Archive for November, 2007



November 24, 2007

Dev asked me to talk a bit about “non-mechanical” techniques you can do to fiddle with your games.   For me, mostly it come out of boredom with standard genre cliches- if I’m going to spend hours playing a game, and I happen to have a creative hand in it, I really want to do something that is different and intriguing.

Mostly, it comes down to a few tricks applied in clever ways:

1.  Culture Mixing

What would South America look like if it was conquered by Muslim Spain?  What would the architecture look like?  The food?  The clothing?  The music?

I usually do this as an inspiration to create a culture or setting in a fantasy or fictional world, instead of alternate history, if only because it allows me to cut away dealing with lots of real world concerns and allows me to control how much research into history I have to do to make it work.

2.  Taking History into Fantasy

Try reading up on the historical stuff behind druids, or bards, fairies or anything.  You’ll find tons of cool ideas and start asking yourself what would happen if you put it into your game.

For example, if bards were lawmakers and advisors to the kings, the ones who bear witness to oaths, and you put that into D&D, suddenly you’re going to find that bards become the leaders or second in commands to every party.  It not only changes the idea of the class, but it also gives you an idea on the setting- oral historians, proclaiming laws, etc.

3.  Taking Fantasy into History

You see this a lot, but it’s always fun to try for yourself.  What if the Greeks were Elves or the Vikings Dwarves?  What if the Schism involved the Necronomicon?    Weird, fun, and strange ideas come forth when you go the other way around.

4.  Take a cliche and follow it to the logical end

“A thousand years ago, mankind waged a terrible war with magic.”  Ok.  So what does that mean?

Well, it means anything that’s lived over a thousand years remembers that humans are dangerous.  It also means anything that lives a few hundred years probably has parents or grandparents who remember the war, and the humans, all of their errors, their arrogance and betrayals, intended or not.

Don’t be surprised if elves, dwarves, and anything with any sense at all probably is unfriendly to humans, and probably would like to strip all magical knowledge from them.

See how one cliche can open the doors to a whole setting, if you actually think it through?

5.  Justify arbitrary mechanics/cliches

Maybe D&D’s memorized “spells” aren’t spells at all- maybe they’re little spirits who can only do one magical thing and you summon and bind them when you “memorize” a spell, and unleash them as you cast it, and they fly free after having fulfilled the contract of their duty.

You’ve now justified one of the most complained about arbitrary mechanics ever.  Is it still arbitrary?  You bet, but now at least it adds color and gives some plausibility the players can work with.

6. Mixing Mood

Often I’ll look at a music video, or a painting, or a movie trailer and think of the mood it invokes and ask myself how to apply it to a game or game setting.

For instance, imagine a meditteranean city, in the vivid blues, greens, yellows and oranges of a jazz painting.  Instead of taverns, you’ve got speakeasys, where the bards sing while the fighters stand up on the wall, and a sorceress in a sequin dress enters, looking to find some good men, but not too good (wink) to reaquire a little diamond.  Oh, look, we just made D&D Noir.

7. Loading Themes

It’s easy to load themes into your setting.  Want to do nature vs. technology?  you could have deities representing each side, or maybe cultures or political groups.   You never even need to state the themes, just load it into aspects of the setting the players can’t ignore, and it will become a part of the game depending on how much they have to deal with it.

8.  Add context to generic bits

Lots of games give you pretty generic roles, but what do they mean to you?  What’s a fighter anyway?  It’s a lot more fun when you add context to the game and define certain things, such as classes, to be something specific- the players can now take an angle on it on something other than just mechanics.

“All mages come from the Tower of Tanaz.   Orphans are left there to learn, and everyone is under magical geas forbidden to speak of what goes on in there.”

Does this limit players?  Sure, but more importantly it paints your setting and makes it real to the players.  It gives folks something to play with- and if you do enough of them, something is going to be something they really like.

Remember, if you’re going to get a group of folks to spend 3-4 hours talking about things that don’t exist, it better be non-existant things they like.

Next up- an example of me applying these tools for creating a setting.


Your Turn

November 20, 2007

So here’s a chance for you to talk to me.  Once in a while I’ll drop a post with open commenting available.  This is a chance to give me feedback, ask for clarification/more info on previous posts, or make requests for future topics.  I won’t reply in comments, but I’ll take it into consideration in future posts.


