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September 27, 2013

Last Words on Next

I will buy the D&D Next Player's Handbook.

I wanted to get that out of the way before I continue.  Wizards just released the final public playtest packet, and Mike Mearls discussed some of the rules they'll be working on with internal design and playtesting.  That tells me that now is the last chance to comment on D&D Next before Wizards starts setting things in stone.  With no currently supported edition, they're under pressure to complete Next and release it, so they're going to be committing to system soon.

So this post is going to be harshly critical, but not intentionally mean.  That's the point of that first statement.  I'm loyal to D&D, and will at least buy the core product, but whether I buy much more than that depends on how good the system is.


Most of the time, when designers make an RPG, they use one of two processes.  First, if it's a new edition of a past game, they take an old edition, add a few smart new mechanics, and fix problems with the old mechanics.  This is how AD&D Second Edition came out of AD&D First Edition, or how the God Machine Chronicle rules update arose from the Storytelling system.

More often, even with some new editions of old rules, the designers build an entirely new game first.  With new editions, the new game often resembles the old game and uses a similar core mechanic, like how 3rd edition D&D replaced 2nd edition AD&D.  The process for designing a new RPG system is pretty clear -- I follow lots of these guys' blogs and twitters.  I'm friends with the Asylum developers.  Their process seems pretty logical:

1. Draft a functioning game system
2. Playtest the draft
3. Poll the playtesters and assess the market
4. Present the game based on your new idea of its essential nature

Mike Mearls, for all his love of D&D, sort of did this process backwards for D&D Next.

1. Present the game based on your new idea of its essential nature
2. Playtest the draft
3. Poll the playtesters and assess the market

And presumably, according to his latest post on the design process...

4. Draft a functioning game system

D&D is a core system with a lot of emergent elements.  I'm not just using those words to sound smart.  The game is a basic idea of a 20 sided die rolled, modified by one of six attributes, and compared to a target number.  As players progress, their characters advance in level, which adds hit points and emergent system elements.  Emergent elements are rules options (such as bonuses, spells, weapons, items, etc.) that emerge from a core system.  A well crafted game has a set of rules-about-rules that can be used to generate emergent elements.  By having a system for creating emergent elements, a "meta-system," you're not just pulling them out of your ass and playtesting them to see if they're unbalanced, you're actually being intentional and goal directed about design and balance.  Playtesting is still necessary because nothing's perfect, and combinations can have unexpected effects.

Next does not seem to have been built with a meta-system.  Each playtest packet to date has been immensely different from the last.  Classes and abilities seem to come out of nowhere, and trap choices and overpowered options abound.  The "throw it at the wall and see what sticks" method may actually work for D&D because of the vast number of playtesters, but depending on your playtesters is dangerous.

D&D Next resembles AD&D 2nd edition Player's Option.  Forum posters are calling it 2.5.  Mike even said in that last post that the tactical combat rules will resemble Player's Option.  Depending on feedback from your players is dangerous because their idea of what is "iconic" about D&D is based on nostalgia, for those that have it.  And for most players old enough to be nostalgic about D&D, the edition they played first or most was probably 2nd edition AD&D.

I'm Being Unhelpful, I Know

If I were the D&D Next Design Team, I'd be pretty pissed about this blog post right now.  To this point, I'm guilty of not providing constructive criticism - just gripes.  "OK, if you say it's bad, what do you suggest we do about it?"  I apologize.  I'm afraid I can't give advice like "make all fighters use the Gladiator mechanic" or "return feats to 3rd edition style" or whatever.  The flaw is that there is no backbone "meta-system" that generates and regulates all the emergent elements.  What math balances wizards with fighters?  What's the target number of rounds in a combat?  What's the target number of encounters in an adventuring day?  Is it based on a sense of the encounters/day in actual past modules, playtests, or surveys?  How much damage does a paralysis status effect equate to?  What is the ordinal or tier of power of every status effect?  What math keeps monster ACs bounded by level?  What math is used to determine a monster's damage output and other numbers based on its level, and what system is used to introduce balanced variation to that?

Here are some particular recommendations:


Keep Magic Items
You have a great system for magic items.  Keep it.  I hate the way 3.5, Pathfinder and 4e make magic items about as special as a trip to the grocery store.  Your bonded items system is great.

