Posts Tagged ‘4E


Female Fighters of Color in Reasonable Armor

Illustration by Julie Dillon for Martial Power II, copyright 2010-2012 Wizards of the Coast.

A post in which I talk about an art order gone wrong has gotten some attention in internetland, so I thought I’d celebrate an instance of an illustration becoming better in the transition from a designer’s vision to an artists’ hand. Above is Julie Dillon doing it right, below is my original art order:

Illo #4: Brawling Fighter
Specification: 1/4 page color

A FEMALE HUMAN FIGHTER grabs the wing joint of a GARGOYLE with her left hand while swinging a FLAIL towards the monster with her right hand. The fight takes place on the rooftops of a sprawling fantasy city, but the background is mostly dominated by the gargoyle’s spread wings. The figures are struggling at CLOSE QUARTERS, and the gargoyle is trying but failing to claw its way out of the woman’s grasp.

FEMALE HUMAN FIGHTER: She’s compact and sturdily built, with close-cropped curly brown hair and colorful earrings visible because the gargoyle has knocked her helmet off; it might be visible falling toward the bottom of the frame. She has dark brown skin and brown eyes; on Earth you’d guess she was from sub-Saharan Africa. She’s wearing SCALE ARMOR, a coat and Roman-style skirt of steel plates covered in colorful leather, with chainmail on her arms and greaves on her shins; in places the leather has been clawed away to show the metal underneath. Her FLAIL is a simple but brutal wood haft as long as her forearm, with a spiked ball on a chain about half the length of the haft.

GARGOYLE: The gargoyle should appear as depicted in the Monster Manual (115), except that it has moss and lichen growing on its surface.

The details that I described that weren’t picked up on, like the helmet falling off (to justify showing a face and still upholding reasonable armor), are more than made up for the sheer awesome of the gargoyle’s piteous expression as it tries to escape.

At the time I did these art orders I’d been reading about the Race in D&D presentation at Nerd Nite. In addition to having my own old-school agenda in describing weapons and armor that could possibly relate to the viewer’s experience of life and history, I was interested in seeing how many non-white depictions I could get into a D&D book. Here’s another Martial Power II illustration Julie did, followed by its art order:

Illustration by Julie Dillon for Martial Power II, copyright 2010-2012 Wizards of the Coast.

Illo #44: Arrowhead Commander
Specification: 1/4 page color

A FEMALE ELVEN ARROWHEAD COMMANDER squats on the ground and uses an ARROW to draw a TACTICAL DIAGRAM in the dirt, which looks a little like a football play illustrated with circles and arrows. With her free hand she points at an ally outside the shot, telling them what their part in the plan will be.

FEMALE ELVEN ARROWHEAD COMMANDER: She wears HIDE ARMOR made of the skin of a colorful snake and has a LONGBOW and QUIVER OF ARROWS slung over her shoulder. Her face is lined with age and experience, and the brown hair she’s braided over her ears is turning grey. Her skin is leaf-brown, and her nose and cheekbones are as bony and angular as the male elf shown in the Player’s Handbook (40).

Let me start by noting that a frequent reason my art orders didn’t come out the way I write them is that I don’t know what I am doing while art directors and artists are experts. Looking at this illustration, it is clear to me that if she was drawing with an arrow and pointing at someone at the same time, she would fall over.  Thinking about issues of representation has to ride on top of accounting for the pragmatic business of illustration, about which I am largely ignorant.

The character shown here was not taken from actual play. However I did write this around the time that I started using a d6 to randomize the age and gender of my PCs and NPCs, which caused elderly women to show up a lot more often in my games. There’s a little gray in the hair of Julie’s illustration, but it’s not striking. I don’t know whether the art direction process toned down the character’s age, or if my description passed through untouched but lined faces were just not something the artist was interested in.

I took the language about leaf-brown skin directly from the 4E PHB – I wanted to be sure what I was asking for was within canon, and it’s noteworthy that this was explicitly said to be a way elves might look – but that detail doesn’t seem to have made it into the finished piece. I’m inclined to think that it dropped out in the art direction step of the process, given Julie’s  proven flair for painting dark-skinned women:

Planetary Alignment, copyright 2012 by Julie Dillon. Click to purchase prints.

To give some props to my fellow writers on Martial Power II, its art director, and Julie once again, I’ll close with a kick-ass illustration fitting the title of the post which I didn’t do the art order.

Illustration by Julie Dillon for Martial Power II, copyright 2010-2012 Wizards of the Coast.


Mike Mearls’ Magnificient Encomium

Recently noisms of the superlative Monsters & Manuals called The Mule Abides “the most consistently high-quality blog out there, in terms of theory and gaming history, probably.” I should thus be ashamed to use it as the ashbin for stuff I write that didn’t make it elsewhere, but one of the benefits of being a blog-collective is that no doubt one of the other contributors will come up with something brilliant to keep up our quality average.

A while back Ed Healy contacted me for some quotes for the RPG Countdown Best of 2011 show. I wound up quipping about a number of things I didn’t work on, but one that I did – Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium – caught the attention of the guys at EN World, who wanted me to expand on the quote for their D&D Next page.