Kuei Con Future?

November 18, 2007

For the last two years, with the help of Ben Lehman, I’ve been running an apartment convention- “Kuei Con”. It’s been mostly a word of mouth kind of thing that’s pulled 20 or so people many of whom I’ve never met before.

The nice thing about an apartment con, is that basically it’s a 3 day chilled out get-together. People come over, hang out, talk shit and play games. Aside from making sure you’ve got enough food and toilet paper, and have done an adequate job of cleaning, it’s a breeze.

This last year, I’ve been hit with massive medical expenses, had to get a roommate, and suddenly my huge apartment isn’t so huge anymore.

So what is the future for Kuei Con? Right now it’s on hiatus. In order to run Kuei Con, I’d now have to pour a lot of effort into juggling logistics, and the question to myself is “What do I want to get from it to make it worth that effort?”

This came from talking to a friend who has run a local fandom convention for the last 7 years, and the question she had about gaming conventions- “Don’t any of the panels address critical media theory (in regards to race, gender, etc.)?” to which I had to reply that for the most part, it’s all about either industry hype or amateur “How-to” type things. Her con typically includes at least 2-3 such panels.

With more thought, I realized if I was to do anything more involved than an apartment convention, I’d definitely want gaming, but I’d probably want to make sure there is some kind of larger dialogue about the culture of the hobby.

In just three days, I’ve encountered three five seperate occassions where someone has mentioned they’ve left roleplaying due to the unending river of racism, sexism, etc. And what is, is that it isn’t a matter of the hobby as a whole being screwed up like that, it’s the sheer number of people who either will say nothing or even defend the fucked up behavior that makes it hostile territory.

An illustrative example happened to two of my friends last year who went to WisCon- Women in Science Fiction con out in Wisconsin. Someone screamed “Nigger” at them from a passing car. That was fucked up, but something you could write off as one person’s crazy.

It was the fact that amongst the busy street, not a single person batted an eye, took note, or even seemed bothered by the fact.

That’s the hostile territory that drives people away.

If there’s one thing that always draws people to gaming- it’s the power of personal participation. And if we can build imaginary worlds to our liking, sets of rules to make stories we like, why can’t we build a culture we like? Why should we eat shit in our escapism as well?

Ultimately, for Kuei Con to be worth my time, it has to be the kind of place that makes for a better gaming culture. It’s not enough to simply squee about how awesome a scene was, or how a cool set of mechanics fits together elegantly, I need to know we’re not driving away people in droves simply because we refuse to look at the people playing, the people publishing and hold them accountable to the simplest of all things at the table: respect. I want to build that safe space convention where I can bring my friends- established gamers, ex-gamers, or not-yet-gamers and let them know that they’re not entering hostile territory.

That’s how I see Kuei Con. A place where folks can play games, and talk about changing minds, for the better.

Can it happen? I don’t know.


Deep D&D Gamehacking pt. 2

November 18, 2007

A long post, for crunchier issues…

Magic Items

1.  Any character can possess up to 3 permanent magic items and 3 charge-based magic items.

2.  Magic items are attuned to a person- anyone else using them gets no magical benefit- your +5 sword in the hands of another is just a sword, a magic potion is just some fizzy soda, etc.  It takes an hour to attune to an item, once attuned, no one else can attune to it.  If you choose something new after your 3, the one you drop from your list either becomes non-magical or disappears.

3.  If a character dies, the items either lose their charge or disappear completely.  (Raise dead? Items return to normal/come back, another reason for necromancy!).


Magic items are the biggest loophole in D&D.  By stumbling across the correct items,  you can instantly pump up your character’s abilities, add new spells, break the upper ceiling of spells you can cast per day (“Look ma, I’ve got 50 healing spells in a stick!”), destroy the need to ever memorize a particular spell, or ever have to use a particular set of skills (“My boots give me +10 to Stealth, why bother putting points there, right?”).

Magic items are instant effectiveness, mostly transferable, and they carry over the gap of character death.  Eventually, they become a form of cure-all for so many problems like Batman’s utility belt.

