Monday, February 22, 2010

Dreamation plus Bonus Dragon Age

Back from Dreamation. Survived, had a good time. As ever, I was delighted with all the people I saw, and frustrated with all the people I saw only in passing for moments at a time (or, in some cases, only by secondhand reports that they were in attendance at all). In retrospect I do wish I'd worked harder to sign up for things. Not that I did not have a lot of fun filling time, but I would have enjoyed getting in a little more play. Of course, crashing early Friday with an upset stomach (resulting in my missing a 3:16 game) didn't help either.

The other issue is that Jamie has retrained me to crash early and get up early, which is very much not the schedule of the convention. A lot of cool stuff happens after midnight, after I'm in bed, and almost no one is alive as early as I wake up, and that disconnect is kind of wearing. No easy solution for it, but it's something I need to remember. It did not help that my usual breakfast plans were complicated by the hotel charging $20 for their merely-ok breakfast buffet.

Still and all, it was a good time, and as always, it left me thinking. I know for some people Dreamation, with its excess of indie games, is a triumph of certain ideas of gaming, but for me it is always a reminder that theory is a pale shadow of play. I love these deep ideas and crazy system thoughts, but they smash to pieces under the weight of a good joke or that one guy with a crazy idea. For me, that's a good thing: theory and system can be seen so clearly by me that I forget about the power of the unexpected. I am ultimately in this for the messy, human stuff at the table, and these pristine tools and ideas are never so fine as when they start getting some mud on them.

It also really underscored my current thesis in game design, and I ended up vocalizing this to a few people. System design doesn't excite me as much these days. It interests me, but it has no dragons that I have not slain or made peace with. I like solving problems or thinking about it, but the real challenges are elsewhere. Specifically I think they're in setting and adventure design. To underscore this, look at all the concepts that have been introduced into RPG systems in the past few decades, then compare that with the number of improvements we've made in the technology of setting and adventure design. There absolutely have been improvements[1] but the difference in the number of them is absolutely staggering. This is odd because the impact of these ideas is huge, and I feel that thought about them has been stymied by a need to give system precedence.

Anyway, not looking to delve into any deep insights here, just mentioning that the con makes me think.

Oh, worth noting, the Indie Roundtable went well in that I think it was very useful to the 4 people who asked questions about their games (thank you Sean, Dave, Andrew and Shoshana) but it was also a little bit sparsely attended - there were very few new faces for me, even after having missed a year, and most of those were already community folks (including Ryan "Ryan's Awesome Idea" Stoughton), and that was a bit disappointing. That said, I am willing to attribute some of that to the fact that there was no way to know where it was taking place unless you already knew. I love Dreamation, but the roundtable was on the seminar track, and as far as I can tell that is at the very bottom of the queue of priorities. That is, I think, A great pity, and something worth fixing, but I always forget about it until I actually get there each year, especially because the have cool people doing seminars a lot of the time. [2]

What may also be starting some discussions is that Vinnie, the guy who runs Dreamation, pitched a couple of ideas at the roundtable. The first was to start videotaping games to help teach them. It's not an unreasonable thought: Not all of the small games make sense out of the box, and having some sort of example to see would probably be useful. Unfortunately, the logistics might hurt. Setting aside the need to edit any recording down to something short and not boring (an activity that Vinnie offered to help with) I don't think DVDs are really an effective means of distribution for it, for a host of reasons. However, I admit it might make for a good Youtube channel.

The other idea was to add a third con to the Dreamation/Dexcon family, one focused on game design and publishing. This is, I think, a response to the weirdly bifurcated nature of the indie games presence at Dreamation. On one hand, there's a strong community element to it, with playtests, new designs and experimentation, all focused on the designer community. On the other hand, there are a million-zillion games being run and played. There are more Indie games than there are RPGA games at Dreamation. That's crazy, and awesome, and it's one of the big selling points of the con. So the idea of recognizing that split with a dedicated publishing con is kind of appealing to me, but I also admit that one more thing on my schedule makes life all the more complicated. If it happens, I'll probably go, but if it doesn't I might settle for trying to shore up the Seminar track.

Most cynically, I worry a lot that we, as a community, have been less about bringing in new people than we have about occupying the elevated position and holding it. It's possible this sense of entrenchment is simply a result of the fact that, since I've had a kid, I have not been as able to keep track of all the new games coming out, but from where I stand, I know that new games are still coming out, but I am not seeing a corresponding growth of community. If that's true, it's kind of a big deal.

