Sunday, October 24, 2010

Games are Idioms

(Originally posted on EN World, but re-posted here since people on that site seemed to like it.)

I think you can learn a lot about a game by listening to how people describe it after they play it. It shows you how they interact with, see, and process the game.

For instance, last weekend I played Carcassonne. I had some lucky draws I was able to exploit by managing my meeples well. I was able to keep churning through cities and roads, completing stuff at a steady enough pace that I was able to drop some farmers early without hurting myself in the late game. My opponent built a couple of huge cities to narrow my lead, but my edge in farmers sealed the game.

Compare that to a description of our lunchtime Keep on the Borderlands game from Tuesday. The characters had been ambushed by wererats at the Stumbling Giant (the tavern in the keep) the session before. With the help of the guards, they figured out that the wererats posed as halfling merchants and had visited the keep several times before. Oddly enough, though the guards at the gate reported that the halflings always left with a heavily laden wagon, the gnomes they traded with never sold them all that much copper and silver ore. The gnomes were surprised at the guards' description of the loaded wagon.

The PCs had arranged a meeting with the keep's ruler. Unknown to them, the ruler's trusted advisor disguised himself and sought out the PCs to question them. Faced with an inquisitive stranger, the party's wizard slashed the man's arm with a knife to see if the non-silver blade would deal any lasted damage.

It did, and the session ended with the characters entered the ruler's audience chamber to find the "wandering tracker" they had harassed standing at his side.

If you look at my second description, I think it's something you find for most RPGs and other immersive games. I'd describe playing Mass Effect in a similar manner. There's something very important there, a mode of thinking and experiencing the game that the mechanics should support. It's definitely something that influences the Essentials process and a lot of my design.

It's something that I think of as the game's metaphor, or its idiom. To an outsider, D&D is a few people sitting around a table, rolling dice, consulting books, speaking in funny voices, and maybe pushing miniatures around a grid. To the people in the game, it's a tense expedition into an ancient ruin, made all the more deadly by the bloodthirsty, recently awakened vampire that stalks the tombs they explore. That's an important part of the game. Without it, the game is little more than what it appears to be on the surface.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

What You Know, Who You Know

There was a thread on EN World a few months back about the role of sages in D&D. In AD&D, there was a fair amount of material in the DMG about the services offered by experts in various fields. If the characters needed to learn the history of the Forgotten City of Thar, they could plunk down some cash and hire the services of an expert.

Over the years, that sort of expertise has shifted from NPCs to characters. Non-weapon proficiencies, and later the skill system integrated into D&D, gave the characters the opportunity to become experts themselves. The sage as an important element of the game faded away.

On one hand, that makes things easier at the table. The DM can salt a dungeon or other location with strange runes, crumbling statues, and other bits that allow for skill checks as a way to add depth, background, and hints to the game.

On the other hand, sages provided a few nice benefits. They are a great way to give the party an interesting, non-combat challenge, a fun NPC to interact with, and a world that feels like a living, active place outside of the immediate bounds of an adventure. They set up a plausible situation where the PCs have to make an NPC happy in order to achieve their goals.

There's a rather easy way to combine the two approaches, giving the characters the benefits of skills like Arcana or History while making sages (and similar NPCs) useful, interesting resources. Simply put, most experts combine off the cuff knowledge with a thorough understanding of how to find an answer. That can easily extend to the PCs.

When the characters discover strange runes carved on to a seemingly impenetrable steel door, a skill check points the way to the expert that can tell them about the runes. The character's knowledge isn't absolute, but it does carry with it an understanding of the experts, important books, and other lore surrounding the topic.

Even better, you can frame that knowledge with an interesting choice. Perhaps the characters can recall two experts who might know about the runes. Yulgash the Exile's knowledge is unmatched, but he dwells in the Forest of Brambles ever since the townsfolk caught his servants pillaging the graveyard. Tharan the Radiant is a close second, but as a high priest of Pholtus any inquiries to him might generate unwanted entanglements. Giving the characters real options is an important part of D&D, and this is one more way to introduce that.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

I Am Not a Storyteller

My monthly AD&D campaign has confirmed something I suspected after observing my two 4e campaigns.

