The Littlest Con

Madison, South Dakota might seem like a typical small Midwestern town. In some ways it is. But it’s also the home of a Dakota State University and the school’s Computer Game Design program. The DSU Gaming Club puts on a gaming shindig every year, and this legendary event is known as Nanocon.

Nanocon isn’t just a gathering to facilitate gaming of all types, which it does. It’s also an educational event for the students at DSU. I was invited last year as a representative for Wizards of the Coast, among such design luminaries as the wise and skilled Jeff Tidball (a freelancer for Fantasy Flight, Atlas Games, and countless others) and the incorrigible cad Richard Dansky (White Wolf, Red Storm Entertainment, and novelist responsible for Firefly Rain). It was a great time, and I must have done something right, because they invited me back.

This year, the roster was filled with a few more experts, such as:

Jeff Tidball was back, bringing with him a playtest version of a board game based on the well-known RPG [name redacted]. I was lucky enough to play the prototype. To me, Jeff’s version captured the essence of the RPG better than the original did at times. Sure, like Jeff himself said, there were no intense roleplaying moments, but it as great themed fun. Perhaps we’ll revisit it when the game is released and my NDA no longer applies.

• Jeff McGann, lately of Red Storm but on his way to Irrational Games and work on Bioshock Infinite. Jeff knows a thing or a thousand about the “hellish world” AAA game design. Primary in my mind, as a designer of D&D, is his take on accessibility or lack thereof. Your game has to let people in, and if it doesn’t, it won’t matter how cool the second act is. Too few people will see that act. D&D has lacked real accessibility for long enough that the problem transcends editions. Maybe the new red box helps, but I don’t think Essentials does. My point here is that most D&D players are inducted into the game without having to climb the complexity curve alone. Maybe more on that later.

• Matthew Weise of the Singapore-MIT Gambit Game Lab, researcher on game history with emphasis on Metal Gear Solid, zombies, and first-person RPGs. As a fan of stealth games, I appreciated Matt’s analysis of the Metal Gear franchise. See Game Verbiage below for more on Matt.

• Clara Fernandez, also of the Singapore-MIT Gambit Game Lab, is a researcher on adventure games, puzzle design, and dream logic in games, as well as stories in simulated environments. Maybe it’s obvious to others how puzzle design for a game is so much like overall adventure design, but I found that focus insightful. Puzzles have to provide enough information and hooks to keep players moving forward and satisfied with that progress, otherwise frustration sets in. Without a social reason to continue investing, most players just quit. Our adventures need to do the same while providing enough “imagination space” to allow DMs and players to personalize the experience. I think this is what modern D&D adventures lack, as Mike Shea has intimated.

• Kevin Rohan, the Content Director for Silver Gryphon Games. He also knows how to mix genres in Savage Worlds. As a player of Grover, mean with a pair of .44 revolvers, in Kevin’s “Fist Full of Muppets” scenario, I should know. Kevin and I also gave a presentation about sandbox adventure design, and it was pretty cool. Try to create a scenario with a nonlinear progression for the proactive player characters. Then include villains that plan intelligently and move forward. The characters have to thwart the villain’s agenda, or meet their own goals, while the antagonists do the same. It’s a lot more interesting than monsters that wait to be killed in a site that changes only when PCs appear, let me tell you.

Back to School

I was in Madison early on Friday, so I had the pleasure of going to a couple classes. Jeff Howard—a professor at DSU and author of Quests—invited me to his class on combat systems and magic systems. The students presented various combat systems for their games, and I was allowed to give some feedback. I also got to go to a projects class and witness some damn cool games designs in progress, and the students were kind enough to explain the concepts to me, even though everyone else in the room already knew the project story and parameters.

How is this useful to you? One thing I felt over and over again, and said in various ways, was that you, as a game designer, need to be able to tell me who I am in your game, what I’m doing, and why. That’s your elevator pitch right there. And if you don’t have an elevator pitch, your idea isn’t solid enough. (Steve Jackson Games writer guidelines put it another way. You need to be able to write the back cover’s sell text for your game. If you can’t, work on your idea more.)

I also felt, here and when I was evaluating pitches for D&D Insider, that most budding designers need to push ideas further and go for meaningful play. Find the unique aspects of the vision you’re after, then push them to the fore. Make sure your mechanics and narrative reward the behavior you want. Every feature of your game should have a reason for some or all players to engage that aspect. If not, then the feature is a lie. This applies to DMing from monster design to encounter design to adventure design to campaign design.