So what’s up with all those limitations?  Well, first when you have to limit how many permanent items you can carry, you can’t be super awesome everywhere with stealthy boots, bracers of armor, magic rings, cloaks, hats, necklaces, weapons, etc.  You get three things, which focuses players on making choices between maximizing their strengths or covering their weaknesses.

Attunement stops some pretty slippery cop-outs players can pull.  “Hey, throw the boots of jumping back across the chasm.  Thanks man!” etc.  It also stops the whole problem of bad guys’ magic items existing mostly as loot for the PCs.

Versimilitude- “But realistically…”

Realistically, magic items work however you choose to define them in your game world.  In mine, they’re magical concepts pulled from the aether and given form.  You can have 3 permanent and 3 temporary items because that’s the laws of magic, and when you die they disappear because your soul is what anchors them to you.

For you and your game, maybe you want want to pump up that number, or come up with a different reason for it to work the way it does, but basically the limitations are based in gamist concerns and years of watching magic items wreck havok on challenges.  There’s a reason so many editions of D&D have a section warning DMs against giving out magic items and advice on how to remove them from play.  Fuck that mess.  You shouldn’t have to play 10 years to try to develop it through some kind of zen luck.

Awesome Tokens

Awesome tokens are a reward that makes characters more effective immediately, without messing with the XP system.   Awesome tokens come in three colors:

White (spend before you roll)

Spend to roll 2D20s for any kind of D20 roll your character makes and take the higher roll.


Spend instead of rolling to automatically succeed at any single D20 roll your character makes.  The success is as if you’ve rolled -just- enough to succeed.  Alternately, spend the token to force anyone to reroll a die roll (friend, foe, yourself, D20, damage roll, whatever).


Spend to automatically change any roll to the maximum or minimum possible.  If you maximize an attack roll, it’s an automatic critical, and it’s confirmed.

 How do you get these?

The DM can reward you a white token for:

– Good dialogue, neat color, add to the game world in an interesting way

– Playing according to your alignment in a solid way

A white token can be transformed into a blue token whenever the DM wants to reward you for:

– Showing comraderie and friendship amongst the party

– Alignment angst- your hero either questions their alignment stances or stands strong in the face of real turmoil

A blue token can be transformed into a red token whenever the DM wants to reward you for:

– Heroism, undertaking great risks for the good of others

– Glory, doing things which are great and will be remembered


This lets you apply some simulationist ideas to your game without necessarily overriding or ignoring the larger gamist aspect of it.  You’re giving players rewards for adding color, for talking awesome dwarven lines, for playing the party as a party, for not playing black and white alignment, for being heroes and undertaking dangerous things.  But they still have to fight monsters and overcome challenges and get xp to level up.

You’ll notice this is the bastard child of Mike Sugarbaker’s “Fuck You I’m Awesome” tokens idea and Burning Wheel’s Artha rules (both in reward and the execution of multiple types of reward).

You’ll also notice that the tokens work like a funnel- you need white tokens to get blue tokens, blue tokens to get red tokens- you can’t just skip up and get red tokens straight out the bat.  It also sets up some interesting decisions- do you spend that token now because you could use it, or do you hold on hoping to upgrade it?

Initially I had this set up with the idea of trying to find some way to get full Narrativist leanings to work under a Gamist game, but the way D&D sets up characters with a super narrow range of competence doesn’t lend itself well to players being able to make a full range of choices nor a good system for building scenes and choices.  Though you could spend tokens to open up your range of actions (“I auto-succeed a Move Silently check!”) it’s not really a solid reward system if it requires you to spend your resource to get the same resource.

You’ll also notice that the Tokens are pretty set on messing with dice.  That’s because I wanted them to be useful for both mage types and fighter types- getting an auto-critical is just as useful as getting maximum damage on a 12d6 fireball.

What about challenge?  Doesn’t this all make it a lot easier for players?

Certainly, provided they’re working with the system and gaming it to get the tokens along the way.  On the other hand, it means I can pull out monsters I would normally avoid.  It basically lets me go straight to the “Sweet Spot” of challenge that has been spoken about by the WOTC designers, the lower-mid-level challenges and up.  I don’t have to sit there and coddle the eggshells of heroes with rats and goblins.