I think – but am not sure – that it didn’t ever appear there. As was the case in 2008, being a playtester means that visiting sites where fans are talking about a new edition is as madness-inducing as wearing just one of the eye-cusps that lets you perceive the Vancian over-world. If y’all have already read this at EN World, I apologize for the repost and the out-of-context community in-jokes like the link at the end. Just in case this is its last chance to avoid obscurity, though, here’s me looking back on Mordenkainen’s:

As a lifelong Gygax fan, I was honored to be chosen as one of the designers of Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium; how cool is it to be hired in real life to make magic items for Gary’s PC? And as a Dungeons & Dragons fan, I was thrilled to learn that Mike Mearls would be the lead on the project. At every step in my professional involvement as a gamer, Mike has been participating in the same communities I’m fascinated by and showing me the next step forward.

When I was at the Forge in ’04 learning how to start Behemoth3 to publish Masters and Minions, Mike was there sharing the design chops and OGL mastery that he’d soon demonstrate in Iron Heroes, and also proving that it was OK to be open to indie insights and still love D&D with all your heart.

When I was at the OD&D boards in ’08 discovering all the things the old-school renaissance could reveal about the game I thought I already knew, Mike was there posting session reports from his Kardallin’s Palace campaign and dropping science like the analogy that OD&D is a jam session while 4e is a symphony.

I haven’t kept up with the combat as sport vs. combat as war thread here at EN World but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit to see Mike posting there too; he is a true member of this community and as appreciative of others’ deep insights bridging the edition gap as he is ready to bust them out himself.

The vision that Mike showed in his leadership of the Mordenkainen’s team is everything that I want from D&D Next. His eagerness to celebrate the game’s rich history meant that no artifact was too obscure or silly for us to find its hidden treasure. I’d done five other 4e projects at that point and never expected I’d get a crack at the iron bands of Bilarro or the bone of bruising. I didn’t have to tell him why it was important to have mundane items like mules in the game, Mike already knew. He pushed me to define caltrops or glass marbles with the same clarity and concision as the best 4e design, and let me write about how players and GMs can work together to adjucate the flexibility and concreteness that lets OD&D characters retrain their mule into a warbearer donkeyhorse or a pitfinder donkeyhorse in the blink of an eye.

The other thing Mike taught me with Mordenkainen’s was how to be honest and direct and still discreet. The book went through a lot of changes – I lucked into being interviewed by the Gamerati because Amazon still has the version of the cover that had my name on it, and for a while it wasn’t going to come out at all. Mike gave me some time at Gen Con, and after I rattled off all my conspiracy theories about what was going on behind the scenes, he kind of sighed a little. “Sometimes we come up with these clever stories that sound good until people start asking questions, and then it all gets complicated,” he said. “I don’t understand why we don’t just tell the truth.”

D&D Next’s promise is as huge as the job it’ll have overcoming the misgivings fans have in trusting a new set of promises. Because I want D&D to grow and thrive, I am overjoyed to see Mike in charge of that job.

When we were doing the Kickstarter for Adventurer Conqueror King, seeing that Mike had become one of our backers was a shining moment that all the great reviews since can’t equal. Autarch is taking up the space that freelancing used to for me – getting to do Dwimmermount with James Maliszewski is also making me feel like the big kids have agreed to let me roll up a character in their game – but I’d gladly put it aside for a second and pitch in to Wizards’ great project to end the edition wars. Send me that contract for the Quintessential Mule, D&D Next is the perfect system for it!


my son the convention DM

This is Javi wearing his Halloween costume: a green slime in disguise. He will not be wearing it while DMing, as the mask makes it hard to see the numbers on the dice.

In the early years of being a parent, people would talk about how the first year of a child’s life was the best time of all. I believe that this nonsense is part of the directed forgetting we evolved so that humans will have multiple kids and ensure the survival of the species. If we really remembered what it was like to change our shirts six times a day because spit-up leaked through the cloth forever worn over our shoulders, and be woken up at each of the hours of the morning that go wee, wee, wee all the way home, procreation would come to an abrupt halt after we’d done it once.

The thing that kept me going through the various torments of early childhood was the knowledge that the best times were yet to come. Not wanting to be the kind of parent who already has their kid’s college picked out or expects them to follow precisely in their footsteps, I didn’t have specific moments in mind. However, this is definitely one of them: my nine-year-old will be DMing his first convention game next weekend at Anonycon in Stamford, CT. Here is the description we came up with for his event:

D&D Classic – The Dungeons of Ramburgh (D&D 4e)
By Javi Allison. The people of Ramburgh are being tormented by undead monsters from the desert. Will your heroes find fame and fortune in the streets of the city and the dungeons beyond, or will your corpse soon join the ranks of those shuffling toward Ramburgh? This adventure was developed and playtested in the D&D afterschool program at Hunter College Elementary School. Javi is one of the program’s most talented DMs, and will have adult help managing the rules (4E Essentials), but grownups should still expect a different kind of D&D: fresher, funnier, weirder! Paragon-tier pregens will be provided, or you can bring your favorite 11th level characters from LFR or your home game. (Reminder, LFR Characters cannot receive XP, GP or items from this adventure … but players can still have fun. ;-))

The reminder was thoughtfully added by the convention organizers, who put together a great event every year. I’m looking forward to it!