Ditch Vantage
Throw out Advantage/Disadvantage (Vantage).  The idea is smart -- rolling two dice at the same time requires less arithmetic.  The problem with these is that they don't stack.  If you use Vantage too much, one bonus will cancel a stack of penalties, or vice versa.  If you reserve it for just a few effects, you've still got to use arithmetic for most modifiers, and static modifiers and Vantage interact very poorly, especially in a system with bounded accuracy.  I recommend that you keep Vantage as a GM-supplied situational modifier.  That is, don't include spells, class features, etc. to allow the players to reliably cause Disadvantage or gain Advantage (such as Bardsong).  Let the GM hand it out as she sees fit.

Throw Everything Else Out
Throw out your monsters, classes, etc.  Go back to the drawing board and build a meta-system that you can use to generate your classes, races, monsters, spells, attacks, weapons -- everything.  It's pretty clear that the 15 minute workday isn't a problem except when some classes have daily abilities and others don't.  That needs to be addressed, and giving casters fewer spells won't do it.  At the very least, explain that once the game hits level 7 or so, every adventure needs to be under time pressure to keep the PCs from resting every encounter!

Design for the Game; Write for the Icon
Instead of building a game out of the fans' ideas of what is iconic about D&D, build a great game, and then present it in a way that evokes the fans' ideas of what is iconic about D&D.

Include a Narrative Mechanic if That's Your Goal
You might want to build a more narrative-focused version of D&D.  That's great, actually.  I mean, the game has moved toward a simulation / game focus in 3rd and 4th edition, so it may be time for a narrative edition.  Building a lighter, easier, more narrative version of D&D is great...  if!

If you're aware of the light, narrative games out there.  If you make design decisions based on putting players in more of an author or even director stance.  If you make design decisions based on giving players more narrative control.  If you involve mechanics that help the GM build hooks into every session (13th Age's icons, FATE's aspects, a replacement for Alignment that involves story hooks, faction association baked into character creation like in Vampire, etc.).  That's a big if, and the playtest editions of Next so far fall very short.

So adapt, borrow, or design some narrative mechanics or stop telling me your game supports GMs telling a story instead of rolling dice just because the rules are less tactical.

Start Supporting Every Line
Dear WOTC:  It's your worst nightmare.  The small market that fantasy tabletop RPGs serve is divided up between Pathfinder, 3.5, 4e, and Next.  But that's the reality.  Even if Next is fantastic, the market will still be divided.  Personally, I'm in a 3.5 game, two 4e games, and a Pathfinder game -- so even a single gamer can be divided!  Publishing Next isn't going to fix this.

So, WOTC, you're going to lose money unless you start supporting every line.  Maybe even Pathfinder.  Go ahead and publish Next with or without my advice (probably without -- you don't have time to read every little blog); but if you want to make any money, you're going to need to support every line.  Actually, you might already know this.  I recall Murder in Baldur's Gate is just such a product...

These are my last words on Next until it's published.  See you then, PHB in hand.

September 20, 2013

Incorporating New Players - Troubleshooting

There are several kinds of barriers to participation in RPGs.  I won't be touching on the kind that the GM (you) can't do anything about.  This post is mostly about troubleshooting problems with new players.  I might want to do a post on social contract soon.  Here's what someone else said:

Stated Barrier:  I don't know these people that well.
Translation:  I don't feel comfortable acting or sharing the fruits of my imagination with people I don't know and trust.
Problem:  The new player feels vulnerable.  Even if he plays your game, he will hold back.
Solution:  Establish a norm of honest openness among your players.  Don't let them explain how they get into character or play the game.  Encourage them to ham it up and acknowledge how silly they appear.  Remember that even one criticism could shut down the new player.  Model hammy behavior by doing voices, embarrassing yourself, and generally showing trust by going out on a limb for yourself, too.

Stated Barrier:  I feel out of my depth with this setting.
Translation:  The other players seem to know a lot about the world this game is set in, and I feel constrained in my creativity.  While they can invent ideas and interpret the world, I feel like I can't.
Solution:  Bend the world to fit this player.  Make it clear that there is no inviolable canon.  If she says she's a Tremere who defected to the Sabbat but came back, don't explain all the many reasons that's not possible.  Instead bend the setting to make that possible.  Use the setting to make it more interesting, but not punitive or un-fun.  Maybe she was a sleeper agent and doesn't know it yet!  Maybe she was an experiment in breaking Vaulderie!  To hell with the canon.
Note:  This is one of the reasons that organized play -- be it One World By Night or Pathfinder Society -- has a greater barrier to entry than troupe play.