In total

So, should everyone play with these rules?  By no means.  These are rules I would use, for the kind of game I would want.  But look at how much thought I had to put into them to get there, and then, I’d have to play with them to make sure they gelled correctly (the armor rules, for example, might break some things).

You notice that some of the rules deal with things I feel are longer term issues in D&D  throughout its various editions (alignment destroys parties, magic items wreck challenge), some are about color and heroic fantasy, and some are just personal pet peeves of play.

People change rules all the time, but do you really think about why and what it’s supposed to do?

If so, you’re a designer.  Welcome to the club.


Political & Personal

November 13, 2007

There is this question I ask myself more and more. Who do I write for, and what do I get in return? I’m not talking money, I’m talking about reciprocity. I write stuff to help people have better gaming, but when I want to talk about things that make gaming wack for me, I get shut down.

The question is perhaps better based in this- is it more valuable for me to write and be a community presence as an anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-heterosexist gamer, or by writing about gaming and helping a culture and community that has repeatedly shown zero interest in change, am I simply participating in my own oppression and that of others?

“It’s just a game” is all the more reason we shouldn’t be afraid to apply critical thought. “It’s just a game” is all the more reason it shouldn’t be hard to remove bullshit like blackface, cultural appropriation, sexism, etc.

I don’t know. I feel like I can’t even escape bullshit in my escapism, and that’s the wackest thing ever.

I don’t like knowing that blackface is public thing at conventions. I don’t like knowing that I could pick up a book and be assaulted by racist imagery. I don’t like knowing that some people get power kicks from visualizing rape and applying that to others as some mind game.

I don’t like knowing that some people think all of that is fun and justify it being “in good fun”.

And I especially don’t like knowing that there’s a mob who will defend it all as if it were the normal way of the world and that anyone pointing it out might make them uncomfortable, nevermind anyone else who might be made a thousand times more uncomfortable by the raw fucked up factor of the behavior itself.

And I especially don’t like feeling ashamed of my hobby, not for geekiness, but for shit like that.

There’s a lot of times when I ask myself if I should ever post anything again, to help people like that. To be clear- it’s not just that we have asshats, it’s that I’ve watched over and over again where 99% of everyone else will step up to DEFEND the asshat behavior, which makes me wonder again who I’m helping and why.

I suppose you all are lucky. I still haven’t found an answer, and though it means a lot of stuff I might write never gets written, you at least still get some stuff to read.


Some thoughts on D&D gamehacks

November 4, 2007

Thinking about it a bit more, I realize I have a lot of things setup to prevent character death.

This isn’t about “precious characters” as much as it is about precious gametime.

Think of it this way- time spent -not- playing is not fun.  Time you spend unconcious losing hitpoints, time you spend building a new character, time you spend trying to figure out how to best use this new character in conjunction with the other charcters, etc.

If you get knocked out of a fight and it takes another 15- 20 minutes to finish, you’ve been punished enough- hence my pulp death rules- character death is still possible, just less likely and less of waste of time- you don’t spend the nest 5 rounds hoping someone heals you before you bleed out.

See, in previous editions, character building was pretty quick (not to mention, you probably were rolling with a war band, so lose a character? Just take another of out 20 odd people in the dungeon).  Here, character building doesn’t even necessarily speed up as you gain expertise, because the more you know, the further ahead you think with your build.

It’s not so much that characters die, it’s that they die so easily and usually spark a TPK which, pretty much means a game reset- all the prep the players did is now wasted, the GM can toss away any plot based encounters or has to retool them, etc.  Early on in play, at low levels, players might not even know enough to figure out what they did wrong, making it a high learning curve early in.  15 minutes of tactics to 45 minutes of character building is a poor ratio (even if you’re expert and pop a character together in 10-20 minutes, that’s still a bad ratio).

In comparison, videogames usually take just seconds before you’re back in play, usually with the opportunity to try the same challenge from different angles, to develop tactics.   Even boardgames don’t have as much downtime/setup between play to play.

Though I understand the joy of building in D&D is like building mechs in Armored Core or decks in Magic the Gathering, at the same point, the foundation of play is play…  Right now character death actually hurts play more than it helps


Deep D&D gamehacking, pt. 1

November 2, 2007

A series of gamehacks that I would apply together to D&D 3.5 next time I play.  (And, probably also interesting, -why- I’d use them).  Consider it an exercise in design and ways of thinking about design.