4E, OD&D, and Cheap Urine Gags

Back in ’09, when the OSR and blogging were yet kinda young, I played in a Swords and Wizardry game that Michael aka chgowiz ran at Gen Con to showcase old-school play for a bunch of folks who were mostly recent-edition gamers: Phil (The Chatty DM, no longer a stranger to S&W), Dave and Danny of Critical Hits, and Greg who was neither yet working at the Escapist nor one of my co-authors on Adventurer Conqueror King (although we had worked together on Goodman’s Forgotten Heroes books, and one of the seeds of ACKS was a conversation we had later in the con about how the 4E idea of tiers of play relates to old-school campaigns). Although even the current holder of the D&D name is no longer all that shiny and new these days, I thought that Mule readers might be interested in the reflection on the experience I wrote in an email to these guys afterward:

I’m pleased to be able to say that my 100 percent old-school player death rate is intact, and that it was very satisfying to die with all my pockets, sacks, and backpacks stuffed with treasure!

Given the unique (to put it mildly) characterizations and hilarious & inventive improv skills on display all around the table, I don’t doubt for a second that I would have had a great time with whatever game we played, or none at all. I do think, though, that the stark & elegant simplicity of the OD&D system makes it especially easy to both give in to every wacky impulse and opportunity for a cheap urine gag and also still get in adventuring, exploration, and pulp drama. The 4E group I play with has lots of laughs & also likes to kick ass, but the process of having to add up your initiative bonus, choose powers, etc., etc. makes it harder for me to switch between the two modes.

I think that the lethality and hilarity of OD&D go hand in hand, which is why Leiber is for me the truest inspiration – the situation comedy of Fafhrd as Issek of the Jug is the bright obverse of the doomed pulp grimness of Thieves’ House. For me, the original rules do this best both by letting you switch from one face to the other more quickly, and also by reinforcing the feeling that luck and wits may stave off Death for a little while, but quickly rolling up a new contender is part of the essence of the game.

I am interested to see that this idea perfectly prepared me to be blown away by Swords without Master‘s emulation of pulp adventure via a dice mechanic devoted entirely to whether you narrate things in a glum or jovial way; when Eppy broke Conan’s melancholy and mirth down this way and quoted Leiber from memory at the start of that session to back up his thesis, I’d entirely forgotten having once reached a similar conclusion via that source myself.


D&D Kids Articles at WotC

On the official Dungeons & Dragons website, Wizards of the Coast is publishing a series of articles by Uri Kurlianchik, whose day job is teaching D&D to kids at Israeli schools and community centers. I’ve long heard that there is a thriving afterschool-D&D scene, and these articles are the most in-depth glimpses from that scene that I’ve seen in English. (Due to my low Intelligence score, I am unable to read any other languages.)

Character Generation talks about getting started when playing with kids. Interesting quote:

I recommend using this stage to give each player’s character a pet. Kids love pets. You should love them too because they create more opportunities for roleplaying, can save the group when the situation seems desperate, and add flavor and a chance for some goofy jokes to your game (passive-aggressive cat anyone?).

D&D Kids: Combat Encounters talks about battles, a subject near and dear to the hearts of the kids in our afterschool program as well. Interesting quote:

Younger kids (ages 7-8) often get very involved in fast-paced and exciting games. This is a good thing, but it is important to ensure they don’t get carried away and lose sight of reality. I recently joined the respectable club of people who had a shoe thrown in their face. The target wasn’t me, per se, but rather an evil wizard who taunted one of the heroes. However, it was not the wizard who took a purple shoeprint to the face, but me. So be careful—always be watchful for kids who get overly excited, and make sure to curb their enthusiasm. You should also be vigilant for friction between kids in and out of game. Disagreements in-game can lead to bad blood in real life. Bad blood leads to arguments, which can lead to physical violence. Strangle this demon in the cradle by spilling cold water on young minds that get too hot.

D&D Kids: Rewards talks about the fun stuff about D&D – what the author sees as the carrot. Interesting quote:

For me, it is fascinating to see how a group of young children deal with the responsibility of managing nations and shaping the fates of thousands. Some kids really enjoy it. One group in particular has designed a new religion, wrote a bible for it, trained evangelists to spread it across the land, and eventually raised a fundamentalist oligarchy of some 15,000 humans, elves, and dwarves with towns named after heroes. This religion now has a Facebook group and a fair amount of likes. Also, it makes the Spanish Inquisition look cute in comparison….

D&D Kids: Punishment talks about negative reinforcements as a tool in teaching D&D, and has raised some internet kerfuffle. Interesting quote:

Some kids are not serious. Some kids don’t come to play, but rather to socialize. Some kids do want to play, but their heads are up in the clouds. Some, likeBatman’s Joker, are a force of pure chaos. As a DM, it’s your duty to deal with them lest they deal with you (and your game!). The most traditional method of punishment is reduction of XP. Without a very good reason, don’t remove more than 50 XP at once—you want to warn the players, not cripple their characters. Severe transgressions, such as reading your DM notes, damage to people and property, or highly inappropriate remarks should be punished harshly. In rare cases, even the extreme measure of removing levels can be used, although this will often be a prelude to kicking the offender out of the group.

