D&D 5E and OGL Hints

June 30, 2014

Learning from mistakes

It sounds like D&D 5 is going to at least try to avoid some of the pitfalls of 3rd Edition/D20 OGL, which is a good thing.

The first issue, which the link addresses, is that WOTC held onto the design principles and didn’t share them with the public (at least until the end of the lifecycle…).  This contributed greatly to the amount of crappy D20 material that came out – part of the reason you’d buy a book of monsters, feats, or classes is that you’d want to put it into your existing game – but if they’re all mechanically unbalanced, it doesn’t make a good fit.  By making the DMG a “hood pulled back” look at the mechanics, you help people not just hack the rules for themselves, but develop rules that others can use as well – they get a common language on what’s going on.

The second issue was the fact that open source development works because a lot of people can see how something works and at least SOME of those folks will have an idea of how to improve it.  D20 fell down because most of the material was hidden – you’d have to pay for a full product to see the OGL material AND very often due to the licensing, people would keep the best bits for themselves and only put the weakest, blandest parts up for OGL.

Indie rpg scene, the OSR scene

Meanwhile, the indie rpg scene and later the OSR scene effectively DID use open sourcing as open sourcing.  A lot of development for games was done publicly, a lot of playtest drafts were free to download.  Games like The Shadow of Yesterday used the Creative Commons License to simply open the whole game up for reuse, and many other designers put it out there, “If you want to do a variant/supplement for my game, just email me and ask.”  So we saw a lot of fast development there.

The OSR scene first used the OGL to reproduce a lot of clones of their favorite versions of D&D, but quickly started spinning off into their own games and development from that.  Again, often a lot of these were free or accessible for folks to build on ideas and cross develop.  Even things like E6 variant D&D developed under the same kind of logic.

The WOTC Challenge

Probably the easiest path for them would be to create a version of the Creative Commons License – let fans make stuff, but not charge money for it.  It fulfills the original goal of the D20 OGL – get people making material that feeds back to D&D, but it also avoids a lot of the pitfalls about paywalls.  There’s probably also something to be said about competition, especially in the post-Pathfinder era, though I don’t think that’s actually a real issue in the long run.

I know there’s the usual cry of “but if no one can charge money, no one professional will ever do this and quality will suffer!” but we can look at a lot of the OSR stuff being works of love rather than profit, and being successful despite lowered production quality.  Likewise, one can look at the amount of fanfiction which apparently has been decent enough to become transformed into professional bestsellers with the names scraped off, so there’s plenty of examples of “good enough to people to love it” from fan work.

The less easy path, if they wanted to take closer to the D20 OGL route, where people could create products and charge money, would be to have a central database or wiki of all the open source material so anyone could see it and work with it.  That said, you still have to figure out how to make sure it’s the best stuff coming in and not the dregs of any product, as well as dealing with the issue of maintenance. (Any platform the public can have input on, must be constantly handheld or it fills with violent racist, misogynist, homophobes and penis pictures as a basic law of the internet…)

The 4E route of “pay to license” is not going to work and we can see how much of 4E kinda sat on the edge with fan creations.  To be sure, there was hacks and stuff posted, but we can probably say that a lot of 2nd tier publishers who were putting out solid material for D20 decided to stick with what was working for them rather than deal with the hot mess of confusion and restriction the 4E license provided.

In many ways, I wonder how much of Pathfinder came out of a love of d20 as opposed to Paizo seeing 4E’s license as being unworkable.  It’s sort of like how Windows puts out a crap version every other time and no one upgrades because it’s easier to stick with what you’ve got than to deal with the hassle. (mind you, I’m talking about the license, not the game itself.  I think 4E had a lot of great design choices in it, and, would have been one of the better systems for 3rd party support/hacking, because of the modular nature of powers…)

The Indie Lesson of Fan base

One of the better things that came out of the 2000′s Indie rpg scene was the understanding of how to better engage with your game fan base.  People were playing games that were long out of print, with nothing new coming out and nothing in the news, but having a passionate community still playing and pushing it.  Ron Edwards pointed out that play communities mattered more to rpgs than regular publishing cycles.   We can see that is true with ever re-release Kickstarter of an old RPG which does exceedingly well because the fan base is still present.

So how do you best engage with that fan base?

Allow creativity

Roleplaying games are a creative activity, so it’s no surprise that gamers want to share their ideas as well.  This doesn’t mean anything has to become officially part of your game, but it does mean you need to allow spaces for it and to some level, encourage it.  To a great deal, we can see this is what Enworld and some of the blog spaces on the WOTC site have become.  Getting that to flourish in more spaces becomes more ‘free advertising’ for your core game.