1.  Character Generation

Characters get a set array of stats: 18, 16, 14, 12, 10, 8.  (Thank you Mike Mearls & Iron Heroes).   Now the tricky part:  Roll 1d6 to randomly determine which of your 6 attributes gets the 18 score.  Roll another 1d6 to determine which one gets the 8 (reroll if you get the same attribute).  Assign the rest of the attribute scores as you will.


First, the set array avoids the problems you get when one person in the party is rolling with 4 18’s and the someone else has all 12’s.  Though not as gimpy as older editions when you could have a bunch of stats in 4-7 range, it still sucks to be third best at everything.

Second, the randomization of your high/low score limits your optimal builds, but doesn’t break your character.  It’s the fun part of randomization where you take what you get and try to make the best of it, without getting totally screwed.

2. Class Defense, modified

Unearthed Arcana has rules for Class Defense, where your heroes have a natural sort of AC, and don’t always have to be walking tanks of armor to avoid being hit.

The change here, is which classes get which class defense ranking:

A- Wizards, Sorcerers

B- Clerics, Bards, Paladins, Druids

C- Fighters, Rangers, Barbarians

D- Monks, Rogues


This jibes a lot better with my idea of fantasy, where you have room for both Fafhd and the Grey Mouser as competant combatants without having to be loaded in metal.   I flip around the classes because I hate how D&D always takes the classes who are supposed to be cagey and dodgy and makes them easy to hit.  Sure, they get a couple of avoidance bonuses, but between poor AC and meh HP, they’re not the heroes who dance between blades.

3. Armor

Like the UA rules, you either get the Class Defense bonus or your AC bonus, depending on which is better.

You get 2 HP/Armor bonus per encounter, which work like Temp HP vs. physical damage.   So if you’ve got Leather and a Buckler for + 3 AC?  That’s +6 hp per encounter vs. physical damage.

You also get a bonus to either a Fort or Ref save once per encounter, equal to your AC bonus, but only against physical threats armor might protect against (arrow trap? Yeah, armor helps.  Snake poisoned you?  Too late, good luck).  Unlike normal bonuses, you can choose to apply this AFTER you’ve failed.


Under the normal UA class defense rules, the main decisions between armor or no armor is which is giving you a better bonus AND whether you need to be stealthy.  Now armor provides another set of bonuses which makes it useful in a tangle.

Does this significantly change the survivability of PCs and low level play?  Sure, but in ways I like.  Armor isn’t the only way to avoid getting hit, but it provides enough other bonuses that you probably want to wear it.   The once per encounter save makes armor able to save your bacon, over and over.

4. Pulp death rules

I’ve written about these before, but honestly, they just work for me.  If your hero is knocked to -10 hp, they’re dead.  If they’re at 0 or less, they do not lose hitpoints each round, but instead stabilize and regain 1 hp per hour unconscious until they wake up at 0 hitpoints.


First, it makes heroes tougher, and more likely to be captured rather than all bleed to death seconds after the combat ends.   Second, it doesn’t make tough combats into a “race to heal” game which usually ends in TPKs.  Finally, it lowers the amount of bookkeeping you do round to round.

5. Alignment

Surprisingly, all I’m doing is shifting the outlook on Alignment.

Neutral means you try to help yourself, friends, family, allies, etc. Good means you go out of your way to help others, even when there is no reward involved.  Evil means you go out of your way to harm others, even when there is no benefit to gain.  Lawful means you support the status quo over the needs of the individual.  Chaos means you support the needs of the individual over the status quo.


This keeps alignment in the game, which is used for enough effects that it’d actually be really hard to rip out, but at the same time grounds it in a way I can deal with.  If you look at it, it’s really a set up for Heroquest-y/blood opera-ey type things if you want to play with it that way.

What’s next?

I really want to set up a reward system that better produces a certain style of D&D play- the PCs actually act as comrades, heroic things are said and undertaken, etc.  It’s probably going to be a loose tie between Burning Wheel’s Artha and Shadow of Yesterday’s Keys.   I also want to fiddle with magic items so they don’t become the game tilter that they currently are.