I hope to find time to say more about these articles soon; for now I’ll just point you to them as a very interesting parallel to the classes James & I are doing for kids the same age and at least theoretically using the same system (although both we and Uri diverge from canonical 4E in many places).


The Stakes Should Be Something I’ll Enjoy Playing

I want to talk about a truism in game design theory that you should only roll the dice when something is at stake. In a discussion of scaling skill DCs over at nerdnyccawhis wrote:

When Maldoor made his resurrection survival roll, I should have specified that the stakes of failure included these highly enjoyable pterodactyl cave-babes.

My interpretation of scaling the DCs is that what’s easy for a lvl 1 isn’t even worth rolling for a lvl 10, right? [...] If you’re making a lvl 10 character roll to see if he can climb out of a 10 foot pit, that’s kind of lame. That shouldn’t even be an issue for a lvl 10 (personally, I don’t think it should be an issue for a level 1 either unless there is something at stake, but that’s a different story).

chrisg replied: “There’s something at stake! Whether or not your character starves to death before either escaping the pit or punching your DM in the throat.”

This helped me clarify something I’ve long felt about the issue of stakes. It’s not enough to make sure that every dice roll has stakes, or that every decision has consequences. A good game should make sure that playing out the results will be more enjoyable than being punched in the throat.

Sucks along one axis (not limited to 4E, just using it as an example):

  • dice version: Make a Dungeoneering check to see if you can get comfortable enough in this cave for this to count as a rest.
  • decision version: Do you want to pursue the monsters fleeing with the captive, or pause for a short rest?
  • unenjoyable consequences: OK, since you didn’t regain any encounter powers, the next combats are going to be a long slog drained of the usual tactical choices and boring for all of us!

Sucks along another axis:

  • dice version: Your attempted burglary is interrupted by [roll] an orphan waif holding [roll] a battle-axe.
  • decision version: The wives and children of the slain guardsmen rush at you, maddened by grief. What do you do?
  • unenjoyable consequences: So, every time you’re go to town, you’re going to encounter weeping relatives and ever-increasing attempts by the authorities to bring you to justice. No, I’m not persecuting you, I’m just playing out the natural consequences of your antisocial behavior! This isn’t fun for me either, you know.

What should a conscientious gamemaster/designer do about decision points with stakes that you don’t actually want to follow through on? I dunno; being aware of the possibility of this happening is the first step. You could have a discussion about lines and veils beforehand, to make sure consequences stay out of everyone’s squick zone or are dealt with off-stage. You could try not to set up situations that will have likely repercussions that won’t be fun for you to game out. And you can find ways to resolve things more quickly when playing them out in detail will be unpleasant. Being aware when this is going on – staying in tune with whether you’re having fun as you play – is the next step.


The Taste for Gratuitous Difficulty

I’m postponing part two of my post about the DCC RPG and Castle Zagyg/Mad Archmage to talk about the results of last year’s Anonycon experiment. Unlike this year’s planned comparison of running the same adventure with different rule systems, this was an unplanned natural experiment: I played in two different games, D&D 4E and Time & Temp, run by the same GM, Kevin Kulp. As I’ve said elsewhere, Kevin is a fantastic GM with an arsenal of techniques at his control that I think could make any game sing, so it was really interesting to see how my experience varied according to the rules he was using.

The reason I’m revisiting this now is that this week’s New Yorker has a piece by Nick Paumgarten profiling Shigeru Miyamoto, the hugely influential Nintendo game designer. Miyamoto is an interesting guy, but what really caught my attention was something introduced in the background of the article, a synopsis of Roger Cailois’s 1958 essay “Man, Play and Games.”  According to Paumgarten,

Caillois also introduces the idea that games range along a continuum between two modes: ludus, “the taste for gratuitous difficulty,” and paidia, “the power of improvisation and joy.” A crossword puzzle is ludus. Kill the Carrier is paidia (unless you’re the carrier). Super Mario and Zelda seem to be perched right between the two.

For starters, I love these terms – not the Latin roots but their explanatory phrases, which would make great names for Vancian spells.  More importantly, the idea that the important dimension for assessing a game is its relative admixture of “the taste for gratuitous difficulty” and “the power of improvisation and joy” precisely expresses what I felt about playing 4E and Time & Temp last year.

This year, Eric and I played in a session Emily Care Boss ran of her storygame of alien first contact, Sign In, Stranger. Afterwards we got into a conversation with Jim Crocker of Modern Myths and Time & Temp’s designer Epidiah Ravachol. Later I got to play his forthcoming Swords without Master,  and Emily was my first playtester for the DCC RPG & Zagyg/Archmage mix, which is why conventions in general and Anonycon in particular are awesome: you get to not only talk about different games but actually experience the way each of you plays them, which cuts past a lot of the usual noise to get to the heart of the discussion.

So during this conversation, I told the story of the two games I’d been in with Kevin as DM:

Each session had a climactic beat-down with a really compelling set-up in the fiction. In 4E, we were riding flying carpets in hot pursuit of the evil vizier who’d tried to have us exterminated during a diplomatic summit in the City of Brass, and now we finally caught up to him and could apply the much-deserved smacking. In Time & Temp, we’d set up an ambush to rescue Paul McCartney from an alien time-traveler who was trying to ensure that he “blew his mind out in a car” as per the coded messages in Beatles records, and how cool is that? So these were both fights I really cared about, but the systems we used to play them out made a big difference in how it felt to win.

