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.