All Fluxed Up

For the game room, I came up with a Gamma World scenario based on Madison, DSU, and South Dakota wildlife. I called it Deshoo Snipe Hunt, and here’s the premise: Winter is coming. The tiny plains village of Deeshoo is finishing up the harvest and the autumnal hunts before the alpha snows block the trade route to Soox Falls. It couldn’t be a worse time for raiders to move into an old bunker on the far side of Lake He-man. The Dragon Slayers United (DSU), Deeshoo’s elite protectors, went out to deal with the raiders a few days ago. They never came back. Now a giant sword-beaked fowl with an entourage of blood birds is picking off Deshoo hunters, residents, and livestock and carrying them east. Looks like a job for the DSU auxiliary. That’s you.

Cool thing is that I got to play this scenario twice, although only once all the way through. The first time through was with four players, all of whom had humanoid mutant characters except for the player of Sunflower, which was a sentient commune of dandelions. The second game included Steve Graham, a DSU professor; Allen Thiele one of the Nanocon organizers; Jeff Howard, Jeff Tidball, and Jeff McGann. After hearing Kevin Rohan and I speak on adventure design, the last Jeff was so eager to play in one of my tabletop games that he bought new dice. As if I weren’t ecstatic enough with a table full of smart gamers, Jeff’s enthusiasm was no small compliment coming from such a smart designer. Gamma World got positive reviews all around.

I also learned a few things about the game.

• It’s all right to allow players to assign an 18 and a 16 to ability scores even if they have origins that have the same ability score. In fact, it can work better than raising one score to 20 if the player wants or needs the character to use weapons. It also behooves you to make sure every character that lacks at-will mutant powers has a reasonable score in an ability that facilitates weapon attacks. You might even want to go to a 4d6-drop the lowest scheme for other ability scores. This still allows for some low rolls, which players in my games latched onto as roleplaying opportunities.

• 1d4+1 rolls on the Starting Gear table is about 1d4 too many. The Starting Gear Table has too few options for every character at the table to have three rolls on it. Instead, give each character one roll, then another roll or two on the Ancient Junk Table, and call it good. Believe me, the Ancient Junk table is where it’s at for fun gear possibilities. I mean, how else do you get an android to throw his wireless mouse and use his Interaction skill to pretend he just threw a high-tech grenade?

• Alpha Flux is awesome. You might look at the rules for changing Alpha Mutations and dislike the randomness and changeability, but it works. Further, the players not only get it, given a simple explanation of the Gamma World setting, they also seem to love it. They especially love when they’ve used one Alpha Mutation, roll a natural 1, and receive a new mutation for the trouble. I’d even go so far as to recommend putting terrain or monster powers in every few encounters to make Alpha Flux different and, preferably, more common.

As an aside, Alpha Flux can be used to explain any kind of weirdness in Gamma World. Gamma Terra provides narrative underpinning for real-life complications. For instance, if you’re running a campaign and a player fails to show, his or her character might simply disappear for a while in a reality-altering wave of flux. He or she might even reappear with full knowledge of what transpired in the supposed absence.

• Ignore Omega Tech card drawing. Instead, give out Omega Tech like treasure, even allowing enemies to use the tech first or have it on them. As an experiment, I ignored the drawing rules for Omega Tech and gave it out (randomly) piecemeal over the course of my encounters. Doing tech distribution this way allows the players to decide who takes which treasure. It also allows you to control, to an extent, the number of tech powers that might enter play at any one time. Plus, describing the discovery of Omega Tech is more fun this way.

Game Verbiage

Matt Weise gave a workshop that was, for lack of a better word, amazing. The premise is simple: Take an intellectual property, such as The Wizard of Oz. Then reduce that IP to the verbs related to it. From those verbs, you come to the essence of what a game about that IP might include in the gameplay. The results can be surprising.

I was playing my Welcome to Dark Sun adventure (for the seventh time) when Matt started, so I didn’t participate. (The players in that game did very, very well, which I think might have something to do with my communication as a DM.) I watched. Matt and I talked while the teams worked on their IPs (The Wizard of Oz and The A-Team).

The technique might seem simple. It is. But how many games miss this simplicity? An example we spoke of is the James Bond IP. How many James Bond games are about the varied aspects of spying? Most are themed shooters that involve only the most action-oriented aspects of the Bond franchise. These games miss the chance to incorporate other aspects of the IP, and perhaps thereby, miss the opportunity to attract a wider variety of players. Matt accurately pointed out that the Hitman games involve more deceptive tactics than numerous Bond games.

A lot of designers can benefit from learning and following this sort of thinking. I know I did.

Small Con Experience

Nanocon’s magic is in its intimacy. It presents a great opportunity to meet players and play games. As a guest, I also had the chance to mingle with all the other guests, as well as the faculty and organizers. That type of interaction with others who love games is hard to overvalue. Perhaps needless to say, I’m glad I went. I’ll say a little more about what I did there later.

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).