I am not a storyteller. I do not like establishing plots or events before we sit down to start playing. I like drawing maps and making notes about what lives where and why. I like sketching out NPCs. I like putting together fictional environments with all sorts of events on the verge of kicking off. But I don't actually like writing about those events, and I'll gleefully hack things to pieces and rearrange them to suit whatever idea pops into my head.

I am the god of this tiny, virtual universe, and if I decide at moment the characters enter the dungeon that there are three-headed kobolds there instead of the cyborgs I wrote about in my notes, there's no power in all the cosmos that can contradict me.

I DM because I want to see what will happen next, maybe as much as the players. Hell, probably even more than them. That interplay around the table, the unraveling of plans, the sudden bursts of inspiration, all of those things are what keep me coming back to the table.

That probably also explains why my #1 pet peeve is a player who quotes rules to me. Think the rulebook has all the answers? Then let's see that rulebook run a campaign!

The AD&D game really brought this all home to me. It's been a lot of fun, in part because I didn't take it all too seriously. It also helps that I have some great players. Erik Mona is a roleplaying MVP in my book. He's exactly the kind of player I like having at my table. His character is always doing something interesting, even if Stephen's character keeps murdering the NPCs he tries to interact with.

On another note, playing AD&D has been an interesting experience. I've found that I run it much like I did back in the day. The players use the character options from the Player's Handbook, I use the monsters and magic items from the DMG, but the rules I use behind the screen are basically OD&D/BD&D and lots of fiat.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

How Hammerfast Got a Hex Map

A few reviewers and forumites have noticed that Hammerfast, a book I wrote that just released this month, has a hex map in it. The hex map details the area around Hammerfast.

I believe that this is the first hex map in an official, non-magazine D&D release in a really long time. I'm not sure if a hex map ever appeared in a 3e book. I'm sure the magazines printed one at some point, but I can't recall a specific issue or adventure.

Some folks might think that the hex map is there as a call out to old school gaming. The truth is actually far more sinister, far more intriguing, and far more shocking.

Actually, it isn't. The story behind the hex map is reasonably boring. This is it:

In writing the book, I realized I had to create a map of the area around Hammerfast. I suck at drawing. I'm really, really bad at it. I also hate freeform outdoor maps with scales measured in inches or whatever random increment the designer picks. They're useless to me. If I need to know the distance between East Farmbutt and Castle Hamfist, I don't want to break out a ruler. I want to count hexes.

When I drew the map I created it on a sheet of hex paper. When I submitted the art order, the art director asked me if I was serious. I said yes. I ranted a little about needing use a ruler to measure the distance between East Farmbutt and Castle Hamfist. I don't think anyone really cared. They just wanted to make sure that was my intention.

So, that's why there's a hex map in Hammerfast. And when the characters decide to tramp around the wilds surrounding the city, you don't need to use a ruler to figure out how long it will take them to go from one end of the map to another.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Tale of Two House Rules

Last week I posted two of the house rules I was going to use for my AD&D/OSRIC game. We played yesterday, and I'll have a full recap later. For now I want to talk about the house rules and how they went. In short, one of them worked so well that I can't imagine not using it. The other I never even used, because once we started playing I didn't care enough to bother with it.

Delta's Target 20 system was nearly flawless for use in combat. I'll use it whenever I play AD&D or OD&D. It kept things moving quickly, especially once I had the player's ACs memorized.

The really nice thing is that it kept questions and downtime to a minimum. When a character attacked, I reminded the player of the target's AC and that was it. After that it was die roll, and either an immediate damage roll or an announced miss.

There were plenty of times when I didn't even bother with the math. If the die came up a 17 or higher, I knew it was a hit. I didn't ask if the players had the same experience, but I suspect they did. We were moving through combat rounds at a breakneck pace.

In contrast, I didn't bother with the initiative rules. At least, not yet. I think there was a grand total of one spell cast in combat (bless, by Rob's half-orc fighter/cleric), and the initiative system really focuses on spells and keeping casters on their toes. With that insight in mind, I might tinker with it a little more and focus exclusively on casting.

