Thursday, December 31, 2009

Magic Item Thoughts

I'm not a huge fan of the level of itemization in 4e. The process of filling in "slots" it both a bit too mechanical and a bit too bookkeeping-heavy for me. Thematically, I'm a much bigger fan of fewer items, but with more punch and more story.

Curiously, this is harder than it seems. You can handle the gross balance easily enough by just removing magic item bonuses entirely in favor of an automatic bonus to, well, everything (attack, damage, defenses) of +1 at 1st level and increase it by +1 at levels 6, 11, 16, 21 and 26. Call it a "Heroic" bonus, the benefit of being named characters. This pretty much guarantees the characters stay balanced in terms of numbers, but it doesn't solve the entire problem.

See, it also strips the character of a wide range of extra abilities, as many as 15 or so. Some may be minor or passive, and there are limits on how many can be used in a given scene, but that's a LOT of options (for better or for worse).

The easiest way to address it mechanically is to give more feats - if you give the character a feat at every level, that's about as many extra feats over the course of their career as they have magic item slots. This is a little out of whack since the distribution is over time, but since you can synergize with your existing feats, I feel like that comes out in the wash.[1]

There are two downsides to that approach: First, it wreaks havoc with the character builder software, and second, it overlooks the simple fact that magic items are really cool. We WANT to have a sword whose blade flickers with flame - it's just that we don't want it to be lame.

The simplest solution is to use the cool magic item rules, and only hand out artifacts. Yes, artifacts used to mean items of earth-shaking, game changing power, but in 4e they really mean "Magic items that aren't boring". They're potent, sure, but nowhere near as much so as previous editions, and they have numerous interesting (and play-driving) checks in place to make them a practical inclusion in your game.

Now, I can sense the hesitation. Making heavy use of artifacts has historically been a shorthand for monty haul style play, and in the classic usage, a single artifact can really dominate a game. Plus, can you really *trust* players with that kind of power?

To that I can only say: embrace the ways that 4e has changed the game. More than any edition of D&D, this is the story of YOUR GROUP - not Elminster or Bigby or Raistlin or Drizzt - YOU. Own it. If something looks like it's cool or interesting, then it should end up in your player's hands, not someplace where they can watch it from a distance (or worse, just hear about it). Previous versions of the game have (sometimes unintentionally) told you that you weren't cool enough for the things that regularly happened in novels. 4E makes it clear that opinion should be stuck where the sun don't shine.

So just think about it for a minute - a game where every magic item is an artifact.[2] Think what that says and does for the world, how rich it demands that things be. Power comes intertwined with stories and people, and that's as it should be.[3]

Anyway, I personally favor using all 3 (inherent bonuses, extra feats and artifacts-only) if I'm stickng to the core rules. A more complicated (but maybe more rewarding) approach is to construct item to grow with the player (and use more than one slot) but that's a while other post in its own right.

Happy new year, folks.

1 - This wasn't really an option when the game started, but now that it's mature enough (and DDI makes it easy to track) there are now enough feats that this sort of option is actually useful rather than just useful on paper.

2 - This includes minor items. One nice upshot of this is that you can get a little bit old school and encourage clever use of items in strange places. A bottle that's always full of water is a trivial item in terms of power level, but absolutely drips with story potential that is best realized when it's a one-of-a-kind (or one of a set - sets work too) item.

3 - If you take this route, there's no reason you can't use regular magic items, at least as a starting point. The trick is to remember that when you want to use an item, you need to think about what it means if this it "THE flaming sword" not "A flaming sword". Look at the Adventurer's Vault products for inspiration - they're full of neat stories about how an item came to be, but they tend to end with "and now people make copies of that" which kind of saps the juice from it. Take those backstories and bring them to life, and suddenly they're a resource for your game, not just clever color.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Tastes Like Chicken

We have a hard time handling well worn ideas.

If an idea was once good, but it's taken a turn off the road an into the weeds, we often describe it as having "jumped the shark". The popularity of that term means it also is used in situatiosn where an idea has been used so much that we're now bored with it, and I find that a clumsy conflation of ideas.

After a certain point, ideas become cliche and familiarity breeds contempt, but that's a very steep precipice, and lots of ideas are overused without quite reaching that point. This is especially true of ideas with varying degrees of exposure - I may have grown tired of Chthulu, but there are plenty of others who barely known the name.

I think that it's all about chicken breasts.

If you spend any amount of time cooking, especially if you pursue the self-taught-American-bachelor school of cooking, you will use a LOT of chicken breasts. They're reasonably priced, they incredibly versatile, and they're easy to do well. They offer a depth of options for the beginner while still staying useful for the expert.

But sooner or later, you will have had enough, and that's when it becomes interesting. It's not that you start hating chicken breasts, or even that you stop using them entirely - sometimes they're on sale, or they're the only thing in the house or you're in a hurry - but they just stop being something on your go-to list. If you see them on a menu, it'll take something really interesting to catch your eye. When you're planning shopping, you think about other meats.

That's all well and good, but what's so interesting to me is that when you set aside chicken breasts, you do so with respect. You would never suggest a new cook forgo using chicken breasts as he learns, nor would you suggest they're not a worthy food.

And that's where you see the interesting divergence from geeks. We all have our chicken breasts - maybe they're ninjas or zombies or tentacled horrors but whatever form they take, we really stink at leaving them behind gracefully.

It's fun to think about why this is. Maybe it's a function of the fact that cooking takes physical effort or produces a physical result that can be measured. Maybe it's part of that ingrained geek insecurity. Maybe it's aliens. I doubt we'll ever know, and that's ok. Life needs mysteries.

But it also needs a little more respect for other people's fun, and chicken breasts is now my codeword to remind myself of that. It's a cue to remind myself that someone else's passion about something I have discarded does not suggest inferiority or poor judgment. It asks me to think abut why I thought this was a good idea once too, and to consider that maybe the idea is not the thing that's changed.

Or barring that, it's just a reminder to make chicken salad.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

More Business of GMing

When I brought up the parallels between management and GMing the other day, one particularly valid point was brought up in the comments. I'd suggested that there are enough parallels that there is probably useful GMing insight to be found in the world of management/leadership literature (at least in part because so much more thought has been put into it).

I'll stand by that position, but I must acknowledge the very, very important caveat that was raised: most of that literature really, really sucks. Seriously. For every good book on the topic there are five crappy ones, and five more crappy ones which are just rehashing the first crappy ones. So with that in mind let me step back a little bit to discuss what's useful and what isn't.

First and foremost, I'm talking about leadership. This comes in many forms, and there are a lot of misconceptions about what it means. Most notably, it is often conflated with authority because the hope is that the person with authority has the qualities of leadership. Certainly, the person with authority will tend to believe they have those qualities - after all, who is going to tell them differently?

But authority is a funny thing. In all but the crudest of cases, it depends on a certain level of buy-in by all participants, and the person further down the ladder can often just say "Screw this, I'm quitting". This gets muddy when you start talking about big things, like society and laws, but for most of our day to day activities, these are tradeoffs we make, usually for something we want. We want a paycheck, so we give our boss authority. We want to perform on stage, so we give the director authority. We want to fly in a plane, so we give the airlines authority.

That last illustrates an important point. Just because a deal is being made doesn't mean it's always a very good deal. The more you want or need the thing you're getting, the more authority you're likely to concede.

And that brings us back to gaming, and GM authority. You want to play a game, sure, but there are lots of games and maybe even lots of other potential GMs. A given GM may have a lot to offer, but in the grand scheme of things it's only so much. As such, any authority the GM has or seems to have is extremely tenuous (at best) and rests upon his players finding it more fun to grant him that authority than it is to go read a book.[1]

And that brings us back to management disciplines and leadership. It is rare that books actually call this out (because it is uncomfortable for leaders to acknowledge it) but there is an entire strata of advice and literature that is more or less dedicated to the question of how to lead when you have no authority. This is a great strata because it puts a lot of emphasis on what the people you lead want and need, and how your job is to really help them excel and make everything work. These are great lessons for a GM to take.

In the modern business world, most of that strata is labeled "Project Management". You probably have some at your company, but if you've never stopped to consider their job, it is this: to get groups of people to get stuff done despite having no power (authority) to insist they do so. They can wheedle or cajole. They can lead or inspire. They can bully or sulk. They might do all of these things and more, depending on how good or bad they are.

Sound familiar, GMs?

