Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Mechanics of Failure

I’ve got about 25 years of experience in graphic arts, and using graphic-related software. In gaming terms I figure I’m a paragon-level graphic artist. Maybe 15th level? My software tools have evolved over time, as has my mastery of them. Every once in a while I’m called on to create materials for a presentation. This usually involves a certain program from a large software company that is, to put it mildly, less-capable as a graphic art application than my primary tools. It’s like picking up a weapon in an RPG that you aren’t proficient with. Yes, I can make graphics with it, but it’s like putting oven mitts on the hands of a violinist and asking him to play some Bach.

On Friday I was asked to step in for a coworker to finish a presentation for an end-of-day deadline. A presentation for a major brand. A presentation that was going to be projected on 45-foot wide screen in front of who knows how many people. Being the team player I am, I said “sure” and dove in. People started feeding me input and edits. It was quickly apparent that I was expected to work at the same pace, and with the same facility as my coworker. I sat there and imagined the oven mitts on my hands. An hour into it, with the deadline approaching, I realized I was going to fail. The d20 had been rolled, and it was showing a one. I raised a white flag, called my coworker back out of her crucial meeting, and explained the situation.

At this point, the team began to rally around and reorganize the effort. I took a portion I felt I could handle. Others stepped into the crucial meeting. The bases got covered and the presentation was completed on time.

Had this been an RPG encounter, my character would have been forced to pick up the Flail of Undead-Slaying, step up to the dragon (knowing full well that my lack of proficiency with the flail, coupled with the undead-centric nature of the weapon weren’t going to help me against a dragon) and take my best shot. And I rolled a one.

However, in many RPGs characters can be – and often are – built to avoid all prospects of failure. Players expect to succeed, and they micro-engineer their characters to ensure their success. In the various rulebooks for WotC’s 4e D&D they explain the roles that various character classes fulfill, and the concept of making sure that each player has time in the spotlight. The idea was to make the game more inclusive. Unfortunately, one of the side effects has been this idea that the spotlight shines exclusively on success.

Narratively speaking, failure builds tension. Like it did for me with the presentation assignment. The spotlight was on me. It highlighted my failure, and my coworkers rallied around me, allowed me the opportunity to identify a way I could help achieve the objective, and we carved out a win from what appeared to be a potential loss. In the moment, I felt like crap. It’s no fun to fail, after all. But in the end, with the teams’ success, I ended up feeling pretty good about it.

So why are gamers afraid to fail? Why do game designers feel compelled to craft systems that emphasize mastery and success so much that the possibility of failure is all but eliminated? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Three Pillars of Role-Playing Gaming

If you were to break down most RPGs or gaming sessions, the three most common activities you’d encounter would be combat, exploration, and (social) interaction. Cover these three with some kind of game mechanics (emphasis up to you, depending on your players or personal preferences) and you’re likely to end up with a playable RPG. The complexity of the mechanics can be up to you as well, and may depend on your preferred gaming style. To use some of the more-established gamer lingo for style preferences, you might choose simulationist — where your focus is on recreation of specific genres or modeling the minutiae of the setting; narrativist — where the story and character background are the foundation; or gamist — where the game mechanics themselves are the highlight.

In general, you can see how the pillar activities align with play styles: Combat with gamism; exploration with simulationism; and interaction with narrativism. Common sense says that creating a game that plays well all three ways is extremely difficult, highly unlikely, or a fool’s errand, at best. Is there a demand for such a game, and if so, wouldn’t it already have been created?

The gaming groups that I play in include a fairly wide cross-section of gaming styles and rules preferences. The games I run tend to include all three activity pillars, with a preference for combat. The games I aspire to run have some kind of mechanic that links the three pillars. A way for players to find their niche in the game, their moment in the spotlight, in an activity that interests them. 4e D&D did a nice job of setting up each type of character with an opportunity to contribute meaningfully in combat, but neglected the other two pillars of RPGs. 4e has a generally gamist sensibility that works well for players who learned the ropes of RPGs on computers or consoles, as opposed to basement tabletops littered with Mountain Dew cans and Cheetos. 4e is generally fun to play, and relatively easy to game master. I’d like to play something better.

Resource Management
One key aspect of RPGs is the idea of resource management. How much damage can your character take? How much do you want to invest in weapon-specific advantages? How much should you spend on a variety of gear in anticipation of particular obstacles? All of these questions involve consideration of risk versus reward. Whether you’re talking about combat, exploration, or interaction, what are the risks your character might face? And how do you want to allocate your resources in regard to those risks? Do the game mechanics you’re using allow for these considerations?

Most RPGs use hit points, or something similar, to denote how much physical damage your character can take before dying. The risk, if you allow your character’s hit points to get too low, is that your character will die. It’s a pretty simple system, and widely recognized and understood. 4e D&D used powers — of an at-will, encounter, and daily frequency — to model combat resources. The conceit of powers and their limited frequencies is that they are unique actions that come about as a weird amalgam of opportunity and chance. Your character is able to summon the extraordinary combination of will and coordination necessary to pull off the action a limited number of times, and must then rest and recuperate before being able to perform it again. For most players I have played with, this has had an artificial feel to it. Why is it that my barbarian can only Flatulently Surge once per encounter? The resources are managed as much by the game mechanics as the player. And the management is limited to the context of combat.

