gen Con, I hope to see you, too.

I’d like to give special thanks to my Dark Sun players, Adam Wojtowecz (Iaran), Brandon Lee (Korrin, halfling storm sorcerer), Cal Moore (Tcha-Ti), Darrell Dunning (Durroth), Ed Robillard (Corvas, deva avenger), Jonathan Pumphrey (Thomm aka Taewyn), Robert Howard (Malamac), Spring Pumphrey (Voston, half-tarek rogue). I might have changed your characters to suit my evil purposes, but you were the inspiration. Also thanks to Tracy Hurley, Sarah Darkmagic, for the idea for Elyna, whose name belongs to a special NPC in my home game.

Logo from Art Crash 2010, by Jared von Hindman of Head Injury Theater.

Minions Are Spice

(c) 2010 Chris Sims

A minion is a tiny onion used for flavor, especially in soups. That’s what my father told me when I was a kid. Even then, though, the D&D game had imparted enough for me to see the lie and the humor. In fact, if analyzed closely, this quip from dear ol’ dad, and my assimilation of it, might explain a lot about me. Talk about analysis paralysis.

But that’s not why we’re here, all thoughts about narcissism and social media aside. No, this isn’t about me. It’s about our D&D games and the cute little minions in them. Dad’s pun is right about D&D minions. They are, in fact, for flavor, especially in the best and tastiest soups.

D&D encounters are metaphorical soups of mayhem and roleplaying, escapism and illusion, bloodshed and heroics. Like spices change the flavor of food, minions change the flavor of encounters. Used well, they enhance consumption and digestion. Employed poorly, they can make the experience a little off or worse. It’s all about perception and taste.

Simple or Complex Tastes

In its most basic form, a minion is a zing in the player’s perception. A character zaps, punches, slashes, or whatevers a minion in the face, and the minion goes down. Splat! The character strikes a badass pose, the player smiles, and the encounter continues. Minion mission accomplished . . . to an extent.

Minions are also meant to deal characters damage and to balance an encounter. Dungeon Master’s Guide says so. That book tells you what a minion of a given level is worth in your encounter XP budget. It even gives you exact numbers of minions to use at different tiers. This stuff is basic information, general guidelines such as an amateur cook might find in book such as How to Boil Water.

That’s fine. Dungeon Master’s Guide is the basic DMing book for the 4e D&D game. Minions were brand new D&D technology when that book came out. You have to start with the basics.

The basics start to fail, in food and in gaming, when your tastes outstrip them. Sophisticated DMs and sharp players need refined ways to use and encounter minions. Common are the cries that minions die too quickly or are otherwise ineffective.

I agree, to a point. Minions can disappear quickly, and they might do so without so much as a whimper from their enemies. But if you have minions that started the battle still on the battlefield at the beginning of a normal encounter’s third round, then your minions have probably done their job. However, if you’re really feeling like minions aren’t pulling their weight, as I sometimes do, then it’s time to roll up your DMing sleeves and use a little more strategy.

Layering Flavor

Minions, like spices, combine with other encounter elements to create a whole that is very different from its parts. They provide two basic illusions in the game. The first illusion is that aforementioned burst of “my character is awesome” minions can impart to the player, especially when the character is a controller who clears the field. Second is the illusion of the heroic few against the hordes of evil (or whatever). Add minions to battles not only to emphasize these illusions, these flavors, but also to change player tactical decisions and encounter pacing.

In any encounter, you have to decide how you want the minions to perform. What taste are they supposed to leave in each player’s mouth? When cooking, you could just throw all the ingredients together in a bowl, stir them up, and cook them. Haphazard mixing rarely works out well. You concoct carefully, based on what you’re trying to make. In encounter design, your intentions determine the amount, placement, and timing of minions.

Add minions to an encounter deliberately, not by some by-the-book formulation. How few or how many you use should depend on the encounter’s an story’s needs. If your war campaign calls for troops of goblin conscripts, more minions might be better. Fighting in kobold mines might call for a few kobold miners in every clash.