Now, the catch is that the good to crap ratio is even more skewed in project management than it is in regular management. I can wholeheartedly recommend Scott Berkun's "Making Things Happen" (formerly "The Art of Project Management") but after that I start coming up dry. There's some interesting stuff in the arena of agile software development (Paul Tevis has raised some interesting comparisons between his gaming and scrum development) but I worry that's a bit too specialized.

Not to say there's nothing to use. Even the bad books have some fun tools - PM's have a lot of tools (some good, some bad) for representing complex sets of actors and actions, some of which are in parallels, others of which are sequential. Most RPG designs still consider the flowchart to be cutting edge technology, but project management has embraced a host of tools (most famously the gantt chart) to try to express these complex relationships visually.

This is worth bearing in mind because a lot of what they're tracking bears structural similarities to good adventure design. Imagine a project plan/gantt chart of a set of NPCs in a town and what they're up to. It's a useful overview, but the introduction of the players is going to mess things up, just like real life events constantly require project plans to be revised. Project management is not just about making those plans, it's about revising those plans when things go off the rails.

Again, sound familiar?

Not to say that Project Management is the only useful discipline out there. Leadership and planning are necessary in many fields, not just business. The trick is that if you expect it to be useful for gaming, you need to find where it's similar (and where it's different) and work to understand how to apply those strengths.

1 - This is a bit of a simplification. Social interaction, bullying, secondary concerns and such can all complicate this, but if that's what's going on, it's not about the game or the hobby, it's about that specific group.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Fate of my Library

Someday we will be able to have conversations about the kindle and other readers without someone bring in up the smell of books. Seriously. I love to read. Everyone I know who has gotten a kindle or a similar device loves to read. We are all book lovers. But all this talk about touch and smell is starting to sound like a fetish community.

My own understanding of the Kindle was clinched the other day when I was grabbing my bag to go out. Normally I'd bring my kindle, but I was loaning it to my wife, so I needed to pack a book, just in case.[1] Of course, I couldn't pack just one, because one might get finished, or might not be quite the right book. So there I am, tossing a pair of hardcovers[2] into my bag and I have to fight off a flash of annoyance at how cumbersome this is. I have grown so accustomed to the ease of throwing dozens of books in my bag at once without any weight or hassle that the alternative seems awkward.

This kind of cleared up something for me. I have a decent-sized library of well loved books. We occasionally try to cut it down to reclaim some space, but we rarely do more than trim the edges. I am attached to the books, and I have often wondered about their future, especially now that my son is has entered the picture. How do I square these separate ideas of a love of ebooks and a love of paper?

The answer, as it turns out, is a lot simpler than I'd thought. It all comes down to why I keep books.

For the vast majority of them, the answer is simple: because I might want to read them again someday, or perhaps to look something up in them. My habits were established in the pre-amazon era[3], where your only chance of finding an out-of-print book was if you got lucky enough at a used bookstore. That meant if I found something like a copy of "The Well Favored Man" that I needed to grab it and hoard it, because the odds of my finding it again were pretty damn slim.

The next biggest reason, and this overlaps some with the first, is so I can loan them out. However, I am an old-school cynic on the subject of loaning books, and any book that's been loaned should be treated as lost. This is why I actually own multiple copies of certain books I consider particularly loan-worthy.

The far smaller fraction are the books that have some value in and of themselves. Some might merely be well-loved stories. Others might be gifts. Some might be signed, or be particularly lovely editions. These are books which, even if I never read them again, I cherish.

Someday, my library is going to be almost entirely composed of that last category. It's possible that the transition won't really happen in my lifetime, but I look at the speed of change in general, and I'm betting 10-20 years. I consider this more or less inevitable, but I also find it informative. The trick is that with my understanding of why I keep books, I can clearly look at what ebooks need to do if they'll supplant my existing categories.

To do that, ebooks need to be reliable, ubiquitous, and transferable. In practice, that means that:
  • I need to be able to own the file enough to choose how to back up and protect it, and I need to be able to find it when I go looking.
  • I need content to be available in electronic format.
  • I need to be able to loan and give ebooks.

Unsurprisingly, DRM is the biggest barrier to these needs, followed slightly by the simple logistical problem of getting books converted to electronic form. DRM (and the perfidious idea that I am "licensing" the material) is a barrier to use that offers me no benefits in return[4]. Sure, there are other barriers - the cost of entry is too high, the technology of the readers is still clunky at best, the available content is limited and the various formats muddle the waters even further - but those are all problems that can do nothing but diminish. The hardware and technology will eventually reach a point where the price and convenience are comparable with (or better than) a printed book.[5]

But it's all for nothing if the content is still stuck in the mud. The kindle give an interesting taste of what ubiquitous content might look like: you can access your library on your kindle, your phone or on your computer. That's pretty fantastic, and that's still a closed system; imagine if it was opened up further.

Of course, this might also have a transformative effect on the books themselves, but that's another topic for another time.

1 - This idea, that you should always pack a book just in case, is one that may not be instinctive to everyone, but I think most readers get it.

2 - "Parking Lot Rules" (a parenting book) and "Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate"

3 - I cite Amazon here, and not print on demand or e-distribution for a simple reason. While someday we will probably have all this content available on demand, that's not the case for the near term. Amazon, in contrast, is here now, and it has made exploratory trips to the used bookstore unnecessary because the used bookseller with the book you need is right there. I miss that sense of exploration and discovery, sure, but I
don't miss the inconvenience and frustration.

4 - I completely understand the need for creators to get paid, but that not what DRM does right now. Consider book loaning and gifting - Amazon controls all kindle content, and there are few technical challenges that should keep me from being able to say "Take this book off my kindle and send it to my dad's kindle", much the same way I could hand him the physical book after I finished reading it. If they had such a feature, they might be able to say "We need DRM to protect ourselves, but look how we also use the software to improve your experience" and they'd at least have a leg to stand on. Instead, DRM is an attempt to erect a barrier against change that is doomed since it's a barrier built on the very source of the change itself. A wall built on a foundation of sand will stand longer than one built on a foundation of bits.

5 - This is the "Bathtub Test". Right now, one of the smug anti-ereader talking points is how much you lose if you drop it in the tub. It's a fair cop, especially with readers costing what they do now. But there is a cost of replacing a book you drop in the tub too, sometimes a non-trivial one, since you are losing the artifact and the content (with an ereader, you lose only the artifact so long as you've backed up the content). If ereaders get cheap enough or if e-content gets ubiquitous enough, that gap may narrow or even invert.

Friday, December 25, 2009

It's Christmas

So even if you don't celebrate, take advantage of the season if you can, and go play something with people you love. I have a little kid to expose to wrapping paper, and I'm looking forward to the decorative tornado to follow.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Business of GMing

I find a lot of interesting parallels between GMing and Management. Not just in terms of how there are similarities between them, but also in terms of how people perceive them.

Work any amount of time in a technical field and you'll discover that there's a reason that people will keep reading Dilbert no matter how often it re-tells the same joke. Management just gets in the way of people doing what they should be doing, after all, and their motives are highly suspect since their priorities are not the same as the engineer's. Management doesn't get it, and they make the wrong technical decisions because they are not technical, and things would work much, much better if these decisions could be made by technical people because they're not mired in this bullshit.

For a lot of people, this accurately reflects their experience. They've had the kind of management that inspires pointy-haired-boss stories, and as a result, that is what they expect from management. Statements to the contrary, talk of things like leadership or teamwork, are obviously just buzzwords used to manipulate those who don't know any better.


Some people have had good managers. Bosses who step up for them, communicate when appropriate, and who do all the things to help make sure that their work is not just technically correct, but meaningful. They make sure shit gets done, and even when they push you, you get to the other end and thank them for it. They nurture their employees, and push them further than they'd push themselves. They bring people together in ways that allow the word "synergy" to be used without irony. It's unhip to say it, but they lead, and in doing so they demonstrate that leadership is something much more nuanced than standing in front and shouting orders.

People who have had these managers want to repeat the experience, and they chafe hard under managers who don't live up to this example. But they chafe even harder when no on is even trying to do these things because they're just stupid management stuff. But for all this, the first group is likely to think the second group is delusional, or are sheep who aren't smart enough to know they're being misled (and the second group tend to look at the first like they're talking nonsense).

You can imagine how well that goes.

But I mention this because the same can be said of people's experience with GMs. Some have had nothing but pointy-haired-GM experiences, while others have had fantastic GMs. As with management, each group tends to assume that this is how the world works, and looks down their noses at the other people.

You can probably imagine how well that goes too.