Oddly enough, after years of running iterative initiative having everyone roll each round was fun and interesting. There were plenty of times, at least from behind the DM's screen, that initiative order was a big part of the tension. With things moving so quickly, I just had each player roll a d6 and act on that segment, starting with 1 and running simultaneous actions in the event of ties.

My experience with these house rules brought to mind an old essay by Vincent Baker. I'd link to it, but I can't for the life of me think of any terms that might bring it up on Google. In essence, Vincent argues that each rule a designer adds to a game should make the game more enjoyable. The best design is one that, if the players use all the rules, they have the most fun.

Obviously, that's a platonic ideal, but in play the two house rules showed that principle in action. Delta's rules made things move faster and let us get in more orc-bashing. My initiative rules would've brought the game to a halt and forced players to do math that had a dubious potential for making things more interesting. Thus, one rule lived, and one rule died.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

OSRIC House Rules

I'm running OSRIC this weekend, and like any DM worth his salt I'm adding house rules to the game. Here's what I'm using:

1. Delta's Target 20 System: To me, this is a no-brainer. It sounds incredibly easy to use and keeps the descending AC system in place. I'm not going to go with the rules for thief skills and saving throws, but for attack rolls it looks great.

I linked to Delta's blog, and you can find the rules download there on the right hand margin of the page.

2. Initiative: OSRIC gets a lot right, but I'm not crazy about the basic initiative mechanic. In OSRIC, each side rolls to determine the segment on which the *other* acts. That's counter-intuitive to me. I appreciate how the mechanic functions, but I can't embrace it.

I also have to admit that I always loved speed factor for, frankly, inexplicable reasons. So, that's what I'm using! Here are the rules I'm going to use. If they crash and burn in play, I'll just go back to the OSRIC version.

* Each PC or group of monsters rolls a d6 for initiative.
* The result is the segment on which you decide what you want to do.
* When you make your choice, you add your action's speed to your initiative. The result is the segment on which you act.
* If more than one person tries to act on the same segment, the action is simultaneous.
* If your initiative goes into double digits, subtract 10, and that's when you act on the next round.

Dagger, other small weapons: +0
One handed melee weapons: +1
Two handed melee weapons: +2
Loaded crossbow: +0
Unloaded crossbow: +3 (includes time needed to load; you can load and not shoot for +3)
Thrown weapon or bow: +1

Movement: This is a little tricky. You can move 1/10th your speed per segment and take another action, adding the modifier at the end of your movement to determine when the action takes place.

Special Polearm Rule: If you have a polearm and an enemy charges you, you can immediately attack it on that segment but that costs you your turn that round.

Delay: You can delay your action by as much as you want.

Spell Casting: Modifier equals the spell's casting time in segments. You're considered casting the spell from the time of your base initiative until the segment on which you cast the spell. If you're hit between those two segments but not during them, the spell is lost.

Everything Else: DM's judgment. I'm toying with some weird items and gear the PCs could find for sale in Cort, the town I made up for the game, like a mini-ballista called an ogre stopper that is +0 to fire when loaded, but +20 to load and fire.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Keeping Tiles in Place

I wouldn't be surprised if this is old news to anyone, but I recently started using toolbox liners as a base for dungeon tiles and Paizo's map packs. They're very handy for keeping individual tiles in place, especially if you play on a kitchen table or other glossy, finished surface.

I haven't had as much slipping with dungeon tiles, since they're a fairly thick stock, but the liners really come into their own with the map pack tiles. Those tiles are fairly thin and slide like butter on a tabletop. With the toolbox liner, they stay nice and snug. I originally tried mounting the on foam board, but the liner makes that pointless work.

Anyway, hopefully someone will find that useful.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Tonight's Session in Pictures

I snapped a few photos of tonight's session. Here are two of them:

From Gaming Photos

The warden does her job, keeping the githyanki busy while the rest of the party seizes control of the ship's helm. The warden would be stunned by a githyanki knight, be she'd get her revenge by leaping on to the forecastle and critting him twice in a row.