In Time & Temp, the looser mechanics let us think of lots of awesome things to do, but somehow it didn’t feel like we had earned our victory; I couldn’t dispel the suspicion that Kevin hadn’t just let us win because it was dramatically appropriate for us to do so. The 4E  mechanics put up a lot of resistance to doing awesome things, but that meant that victory had a visceral feeling of accomplishment. I knew exactly how hard it had been to triumph, because I knew the difficulty of the rolls we had to beat, could track the dwindling resources of each side, etc.

I feel weird about this, because in many ways I don’t like the fiddly 4E approach. Part of the pleasure of the session was the display of our collective system mastery; we’d all put in the hundreds of hours necessary to step through the complicated procedures involved in our fictional smackdown pretty quickly and integrate reporting what we were doing at this mechanical level with narrating our characters’ heroic exploits. I don’t want RPGs to require this level of investment, but I have to say that it was more satisfying for me to win only after going through a lot of intrinsically boring little steps to convince myself that yes, we really did come out on top.

Caillois’s continuum between two modes lets me boil this down: 4E gratifies my taste for gratuitous difficulty, which Time & Temp couldn’t (in this scene) due to its greater power of improvisation and joy.

Some further implications:

  • Gratuitous difficulty in games can be usefully subdivided into the kind that involves a risk of failure – that you won’t be able to think of a word in a crossword puzzle, or roll high enough to hit a target DC in 4E – and the kind that just involves procedural work, as in calculating your attack modifiers or crossing out the clues you’ve already answered.
  • Engaging with the gratuitous difficulty of procedural work can make joyful improvisation more satisfying.  Eppy pointed out that, in Time & Temp, working out the Sudoku-like puzzle of the Matrix allows you to feel justified when you narrate that of course, the precise item you need to save your bacon is under the chair, because you the next thing you’ll do will be to back in time to put it there. Part of this is just that the game gives you rules you can follow to decide whether or not that’s possible in the fiction, but that could also be true in 4E (did your DM agree to let you research the time-travel spell, can you meet the requirements for casting it, etc.) Having stepped through gratuitously difficult procedures makes Bill & Ted gimmicks feel earned in Time & Temp the way that WWF smackdowns do in 4E.
  • Players with a taste for gratuitious difficulty may be disappointed in a game with no risk of failure, even if it offers a lot of procedural work. The sense that my character’s life isn’t in danger is often my complaint when I play otherwise-gratuitously-difficult 4E, and its reintroduction is why I like George Strayton’s Legends & Labyrinths 4E houserules.
  • The risk of failure can be entirely fictional. Sign In, Stranger and Swords Without Master are games strongly focused on the power of improvisation and joy. Both brilliantly use mechanics to add some procedural work to the process of collaborative roleplaying (the use of colors to constrain and guide re-incorporation of player input in SI,S; the shifts of tone and phase in SWM), and neither involve the risk of mandated failure you get from a bad roll in 4E. Ultimately I found the latter more satisfying because we were telling a swords & sorcery story about how my character’s life was frequently in danger; imagining this to be true satisfied my taste for gratuitious difficulty in a way that the less visceral stakes of a science fiction story about my character’s struggle to learn did not.
  • All the kids in the afterschool D&D class put a high value on difficulty. My guidelines for making an adventure involve deciding whether the DC for a given obstacle is “easy” (8+), “medium” (11+), or “hard” (14+); one week one of the boys accused another of stealing the idea of “difficult” (19+), and I had to step in to say no, it was an independent invention. When I asked them what they wanted from the adventure I’m running for them tomorrow, the #1 request was that it be “really hard”. All this has always mystified me because they hate it when their characters fail, but now I realize that they’re expressing a taste for gratuitious difficulty – which I suspect has been even more acutely unsatisfied due to my attempts to strip away the procedural work of the 4E rules we’re nominally using and introduce more of the power of improvisation and joy.
  • Dice are great tools for RPGs at both ends of the continuum, as they can create a risk of failure and also provide unexpected results as a spur to improvisation. Sign In, Stranger uses an impressive array of diceless tools to do the latter, including exquisite corpse, Mad Libs, and drawing narrative elements from a cup.
  • The dungeon beneath Blackmoor Castle is, for me, the first and still the greatest example of the form because like Super Mario, it exactly hits my sweet spot on the game continuum. All dungeons provide the rigid flowchart structure to constrain and direct player input, but Arneson’s horribly tedious nightmare maze adds a heightened degree of gratuitous difficulty to the process of negotiating the party’s movement through the dungeon, and the contrast makes it especially joyful when you finally get into a room where group improvisation brings the inspiringly sparse dungeon key entries to life.