Now, I like this parallel. Like GMing, management is an inexact science, and an IMMENSE amount of work and thought has gone into it. There are levels and types of management that require different ideas and nuances for how to do things right (a project manager is different than the manager of an autonomous team is different than the day manager in a call center) but there are still certain underlying ideas (like, say, TALK to people) that emerge throughout. This parallels GMing nicely, since running PTA is different than running D&D is different than running a LARP.

Now, we don't have the language to talk about GMing the way people can talk about management, at least not yet. That makes a lot of things pretty rough, but I am finding myself thinking that it might be worth turning an eye towards business literature to help clarify the distinctions that we carry around, but don't communicate.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Pendragon Ninjas

So, there was apparently a bit of a (possibly engineered) storm over on the boards yesterday about a 4E GM saying that players couldn't play Dragonborn in his game. This was waved around as an example of totalitarian GMing, and the snippets I picked up were enough to convince me to stay the hell away from the conversation, but it's an interesting question, all the same.

I have exactly no information about the original situation, but I can conceive of a few scenarios which I would interpret very differently. On one hand you have a GM who simply does not like the race, and is unwilling to talk about it. That's not great - 'I don't wanna, and I won't talk about it because I'm DM!' is pretty lame on the face of it.

On the other hand, if the DM had said "We're playing a game in an established setting (like Middle Earth). There aren't any dragonborn in the setting, so they're not a viable player choice" that's not such an unreasonable position,[1] Especially if the GM is willing to discuss things.

I call this a Pendragon Ninja problem[2] because that's probably the most succinct way to illustrate the disconnect, as in:
Bob: I'm running Pendragon. Who's interested?
Tom: Oh, yeah! I want to play a ninja!

I like this example because the problem is obvious (while the Dragonborn one is potentially muddled), which makes it easy to move on to the potential solutions.

First off, a lot of GMs will be comfortable just saying "No" to a request like this. I won't come out an endorse this because I'm one of those guys who likes to talk things out, but sometimes it really is the right answer, especially if you know your players well enough to know that Tom is taking a piss or will be equally enthusiastic about his next idea. The failure of advice will always be that you know your group best, so if you're really comfortable just saying no, then go forth and rock on. But if you're not, there are a few other approaches.

First, try to figure out what about the idea appeals to them. For Tom, is it that he wants to play an outsider? A sneaky character? An assassin? It's possible that he could play a character of that type that's still within the bounds of the premise. Playing a saracen might capture the outsider vibe, playing a knight with "off the books" skills might capture the sneaky/assasin part. Try to find the things that make the idea cool to Tom and see if you can pitch ideas that capture those elements.

Of course, that won't always work. Tom might just really be in it for the black pajamas and shuriken. In that case, ask yourself if the setting can deal with the idea as an exception - is it possible this is the only one in the world, so to speak. This can be easier to justify in magical games as the character is form another world or era, transported here through a freak accident, but you can usually find some way to make it work. Some GM's buck as this idea as violating the premise, but consider that a lot of fiction makes good use of these fish out of water ideas, and it's not unreasonable for players to seize upon them.

One catch is that it makes the fish out of water element front and center on the character. The lone ninja in the arthurian court is count to stand out as FOREIGN and DIFFERENT and a lot of interactions will center on that difference, and that may not be what the player is interested in. Perhaps even more importantly, such a character can easily become the lynchpin of a game unless you are careful in your handling of it. Maybe that's a great idea for your group, but if Tom is not the guy you want to hang the game off of, then you need to be careful to keep it from being the adventures of a Ninja in King Arthur's Court.

So, that's nuance, and that doesn't always fly. Tom may not want to have to deal with those issues - he just wants to have cool fights with ninja weapons, and Bob is having trouble explaining to him that these aren't anime fights, and ninja vs. knight may not go exactly the way he imagines. So Bob is pretty much down to three options.

First, he can just say "no". He's made a good faith effort to accommodate Tom, but it's just not working. No harm, no foul, just try something else.[3]

Second, he might suggest that Tom would not enjoy the game. He really should try saying "no" before jumping to this, but after a few no's, this might be the only options.

Third, he could consider changing the game. Depending upon what excites Bob about running pendragon, he might be able to switch to a game like Legend of the Five Rings or Blossoms Are Falling and keep everyone happy. This is not a trivial consideration though: the amount of work Bob will need to do to shift gears is an order of magnitude greater than what it would take for Tom to tweak his character. More importantly, if this idea doesn't excite Bob, then it's a bad idea. If the GM isn't excited about the game, then it's very near DOA.[4]

There are a lot of issues that run through this topic, ones of player respect, GM empowerment, theme protection and god knows what else. The good news is that the theory is more convoluted than the reality. As a hypothetical problem, this can be daunting, but as an actual problem you're talking to your friend about? You'll be amazed how easily it clears up.

1 - 4e introduces another layer to this since the objection (and the desire t play a Dragonborn) may have been entirely mechanical. Thankfully, 4e also provides excellent tools for dealign with this, since it's trivial to re-skin the race. Thus, for example, if the DM objected to the Dragonborn's breath weapon as unbalanced, he could include Dragonborn, but use the Goliath or Hobgoblin racial modifiers to represent them mechanically. Alternately, if the player explicitly wants the mechanic, it would be possible to make the character nominally a member of another race but use the Dragonborn abilities, possibly reskinned as a war shout or magical ability.

2 - Pendragon, if you're not familiar with it, is a game that is explicitly about playing ladies & knights in the Arthurian period. There's some wiggle room around that, but it's really all about ladies & knights.

3 - Yes, I know this is terrible. No is such a negative, unfriendly, non-communal word. A lot of us are geeks, and we want everyone to get along, and we don't like drawing hard lines as a result. I sympathize, I really and truly do, but at some point you need to put on your big girl panties and do it. You'll be amazed to discover that it does not actually end in tears and door slamming most of the time.

4 - This is actually a somewhat contentious point. I'm assuming in this case that we're talking about very traditional games where the GM puts in a lot of work to make the game happen. Setting aside the issue of authority within the game, that raises the question of how much the GM can reasonably demand. Some people feel that the extra work entails a bit more weight to his opinions, while others seek something more egalitarian. This gets further muddled when you have groups with multiple GMs, since the decision is no longer between "Game or not game" but between "My game vs. his game" and at that point it ends up looking like.... well, I suspect you can imagine it.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


There's a concept that I don't really have a word for, but that lies at the heart of a lot of gaming (and writing). I don't see it talked about much, I think because it's a little bit too big to see. It's such an essential part of making anything happen that it's easy to look. For lack of a better word, I'm going to call it "expectation" but that does not quite convey the whole of the idea, but let me drill into it a bit.

The core of it is this: people have a natural sense of what should happen next. We're not all totally in tune on it at all times, but there's a lot of commonality in our take on things. This sense is an essential part of storytelling because stories depend on violating that expectation. Something must take a turn away from the way things are supposed to go, or else there wil be no story, just a logical series of events. This expectation is also essential for great things like humor and irony, since they hinge upon the friction between that expectation and what actually happens.

This expectation is also essential to the mechanics of most roleplaying systems. More than anything, it is essential to the decisions around when to roll the dice and when not to roll the dice. A player describes what his character is doing, and the GM consults his internal expectation - if a clear outcome suggests itself, then there's no need to consult the dice. If there's uncertainty, then the dice might be turned to for an answer.

This tends to happen kind of naturally - it's just the process that we go with, but it can be very interesting to stop and think about this step since so much hinges on it. Enjoyment of play can hinge on the players and GM having similar expectations - if they don't, then it is easy for the other party's decision to seem capricious or even malicious. Even more, the mechanics of almost every game out there depend in large part on this expectation.


This is a hard space to call out mechanically. If you stop and think too much about it you run into the same problems you have when everyone stops and negotiates potential consequences of a scene. It might be very thorough, but it breaks flow pretty hard.

Instead, it is merely something to keep in mind as you run. It may be the single most important tool in your arsenal for deciding when not to engage the system. It's easy to fall into the habit of trusting the rules to provide the cues for when to use the system - if there's a rule, then you should use it right? That's not necessarily a terrible thing, but it's not a reliable yardstick for when it will be fun to bust out the dice versus when it's smarter to just keep things moving.

If, instead, you can keep a firm grasp on your sense of what should happen next, then it's much easier to tell when to turn to the dice. You can trust your own sense of uncertainty, and you can focus on those situations where you want things to take a drastic left turn. That ability to select when to engage the system helps make sure that you do it when it matters, and it's amazing how many headaches you can save yourself.