From Gaming Photos

Later on, the party tangled with an enormous dragon. While the warden didn't enjoy being in the dragon's jaws, she did provide flanking for the eladrin avenger on the far side of the wyrm (and vice versa).

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Build Your Adventures in OD&D

As those of you who follow me on Twitter might know, I wrote up a dungeon for OD&D to run at this year's D&D Experience. Unfortunately, I didn't get the chance to run it at the con. However, I learned a useful lesson going forward: From now on, when I design an adventure I'll first approach it as if I'm running it using OD&D.

This approach might seem a little weird, but it makes a lot of sense when you think about it. OD&D keeps characters simple. They don't have loads of spells, abilities, or magic items. The monsters are built in a similar way. An orc swings its sword or fires its bow at you, and that's about it. Critters like beholders and dragons are a little more complex, but they're the exception, not the norm. There are no skills to roll, just descriptions of what a character tries to do.

When you pull those things back, you're left with only one option for making a dungeon or adventure interesting: Compelling locations, mysteries, puzzles, weird phenomena, *stuff* that the PCs can poke, prod, and inspect. These are all the things that make D&D compelling. They show off the spontaneity, immersion, and creativity that arise in the exchange among players and DM.

In Search of the Unknown is a great example of this effect in action. The dungeon in that adventure is empty of monsters and treasure. The DM is supposed to add that stuff. Instead, it features an overgrown garden of massive mushrooms, a chamber of mysterious pools, hidden chambers, details and color that suggest the dungeon's history, and other elements that make it an interesting place to explore. Reading the adventure, even without monsters and treasures, is fun. You want to know what's in the next room.

That's what this approach embraces, creating a dungeon environment that's interesting without any monsters around. It builds an environment that encourages the players to think of the scene from their character's point of view and act appropriately. It adds enough detail to get things started, and relies on the players choices, rather than the mechanics of skill checks or powers, to drive the action.

Once you have those details nailed down, you can then go back and add in monsters, treasure, skill DCs, and what not as appropriate. If you are running 4e, this approach has probably already yielded some interesting dungeon features that the monsters (and the PCs) can use when a fight breaks out, but you should also have plenty of areas for exploration and experimentation, nice changes of pace from the funhouse effect of one fight after another.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Swinginess and Balance

There's a thread over at EN World where a poster asks what "swingy" means in terms of D&D. Here's the definition for it that I use:

A swingy system is one where a single bad or good die roll dictates the outcome of an encounter for a player or the entire group. If you roll a 1 on your save against a ghoul's paralysis, you're out of the fight unless the cleric has the right spell to get you back on your feet. As with almost everything in RPG design, a swingy mechanic has its strengths and weaknesses.

The biggest problem with a swingy game is that it produces outcomes that crowd out the rest of the system. 3e had a huge emphasis on pre-fight buffs and spells taken specifically to counter rare but catastrophic outcomes. It really favored players, because it was far more likely that they could plan and optimize to take advantage of the system's swing rather than fall victim to it. The reverse was true for DMs, who have multiple critters to manage and villains to create from scratch.

However, swing has a huge benefit. It makes every die roll tense and dramatic. It drives players to the edge of their seats and keeps them there. If you look at 4e, with its efforts to reduce swing, you see a common criticism of overly long fights and battles that are decided long before they finish. Some of that might come from encounter design, but at its root the critics are pointing out the lack of swing in the game.

Personally, I like tense die rolls, but I don't want all my rolls to have that tension. For instance, gnolls in 4e get a big damage bonus if they gang up on a PC. In one fight in my Temple of Elemental Evil game, the gnolls spread out to engage the characters. Once the fighter was bloodied, though, the gnolls used their next turn to move over to him (taking opportunity attacks along the way) and wallop him from barely bloodied to below 0 hit points. That had exactly the tension I like. When the first gnoll hit for a lot more damage than normal, the players all leaned in to watch the next two attack rolls. In 4e, that swing is moved from a single die roll (Save or die!) to a series of die rolls (If two of these three gnolls hit the fighter, or if you blow your next two saving throws, it's lights out).

