Tag Archives: Dungeons & Dragons

That which cannot be removed

Dungeons and Dragons has endured a number iterations over the years, and yet there are things which have remained exactly the same. With 5th edition now looming I am left wondering if there are any parts which will be able to survive the changes this time.

The one big thing which hasn’t changed is the stat stack. The big six are known for the comprehensive and familiar description. Likewise, the range of those numbers and the fact that 1  or 0 is the bad end of the spectrum and 18 and over is the good end. Classic base character archetypes — Fighter, Thief, Priest, and Wizard. Levels, experience points, hit points, Vancian magic, and saving throws.

So what if WotC were to mess with that list? What if the big six were replaced with something else? Or if you suddenly had stats measuring from 1 to 10 on each of those? Would it still be D&D?

Don’t misunderstand. D&D is as much a brand as it is a system but which built which?

I am almost willing to argue that the system made the brand what it is. When one says D&D you get a certain image in your mind that encompasses a specific experience which includes some of those things I mentioned before. They may vary slightly — anyone else remember the saving throws of “Bend Bars / Lift Gates” or that strength could have a percentage rider if you rolled up a 18 at character creation?

It certainly wasn’t the same D&D from before, but it was still D&D. The big six were still present, hit points and movement still mattered.

But the twist is this. Even without the big six or hit points or Vancian magic, you could make a decent dungeon crawl based game. With the D&D brand, it suddenly becomes a D&D game. WotC has already done this to a certain extent with both some of their D&D board games, but also with Gamma World.

The brand in those cases is more important than the actual system that it’s been applied to. It’s not that something new has been made with the old, but that the old system was dumped all together.

So I think that nothing is going to be off limits for the designers. Everything, including the old sacred cows mentioned above, is up for the metaphorical slaughter. With this Legend & Lore column by Monte, I think it indicates with the “you play what you want to play” line there are a number of changes in stock for us old timers. We are going to be surprised, very surprised, to see what has been done with D&D when 5th edition gets published.

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How Wizards can get this Geek back

Wizard of the Coast announced they wanted to hear from the gaming community while designing 5th Ed. Which is great, but seems to miss the point. As far as many are concerned, WotC’s slip-ups and bungling of 4th Ed is reason enough to never look again. While it is tempting to be that sort of grognard, I think the company and designers deserve to know what it would take to get me to come back around.

First, the things that WotC did wrong

The PDF debacle

The digital world is here and now. Pretending otherwise isn’t helping anyone. Taking away the ebooks and pdfs did absolutely nothing to deter or prevent people from having a digital copy. All it did was take away legit sales. All it did was alienate people. All it did was create a PR nightmare that continues to this day.

Bad communication and inconsistent messages

What was the plan with 4th and why did it get changed so frequently? What was supposed to be the core books and which were optional? What was the difference between Essentials and the Red Box? And how were those different from the core? And what was the bloody point to it all?

If something changes this needs to communicated. If something advertised is impacted, this needs to be communicated. If something gets cancelled, this needs to be communicated. And the reason needed to be communicated, too. Hiding behind press releases and allowing rumors to get started never helps maintain a brand, let alone the goodwill of the gaming community.

Lack of support

It’s great that they went back and converted many of their settings but what else was done with them? Nothing! Where was Dungeon with the latest installment of an ongoing campaign? Where was the weekly “encounter” example? Where was free intro adventure to said setting? Where was Dragon with the interesting twist on play or class?

And in conjunction with my previous point of communication, it seems to me like there should have been a greater effort to make players aware of some of these things (if they existed, which I’m not sure that they did).

Subpar products

How much errata did they release? How many times did they forget to include necessary mechanics in their books? Nothing is as frustrating as finding that the part you’ve just spent three days searching for never made it into the final product.

Cards, minis, tokens, decks. AKA: Extras

These are distractions even when they’re the central mechanic of play. Remember that all of this started with pencil and notebook paper. Add some standard dice and that is all you should ever need to play. Anything less and you have broken RPGs. Substitutions do not apply. Additions, maybe, but they have to be optional and cheap enough to buy for everybody.

Even Fantasy Flight had to relent and give players straight up books with the card info in them in order to keep selling their version of WFRP. The point being we of the RPG world don’t like being forced into buying extras to keep playing. If we wanted to do that, we’d be playing Magic (and some of us still are). Keep with making the books the sole point of information to play.

What they need to do

Convince me there’s a vision

A D&D that’s all things to all players already exists. It’s called GURPS. If I want to play that, I know how to find it. And while I am fan of Monte Cook’s work, I already have the most recent revision of his best. There needs to be something new, something different, something cool about this next version of D&D.