In my home rules I replaced the combat powers with a pool of points. Players could “buy” combat actions using the points, and build attacks that were tactically appropriate to the situation, and were repeatable as long as the player had the points in hand. This option has worked well for both my seasoned players, and casual players alike.

So, my next step is to expand the usage of these points, or some similar pool, to the activities of exploration and interaction. In theory, this gives players who are more interested in these activities an opportunity to be in the spotlight. All while actively managing their resources. However, to make it work in a meaningful way as part of the game, there need to be elements of risk and reward as there are in combat.

I’ll talk more about these ideas in future posts, but I’d like to hear your thoughts, or any experiences you may have had with systems that promote exploration and interaction. If you’re a player that prefers these aspects of RPGs, what skills or powers do you think a character needs to define them?

Friday, February 17, 2012

It’s All About the GM

I had a great discussion on Wednesday night after D&D Encounters at my FLGS with Brooks and Krupal. We talked about D&DNext, and what we thought 4e D&D got right, and what it did wrong. Krupal runs some Pathfinder, Brooks plays in a hybrid home-brew based on Champions. Both of them have years of experience with a variety of game rules.

My takeaway from the discussion was that 4e was too player-centric, and didn’t have enough tools for the game master. I suspect that, in trying to make a game that they could sell to all the players at the table (instead of the traditional “GM has copies of all the books, and players just borrow them”), WotC lost touch with what differentiates tabletop RPGs from CRPGs. Specifically, the GM. A human GM can present more responses to player input than a computer or console. And that variety is what makes the game world feel real to the player.

Between the three Players Handbooks, the online Character Builder, and the character optimization threads on various online forums, there are so many options for players that there is no effective balance, and no cohesive game feel. The very limitations of OD&D (some of which I loathe) are the very things that make it appealing to many players and GMs. It’s simply easier to create a cohesive, immersive world using those rules than it is with 4e.

Why a Sandbox Has a Box
A “sandbox” game is viewed as one in which the players are free to explore in any direction. It’s a term generally reserved for a campaign style. But, beneath “sandbox” there are usually other tiers that define the campaign style. Maybe it’s a Middle Earth sandbox, or a Miskatonic Valley sandbox, or a Barsoomian sandbox. These “boxes” set the scene for the players. Rules can have the same function. When the campaign is limited to specific classes, equipment, powers, or other game-mechanical aspects, it helps the players become immersed in that setting. Dark Sun is a good example of this.

Unfortunately, as written, the 4e rules provide very little guidance for GMs on how to create settings using such game-mechanical limitations. Some attempt was made to address the issue with the Essentials line of products, which was marketed to new players, but while it provides limitations, it makes no connection as to why these limitations exist. (Beyond simplifying the mechanics of the game.) So, Essentials doesn’t help players become more immersed in a setting.

D&DNext is being described as a “modular” system. One in which GMs and players can combine game-mechanical elements to create the gaming experience that they prefer. My hope is that WotC will include templates and/or detailed guidelines for GMs on assembling these modules. To go back to my favorite LEGO analogy, kits that you buy usually come with a “theme”. The model that is intended to be constructed is pictured on the box, and step-by-step plans are included. But the “player” is free to construct whatever they would like with the pieces included. In some LEGO kits, plans for alternative models are included as well. That’s what I’d like to see happen with D&DNext.

How to Play a GM
One of the signature flaws of 4e, and other character-centric systems, is the use of skills. Too often in such games a player will say something like, “I roll a 12 plus my 17 bonus. 29 Nature. What do I find out?” The activity of exploring the game world has been reduced to the equivalent of a choose-your-own-adventure page reference. Turn to page 29 to find out what happens.

One of the game mechanics being discussed for D&DNext is the way in which GMs can use a character’s ability scores to help determine possible success without needing a die roll. The GM knows that an iron-bound wooden door has a difficulty class of 15 to break down. The character has a strength ability score of 17. The player announces that, “My character tries to break down the door.” And the GM, after confirming that the ability exceeds the DC, simply describes the resolution of the door being broken down. There are two key elements to this mechanic. The one being touted is that it speeds gameplay by not requiring a die roll. More interesting to me though is the idea that the player is encouraged to describe an action, rather than to cite a number. It’s up to the GM to describe the resolution given the framing provided by the player.

It is simply easier for a GM to describe a resolution given a player’s action than it is if the GM has only a number to work with. In the nature example above, a player might be trying to determine attributes of a creature, properties of a plant, or detect a camouflaged pixie. A better RPG not only gives players tools to create their characters, it gives GMs tools to adjudicate actions.

In Wednesday’s discussion Brooks pointed out that the 4e skill list was too general. What is “Nature” skill? The 4e Dungeon Masters Guides (especially the DMG 2) give some good guidelines on how to work with these skills to answer knowledge questions, perception questions, and other types of queries that might fall under the general skill categories. The information is in the rules, yet too often players will resort to the “I got a 29 Nature. What do I find out?” method of play. Not enough attention is paid to how the GM should “play” skill check resolutions.