Oddly enough, while balance and swing may seem like polar opposites they go hand in hand. A perfectly balanced system would be dull and a wildly unbalanced one leaves players and DMs essentially inventing their own game. By the same token, a wildly swingy game might as well use a coin flip to resolve entire battles, while one without any swing is as fun as watching paint dry. Both are boring.

Balance establishes a level playing field between characters and gives a DM a clear sense of a critter's strength compared to the PC. Swing steps in and throws all that stuff out of whack on a session by session basis. It determines that in this fight, the rogue is the hero who leaps over the crowd of orcs and skewers the evil priest with his rapier, while the fighter stumbles around with a dark mantle stuck to his head. It lets the 6 Intelligence cleric spout out the answer to the Lorekeeper's question on arcane theory while the wizard sputters and flails. It makes for memorable moments, because it produce rare, interesting, and big moments.

Balance sets the stage for swing. In a well-designed game, the players cannot control or eliminate swing. It's the wild card that reminds them that the best laid plans sometimes fall apart, while even the most hopeless struggle can turn on a die roll or two. It's the unpredictable element that makes games exciting.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

How to Lose Players

Riffing off James Raggi's idea.

Here's one for 3e/Pathfinder DM's:

The local temple known for selling wands of cure light wounds has been infiltrated by a cultist of the death god. The wands seem to work as normal, but 24 hours after receiving his first heal from it, a character takes 1 point of Constitution damage per cure he received from it in the prior 24 hours.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Issue of Game Balance

Game balance is the hobgoblin of the D&D designer's mind. It's a shiv to the ego's gut, a reminder that even the best design will spring a hole. While balance has always been an issue, it's really important when you look at D&D post-2e's splats and skills and power. That's when players had enough choices, and enough control over those choices, that they could easily build huge gaps in power between them. You could build broken characters in earlier editions, but the DM (by design, IMO) had a lot more power to reign things in. It's a lot easier for a DM to say "Your wand runs out of charges" than "The wand is out of charges, you can't buy it anymore, and that feat you're using is gone."

A lot of gamers really don't care about game balance, and that's OK. A lot of DMs have learned over the years to fiddle with the game to keep things even, and that's a godsend to many designers. Your audience is trained to forgive mistakes!

There are also plenty of players and DMs who have no use for game balance. If things are out of whack, their playstyle is such that it doesn't matter. Who cares if the berserker can kick anything's ass in melee, if the campaign is a mash-up of Romeo and Juliet crossed with The Longest Yard. Fighting isn't the point, so all those unbalanced fighting abilities the berserker uses don't matter.

If you do like combat, though, then game balance is very important. A DM needs the system to provide some framework for building encounters, or at least judging their difficulty. If each class has wildly different combat abilities and the game doesn't account for that, the system falls apart and the DM's judgment and experience have to take over. That probably means lots of trial, lots of error, and hopefully a patient enough group that a DM learns to balance the game using his own set of metrics. Of course, if a few PCs die and classes rotate in and out of the group, the balance act starts all over again.

So, some players and DMs don't care for game balance, but others want and need it. In fact, a lot of people want it. And the really nice thing is that a well-balanced game doesn't take anything away from people who don't care about balance, while making people who do care about it happy. The key is making the people who don't care about balance happy, and that's another bundle of trouble.

A well-balanced game means more than simply making all options equal. A well balanced game offers a lot of distinct choices and vivid options, without *needlessly* restricting them. That's really the trick - where does that needless line rest? 4e catches a lot of heat for this. For some people, wizard spells that obviated skills were bad because they replaced rogues in those critical situations where the rogue had a chance to shine. Others didn't care, or rarely had rogues in the party, or had enough chances for the rogue to shine that the wizard didn't steal them all.

It's a tough line to draw, because D&D is really a large number of games placed under one umbrella. Some people like lots of combat in their D&D, others enjoy free-form roleplay with teh occasional die roll. To attempt to distill D&D down into one experience that makes everyone happy is difficult.