Chunks of spice can be good or bad, depending on the flavor you’re looking for. Clump minions together at the start of the encounter only if you want the wizard to blow them all up quickly. (Although I might be repeating the obvious, it’s perfectly valid to add minions to some encounters just to make the players feel cool or smart.) Otherwise, you can probably think of plenty of good and fair reasons for minions to be dispersed or even out of sight when combat begins. Then you can reward careful tactical play or good skill use.

Similarly, based on the creatures’ intelligence and self-confidence, use tactics with minions. If the minions see everyone who starts a turn adjacent to the fighter becomes hamburger thanks to that awesome stance the fighter has, then maybe they’ll avoid the fighter. Or maybe they’ll rush in and die. Again, it depends on what you, the head chef, want the taste to be. In this example, you can have the best of both worlds by forcing the fighter to chase down those minions he wants to make into chum. You could even make that a poor tactical decision . . . .

I like to disperse my minions by adding them to an encounter after it starts, like one might add salt and pepper to a dish after it’s cooking or cooked. You might do the same. As long as the appearance of new monsters makes sense, and the XP reward is on the money, the players won’t mind. Another way to add minions is to have a creature that summons or creates them intermittently. Heck, you can even “cheat” by adding minions on the fly to turn up the heat on an encounter that seems too easy. New monsters change the pace of any combat, making it more exciting, especially if those monsters can’t last too long.

Full Flavor

Late in playtesting the 4e D&D game, I ran a few encounters using kruthik minions to reinforce the bug-hunt feel I was looking for. A conclusion I came to then was that minions should not actually be part of an encounter’s main challenge unless the DM wants an encounter that’s slightly easier than the XP budget suggests. When used conscientiously, such a tack is another fine tactic in encounter design, but it’s neither obvious nor spelled out in any D&D rulebook.

When I created my bug-hunt encounters, I wanted the minions to create harder encounters. I used tactics I have already explained, especially adding on minions as the fight progressed. (“Just when you thought the fight was in hand, more kruthiks pour out of these tiny holes! Bwahahaha!”) Another scheme I used was to put most of or all the kruthik minions in what I call “the gap.”

The gap is that magical zone between the XP budget total for one level and the XP total that pushes the encounter level to the next highest one. If you build a solid encounter of the level you’re shooting for, use one or more of the strategies I’ve already mentioned, and then place the minions in the gap, you might find your minions work out a little better. Even if the minions don’t last long enough to suit you, the encounter should still challenge the characters.

Where does black dragon breath come from!Savoring It

In my campaign, the characters recently fought myconids. Myconid gas spore minions spontaneously popped out of surrounding mushroom terrain througho ut the fight. This pacing changed the dynamic of the battle in a few ways. The spores showed up from unexpected angles. A few times, one thwarted a player’s preplanned tactics for a round. Once the players figured out that killing the death-bursting spores could be bad, the characters started looking for ways to be far away from a spore when it died and exploded.

The result was I was after is what I got. Gas spores added a weird flavor to the fungal rumble. They mixed it up and made the whole scene more fun. To me, fun is the point of an encounter. Fun can come from the challenge, the scene and story, or both. I like both.

Admittedly, though, the gas spores had one advantage over typical minions. The death burst added a level of threat some minions lack. It’s true that some minions are harder to use effectively because they lack effective mechanical advantages. Numerous older minions deal too little damage, as well. These facts can become more problematic as level increases.

Next time, I’ll talk about tinkering with minions and their environment on a mechanical level. We’ll see if we can make them not only more effective, but also more fun for you and your players. I’ll also touch a little more on illusions minions can create in the game, as well as issues related to gamist transparency.

Canon Fodder

Yeah, that was an easy pun, but it’s in stride with my opinions on this subject and has a deeper meaning in this essay. Based on discussions I’ve had with various colleagues and friends, I decide to put my viewpoint on display here. Hopefully, it’ll give you and me some clarity. First, though, we need to define terms.

In a Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting context, canon can be defined as imagined world history up to just a moment ago. This can consist of an overarching metaplot, as with White Wolf’s 90s and early 00s World of Darkness games. It can also encompass dozens of smaller stories, as with the Forgotten Realms setting and its embracing of novels as canon. Game setting canon can also include differences from core assumptions, spelled out or not, in a game’s implied setting, as it is in the core 4e D&D game. For instance, Eberron has different deities and styles of magic than those assumed to exist in the D&D game’s implied setting.