Confronted with a locked door that the players want to open, there are a limited number of options. So, how do you teach GMs to describe other obstacles in ways that frame options for players? Are there ways to describe an outdoor scene that encourage players to describe actions they might take? The key is getting players to describe actions first, and then let the GM decide what skills would be appropriate to check. Teaching GMs the art of framing scenes in this way should be part of any GM handbook, and part of any published module-adventures.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the role of the GM, examples of tools or game mechanics that are useful to GMs, or what makes one RPG better than another. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Hero System — Initial Impressions

Real life is what happens when you commit to blogging. Events arise, and your priorities are shifted. January and February have "shifted" rather radically, but my hope is that this week is the last of the major disruptions. On with the blog!

My friend and GM Dave has relaunched his Avergene campaign using the Hero System rules from Hero Games. We had been using D&D 4th Edition rules, and decided as a group to try something new. A new system means that players enter the game on a more even footing. As in the early days of playing RPGs, it's more likely that the GM is most familiar with the rules. One of the unique aspects of D&D 4e was how much of the game rules was delegated to the players. Character powers created exceptions to the base rules, much as the cards in Magic: The Gathering did. Managing character "builds" is best handled with the character builder software, especially at higher levels. In contrast to that, the Hero System rules are largely in the hands of the GM in the form of a toolbox for the type of game the GM wants to run. The rules contain everything plus the kitchen sink. It's up to the GM to define the tools useable in his or her game. As a side note, I suspect that this was one of the intents of the designers of 4e, but that it wasn't articulated clearly, thus leading to players building characters with every possible combination of options available. A recipe for confusion and disaster, in my opinion.

Unfortunately, it seems that Hero System is really no better in this regard. While the GM is free to define guidelines, the variety of options and the potential implications of their selection are open to abuse and/or misuse. I've used the LEGO analogy before. In Hero System the GM limits character options via a point total (analogous to saying, "you have 200 LEGO pegs to work with, and you may choose from 2x4, 2x6, and 2x10-peg bricks.") In general, what "bricks" you work with, and their characteristics are left entirely up to the player. Dave's approach to this is logical: Tell him what capabilities you want your character to have, and he points you to the appropriate game mechanic. The flavor of the game is something he has established, so we're choosing campaign-appropriate options. However, without hands-on experience with the game mechanics in play, it is very difficult to prioritize the components of the character. Literally everything is purchased, from abilities like Strength and Dexterity, to skills like Lockpicking, and personality complications like being unreasonably annoyed by tall people. There are some basic guidelines for creating ability-centric versus skill-centric characters, but players are mostly on their own. Dave worked closely with each of us to create characters that reflected what we wanted to do in-game, and provided lots of tools and guidance in the form of Google Doc character sheets and an Obsidian Portal wiki for the campaign with rules summaries and interpretations (house rules). Thus, a very GM-centric approach to the game, in contrast to the 4e player-centric approach.

When we were kids, playing army or superheroes in the backyard, much of our time was spent arguing about what our "characters" could and couldn't do. "My guy shoots you with his laser!" "I make a mirror force-field and reflect it back at you!" That's still the core of RPG character creation, except that with an established game structure, characters aren't usually able to fabricate powers and defenses on the fly. You will have strengths as well as weaknesses. In 4e D&D, the compromises are pretty apparent, and in some cases built in to the class. In Hero System, it is much less obvious. Action resolution is based on rolling three six-sided dice (3d6). There is a complex calculus of offensive and defensive values that affect combat rolls. In 4e I know what the basic modifiers are, but in Hero System — as with character building — there is a bewildering array of options. As a new player, I depend on having a GM versed in the mechanics. The pattern of the Hero System mechanics is more difficult to recognize, and so it will take longer to learn to play the game. My coping strategy at this point is to play as a very casual player, that is to query the GM about how to do things during the run of play, and start with a very basic "menu" of actions. The stuff I understand my character can do. I'm self-limiting my choices so that I don't have to involve the GM in each and every action choice, thus slowing the game for the rest of the table. All of this is part of learning a new system, and I've tried to take it in stride. But, in the back of my mind, there's a voice shrieking, "Does this have to be so complex?"

Choosing a rule set for a campaign or play group is a major challenge. Groups of players have different tastes in play style, sometimes within the group itself. I appreciate the effort that Dave has made to ease us into Hero System. He's made it a lot easier for the players, but it's clear that it has taken him a lot of effort as GM to do so. It's a labor of love in this case. Dave has a very colorful campaign world in Avergene, and he likes the fact that Hero System is generic enough to realize it. He doesn't have to alter Avergene to fit rules flavor, as he did when we were using D&D 4e rules.

I plan to continue reporting on my Hero System experiences. It's clear that for a group of players interested in the game mechanics of character construction, combat resolution, and for GMs who are looking for rules "crunch" to form a foundation for their campaign "fluff", that Hero System has considerable virtue.