The thing is, no company gets customers automatically. The execs of many may think they do, going so far as to see these people as an inevitability. But that’s not how it works. You have to earn your customers and their loyalty. Nothing stands out more in this line of thought than Gabe Newel’s recent comments about Steam and his business.

He is spot on about how the media companies are killing themselves by worrying over control instead of delivering the goods to people for a price they want to pay.

The same has to happen to the culture of Hasbro and WotC. They have to let go of the control ideology and embrace an more open paradigm.

Which translates into support, support, support

They need to step up the support of digital world. That means pdfs, ebooks, and the web. Yes, people will send these to their friends. Yes, they will be on torrents. And guess what? This will happen anyways. If Hasbro/WotC wants any chance to stay relevant, they must ignore the inevitable and provide a product that people will pay for.

Also, web tools. The character generator should be out front and ready to be used by any passing browser. Don’t make the gateway to your system sit behind a paywall or a log-in. Let players make thousands of characters for the hell of it. One or two might get turned into a sale. And that’s what the goal should be.

Anything else (GM tools, maps, etc) can sit behind a log-in. Freemium at the very least with a dollar or two for 48/72 hours of unlock of extra tools. Make the tools good enough, you can start selling week/month/year subscriptions as the word spreads. These need to be available at launch. No later unless you want to hear how this is just like the 4th Ed tools that never existed.

Support also means more than settings. It means having campaigns in those settings. Sourcebooks and gazetteers are nice, but nothing beats being able to point a player to a single source of everything needed for their game night. Getting set up is a chore and one that 4th attempted to solve. But that was solving for the wrong variable. The right one is having the story ready to go.

Even better would be to match what Paizo has done with Pathfinder and have a continuing, living, open campaign to draw the players. Pick one of your many properties. Start writing and have fun with it.

Acknowledging the past

I have no idea about the actual costs, but with the rise of the retroclones, it is obvious that there are players craving something of the old-school. And since there’s this gigantic back catalog there is absolutely no sense in not tapping it. In keeping with my first point, this also means digitizing it. Make it available and make it cheap. Suck it up, figure out the maze of royalties, and give your customers what they so obviously want.

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D&D thoughts

Yesterday Wizards of the Coast announced something which surprised almost nobody. That in 2013 we’re getting 5th Edition. What was interesting about the announcement was their seeking out input from players and fans of the ground breaking game series.

The question of the moment is will they actually listen to feedback on the playtest? And if they do, what will become of it?

I am doubtful that this will turn out the way most people expect it to. Not because the people behind the next edition are in any way closed minded about receiving feedback from the Internet. But because at the very least, the channel of information from the players in the wider Internet is going to be controlled to a degree befitting a corporation of Hasbro’s size and scope.

Because, and let us be honest here, the elephant in the room is Paizo. It is very hard to argue against the idea that we would not be looking at this announcement if it weren’t for the plucky upstart’s enormous and well earned success of the past couple of years. That WotC has announced that they are going to be following in their footsteps should have come as no surprise to anyone. It is smart of WotC to attempt to regain both the market and the hearts of players by doing exactly what Paizo did to gain them.

The fact that I think is being overlooked by this plan is that Paizo’s success came from two things which WotC does not have going for them. The first is the time at which Pathfinder was introduced. With the dissent of 4th edition in full swing and few retroclones to compete against, Paizo was incredibly well positioned to pull off a major coup. Which, as we can now see, it did. The second is Paizo’s size. Being as small as it is, Paizo is able to be dynamic and responsive to both the market and to the players.

The time for WotC to have struck is long since past. Market fragmentation, driven in part by a baffling series of confusing messages from the company in the last few years and in part by the removal of all previous versions of D&D from sales channels, is set. WotC is now in the unenviable position of being a owner of a brand which has inspired such loyalty as to actively drive more causal gamers away. Short of going back in time to prevent Paizo and the OGL from ever existing, they are now stuck with their subset of hardcore supporters and a harder sell to everyone else.

As for the dynamic and responsive presence, I don’t know. I feel like they don’t have it in themselves to win that fight. They can do whatever Hasbro let’s them get away with, but ultimately WotC and the designers don’t have the editorial or financial independence Paizo does. And they certainly don’t have the same trust of the gaming community they once held.

In some respects this pledge of openness reminds me of Blizzard and World of Warcraft. If you have ever spent time delving into their forums, specifically the beta forums, you will find any number of issues with the game brought up. Some big and many small. They have also gone out of their way to ask their community for feedback on classes several times now. And yet with all of this feedback, very little has ever made it through to the actual coders and designers to fix.