Cross promote

The other one which is still relatively underutilized is cross promoting other games that you also think are good.  Tabletop rpgs are too small of a hobby to act as if you gain some competitive edge by pretending no other games exist.  Not only does cross promoting help grow/maintain the hobby by making sure people can find a game that does what they want (even if it’s not your game), it also sets up a reciprocal space of gaming promotion.  Not everyone is going to promote your game in return, but enough will and it makes a big difference.  “One True Way” logic has hurt roleplaying significantly as a hobby, and remains one of the big roadblocks to D&D groups forming and continuing with play.  If D&D gobbled up every other tabletop RPG company’s profits from actual games?  It’d be nothing to them.  What you want is more gamers overall, and it makes more sense to promote tabletop roleplaying as a whole, rather than fighting for crumbs.


Primetime Adventures Kickstarter

June 9, 2014

One of my favorite games, Primetime Adventures, is getting relaunched via Kickstarter.

It is one of THE BEST rpgs ever designed.  Period.

I’ve run/played in 3 campaigns over the last few years and it’s definitely the “go to” game for my group as something we know we can always come to and have a great time.

I’m just going to talk a bit about the design real quick and why it works so well:

Fan Mail

The biggest thing is the reward system.  Whenever a player does anything people at the table think is cool, they are rewarded a Fan Mail token out from the pool of tokens.  This was one of the first games to push the immediate on the spot reward system, and because it’s not just the GM, but anyone, what you find happens is people start keying in on what’s entertaining for the group as a whole.


Each character is defined by an Issue.  A core problem they’re facing that the story and the game is going to revolve around.  “Hide my past”, “Face my feelings”, “Make atonement”, etc.  What these do is become Flags and focal points for play – everyone knows this is what your character is about, so everyone pushes the story around these things.  The Issues tell everyone what the story should focus on, though not how to treat it, and what you improvise around it produces great roleplaying and gets you Fan Mail.

Spotlight and Seasons

Campaigns are a set number of sessions.  At the beginning of a campaign, you assign a set of numbers indicating your “Spotlight” – how much any session will focus on your character vs. your character sliding into a support role.  This helps everyone figure out which character’s plots to focus on more in a given session and pacing the overall stories, without necessarily dictating exactly what will happen.

Over the course of several sessions, you find that the flow of conflict grows as you become more invested in your characters and the stakes of what obstacles lay before you.  Not only that, but you start finding yourself flush or empty on Fan Mail and your choices become harder about when and how to spend, all under the same elegant rules from the start.

Narration Trading

One of the original narration trading games to come out, and one of the few to do it well.  PTA has two important things you get out of any conflict resolution: whether the goal succeeds or not, and which player is the one to actually narrate it.  Because this could be anyone at the table who took part in the card draw (including players whose characters aren’t necessarily involved in the conflict), you get a lot of fun narration that maybe you didn’t anticipate.   It also means it’s impossible to railroad this game.


The GM has a limited “budget” of points to spend to create conflicts.  This forces you as a GM to pick which conflicts matter – no more “roll to pick the door” if it ultimately doesn’t matter, you’ll start skipping that stuff because you’ll want to save your points for things that are interesting and fun.   It also gives each game session a short time limit, so you have natural stopping points in play.  The Budget Points feed the pool of Fan Mail to be given out, and the spent Fan Mail feeds back a portion of it into the Budget.

Dead Simple Mechanics

The game uses the standard 52 playing cards, that you can get anywhere.  Character sheets are small and easy to work with.  It really is an excellent game to introduce non-gamers to, or folks who like non-crunch games focused on Narrativist play.

Go support it! It’s a game I can’t say enough good things about.


My entry into D&D and roleplaying

May 31, 2014

Been reading around, with all the D&D 5E hype going on, and also poking at the ongoing OSR stuff about.  I think it’s really interesting how many folks “suddenly” claim they’ve always played the way detailed in the Quick Primer for Old School Gaming since it’s come out… but few really wrote about that before.   I figured it might be good to drop a post about my experiences getting into D&D and what that was like.


My first actual hearing about roleplaying games was ads in comic books.  The ads for D&D, Robotech, Teenager Mutant Ninja Turtles – all of that sounded pretty awesome.  I saw 2 seconds of gaming in ET or things like Cloak and Dagger – but none of it really showed you what roleplaying actually looked like or how it worked.  The “ZOMG SATANIC WORSHIP” panic wave didn’t get to me until years later, so that wasn’t really a forbidden fruit thing for me either.   There was folks with swords, dragons, and spaceships.  I wanted in.