The vast majority of problems that come from the dice going askew are rooted in a misjudgment before the roll, such as when a failed roll will result in an undesirable outcome. It's possible to to try to wiggle out of such a roll, but it's easier still to not make the roll in the first place. If only one outcome is tolerable, then that speaks directly to your expectations for the roll and the action - just go with what you expect, and save the dice for sometime they'll actually help.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Monday - 5 Fun Stops

I am not yet used to this vacation thing, and I'm posting this late, so I'll just go fro the cheesiest of copouts - the list post. To be a little fair, I'll stay within the bounds of cool things for monday and use today to rattle off 5 sites that might be worth visiting. I might never have gotten around to doing a full post on any of them, but they rattle around in my mind, and I want to get them out there.

1. Knowledge Games - This is another one from Dave Gray, who writes a lot of really interesting stuff about the presentation of information and the nature of the book. This particular project is all about taking game thinking and applying it to business situations. Like all good experiments, the results are hit or miss, but it's a fantastic perspective on the nature of games, and worth checking out.

2. Cool Tools and Holycool get treated as one topic. Both are basically just blogs of neat stuff. Banal, I know, but it's really, really neat stuff, and I like stuff!

3. Tumblr - It's a free microblogging site, which is a fancy way to say it's ideally suited for posts that are longer than twitter but shorter than a full bore post. Thing is, the clean interface and the robust handling of media (it imbeds photos and clips and such very smoothly) have resulted in a lot of people starting to look at it as an option for full time, hassle free blogging. Even people with fulltime blogs often keep a tumblr blog as a place to dump things that don't really merit a full post, but are still worth capturing.

4. Peter Bregman is a blogger for the Harvard Business Review, and most of what he does is pretty much summed up right there except, well, he's actually really good. He doesn't write a lot, but his hit rate for posts I save for later reading is very high.

5. Quest for Fun is the blog of the Black Diamond Game Store in Concord, CA. It's interesting and informative, sure, but it's especially noteworthy because the owner of the shop really goes out of his way to provide an eyes on the ground view of how things work in the game industry form his perspective. He recently did a series of graphs breaking down sales by brand in various categories (RPGs, games & minis) which were wuite informative.

Friday, December 18, 2009

ReUsing Relationship Maps

Man, ok, time to change gears, if only for my sanity. As fun as it has been to delve into Dragon Age, that's some thinky stuff, and my brain is starting to smoke a bit, so let me shift gears a bit. As a warning, there are some very light spoilers for the 4th and 5th season of Supernatural below - probably not enough to be a real problem, but you've been warned.

By now, a lot of people have learned about the advantages of using relationship maps (r-maps) as a useful tool for keeping track of characters and groups in a game, and as a source of inspiration. For example:

It's benefits are, hopefully, pretty obvious. Organizing the information visually makes it easy for me to ask all the right questions when I want to do something in the setting, like "Who will it impact? What effects will that have? If I do something bad HERE what happens THERE? If I add a new element over here, what should I connect it to and how?" Certainly, I could track all this information in lists or notes, but the visual component makes it much easier for me to grasp the interactions between elements.

This is all well and good, but it's not actually what was on my mind. See, I'm a big fan of the television show Supernatural. It's got monster hunting and rock and roll and all that, but it's also got some really potent relationships between the characters. This took an interesting turn in recent seasons where it turned out that the larger conflict of the story was pretty much a mirror of the personal conflicts between the characters.

It's a little heavy-handed (but appropriate to the series) as it's done, but the idea is a pretty potent one, and one use of relationship maps is that they make it very easy to do - all you need to do is scrub the names and keep the relationships. So I can take the previous R-Map and tweak it to represent the various conspiracies at work in the world.

(Doctor/Patient needed to be tweaked, but it wasn't hard to come up with an equivalent)

Obviously, this is a pretty simple example, but the point is that it's one more thing that relationship maps can be useful for.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Dragon Age RPG: The Box

I had sworn to myself that today would not be another Dragon Age post. Seriously. I needed a break, and I even had a whole thing on Relationship maps written up. But I'm apparently a big liar and I've bumped that off to Friday, and I'm back on Dragon Age. The good news is that this is a much smaller point and one that, I think, is less contentious.

It's about the box.

Folks might have noticed that every time I mention the box I get very worked up. There's a bit of a story to that. See, back when WOTC announced they would be releasing a boxed starter set for 4e I got really excited. It sounded great: a box set with rules, battlemap, tokens and dice all done up with the great production values WOTC had brought to 4e so far, all at a reasonable price point. This was a great idea. A boxed set that was an all-in-one product that you could just give someone and they could start playing was a great gift. And if they were interested in what was in the box, then heck, maybe they'd buy some more 4e stuff.

The problem is that the reality was terrible. The problem wasn't the rules (which were fine) or the components (which were actually fantastic) - it was the box. More specifically, it was the lack of a box. See, they had gone the cheap route of just wrapping it in a cardboard sleeve and wrapping it in a slipcase. Once you opened it, it stopped being a discrete thing and became a pile of parts.
This may sound like a trivial concern, and on paper it probably is, but in terms of actual experience this is huge. The box keeps the game together, and serves the dual purposes of providing practical organization (since it also holds your dice, pencils, character sheets, loose papers and so on) and providing a conceptual anchor of what the game is. Yes, once you've played a few games it's not too hard to start thinking about games as abstractions, but when you're getting your had around our weird little hobby, it helps a lot for it to be something concrete and specific - something you can point to.

So this is why the 4e set was such a let down for me, and why I am so obsessed about DARPG having an actual box.

Interestingly, there are also a few more boxed sets hitting the market, notably the new Warhammer RPG 3rd edition and the new Doctor Who RPG. Maybe it's something in the water, but maybe there's a bit more to it than that. Even over and above the creation of a self-contained product (because that's another big advantage of the box set: it has, or should have, everything you need to play) this is one of the few ways a company can distinguish its product any more.

Even a few years ago, there was a gap between the big and small publishers that could be seen in the quality of their books. If you wanted really gorgeous production values, you needed to go big. Today, that line is thin enough that if you depend on it, then Luke Crane or John Harper are going to come up and kick you in the junk. The little guy knows how to make really gorgeous books now, so that's not much of a differentiator.

The little guy doesn't really know how to do boxed sets yet. This won't last for too long, but the window currently exists, and I'll be curious to see how many people shoot for it.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Dragon Age: Leaving Out the Egg

Back in the day, Betty Crocker rolled onto the market with mixes for making cakes and such. More women were working and there was less time available. The idea was to make it easier to make real home baked food with less time and effort. It was a good idea, and Betty Crocker did a number of really clever things with chemistry - all you needed to do was combine the mix and water then bake.

It failed miserably.

So Betty Crocker sat down and did some serious market research, and they discovered something. Women weren't using the mixes because it was too easy - it felt like cheating. So Betty Crocker went back to the lab and changed the formula to remove the egg component so the cook needed to add an egg of her own. That was enough to make it feel "home made" and it was a tremendous success.

I mention this because this speaks to a lesson that's useful for a lot of products: if you "leave out the egg", which is to say create an opportunity for the user to invest a little bit of effort to make a product their own, they'll be more invested in it, and more enthusiastic.

In turn, I bring this up because it seems to me that one of the most contentious elements of the Dragon Age RPG is something of an egg left out.

The issue at hand is random character creation. The DARPG creates stats in a decidedly old-school fashion - you roll 3d6 for each of 8 stats, and the sole concession to customization is that you get to swap two stats. The immediate reaction to this is usually a pretty straightforward "What the hell? Is it 1985?" and that shouldn't be too much of a surprise. Random stat generation is an idea that's been pretty much set aside in favor of more player choice for a very long time.

The reasons for this are obvious - if stats are important and impactful, you can create a situation where a player with bad luck ends up with a character that's not much fun to play when compared to his friend who rolled much better. AD&D was a really bad experience for a lot of us who got exposed to the difference between a fighter with a 12 strength and one with an 18/00, and it really soured people on the whole idea. After all, a lot of game design is fixing the problems you had with the last game you played.

There are some real problems with randomly generating stats or other character elements, but it has some real advantages that have been set aside along with the limitations. A random spread of stats has some of the advantages of an oracle - it can suggest ideas and patterns that would not otherwise be obvious. This idea of "what do you do with what you have?" is a tonal one in addition to a mechanical one - less badass but perhaps more heroic depending on perspective. That idea is a potent enough one that a lot of work has been put in over the years to try to capture this part of randomization without risking the flaws.