As explained more than a few times now by their community managers and CSRs who tend the forum, there isn’t a direct line to the devs. Nor was there ever intended to be one. At best the CSRs will gather up the biggest issues and most interesting posts to pass along to their superiors who, we guess, send them along to the appropriate triage teams and eventually to the devs.

That is a textbook case of how you manage a number of players the size of which WotC is aiming to have. Why anyone would think that Hasbro and WotC would do their forums and feedback any different is…perhaps naive or possibly fooling themselves.

Do not misunderstand me. I think it would be wonderful to have Monte Cook hip deep in their forums and responding, personally, to every well thought out and worded post. Or to see a change or three initiated by some player’s insightful suggestion. I think that this and the other announcements we got yesterday are part of their overall marketing strategy.


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Thoughts on symbolism and the novel Dune

I’ve been reading Joseph Campbell’s Primitive Mythology, The Masks of God off and on for the better part of four months now. And I’m only 70 pages or so into it. It’s a dense work. I find myself stopping every few pages, caught in thought of what was said. I started this book with the idea of seeing what ideas I could harvest from it and apply towards the design of RPGs. The reason being is that I saw many parallels between the sort of cultural anthropology Campbell does and the sorts of cultural exploration that RPGs promote.

In the first twenty pages it became abundantly clear that I was right. Despite the fact that Campbell couldn’t had said anything about RPGs (particularly since this work was first published in 1959, a good fifteen years before Dungeons and Dragons was published) the track he takes with his subject headed straight into the reasons why myths persist, what makes good myths, and why we keep using them to tell new stories. With all of that presented to me, it became impossibly easy to see that RPGs are the modern equivalent to sitting around campfires and telling stories to one another.

RPGs are to myth making as Digital Cameras are to the work of Mattew Brady. Both are fundamentally the same but are at opposite ends of their respective history and produces such different results that can only be derived from the advancement of knowledge and technology.

That should have been that. My thesis was given good backing. I could move on and do other research. But I kept reading. Slowly, as I explained before.

This book is like some sort of thought battery. Every time I’m feeling like I can’t get myself to move mentally, all I have to do is read a page or two and the world opens up in new ways.

Today’s reading left me thinking about the novel, Dune. I have always known that it is heavily steeped in the symbolism of religion. It is a practical how-to guide to manipulating your way to power using such symbolism. At least, that’s the thing I thought the reader was supposed to walk away with. But I think that was only a mid-level sort of reading and not the full depth insight I thought it might have been.

There are things about water and mother and the unapproachability of the all-maker-mother that I think I need to consider more. In particular, how Paul (a male) is able to usurp that position with his ascension and acceptance of the god-head and messiah of the Fremen people. Who are, unsurprisingly, caught up in an entire myth-cycle of mother/water symbols. This can be contrasted with the non-ascension of his sister and her possession and eventual destruction in the later books. Indeed, it almost seems to scream now that I think of it, that there is a parallel compare/contrast going on between how the two characters seem to handle the power of the mother myth.

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Design of Dubious Use Presents

Item Classifications

For some time now RPGs include various classifications for items and then link them to certain mechanical benefits or detriments in the rules. For example, the GURPS system not only had types of weapons and damage but also Tech Levels, describing the point in history where the game was taking place and what sort of items could be found there. Obstinately, this was to keep laser guns out of the medieval fantasy, but in my experience, it served only to confuse the players and cause trouble. You can see where Tech Levels get silly quickly with the addition of half levels and the +/- which modifies the meaning of a given TL in an attempt to make it more customized.

Another good example can be found in D&D. Here you find weapons classified as either Exotic or Common, slashing/bashing/piercing, and by their damage die. In purpose, these are all present to give players a strategy to work by. Certain types of weapons do better or worse against certain types of foes. In practice, this causes parties to be concerned not with the story and its elements but often with the contents. How many times have you sat down to start a game session and are hit by a barrage of questions? “Are we going to be engaging undead?” “What sort?” “Skeletons or zombies?”

From such, or because of such classification, RPGs have rules which limit what characters can do based solely on them. Proficiencies, Skills, and Talents are layered with caveats giving players access to one or two of the categories but not all. But do these classifications do anything for the roleplaying experience? Do these rules enhance the drama and the player experience or end up restricting Players and their imaginations?

Here are two situations of high drama which Characters can find themselves in.

Situation 1: Your character has been kidnapped and put in a locked room. You’ve been able to escape your bonds. There’s nothing in the room but a chair, the rope the character was tied up with, and a table. Your character hears the kidnappers coming down the hallway talking about how the ransom hasn’t been paid and they’re going to murder them.

