Archive for the ‘musing’ Category


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.


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.



What D&D doesn’t offer me

December 21, 2012

I’ve been keeping track of the D&D5E playtest stuff, liking some of what they’re doing, but also taking a hard look at why D&D, for me, never really goes as smoothly or nicely as I’d like. It mostly comes down to what I want out of fantasy, and how efficient other games are at hitting that, in a way D&D isn’t.

Generating Interesting Stuff in Play

There’s basically two methods that end up being the default ways in which D&D gets run.

First, the dungeon (equally, the sandbox world), where the action is mostly contingent on the players choosing to travel and explore. The thing about this is that going too fast can get your characters killed, going too slow is boring. It’s definitely a tradeoff but definitely punishes either end and makes for a high learning curve. A lot of the action that happens in these often turns out to be when things go wrong – whether that’s a simple plan gone to crap or a series of unlucky rolls. Note that rogue-like videogames pretty much fulfill this same gameplay space.

Second, the branching path story. This is exactly identical to what most videogame rpgs are right now, except they have an advantage in that (well designed) games never leave players poking around not know what to do for long periods of time – there’s characters who give you quests, submenus that help you remember what you needed to do, etc. All the sort of fussing around that happens in a tabletop game (“Is this character really important or not? Will they betray us? Are they telling the truth?” “Look, he’s the waiter, he doesn’t matter, ok?”).

What I want instead

Mostly what I end up interested in is exploring a world in terms of flavor if not endless almanacs of details, and seeing (and playing) different characters with interesting goals and motivations and personality – with fun action fights.

When you’re digging through an area trying not to die, the details take precendence over flavor, and when most of what you encounter is trying to eat you, there’s not a lot of room for interesting motivations or personality.

Likewise, branching path games don’t give you a lot of room to have your characters’ motivations or personality make much of a difference.

In a lot of ways, what I end up wanting from D&D is better supplied by other games. I’m thinking the next time I run D&D I will have to have a hack to basically establish scene framing and skip this whole dungeon or prepped encounters things altogether.


Roleplaying Games about Evil

March 31, 2012

I had an interesting realization today- all the good roleplaying games that deal with evil, make a core part of play the issue of collaborating or compromising with evil. I don’t know if it’s a requirement to treat the subject seriously, but it seems like thus far, the most successful means of making evil acts no longer black and white, but a result of choices made in the moment, under pressure, that end up in terrible places and regret.

Direct Deals with the Devil

Drifter’s Escape and Polaris both deal with making deals and taking offers in the heat of the moment. Of the two, Polaris is kinder – you know from the beginning that your character is doomed, so there’s no surprises there, and the Mistaken with whom you deal, is actually telling the truth when the deals go down. Drifter’s Escape holds hope in front of you by a thread, and you have two actively hostile GMs who are offering power…but quite possibly lying at any juncture in play. It puts you in much more desperate straits and you find yourself accepting evil acts that, sometimes don’t pay off, and worse, sometimes do- you get to spend the rest of the game asking if it was worth it either way.

Indirect Deals with the Devil

Funny enough, Sorcerer falls into this category, despite the core premise being summoning and binding demons. You may suffer constant pressure from your demons, but you also have recourse to be rid of them- you can use the rules for banishing. The games that directly have you making bad deals – there’s no way to be rid of the pressure, at any point. Rather, the temptation to evil has mostly to do with the cross goals of Humanity and the Sorcerer’s personal goals, with the demons usually advocating along the way.

Steal Away Jordan also has indirect deals – nothing “forces” you to seek out white allies… but the fact that they have so much more Worth dice makes it always a temptation. And, inevitably, what that means when you have to make choices between the goals of your white allies vs. your fellow slaves, vs. your own.

Dog Eat Dog’s indirect deals come from the Colonizer having no functional way to deal with the Natives outside of arbitrary rules and punishment. The Rules do not deal, compromise, or bend, so then it becomes a question of how do you survive in the face of them?

A constant temptation and external pressure

In Dogs in the Vineyard, the Town Creation rules always start with a reasonable motivation, and either sets it up against people twisting the social system, or the social system itself keeping injustice in place.