Anyway, because I've been rambly, I'll reward your patience with a special bonus. I was talking with Chad Underkoffler about the role of randomness and its strengths and weaknesses, and in the middle of that discussion, I realized I could rip off Greg Stolze's Reign[3] and get the best of both worlds with Dragon Age chargen. Now, this _is_ a geek solution, in that it requires tools that are not in the box, but I don't think that's going to be a problem for anyone geeky enough that they have Strong Opinions about random chargen.

Dragon Age Optional Rule:
Reduced Randomness Stat Generation

Step One: All Stats start at 0.

Step Two:
Roll 11d8. If you don't have 11d8, roll 1d8 eleven times and just track things one at a time.

Step Three:
Each number corresponds to a stat, as follows:
  1. Communication
  2. Constitution
  3. Cunning
  4. Dexterity
  5. Magic
  6. Perception
  7. Strength
  8. Willpower
For each die that shows the appropriate number, increase that stat by 1.

Step Four:
You may swap the values of any two stats.

For Example:
If you roll 6, 5, 1, 7, 5, 1, 8, 3, 6, 7, 7
Sort them out and you get: 1,1,3,5,5,6,6,7,7,7,8

Then the stat distribution is
Communication +2

Constitution +0

Cunning +1

Dexterity +0

Magic +2

Perception + 2

Strength +3

Willpower +1

Simple as that.[4] The idea is hopefully obvious: You get the kind of organic, unexpected distribution of stats that randomness provides, but there's no concern of one person rolling higher than another. The idea can also be tweaked easily enough to support other approaches. For example, you could start all stats at -1, but roll 19d11 - that would definitely make for some interesting outcomes.

1 - To rattle some off, Weapons of the God's Lore Sheets, Alderac's Hard & Soft Points, Savage World's Plot Point books,

2 - On this point I also want to give a shout out to Dave Hill and Filamena Young, who were doing really cool seminars at the con, one on Worldbuilding and one on designing a game in under 2 hours. Not only are they thinking cool thoughts, they are taking them out there and testing their metal against the reality of con-goers. That's badass.

3 - Which has the best random chargen of any game I can think of.

4 - It's 11 dice because the semi-official point-buy system is 10 points, distributed as you see fit, none higher than +3. Because I feel the point buy should be the most conservative yardstick, I give one more die (which is to say, one more point) as a reward for going random. GMs are welcome to alter this number as they see fit in their own game, and I note that an extra die in the stat roll is a fantastic reward for player contributions, so long as the contribution gap doesn't get too big.


  1. Thanks for sharing that. In the past few Gen Cons where we've been there together, I think I've only actually gotten to say hello in person once, let alone talk to you for any length of time. Here's hoping for such a time in the future.

    And that chargen hack is neat. I'm adding it to my DARPG box.

  2. In order to make the design roundtable really work, you need to have one or more (preferably more) advocates foretelling of its arrival, complete with orientation information on where it will be happening. If someone does not do this (I have done it at times in the past), the attendance usually ends up anemic and less enthusiastic. On-the-ground advocacy is the key.

  3. Random alternate - roll 10d10 and 9 and 10 are ' player's choice'

    Even more alt: 9 or 10 yield another roll on the background chart instead of a stat point.

  4. I considered something similar to your hack, using cards. The same idea -- randomize where the stats go, but everyone ends up with the same total stat points.

  5. I really hated missing the roundtable, but it started way too late for me this year. I know it's because of the first game slot, and that it's held in the same room that games are played, but I feel like moving it earlier might work better.

  6. Also random characteristic increases work well for increasing level in Dragon Age. If a primary characteristic, roll 1d4 (with a "4" being "player's choice"). If a secondary characteristic roll 1d6 (with a "6" being "player's choice"). This means it's likely (50%) that the character's favoured characteristic will increase, but doesn't ignore the others.

    Must manage to go to Dreamation some century.

  7. @rev I had exactly the same thought! In fact, it solves one of my concerns with DA that, at least as written, stat spreads will get super spiky with time.

    It also occoured to me you could roll another 10d8 if you wanted to do "potential" stat values, and that thought has my head churning.

    Which is to say that my assertions abotu being done with system are basically me lying to myself.


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