Blue Box Holmes: I don’t get it

One of my older cousins gave me the Blue Box Holmes game.  I never got a chance to ask him how to play it, but I tried to figure it out on my own.  Despite having a rather sizable vocabulary and getting into advanced placement classes, I couldn’t figure out how to play the game AT ALL.   So, it got put aside, though I’d try to figure it out every so often and just walk away more pissed off.

Red Box: Yes, sorta

Red Box is where I actually feel I started getting into D&D.  The rules were clear enough, the choose-your-own-adventure in the game made things a lot easier to understand.  But that doesn’t mean it was entirely clear – especially for someone who had only really played boardgames before.   I had gotten together a bunch of kids at school and tried to run it during lunch… and discovered several problems:

1) 45 minutes is not enough time to make characters when everyone has to pick equipment

2) No one (myself included) really had any idea what a reasonable amount of time to run a session should look like

3) The cover shows a guy fighting a dragon, alone.  The game has a new party getting mauled by 3 giant rats… pretty regularly.

4) The book doesn’t really detail how you need to operate to make rulings on the fly, for people who’ve only played games where your options are limited to what kind of “moves” are listed in your boardgame.

So, yes, I’d try this repeatedly, and get various aborted attempts.  I at least got as far as to seeing there could be something interesting in this, but since everyone kept dying right away, I assumed I was simply “playing it wrong” somehow.  (I managed a better entry through TMNT and Robotech, both of which are more forgiving in fights and better model the genre expectations they present.)

“You’re playing it wrong! You’re not doing the thing that no one told you about!”

Later, I’d find out that not only is avoiding most fights the way to go, doing things beyond “attack” and having a DM who would make rulings that favor that is the way to go.  Mind you, this is what the Old School Primer was for me, but it actually highlights a terrible flaw in the written rules of D&D in that regard – “If you don’t like the rules, change them” isn’t the same as “Players should actively try to find creative solutions/stunts and the GM is expected to make rulings on them as a core point of play and here’s a page or two of examples”.

This also sits on top of the fact that so much of D&D’s legacy rules actually expected players to have multiple characters, each.  The high lethality, the randomized stat rolls, the low number of spells for casters, the caster/fighter power difference at higher levels – all of that disappears as problems when everyone has several characters.

Telling me how to play the game is part of design

So, over the years, one stance I remain firm on is that you actually have to tell people HOW to play your game.

To be sure, now it’s a lot easier because anyone can go online and watch some play-throughs on Youtube or other sites, but why should people HAVE to go somewhere besides the game you’ve sold them to get the basic gist of how to play?

Missing key parts like this is broken and it’s always been a point of contention when people basically argue, “It’s not broken, it works just fine (when I add all these procedures that aren’t in the book actually)!”  I mean, I could sell you a car without an engine and tell you it’s fine when you put an engine in… but…

D&D, OSR, etc.

As it’s always been, the question I’m wondering as I look through a lot of the discussions is how many folks are talking from their own play experiences, and then, how many recognize when/where they apply fudging/drift?   Because the game you’re playing might be awesome, but if it’s really awesome because you’re doing XYZ on top of what it gave you… the text rules aren’t necessarily going to give me or anyone else the same awesome experience.

What’s going to be a particular challenge for D&D 5E is if you’re going to take these judgement based rulings as a core part of play, is what advice/procedures do you put on it?  If they’re not there, you can basically take us back 25 years to young me trying to figure out why everyone dies in the first 10 minutes fighting rats, despite being badass adventurers…   And having folks walk away.


Eclipse Phase RPG kicks MRAs off their forum boards

May 31, 2014

Pretty much what the header says right here:

Every single one of us at Posthuman Studios stands in support of feminism’s basic principle: treating women as people. As can be gleaned from our books, we’re a fairly left-wing group, and we don’t hide our politics or claim to be unbiased. We believe we live in a world where patriarchy and male privilege are real, ongoing problems, and equality for all people, regardless of sex, is a worthy goal.

As a group, we at Posthuman find the politics of MRAs to be toxic, offensive, and completely removed from reality. We have also found the conduct of MRAs on our forums to be far from ideal. We do not appreciate that MRAs are driving other fans away from our forums.