Canon Aims

Defining differences can make a game world stand apart from its peers. The myriad gods of the Forgotten Realms help make the world seem different. Highly organized kingdoms, complex politics, and large areas of known territory also distinguish it from the core “points of light” assumption. Eberron is similar. It’s not as wild as one might assume the implied world of the central D&D game is. In Eberron, most deities have no physical manifestation in the known universe. Magic is used much like technology might be in a Wild West or Pulp Era setting. In the history of Dark Sun, the primordials defeated the gods, driving them into hiding, imprisonment, or death. Divine power is hard to come by in Dark Sun, to say the least. Misuse of arcane magic led to the ecological collapse of Athas, Dark Sun’s world. With unnatural devastation and the absence of divine power came significant changes to the cosmology.

Differences that really define a campaign setting are cool. They help shape the image of the setting in the minds of the game’s players (including the DM). Such broad strokes also help the players understand mechanical divergences that might be in the setting. For instance, a player in a Dark Sun campaign assumes he or she should play a divine character only if a compelling reason exists as to why the character has access to divine power at all. Most players probably presuppose the divine power source is off limits, but they shouldn’t.

You see, setting changes that mess around with default game elements, such as whole power sources, should avoid absolutism. At least, their creators should avoid absolutes. Rather than writing in a Dark Sun book that you cannot use the divine power source, a designer should teach you how to use the divine power source in out-of-the-box ways that make sense on Athas. (By the way, I’m not saying whether the upcoming Dark Sun campaign setting is absolutist in the use of divine power. This is just an example.) Any given DM can choose an absolute stance for his or her campaign, although even that is less than ideal.

Also less than ideal are trivial changes that fail to define the game world in a meaningful way. The worst among these are absolutes that some designer or novelist added without much thought. Dark Sun setting material from older editions read that kank meat is inedible. So what? Does that small fact help you tell a story set on Athas? Or does it make you, like I did, question why anyone would herd these beasts over the delicious, egg-laying erdlu? Sure, kanks produce an edible honey, but a herder can use everything an erdlu produces, down to beaks and bones. If I lived on Athas, I’d herd erdlus and hunt kanks, or at most, keep small herds of kanks for work and riding.

I’m waxing pedantic there, which is something trivial changes can almost force you to do. Requiring and encouraging detail-oriented attention, especially in a game’s official product line, is far from good for the game. In another instance of this, the older Dark Sun setting had Cleansing Wars in the past, wherein powerful arcanists attempted to wipe certain species from the face of the planet. Taken on its face, this fact is fine. A story of racist sorcerers slaughtering certain folks can make for good history and an excellent basis for current politics and superstitions. But when you start listing races the Cleansing Wars wiped out to the last individual, when that fact is not important to the design or story, you’ve gone too far. Why? Because DMs don’t need to be told they can’t use a particular monster, and players don’t need to be told they can’t play a certain race, just because a novelist or designer arbitrarily decided to wipe out a particular creature.

It’s better to create tension, saying the arcane pogrom targeted gnomes, than to create absence, saying the arcane pogrom wiped gnomes out. In the former case, those who want gnomes in their campaign can have bitter, furtive gnomes that dislike human arcanists. In the latter case, those who want gnomes have to break with the official position on the subject. In both cases, those who want no gnomes can use the historic massacre as an excuse. Which tack is more flexible? Isn’t more flexible better for the game?

Canon Damage

As hard as it might be for veteran game tinkerers to believe, it’s difficult for some players, especially new ones, to break free of the official position on a subject. The official position is “the rule,” after all. Taught by the example of those in lofty official positions, newer players might also start to think absolute positions are right and good. I’ve met players who believe these points, who believe that changing what you don’t like about a game is something one does not do. That’s breaking the rules.

