A D&D Life

Capture
My first magic tome.

What does D&D mean to me? My friend Shawn Merwin asked me to write about this question, and record the response for his podcast. I don’t have recording gear (or skills), so I wrote this piece. He recorded it for his podcast.

The question itself brings up all sorts of feelings and memories. It’s an important question, because some might think after being laid off (twice) while working on D&D, I might have negative feelings about it. I don’t. From the heady days of first gaming in 1981 to today, working on three or four different game projects at once, D&D has been and is good to me.Read More »

World Building: Roots

marshubble
Barsoom (2)

I said a while ago that I wanted to talk about world building (maybe worldbuilding or world-building, as you prefer). That I do. Doing so seems likely to take more than a couple entries here. This essay is the beginning, written as much for me to explore what I know as for anyone who cares enough to read it. (1)

Generation of the world or universe, the setting, is important to numerous aspects of creating media, from novels to games. Careful design can’t be undervalued. Assumptions should be avoided, while reasoned relationships should take prominence. Aim to build novelty and interest, but include enough of the familiar to build resonance with the audience.

We need to define a few terms before the discussion begins. This essay waxes philosophical. (3)Read More »

Shotgunning

This entry is a little scattershot. I have a few things to let you know before I delve back into meaty essays on specific topics.

Speaking of topics, I have plenty. However, in my first post, I asked what folks might like me to write about. A commenter pointed out, wisely, that I should tell you what I’m interested in. Maybe that list will help you pick something you want to know. Maybe I’ll even be able to give a decent answer.

It’s not exhaustive, but here’s that list:Read More »

A Plot, So Meta

Years ago, I wrote about canon as it applies to tabletop RPG settings. I still believe what I wrote back then. Canon serves as a framework for a setting, but after that, strict adherence to and advancement of canon along an official timeline is harmful to the setting and its audience. This latter specific type of canon is called a metaplot, an overarching story line imposed by the designers of a setting, creating official events in the setting up to and even drawing the setting’s timeline to a close. Because of recent experiences I’ve had, talking with some interesting folks and applying to be White Wolf Publishing’s new Editor (1), I’ve been thinking about metaplot a lot.

Strahd
Strahd’s Borovia, like Dracula’s Transylvania, was a kind of world of darkness. Region of darkness?

When it comes to expressing intellectual property (IP) in media, metaplot can be a complicated issue. For tabletop RPG settings, metaplot, as canon, is useful only insofar as it underpins players’ starting point and furthers adventures (story-based products that the players experience through sequential play). Beyond that, metaplot can be damaging to an RPG setting. However, if the intent is to focus on wider transmedia storytelling, the rules change. Then, a coherent metaplot, which is really a plan for a shared audience experience over time, is vital (although not for a related tabletop RPG setting).

Tabletop Plotting

With tabletop RPG settings, such as Forgotten Realms or World of Darkness, the necessary part of the metaplot is that which forms the myth and history of the setting. From the place defined by this initial canon, a setting becomes unique over time for each group that uses it. The publisher can continue to use metaplot in adventures, because adventures, unlike any other game supplement, are an experience of time’s forward arrow for the players. The current Dungeons & Dragons brand strategy uses this approach with adventures that describe the ongoing, player-centered drama in the Forgotten Realms. (According to Chris Perkins, the core intent for products that occur outside the Realms, such as Curse of Strahd, is to showcase the wider D&D multiverse.)Read More »

Resurrection Edition

Priests gather around the husk of a fallen warrior, as do his companions and friends. A brush with darkness left him all but dust and bone. Someone steps into the circle of solemn onlookers and places a diamond over the corpse’s heart. The sun rises, and the ritual begins . . . .

Yeah, you’re right. That’s an overwrought way to reintroduce myself to the Critical Hits community. I mean, I’ve been away from blogging here for four years and some change (pun intended). That’s a little less time than my first daughter has been alive. She did have a little something to do with my departure in 2011, among other issues, including work on a two editions of the D&D game. I won’t bore you with the details on the former, unless you ask to hear them.

In fact, I hope not to bore you at all.Read More »

The Geek Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visions Verbalized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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