Stated Barrier: I don't get these rules.
Translation:  The rules, or just the presence of rules, probably seems too complex for the character.
Solution:  One easy solution is to just take away the rule book and handle all the system for them.  Some games make this easier than others (though even in something as detailed as Pathfinder or 4e D&D, there's a class for this sort of player).  A better solution is to start slow.  Starting slow is good for pacing in general, but it also works for people shy about rules.  If your sheet is a tangle of numbers and everything you try fails, you start to feel like you can't crack the code.  If, instead, you tend to succeed at almost everything, you'll start exploring and trying crazy new things.  If those don't work out, you don't feel like it's your fault for not understanding the system.  There is a problem with starting slow:  Poor party balance can prevent this solution from working.  If you start off with easy rolls, to give a newbie player a 90% success rate, but the rest of the table has optimized sheets, they'll be pushing for insane stunts (because they can) and the newbie player will go back to feeling like he can't crack the code.  Games where character build is important (Vampire LARP, Pathfinder) tend to experience this problem more often.

Stated Barrier: ...
Translation:  This player is a wallflower or is feeling excluded.
Solution:  Wallflowers, you can draw out by giving them opportunities and challenges.  Reward their contribution, and make them feel like how they responded to the challenge or how they took advantage of an opportunity was a clever choice.  Empower their contributions and they will contribute to the point where they're comfortable -- but usually not more.  Some people are just naturally wallflowers.  Another solution for wallflowers is to make sure your eager players know to step back.  Step forward/step back is a facilitation technique used by professional meeting facilitators to remind participants that some people just talk more than others, and it's OK as long as they know to consciously step back and wait after they've finished. 

Stated Barrier:  I feel like they don't like me.
Translation:  You may actually have to draw this one out of the player.  They may appear as a wallflower for a while before expressing this to you, if ever!  They feel excluded.
Solution:  There isn't always a solution.  If a player is feeling excluded, there's one of two problems.  One, it can be because the other players are excluding them.  This is common and typical human behavior toward someone you don't like.  You may wish to talk to the opinion leaders among your other players to see why.  They should tell you if they don't like the new player (see below!).  Groups of friends don't always accept a newcomer, though, so it may be irreparable.  You may just have to remove the new player.  There should be no hard feelings.  I have friends I wouldn't play golf with or talk about politics with or game with.  They're perfectly cool people, but sometimes personalities clash!  Alternately, it could be because the player feeling excluded perceives that he is being excluded and is afraid to participate -- but the other players like them.  Usually it's the other players' behavior making the new player feel excluded inadvertently.  Geeks can often geek out about things.  That's what makes them geeks.  Anyone "not in the know" will naturally feel excluded.  If all your old players are Trekkies and the new player isn't, he might feel like all the Trek-geeking is intentional snubbing -- especially if it's a Star Trek RPG!  In this case, you can get the other players to help the new player feel more included with social interactions outside of game, talk about personal lives, other hobbies, and other OOC chit chat. They may still be at a disadvantage in Trek talk, but they'll know it's not intentional snubbing now.

Stated Barrier:  None.  You don't like this new player.
Translation:  Someone invited a new player you don't like.
Solution:  Tell the person who invited the new player immediately -- or at least as soon as you realize that the new person is more unpleasant than you can handle (this might take a several sessions, unfortunately).  You don't have to be mean.  Here's a script.  Feel free to use it without attribution:

"I don't think the new person and I get along.  I don't feel good about having them at game.  I'm sure they're nice and cool and all -- it's just we don't mesh."

NOTE TO MY PLAYERS AND CO-PLAYERS:  I like you all!  This is not about you.

September 12, 2013

Storytellers, Puppet Masters and Toymakers

Pretend this is Cosmopolitan magazine for a minute.  The cover has a photoshopped female celebrity in fashionable but practical seasonal clothes, plus splash graphics about losing weight, celebrity interviews, or sex secrets... and there's always a quiz:

...So let’s skip to hypothetical page 24 and do that quiz! 

1. When preparing for a game session I first envision what...
A) The protagonists will be doing on their adventure.
B) The antagonists need to do next to achieve their sinister goals, or how they will react to what the protagonists have done recently.
C) Dramatic questions I would like the protagonists to face.

2. More than anything else, campaign or adventure plot is a framework for...
A) Scenes of cool things that the protagonists get to try to do.
B) Sinister plans the antagonists will attempt to perpetrate.
C) Generating complex challenges for the protagonists to resolve.

3. NPCs are most important because they...
A) Help me tell the story, providing information, motivating protagonists, or serving as enemies to be defeated.
B) Are the primary way I determine how the plot moves.  They drive the plot with their plans and actions.
C) Can be used as obstacles themselves or hooks to pull the protagonists into conflicts.