To use older Dark Sun material as a reference point again, some of the adventures and the second edition of the setting were less than popular among fans. This was with good reason. At least a couple adventures place novel characters in the central roles they had in the novel. They do the cool stuff while the players and player characters watch or take up secondary roles. Fun, eh? The whole second edition of the setting assumes the Prism Pentad novels have happened—have become part of the canon—and that the world has changed. A number of defining elements from the original setting are gone, because the novel protagonists removed them, usually bloodily. Allowing the novels to interfere with the game material did the fans no favors.

This is one reason why it’s insane to use novels as canon for any game setting. Another is that a roleplaying game is about interacting with an imaginary world as a potentially important imaginary person or as one who directs events set in that world. The game is not about merely consuming someone else’s narration or spectating at historic events. Further, as the number of novels increase, the canon becomes increasingly unwieldy until it’s overwhelming for normal players. Most people avoid playing cumbersome games. Enforcing novels as canon from an official position also, eventually, makes it a nightmare to design game material and write shared-world fiction for that setting.

This was a very real problem that faced the Forgotten Realms setting when the 4e D&D game came on the scene. Keepers of the Forgotten Realms went even further in the past, actually. Just about everything with an official seal on it is canon for the Realms—games, video games, novels, and so on. Now that’s crazy and limiting. However, it could have all been solved by hitting the reset button on the Realms the way Wizards did with Eberron and Dark Sun. Back to 1357 DR, anyone?

Some novels or other non-game setting materials do more or less harm to games that exist alongside them or follow them. The Forgotten Realms setting is indeed a place where thousands of stories can happen. It is more tolerant to canon because of this. On the other hand, Middle Earth really has one ultimate task that needs accomplishing. If you ain’t a member of the Fellowship of the Ring, pal, you’re nobody.

A rich media environment is still good for a game. Novel and such serve the game and their own purpose when they tell what could be or might happen in a game world without enforcing that reality, as canon, on the game. Such stories then become great territory for DM looting, for adventures and NPCs, and player looting, for character concepts and backgrounds. They retain their value as entertainment, as well. No one can stop one DM or another from making a novel’s story canon for his or her game. That’s fine.

Canon Misfires

The point is, as my friend Stephen Radney-MacFarland liked to point out when I got too serious in some meetings at Wizards of the Coast, we all just make this stuff up. I’m just saying that what the official source makes up and peddles as canon needs to be defining and flexible rather than trivial and absolute. Trivial absolutes are the worst. They’re hard to remember, and often not worth remembering. (Oh, yeah, I can’t use trolls here because the trolls were wiped out in the Cleansing Wars. There goes my adventure idea. Bleh.) They also give those who can remember such trivialities a way to choose against being immersed in the distinctive world an individual DM wants to portray. Sure, that’s jerky, and we should avoid playing with jerks, but it happens. Put simply, trivial canon and absolutes, especially arbitrary ones without guidance on how to make exceptions, just make the game harder to play.

For the record, a lot of game material contains arbitrary absolutes that make the material harder to use. Take any monster that doesn’t play well with others, a prime reason why 4e monster entries try to give you reasons to mix and match. Look for any statement with a never or an always in it. When I edit, I kill such absolutes with wild abandon. I want to avoid making the game harder.

Final Volley

Game world canon can and should make the game better and easier to play. It should be defining rather than trivial. Setting material should teach you how to make a game of your own, instructing you on how to make fitting exceptions even to defining canon. What I’m really saying is that you can portray a unique and interesting game setting, and at the same time, make that setting easy to play. You have to be careful with your canon.

Just don’t point it at me.

Illustration for Art Crash 2010, by Jared von Hindman of Head Injury Theater.

Mailbag 8—All By Myself, Part 5

This final piece is all about the competition for your solos—the players and their characters. You design encounters to challenge those others at your game table, so almost all of this series has really been about them anyway. Rather than the mechanics of making and using solo creatures, this section focuses on engaging players, and keeping them that way, and allowing characters to shine against a solo.

You probably already know it, but if you’re a good DM, you’re probably having the most fun when the players are enjoying what you’ve created. That’s one reason why DMing is so great. You are able to work on and take pleasure from both sides of the game’s interactions. Hopefully, some of the stuff here helps you do that better.