In a way, though, game balance has to draw lines and partition things. Game balance exists at least in part within the context of a specific campaign. When you try to balance the game, you have to create a sort of platonic ideal of a campaign and work from there. Do some people think it's cool that wizard spells make skills worthless? Sure, but that might not be the baseline you design to.

Balancing D&D is hard and boring. Few people will thank you for it when, by some miracle, you get it right. Everyone will tell you how you've messed up, either by nerfing things, making things bland by balancing them, or taking away toys they liked playing with. It's precisely the job that designers are paid to do so that individual DMs aren't stuck with it.

At the end of the day, though, if you balance the game just right everyone's happy. The guys who don't care about balance get lots of options and toys to play with, because you picked the right lines and didn't take away stuff they liked. People who like the challenge of breaking the game work harder to bust the game's math. They have a steeper mountain to climb! The players in the middle get to have fun picking options based on what looks fun, interesting, or that fits a character concept. You're not stuck with a lame character because you think it would be fun to play a samurai. DMs get to run engaging campaigns without taking on too much work that the designer left for him.

So, that's why designer should keep tilting at the game balance windmill. It's hard, rarely rewarding work, but that's what we're paid to do. We take on the tough, boring tasks so DMs can spend their time doing the fun work of running a D&D campaign.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Kill the Planes: The Abyss

While I realize that the planes have a long tradition in both fantasy and D&D, I don't particularly like them. The idea of going to another world is interesting and all, but why bother setting all that interesting stuff somewhere else? Why not just cram it all into the world?

For instance, the Abyss is a scary place. It's filled with demons and extends far below the normal planar realms to who knows where. The thing is, though, by placing it into this planar structure you rob it of some of its value. Clear out part of your setting, punch a huge hole in your world, and voila, there's the Abyss.

That may seem like a bad idea. After all, what stops the demons from overrunning the world? When you think about it, though, you face all the same questions if you anchor the Abyss in the planes. The frame of reference shifts, sure, but the basic concept is the same.

Instead, the Abyss is a yawning pit one hundred miles wide. It drops deep into the earth, far deeper than anyone has delved. It cuts into the Underdark, and demons emerge both there and at the surface to kill and maraud. A number of ancient fortresses watch over it, but few of those are still manned by the orders of paladins that built them. Today, many are now occupied by renegade wizards, necromancers, and demonologists.

As one travels down the narrow ledges that circle the Abyss's outer rim, one can see great spires of black rock that rise through the Abyss's central void. Here, demon lords battle for territory along narrow, stone bridges and within the chambers and caverns that honeycomb the spires. Here and there, gates along the Abyss's wall lead to massive caverns warped and changed by the Abyss's influence. These layers are shaped by the demon lords that claim them and range from howling, frozen wastes to verdant jungles. Miniature suns hang in their skies, creating proto-worlds within the stone of the earth.

Luckily, the mightiest demons need the aid of mortal spellcasters to leave the Abyss for any period of time. It is a place infused with great magic, and without it they would die like a fish removed from the water. Still, legends tell of a time when a great, red comet will split the sky and herald the rise of demonkind. According to the legends, this comet is the Queen of Chaos, the mother of all demons banished in eons past by the gods to the outer realms of the sky. When she returns, she will lead her children on an endless war of conquest across the world.

The lands near the Abyss's rim are demon-haunted and mostly abandoned. Cultists, wanderers, and madmen make their homes there, as do many gnoll packs that can reach the size of armies. The gnolls will forever remain a thorn in the side of the realm, as even the most ardent paladin would think twice before leading an army into the Abyssal lands to slay them.

The Underdark is so dangerous because, by whatever strange laws govern the Abyss's power, the mightiest demons can enter it through the Abyss's lowest precincts. This makes travel there perilous at best, and it also provides the drow with easy access to demonic aid.

Placing the Abyss in the world opens up a lot of potential for adventure. What if the Abyss's influence starts to grow? What secrets are in the fortresses that once watched over it? Low level characters can venture into the twisted lands around it and maybe even its uppermost layers, while a journey into the Underdark can turn into an excursion to the Abyss with one wrong turn.