4. The most important thing about an NPC is...
A) How I can make her interesting to the story - either as a cool enemy, intriguing source of information about the story, appealing hook, or colorful ally who takes action to advance the story.
B) What her long term plans are, how that informs what she's been up to lately, and how that offers challenges or opportunities to the protagonists.
C) How she can be used as a challenge for the protagonists, resource by the protagonists, or how I can use her as a hook.

5. My campaign notes most resemble a…
A) Novel outline or summary
B) Pile of CIA dossiers on various terrorists and illicit conspiracies
C) Therapist’s or teacher's notes on each of my players’ characters listing things each cares about, ways those things could cause trouble in their lives, capabilities at overcoming challenges, favorite challenge types, etc.

6. My session prep notes most resemble a…
A) To do list of cool events that are probably going to happen, with either/or options in there to allow player agency.
B) Series of conflicts and why they are happening, relating back to NPC and faction plots and conspiracies.
C) List of the challenges that the protagonists could encounter given their current goals and intentions.

Scoring:  For each A answer, give yourself 1 point.  For each B answer, give yourself 3 points.  For each C answer, give yourself 5 points.  High scores aren’t necessarily good and low scores aren’t necessarily bad.  They just place you on this continuum…

6-10 points:  Consummate Storyteller:  You rely on your charisma and enthralling storytelling abilities to craft exciting and captivating adventures for your players.  They probably feel that they can do just about anything.  Your greatest challenge is keeping them from feeling like your arbitrary whims determine the limits of their characters’ actions.  Your second greatest challenge is keeping the world from becoming too easy on them by letting them have everything they want.  Balancing between arbitrary limits and permissiveness keeps them feeling like they can affect the world, but that the world can still affect them.  Try to think more about what the protagonists “must overcome” than what they “will be doing.”  Examine the hooks you’re using and make sure you’re not being too heavy handed.  Give your players more options and choices if you are.  Your primary creative agenda is probably “Narrativism.”  For you, the system is good if it lets your players participate as Storytellers as well; and bad if it only lets them interact with your story by escaping or resisting it. 

11-15 points:  You share characteristics of the Storyteller and Puppet Master.  Your stories probably rely on a lot of colorful NPCs, though in an individual game session or scene within a session may be more about what the protagonists do than what the antagonists do.  Try to let yourself think like a Toymaker sometimes, and don’t plan for the protagonists’ actions as much.

16-20 points:  Consummate Puppet Master:  You use NPCs to drive the plot, so your world feels very real to your players.  Events all seem to fit into patterns and themes, and when your players push, the world pushes back in a believable and rational way.  Your greatest challenge is making sure that the story makes sense from the players’ perspective.  Your second greatest challenge is making sure that your NPCs are always creating interesting challenges for the players, rather than just info-dumps or ambush attacks.  Your primary creative agenda could be just about anything.  For you, the system is good if it lets you create interesting challenges quickly so that NPCs can react to PCs’ actions immediately.

21-25 points:  You’re a Toymaker who links everything back to a few NPCs or factions.  One of the Toymaker’s greatest challenges is stringing the challenges he makes together into a coherent story, and you use NPCs and factions to serve that purpose.  One of the Puppet Master’s greatest challenges is making sure that the NPCs are creating challenges that interest the players, and your lean towards Toymaker tends to take care of that.  Both the Puppet Master and Toymaker are encouraged to put themselves in their players’ heads and imagine what the game looks like to them.  Seeing things from the player’s perspective helps you to plan challenges where some of the possible solutions are the players’ favorite activities at the table.  It also helps you to make sure that the story is coherent from their point of view.

26-30 points:  Consummate Toymaker:  You love to create situations and see how your players will react to them.  You rely on your knowledge of the players and their characters, and a well-tuned system to create challenges that thrill and excite.  Your greatest challenge is making the individual events cohere into a narrative flow that makes sense and feels real.  Your second greatest challenge is giving the world life, so that NPCs and settings have character and story beyond their utility as “toys” for you to challenge your players with.  Your primary creative agenda is probably “Gamism” or “Simulationism.”  You like to draw maps, especially if there are multiple ways to go and places to visit.  For you, the system is good if it lets you build a variety of challenges that are carefully balanced and thrilling to resolve no matter what strategy the players choose.  It also helps if your system injects story and setting into your challenges or conflict resolution mechanics for you.

Comments are welcome!