Informed Opposition

The characters have to earn their glory. It’s true. You’ve created a dynamic scenario for the monsters, but you need to make sure the scenario and encounter have elements that make them the most fun for the players. Make sure the players have the opportunity to play creatively.

An informed player is best suited for fun and success. You need not just give the information away if play demands otherwise. The truth is, though, that stumbling into the dragon’s lair is a lot less fun than anticipating the terrible battle bound to occur there. Running into any solo unexpectedly can leave players at loose ends, and the characters might suffer for it. Then your game will suffer, too.

The players also need the skinny on the environment. Your description of the surroundings is more than an imparting of setting detail. It should always hint at, if not directly convey, what’s possible in the area. What casual observation fails to reveal, judicious skill use should. If you want the characters to interact with some part of the location, don’t hide the information about that encounter element behind a hard skill check DC. In fact, if you want to be sure it’s used, don’t hide it at all. It’s okay to give away some information for the sake of fun. Besides, our characters are way more competent than we are. Just ask my characters. They’ll tell you.

It’s hard not to bow to the feeling that players should earn the lore they and their characters learn, but I’ve seen more than one encounter go off the rails because the DM wasn’t clear or hid needed details behind a bogus skill check. If player knowledge of the situation is important, but the player’s fail to ask for that necessary skill check, let the characters suffer only for a little while. Then do the hard part. Ask for the check. It’s okay to lead a little. Again with character competence.

Once combat is joined, the players need to know how the battle is progressing. Be explicit about state changes in the monster and alterations to the environment. Ask for checks or use passive skill checks when the characters might or might not notice a change. Be descriptive and informative about how the monster uses powers, and why certain results occur. If you catch signs that the players don’t really understand what’s happening fully, make sure they grasp what you think is essential and that the characters should know. Repeat yourself if necessary. You’re doing everyone a favor, believe me.

That’s because knowing the situation is central to the players’ ability to make informed decisions. A dynamic encounter demands that players change character tactics based on what they know or learn. Solo encounters should be among the most dynamic in design, since the monster doesn’t always provide the needed dynamism. If the monster does, then all the better.

Providing Tools

Information and its exchange are the primary tools in a cooperative game such as D&D, but we’ve talked about those. Environmental elements, skill uses and challenges, and calculated advantages can help the characters out and liven up a solo encounter. Give the characters cool toys.

Add terrain effects and terrain powers that the characters can use to gain an advantage. One such environmental power might even be a deal changer in the battle. Think about how Conan dealt with larger, stronger creatures or how Wulfgar finally slew the white wyrm Ingeloakastimizilian (Icingdeath). The ability to drop a huge stalactite on a dragon can be a cool event in the fight, especially if the characters discover the option when their normal resources are dwindling. The dragon might even make such a choice available after it uses a terrain power to cause a minor cave-in during a state change or pacing change in the confrontation.

When it comes to skills, not only should you let players use checks to gain advantages in a combat, but you should also encourage it. Little boons—from hidden clues garnered through shrewd use of knowledge skills to unexpected benefits gained by boldly seizing good terrain with physical skills—are the spice of a tactical game. To me, the game is a fantasy action movie slowed down into digestible gaming bits. Such bits even tastier when they allow a character to accomplish action-hero tasks or one-up the badass monster.

Skill challenges, especially those that can help mitigate a state change in the solo monster or an advantage the monster has, are doubly useful. They can give an encounter pizzazz, as well as adding to the challenge. Maybe those versed in Arcana, Nature, or Religion can work to unravel the field of unfathomable geometry defending that Far Realm entity (Thoon!), while those with Insight and Endurance can ignore the worst effects for a while.

When you use skills, I recommend taking a page from D&D editor Greg Bilsland’s blog. Try to keep the action cost low, allowing checks with minor actions. Limit each character’s check to once per turn if extending the tension is an issue. Standard-action checks should have effects at least as significant on the encounter as a hit with an at-will power. I say that such willingness on a player’s part to break out of a normal combat mode should be more rewarding. Giving up a standard action can extend the fight, but if you make the effects of that standard action worthwhile, the player should feel it. Solo fights need no help in the length department.