Finally, here’s some more from the New Yorker piece that I think is worth thinking about as a counterpoint to the discussion of what’s lost when underground exploration is codified into standard operating procedures*:

Miyamoto recognizes that there is pleasure in difficulty but also in ease, in mastery, in performing a familiar act with aplomb, whether that be catching a baseball, dancing a tango, doing Sudoku, or steering Mario through the Mushroom Kingdom, jumping on Goombas and Koopa Troopas. His games strike this magical balance between the excitement that comes from facing new problems and the swagger from facing down old ones. The consequent sensation of confidence is useful, in dealing with a game’s more challenging stages, but also a worthy aim in itself. “A lot of the so-called ‘action games’ are not made that way,” Miyamoto told me. “All the time, players are forced to do their utmost. If they are challenged to the limit, is it really fun for them?” In his own games, Miyamoto said, “You are constantly providing the players with a new challenge, but at the same time providing them with some stages or some occasions where they can simply, repeatedly, do something again and again. And that itself can be a joy.”

* I know I read some good blogging on this recently; if someone can post the link in comments I’ll edit it in here!


Glorious Swinginess: Results from the DCC RPG/Castle Zagyg Experiment, part 1

Rules have emergent effects; those that don't fit an individual group's approach may not be used in play. (Cartoon for the DCC RPG by the Wizards of Ur.)

With Anonycon 2010 now just a happy memory, it’s time to review what I learned from the experiment of running the Castle Zagyg adventure using the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. This was interesting for me because:

  • I’m well versed in how this adventure plays out using other rulesets. Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works was written for Castles & Crusades; its unofficial completion Castle of the Mad Archmage was written with AD&D 1E in mind; and the other seven times Eric, Joe, and I have run this adventure at conventions & the playtests thereof, we’ve used Lamentations of the Flame Princess and house-ruled AD&D. I was curious to see how using different rules would change the experience.
  • In my previous experience with the DCC RPG (as a player at GaryCon and a DM at Fal-Con) we’ve played adventures written specifically for this system. I was interested to see how the feel of the game would carry over to a different scenario (Castle Greyhawk’s open-ended megadungeon vs. a Tomb of Horrors-style tournament-linear deathtrap).

I’ll start by addressing comments from readers of the original post. Scott asks:

Can I get some details that distinguish the DCC RPG?

Sure, but first some caveats! My experiences are based on a playtest version. Anything I talk about here may have changed by the time the game is released, and nothing I say should be taken as the official word; this is just my experience as a GM and playtester of the still-unfinished system.

The most striking distinguishing feature that I saw emerging from the rules was that the DCC RPG is designed to generate unpredictability. (In part 2 I’ll address Gregor’s comment and talk about some other features of the game that emerge from other, non-rule aspects of the system).

This is in marked contrast to the most recent edition of D&D, a stated design feature of which was a reduction in swinginess. Narrowing the range of variation in outcomes is useful for game designers concerned with balance, adventure writers concerned with being able to predict whether encounters will provide a level-appropriate challenge for a party of PCs, and DMs whose pre-planned campaign arcs make them concerned with things like ensuring the characters have enough resources left when they meet the Big Bad to make it a challenging fight, but not so many that it’s a cakewalk.

However, many old-schoolers have pointed out that this increased predictability runs contrary to the sandbox spirit, which celebrates playing to find out what happens (as the new-school indie game Apocalypse World has it). We don’t want the heroes’ inevitable-but-just-barely triumph over the BBEG to be prearranged. We embrace systems that give players plenty of tools (from spells and magic items to referee adjucation of a clever idea) that can end or avoid a potentially grueling fight with a single action. And when a string of unusually high or low dice rolls turn a seemingly-manageable encounter into a bloodbath, we consider this not a failure of game design but an opportunity to demonstrate player skill by running away.

Unpredictability is something most of us advocate without doing anything about it. I’ve stated my own preference for a high-granularity system offering players the occasional chance to be the one whose decisions shape the entire session, rather than giving them lots of little choices each with a narrowly delimited impact on the outcome of an encounter. But the guiding principle for my house rule for critical hits – roll damage twice and take the higher result – was to reduce swinginess by keeping the results within the range that’s possible from a normal hit. (My more recent addition to this rule – making a roll of 6 on either die “exploding” so that you roll again and add it to the total – grew out of the desire to allow crits to deal truly extraordinary damage from a crit.)

The DCC RPG puts its money where its mouth is. Although its mechanical core is derived from D&D 3E, the DCC RPG repudiates challenge ratings (that edition’s tools for making the outcome of an encounter more predictable), and offers more new ways for things to turn out in a completely unexpected way than any other retroclone or D&D variant I know.

For starters, extreme dice rolls have more of an impact. There are awesome critical hit charts, whose “foe’s torso explodes like a blood blueberry” style is worthy of being called Rolemaster-esque (although which chart you use interestingly depends on character class rather than weapon type). Strangely I’ve never seen these come up in play, even though the fifth-level warriors in the Anonycon playtest were capable of scoring a critical hit against a one hit die foe on an unmodified roll of 16-20. Critical fumbles played a major role at the Fal-Con playtest, causing the friendly-fire death of at least one PC, but didn’t pop up in either of my Anonycon runs.

The most important source of unpredictability at Anonycon came from the DCC RPG spell check mechanic, where you roll a d20 modified by caster level & ability score to determine the effects of the spell you just cast. A low roll might mean that the spell doesn’t have any effect; a high one can produce unexpectedly potent effects. Here’s an example from the second of the weekend’s playtest.