The Watchdogs come in to fix the problems, but the thing that always plays out, over and over, is that the morally right thing to do is not well served by the social system itself- the morally correct thing to do demands abandoning the rules of society. (Every session drives you to rebel against Mormonism, might be one way to put it…)

Aside from that, each conflict tempts players to escalate to violence by offering dice. But if you’re actually trying to help people in a community, violence is often the least useful thing…

Poison’d, by comparison, goes the other way around – violence is constant for pirates, and rewards people for committing violence, suffering violence… but more importantly – it also rewards people for actually accomplishing goals… and the real way to do that is through making deals. Although you can make a deal with the Devil in Poison’d, for the most part, the pressure towards evil is more built into the situation of being a pirate rather than anything else. Eventually, though, the questions start becoming – who do you ally with, who do you break trust with, what do you do with people who break trust with you, etc. The inability to leave and the casual acceptance of violence which produces the abusive structure… and how do you navigate it?


Character Sheets and Useability

October 8, 2009

Notes for better character sheets (and… I wish my G5 was still running. Gargh)

Things that you use together, go together on the page

Don’t make players have to jump back and forth around 3 parts of the character sheet, front and back to do something. Put related materials together- combat stuff, social stuff, magic stuff, etc. It makes it easier in play and easier to teach.

Just because “Strength” and “Intelligence” are both attributes isn’t reason enough to put them together, especially if they are referenced regularly in different processes…

Visual Cues for different sections

Just like art works as visual markers in a book so people can navigate it quickly, it really helps to have slightly different appearances for the sections on your character sheets.

Having 9 boxes with different words attached doesn’t do much- do some subtle stuff- give one box rounded edges, give one box bolded lettering, another italics, put some symbols there, etc. These things become associated with the section, with the information, and with the process of info that needs to be pulled, as people play, and it speeds up reference time.

It’s also easier when you say, “Hey, look at the rounded box on the bottom left corner” than “third box down on the left..” etc.

Take out edge cases

Probably my most common pet peeve, for crunchier games, is the “box for everything” mentality, where the sheet is crowded by bits and pieces and spaces for tracking things that might come up… what? Once every 6 game sessions?

It makes more sense to leave that stuff out and give players white space to mark weird special cases. It also makes it easier for folks to navigate, instead of having to learn “Oh, ignore that part, it probably won’t come up.”

Rules & Reminders

Try to include helpful reminders and common rules. This is invaluable for teaching new players. Instead of navigating the book, it’s right there. And for the experienced players, sometimes you forget that you have a few extra options that you could pull out.

Portrait Space

Give space for folks to draw their characters. Even if someone isn’t an artist, it provides some white space. For everyone that is, it’s a great way to give them ownership over their character and to get them invested in it.

If you’re doing a game with pregens, the character portraits also become quick-sells on characters- some players might pick based on visual cues alone, and that’s fun too.


Structured Conversations and Turn Taking

September 30, 2009

There’s a neat thread over on the BW forums about reasons to use social mechanics instead of “roleplaying it out” (AKA not using mechanics to resolve social conflicts).

Going to the bigger issues of design and play, functional roleplaying requires all participants to have the chance for meaningful input*.

One thing mechanics do well, is set up a system for “turn-taking”, or generally giving everyone a chance to make that input. A second valuable thing, is that mechanics also put a cap on the conflict.

Just as much as you could sit there for 4 hours describing a never-ending sword fight without mechanics putting a limit to it, you can sit for 4 hours arguing whether to take the Dwarven gold for yourselves or give it to the Dwarven people to rebuild their home. In both cases, odds are pretty good that you’re not going to be able to make that an entertaining 4 hours.

In stories, most social conflicts are resolved rather quickly- the highlighted stances and points are made, and then you move on. One benefit to mechanics is that by putting a cap on it, players have to choose their most relevant points, and not drag it out into a “last word”/endurance argument.

Groups can and do develop social contracts which fit this function, but you do see problems when they try to introduce new players (who then have to learn the implicit rules), or if a players steps out of the bounds, it becomes a big negotiation struggle, as the source of the problem might be completely misidentified. (“My Guy Syndrome” where fidelity to your character = not fun for everyone else involved is a good example.)

Not every game needs social mechanics, though I think in any game where you expect entertaining and meaningful social conflicts to happen, it’s probably a must.

(*Ditto with designing discussion spaces, with the added requirement that you have to develop means to filter the participants from the non-participants, otherwise there is no space for the discussion to happen.)


A design thought

September 17, 2009

What a game is about vs. what it does vs. what the game has in the fiction are three very different things to explain to a group.

What’s in the fiction is the easiest to push- “A game about samurai”, and yet could really be anything otherwise. What it does is more understood by folks who get how systems push people, and what it’s about is usually the least understood because it’s the creative void in a game.

Of course, this is the Color vs. Technical vs. Creative Agenda concept expressed differently…