It’s pretty nice to see a space take up the basic stance to NOT support the group of fans who shit on, harass and insult other humans in some vague handwavey BS “free speech” mumble (which, really always boils down to, “Too lazy to step up and kick the assholes out”, if not, “Well, we agree with them”).

This is actually why I don’t spend too much time on too many online spaces these days – I assume the default is going to be “most people are ok, but the few assholes will get to run wild and no one will do anything to stop them, or, tell you why it’s ‘ok’ for them to insult and harass people”.

Anyway, here’s to hoping more game companies clean up their spaces and make them inviting for the REST of the world, too.


Wiscon and fan spaces

May 27, 2014

I was very fortunate to get to attend WisCon – Women in Science-Fiction – this year.  I was lucky enough to get supported by Con Or Bust - an org that helps fund marginalized folks getting to conventions – you should check it out if you are needing support, or if you’ve got some to spare to help others.

Author N.K. Jemisin was the guest of honor and gave an amazing speech about the issues of acceptance and space in the speculative fiction community:


Maybe you think I’m using hyperbole here, when I describe the bigotry of the SFF genres as “violence”. Maybe I am using hyperbole — but I don’t know what else to call it. SFF are dedicated to the exploration of the future and myth and history. Dreams, if you want to frame it that way. Yet the enforced SWM dominance of these genres means that the dreams of whole groups of people have been obliterated from the Zeitgeist. And it’s not as if those dreams don’t exist. They’re out there, in spades; everyone who dreams is capable of participating in these genres.




The two hurdles for D&D 5E

May 22, 2014

As the promo material is coming out, folks are beginning to buzz about the new edition of D&D.  I followed the playtest about half way through (cancer kinda put a crimp in it) but part of it was the parts I was most interested in got cut out and my interest dropped as well.

I see 5E as having two major challenges to overcome for it to be a significant improvement in the whole D&D game line:

Teaching how to play by “rulings”

I know a lot of the bits from articles and such on the design side spoke about the appreciation of old school play where the players could make up anything and the GM would rule on the spot.  Problem is, if you haven’t done roleplaying before, this doesn’t even occur to you as a possibility.

I know from teaching myself D&D from Red Box at age 12 – I got the rules that were in the box, I didn’t get the idea of how to make intelligent rulings on the spot, or that it was even a choice.  A fighter could fight, or run in a combat.  I didn’t know a fighter could, say, kick over the cauldron of burning tar onto someone and the GM would make up a rule for how that worked.

Just saying “make stuff up” in a few sentences of a whole book doesn’t particularly convey the central aspect of play.  It was one of the oral traditions that didn’t come in the box.  If this is going to be a core feature of play, it’s going to need some good explanation and examples.

This is going to be especially true if this is the feature that makes this edition move away from the crunch factor that many people have loved about D20 and later 4th edition D&D.  If you want to give people more options IN play, without more crunch, they have to know how to engage and use it.

Getting on the same page

The bigger issue is going to be whether they give people adequate tools to figure out how to play the same game when they say “Let’s play D&D”. This has been the longest running issue and one of the core walls that makes it hard for new players to enter.  Whereas many folks look at my Same Page Tool as a helpful step forward, I see it more as a crutch in the face of games that failed to give people the tools to play them.

This becomes especially a focal issue as the design call has been for modular game design that allows many different styles of D&D to be supported by the rules.  If this is true, it’s going to be critical for groups to be able to say what parts they’re using and what kind of gameplay they expect to see come out of it.

Tied into the first hurdle, the one benefit a lot of crunchy games had was more standardization around expectations (at least when people actually follow the rules as written…).   If the simpler version relies more on GM judgment calls, it also means the ways in which a new player will experience and interact with D&D will be pretty varied as well.

The ability for folks to coordinate in finding groups doing what they want is the second step to this.

What is success?

The longstanding problem of a lot of RPG publishing has been varied and weird definitions of success – there’s been many companies that have measured success in putting out a lot of product, but going out of business, or not paying their writers or artists.  There’s companies that measure success in still actively publishing decades later, even if it’s primarily reprints.  There’s companies that measure success by return on investment, etc. etc.

D&D, being part of WOTC, being part of Hasbro, has a very different metric of success than any other publisher probably has.  We can talk about raw cash, though possibly the real measure of success isn’t the game itself, but how well it turns into selling D&D novels, or videogames, or other media.  In this regard, it then mirrors how the big two American comic companies churn out comics as a side business to the real industry of other merchandise.