If the battle starts to drag, and the characters are down to at-will attack powers, be brave. Employ the next big disengagement as an excuse to allow a brief short rest that allows the characters to regain the use of some or all their encounter powers. (Greg Bilsland also points out how the time for a short rest is ambiguous. Use that for added excitement.) It might be okay for the monster to recover a little, as well, but that’s a decision you have to make on the fly while eyeballing the encounter’s pacing. Err on the side of allowing the monster to recharge some interesting powers during the pause, rather than allowing healing. If you do allow healing, give the monster back what a normal monster might regain from the use of a healing surge—do not give it back a quarter of its solo hit points or, gods forbid, more.

Acting in Good Faith

You need to avoid a few potential pitfalls when designing and playing out an encounter with a solo monster. Use certain conditions judiciously, play dramatically even if that diminishes optimum monster performance, and steer clear of thwarting the characters too much. These mistakes can grind the encounter to a messy end even if the characters win.

When I design encounters, I shun what I call one-hit weakened and stunned conditions. I also minimize one-hit dazed conditions. A one-hit condition is one that an attack imposes on the first hit with no other circumstances required. I instead place these conditions in cascading effects—effects wherein a character who has one condition worsens when hit again or when hit by a specific power, or fails a save or two. Multiple hits or save failures are required to impose progressively worse conditions. Why? Stunned, weakened, and dazed conditions not only diminish fun, but they also add to grind. Conversely, when placed in cascading effects, the potential of facing the worsening of a condition can change tactical choices and add tension to the encounter. The gameplay result is positive instead of frustrating or grindy.

It’s important, if you diminish serious conditions such as these, that you increase the monster’s damage at least a bit. This assumes the attack deals damage, of course. Some don’t. In that case, you might consider adding damage or tinkering with the action cost the way I did on my copper dragon’s version of frightful presence. Simply eliminating the serious condition without upping the damage can make the power flat.

Dull is what you want to avoid, and that can mean playing in ways that are less than truly optimal or strategic for a given monster. We’re playing a game here, and cinematic value has to trump strategic play at times. Sure, it’s best when the two mesh, but that’s an ideal situation. If less than ideal is the situation, change that situation. Further, let players feel the difference in power, and let characters trigger some of their powers. Solo creatures know they’re mighty, so provoking a few opportunity attacks and ignoring marks from the puny characters might be okay a few times.

Take the Monster Manual black dragon. It could hide in its cloud of darkness, and certainly might do so in a “realistic” situation, but how is that fun for anyone? Change monster elements like this when you find them while you’re preparing. Be prepared to make alterations on the fly if you see a monster’s power having a negative effect on the game. Thrashing the characters isn’t essentially negative, but frustrating the players is. It’s better if the dragon uses the cloud to gain clear advantages, such as choosing its targets without regard for the defender or covering its disengagement.

Disengagement powers, similarly, must be used wisely, or the players might start to feel like the characters just can’t gain an edge. A recharge, such as my copper dragon’s twice-per-encounter frightful presence, can help to control disengagement. So can player choice. For instance, maybe one of a solo monster’s disengagement powers works only if the creature is flanked. As long as you’re clear that the power has that limitation—probably after it goes off once, and then you fill the players in on what’s happening in game terms—the players choose whether their characters flank the monster. If the players refuse to change tactics, the characters suffer. Too bad for them.

Closure

While I was writing this, I realized that these play strategies apply to general encounter design, especially important encounters, in numerous ways. You probably realized that before I did. I’m not going back and making this a general article, though. Nope.

Anyway . . .

Players always need to be informed or to have a chance to be so enlightened. Terrain and other extra encounter elements can make any encounter saucier. Skill use is fun and makes a player feel smart for having chosen a skill. (Remember, what’s good for the characters is good for the monsters. Lead by example with skill use. Make them pay!) You owe it to yourself and your players to tinker with the game, before or during play, when frustration seems to be a likely result of a given mechanical element. D&D is an evolving game, and even official material has flaws. Drama and fun are always more important than rules or realism.

You won’t get it right every time. Don’t sweat it. Neither do I. But we can all aim high, and learn from each shot that misses the target or hits it dead center.