Rat King: grossest wandering monster EVAR

Eric’s party had just defeated some creepy net-dwelling creatures when a wandering monster check brought a tide of ordinary-sized rats, on the backs of which were born seven rat kings. (The Castle of the Mad Archmage‘s encounter table specified 2d6 giant rats; this interpretation of that result was indebted to the system-emergent aspects I’ll talk about in part 2, as well as to Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants which I picked up at the So Cal Mini Con III’s book swap. )

Rather than confront these what WAS that things, Eric’s wizard decided to get the party into the room they’d just cleared and use the ward portal spell to keep the rats out. This is a classic old-school moment of swinginess: an ability available only to one character has the potential to end a fight before it even starts. 4E sees this as anathema – among other reasons, because an adventure designed around the expectation that this character can seal a door becomes unpredictable again if that character’s player misses a session – and so it eliminates the problem, first by making rituals like hold portal available to everyone who invests a feat and second by requiring them to take so long to cast that they can’t be used in a fight-or-flight situation. (Notably, folks interested in making 4E play more like 1E have reduced the casting time of rituals to a standard action).

“OK,” I said, “you have enough time to get inside the room and cast before the rats are upon you.”  Which is awesome; I love when players have choices that can radically alter a situation. And then the rules of the DCC RPG upped the stakes by tantalizing the wizard with the possibility of safe haven, but making it subject to the whims of fate:  “Roll your spell casting check and let’s see what happens.” Drama hanging on the outcome of a dice – this is why I play RPGs!

Eric rolled a 15: Portal completely disappears for 2d6 x 10 days, leaving in its place only a blank space of wall. During this time no passage is possible via normal means.

Whoa! I’d been excited by the way the rules would adjucate a simple but dramatic yes/no. This result of the spell check mechanic turned it into the improv principle’s yes, but… now you’re sealed into a room with no visible exit for weeks on end!

Everything that happened from that point on was hugely enjoyable for me as a GM because, just like a player, I was exploring the unknown; Eric and I were collaboratively working out the consequences of an imagined situation with no idea how it was going to turn out.

“Can the party tunnel out of here?”

“Well, it looks like the wall between the room and the passageway is just a few feet deep here,  let’s think about the tools you have – hammer, spikes, steel weapons – yeah you can chip away the masonry and slide out some of the stone blocks, but it’s going to take days. Did you bring rations?”

“Yeah, remember when I said I was shopping before I left town, we have a week apiece. Hey, wait, I have a spell that might help out here, contact patron. I’ll cast that before we get started.”

“OK, give me a spell check,” I said, rubbing my hands with glee. I’ll talk about what ensued as a result in part 2 of this playtest report, where we talk about color and non-rule aspects of the system that influence play.


super awesome lets pretend time (pt 2)

I managed to clear my schedule this week to help Tavis with his after-school D&D program.  I guess this is Week 4?  (I probably shouldn’t call this Part 2, since it’s the fourth week, but hey.)

My job was to help one of this week’s Dungeon Masters with her prep, and to help her batch of kids stay focused.  Five things were noteworthy:

1.  Our first sandbox!

Although Tavis had observed several railroad adventures in Weeks 2 and 3, this time around we had our first sandbox dungeon.  “My” Dungeon Master RaQuel, with help from her dad, obtained one of those poster-sized battle maps used in 4e: a small town adjoining the ruins of a castle.  The Dungeon Master had prepared a little encounter in each building, which could be explored in any order.  The encounters were plausible, interesting, and (weakly) interconnected.  It was delightful to see.  (I think Tavis said her dad used to be a gamer, and she admitted he helped her a little; I’m curious how involved he was with the design.  But regardless, it was very well done.)

2.   Our first GMPC.

“Okay . . . So, this fire goblin jumps on your head!  He is eating your brain!”

“Ha ha ha, my brain…. my brain . . . . it’s so big, it’ll be a big meal!”

“Okay, so when the fire goblin is eating your brain, he becomes good.  He’s a good guy now.  He is your slave because of your brain.  He is like, ‘Yes master!’ because your brain is so strong.”

(a round later)

“The fire goblin turns into a boulder.  [Places wad of tinfoil on the map.]  It’s a boulder made of tinfoil.  With eyes in it.  And the tinfoil is like really good armor.”

(a round later)

“Okay, you could run to the tower, but the Fire Tinfoil Goblin says, ‘Master, jump on me, I’ll roll there, I’m faster.’  Okay, so do you jump on him to roll there?”

(a round later)

“The prisoner won’t leave without his parakeet, but the parakeet wants food.  There’s a peanut in the tinfoil goblin!  It says, ‘Master, I have the food.  If you want it.’  Do you want it?”

3.  You Will Never Guess What Victor Did!!

The Dungeon Master wrote on the map “Adohna’s Chest!”  But then Victor wrote down “MAdonhna’s Chest” and we opened it!  Hee hee hee!

(This was, to the 8 year old boys, indescribably hilarious.  They hero-worship the 12-year-old boys like Victor.)

4.  Elementary School Teachers are Vastly Under-Appreciated

Spending 80 minutes supervising 5 little kids and getting them to focus on something is hard work.  Oh man.  One kid was literally bouncing off the walls, doing flips over the sofa, doing weird postures that would break his neck if any other rambunctious child bumped into him.  (As a lawyer, I look at this child and see FUTURE PERSONAL INJURY PLAINTIFF written on his forehead.)