Considering the Experience
With all the activity in the RPG community and industry, it's easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. I do think that for many of us, playing RPGs is an offshoot of the backyard adventures that we used to pursue. Everyone comes to the table with a little bit different priority. Some to tell stories, others to showcase their capabilities, others for the dynamics of the communication itself (argument and debate.) We play RPGs to be recognized in some way. The mechanics of a good RPG should support that. WotC game designers have talked about wanting to create a game that "shared the spotlight" of recognition around the table. I think that's a noble goal both for game rules and for gaming groups. How do your favorite game rules allow players to share the spotlight, and what about the groups you play with?  

Friday, February 3, 2012

Learned Skills or Natural Abilities?

Reading some of the summaries of initial playtesting and discussion of the next iteration of D&D, I’ve come across some outlines of how skill test resolution may be handled. It appears that some tests will be compared directly to abilities.

A couple of days ago I talked a little bit about how we want the core mechanic of the game to be the interaction between the DM and the player. And one of the great tools for that is the ability score. So what we want is to empower DMs and players so that if you want to attempt to do something "I want to open the door" then the DM doesn't have to even have you roll, he can just look, see you have a 17 strength and says "Yeah, you burst through that door". We want to get past some of the mundane rolls and not tie up a lot of table time with that and move on to the more interesting stuff and the table narrative. 
– Monte Cook, WotC from seminar transcripts at ENWorld

I’m intrigued by this idea. My most recent thinking about test resolution had me considering dropping ability scores altogether, as was done in the CRPG, Skyrim. But this concept, outlined by Mr. Cook, seems to be a cool way to make a system with set difficulty classes work.

SpydersWebbing uses these set DCs in his 4e mod:

Easy: 8
Medium: 12
Moderate: 19
Hard: 23
Master: 30
Heroic: 34
Epic: 41

Anything over Moderate on such a scale would require a skill check with a roll. But many tasks could automatically be accomplished by the strongest, smartest, most-agile, or most-perceptive member of the party.

In a system without automatic leveling of skills — where skill increases were selected by the player as experience rewards for leveling, for example — set DCs make sense, and work well with the ability score-based resolution suggested by Mr. Cook. If a locked, wooden door has a break down DC of 12, a player with a strength of 12 or greater would pretty much always be able to break it down (barring unforeseen circumstances as determined by the DM.)

The balance of an RPG seems to rest on the transition point between narrative-based resolution and game-mechanical resolution. Too much narrative and the game may feel wishy-washy to some players. They may have a sense that it is arbitrary. Too much emphasis on the mechanical — rolls for nearly everything — and the game becomes a console-based CRPG. Just spam the X button until the monster is dead.

So, what happens when a character with an ability score of 18 is confronted with a task with a DC of 19? We transition abruptly from automatic success to a roll-based probability of success. But, what does that mean in narrative terms? I believe this is where the element of risk should come into play. Consequences should be discernable. Perhaps not easily so, but nonetheless, it should be the case. For example, a lock with a DC of 18 is a mechanism that an heroically-agile rogue could pick. But a lock of DC 19 would most likely include a consequence for failure. Perhaps it is a trap, or maybe the noise and/or time required to open the mechanism will attract a wandering monster? Either way, the player should understand that when they are asked to roll the dice, consequences await.

Having an interim element, like the ability-score mechanic that Mr. Cook outlined, seems to be an elegant solution. Success can be determined based on game-mechanical elements, but in a narrative manner. The burly warrior bursts open the door. The agile rogue deftly disarms the trap. The canny wizard deciphers the script and decodes the hidden location of a vast treasure. Each specialist is given an opportunity in the narrative spotlight. An opportunity that can be determined by player choices, and GM recognition of those choices. But, in the spirit of the game, greater challenges may offer greater risks and rewards.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter. Do you play with a system that handles difficulty classes in a different way? Do you prefer to roll dice to resolve the question of success or failure, or does a narrative hand-wave satisfy you in most cases?

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Choice and Chance

In the process of trying to assemble a set of game rules for my home game, I’ve drawn extensively from published materials and the efforts of fellow members of my gaming groups. In doing so, a couple of elements have emerged as being significant enough that I’ve chosen to adopt them as tent poles for my efforts. It’s pretty clear that whether it’s choosing to enter a cave or travel further along the trail, favor weapon skills or master magic, playing an RPG is about choice. Making choices gives the players a sense of ownership and involvement. Too many choices and the game becomes bewildering, too few and it becomes boring. As game master, it’s my responsibility to give my players enough choices to make the game fun.

Players also need to have a fair chance at succeeding when they undertake actions in the game (or some kind of baseline reference to judge when they’re attempting something with a minute chance of success.) Playing a game is about making choices and taking risks. Consequences of risk, whether positive or negative, should result. What is a “fair” chance is, in my opinion, somewhat up to the player. Player choices should be able to influence the chance of success (in some cases significantly) but never truly guarantee it if the action attempted has some significance to the ongoing story. In my experiences with 4e D&D, too often the chance of failure was vanishingly small. Players came to expect success, and would often forego actions that did not have near-guaranteed successes as a clear result. In doing so, they removed some of the choices available in the game, and thus lessened the fun.

