Archive for January, 2012


Signal Boost: Writer/Designer for hire

January 31, 2012

As part of my usual thing of supporting marginalized creators in the rpg sector – Dennis Santana/Wyatt Salazar is needing some funds and offering to use his writing skills and design skills for you.

He’s got some free downloadable rpgs – maybe grab a few and send some donations?


Narrative is not a game mechanic, except in roleplaying games

January 23, 2012

Raph Koster writes mostly about videogames, but his Narrative is not a game mechanic post is an excellent read and worth considering in contrast to rpg play and design.

For videogames, IF, or Choose Your Own Adventure games, the narrative is a set thing, a story, to be consumed and enjoyed. He points out that it’s a feedback or reward, because you make choices during gameplay, but you don’t make choices during the “story” (cutscenes, results, etc.).

But, for tabletop roleplaying, the definition of a tabletop rpg depends on the value of fiction/non-mechanical elements being a meaningful part of play (in some games, the primary or sole factor in play).

A bigger, and more valuable consideration from his post, though, is that for those games, mechanics can generate many experiences, but the “set story” gives a single experience – it takes a lot of effort for a limited value, compared to the mechanics which create play.

For tabletop games, first let’s think about combat, mechanic heavy games where the GM is forced to create encounters, every week, over and over. This means the GM is now forced to be a level designer, who has no chance to playtest or edit, but is forced to create, play, and modify on the fly for their group. Is it any wonder burnout is common in this play? Luckily many games have gotten better about encounter creation and management, but it’s still a concern.

Second, consider Illusionism, which is basically creating a story, constantly, and having to engineer it into happening with unaware actors. If player input is blocked, you have the same situation as in Koster’s post- little actual gameplay, but a lot of one-shot story event responses.

The key design element I’m seeing for tabletop games, overall, given the history, is how well do they give the group tools to interact with the fictional/non-mechanical elements they create, and how well does it coordinate the group working together? That whole Clouds and Arrows discussion is the issue.

The sad irony is, for all the accusations that newer rpgs are “basically videogames”, the fact is, in the light of low gameplay high “feed you a story”, that’s pretty much mostly rpgs of the 90’s that promoted that – we’re moving away from that and more towards what rpgs actually do support best.

For tabletop rpgs, narrative (fictional events) IS a game mechanic – the group creates it collaboratively and it feeds back and forth with the mechanics.


D&D 5E and build-a-game hurdle

January 17, 2012

One of the explicit goals of 5E is to try to create a core set of rules that are modular and allow each player to scale to their preferred type of complexity:

Second—and this sounds so crazy that you probably won’t believe it right now—we’re designing the game so that not every player has to choose from the same set of options. Again, imagine a game where one player has a simple character sheet that has just a few things noted on it, and the player next to him has all sorts of skills, feats, and special abilities. And yet they can still play the game together and everything remains relatively balanced. Your 1E-loving friend can play in your 3E-style game and not have to deal with all the options he or she doesn’t want or need. Or vice versa. It’s all up to you to decide.

Although no one has really employed this on this scale of modularity before, you need only look at 1E Fighters vs. 1E Thieves or Wizards to see that different characters can have different complexity of rules and operate just fine.

What I’m guessing is going to be more of a pain is stuff like having to design spells, feats, monsters, etc. to be balanced regardless of which subsystem is in effect or not. (the feats people picked in 3E changed drastically depending on if they were using a grid or not…)

But the big problem? The big problem is going to be whether they can get deeper than this:

This new approach comes out of a single idea. At its heart, D&D isn’t about rules. It’s about participating in an exciting fantasy adventure. The rules are just the means to enable that to happen. They’re not an end unto themselves. The reason most of us play is for the story that arises out of our games…. These stories bring us together. As D&D players, we shouldn’t allow rule preferences to separate us. In the end, we have a lot more in common than we have differences…

Being able to pick the level of complexity is an nice thing, but it’s moot if we cannot agree on what the rules are supposed to achieve in the first place.

Just because a bunch of people “want to play D&D” doesn’t automatically make them have anything in common, because D&D (or really, roleplaying) could be many things.

The problem that lay ahead is that even if players can pick their own subset rules, the group has to coordinate together for functional play.

Otherwise we return to the days of 20 minutes of fun in 4 hours, where, depending on what’s any given player is in for, they get their short bit of the thing they like and are bored while the rest of the session drags on.


Like I said…

January 9, 2012

NY Times on D&D’s upcoming, 5th Edition:

A result, said David M. Ewalt, a senior editor at Forbes and the author of a forthcoming history of Dungeons & Dragons, has been a fractured fan base. The game is a group activity, he said, and playing together is tricky when players use different rules. “Imagine trying to organize a basketball team, if the point guard adheres to modern league rules, but the center only knows how to play ancient Mayan handball.”

As I’ve said for some time now, you actually need to be using the same rules for a game to work.

All that said, strategically I don’t think backward compatibility will be a good thing for WOTC, business-wise. The old school niche is already well served between the used book market, illegal scans, and the Old School Renaissance.