We’ve also come the conclusion of my series on dealing with solos in your game. Thanks for coming with me on this journey. I can only hope you learned as much as I did while thinking and writing on this topic.

If you’re just joining us, you can read the first, second, third, and fourth installments if you like. You can also see the other solo articles in the rundown of my Analysis Paralysis column from the Columns menu. Updates on the column can be had by selecting Analysis Paralysis from among the available RSS feeds.

D&D Trivia Archive May 2010

On Twitter, I give out little tidbits about D&D history as I know it or experienced it. This means I might not always be right, but at least it’s interesting.  You can challenge me on twitter or by email.

Here’s the May 2010 D&D trivia archive.

  • Even the greatest DMs, such as Monte Cook, fail to keep it all straight sometimes. Ask him, and he’ll tell ya. Relax and enjoy.
  • My understanding–D&D R&D DMs identify minions as such in some way. The assumption: skilled combatants can identify mooks.
  • Minions had higher HP, near PC at-will damage, at one stage. Development shaped the 1-HP minion for easier tracking.
  • D&D trivia tells us that trolls always follow string because they know every string ends in meat.
  • D&D trivia also tells us you can only make chewing gum from troll flesh. Tastes like chicken.
  • My defiling design for Dark Sun was meant to be as (or more) tempting as the force’s dark side. Hope the final version still is.
  • The convention previews of Dark Sun might not be the final version. The books are just wrapping up preprint production.
  • I helped make the crazy D&D editing test @loganbonner took to hire on at WotC, and I helped evaluate those tests.
  • When @loganbonner started, I was happy a new person (like me!) entered the industry. Weird we both got laid off the same day.
  • Aside: @gregbilsland is another new game-industry person.
  • Eric Holmes, the author of the the first D&D “blue box” basic set, passed away on 3/20 at age 80. http://bit.ly/cmD2K0
  • 3e Monster CRs (as much art as science) are still in 4e. The design team just decided to use “level” as the 4e word.
  • Level was the default for anything related to level for powers, items, and monsters. Smart choice IMO, and one I wasn’t part of.
  • The powers of 4e were in the earliest playtest I was in (early 2006?), but I wasn’t there at the beginning.
  • Powers evolved from Heinsoo crazy (6d12? Really?) to the versions you see today. The early mandate was to push limits on design.
  • FYI, Heinsoo crazy refers to wild-man designer Rob Heinsoo, and his sort of design crazy ain’t a bad thing in early stages.
  • The Ki power source was going to be home for classes such as the ninja, samurai, and so on. Then @aquelajames and others realized we were about to isolate those classes.
  • The team decided that the monk, samurai, ninja, and so on, could occupy neat spaces in other power sources, such as the psi monk.
  • Or that it’s possible that those classes already exist. @aquelajames didn’t want another Oriental Adventures.
  • I doubt you’ll see a whole book just about Eastern fighting techniques. It’ll be integrated with a D&D spin.
  • Monsters evolved to be simple to run and easy to design for flavor. R&D intentionally ditched the PC-like 3e design framework.
  • It’s a mistake to rely on play feedback only from extremely sharp players. They outperform normal players, skewing perceptions.
  • The initial 4e Monster Manual draft had more fluff. It was cut, I guess, to fit more stats. But monster powers alone are often evocative.
  • I’ve had players attest to the evocativeness of monster powers. One even asked me to tone down the evil critters.
  • Each good player power was similarly designed to tell its story with mechanics and brief flavor. Is it enough fluff? IMO, yes.
  • Many D&D R&Ders boggled at brand policy, but D&D and MtG worlds are kept strictly apart. Lorwyn campaign for D&D? Made of win!
  • 3e D&D crit confirmation rolls had obscure mathematical reasons, but we R&Ders and players saw it as post-crit denial. No fun.
  • 4e was also built to better control PC and monster crit ranges.
  • A discussion was had in D&D R&D whether the revenant would be a bloodline, like the dhampyr by @brianrjames. I still think so.
  • The view that won out, based on desire to do revenant minis, was that the revenant should be a unique Medium race.
  • The D&D world is not our world. Some aesthetic choices were made based on that idea. Take the assassin. The invoker, too.