Random creation is also very quick - spending points requires a number of decisions that depend upon further knowledge of the system to do right. That can be something of a drag, and can end up putting the cart before the horse. It's often the first decision of the game, so you don't want to make it a painful one. The randomization also tends to produce more organic spreads - point buys tend to result in all-or-nothing spikes.

Now, this is not an assertion that randomization is the only way to go. There are a lot of other ways to approach it[1]. But I did want to lay out that it's not as crazy an idea as it might first appear. Most specifically, these benefits sync up with the goals of a game for newbies, notably simplified choices and speed of play.

That's all well and good, but here's the thing that struck me during yesterday's discussion. There are a lot of ways to address the issues of randomness - 4d6 and drop one, roll 12 and keep the best 8, roll then sort; the list is endless and has been kicked around for decades. It would take maybe a sentence or two to mention these options, so the choice not to do so is an interesting one.[2]

And this is where I come back to eggs. To leave out the egg from an RPG, it needs to be something that is obvious and trivial to address. Certainly, every RPG has a certain amount of egglessness - house rules are our bread and butter - but it is a little bit trickier to put in something that is (for lack of a better term) blatantly trivial. If you can do so, especially for someone with very little experience with games, then it can be a real win because it makes the first step much less scary, Once they've made the obvious house rule, they've crossed an invisible threshold into a sense of ownership of the game.[3]

The rules for generating stats feel like an egg left out. There are so many possible ways to address it if you feel it's a problem that it seems like a gimmee. It's easy to see and easy to make he change without disrupting the rest of the game in any way.

The thing I'm left wondering is whether or not it was intentional. If it was accidental, then it's a lucky thing, but if it was intentional, then it's freaking brilliant. And if it was intentional, then man, I am going to find a way to buy Chris Pramas a drink, because that is some badass ninja stuff.[4]

I am, by the way, entirely aware that I'm taking a very positive (and somewhat quirky) perspective on the Dragon Age RPG, and some of it absolutely hinges on a certain amount of hope regarding what's still coming. My predictions and expectations could be totally wrong, and even if they're right, the whole game could crash and burn for unrelated reasons. I'm pretty comfortable with the idea that others aren't going to share that perspective, so objections and counterpoints are welcome, but I'm likely to stick with my optimism for the time being.

1 - One alternate example is equitable randomness, where the randomness determines which good thing you get, rather than whether or not you get a good thing. REIGN chargen is based entirely on this model, and the DARPG uses it for the bonuses you get from your backgrounds.

2 - Now, here I make a brief aside. This is an obvious omission, and it's one of many obvious omissions in the game. You can tell they're obvious omissions because the reader's first instinct is to think "Why didn't they include THIS?". With that in mind, take a look at the credits page for the game - this is a pretty good list of folks with some serious stuff under their belt, and it's safe to say that they thought of most of these things, but they made the conscious (and ballsy) decision not to do so. Paring things down to 64 pages required resisting the completist urge of game design, and that's not an easy thing. It would have been easy to do this all in a standard 256 page full color hardcover, and that probably would have been a very good game with moderate commercial success, but it would have been just like any other game out there. The risks involved in the design are the risks necessary for this game to maybe make the jump to broader adoption.

3 - This flies in the face of the school of thought that says rules should be complete and that if they require house ruling, then they're bad rules. That's all well and good for pure design, but house ruling is engaging, and the power of that should not be underestimated.

4 - And, hey, on the off chance that I do get an answer from Chris, I have one more question: is it a real box? Please please please tell me it's a real box.

EDIT - One last bit of credit where it's due. The Betty Crocker story is from a fantastic book called "Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950's America" by Laura Shapiro. It's one of those books like Pollan's
Botany of Desire which is about one thing, but is really about a number of other very interesting things. Well worth a read.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Dragon Age RPG

The Dragon Age RPG is one I've been excited about for a while, not because it's based on a video game I'm nuts for, but because of its avowed goal of being a game to bring people into the hobby. Games make that claim all the time, but there were three things going on with DARPG that raised my interest: It's a boxed set (hopefully a real one, not a faux one like the 4e starter set), it's got a hook into a good franchise that is neither too weird nor too overwhelming but can still bring in eyeballs, and it's by Green Ronin, a company that I would describe as pretty darn sharp.

As if to demonstrate that sharpness, Green Ronin put DARPG up for preorder recently, and offered up a free PDF along with the preorder. It boggles my mind that this is not standard practice, but it's not, so GR gets props for a smart move. They get an initial wave of buzz and interest based off people reading and talking about the PDF, and they hopefully can build on that when the actual game releases.

It's also a move that benefits me a lot because, hey, I get to read it. I'm always happy to cheer on my own enlightened self interest.

Here's the short form: The Dragon Age RPG looks to have the shortest distance from opening the box to playing at the table of any game I've seen in over a decade, possibly since red box D&D.[1] It is not a revolutionary game by any stretch of the imagination, and for most gamers with a few games under it's belt, it's going to seem absolutely tired. Old ideas like random chargen and hit points are all over the place. With the exception of the Dragon Die and the stunt system, experienced gamers aren't goignt fo find much new here.

But that makes it exactly what it should be. As a game for existing gamers, Dragon Age is ok, but not as impressive as other Green Ronin offerings. As a game for a new gamer, it's exactly right.

First, by sticking to very strongly established mechanics (many of which will be at least conversationally familiar to people who've played video games) with a minimum of complexity, they've made a game that is easy to learn to play. The simplicity, brevity (main rulebook is 64 pages) and the clarity[2] combine to make a game that can be learned from the text, without depending on arcane oral tradition. I think back to my youth and this seems a very big deal.

Second, the setting is equally familiar. Not just because some players will know it from the video game, but because the video game's setting is designed to be quickly recognizable. Elves live in the woods and have bows. Dwarves live underground and have axes. Humans run the show. Magic is mysterious and risk-filled. Sure, each of these points has more depth as you drill into them, but the basic are immediately recognizable to anyone with a little pop culture knowledge.

Last, the game minimizes the barriers to play by avoiding the temptation of weird dice. By making it playable with nothing but the dice you can salvage from a Risk box, you get a couple of advantages. There's no awkwardness as you finish reading the rules but find yourself needing to wait until you've taken a trip to that creepy store [3] to get supplies. There's more of a sense of the familiar. And perhaps best of all, you can scale up with your group size - adding a few more d6s is a lot easier than, say, having to share one set of polyhedrals.

Put it all in a box set and you've got a product that I'm really excited about. I could see giving this game as a gift to a non-player, and that's almost unprecedented.

Now, it's not all sunshine and puppies. As noted the game is pretty simple (though I admit it's at a level of simplicity I dig, since I think my wife would not be bothered by it) and a few corners got cut to support the size and the release schedule. You can't play a Grey Warden, which is kind of a kick in the head, since that's so central to the computer game. The logic's clear: this set covers levels 1-5, next one will be 6-10 (then 11-15 and 16-20 or so I understand) and subsequent sets will be adding rules for things like specialty careers including things like Grey Warden. I suspect we'll also get magic items and runes in later sets too.

There are a few layout decisions that raise my eyebrow - magic precedes combat, which is weird in terms of the order rules are explained for example - but they're all quickly set aside by the presence of indexes, glossary and comprehensive reference pages. It should not be so exciting to me to see a game do what should be the basics, but it is.

The sample adventure is in the GM's book rather than in its own booklet. This makes sense in terms of cost, and it's not a bad thing, but I admit I flash back to my well worn copy of Keep on the Borderlands, and I regret that as long as they were trying to recapture the magic of redbox, they didn't revive that tradition.

And that's really what's going on here. Unlike the old school, this is not an attempt to recreate old D&D, rather, it's an attempt to answer the same questions, only with decades of experience with how it went the first time. This makes the choices of what rules are included (and which ones aren't included) really fascinating to me. The Green Ronin guys know their stuff, and you can assume every choice in the design is a deliberate one.

Choices like a very traditional hit point and damage system are not made because they couldn't think of another way, but rather because that choice maximized the accessibility of the game. On reading, it really feels like they pulled it off, and I'm genuinely excited to give it a play sometime and find out. One way or another I wish them luck: success with a game designed to bring new players into the hobby benefits us all.

1 - The only other real contender in the intervening time is Feng Shui. There are simpler games, sure, but they lack the structure to answer the question of "OK, what do I do now?".

2 - Randomization has one huge benefit for new players - it removes optimization choices. There's more to it than that, but by putting the harder decision of chargen in the hands of the dice, game-stopping questions are removed from play.