Choice of Skills
Classes, in most RPGs, are templates of skill choices. Combat-oriented players choose fighter classes, magic-oriented players choose caster classes, and stealth-oriented players choose rogue classes. It’s a time-tested model, and one that works for the majority of RPG players. So, why tinker with success? What I’ve chosen to do is divide a set of skills into three categories: Combat, Lore, and Agility. Given a budget of points to allocate, players choose skills from the various categories. The basic consequence of the choices are that there will be some skills at which the player is more proficient, and others where they must rely more on chance to accomplish tasks in the game. In addition to that I’ve tied the overall investment in categories to the character’s defenses. For example, a character with a heavy investment in Lore-related skills would have a greater Will defense. An Agility-oriented character would have a better Reflex defense. And investing in the Combat skills of Block and Heavy Armor (or, the Agility skill of Light Armor) impacts the Armor Class defense. Choice of skills has consequences. The connections also encourage players to invest in a variety of skill categories instead of maximizing only one. The consequences of maximizing are that neglected defenses mean character vulnerabilities. Of course the player is free to choose to accept the risk of such vulnerabilities…

Chance of Success
There are many factors influencing the chance of success in an RPG. 4e D&D used a level-based system of difficulties that, for the most part, scaled with the characters as they advanced. I’ve chosen to leave difficulties static, but use a slightly wider range of difficulty to define situations for my players. As they play the game, they’ll get a better feel for relative difficulties. I’m also using most standard 4e modifiers, so that players who choose to examine the scene, or describe actions intended to improve their character’s chances will benefit from this form of smart play. By using a set scale of difficulties and a cap on skill advancement, the game should have manageable math, and relative balance from low to high levels of experience.

So, what is a reasonable chance for success? An easy task in 4e D&D is defined as a “reasonable challenge for an untrained character” and the difficulty is set at 8 on a d20. This gives a character a 65% chance to succeed. Since we’re playing a story-game about heroic characters, it seems as if this is a good baseline. At the other end of the spectrum we have an epic task, something that should be undertaken only by a highly-trained character. In 4e D&D a hard task is defined as one at which an expert PC might expect to succeed at “two out of three” times. So, the 65% success rate seems like a good top-end limit. Given the roll of 8 or better on a d20 reflects this, the number we need to generate for an epic-level task difficulty should be x + 8, where x is equal to the maximum amount of training the player could achieve with any given skill. If there are 20 training-increments per skill, then the target difficulty for an epic-level task would be 28. Of course, by the time a character has achieved maximum proficiency in a skill they’ve probably acquired a number of items and/or advantages that would give them a better chance at achieving such a roll. Quantifying these elements and taking them into account will increase the target difficulty. I’m not going to go into specifics here, but I’m working on that part of the equation as part of my rules development.

In addition to reasonable chances for success, I’m considering the chance of failure and the consequences. Should a highly-trained expert fail? How often? In d20-based games the tradition of criticals and fumbles has arisen to take dramatic die rolls into account. The excitement of rolling a natural 20 and the disappointment of rolling a natural 1 has become part of the game for many players. What are the game-mechanical implications of these rolls? In most d20 play groups a roll of 1 is an automatic failure. I’d be inclined to continue that tradition for the excitement it adds to the act of rolling the die. A 20 or a 1 on a d20 reflect the heroic aspect of the game, and can lend additional significance to moments in the game.

Simple, Yet Nuanced
It is a simple thing to have a list of skills and to have players choose the ones they care to develop. And it should be relatively simple to outline easy, moderate, and hard tasks within each of the skills. Investing in skills will unlock additional capabilities within those skills, thus adding functionality to the character as it develops. As skills develop, the character may undertake increasingly difficult skill challenges with reasonable expectations of success. As players play they’ll develop an understanding of the factors that influence the difficulty of a skill challenge, and make play decisions that maximize their chances.

I’d be interested in your opinions on class-free roleplaying. Would such a system interest you, or would you prefer to have template classes to kickstart your character creation? And how do you feel about skills, and rolling dice to test those skills?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A World Without D&D

Columnist Adam Davidson who blogs for NPR and writes for the New York Times about money made a point in the January 15 issue of the New York Times Magazine that struck me as having a gaming analogy.

“Over the past decade or so, a significant part of Wall Street’s business has shifted from serving the financial needs of the nation to profiting from ‘regulatory arbitrage’—making money by playing with the rules of the game.”
—Adam Davidson, “A World Without Wall Street”, New York Times Magazine, Jan 15, 2012, p.14-15

I could paraphrase that in gaming terms by saying, “Over the past decade or so a significant part of the RPG experience has shifted from exploration and role play to character optimization—deriving entertainment from exploiting the rules of the game.”

Of course some people would regard that as a criticism of that mode of play. Which it is. But, I will happily honor and respect the rights of my fellow gamers to play character optimization. Even to the extent of working to provide opportunities for it in my homebrewed rules. It’s not my personal native mode of play, but I’ve done my fair share of it in CRPGs and in various tabletop games. Some of these games seem to require at least some investment in character optimization in order to achieve success in the game. Gone, it seems, are the days when creative use of available resources and out-of-the-box solutions to encountered problems were acceptable currency in terms of game progress.