Situation 2: Your character is in the middle of a large battle, both sides have people dying all around you. Your weapon is broken and you’re suddenly faced with an opposing champion. Your only choice is to grab a spear-like instrument currently impaling a fallen comrade.

Both of these situations can apply to a whole party, not an individual. Both have the same problem when having rules reinforcing classification systems. Can the Character take up that spear or grab that chair and make good with their life? In both situations they should be able to because it makes sense dramatically. The system should be focusing on the drama of the situation and not the objects lying about the characters. These are not the plot macguffins you put in there. This is a Character in life and death. The drama of these situations does not lie in the materials but in how they are used.

When creating a system of classification for item you create a certain intent. If that intent is to limit or restrict then you have limited and restricted how your players imagine and react to the situations presented. Does that make for good roleplaying or not?

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Building up the rpg market

The amount of money being spent on various forms of entertainment these days is growing, but for some reason, the RPG market remains in its limited scope. Why is this?  Considering that one of the biggest trends in entertainment has been the so-called interactive experience, I find it surprising that RPGs haven’t been touted loudly. The core of RPGs is interaction and the sharing of fun with other people.  However, I realize that these games have had a controversial existence marked with swathes of provocative misinformation and purposeful misunderstandings hounding those who play them.

Perceptions of what these games are and those who play them are the biggest culprit. Not long ago, some umbrage with the images and themes used in the biggest of games, Dungeons and Dragons. Grabbing the headlines, blame for all sorts of horrid and completely imaginary events was unjustly laid at the feet of a mere game. If you look in the right places you can still find this going on today. One of the saddest of these demonetizations came from Jack Chick and his ignorant pamphlets. In it, he unsubtly proclaims that playing D&D leads directly to devil worship, and does so in the most serious of terms. If it wasn’t so sad, all of this would be hilarious. However, since many took them seriously much damage was done to the reputation of RPGs.

To counter these perceptions we must be proactive in advocacy. And to do that we must be honest with ourselves about what we are doing.

Role Playing Games are make believe. Dressed up with esoteric rules and polyhedral dice, we project ourselves into worlds of fantastic designs, supernatural powers, and heroic paragons. But at the very core of this experience is a game of make believe. Couched in these terms RPGs don’t seem very dangerous. Practically childish, in fact.  This is a good thing. It takes a sprained mind to twist such a simple idea. However, there is someone else to consider in terming it this way. Us. It will probably take some time for gamers to become comfortable with these terms, nonetheless, this must happen before progress can be made.

Once the idea of “make believe” has been accepted by everyone, we can build on it to show that it’s not a childish escape. There is intellectual, cultural, and artistic merit to the things we do.  In taking on these alternative personas, we get a chance to experience life from a different perspective. Questions of a philosophical nature are given life in new and exciting ways not easily experienced in everyday life. This acceptance even gives us a chance to explain the iconography in proper context, finally pushing our hobby out of the metaphorical dungeon it has been languishing in.

There is a second perception which needs to be addressed. The perception of ourselves.

I have been to GenCon twice now and have to say that I could not have met and had fun with nicer people. Strangers and friends alike, everyone found themselves enjoying the fun. Everything else was ignored as unimportant. Gender, identity, ethnicity, and the lines which generally divide humanity were all tossed away. It’s hard to explain to those who have never experienced anything like it, but for all too briefly the only important matter was laughter and fun.

So why do we accept the picture of a basement dwelling, misogynistic, agoraphobe drenched in sour smelling stains of sweat as the public face for this particular facet of our lives? Why do gamers, RPG players in particular, allow this stereotype to continue unchallenged?

The vast majority of us aren’t represented by this view. For some unknown reason, we tolerate it, and it keeps people away. I’m beginning to think that deep inside we are all elitist assholes. That we don’t want other people to play if it’s not someone already approved. I hope this isn’t the case because it couldn’t be further from how I feel. I like including more people, new people, in my sessions. I like new faces because it means we get new views on the story. There will always be a few outliers that do live in their parent’s basement, eschewing greater social contact for the insulating glow of 20 watt bulbs and the screen of their computers, but that does not mean we accept it as the face the rest of the world judges us by. It by no means is me, my wife, or my friends.

A few years back Wil Wheaton gave the keynote at PAX. In it, he goes through why he continues his gaming and why he exposed his kids to it. In the end he give some sage advice to those who want to spread the word. Don’t be a dick. I cannot think of a singular, simpler way to express what must be done to get more people to join in the fun.

Play. Have fun. Include strangers. And don’t be a dick.

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