3- Yes, that's an unfair characterization, but not everyone is lucky enough to be near one of the many friendly, clean, well lit gamestores with helpful staff. And even for those who are, the store is an unknown, and unknowns are scary and off-putting, especially for teenagers.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Cool Monday: TV Tropes

I was listening to a theater review on the radio this weekend, and it made my brain feel squishy. It was kind of a reminder of everything I hate about review culture: for every enthusiastic or experienced voice out there willing to talk about the subject, there are two who want to use the subject as a launching point to tell the reader how awesome they are and how they would have done things. The ratio varies a bit from subject to subject, and a lot of what allows this is that the standards for how to talk about things like shows and books are fuzzy at best. There’s a certain amount of academic practice related to analysis and deconstruction, but even that’s hit or miss. It’s a mix of useful insights and self-referential hoo-haw, and good luck telling which is which.

And it is with all that in mind that I realize I am all the more amazed by today’s cool thing in the internet,

If you’re familiar with the site, then you know it’s horrible power. It may be one of the most interesting things to read on the entire Internet, and once you start on it, you often find yourself 2 hours later with 20 tabs open as you go through the stuff. But if you’re not familiar with it, then you may both thank and hate me for opening this particular door.

See, TVtropes is the best analysis of television in the world, at least through a certain lens. It’s a wiki of, well, television tropes – elements and ideas that come up often enough to be recognizable. In addition to entries on these ideas like “The Eigen Plot”, “Applied Phlebotinum” or “Authority Equals Asskicking” they include extensive cross-references to where the idea appears (or is subverted) in TV, movies, anime, manga, comics, roleplaying games and very nearly anywhere else anyone can think of. I know it sounds dry when described, but the proof is in the reading. Just go poke around a bit. You'll see.

I love this site on a few levels. First, it’s just tremendously fun to flip through, and that should not be underestimated. Second, it’s an example of crowdsourcing that actually works – a lot of wikis on other topics end up much less interesting for an array of issues, but while TVTropes has its warts, the whole is magnificent. Lastly, I love it in an academic sense – the site represents a level of thought and analysis of the topic that I have yet to see an equal of, and I have bugger all idea how that fits in the standard hierarchy of knowledge.

Awesomely disruptive change is, well, awesome.

Friday, December 11, 2009

WH3: In Review

Ok, so that was a lot of text, but it laid down the groundwork for my impressions of Warhammer 3, and that means it's time for bullet points!

  • The GM's guide has a fantastic section dedicated to the resources the GM has at his disposal, in a mechanical sense, and how those can be used to various effects. Rather than simply giving the GM the authority to make things happen, the book focuses on how to do so, rather than just relying on the big stick of unlimited GM authority. It's not that this usurps anything about the traditional GM role. It simply helps the GM to get the outcomes he wants, without breaking out the big guns. This is brilliant, and I hope we start seeing it in more games.

  • I admit I've gotten spoiled by the monster stat blocks in 4e, because when I started a fight, I just assumed that they would have armor and damage right there on the critter writeups. Not so much - I needed to go look up weapons and armor, which was a bit clunky.

  • On the other hand, monsters are nicely simplified just by using expendable pools of points. This adds a bit of bookkeeping - I'd be inclined to just pool them all together for the encounter - but it also makes for a nice pacing mechanism (monsters start out tougher, but weaken quietly).

  • The game leans heavily on the small triangular tokens as all-purpose trackers, perhaps too heavily. Some of them come in different colors, but that's painful to track on the fly, and they're easily muddled. I expect that anyone who plays the game seriously is going to swap them out for colored beads where they're actually used, and substitute in something else for places where they're a bad match, like initiative tracking.

  • The setting seems less dark. I mean, it's still dark, and the art is still...highly stylized...but I don't get quite so much of the "The victory of Chaos is inevitable, all you can do it kick around pebbles waiting for the end of everything" vibe out of things. I like this a lot. It's a bit less over the top, which makes me much more comfortable engaging the setting. It's still got all the trappings, and the lightening of tone is slight enough that I might even be imagining it, so while I think it'll please people who like Warhammer, I'm not sure how it will appeal to the hardcore.

  • That is a big freaking box. Some part of me suspects it might be bigger than it needs to be, just for show, and if that's true then well done. The sheer size of it is a strange kind of point in its favor. However, it's just a big box, with a lot of space for stuff to rattle around in, and that's a bit rough when there's so much stuff. The box comes with no component storage, like the plastic tray you see in many boardgames, so you're going to need to figure out how to store ans sort all the many cards and tokens yourself. FFG is a bit notorious for this, as their position is that they'd rather put in more components for the cost of the plastic tray, and I can't fault that in theory, but I'm not sure I feel like I got a plastic tray worth of extra components, if you know what I mean.

  • That touches upon the elephant in the room: the price tag. This is a $100 game, and that's a high price tag even for quality boardgames, so is it worth it? There's no hard and fast right answer. Other $100 RPGs and supplements (World Largest Dungeon, Ptolus, various deluxe editions) tend to be big honking thick books, so there's a bit of apples an oranges there, but my instinct is that it seems like a better deal than that, if only because you get so many shiny bits. Similar math comes up when you compare it to, say, the 3 core 4e books, which come in around that price tag. But compared to boardgames, which might have similar components, it seems high, and that's hard to wrestle with[1]. In the end, I don't feel ripped off, but I also don't feel inclined to go "Wow", which suggests that they probably priced it about right for business, but a bit high for marketing. That said, if you can get it for $60 or $70 through Amazon or whatnot, that's enough to make it feel like a real deal, so maybe it wasn't such a bad price point after all.

  • FFG has managed to surprise me with their support, which is better now than it was even a few days ago. They now have a proper errata /faq (pdf) up (thanks to Ifryt for the heads up) and seem to be providing things like an index among the online resources. While this doesn't quite make up for the absence of one in the text, this is promising and I hope it's a hint of things to come.

  • I hope this because, while I dig how the component model makes piracy hard and allows for commercial expansion, it also makes it really, really hard for players to add or modify things for their own games. While I'm sure FFG will eventually address this commercially (with things like blank card packs), I would really like to see them get behind the idea of helping players customize the game. PDFs of card blanks, for example, would probably be a big hit, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. As big a proponent as I am of OGL, a game doesn't need to be open to robustly support a culture of homebrewing, and if WH3 is going to succeed, I really feel it needs to help players find a way to make it their own. If I spent $100 for a box of components which i can use just to play your game, then your success depends on my interest in that game. If I spent $100 on a toolbox of components that I can use for MY game, then you've got me hooked, because then each subsequent purchase is one I make for MY sake, not yours.

  • One last corollary to that: by going components based, FFG has created a game where the actual rules text is pretty secondary to the product. I hope that means they'll be pretty liberal with it (creating reference pages and such). To my mind, they could give away the core rulebook as a free PDF and get nothing but benefit, and once a few more products are on the market, I wouldn't be too shocked if they consider that.

  • Another big plus to the GM advice: there's a large section on roll interpretation that talks about looking at the dice, thinking about where they came from, and coloring the outcome with that. That is to say, the rich rolling is baked right in.

  • Additionally, the GM's book has some great "Say yes" advice, which is to be willing to just say yes but lay a bunch of misfortune dice on the roll. It's good advice, and it works very well with the system since misfortune dice are transparent, so the player feels they got a fair shake. Compare that with trying to hit an arbitrary difficulty: you might roll well and the GM says you fail anyway, and there's a sneaking suspicion that things aren't quite kosher. Laying it out there works well for everyone, and players are startlingly receptive to it. They often know when they're proposing a crazy or foolish idea, and will totally be good sports when you finish building the pool and add "and here are four misfortune dice as a stupidity tax." Does that sound mean? It's not, because the contract is clear: I'm making this hard, but if you pull it off, it will actually work.
When I picked up WH3, 4e was not far from my mind. My ideal hope was that it would provide me with a game that hit the notes I liked about 4e (of which there are many) without requiring that I carry all the books (or software) that 4e requires. It is not quite that, but I can see the shape of that game within it, and I feel like I could take a chisel and some time and find that game inside it. But that will definitely be no small amount of work, and I have only so much time in the day, so I hesitate to start down that path just yet. A lot of this hinges on what FFG does next - I know there will be more supplements and expansions, but I don't yet know if they're going to excite me, or if they're going to be cut from the same cloth as past Warhammer RPG supplements - technically excellent, but not of any real interest to me.

