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!