Davidson talks about how Wall Street provides an environment for moving money around that normally wouldn’t be available. The activities on the Street enable risky investments because the risk is spread out over a large population, reducing the exposure. D&D, as the “boss” of RPGs, functions much the same way. It attracts an audience of players and introduces them to the idea of roleplaying. It provides an environment for independent developers and homebrewers to explore creative and alternative forms of roleplaying, and novel game mechanics.

Like the gaming community, the finance community includes risk-takers and conservatives. It contains cheaters, idiots and geniuses. It contains vocal minorities, silent majorities, and minute-by-minute churn. (I think the gaming community functions a little slower, but not much.) Suffice to say that this seems a relatively “normal” state of affairs for human communities.

Without the presence of D&D the RPG landscape would be very different. I suspect it would be much smaller and more primitive. There are those that say the hobby of playing RPGs is dying. I believe that the rapid evolution of new forms of D&D, spurred on by CRPGs and social media is a sign that the hobby is very much alive.

As Anna, one of the regular commenters here said:
“I think the one positive about 4e stumbling so badly is that people did look for other games to play. Some were CRPGs, but a lot were not. I often feel that the iconic status of D&D pushes equally good, if not better products, out of the market.”

I agree that, as a result of 4e’s faults, people were more open to exploring other games. But, I think that it also opened the window for those other games to materialize. And for the gaming public to express opinions about the kinds of games they want to play.

So let’s have an Old School Renaissance of RPGs, and let’s have CRPGs that are mostly char-op engines in (sometimes) beautiful packages, and let’s have new editions of D&D that try to bridge the gaps between playstyles. Because in the end it means the hobby is alive and surviving. As Charles Darwin said:
"I love fools’ experiments. I am always making them."

Friday, January 13, 2012

The LEGO Analogy

Most of you are probably familiar with LEGO bricks. They often come in the form of kits, with instructions on how to build specific models. But one of the advantages of LEGO bricks is that you can build whatever you want with them. And people do.

Firetruck I created for my daughter when she was three.
With the announcement of D&D Next, WotC has stated that they’re hoping to build a modular ruleset, with an eye towards including legacy rules and play styles under a singular D&D umbrella. The current state of D&D is that this is what most of us are doing anyway. Like LEGO enthusiasts exploring options beyond the instructions that came with the kit, we’re creating our own games using our favorite rules and rule systems. Recognizing this state of the hobby, and creating a resource to aid gamers interested in that exploration seems like a logical step to me. And a good business strategy.

“The final word, then, is the game. Read how and why the system is as it is, follow the parameters, and then cut portions as needed to maintain excitement.”
— Gary Gygax, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide, 1979

Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, and their friends and colleagues tinkered with tabletop war games to create D&D. The fact that the hobby remains a vibrant and viable diversion with a dedicated community of players is tribute to that spirit of experimentation.

“This game is unlike chess in that the rules are not cut and dried. In many places they are guidelines and suggested methods only.”
— Gary Gygax, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook, 1978
Santa Yoda created for a promotion at Gizmodo

As we play with the bits and pieces of D&D, each group finds the elements that work for them, and those that don’t. But unifying it all are some basic RPG concepts, the “bricks” that make up the game. Like LEGO, you can buy or find these “bricks” individually online, or at your FLGS. Or, you can purchase the kits. Either way, the pieces are yours to play with, and to combine and recombine in any way that you find fun.

I suspect that WotC looked at the state of 4e D&D pre-Essentials and found that some players were overwhelmed by the number of choices and complexity of combinations. I also suspect that part of the intent of 4e was that GMs and players would impose limits on what options were available in their particular campaigns. I think Essentials was a roadmap towards the idea of selective use of the rules. Lesson learned at WotC: Creating a clear system of options for selective game-building is perhaps more important than creating a singular, integrated supergame.

This lesson, combined with the state of the hobby (in the form of active and vocal sub-communities devoted to historic variations of the game) has resulted in a change of course. Rather than continuing to pile options on to 4e, WotC will, with input from the community, endeavor to assemble a kit of rules from which players can build their games.

The Cost of Changing Course
I own a lot of gaming books. Admittedly, the vast bulk of them are D&D-related. If I count only the hardback volumes, I have 40 books. It’s a modest collection, but I suspect it is about average for GMs in the hobby. Assuming the books averaged between US$25 and $35 (accounting for the fact that some were purchased over 20 years ago, or more) we’re talking an investment of around US$1,100. I own plenty of splatbooks, modules, and other gaming paraphernalia (not including miniatures.) It’s pretty safe to assume I’ve spent at least $1,100 on that stuff. I’ve been involved in the hobby of RPGs since 1979 or so. It works out to about 32 years. So, cost per day of being in the hobby? About 19¢.

I know that most of you haven’t been in the hobby that long. Or you don’t have that many books. But even if your cost per day is five times mine, you’re talking a dollar a day. I think that’s pretty reasonable considering the entertainment value.