And I think that's the rub. The one thing WH3 failed to provide was any really strong inspiration for something I wanted to play. The blame for this falls squarely on the setting: the world of Warhammer is one I already know well, and this did not change or expand my understanding in any way to make me want to run something. But I'll concede it laid the groundwork - if they put out a city book/box with the kind of quality GM advice in the core and without falling back into the old Darkety-dark-darkness of classic Warhammer, then that could be a genuinely magnificent product, and I suspect I'd eat it up with a spoon.[2]

So the ball is in FFG's court. I'm already stealing the parts I like (the freeform combat model offers some useful tools for making better combat in other games) , but only so many of them can be pulled free of the chassis, so the big question is really how much use I will be able to make of the core of it.

I am hopeful. FFG knows what they're doing, and my faith in them was represented by a willingness to plunk down $100 on an unknown quantity. But I also know that this is a fickle business, and that lots of things can go wrong between here and whatever future FFG has in mind. So I'll wait and watch, and consider.

That said, if you do want to adventure in the World of Warhammer(craft), then this seems like a decent investment. The only reason I can't totally endorse it is that, well, it's not like WHFRP2e sucked. If you're still playing that, it's not like this will address some gap in the product. This is a different sort of beast entirely, and comparisons between the two games are very nearly apples and oranges. Both are delicious and good for you.

1 - The rub, apparently, is in the custom dice, which add substantially to cost, but I am not sure how much that compels me, when I look at boardgames that have them. Even a reasonably apples-to-apples comparison - FFG's Descent - has custom dice, plus minis, plus components and it costs less. Of course, there may have been a greater expectation that a boardgame would move units (no idea - I know zilch about boardgame sales) or it might have been that because WH3 is sold as a book, it was going to have to be priced to handle Amazon-style deep discounting. As a businessman, I am intensely interested in and sympathetic to all these issues, but as a player, I admit they just muddy the water.

2 - And if there's support for a city watch game? They already have my money, simple as that.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

WH3: Combat

Ok, so combat. This is the real meat of things where WH3 is concerned.

First, I should note that it does a perfectly fine job for out-of-combat stuff. The skill list is long enough to give some sense of variety, and the stat-emphasis more or less mandates a certain amount of competence. There are good guidelines for reading the dice in useful ways out of combat, excellent advice on how to say yes with qualifiers (in the form of misfortune dice). For non-combat resolution, the game is not going to make me stand up and shout, but I have no complaints. To break out the inevitable 4e comparison, I feel like WH3 managed to provide a much more robust non-combat engine for play.

So that said, onto the fighty bits.

In a fight, you determine initiative in a classic sort of way and keep that order for the duration of the fight. Straightforward enough.[1] Each turn you also set your stance, which will either be reckless or conservative.[2] There's a physical track to represent it, and each step on the track is also a numeric one, so if you're three steps down the conservative track, that has a specific mechanical impact when the dice roll.[3]

When you go, you get to take and action and a maneuver, which D&D players will roughly equate with a Standard/Full action and a Move/Minor action. There's no idea of a free action as its own thing, but things feel fast and loose enough that it doesn't seem entirely necessary.

To take an action, you play a card. Every character gets a set of core cards by default with things that everyone can do, like make an attack or go full defense, as well a some that have stat dependencies (you need to have a decent agility to get the "dodge" action).[4] You also have a few more cards that you purchased during character creation that are hopefully full of cool and interesting things you can't wait to do.

The action cards are double sided, and which side you use depends upon your stance: use the green side if you're conservative, use the read side if you're reckless. The mechanical difference between the sides can be non-existent or profound, and it quickly becomes clear that you want to pick action cards that complement your preferred stance. The card tells you what dice to roll, against what, and you scoop up those dice.

This step is a little convoluted, but I suspect it gets faster with time. Constructing your die pool basically follows this process:

1. Pick up a number of blue stat dice for the stat you're using, and a number of purple difficulty dice based on how hard the action is (usually 1, plus 1 or two more if there are modifiers - you only get 4 purple dice, so they are far form numerous).

2. Based on your stance, swap out some blue dice for red (reckless) or green (conservative) dice. The number of dice swapped out is based on the number of steps you are into the stance, so Reckless 3 replaces 3 blue dice.

3. If you're using a skill you're trained in, add a yellow expertise die. If you have any talents or other bonuses going into them, add some number of white fortune dice to represent them

4. If there are any things working against you, like enemy skill or situational penalties, the GM adds them as black misfortune dice.

So, that all sounds a little complicated, and it is. The player should be able to build most of his pool of stat, stance and expertise dice on his own, and some fortune dice may come from known sources, like talents or training. The GM contributes the number of difficulty dice, and fortune and misfortune dice as appropriate.[5] I think it takes time and familiarity for the cadence of this to get as comfortable as calling out (or knowing) difficulty numbers. Initially it feels a bit like a game of its own, and that's distracting, but it gets much easier. I wonder if it would be easier still if there was enough transparency for the player to build a pool on their own, but the ability to sprinkle fortune and misfortune dice is one of the GM's big tools, so probably not.

The actual dice are simple: all the good dice can generate successes and boons, and some can generate critical successes, and the bad dice (purple difficulty and black misfortune) generate failures, banes and critical failures. This is only slightly muddled by stance dice, which are statistically better than the stat dice they replace, but also carry risks: red reckless dice have big rewards, but can also cause failure or penalties on a bad roll. Green conservative dice produce reliably good results, but can slow you down, which can suck[6].

Reading them is a bit more complicated. At it's core, there are six outcomes a die can throw up: a success, a failure, a boon, a bane, a critical success or a critical failure. There are certain other special outcomes, like multiples (double success, double failure), modified successes (a success but you're delayed, a success but you gain stress) or the symbol that indicates a critical wound, and while they're interesting, they're unimportant.

Success/Failures and Banes/Boons cancel out, so at the end of the roll you will only have the net value represented. In the abstract, success/failure speaks to what you're actually doing, and bane/boon speaks to the stuff around it, so you might end a roll with some successes and some banes, and narratively that might mean "You hit, but end up in a disadvantageous position", while a failure with boons might be "You miss, but you get a chance to catch your breath".

The critical success and failure (Sigmar's Comet and The Star of Chaos) are like super banes and super boons, though they don't cancel out.

Mechanically, this is handled with result lines on the action cards. They basically list the various outcomes based on the number of results (in many cases, for example, a single bane or boon triggers nothing). The effects of the comet or star are usually listed here as well, often as something more potent than a simple bane or boon outcome.

At the table, this all resolved pretty easily. There were some issues of dice visibility, especially with the stance dice. They're d10s, and some of the faces have 2 symbols on them, which lead to a few cases of "is that an axe (success) or an eagle (boon)?" The difference is pretty clear on the 6-sided fortune, misfortune and expertise dice, but it's not as obvious writ small. Thankfully, this was not a huge problem, but it was a bit of a speedbump.

Anyway, once you take your action, you resolve it based on the outcome of the dice and the effects listed on the card. No problem. This probably results in some damage to the target. While the system is incredibly familiar (weapon establishes base damage, armor reduces it), the damage itself is handled quite cleverly. "Wounds" are cards handed to the person hit. In the case of a critical (or in certain situations where your wounds can be exacerbated), you simply flip over a random wound card, and the rules for whatever critical it is are on the card. For example, our Wizard took a "Blow to the Head", so he had to roll an extra misfortune die when rolling intelligence.

The other thing you can do, your maneuver, is where some of the interesting stuff lives. Most of the uses of a maneuver are predictable - draw a weapon, pick something up and so on - but it also covers movement, and that is very curious indeed.

Combat in WH3 is gridless, but it does use miniatures. Specifically it uses cardboard standups, but you could just as easily use D&D minis to the same effect. A lot of the ideas are going to be familiar, but they're tied together nicely. The basics are pretty simple.

If Bob is fighting a skaven, then we establish how far apart they are. They might be at extreme range (just within sight), Long range (close enough to shout), medium range (a couple dozen paces), Close (just a few steps away) or Engaged (Close enough to fight or otherwise interact. Once we establish that, they can use maneuvers to change that distance, though it takes more maneuvers to traverse longer distance.[7] You place a token between the two people or groups for each increment of distance.

If you add more people, then entire knots of people can be engaged. If Sarah and a Goblin join the fight, then Bob, Sarah and the Skaven might all be engaged, while the Goblin is at Medium distance from the engagement[8], peppering things with his bow. The distance is represented by 2 tokens between the goblin and the engagement - if he was further out, it'd be 3 or 4 token.

