A D&D Life

Basic
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 still 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.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.

The D&D Experience

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

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

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

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

Into the Unknown

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve been guilty of it:

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

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

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

All those rationalizations are malarkey.Read More »

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.