There are plenty of cynical complaints online about the profit motivations behind WotC’s announcement of D&D Next, coming a mere four years after the release of 4e. I know that many gamers have limited financial resources available to indulge in the hobby. There are so many ways to share the costs of the hobby that I feel justified in saying that I don’t find the complaints a legitimate indictment of WotC. Yes, they’ve mishandled customer relations and marketing, sometimes quite badly. But they also continue to publish useable, and in some cases, inspired material.

I’m happy to welcome D&D Next. Ready to explore the various mechanics that WotC has selected as representative of the game over the years. And, I’m interested in providing feedback to them as they finalize the components of the toolkit.

I still have my LEGOs. Many of them are older than my D&D books. It’s still fun to drag out the box every once in a while and just build something. My daughter enjoyed them when she was growing up, and added to the collection. Sometimes we tinker with them together. I’d love to hear your thoughts on rules toolkits, LEGOs, the state of the hobby, or all of the above!

Friday, January 6, 2012

Being a Game Master

One of my players recently approached me about wanting to learn to GM. He asked if he could sit out a session as a player, and watch what went on behind the screen during the game. Any opportunity to encourage those interested in GMing is golden, as far as I’m concerned. More GMs means more game choices.

However, I’m not sure how much can be learned from the GM’s side of the screen that isn’t already apparent to players. What would be apparent is where I diverged from my session notes, or “cheated” to tweak the tension in a combat encounter. But that would be apparent only after I explained it (not something that would be easy in-session.)

My first response to the request was “Sure!” My second thought was to grab a couple of GM’s guides from various games. The game this particular player is in is a 4e D&D game, so I grabbed the Dragon Age GM’s guide and the Pathfinder Beginner’s Box GM’s guide. Both of these books have a lot of useful info that is not specific to a particular ruleset. I also recommended the 4e D&D Dungeon Masters Guide 2, which I think has a lot of good info as well. Finally, since this player had played at my table during the last D&D Encounters program, I’m including the GM booklet from that. Then he can see how the encounters were set up, and have an idea where I diverged from them as written.

Playing Fair
With almost any tabletop RPG the rules are complex enough that the GM will not know them all. Knowing when to substitute mechanics, gloss over details, or defer to player knowledge is part of the art of GMing. The key is to be fair. Both to the players, and to the game. The only way that players will respect the GM and the game is if they feel it is fair and consistent. Being fair is, for me, a state of mind. I’m by nature a team player. I want to work with people to help them succeed.

When players propose a ridiculous action, perhaps to test my level of attention or to see if they can get something free, I need to respond in a way that’s fair. Think of the classic story of the djinni granting wishes. How the wishes are worded is vital to them working correctly. The consequences of poorly worded wishes are widely known. So, I take on the role of the djinni and dissect the player’s request, but I must do so while remaining neutral and without malice.

What are the consequences of the proposed action? “I want to leap onto the dragon’s back, and wrap the rope around its wings, so the beast cannot fly, and then leap off!” Heroic? Yes! Ridiculous? Probably. Looking at the request there are three or four components: Jump, Wrap (maybe Balance), Jump. I probably need to come up with three consequences. If the first jump fails, make an Acrobatics check or fall prone next to the dragon (granting an attack of opportunity.) If the wrap fails, make either an Athletics check to hang on, or an Acrobatics check to tumble clear (choose to stay on the dragon and try again, or get away.) Finally, make an Acrobatics check to tumble clear (with the same consequences as the first jump.)

I’m trying to be fair to the player by outlining the possible consequences in advance. I’m trying to be fair to the game by using game mechanics to quantify the action. And I’m trying to be fair to the story by leaving an avenue for heroic success that will be the stuff of legend for the duration of the campaign. Of course there are lots of different solutions to such an action request. Each GM may handle it a little differently. And each ruleset may have different mechanics. But, hopefully in all such cases, the GM will first and foremost strive to be fair.

As the campaign unfolds, players learn to trust the GM’s sense of what is fair. They learn that, within reason, they will be allowed to negotiate the consequences of proposed actions. But in each case something must be at risk, and consequences must result.

The Art of Fail
When I’ve participated in National Novel Writing Month, I’ve used Evan Marshall’s The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing. One of his best pieces of advice is using the (repeated!) failures of the protagonist to build the story. In fact, he says that in nearly every scene the protagonist should fail, until the end. We’ve kind of got RPGs arranged in the opposite way. And, when players min-max their characters, they do so specifically to ensure success. Unfortunately, that takes much of the drama out of the story or game. Only when we’re confronted with failure are we forced to scramble and come up with new strategies.

As a GM, you need to be on the lookout for these opportunities for failure. When they occur, you need to impose fair consequences. When a GM designs an encounter, they create a framework. When players engage in the encounter, they bring it to life — through their actions and the consequences of their choices.

Winging It
Bartoneus over at Critical Hits posted recently about the art of “winging it” as a GM. ( In addition to what he said there, I’d add that “winging it” should include listening to the actions your players propose, and allowing those actions and their consequences fill out the framework of the encounter. By definition, a player has an investment in a proposed action. They want to succeed. By recognizing those moments of opportunity, quantifying them in terms of game mechanics, and defining consequences, you’re on the way to GMing a successful game. Such opportunities are almost impossible to plan for, and usually require a bit of negotiation to adjudicate. But, being open to exploring them is one of the really fun of aspects GMing.