Now, there's an obvious problem with this, which will probably jump out at anyone whose done engagement-based design (it's not an uncommon idea). If Sarah disengages (takes one maneuver, puts her close to the engagement) and then moves further away to medium distance, how far is she from the goblin? The game doesn't really address this.

This is not a dealbreaker, but it would be nice to have more guidance form the text. Still, one joy of approximating things with minis is that its not hard to adjudicate. If Sarah's mini was slid away from the goblin, then she moved away from him, putting him at relative long range to her. If she moves towards him, then maybe she's close. It's just something to keep track of, and it's likely to be problematic in more complicated melees.[9]

Whew. Ok, lots more tidbits and impressions, but they can wait until tomorrow, where this hopefully wraps up.

1 - You are expected to track this with one of the jigsaw puzzle tracks and some tokens. This works poorly, and is one of the areas where the philosophy of "components for everything!" shows some holes.

2 - It could technically be neutral, but that seems to be a terrible, terrible idea. I'm not even use you can use actions in a neutral stance.

3 - The stance system is pretty cool, and it's an interesting class differentiator, since certain classes are more reckless or conservative than others, represented by how many steps they're allowed. A balanced class has 2 of each, but some are 3 and 1 or 1 and 3. This is also greatly helped by the fact that advancement allows you to purchase more "steps" over the course of your career.

4 - One of the brilliant things of the game is hidden in here, and it's something 4E badly needs to mimic (and I'll testify that I do something similar, and it works). One of the cards is "Perform a Stunt", which is to say, to do something not covered by the cards. Obviously, characters should always be able to do such things, but by explicitly calling it out as an option, it makes it much more likely that its an option players will take. All 4E needs is a power block for "Do Something Awesome" on the character sheet or among the cards, and it could gain the same benefit.

5 - In a bit of genius, fortune and misfortune dice don't cancel out. So if you've got superior position (and gain a fortune die) but bad visibility (gain a misfortune die) the GM gives you both dice. This is wonderful, at leas to me, because more dice == more fun. It would be far more dull if the dice canceled out and it was a wash.

6 - Powers take a certain number of turns to recharge, and you track this by keeping tokens on the cards. Conservative dice sometimes cause you a delay, which means the GM can put two more recharge token on one of your powers. I suspect the intent may be that the powers have to be ones with recharge tokens already on them, but since it doesn't say so, then the GM can put them on anything, including things like basic attack. This is moderately rough, but it's hugely bad for wizards, because the GM can put it on the action that allows them to generate power for spells, and pretty much jam the wizard up entirely. Yes, they can still do basic actions, but it's kind of anti-fun

7 - You get one free maneuver per turn, but you can take more maneuvers by accruing fatigue. The fatigue and stress (mental fatigue) rules are in the game, and they're fine, but they're not really interesting enough to bear much mention.

8 - And everyone in that engagement would get hit by an AoE attack. As a "dark" game, they can get away with this, since dangerous explosions are more in theme than the pinpoint blast radius of 4e.

9 - This is an area where the limit on the number of players in the core set (3) helps the rules. 3 players means the fights can only be so complicated.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

WH3: General Text & Chargen

The actual rules for WH3e are pretty short. There are only 4 slim books in the box, and only one of them is primarily rules. That's always a nice thing, especially when there are so many fun bits waiting to be rummaged through. The books aren't flawless. A lot of the examples lack enough detail to be useful, and certain parts (most notably the sections on advancement and on the three-act-structure) are written in such a way that they end up obscuring the fairly straightforward underpinnings. I appreciate that the intent was to be more novice friendly, but sometimes it ends up just missing the mark. Thankfully, these problems are exceptions to the norm - most of the text hangs together just fine.

The one exception to this that jumped out is in the GM's book. There are no guidelines for how tough to expect monsters to be compared to characters. Just to provide a slap in the face, monsters have a challenge rating, but it is only meaningful relative to OTHER MONSTERS. I have no kind or diplomatic ways to describe my opinion of this, so I will just leave it to say that when it came time to run my own game, I more or less took a stab in the dark at how tough the opposition should be, and very nearly bollixed it. The closest thing I had to a reference was the encounters in the sample adventure, but that's a thin thread to cling to.

For good or ill, there are only a handful of rules that you don't reference off the cards, but it is somewhat frustrating that they aren't gathered for ease of reference. I was constantly looking through the book for simple, stupid things like "What do I roll for initiative?" They were rough to find, and the absence of an index did not help matters.

As is typical with such things, I immediately took a swing at making a character of my own, and used the lessons form that to help with chargen for my game the next day.

The process seemed straightforward enough: choose a race, shuffle and draw 3 careers, then spend a few points on stats and things like skills and talents. There were a few surprises along the way, though no dealbreakers.

Chargen seemed simple enough that I initially figured I could jut do it on the character sheet. It turns out the is a pretty bad idea - scrap paper is a necessity. Picking a race was easy enough, since there are only 4: Humans, High Elves, Wood Elves and Dwarves (some of them have cooler names, but that's what the are). The benefits of each race are simple enough to track, though curiously they're not represented on cards. I worry that some of the abilities might be easy to lose track of, but that's a bit of an aside.

I was psyched to try the career selection - I'm a big fan of drawing a set of careers randomly and picking from that set. The set I pulled was interesting and colorful, but none of them had any real fighting capability. This seemed odd, but I flipped through the other careers and discovered that Weapon Skill and Ballistic Skill (the two fighting skills) are pretty uncommon. In retrospect, it makes sense: being trained in a skill is only a small bump. The stat being used is much more important. The thing to remember is that everyone fights. The presence of fighting skills just means you fight a little bit more.

So far, so good. Now came the time to spend the points, and this is where the first real bump emerged. Basically, you get 20 points (25 for humans, who start with lower stats). You can increase your stats by spending a number of points equal to the new value, and you can also spend points on Money, Talents, Actions and Skills. You can spend between 0 and 3 points in each category, to varying payout.

For my experiment (and for the players in my game) there seemed to be no reason not to max these out, excepting wealth. You can spend less, but the payoff (especially for actions) is just too big to ignore. But this leads to an annoying mathematical glitch: if you end up with an extra point or two, you can't spend it to improve your stats, and if you've already maxed out the various categories, you will either waste it, or find some place to dump it. This happened to all three of my players, and as a result, all three started with maximum wealth because they had no other choice. The advancement rules give many more options for things that might be done with a single point, and it's a shame that a few of those are not borrowed for chargen.

Next came choosing the things I'd bought. Skills were reasonably simple, though I stumbled a bit over my first advanced skill. You have a list of skills you might be trained in: pick some of them. It's not rocket science.

Talents and Actions required going through the decks, and this was a little more clunky. Cards have certain strengths - they're easy to reference in small numbers and great for randomization, but man they're a pain in the ass for reference.

So, Talents are minor abilities represented by small cards, roughly akin to feats. Every career has two "slots" for talents which have a keyword (like "Tactics" or "Focus") and you need to pick a talent of that type for that slot. While you can only have two talents slotted, there's good reason to have more than two talents. First, you can swap talents in and out as a maneuver and second, you can contribute them to the party sheet (more on that in a bit).

Actions are more akin to powers, and are also represented by cards. They are pretty straightforward, though their double-sided nature adds an interesting twist (one side is conservative, one is reckless, the character uses the side that matches his stance, which I'll talk about in a bit).

Buying gear was about as old school as could be possible. There are weapons and armor and stuff, with fairly precise prices and very detailed haggling rules. Total time warp. When we did group chargen, we discovered that the encumbrance rules are really harsh (and also a bit of a pain to find), especially if you left your strength at 2. Our archer could carry his longbow, some arrows and not a lot more (certainly not any kind of armor). We rolled with it because we were playing by the book, but man, that was pretty lame.[1]

The book has a nice bit at the end of chargen about fleshing out your character, with 10 useful questions. It's nice enough, but putting it at the end, after you're done, seems a bit like putting the horse behind the cart. However, I concede that this may just be the dirty hippy in me talking.

Anyway, once we finished chargen, we had our Human Messenger, Human Wizard and Dwarf Soldier, ready to go. Tomorrow, we'll get to the lessons of the fight that followed.

1 - Also, this revealed the first real rule problem. Weapons with the "Quick" keyword have an ability that makes no sense. They reduce the recharge times of actions by 1 when you miss. The problem is that you don't need to recharge a power that misses. So, um, what? I checked the FFG FAQ, but it's a marketing document, not a rules ref.