I don’t know how teachers handle 30 of these little dudes.  I leave the classroom and want a belt of rum just to steady my nerves.

5.  These Kids Like D&D

Leaving the session, I asked Joan (one of the other Dungeon Masters), “So, hey, is this stuff fun?”  And Joan responded, “Yes!  It’s my favorite game, even more than chess!”  Which made me feel really happy.


Afterschool D&D Mad Libs: Monsters and Dungeons


Sadly, I don't think they'll let me smoke a pipe during class, but I'm totally going to sit on a big d6.


This Thursday is the first class of my D&D afterschool program, so I wanted to get feedback on some of the materials I’ve developed for it.

First, though, some background. On the plane to Gen Con this year, my seatmate was Itamar of Hamis`hakia, The Hebrew Gaming Podcast.

Note 1: It’s awesome who you meet flying to from NYC Indianapolis on that particular day, for example people for whom this is the second leg of the flight from Israel!

Note 2: Itamar was telling me about a blog post he read about a D&D game at an art studio party, and I was like “hey, that was me!” Amazing that such a small world is nevertheless to be found all over the globe.

Anyway, I seized the opportunity to pick Itamar’s brain about gaming in Israel and particularly the afterschool RPG scene I’d heard about. For more information, he later pointed me other places he’s talked about it: this thread at Gamegrene, where he posts as zipdrive, and episodes 204 & 205 of the Fear the Boot podcast.

One of the things he said really struck in my mind: that although it was cool that the afterschool programs exposed lots of kids to RPGs, as a rule those kids didn’t continue to play as adults. Some of this was the usual “when I became a man, I put away childish things, fearing they would prevent me from getting laid.” Some was due to those kids going on to serve in the RPG-suspicious Israel Defense Forces, which made for an interesting digression. But the part that concerned me was that, by packaging the D&D experience into something that your parents signed you up for and you passively enjoyed at the feet of an adult dungeon master sitting on a giant dice, Itamar felt the afterschool programs stood in the way of kids learning to do it for themselves.

The sense I got was that it wasn’t in the program’s economic self-interests to teach kids that they didn’t need a class to have fun rolling dice and making stuff up. Also, since personnel is usually the biggest expense, the programs tend to have lots of kids per grown-up and it’s easiest to use the existing structure of the game to keep them all under control: wait until your turn in the initiative order comes up, then tell me who you’re attacking.

I like attacking things as much as the next guy, and I’m certainly approaching this afterschool class as an opportunity to get paid for the actual activity of roleplaying rather than for writing things that people don’t really need to do that activity. But I want to teach the kids how they can use the D&D structures, like turn-taking and cooperative problem-solving, for themselves – to help their gaming experiences when they don’t have adult supervision be less about social dominance struggles and a horrific degeneration into the worst moments of social breakdown.

I welcome input on how to approach that part of things. But this post is specifically about some tools I made to help kids get started creating their own  super-awesome-let’s-pretend time.

Imagine each of these printed on a single piece of paper, laid out with bigger blanks and space for drawing:

Draw a map of your dungeon. Write a name for each room on the map.

This dungeon is called ______.

The dungeon looks _____ and _______.

Heroes might hear _____ from the _____ or smell ____ from the _____.

Heroes might go in here to _____ or in search of ___.

Which rooms are dangerous? ____ Why? ____

Where are the treasures? _____

A Strength roll of ___ or better in the _____room will _______.

A Constitution roll of ___ or better in the _____room will _______.

A Dexterity roll of ___ or better in the _____room will _______.

An Intelligence roll of ___ or better in the _____room will _______.

A Wisdom roll of ___ or better in the _____room will _______.

A Charisma roll of ___ or better in the _____room will _______.

Easy = 8 or better; Medium = 11 or better; Hard = 14 or better.

The next is for monsters to populate dungeons with:

Draw a picture of your monster.

This monster is called ___.

It calls itself ___.

This monster is here to ___ the ___.

It is afraid of ___ and ___.

It loves ___ and ___.

How could this monster help the heroes? ___

How could this monster get the heroes into trouble? ___

Choose your monster’s scores by circling one in each row:

Low: 6 Middle: 4 High: 2
Defense: 10 12 14
Attack: +1 +3 +5
Damage: 2 dice + 2 2 dice 2 dice +2
Range: One hero in arm’s reach One hero in sight Every hero in sight

Hit points:___

To figure out a monster’s hit points, add the columns you chose. For example, a giant is so big that it’s easy to hit (low defense = 10) and clumsy (low attack, +1). It’s very strong (high damage, 2 dice +2) but its club can only hit a hero who’s right up close (low range). So it has 20 hit points: each low score adds 6, plus one high score adds 2.

Let me know what you think of these, esp. if you have kids at home to serve as a captive audience for playtesting!

EDIT 1: I should have thanked James for setting aside time to help run the first class! I am much more confident in the outcome knowing that he’ll have my back.

EDIT 2: Tony Dowler’s Microdungeons totally exemplify the scale and tone of the dungeon maps I’m thinking of for these mad libs; I’ll be handing them out to the kids like candy.

Past Adventures of the Mule

April 2014
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