If you’ve got any advice for those that are eager to take up the mantle of GM, please post a comment. I’d love to hear your ideas on the art of GMing!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

More on Rules and Roles

There is a compelling post by j-u-i-c-e over at HubPages on “Why RPG Gamers Fight All the Time”. The author breaks it down to rules and roles, uses examples from the CRPG Skyrim, and deftly illustrates the differences between rule gamers and role gamers while arguing the necessity of both.

On the one hand, the rule gamer is right: if you don't have rules and statistics, if you don't have attributes, classes, racial modifiers, and skill requirements, your role is undefined. That isn't role-playing, that's pretending the way kids pretend. There's no hard limit to push up against, no consequences for your decisions, no meaning to any of your actions. You might as well not play the game at all and just sit in the dark pretending your way through every conflict.

On the other hand, the role gamer is also right: if the rules prevent you from playing a desirable role, what's the point of playing? If there are too many arbitrary rules restricting your freedom of choice you're not really playing a role, you're just following a script. It might be a good action game, or a good strategy game, but it's not really a role-playing game if you can't make basic decisions about things like your character's skill development, what kind of armor they wear, or whether or not Absalem the melancholy Elf can reject his racial heritage and live in the cities as a drunk pimp with an Orc girlfriend and a gambling addiction.
 — j-u-i-c-e

Meanwhile, Greg Tito over at Escapist Magazine has written an interesting series on the past, present, and future of Dungeons & Dragons. I reference the future article here, because I think it makes some interesting points considering j-u-i-c-e’s comments above. Tito quotes Mike Mearls, head of Dungeons & Dragons development at WoTC, regarding the ways in which 4e D&D may have gotten out of balance. It is apparent from the article that the perception is that 4e D&D suffers from being too rules-oriented, per j-u-i-c-e’s definition.

According to the past-present-future articles, older versions of the game (and modern variations spawned by the Old School Renaissance) are more balanced in this regard, if perhaps hampered by somewhat arbitrary rules and/or too many allowances for the role gamer. J-u-i-c-e argues — in the context of Skyrim — that gamer immersion comes from a balance of both rule-gaming and role-gaming opportunities. Immersion being the nirvana that RPGs generally seek to achieve.

I think what immerses devotees of the OSR is the rich tradition and history of settings like Greyhawk (among many others), and the familiar mechanics of exploration, combat and magic as defined and refined by game masters from Gary Gygax to James Raggi. Such games include just enough rules to satisfy most rule gamers, while focusing on role gamers.

4e D&D, as originally released, emphasized rules in an effort to create a playing environment that included more gamers. But, as Mearl’s admits, "We've lost faith of what makes an RPG an RPG." In creating a rules game, they lost touch with the role game heritage of D&D.

Where Do We Go From Here?
Lest this devolve into yet another bashing of 4e D&D, I’d like to point out that there are many elements of that game that I, as a role gamer, find compelling. I have just enough rule gamer in me that some of the more arbitrary rules and game mechanics of the original editions of D&D (often perpetuated by the OSR, in my opinion) ruin my sense of immersion.

In my evolving homebrew rules, I’ve incorporated a core set of the conditions imposed by D&D spells and powers, as well as specific powers and effects that cause those conditions. Further, I’ve arranged it so that the player may tactically choose powers and effects that apply those conditions on the fly, in the form of customizable attacks and spells. For example, a weapon user might choose to sacrifice a die of damage in order to knock an opponent prone, if the situation warranted it. Or, a spellcaster might decide to expand the area of effect of a spell, sacrificing some duration, for a temporary advantage.

In the update I’m working on now, I’m tying skill development to defenses. For example, devote more of your skill development to lore-based skills such as history or spellcraft, and your Will defense will increase. Choose agility-based skills instead, and your Reflex defense is emphasized. Additionally I’m tying feats and powers into skill advancement, much as perks are used in Skyrim. When a player spends a point to advance a skill, they may have the option to select an associated feat or power. For example, a player might invest points in their character’s One-handed melee skill, and select the power “Disarm” as part of their advancement. Then, in play, the player would have the option to sacrifice a die of damage in order to disarm an opponent.

Ultimately, my goal is to have a rule system that contains a rich set of choices for rule gamers, while remaining straightforward and streamlined for role gamers. I try to invest as much of my development time in my campaign setting as I do in campaign rules, but finding the personal balance is as challenging as finding in-game balance.

The conflict between rules and roles seems central to dissension in the ranks of gamer hobbyists. Tabletop RPGs that try to become too rule-centric (like 4e D&D), and CRPGs that endeavor to be more role-centric (like Skyrim), inevitably cause a backlash from gamers dissatisfied with the attempts. However, I think it is important to keep trying, from both sides of the issue. If you have examples of games that you feel are nicely balanced in this regard, or thoughts on the matter, I’d love to hear them!