With all this in mind, D&D doesn’t have to be a great game, it doesn’t even have to be the most popular game.  It just has to be “good enough” to meet other goals.  And while I’m sure the design team wants it to be the best, most popular, etc. the fact is that the metric that it gets measured by, by the folks higher up in the chain, might be very different than what you or I as roleplayers might consider.  …after all, the previous iterations of D&D and D20 as a system are turning out to be rather popular in the gaming community, though it’s not much of a success for WOTC/Hasbro in terms of direct sales.

My view

Personally, my two measurements of success to overlay are primarily: how does it function as a game in teaching people to play it and how well is it designed? Second, how well does it work in terms of outreach to previous non-roleplayers?  The latter is specifically this has been a general goal for D&D overall, as the game with the largest outreach in bookstores, shops, etc.



The Power of Fantasy

May 22, 2014

Fantasy as a valuable headspace

Wish fulfillment.  A space where either there’s no problems, the problems are background elements that never really cause problems, or they’re solvable problems with an ending.  A space where you can be valued as a person, even if it’s in an unrealistic worshipped fashion.

Roleplaying games are a playground of this space.   But it’s always interesting to see what/how these spaces are constructed and for whom.

It’s a very different power fantasy for the person who has none vs. the person who has a lot.

As I always point out, while personal power fantasies can be extremely problematic, they’re ultimately small beans on the plate of “affecting the world”.  What I look at more deeply is media, mass publishers and overall gamer culture – that’s where it becomes a wider issue.

How much does it align with existing power narratives?

When someone makes a fictional world in which the “savage natives” are the big threat, and claim “well, in THIS fantasy world, it’s true!”, the question comes up about why real world genocidal narratives would be a fun thing to imagine as true, and what sort of wish fulfillment you’re getting from it.  Or, just as poorly, if it’s a bizarro world straw-man idea as a reverse persecution complex (RPG relevant example…).

Ultimately we see both of these cases are examples where either someone wants to create a power fantasy of having that power/status and more importantly perceived moral approval to do such things, OR, is projecting an idea of how heroic and righteous they are to hold these beliefs in a world determined to crush them.

Nevermind, you know, the actual real stuff going on in the real world, to the very people they’re often projecting upon is usually worse than anything they’re imagining…

Which is basically why roleplaying is an amazing space for the marginalized to create space where they can be valued and/or have power to address problems on their own terms.  We’ve seen this happen over and over whenever any form of media is opened for people’s use, and just as much, we’ve also seen how this regularly leads to backlash… leading to the next point:

Who do you actively exclude or shut out from participating in having power AS a fantasy?

What’s particularly interesting in this reaction is that it is about as open as it gets to the heart of the problem:

“Hey, can we be awesome heroes too?”

“No! HOW DARE YOU! WE’RE THE ONLY ONES THAT MATTER!  If you get to be human we can’t have fun!”

This ranges from the usual spaces of erasure, like having racist colonial fantasies of an America without the hundreds of indigenous nations, so that one can have a guilt-free colonization (RPG relevant example), to the overt backlash like horrid Dickwolves shirts sold to silence folks, or, thousands of men organizing together to harass a woman for talking about videogames.

What you say tells me what you think

What makes this kind of erasure and reaction more telling is that it is primarily backlash to the idea of (POC, women, LGBT) folks even existing, being shown, or asking to have media that includes them in any way.  In other words – to have anything that ISN’T focused on straight white able bodied, cismen (or, stereotypical characters in roles specifically to serve as supports to highlighting and centering said whitedudebros)…. is an offense.

Of course, the underlying thinking is not new.  It’s the same folks who claim anytime the only reason to have anything OTHER than a whitedudeness is clearly a matter of “political correctness”, “meeting quotas”, etc.   …what they don’t say, but clearly is the only way that makes sense, is if straight white men are naturally superior to everyone else and the only reason to include anyone else is a matter of a pity offering…

And that says so much more, right there about the kind of thinking involved.

Being valued

Ultimately, there’s a massive divide between people whose wish fulfillment is being valued as a human being, vs. people who are unable to even imagine you as such.

The commitment towards stopping people from having that space, of being valued, even in imagination?

Some people are trapped in the reality of forcing their delusions upon everyone else.

It’s no wonder folks look for escapism from that.

ETA: looks like a lot of folks are thinking along similar lines right now-

Erasing your audience isn’t “fun” the false dichotomy between diversity and enjoyment

The Edgy Gamer: “You are the last of your kind: a real gamer in a hobby that has been taken over by socialists, feminists, liberals, ethnic minorities and pearlclutching fishwives.”


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